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Teen Spins Wool Into Gold

Brains, Effort & Sheep Add Up To Success

By Lyle Rolfe

Part I

Natasha Lehrer, 18, is making a living off her sheep, but in a different way than most sheep owners.

Natasha was a city girl until about six years ago when the family moved from the Aurora-Naperville, Illinois area of 300,000 people to Big Rock, Illinois, a town of 650 people about 15 miles west.

You don't have to be old to be shrewd. 18-year-old Natasha Lehrer.
You don’t have to be old to be shrewd. 18-year-old Natasha Lehrer.

The move began a year earlier when one Sunday afternoon the family decided to follow an ultra-light aircraft that flew over their home. They lost sight of the plane but ended up in Big Rock, which was really “the country” to the Lehrer family.

And from that time on, their home town appeared too congested and no longer the place to be.

During a subsequent trip, they saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign on a small 8-acre farm in Big Rock and a short time later, (May 2000), they were country folk. The purchase included a weaving loom and the owner’s books, one of which contained a brochure on raising sheep.

That sounded like fun so within a month of the move, they decided to buy some sheep. Donna, Natasha’s mother, made arrangements to buy two Scottish Cheviots but thought the woman would keep and feed them until the farm was ready for them. “But the owner said ‘They’ll be delivered tomorrow’, so we had to prepare fencing and everything else in one day,” Donna said.

Since then the flock has grown to 13 Scottish Cheviots. “This is a well-known breed that has been known in the past for its wool,” Donna said.”When the sister of our next-door neighbor heard we were going to move to Big Rock and raise sheep she gave us a spinning wheel.

“We had never thought about weaving, or spinning or where fiber came from before this,” Donna said.The family adapted to farm life rather well because things happened on a gradual basis, Natasha said.

Choice of wool means a lot to a project, so it's important to offer customers many choices.
Choice of wool means a lot to a project, so it’s important to offer customers many choices.

“When we got the first two sheep, we went out and took tons of pictures. We watched the sun set and planted our first garden and just absorbed everything,” Natasha said.

She continued her ballet and other dance lessons with her city friends for about two years and used the first wool shorn from the sheep to help her classmates.

“I washed and dried it and took it to class for my friends to put in their shoes. It helped cushion their feet. And I haven’t forgotten about that, so I may still find a way to market wool or roving for dance students to line their shoes.”

After this she bought a couple of wool cards and washed and carded some wool.

Then one gloomy and rainy fall day when she was bored, Natasha said she sat down and started playing at the spinning wheel. “I caught on and just started spinning more and more. I still have the whole thing of the first yarn I spun,” she said.”It was something I became interested in because we had sheep and wool. I figured we could do something with it, so I learned how to use the wheel. I was already into knitting, so my interest in spinning really heightened because I could make all these interesting yarns,” she said.

When she met some other spinners it became more fun because she could learn from them.Her dad Scott, and younger brother Eric both attended sheep shearing classes in Macomb, Illinois, so it was becoming a family affair.

“Then one morning during our family prayer session, we opened the Bible to the Book of Esther which said, ‘for such a time as this.’ [Esther 4:14]

“We began talking about what it meant and got on the subject of Natasha’s career goals,” Donna said.

“Natasha said she would someday like to have a wool fiber store in a quaint old Victorian home and I told her to set that as a goal.”

She had already developed her spinning wheel and weaving hobbies into a small business, by making products from the wool sheared by her dad and brother.

Success At Getting A Matching Start-Up Grant

For some unknown reason, a grant application ended up in their mailbox that same morning.It was for a Value Added Producers Grant from the USDA Rural Development Authority in 2005.

It is a matching grant, meaning that for every dollar she spends she will receive $1 in grant funds.The grants were being awarded on the basis of helping small rural towns bring more visitors and tourism to their communities. Applying for a federal grant is no easy task. In fact, some people make their living applying for grants for those who are afraid to tackle it themselves.

'3 P's' win a matching grant - paperwork, planning and pluck.
“3 P’s” win a matching grant – paperwork, planning and pluck.

Most adults would have tossed the application with only two weeks to complete it, but if approved, this grant could make Natasha’s career goals become a reality, so she jumped in feet first and worked her way through yards of federal red tape.

Natasha said the whole grant process consisted of reading directions and figuring out their buzz words and phrases. “Thinking out the whole thing and all the details was probably the hardest thing. You can have a great idea in your head, but if you have to plan it out to every minute detail, it really takes a lot of thinking.

“We had to show how we would add value to the wool being produced in Illinois. It is being changed from raw wool to yarn and other consumer items ready for purchase and use. I had to plan every aspect of the business before even knowing whether it would work,” she said.

Her plan did work, and it was accepted; several months later she received a check for $24,125-hand delivered by representatives of the USDA. Only three other grants were awarded in Illinois and they were related to ethanol production.

Location & Cooperation

Natasha said she was fortunate to find an historic two-story Victorian house in the center of town on U.S. Route 30, a highway that carries 29,000 vehicles daily right past her front door. The house had just been restored to its original charm and beauty after having been converted into a “two-flat” many years before.

A good appearance invites business.
A good appearance invites business.

By the time the grant arrived, Natasha had already spent much of her match by renting and furnishing the house and purchasing a supply of spinning and weaving machines (plus accessories and wool-related items) to sell.

The grant is not only to benefit Big Rock, but the entire state, so Natasha has formed a partnership called the Green Pastures Collection to purchase wool from other Illinois breeders to help their business. This includes:

  • Natasha’s sheep from her family’s Lamb of God farm;
  • Willow Pond Farm in Crete, owned by Shirley and Howard Walter who raise Hampshire and Romney sheep;
  • Gustafson Merino in Kirkland, owned by Roger and Connie Gustafson;
  • Bo Peep Cheviots of Hinckley, owned by Rick and Florence Getzelman;
  • Clear View Farm in Waterman, owned by Sandra Shrader who raises American Cormo Sheep; and
  • Gone with the Wind, in Belvidere, owned by Nichole Zeien, who raises Shetland sheep.

“I don’t want to have the same things everyone else does. I try to have new products here all the time. You can go to spinning shops across the nation that all sell many of the same fibers,” says Natasha.

“But, that’s not what we’re about. We’re about having something really different from the mainstream. You’re going to constantly come back because there’s always something new here,” Natasha said.

“We’re working to promote Illinois wool. Down the road we want people to say ‘Oh have you seen the Green Pastures of Illinois wool collection?’

Donna Lehrer, Natasha's mom, got the family started in Cheviot sheep.
Donna Lehrer, Natasha’s mom, got the family started in Cheviot sheep.

“I’d really like to see the Green Pastures thing grow and the collection grow,” she said. She also has a website and hopes to see sales grow there as well.Depending on future supplies of goods, she may someday wholesale items to other shops.

There will be some items for sale on consignment from friends who do their own weaving and spinning, she said. Also there are many items she made. She was working on making goat milk soap wraps during the interview. The soap is wrapped in wool and used as a washcloth, she said.

How Artists See Wool

Donna says they’re also promoting the artistic side of wool. “We’re trying to show people that these are art forms,” she explains.

There is a difference in the wool from each breed and Natasha makes people aware of this in the shop. “Before we moved to the farm, I thought a sheep was a sheep. I had no idea there were different breeds and different wools. I love different wools, but there are about as many types and textures of wools as you can think of. With the right choice of wool you can have some really neat results on your project,” she said.

She said this is taught in the beginning spinning class. “Right now we sell 6-8 types of wool, but as we grow I’d like to have maybe 20,” she said.

Because she uses the wool from her sheep, Natasha says she’s always thinking about the fiber, taking care not to get hay in the wool, and to have the animals sheared only once a year. Natasha has been increasing the amount of wool she sends to a mill for processing (cleaning and carding) for sale in the shop. When the wool is returned, she makes it into roving of her design. “It’s really kind of unique,” she said.

“I could process the wool myself, but the quality would not be as good. “It would take so much time and effort to do it and I wouldn’t get such a high-quality product. They remove a lot of the remaining vegetable matter, and they keep the fiber very consistent,” she said of the mill.

Next Issue: Natasha Lehrer’s methods of teaching folks to use wool, selling them tools to do it with, plus wool crafts retreats. Make sure you don’t miss it!

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