Sheep to Shawl

wool processing

A large studio and processing center on a farm near Groton, South Dakota, is the home of Dakota Carding and Wool. In that building, Kelly Knispel owns and operates a wool processing business that provides “sheep to shawl” services for shepherds and fiber artists. A flock of sheep graze in a nearby pasture on this family farm.

I visited Dakota Carding & Wool one warm summer day to learn more about carding, spinning, dyeing, and weaving so that I could write about the process in Lone Tree Claim.

When I entered the studio, I was enveloped in the aroma of simmering basil. Kelly explained she was preparing an organic green dye for her next batch of carded wool. The smell of the basil was unforgettable. The first thing I saw were shelves overflowing with bags and bags of carded wool fleece that Kelly has processed for people all over the United States.  

Kelly, who describes herself as “yarn farmer,” explained that before the raw wool can be dyed, it must be washed to remove dirt and lanolin. Then it’s laid on racks to dry. After that, the piles of clean wool are fed into a 20th century (1910) three-ton carding mill which was part of the textile industry on the East Coast. The carding machine saves hours and hours of man hours/woman hours in cleaning and carding the wool fibers for the next step in the process.

If the wool is to be dyed, Kelly prefers to use organic dyes, like basil, onion skins, madder, marigold, walnut, or other natural compounds. Sometimes, Kelly said, her customers want to use the wool in its original shades ranging from white to deep, chocolate brown and black.

Then, the next step is spinning, which, according to “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, is traditionally done by women. (The term “spinster” is derived from unmarried women spinning yarn at home or in small factories.) Kelly uses several spinning wheels and spindles to turn carded wool into yarn. She demonstrated how to use a spindle similar to the one that Katie Rose Kelly used in Lone Tree Claim.

The carded wool is packaged and the handspun yard is wound into skeins and shipped back to Kelly’s customers. The yarn that Kelly keeps is used for weaving or knitting. She showed me how her loom magically turns yarn into blankets, shawls, and scarves.

The research I conducted before and while writing Lone Tree Claim provided a foundation for spinning and weaving. Still, the afternoon at Dakota Carding and Wool brought that research to life. And, while Kelly is an excellent teacher – she conducts classes for spinners and weavers – I have a lot more to learn.