Island Fibers on Lopez Island
How two local artisans support island agriculture through the Slow Fiber Movement.
There’s a rural beauty to Lopez Island, a slowness that’s earned it the nickname ‘Slowpez.’ This is thanks in large part to the generously flat terrain, where gently rolling hills are studded with farms and speckled with artisans. While the locally grown offerings are diverse — including beef, pork, and berries — the quaint 29.5 square-mile agricultural community is perhaps best known for its sheep.
Lopez Island wool products, in particular, are heralded throughout the United States and beyond for their exceptional quality and beauty. This is in no small part thanks to Maxine Bron- stein and Debbie Hayward, founders of Island Fibers.
The couple know not only the island’s sheep farmers, but the individual sheep. They track how much wool each sheep produces, its individual crimp and luster.
“The farmers here are excellent. They really look after their flocks, giving them high-quality diets, limiting stress, and keeping them out of situations that could damage their fleece. It makes for an exceptional product,” says Maxine.
In the spring, Debbie and Maxine attend each shearing. “We pick up each fleece, fling it onto mesh, and skirt it (removing all the unusable pieces). Then we bag, weigh, and label the individual sheep’s fleece,” Maxine explains. But shearing is only the beginning. The fleece and eventual yarn will be handled and washed many times before the ladies even begin thinking about rugs, blankets, and hats.
First, the couple will take it back to their island studio. There they will sort the fleece according to the kinds of yarn they want and send it to the mill for spinning. Or keep it, when it’s too beautiful to part with so they can spin it themselves or share it with other handspinners.
Sorting the wool is in fact one of the cornerstones of their craft. Because each type of wool has characteristics that make it especially suitable for a specific purpose. Fine fiber with a higher crimp count is best for garments worn close to the skin. Stronger, coarser fibers are ideal for rugs and outer clothing. Furthermore, similar fleeces need to be spun together.
“If the yarn is made from fleece that is too different in character, then it can be scratchy,” says Maxine.
Once the fleece is spun, it’s returned to Maxine and Debbie as skeins or hanks of specific weight and yardage. The couple then personally washes every skein to make sure it’s free of any residual oil from the spinning process.
“Whether we sell the yarn as a natural color or dye it, washing makes the yarn bloom and soften,” Maxine says.
Debbie, the weaver, creates scarves, rugs, blankets, and other home accessories. Maxine, the knitter, makes sweaters, mittens, and socks.
Knitting and weaving are a long process in and of themselves. But for the women to have even reached this point has taken weeks, if not months.
It’s this labor-intensive process that the couple has dubbed the ‘Slow Fiber Movement.’
“For us, it’s all about the fiber. It’s about creating something beautiful and long-lasting and that makes people happy,” says Maxine. “It’s about promoting Lopez Island wool and supporting local farmers. It’s an amazing thing to get to do. It never feels like work.”
You can find Debbie and Maxine’s work at the Saturday Lopez Farmer’s Market, Chimera Gallery, and wool shows around the Pacific Northwest, or visit their studio with an appointment. For more details, visit their website.