Monday, September 22, 2014

Bison yarn and royal purple

TNC's Niobrara herd. I helped sort them a couple times last year.
Every winter I knit socks, mittens and hats for my family, and somehow the process is even more enjoyable if I’m working with lovely materials.  I’m a sucker for beautiful yarns. This weekend I visited the Blackland Prairie Artisan and Fibre Faire up in Denison, Texas in search of new supplies. I arrived at Loy Park (home of the Grayson Frontier Village, behind a fence topped with a triple strand of barbed wire). There was also a lake, a bridge leading into the woods, and what looked like an old brick furnace. The surrounding land was mainly grazed. I found it picturesque.

The 'faire' itself was held in a large open shed with two horseshoe-shaped lines of booths on the interior facing the main entrance. It didn’t look that big, but it took me an hour to make a full circuit. When you fondle yarn and make small talk with half the craftspeople, I suppose the minutes add up. You could buy raw wool, yarns, baskets and other handicrafts. There were also artisans demoing the use of drop spindles, looms, and a great wheel.

One of my favorite displays was the natural yarn dying station. They had bright mustard orange from Bois d’Arc wood chips (also called Osage Orange), a fuchsia from prickly pear cochineal, and a natural indigo. The cochineal dye was most exciting to me. Similar to the ancient Greek ‘Tyrian’ or ‘Royal’ purple, it is derived from a crushed invertebrate. Instead of Tyrian purple’s Greek sea snail, cochineal originates in the body of minute scale insects living on the surface of Opuntia cacti. It has a Mayan and Aztec pedigree.

I also had the chance to reminisce about my days working with bison. I was delighted to discover a trailer and a booth for the Buffalo Wool Company, based out of small town just a little south of Fort Worth. I could not believe it was possible to buy bison yarn! Naturally, I bought myself a nice sized skein for a special project (TBD). I just love bison. I can’t help it. I'd argue they’re North America’s signature megafauna.

Buffalo Wool Company has moved their 35-bison herd to Goodnight, Texas since the metroplex has encroached upon the company’s original holdings in recent years. The company’s founder actually took some satisfaction in moving the herd. As some of you may know, the Texas legend Charlie Goodnight (for whom the town is named) is largely responsible for preventing the extinction of the southern bison. Lore has it that Charlie’s wife noticed the herd was much diminished and prevailed upon him to save the last few hundred. The descendants of those individuals now make up the core of the Caprock Canyons herd. For the Buffalo Wool Company, bringing their bison back to Goodnight was almost like coming an emotional full circle.
The Niobrara herd during fall round-up

Surprisingly, 35 bison are only good for about two skeins of yarn. Well, it’s surprising until you realize what one must go through to harvest the down from a bison. These are wild animals and they aren’t going to sit patiently while you give them a haircut. Fortunately for the wool gatherers, they aren’t going to sit still while you jab them in the rump with a vaccination needle either. Bison can carry brucellosis, which causes spontaneous abortion in cattle, and for this and other reasons they typically receive annual vaccinations. You have to round them up, get them in the corral, and then run them through a squeeze chute. You aim to keep them in the shoot for six seconds or less (to avoid excess strain on the beasts), and it is during these six seconds in the chute that you can shear a little strip of wool for the yarn. Apparently, they often come out with just a small racing stripe removed.

Other ways to harvest the wool include taking the brushes from street cleaners and setting them up vertically. The bison, eager to be rid of their winter coats, rub off their old hair on these convenient scratching posts. In addition to taking bits and bobs of fuzz from other bison ranchers, Buffalo Wool Company collects wool from the leathers discarded after a bison meat harvest. In this way, they are able to produce enough yarn to sell. I ended up buying a skein of a 50:50 bison/merino blend, though I was sorely tempted by the bison/silk. My yarn appears undyed. Perhaps I’ll go collect some cochineal to create my own all-American fiber. 


  1. Hey Ann
    I think a stocking cap with horns would be a great use!!!

    Karen Hamburger

  2. Whoa! What does bison yarn feel like? I recently reclaimed my sewing machine and most of my knitting stuff from my parents and I am surprisingly psyched to be reunited with it! Bring on the winter! Do you have any Nebraska yarn shop recommendations?

    1. Yes! I never got to go (I think it's closed Sundays), but Kearney has the Wooly Mammoth Yarn Shop, which looked adorable. A day at the Kearney Museum of Art, with a stop and the yarn shop and a coffee at Barista's Daily Grind sounds like a fun fall Saturday to me.

      BTW- Bison yarn feels like warm, tough wool. I really like it. :)

  3. I have been following your blog because of my interest in land restoration. However, I am an avid knitter too, so this post really was a treat. (I'm a bit behind on some of my reading).