Coleen Lacey and her daughter, Meghan, talk about the yarn in their Mulberry Hill Farm shop a little differently than most merchants.
Pulling a skein of natural-toned yarn from its cubby, Coleen talks about its color, explaining that they will never get that color from Oakley again because the once-brown sheep is now turning grey.
It’s what you might expect from the area’s first farm-to-needle shop.
Mulberry Hill Farm recently celebrated the grand opening of its store at 2998 Ritner Highway in Penn Township outside of Carlisle. The shop is open from 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday as well as by appointment.
The farm is located at what some locals may remember as the old Hilltop Motel. Built in the 1960s, the hotel featured six small rooms, said Sean Lacey, Coleen’s husband.
“In the ‘70s, when 81 was built, it diverted the traffic, and (the motel) went out of business,” Sean said.
Only part of the motel’s semicircular driveway remains as the rest was removed to make way for pasture for the latest venture to call the property home.
The business started on a simple premise. Meghan thought it would be cool to have their own sheep and make their own yarn blends.
Though working and living in Woodbridge, Virginia, Meghan joined Coleen at fiber shows, which is where the dream took root.
“In stores, you’re getting a lot of commercial yarns, so going to fiber shows is where you find the small flock or the home-grown, hand-raised. It was really interesting to see the difference between the two,” Meghan said
Now, Meghan lives only a few minutes away from her parents and the 12 sheep who provide the raw material for the farm yarn line of Distelfink Fibers, the yarn featured at the Mulberry Hill Farm shop.
The family hires a shearer to tackle the physically demanding job of shearing the sheep, Coleen said. The shearer starts with the white sheep and works through the oatmeal colors and the grays, picking off the worst of the debris as it comes off the sheep.
Meghan and Coleen then lay the fleece out on a big screen just as it comes off the sheep to give it a further cleaning before sending it to the mill to be processed into yarn.
“We shear every nine months, and then it takes about nine months for it to get made into yarn at the mill,” Coleen said.
The average sheep produces 6-8 pounds of wool when it’s sheared, but that wool will lose about 20 percent of its weight when it is washed at the mill.
For each pound of fiber the Laceys said they expect to get four skeins of yarn, on average, that are returned to the farm for Coleen and Meghan to dye.
There’s a lot of trial and error in the process of deciding what colors to make. They think about which colors would look best in the farm yarn and what might look better in the merino yarn. Add into that color trends. Then, consider how the colors might work together as knitters mix and match them.
“Based on how we do in a year, we look at what colors were most popular and sold well and try to keep them consistent throughout the years and continue to offer them,” Meghan said.
Meghan and Coleen have been surprised along the way.
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Last spring, they created a gold tone in the farm yarn, and no one touched it.
“This year, within two shows, it was gone,” Meghan said.
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Or, take Coleen and the color called “horse apple.” It was a yellow-green color that she so disliked that she said she wouldn’t do any more than the single skein she had dyed. A customer at a show saw the skein, loved it and asked for six more of the same.
“She showed up four or five months later at an event. She had it on. It was beautiful. I couldn’t see it,” Coleen said.
Unlike acrylic yarns in big box stores, the small-batch, hand-dyed yarn doesn’t lend itself to an easy match if a knitter comes up short in a project and has to buy additional yarn. Even if yarn was dyed with the same color recipe on wool from the same sheep, the base yarn would change color along with any changes to the sheep’s natural wool color.
“We’ll never get the same with another color lot,” Coleen said.
Setting up shop
Distelfink Fibers generally sets up at festivals beginning in February and ending the spring season with the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May, Meghan said. They kick back up again in September and continue until the middle of November.
At shows, customers would often ask if they had a shop. Now that the shop is a reality, the challenge is to get the word out and to let people know that it’s not only a yarn shop.
The Mulberry Hill Farm store also features hand-dyed wool fabric that Coleen buys wholesale from fabric mills and dyes herself. The wool can be used for applique or for traditional rug hooking in which the fabric is cut into ¼ inch strops that are then pulled through the backing material.
The store’s shelves feature Coleen’s finished applique works and Sean’s woodcarvings, a hobby that got its start as something for Sean to do in the booth when he accompanied Coleen to shows.
The colorful display of yarn, though, is what catches a shopper’s attention when they come through the door of the small shop set up in an Amish-built, one-car garage that was customized for the purposes of opening the shop.
In addition to the skeins filling cubbies along the wall, there are knitted samples on display to help guide customers.
Meghan’s experience in knitting in different types of yarn and patterns helps the shop to focus on what types of yarn is best for the knitter’s purpose. They’ve also come up with a solution to the dilemma of trying to figure out how colors will play together when they are knitted.
“We found that by creating a color scheme, knitting up the sample and then packaging it as a kit, people can say, this is what it’s going to look like,” Meghan said.
When so much of the yarn that is available in stores travels around the world before being cast onto a knitting needle, the Laceys are proud that their products are not only PA Preferred but also that they are part of the growing movement to know how the products consumers used are sourced.
They are careful, however, to keep business meetings separate from family activities. Each one has their own role to play in moving the business forward as it fills the void left by the closing of the Yarn Garden and Harmony Society, which had both been located in downtown Carlisle.
“Whatever decision is made is made amongst the three of us,” Coleen said.
“Based on how we do in a year, we look at what colors were most popular and sold well and try to keep them consistent throughout the years and continue to offer them.” <&textAlign: right>— Meghan Lacey