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Meet the Shepherd: A Weekend with Francis Chester

Last year we had the pleasure of meeting Cestari founder Francis Chester as he drove his pickup truck around the country visiting local yarn shops. Cestari Sheep & Wool Company is a small, family-owned and -operated U.S. manufacturer of fine wool and plant-based yarn that is based in Augusta County, Virginia. Cestari’s wool, processed in Virginia, comes from sheep raised on Cestari's Augusta County farm, as well as on reputable ranches across the United States, while all Cestari’s cotton products are grown and processed in Virginia. Spun has carried several of Cestari’s yarns since we opened, as the company’s focus on US production, minimal processing, and an affordable price point holds great appeal for us, and we are happy to note that Cestari's wool and cotton yarn has since won many converts among our customers.

Cestari Traditional Collection Spun Ann Arbor.jpg

Mr. Chester’s lifelong love of farming began when his family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, New York. He opened his first successful farm stand on Long Island when he was ten years old, using the money he earned over time to buy his first flock of sheep. That first flock both pushed Mr. Chester into his future, setting him on the road he would follow the rest of his life, and connected him to his past, to the generations of his family (as he later learned from an older relative) who had been shepherds in Italy.

Mr. Chester parlayed the money he earned raising sheep into tuition for college and law school, but farming remained his passion. Indeed, he describes his law degree as part of a back-up plan, as advised by his father, who was aware of what a precarious business farming can be. He used his degree over the years both to help finance his wool business and to assist local farmers who were losing their land to the rash of farm foreclosures during the 1980s.

In 1968, Francis Chester, his wife, Diane, and their children left their Mill Neck farm when the suburbs encroached and moved to Virginia, where they have continued to farm together for nearly fifty years. While Mr.Chester at first shipped his wool to New England to be milled, he ran into trouble in the 1980s when many mills began closing, and production largely moved overseas. His response to this crisis was, as usual, creative and proactive: he bought used equipment and established his own mill in Virginia, in order to keep production close to home. Mr. Chester still occasionally practices law in Augusta Springs, but his passion remains farming and now, more broadly, the revitalization of the US textile industry.

But what about the yarn?

Cestari’s cotton, as noted above, is grown and processed entirely in Virginia. Cestari’s wool, also US-sourced, is minimally processed in Virginia, using a scouring process that retains the fiber’s natural lanolin and thus its bounce and texture. The more customary carbonizing acid bath leaves wool very “clean” by burning out all the vegetable matter, but it also leaves the fiber with less lanolin, less spring, and less life. The result of Cestari’s less invasive approach is a lively fiber in your hands; a fabric with integrity; and the occasional easily removed bit of hay and straw, which (as you know) we love. That occasional vegetable matter reminds us of sheep! It also reminds us of all the work that has gone into the fiber before it makes its way to our hands.

So when Mr. Chester wrote to see if we'd be interested in a return visit, we responded with an enthusiastic yes! He will be joining us at the shop for a happy hour reception on Friday, July 7, from 4-6pm and a presentation and Q&A on Saturday, July 8, at 1:30. We'll enjoy drinks, treats, and conversation on Friday night, and on Saturday you'll be treated to the story behind a classic US yarn company. Both events are free and open to all, no reservations required. 

If you've made something out of Cestari yarn, please bring it along to show Mr. Chester while he's here so we can show him even more Michigan love. To celebrate Mr. Chester visit, we'll also be offering a 10 percent discount on all Cestari yarn while Mr. Chester is in the shop, Friday from 4 to 8 and Saturday from 11 to 4. 

Don't miss this chance to meet a passionate farmer, great yarn maker, and master storyteller! 

Earlier Event: June 16
Arbor Twist Happy Hour and Trunk Show
Later Event: July 13
Anzula Luster Trunk Show