A Visit from Mr. Chester

“I absolutely love what I’m doing. That’s my first love.”
--Francis Chester

Francis Chester with a newly sheared fleece

Francis Chester with a newly sheared fleece

November at Spun features the Cestari Sheep & Wool Company, a small family-owned and -operated US manufacturer of fine wool and cotton yarn that is based in Augusta County, Virginia. Cestari’s wool, processed in Virginia, comes from sheep raised on their Augusta County farm, as well as reputable ranches across the United States, while all Cestari’s cotton products are grown and processed exclusively in Virginia. Spun has carried several of Cestari’s yarns since we opened nearly a year ago, as the company’s focus on US production, minimal processing, and an affordable price point holds great appeal for us, but we got the chance to meet Francis Chester at the shop a couple of months ago and felt inspired to share his story with you.

Mr. Chester’s lifelong love of farming began when his family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, New York, where he began raising vegetables and caring for goats and chickens. After selling vegetables door to door, 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.

Granddaughter India Rose with lamb

Granddaughter India Rose with lamb

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??

Sabrina shearing

Sabrina shearing

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.

Give Cestari’s family of yarns a try this November. We think you’ll be pleased. Spun currently offers three Cestari yarns: the Traditional Collection, Worsted, a rustic 2-ply Targhee-Columbia blend that comes in both natural shades and earthy marls (170 yards, $10); the Mount Vernon Collection, Worsted, a two-ply kettle-dyed Merino beauty (140 yards, $10); and the Old Dominion Collection, DK, a 3-ply kettle-dyed cotton that comes in a winning range of colors (250 yards, $10). Please note that Mr. Chester promises his wool can be machine washed at cool temperatures, and take the time to check out the cute “Sheepy Pants” and “Barley Hat” Anne has knitted out of the Mount Vernon worsted and the stunning “Little Cabin” Kate is working up out of the Traditional worsted. Note too that during the month of November you can pick up a skein of the Mount Vernon Collection, Worsted, for only $7.50.

Look for more Cestari yarns as we move into the warmer months next spring and work a magic spell to embiggen our space--lighter cottons and cotton blends that are affordable and made with care in the United States. Enjoy!


On Knitting, Hope and Resilience

It's a sunny (and cold) Saturday morning here in Ann Arbor and as we headed into the shop looking forward to a busy farmer's market day, we got a very moving note from Cathy in New Jersey who visited us back in December and made a beautiful hat for her grandson that everyone in the shop fell in love with. The news today was different and sadder but so full of hope, we asked Cathy if we could share. Here's her story:

Hi lovely folks at Spun! Your New Jersey fan here again, the lady who did up the little berry hat in eggplant back in December for my grandson. I have a different story for you now, involving some of your yarn. I bought some Corrie Sock in warm pinks and greens back then intending to make - well - socks of course! But in the last month I got the diagnosis that my breast cancer has returned and is all over my bones. This was pretty frightening and fear with discomfort are difficult companions. I have started chemo and there are enough drugs running through my body right now to keep both tired and awake, as well as making my hands shake. My thoughts were straying towards "finishing projects" because well, you don't know. Until last week a switch flipped in my head about energy, positive warm healing energy and I remembered that skein of yarn. I decided to make a statement of Radical Optimism and wind the skein the very day I had my second chemo treatment (I use the "walk around two kitchen chairs" method!). Then I picked a lace scarf pattern off Ravelry called CashSilk Fern. And I cast on. Because to me, starting a Lace Scarf is an act of defiance against cancer and its scariness. The knitting calms my shaky hands and the scarf is turning out beautifully. I wish I lived closer and could simply come and enjoy the comraderie of knitting in you shop, but my note and picture will have to do. I don't know if you have cancer patients who knit at the moment, but maybe this will inspire them as well. #radicaloptimism #knittingthrucancer

Jim Croce, Giant Rabbits, Pompom Socks

My mom, Louise Ann Sickman

My mom, Louise Ann Sickman

Easter was a big deal for my family when I was growing up. My mother was a church organist and choir director, so the week leading up to Easter Sunday meant extra work for her. Church every morning! Church every night! Her Easter preparations for us were centered around coordinating our schedules with all that church attendance and making dinner: ham, scalloped potatoes, salad. 

She was already plenty busy with all the work that comes to a farm in springtime, so it can’t have been simple for her to find the time to have fun with us, but we did dye copious eggs, since our hens usually started laying more eggs with the change in seasons (and my parents policed the occasional broody hen who would sneak off to the machine shed and try to cultivate a nest). Our favorite approach was to “tie-dye” eggs, which involved twisting old undershirts around the eggs before dipping them, yielding a vaguely trippy-looking end product. (Other ways the 1970s filtered down to a Catholic family in rural Missouri: leisure suits and mustaches, a bus driver who played us Jim Croce songs and painted peace signs on the bus ceiling, gauchos and pompom socks, guitar mass.)

70s tennis star Chris Evert knew how to rock the pom pom socks!

70s tennis star Chris Evert knew how to rock
the pom pom socks!

One year it snowed on Easter. Another year I saw a giant white rabbit walking upright along the top of the bluff below the front porch. This was exciting, not creepy. I can’t explain the apparition, but I can still see the rabbit in my mind’s eye, doubtless tempered by subsequent viewings of “Harvey” and “Donnie Darko.” 

Most years now we spend Easter with good friends: our kids often dye and hunt eggs together (though community egg hunts in the park get tricky if other neighborhood children understandably join in). Dinner is relaxed and potluck.

What does all this have to do with yarn?? What does all this have to do with knitting??

Not a lot, except that this morning I was poking around on Ravelry and thinking that what I’d like to do this year is make my kiddos bunnies to wake up to on Sunday morning. I’d dig out some Shepherd’s Wool, and I’d make this  or this for my girls. And maybe this for Pete, my artistic life and business partner.

Not creepy at all. 

Not creepy at all. 

The yarn shop is closed this Sunday! Whether or not you celebrate Easter, enjoy the day, and spend it with those you love.

Side note, re. pompom socks: I don’t understand why they fell out of favor! Cute! Super practical with the pompom propping your sock up outside your sneaker! It would be pretty easy to turn out some pompom socks. If you start seeing a couple of kids around town wearing pompom socks after Easter 2017, you’ll know they belong to me.