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!