Contributed by Charice Chambers
Kate Wattum was about to retire and was looking for something to do in her next life phase that would be exciting, entertaining and helpful to the community. Several years before, she had purchased both sheep and alpacas for her farm. Like a good farmer, she harvested her animals’ fur and planned to have it processed so that she might make some unique home-grown knitted projects. To her great surprise, she was forced to send her fiber “outside,” wait over ten months for its return as yarn, and she had to spend over $1200.00 in the process. There was simply nowhere in the state to get the job done.
So, the search began. Kate envisioned a complete mini fiber mill in her future, one that could process as little as a few pounds of fiber or as much as 100 pounds. To that end, she researched manufacturers, ultimately visiting and then purchasing a mill in Nova Scotia. Her choice was predicated on the facts that the manufacturer was warrantied, had mills around the world and provided training and support to mill operators.
Her mill was installed in the fall of 2015 on her five-acre farm near Fairbanks. From the beginning, it was a family endeavor. Even father, Ben Wattum rolled up his sleeves and worked the machines following long commutes from Palmer.
Turning mounds of dirty animal fiber into beautifully dyed finished yarn is quite an involved process. First the fiber is washed: soaking, washing and rinsing repeatedly depending on lanolin content. Then, it is dried. Next, it goes through the picking machine where it’s separated, and conditioner is added to it. Some fibers possess a dual hair requiring separation. It’s put through a unit, which allows the heavy hair to drop out, and the clean, fine fiber comes out the unit’s other end. Next, the fiber is carded, a process that blends and homogenizes it. Here, other fibers may be added to it, to help it hold together or to give it different attributes. The carder is the heart of the mill. Next, the roving, as it is now called, is put in the drafting machine, where it is stretched and blended. The machine aligns all fiber in preparation for spinning. Now, the fiber is ready to spin into strands of varying thicknesses and is wound onto bobbins. On the plyer machine, several strands can be combined to create multi-ply yarns. Finally, the finished yarn is transferred to cones where the yarn can be left or fashioned into skeins in preparation for use.
Wattum opened Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill in January of 2016, following a great deal of training, practice, advice and assistance of the local fiber community. There was a tremendous amount to learn. Today, the mill processes much of the animal fiber produced in the state. She is working with clients in New York, Texas, Missouri, and Oregon as well. Locals appreciate the generally two-month turn around for processing, and the delivery service offered in much of the state saves them both time and money. In promoting her business, Wattum has traveled extensively throughout the state including Nome Tuksuk Bay and even Nunivak Island. As a result, she is processing large amounts of qiviut (musk ox fur). Often referred to as the Cadillac of furs, qivuit is a highly sought-after commodity. Wattum’s mill has become adept at handling the fiber, dying it in rich deep hues. In addition to qivuit yarn, Wattum is extending the fiber’s uses by turning out beautiful musk ox fiber rugs made from qiviut guard hairs that had previously been discarded.
Mat-Su Senior Services Gift Shop is proud to be one of two retail outlets for Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill’s products. MSSS features a variety of yarns for knitting and crocheting in numerous colors. Yarns feature merino, Shetland, and Suffolk wools from Palmer and Wasilla as well as alpaca from Anchor Point, and, of course, multi-colored qiviut yarn. For those wanting a finished Alaskan woolen product, reversible, double-sided hats are available in a double rainbow of colors.
Matsu Senior services gift shop is located across from and adjacent to Palmer Junior Middle School at 1132 South Chugach Street in Palmer. It is open to both seniors and the public, Monday through Friday from 10 am to 2 pm.