By Tim King – Teaching classes on how to knit, spin, weave or felt can be a way for the small flockmaster to develop markets and customers for wool products.
Some shepherds combine the revenue from teaching classes on how to knit and other crafts with the sale of wool products and equipment such as new or used spinning wheels, looms, knitting needles, and knitting patterns.
Raising sheep for wool, having it processed, and teaching people how to use it on equipment you sold them is a vertical marketing strategy that would turn the management at a major corporation green with envy. The trouble is that the corporation can afford a separate sales, production, and education departments. Your average shepherd has to combine those departments, along with a few more, all under a single hat.
How to Knit, Spin and Weave Classes Initiate New Buyers for Sheep Products
So as to keep a handle on over-commitment, Sue Ross — who raises Corriedale and Romney sheep crosses near Delano, Minnesota — doesn’t start teaching her two-and-a-half-hour long felting classes until October. She quits teaching them in February before lambing.
Sue (who also sells tanned sheep skins, raw fleeces, butcher and feeder lambs, breeding stock, hand woven wool rugs, and hand felted mittens and slippers) says, “I got involved with the classes mostly because felting is an interest of mine and I enjoy doing it.” At first I taught them through Community Education at the schools but I pretty much quit doing that because it wasn’t worthwhile for the amount of time it took to haul all the equipment back and forth.”
After Sue’s husband put up a building that combined a shop for himself, a barn for their daughter’s horse, and ample space for Sue’s weaving and felting enterprises, Sue brought the classes to the farm. Her students pay $24 for materials and supplies and they walk away from the class with either felted wool slippers or mittens that they’ve made. Sue’s instructions, and the hands-on classroom work, give them the skills and experience to make their own mittens or slippers at home. But that’s not what most students want to do.
“One Good Class Leads to Another”
“Most people who take the class want to take a second one,” Sue says. “Then they take their project to work and show people-and I get more students! A lot of people set up groups through work to take the classes.”
Sue gives group discounts. She also tells her students, particularly those that take her January and February classes, about the shearing festival in March.
The festival has worked well as a marketing tool. Most of Sue’s 2005 fleeces were reserved by buyers who came to the 2004 shearing. By July of 2004 all of her 2005 fleeces, which won’t be shorn until March, were sold at prices ranging from $6 to $9 a pound.
“It’s the easiest way, I think, because a customer can see the wool shorn on the animal and say yeah that’s the one I want for next year,” Sue said.
At the shearing festival fleece buyers are encouraged to help Sue skirt their just shorn fleeces.
“I just don’t want people paying for what they don’t want,” she said.
Sue’s customers and students are well served by the studio and classroom facilities that her husband built for her.
Spinning & Weaving Classes Bring Long-Term Buyers
Robin Lynde, who raises Jacob sheep, and teaches spinning and weaving near Vacaville, California, says enlarging her classroom and studio space would allow her to expand the size and number of the classes she teaches. Lynde uses an old 12 by 50 foot mobile home to teach, run a small retail shop, weave, and to dry fleeces that she washes.
She teaches five beginning spinning classes a year to between 20 and 25 students total. She also teaches beginning weaving to around 15 students.
“The hardest thing in preparing classes can simply be clearing away some of my projects to make room for the students,” says Robin, who developed handouts and instructional materials for her classes some years ago.
Robin’s classes generally are made up of four 2-hour sessions and cost students a total of $100. The price for the spinning classes includes a pound of wool. Robin uses what she calls odds and ends from different fleeces so that students become experienced working with different types of fibers. This year she is experimenting with teaching an entire class to a group of seven students, including extended practice sessions, over a long weekend.
“The best thing with the classes is if I sell stuff,” says Robin, who also sells looms and spinning wheels as well as raw fleeces and yarn she has had made by Yolo Wool Mill at Woodland, California. “If I don’t sell anything to students I’m making a pretty low wage but they may come back later to get something. Still, I like the classes because with them it’s cash in without the need for me to create any out-of-pocket expenses: It’s only my time.”
“Spinner’s Night Out” Helps Camaraderie & Sales
Many of Robin’s customers do come back when they attend the monthly Spinners Night Out that Robin holds at her all purpose mobile home.
“Anybody who wants to come brings a spinning wheel or knitting needles or whatever project they’re working on and hangs out for a few hours and talks and eats and works on their projects,” Robin says. “I’ve had 10 or more people come.”
Robin says she doesn’t like to go into teaching mode on Spinner’s Night Out because it’s supposed to be her night to relax too. She is, however, prepared to sell whatever yarn, wool, or supplies her visitors may need.
“We meet right with my supplies so if somebody needs something they can get it,” she says. “I don’t have regular shop hours so often they wait until they come to my house to get what they need.”
Robin sees her classes as a way to nurture a new customer base for the wool from her Jacobs. But finding students can be a challenge, she says. In August she demonstrated at the California State Fair. While she was demonstrating weaving and spinning people interested in taking classes filled out a sign-up sheet. Turning those names into groups of three to five people to take a class at a specific time is a challenge, Robin says.
Teaching at Shows
Mary Scott, of Serendipity Farm & Studio near Suffolk, Virginia has used teaching classes at shows as a way to build a clientele for her classes in weaving, spinning, and dyeing on her farm. Scott started her life as a shepherd (and teacher of fiber and fabric making) as a 4-H mom. She says it took her a long time, and a lot of hard work, to get to where she is now. After she “inherited” her 4-H son’s sheep she started taking classes in weaving and spinning herself. Soon she found herself demonstrating for groups who were curious about weaving.
“Most people start by joining a guild, or another type of organization, and the guild gets letter from people who want a demonstration,” Mary says. “Maybe you’ll volunteer to do that. That’s usually the thing that kicks off the urge to do this full time.”
Mary eventually found herself teaching at a 4-H camp. Then she began teaching at shows and eventually became the weaver at the Heritage Village at the Virginia State Fair. With all that exposure people began to seek her out so she set up shop in her on-farm studio.
“We considered renting a shop in town but decided it made more sense financially to set up on the farm,” she said. “When you have a shop you have that rent payment whether you have students or not and you can’t leave very often without hiring somebody. Besides, the sheep are right here on farm and my students can see where the fiber comes from.”
Mary, who gets her wool processed at the Blackberry Ridge Mill in Wisconsin, has never quit taking classes. She is a firm believer in establishing-and maintaining-credentials in the subjects she teaches. She also suggests that if you’re going to teach anything you may want to take an education course or two at the local college.
“There are a lot of people out there who teach these classes and they have no credentials,” she says. “Know your stuff and know how to teach.”
Mary charges $10 per hour for instruction and relies on the sale of looms and spinning wheels to make a go at the business. She says she prefers charging affordable rates. However, many instructors charge between $15 and $20 an hour, according to Mary.
Whether you want to become a recognized expert in a field, or simply teach a hobby such as how to knit, teaching students how to make things from your wool can add a new financial and social dimension to your business as flockmaster.
“We need to keep new weavers and spinners coming along if we want to stay in business,” Robin Lynde said.
I hope this presents a strong argument for teaching how to knit, weave, spin or felt classes to create an additional market for your wool.
Originally published in November / December 2004