“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” says Cindy Walker. And as she tells the story of how she started her yarn business, it’s clear that this could be her motto.
No stranger to fiber arts, Walker caught the knitting bug in 1994. She started a business called Stony Hill Fiber Arts, selling hand-knitted hats, slippers and baby booties made from yarn she dyed herself. Walker then expanded her product line to include what she calls “the how-to and the with-this” — yarn, patterns and kits. Her business took a slight turn in 2002 when she developed an inconvenient allergy to wool, so she started selling cotton yarn instead. But all along, she managed to make ends meet.
Last year, Walker started attending meetings of the Southern Appalachian Fiber Community, co-hosted by Mountain BizWorks, Handmade in America and the Polk County Agricultural Economic Development Commission.
As participants discussed their projects, they realized that none of them knew where their yarn was made. “We didn’t know what country it came from, or how the workers were treated,” says Walker. “It struck us that none of us knew where to find cotton yarn that was made locally.” What made this even more confounding was North Carolina’s long history of cotton production and processing: From the 1880s into the early 1900s, for example, the natural fiber was a leading cash crop.
“I thought, ‘What would it look like for me to make yarn?’” Walker wondered. She knew people who were making yarn on a smaller scale, but she saw a larger need. So Walker started the Pacolet Valley Fiber Company. “At first I had the idea that I would help to rebuild the North Carolina textile industry one ball of yarn at a time!”
But it soon became clear that not only was that an overly ambitious goal — it wasn’t even possible to do all of the production and processing in North Carolina. “Humidity here is not as conducive to organic cotton agriculture as more arid regions of the U.S.,” Walker explains. "We have a small and growing number of organic cotton growers in N.C., but their cotton is claimed quickly."
So the organic cotton she uses is grown, picked, ginned and bailed in Texas by the Bingham family; combed and spun in Thomasville, N.C., by Hill Spinning; and plied into finished yarns by Forsyth Mills in Georgia. As Walker says, her yarn has “Texas roots, a Carolina spin and a little Georgia twist.”
Humbled by the experience of working with these small textile mills, she says, “It’s very moving, because when the U.S. started outsourcing, we lost that community. Some mills have shrunk from 300 people to four or 30 people. Many of them are third- and fourth-generation mill workers. They have pride in what they do.”
Walker notes, “They’re running 500 pounds of cotton for me — but in the past they would have required [jobs with at least] 10,000 pounds.”
In return, she features photos of the farms, mills and workers in her sale booth. “As you can imagine, most of my customers are women. But when I do shows in areas where the textile industry existed, men come to the booth and look at the pictures — they enjoy that someone’s still honoring that heritage.”
After jumping in with both feet and surviving a steep learning curve, Walker is taking the BizWorks’ “Foundations” to get a better understanding of her numbers and test the long-term viability of her venture. “It’s also helping me to explore what’s driving me,” she says, “and how I can express that to people. I’m learning that I’m all about the connections and the journey and the people along the way.”
As a result, while her enthusiasm and curiosity are palpable, Walker always comes back to those who have helped her get to this point. “Every person along the way has been so generous with their time, because I knew nothing about what I was trying to do. Don’t ever let ignorance stop you! If you’re kind and curious and use your manners, it’s amazing what happens.”
To purchase Pacolet Valley Yarn, visit stonyhillfiberarts.com, or http://avl.mx/nk or call Walker at 817-3096.
To see a list of upcoming business classes at Mountain BizWorks, which supports small businesses in Western North Carolina through lending, consulting and training, visit www.mountainbizworks.org/calendar.
To get involved in the discussion about local fiber, attend the Venture Local conference on Friday, Dec. 7. The event will include a dynamic cluster development discussion about the fiber and craft sector, led by Judi Jetson of Handmade in America. Full agenda and tickets can be found at www.venturelocalwnc.com.
Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.