North Dakota Grows: Chris and Dakota Fiber Mill (and Teresa and Shepherd Industries)

North Dakota is a place of beautiful textures, in part thanks to Dakota Fiber Mill – which turns fleece from alpaca, angora, bison, and even possum into sumptuous yarn.  The fantastic Chris Armbrust has kindly offered up his thoughts on what’s next for North Dakota’s homegrown and homespun arts community (including a new live-in artist retreat):

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Tell us about your connection to North Dakota.

I have lived my whole live in North Dakota, and wouldn’t live anywhere else!!

You are the only full-service processing mill in the Dakotas.  Tell us how you got started.

I started with four alpacas and handspinning all their fiber into yarn on my spinning wheel.  As folks wanted to buy yarn from me, I used an outside mill, like myself, to process some of my fleeces.  I waited eight months for the yarn to be completed.

In 2010, my alpaca shearer said I should look into opening my own mill.  I told him I would love that, and I would pray about it and see what God had to say in that regard.  Well, God threw open the doors and in a whirlwind and a pile of miracle debris I had my mill in nine months.

I have nine large pieces of industrial equipment, some used and some new.  I hired a retired textile engineer from England to train me on the machines and how to use them.  He was here for three weeks, and then I practiced for a while longer until I felt confident enough to tackle customer fiber.  It was a three-year learning curve of ups and downs, and I still run into a problem fleece every now and then that takes divine intervention to get it processed.

For the first year I worked a full-time job besides working over 40 hours a week in the mill.  After the mill was rocking and rolling, I was able to quit and do it full-time.  In the beginning, I worked seven days a week, sometimes 16 hours a day.  The last couple years I have cut down to 8-10 hours a day, but still work seven days a week.  You have to be willing to put in a lot of extra hours owning your own business, especially the first few years.  But it’s certainly all worth it!!

Tell us a little bit about where Dakota Fiber Mill is today.

Today, I process for folks from all over the nation – Alaska to Florida, Maine to Oregon etc, etc…  I would say 70% of what I process is alpaca, 25% wool, and the rest miscellaneous silks, angora, mohair, bison, yak, camel, dog, cat, and more.  The most interesting fiber pry has been possum, and musk oxen from Alaska was unique, as well.

Folks send me their raw fiber and I turn it into yarn or roving for handspinning or felting for them.  I charge incoming weight and all the steps are included in that price.  I also have my own line of yarn – Dakota Spun – from my own herd.  I have raised most all fiber animals at one time or another: yaks, camel, llamas, alpacas, many breeds of sheep, angora goats and rabbits.

I take pride in the fact that so many of my family and friends thought I was crazy to open a fiber mill and that I would never be able to make a living at it.  The machines are super expensive and I had to take out large loans and max out our second mortgage to be able to start the business up.  Within the first year I was at my projected five-year goals.  Nine years into the business I am closed to accepting new clients and almost nine months out.  I have far exceeded any expectations I had, and am so honored to have stepped out in Faith and followed God’s Guidance onto a scary path that held no for-sures or certainty.  To be working daily at something I love so much, successfully, I am still in awe!!

Why is North Dakota quality important to you?

Products and businesses started, created, produced, and marketed from North Dakota are so special.  We are not a hugely populated state, but full of folks that truly love life and are willing to help one another.  We are hard-working and know that things don’t come easy.  I feel we put something extra special into ever product.

You have a new partnership with Bear Creek Felting.  Tell us about it.

Teresa Perleberg of Bear Creek Felting has been a long-time customer.  She has an awesome online business and also sells at shows.  She has a large herd of sheep that I process for her for use in her her products and artwork.

I brought up the idea partnering (and bringing our daughters on board) to open a multi-purpose fiber “resort,” cartering to not only fiber enthusiasts, but all crafters and makers – and also providing a unique setting for events, weddings, and retreats.  We are calling our partnership Shepherd Industries.

Teresa and I are expanding the line of yarns and rovings, kits, fiber choices, and more, and are adding educational classes on all things fiber-related.  We are also breeding Cormo sheep, along with Teresa’s current Romney breed.  Cormo is a very fine wool, similar to merino, and blends beautifully with Romney to make amazing blends, and felts wonderfully to add many additional felted products.

What’s the latest for Shepherd Industries?

I was thinking of building a new building to house our new partnership, but it was Teresa’s excellent idea to renovate and save an old building…and what better type of building than one of the many slowly decaying and abandoned North Dakota schools?  After looking at a few school options, the Nome Schoolhouse in Nome, ND was the one!

The Nome Schoolhouse is in need of a complete renovation, but it is structurally sound.  We will be adding another floor to part of the current structure to house 15 (or so) B&B rooms, all with their own bathrooms.  Teresa’s art studio will also be on that level, in the old superintendent’s office.

The first floor will have a retail store, fellowship, and memory room containing all the treasures we have found in the school and around the city itself – as well as dining, a bar, offices and an apartment for the caterer, who will reside on-site.

The lowest level will house the processing mill, large dye studio, a large classroom, bride room, groom room, kitchen, and bathrooms.  The old gymnasium will be the new event center with seating for over 300.

The Large old barn out back will house a small herd of fiber animals.  The peaceful grounds will be meticulously cared for and provide an excellent location for all of our events – weddings, retreats, classes, and more.  Teresa’s clients are already trying to book rooms and retreats to come and work with her and learn from her directly.  Our little school bus will be shuttling folks from Hector airport to Nome.

[From Amanda: You can follow the latest on Dakota Fiber Mill and the Nome Schoolhouse project on Facebook here or on the Dakota Fiber Mill website here.  Skeins of yarn, felting kits, and more can be purchased from the Bear Creek Felting website here.]

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