Sometimes I meet people because I am unabashedly snoopy. Last summer I visited Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - a beautiful city that is entirely under-rated as a destination. As a recovering yarn zombie, when visiting new places I search out local fibres as my souvenir of choice.
In Saskatoon I found The Wool Emporium, a wonderful LYS tucked away on Broadway Avenue. I was toodling through the shelves admiring local alpaca fibres when I overheard two women chatting about spinning and fibres. Being of a snoopy persuasion, I paused, cocked my head to the side and blatantly eavesdropped.
The conversation was covering the difficulties of learning to spin (I could relate) and the intricacies of buffalo as a spinning fibre. Buffalo?! That certainly caught my attention.
As their conversation wrapped up, I jumped in and introduced myself to Pam, a buffalo farmer from north of Saskatoon. She and her husband Charles Huerto run Buffalo Charlie, an Etsy shop selling their homegrown buffalo fibres and soaps. I left our conversation with a bag full of buffalo fibre and a whole lot of questions concerning how one goes about harvesting buffalo fibre and living to tell the tale.
Pam has graciously taken the time to answer all of my questions and give us a little insight into the world of buffalo fibres. I hope you enjoy!
Here’s a little confession: I introduced myself to you at The Wool Emporium because I was eavesdropping on your conversation! I was fascinated by the fact that you were a local producer selling buffalo fibre. What’s the story behind Buffalo Charlie and the buffalo farm?
I was born and raised on a farm in Saskatchewan. Originally this was a dairy farm, but in my early teens my parents sold the cows and diversified into elk and buffalo/bison. I eventually graduated and moved away, and somewhere along the way I decided to teach myself how to knit. Later, when I moved to Saskatoon, I hooked up with the local knitting group there and expanded my crafty horizons. During my time with them I eventually learned that bison fibre existed and had a lot of great qualities. Thinking that my Dad would appreciate a pair of socks for Christmas, I attempted to buy some bison yarn at the local yarn shop and found out two things very quickly; 1) The selection was very limited & 2) It was expensive! Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to purchase the yarn for a pair of socks on my meager student budget.
This peaked my interest, as I knew where to find some bison! And so began our adventure. The farm currently has a traditional free roaming herd of 550 bison.
My fiancee (now husband) Charles was very supportive of the idea, and has been along for this whole journey. It really has been a collaborative effort with him and all my family members. And one day my dad coined the name ‘Buffalo Charlie’ as a potential name for our business and it stuck!
I’ve known bison farms before but you are the first farmer I know that harvests and spins the fiber. What inspired you to start?
We can’t actually take credit for farming the animals since my dad and uncle take care of that, but we definitely planted the idea of fibre collection with them. Once I realized how many great qualities the fibre had and how difficult it was to find I really wanted to see if we could gather it and tap into the potential there!
How do you harvest the fiber from such a huge animal? I can’t envision a traditional sheering process without risk of serious injury…
Initially we gathered the fiber that was shed by the bison in the pastures, however we have since found that we are able to get cleaner, better quality fiber directly off the animals. You are right, this isn’t done in a traditional shearing process. Bison as a rule do not receive nor appreciate a lot of handling, however on occasion they do require some human attention. In the Spring when the bison are put in the squeeze (a box of sorts that keeps them snug and secure) for deworming we are able to remove some of the fiber that they are shedding with the change of season.
It sounds like they “roo”, or shed fibre as the new growth comes in, like a Shetland sheep does. I can’t even imagine willingly putting my hands into “the squeeze”, which makes me think there must be a good reason for collecting the fibres. What qualities does buffalo fiber offer?
Bison fibre is extremely soft and extremely warm (it is considered to be 6 times warmer than wool!). The fibre has a high “moisture regain” which gives it the ability to wick moisture away and insulate while wet. Additionally, it contains no lanolin so this is a great feature for those who are allergic to it and also it does not attract moths. It is considered to feel and look similar to cashmere but is more durable.
That certainly sounds appealing. How does bison fiber spin up? Are there particular qualities and/or tricks that the spinner should be aware of?
I am currently in the learning stages of spinning so I’m afraid I can’t give much first hand experience, but I can share what I have been told. Bison has a staple length of 1-2 inches and has quite a bit of crimp. Because of its extreme warmth it is usually recommended that you spin a finer yarn with it. I’m told you should spin it with a moderate twist, but ply it firmly.
All of our customers seem to really enjoy working with it!
That description seems to fit my experience. While I’m not yet a Master Spinner, I can share that the shorter staple length made it a little more challenging to spin solo. But once I carded some longer Cotwald/Polwarth into it made for an easier spin. Now I need to figure out what I should make with the yarn. What do you think is the best project for bison fiber to show off its qualities?
I think the best projects are probably those that will keep you snuggly and warm like a scarf, shawl or toque!
Considering our weather here has been consistently negative double digits, a warm toque sounds pretty great! I’m very interested in ‘fibresheds‘ - local areas where the textile arts, processes and economies are being cultivated and re-established. Do you see a Saskatchewan fibreshed established or growing? Do you see Buffalo Charlie fitting into a fibreshed context?
Fibresheds are new but interesting concept for us. I certainly think that there is opportunity for a fibreshed to be established in Saskatchewan. We haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet that many of the local fibre producers but I know that several exist. We feel that Buffalo Charlie would be happy to support and join a Saskatchewan fibreshed and hope that one is established in the near future!
This question may seem out of place, but I always ask because I feel that our actions can contribute to positive social change (or not). In my experience, most folks want to contribute to making our world a better place. At Peace Flag House we call this “peacing for peace”. In your work with the bison, how are you peacing for peace?
Charles and I both do our best to contribute to positive social change. We try to do this through a variety of ways - we both sponsor children in El Salvador, we assemble as many shoe boxes as we are able each year for Operation Christmas Child (our record was 24!), we plant trees for our friends and family members each year, make micro-loans through kiva.org, do our best to support local businesses, and so on.
In terms of the bison, I feel that we are “peacing for peace” in our attempts to save something that was being thrown away and make it into something functional and amazing. We are actually taking this a step further and are also collaborating with my Mom who is a soap maker. She makes beautiful soap that has a bison tallow base, and we have invited her to join us under the Buffalo Charlie label. There isn’t much literature in terms of processing these items so it feels like we are somewhat pioneering the way, but it is really fascinating to work on such an intimate and basic level with these natural products.
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