10 Extraordinary Years In Search Of Wild Fibers
From India’s high Himalayas, to the foothills of Transylvania, the search for wild fibers has touched nearly every corner of the planet.
Can 10 incredible years of traveling to some of the most remote parts of the planet be summarized in a few short pages?
Probably not, but it’s a worth a try.
Ten years ago, before there was a magazine called Wild Fibers, before my passport collected so many stamps I had to upgrade it with 36 additional pages, and before I had teetered out of helicopters in New Zealand or swallowed handfuls of crispy worms in Zimbabwe, I was a goat farmer. I was living on 30 secluded acres near the coast of Maine along with my modest herd of cashmere goats, two dogs, and two cats: Bill and Elvis. At age 45, I’d had the remarkable good fortune of achieving my dream, or so it seemed. It may not have been a grand corner office with a petulant assistant taking irksome coffee breaks. And it may not have been a snappy sports car ( I did own a dandy red truck), and it certainly wasn’t an impressive stock portfolio. I had my farm, my animals, and most importantly, a broken heart.
Broken hearts are the sharp edges that teach us that life goes on in spite of unstoppable sadness. I was fairly certain that life would, eventually, continue. I just wasn’t convinced.
Eat, Pray, Love, the runaway best- seller by Elizabeth Gilbert, was spawned from her own broken heart, caused by a dramatic divorce replete with fist- pounding hysteria on the kitchen floor and other signs of dire distress. Already an author of note, Gilbert took her sorrows around the world, eventually making herself nearly as rich as the Sultan of Brunei, ( a position that entitles to him a residence with 1,888 rooms, 290 of them bathrooms).
Not that I wish to appear small, but Eat, Pray, Love was published two years after I started Wild Fibers. I think Ms. Gilbert owes me.
I wish I had Elizabeth Gilbert’s talent— not to mention her bank account. But if someone had handed me ten mil- lion dollars on the condition that I could never leave the country, I would have to say, “No thanks.” Without hesitation, the rewards of being the editor of Wild Fibers are priceless, and it is thanks to you.
Unlike Gilbert’s dreams ( and frequent flyer miles), which were funded by an advance from Random House, every page of Wild Fibers since the second issue has been totally supported by its readers and advertisers.
And so as I look back over the past ten years and all the things both good, and not- quite- as- good that happened, I not only have to thank cupid for a broken arrow, but also a spinning wheel manufacturer whom I will simply refer to as “GB.”
Before the first issue went to press I needed advertisers, so I reached for a recent copy of Spin Off and started calling some of their advertisers. I wasn’t exactly looking to steal Spin Off ’s advertisers; I was simply offering them a chance to “enhance” their marketing program.
It was a Tuesday afternoon when I phoned GB, and to my delight he didn’t immediately hang up. In fact, he began asking some very thoughtful questions about this wild dream of mine, and I took that as my queue to give him the full sales pitch.
Again, he asked more questions. And again, I continued with my exuberance. And just about the time I thought he was getting ready to take out an ad he said, “Well, you seem pretty excited about this idea, but I’ve been around for a long time and I see a lot of people like you come along with big ideas. They never last.” And then he said good- bye, good luck, and hung up. My heart broke. GB wasn’t a friend, let alone an ex- lover. In fact I wouldn’t have recognized him if the FedEx man had delivered him to my doorstep.
But it didn’t matter. I stood in the kitchen steadying myself at the stove before collapsing on the floor into Gilbert- style sobbing.
Eventually, I walked into the living room, sat down on the sofa, and cradled my head in my hands. “This whole magazine thing is just one big stupid pipe dream,” I kept repeating as I wiped yet another stream of snot away from my nose. And then I cried some more. Some people believe that often the best way to get someone to do something is to tell them they can’t. I would like to think that GB had that in mind, but I doubt it.
Moving on up
By the following morning I got my mojo back, and once again started flipping through the pages of Spin Off. Strauch Fiber Equipment had a nice full- page ad, so I picked up the phone and called.
Otto Strauch answered the phone, and once again I started down the road of my wooly zeal, and once again, I got a line of thoughtful questions. For the next hour, Otto kept asking, and I kept answering.
“It takes a lot of guts to start a magazine,” Otto finally said, “but you sound like you’re just crazy enough to make it happen. I’ll take out a full- page ad for a year, just send me an invoice.”
When I am asked how I came to start Wild Fibers, I typically offer a rehearsed response about sitting in my spare bedroom with a second- hand computer, a bingo table I “borrowed” from my town office to serve as my desk, and a bootleg ( oops!) copy of Quark software. I used up almost every penny of the less than $ 7000 in my savings account to publish the first issue.
It wasn’t really as simple as that. Not only did the genesis of Wild Fibers take more than six days, and not only did a trio of men contribute in their own unique ways to its birth ( may their never be a paternity suit to sort it all out), but I am still waiting to rest on the seventh.
On the magazine’s tenth anniversary I can’t think of a more opportune time to look back at the top ten moments from the past ten years, celebrating, reflecting on and sharing some snippets that have never made it into print.
1. Scottish cashmere
In 2004, my first official international trip as a “magazine editor” ( a title that felt both uncomfortable and undeserved) landed me in the boardroom at Johnston’s of Elgin Cashmere in Scotland. If ever there was a time when someone was going
to call my bluff, this was it.
A few months prior to my visit I had read an article in The Wall Street Journal ( mandatory reading for the serious fiber enthusiast) citing a Mr. James Sugden, managing director of Johnston’s Cashmere. The article discussed recent changes in Chinese export regulations and their impact on the cashmere industry, including Scotland’s only vertically integrated cashmere mill. There was just enough fervor in Sugden’s words to make me muster some keyboard courage from my borrowed bingo table and send him an email.
Several days later, Sugden’s secretary replied and said that he would be happy to meet with me briefly during my upcoming visit to Scotland.
Now armed with the second issue of Wild Fibers ( which offered only slightly fewer typos than the first), I met a charming receptionist wearing ( so help me God) a light blue sweater set. She ushered my photographer Don Moore and me into the boardroom to wait for Mr. Sugden.
I was either too excited ( or stupid) to be nervous. I suspect it would take this Mr. Sugden a matter of moments to realize that the middle- aged lady who had contacted him was not an illustrious magazine editor but no more than a goat farmer with clean shoes.
Shortly after we were served a cup of tea, Mr. Sugden entered the room wearing a perfectly tailored tweed sports coat, a pale blue cashmere vest, argyle socks, and a stately grin. He possessed a curious blend of professional elegance coupled with country charm, as if at any moment he might suggest we take the afternoon off to go grouse hunting, stealing nips from a flask of single- malt scotch along the way.
I slid a copy of the magazine across the board table. Mr. Sugden picked it up and began turning the pages as if they contained baby pictures of his first grandchild, exclaiming “Extraordinary!” “Brilliant!” and “Absolutely splendid!”
I had been told that after my meeting with Mr. Sugden, the plant manager would give us a brief tour of the mill. But at the end of our 30- minute interview, Mr. Sugden insisted that he personally show us around. Seven hours later we parted company. For the first time I saw how cashmere was processed from fiber into yarn, and from yarn into sweaters, socks, and beautifully woven cloth that is sold under some of the top haute couture labels. It is what Johnston’s is famous for.
But what I really saw that day was how one very busy man gave up his entire day to show a fledgling magazine editor how much he believed in her. Mr. Sugden’s kindness and support has helped propel me for the past ten years.
I will never forget that first meeting and the courage it
2. Alaskan Knitters
Almost a year to the day from my Scottish sojourn, I boarded a plane bound for Unalakleet, Alaska. A small village 148 miles southeast of Nome on the Bering Sea that is rarely visited by anyone from the Lower 48 unless they are carrying a rifle or a rod. There were six seats on the plane and mine had the most duct tape securing it to the floor. “Meal service” was provided in a small wicker basket, the kind typically used for dinner rolls, and once we reached our cruising altitude the captain turned around and passed the basket aft.
“Take as much as you like,” he said, so I grabbed two bags of potato chips and two chocolate bars. It was like flying business class without the flatbed seats.
A woman on an ATV met Don and me at the airport.
The two of us managed to straddle the ATV’s rear shelf ( typically used for dead animals or small children), clinging to our luggage as we took off down the gravel road. The cold wind gusting off the sea made my eyeballs ache, the metal bars beneath us were denting my cheeks, and there were some spectacular bumps along the way. I was glad the trip to the motel took less than 20 minutes.
Two hours later, three native Alaskan women from the Oomingmak’s Knitting Cooperative arrived at the motel and told me about life in Unalakleet and the importance of knitting qiviut items for Oomingmak. The line I remember most came from one of the women, who told me that she got up at four o’clock every morning to watch her soap operas ( she referred to them as her “shows”) and knit before getting her children ready for school.
I can count on two fingers the number of times I have intentionally watched television in the wee hours of the morning: Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk and Princess Diana’s wedding. And I suspect even the most passionate soap opera enthusiast would eschew a routine 4 a. m. rising. But this woman’s story wasn’t about catching the next episode of All My Children. It was about the importance of earning extra money for her family in a place where the options are few and the hardships are many.
John Teal, the late founder of Oomingmak, had an extraordinary vision of utilizing musk ox fiber as a means of supporting Alaska’s indigenous people. Until I met with these three remarkable women I had little understanding of its true impact.
As the women took off on their ATVs with a cloud of gravel dust trailing behind, I waved good- bye, realizing that from that moment forward just how much the world of natural fibers could teach me about the lives of others.
3. A farming rock star
Not long after my first Alaskan trip, I met one of my personal “rock stars.” Every industry has its rock stars, and speaking from a fiber perspective there are countless artisans who knit, weave, and felt spectacular creations that now belong in museum collections.
Yet it is never far from my mind that Wild Fibers evolved from my experience as a farmer, and in that realm, there is a rock star of unparalleled stature. Temple Grandin is an autistic college professor whose heightened senses have offered new insights into animal husbandry
Six months after meeting Temple at an unrelated venue I decided to interview her for the magazine. At that time, she was an esteemed figure in the world of animal behavior ( Claire Danes had yet to popularize her in the Hollywood version of Temple’s life.) We talked for more than three hours, not just about animals and what they like and what they don’t, but about her life, her childhood, her views about war, and perhaps the biggest question that faces every
one of us: what does it all mean?
People with autism have varying levels of functionality, and Temple’s is exceptionally high. Much of her ability to cope in the “normal” world has come from repetition. For example, she explained that when she first began traveling through airports, one part of her brain saw planes coming and going, another part saw people coming and going, and still another part saw all the baggage coming and going. But in Temple’s mind, it was all a series of disconnected activities. The concept of an airport didn’t exist.
“My brain is like a computer with a folder for each subject,” she explained, “but it doesn’t share information in between folders.”
It is only after hundreds of airport visits that Temple has now created an airport “folder” where people, planes, and baggage are interconnected. Yet her ability to connect with animals has been flawless from the start, a curious segue into my next memorable moment in India’s high Himalayas, where nomads have been communicating perfectly with their herds of yaks and goats for centuries.
5. A Roman crisis
4. An Indian nomad
As a child, I remember hearing about the Himalayas, but they sounded so exotic and desperately remote. The notion of ever going there was inconceivable. My first flight from Delhi to Leh alone would qualify as one my most memorable moments, but it is the gentleman who would meet me upon my arrival that has become one of the greatest gifts of my life.
Konchok Stobgais is a nomad from Pangong, a village that lies within whistling distance of the Chinese border. I first met Stobgais at a conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and was intrigued not only by his bronze skin and Tibetan eyes, but by his unfailing good humor ( think Dalai Lama laughter with a shepherd’s crook). Amidst the crowd of international professionals assembled for the conference, Stobgais was by far the youngest. He wore a traditional chupa, a heavy blue robe that fell below his knees and belted at the hip with a pink silk sash. While the other attendees were discussing fashion trends and trade agreements, I was casually interrogating this unique- looking young man.
“Are you really a nomad?” I asked, which in hindsight is about the equivalent of someone stopping me outside of Walmart and saying are you really an American? In Stobgais’s world, nearly everyone is a nomad. And in my world, there are none. Unperturbed by my blatant remark, Stobgais smiled and replied, “Yes, I am real nomad; you come to Ladakh and see.”
Seven months later I was in seat 2A heading to Ladakh. When I returned to the States two weeks later, something had forever changed inside.
I am not the first person from a Western country to be enchanted by the talents of an indigenous culture, but I suspect I am among but a handful of cashmere goat farmers who has actually traveled to the cradle of cashmere and witnessed ten thousand goats descending from the mountains at sunset, without benefit of herding dogs, horses, or a fence line or two. The nomads of Ladakh communicate with their animals in a way that seems more spiritual than studied. I have often wondered if they would regard Temple’s teachings as everyday common sense.
In 2008, just four years after the start of Wild Fibers, I flew to Rome, Italy, for the launch of the International Year of Natural Fibres ( IYNF); a United Nations initiative sponsored by the Food and Agricultural Organization ( FAO), dedicated to promoting the importance of natural fibers throughout the world. ( Isn’t there already a magazine about that?)
I remember fleeing early Sunday morning from the New York Sheep and Wool Fairgrounds for the airport, and stepping off the plane in Rome 20 hours later wearing a black skirt and high heels. Unfortunately, I had suffered a slight wardrobe malfunction in the airplane bathroom, trying to change into my Italian fashion ensemble. This resulted in an impressive run down the front of my pantyhose.
Any morsel of ego I dared bring to such an august event was immediately erased by my arrival in a pair of torn stockings. Fortunately, by the time I arrived at the UN building, the meeting was already in session. I quietly took a seat in
the back, hoping to make my entrance unobtrusive for multiple reasons.
During the lunch break, Brian Moir, chairman of the IYNF, asked me if I had received his email over the weekend. I explained I had been knee- deep in ummm… fiber(!), the past few days and unable to check it.
“No problem,” he said, in a fine Australian accent. “I would like you to chair this afternoon’s panel discussion. Righto?” And then he just walked away before I could reply.
When someone asks you to chair anything at the United Nations, the answer is always yes. But how was I going to make it all the way up to the stage without anyone seeing my tattered legs? Alas, the perils of a short skirt and a high- altitude snag.
Many things came out of the IYNF, including the Campaign for Wool sponsored by Prince Charles. But with my feminine vanity fully intact, the memory of the pantyhose incident sadly seems indelible.
6. Lost sheep in New Zealand
The start of 2009 marked the magazine’s 5th anniversary, along with one of the most crazy- ass adventures I have ever had.
Several days into the New Year I made an impromptu trip to New Zealand, thanks to David Whiteman, a good- natured sheep farmer from the South Island whom I had met a few years before. David had written to tell me that a helicopter pilot had spotted four of his sheep roaming about the alps. Apparently, they had eluded their annual shearing for several years and if they weren’t captured soon, their fleece would soon become so cumbersome in the deep snow that they would surely die.
There were no roads anywhere near the “runaways,” and it would have taken several days
by horseback to reach them, and then several days back to herd them home. According to David, the best option was to have a pair of bulldoggers ( people who jump out of helicopters for a living, typically to fight forest fires) capture them and bring them back home suspended in a net from beneath the helicopter.
“I think it will make a good story for your readers, eh?” David said when we chatted by phone. I couldn’t deny it. “Interesting” was just one of the things that it was guaranteed to be. I left my house in Maine at 4: 15 on Friday morning in a horrific snowstorm. My flight was cancelled and I was rebooked through a different airport. Eventually, I landed in Boston, then flew to Philadelphia, then to Salt Lake City and on to Los Angeles, where I waited seven hours to board a plane to Auckland.
From Auckland, I flew to Christchurch, where David’s son had been assigned to meet me. The two of us took off for a two- hour drive to his home, where his mother took over the next leg of the journey. We drove almost three hours to their sheep station on twenty- nine thousand hectares that David rents from the Queen.
David was anticipating our arrival and met us at the padlocked front gates. From the entrance gate it was another half- hour drive to the cook’s camp. A helicopter soon arrived there and off I went, feeling bleary- eyed and dopey.
I buckled myself into the helicopter seat. Just as we were preparing to takeoff, David announced with great enthusiasm that I could get far better photos if he took off the door, and so off it went!
There is a fine line between risk and stupidity, and I suspect I had just crossed it. I was too tired to argue with David, and in truth, I really would get much better shots with the door off. But I also had very little faith in my ability to hang on as I leaned out the open door, thousands of feet above the ground snapping magnificent pictures while looking for four lost sheep.
Obviously, I survived to tell the tale — and I would do the whole thing all over again, even if the lost sheep ultimately turned out not to be David’s!
7. Angoras in China
One of the biggest challenges over the years has been deciding what is appropriate to share with my readers. For all the joys and wonder of international travel there are equal amounts of heartache. It has not been easy to abandon my Western heart, which has the luxury of often treating animals with more care than is afforded to millions of humans. But animal suffering, starvation, and careless death are an undeniable fact of this vast world we all must share. I simply can’t recall the number of times I have been driving in a car, a taxi, a truck, or simply walking along the sidewalk, and encountered an abandoned litter of dead puppies, mutilated donkeys, decapitated goats, and other horrific casualties of both man and nature. When I traveled to China in 2010, I tried to keep my journalist’s eye open and the eye from my heart shut.
It is no more just to categorize the behavior of the Chinese in a single sentence as it is to label the French, the English, or 300 million Americans. Unfortunately, some of what I saw there ( and I still choose not to share) will never be erased from my mind. But there was a bright side, too. One of my favorite moments ever was on an Angora rabbit farm.
I had not arranged for the interview, as I was relying on a contact in Switzerland to set things up for me. I explained that I wanted to see how Angoras were still being raised in traditional country settings and I also wanted to visit a factory farm, which housed up to 30,000 rabbits.
The couple at the country farm spoke no English, and I, speak no Mandarin. But from the moment the woman pulled the first rabbit out of its cage ( they have 500) and handed me a mass of white fluff the size of a Butterball turkey, I knew we were kindred souls.
There is such extraordinary magic that takes place when two people who would seemingly have little in common beyond the air that they breathe suddenly form a lasting bond from the heart.
Invariably, in the direst of situations, I have been miraculously blessed with the light of the universe. It is a phenomenon that happens to us all, but it seems to happen with uncommon fre-
quency for this magazine editor. I will always remember being particularly grateful for its brilliance on an otherwise dispiriting afternoon in northern China.
8. Budapest and beyond
Toward the end of winter in 2011 I found myself in Budapest, sitting naked in a sauna next to an Arab. Now, this is not a standard practice of mine. In fact, to date, it’s been a once- in- a- lifetime experience. Like the run in my pantyhose it really has nothing to do with publishing a magazine other than giving me more fodder for inane cocktail conversations. I have a vision that someday I will find myself amidst a crowd of well- heeled entrepreneurs nibbling oysters on the half shell and sipping clarets of champagne. Suddenly I’ll blurt out, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in Budapest sitting naked in the sauna next to an Arab?” And the person beside me will politely chime in, “Yes, Linda, you’ve told us repeatedly.”
Just two days after my sauna “date” I traveled to Transylvania and met Nicolae, a Romanian shepherd who had lost more than 30 lambs within days of my arrival.
It was one of those bleak days that make everyone wonder if the sun will ever shine again, and clearly, for Nicolae, one truly doubted it ever would. He invited me into his home, a single room with a kitchen table and a few shelves from where his wife prepared our meal. His three children slept next to a woodstove.
We sat down for the interview, Nicolae on the edge of one bed, and I on the other. He began telling me his life story in a manner uncommon among total strangers, much less two people separated by miles of ocean and cultural disparity.
He spoke slowly, and thoughtfully, allowing enough time for my translator to find the right words, and within minutes the tears began to fall from Nicolae’s eyes, and soon, from mine as well.
The tragic and sudden deaths of so many lambs was by no means the first ache to strike Nicolae’s heart. Starting from childhood, Nicolae suffered abuse and abandonment because of his father’s alcoholism. But unlike in the U. S., where addiction has come out of the closet and support groups and therapists of every description can be found in the most remote outpost, Nicolae has held the shame of his family background for all of his life.
He told me that when he was twelve, his father died. As my translator repeated the words to me I looked at Nicolae with compassion. But there would be no sorrow about his father’s passing. Instead, he looked down at the floor and whispered, “I was relieved.”
And then he looked back up at me as if his lack of feeling somehow cast a moral blight on him, but I just nodded gently back and said, “I understand,” and we cried together softly.
Before I left that day I emptied my wallet and asked my translator to ensure that Nicolae received some compensation for the loss of his livestock. I knew that no amount of money would replace the loss in his heart. Perhaps the fact that he was able to unburden even part of his story served to lighten his load even for just a few hours. I’ve always hoped that it did.
9. Ladies in Ladakh
As I mentioned earlier, my meeting with Stobgais dramatically changed my views, not only about raising cashmere goats, but about my role in life, and how I could begin to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” A daunting command from Gandhi that few
of mortal stature dare to fulfill. But in Stobgais’s presence, and in the spirit of his sweet Buddhist nature, somehow that dictate seemed within reach.
In 2012, Stobgais traveled to Delhi to meet with me. We hadn’t seen each other for a few years, and in the interim, he’d had his first child; a beautiful daughter named Yangdol. We rode around Delhi together in the back of a tuk- tuk with me clutching Yangdol on my lap. She seemed completely at peace with the chaos of Delhi traffic as cars and cows passed within inches of our open vehicle.
At the end of our visit, Stobgais asked if I would once again consider the idea of leading a tour to Ladakh. Not only to help support him, and now his daughter, but to bring light to the women in his village, with whom I had been working to develop a cashmere handspinning industry for the past several years.
The idea of leading a dozen strangers around the Himalayas bordered on the absurd, if not the mildly abhorrent. But I thought about Gandhi’s words and what I had learned through all of my wild and wonderful wanderings, and realized that none of this was about me.
How could I turn my back on Stobgais, his daughter and the women in his village, whose only option for employment meant working by the side of the road crushing rocks into pebble?
One of the biggest challenges
over the years has been de-
Six months after Stobgais and I met in Delhi, I arrived in Ladakh with twelve wild fibers enthusiasts in tow, and for the next twelve days I shared not only a deeply important part of my world, but also one of my dearest friends.
I know that when my group boarded the plane to return home a new place had been forever etched in their hearts. It wasn’t just about the outrageous landscape dotted with millions of sweet goats. It was about discovering another part of humanity that all too few ever see, thanks to one of the most extraordinary people to ever roam the peaks of the Himalayas: Konchok Stobgais.
ciding what is appropriate to Please take a moment to watch our brand new video celebrating 10 years of what makes us wild. http://vimeo.com/79159565
share with my readers. For all
the joys and wonder of inter-
national travel there are equal
amounts of heartache.
Ten years of running around the planet has meant two things: I am rarely home, and someone needs to run the office in my absence.
Suzanne Lacasse has not been with me all ten years, but she did come on board early enough to work in my spare bedroom and “inherit” my bingo table. Suzanne is truly the reason Wild Fibers has survived. I may have some skill at stringing a few fancy words together, but Suzanne is the one who ensures that the business runs flawlessly. She handles the books, the subscribers, the advertisers, the distributors, and of course, me!
Although people often assume that Wild Fibers is produced by a staff, my “staff ” is called Suzanne. We both are apt to chuckle when someone writes to me and says, “Please have someone on your staff check my subscription,” and I turn to Suzanne and say, “Well, it looks like it’s your turn to check the subscriptions today.”
In some ways, we are like a happily married couple who have sorted out our differences and come to accept each other’s idiosyncrasies. I couldn’t ask for a more kind nor competent partner to raise this child I have named “Wild Fibers.” And I couldn’t have known that ten years back, a broken heart could have one day found so much love in the universe.
Ten Top Moments (page 24)
The author with James Dracup (plant manger), and James Sugden, heading out for a tour of Johnston’s cashmere’s mill.
A giant vat of scoured cashmere ready to be dyed (which looks surprisingly like a big pot of mashed potatoes.)
Temple Grandin with some of her herd.
The ladies from Oomingmak’s knitting cooperative arriving for an interview in Unalakleet, Alaska.
The author with Konchok Stobgais on her first trip to India.
Cashmere goats coming home in Changtang Valley, Ladakh, India.
Looking out on David Whiteman’s sheep station, South Island, New Zealand.
The author looking mildly displeased by the removal of the helicopter door. A newly rescued ewe suspended beneath the helicopter.
“Pass the bunny” in China.
Nicolae wearing his traditional bunda in Transylvania.
Nicolae seated on his son’s bed during the interview.
A few of the women demonstrating their cashmere spinning for the first Wild Fibers Tour to India.
Yangdol wearing traditional dress to welcome the first Wild Fibers tour to Ladakh.