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Barn to Yarn

AIn the 1960s, Texas was home to around five million Angora goats, the fluffy ruminants whose enviable ringlets produce mohair. Today, there are around 75,000 Angoras in Texas, and despite the decline, Texas is still number two in world-wide mohair production. In addition to Angoras, ranchers all across the Edwards Plateau are raising large commercial flocks of fine-wool sheep; typical breeds include Rambouillet, Debouillet, and some Delaine Merino. Both members of the subfamily Caprinae, these goats and sheep are well suited for Texas’ climate and terrain that (with proper management and rain) can easily produce the browse, grass and forage necessary for a well-rounded diet and luscious locks. Texas’ history of ranching these animals is rich, but advances in synthetic fibers, as well as a loss in processing infrastructure, means that most of Texas’ wool and mohair is exported. 

 

 

Dawn and Paul Brown, owners of Independence Wool & Mohair, are devoted to reversing this trend. Their business, based in Independence, Texas, is both a ranch (they raise Angoras and sheep) and a fiber mill where raw Texas fleeces are spun into yarn, and sometimes slinky shawls or woven wraps. Angora goats can grow up to one inch of mohair a month and are sheared twice a year, making this land-based and natural fiber as renewable and sustainable as it gets. 

The Browns are friendly and funny, and I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of their niece who was working at the shop when we visited — they are the quintessential aunt and uncle, both interesting and vibrant. When we met, Dawn had on a cozy A&M sweatshirt and her hair was pulled back in a classically utilitarian twist.  Paul had on a thick flannel work shirt in friendly patterns of muted colors and stood ready for the day’s cold wind. His well-worn felt hat looked like it has always been there, atop his head, and I was surprised to learn that neither of the couple’s early careers involved western wear.  

A2Paul graduated college with a degree in finance and described himself as a “card-carrying, Rolex-wearing, Saab-convertible-driving yuppie.” Though Paul’s finance degree was proving successful, he wasn’t happy. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and started his own cut and sew operation, making apparel inspired by his passion for hunting and the outdoors. While promoting his clothing line in Texas, Paul decided to stay and landed a job as a fishing guide in Rockport. This is where he met Dawn.

Before spinning yarn, Dawn had a successful career as an OBGYN. She had a diversified practice working at for-profit and nonprofit entities and maintains her passion for rural women’s healthcare issues. She was practicing in Corpus Christi when the two crossed paths. Everyone is laughing when Paul describes the circumstances with palpable enthusiasm, “Ironically, we lived next door to each other and never met … I saw her one day and I said, 'Wow, who is that good lookin’ girl living next door to me, and why haven’t I met her!?' and I never saw her again for two years." Dawn teases him back reminding him, “It’s because I was working all the time!” We’re all smiles, and easily veer off topic to discuss the best crockpot recipe for wild duck. Eventually, Dawn and Paul met and married at the fishing lodge where he worked. 

Dawn’s demanding medical career was suddenly halted when she suffered a neck and shoulder injury that made performing surgery impossible. She was at risk of losing dexterity in her fingers and hands, and knitting was on the list of recommended physical therapy. The next obvious step in her recovery? Learn to knit, move to northeast Arkansas, and buy a flock of Angoras as well as some specialized Canadian-made milling equipment. In our meeting, Dawn quickly flipped to a quote she recently read in The Art Of Tweed by Vixy Rae, a book Paul astutely gifted his tweed-obsessed partner: “ I would never have found happiness in any singular role in life, and so I suppose I chose them all.” She and Paul’s path is as pliable as yarn, and after Arkansas greeted them with a severe winter of ice and snow, the couple rerouted to Independence. There, they settled onto an 80-acre property which included a 6,000-square-foot workshop, built from local stone and already outfitted with the 28 electrical circuits needed to run the specialized fiber mill. If you visit this property today, you’ll find a hairy flock of around 100 Angoras and a growing number of colored Rambouillets grazing about. 

A3Fiber quality is evaluated by the diameter of the strand, measured in microns (1/10,000 centimeter). The finer the fiber, the softer the feel, and the more luxury the product. At Independence Wool & Mohair, the Browns process fiber from their own stock as well as fiber they hand-select while working as certified classers of commercial flocks in South Texas. As small scale producers and processors, the Brown’s mill can make decisions that a commercial mill cannot — like processing coarser fiber from their older goats, which they will use to make cinch cordage, for example, or like dying an animal’s fiber before it’s spun into yarn — a process which yields rich, saturated colorways with names like Caprock Gold, Balmorhea and Jealous Cowboy. Doing it all can mean a loss of efficiency, but Dawn wouldn’t have it any other way, “If I didn’t have the animals, I would not want to have the mill. I’ve always said that. It’s the passion of taking the raw fiber all the way through to a finished product that is really what I enjoy.” 

The skeins of yarn coming out of the Brown’s operation are beautiful specimens. Some are naturally colored, spun from the fleece of dark chocolate Rambouillet sheep and some are “dry dyed” using eco-friendly and sometimes plant-based dyes. The dying takes place in the homestead’s old chicken coop and their current flock of hens parades around the pasture. Some of the yarns they spin are tweeds, a soft, textural blend of wool and mohair. When we spoke, Dawn was working on a tweed blanket-wrap that featured a broken twill pattern some would know as herringbone — a project she plans to sell through their shop because “I can only keep so many … But I love them all.” 

 

 

True “yarnies” ask for Independence Wool products by pasture of origin, and pre-COVID, the mill was a popular meeting spot for guilds and fiber enthusiasts. You can find Independence Wool products on their website or at Hill Country Weavers located in Austin off of Manchaca Road. Visits to the farm are currently by appointment only. For regular fiber and farm updates, be sure to follow their furry flock on Instagram: @independencefibermill.

Story by Ada Broussard @adalisab   Photos by Joshua Baker www.azulox.com