Hello yarn-folk! As promised on Instagram and in Episode 72, I have an awesome interview with Mary Furness Weir of Maniototo Wool all queued up for the weekend! I first found Mary and Maniototo Wool via an Instagram post and quickly began imagining a beautiful sweater from her 4-ply, hand dyed yarn . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself! After spending many a day drooling over her beautiful colorways, I decided to get in touch with Mary to learn more about the sheep, the fleece, and the fiber community in New Zealand. Yep, you heard that right! New Zealand! You all know how much I love a good cross-continental fiber dialogue and exchange 🙂 As you’ll hear in the interview, there are some real differences and some striking similarities between the US (where I’m located) and New Zealand (where Mary lives). Corresponding with Mary has been an eye-opening experience that has helped me rethink–once again–some of the things I have taken for granted in the rather small farm-to-fiber world in which I often dream and live. Mary has been sourcing and dyeing fiber from farmers in her region of New Zealand since 2014. And, as you’ll see, she is a problem solver extraordinaire! New Zealand is not known for small batch yarn production, but Mary has created a niche for herself and now markets her yarns within New Zealand and around the world. I’ll be sharing all of her yarn lines with you on next week’s podcast AND Mary has sponsored a *huge* yarn giveaway, too! For now, I hope you enjoy the interview and learning from Mary’s experiences as much as I have.
Mary in her bulk yarn storage garage wearing a beautiful Gydas Braids sweater knit up in aran weight, woolen spun yarn.
Hanks of dyed wool hanging out to dry in the sun and breeze
Mary’s daughter, Claire, modeling her Achikochi Pullover in Rough Ridge 4-ply yarn
KTS: Where did the inspiration for Maniototo Wool come from? How did you get started as a yarn producer?
Mary: The inspiration came in 2012 when my husband and I visited friends of his who farmed sheep in the Maniototo region of Central Otago. The farm is about three hour’s drive from our home. The farmers began talking about their breeding programme, aimed at producing consistent, high quality, mid-micron fleeces for “Smartwool” in the USA. I was fascinated, having just bought a new spinning wheel, (and having just stopped working as a counsellor at a hospital addictions clinic). They gave me a fleece which had recently won an award at their local Agricultural and Pastoral Show. It was about 23micron. Oh my goodness, that fleece was beautiful. I spun it into yarn and knitted a baby blanket, and then spun some more for a neighbour who used it to weave a baby blanket also.
100% of the wool from this farm was exported overseas (and still is, apart from what I purchase from them). The farmers had never seen anything made from what they produced. They were quite excited to see what I had spun from their wool.
I felt that if it were possible, it would be great to have this wonderful local product available here in New Zealand, so I set about finding out how it could be done.
I spoke to people at three different mills, and discovered that any wool would have to be scoured before being made into yarn. There are only two scourers left in the country, and one is ½ hr drive from our home. The minimum amount you could get scoured was 100kg. That seemed a huge amount at the time, but I took a deep breath and with the help of a woolclasser, selected and purchased 130kg of beautiful fleece at the next shearing which was in August 2013. The extra 30kg was to cover the loss of weight. The wool we use loses about 25% of its weight in scouring.
The three mills I approached had varying minimum quantities they were prepared to make into yarn. I chose a mill in Christchurch, which is two hour’s drive from home. The first lot of wool was made into a woollen spun, aran style yarn with four plies. I planned to dye it myself. While waiting for the yarn to be ready, I practised dyeing on cheap yarns and decided on colours that would reflect the countryside where the sheep are farmed.
Then there was a website to develop, a logo needed, labels and a business card to design. I had done no market research. I was totally driven by the initial desire to make a good quality product available within NZ.
When the yarns were ready I sent a couple of skeins to a blogger I’d discovered, Wei Siew Leong, who designed patterns for knitting and reviewed yarns. She loved it and wrote a couple of blogs about it. Here’s a link to the blog she wrote in March 2014. And here is the cabled cowl she designed with the original yarn. That was the start of awareness building. Wei Siew had a large, dedicated following at the time, and has now become a good friend.
In April 2014, I set up for my very first market at “Wonders of Wool” in downtown Wellington, NZ. That was when I discovered who my customers were. Having done no research, it was an eye opener. They were women in their 30s and 40s (quite a lot younger than me) who followed the blog, and were very active online and on Ravelry. They were excited to try this new product, and they seemed to like the colours. They encouraged me to register my yarn on Ravelry so they could link their projects to it. That was the start.
KTS: Why do you love producing and working with un-treated (non-superwash) wool?
Mary: All the Maniototo Wool yarns are non-superwash. There is a reason for this. There are no facilities for superwash treatment in New Zealand. Fibres have to be sent overseas to be treated. Sending my wool away was not something I was prepared to risk. Maybe I am wrong, but I do not trust that the carefully selected exact wool I have sent will be returned to me. Currently I am able to track the whole process and know for sure that the wool purchased from the farm is the wool that comes back to me as yarn. I am not totally against superwash treatment, as it has enabled farmers to secure a market for their wool that they may not have had without it. After all, New Zealand has a small population and our farmers need to trade with the world for their survival. That is the way it has always been.
I prefer to handle and knit with untreated wool and so do those who buy it from me. I often hear people say that they love the feeling of knitting with “real wool”. Two years ago I was captivated by the wonderful colours of a skein of imported 4-ply merino, and I set about making a lacy shawl for my sister. I hated every minute of the knitting. I couldn’t believe how slippery it was, and how easily the stitches can slip away. That was it. I will not buy any treated yarn now, no matter how captivating the colours are. So, I suppose I have become more of a passionate advocate for non-treated yarn.
A closer look at that beautiful fleece!
KTS: Can you tell us a little bit about the sheep and fleece from which your yarns are made?
Mary: Our wool comes from merino cross sheep. They are first- cross ewes who have a Merino father and a Romney mother. The Maniototo region of Central Otago is one of the few areas in NZ suited to farming merino sheep. It is the hottest, coldest, driest region in New Zealand, and as far from the sea as you can get in our maritime country. Merino sheep are not suited to most parts of New Zealand due to high rainfall, which results in problems with their feet.
Due to climatic conditions, the sheep are shorn once a year in August. It is a pre-lamb shear, about two months before the lambs are born. This is the best time for a good quality fleece with a long staple and no breaks. The amount of wool I purchase from the farm each year is miniscule in the scheme of things. Our farmers run two large sheep stations with several thousand sheep.
I see it as a real advantage – being able to select the best from such a large flock, and am sure the quality of the end product starts right here in the shearing shed.
There is only white wool available. Black or coloured wool is seen as a contaminant, risking downgrading the whole woolclip from that farm if it appears in a bale.
I was very keen to have a blended yarn with coloured wool, so I sourced the coloured wool from a different farmer who specialises in breeding coloured Polwarth sheep for the very specialised hand spinning market. He has a flock of about 400 sheep so he saves the wool for several years until he has 100kg in each of about three predominant colours, then sends the wool for scouring. The scour will only do coloured wool once a year. The blended yarn is called Rough Ridge, named after a geographical feature that looms above the farm.
Just as a matter of interest, a bale holds 180kg of wool. The scour will put through about 1500 bales a day in the height of the season, and somebody like me arrives with three bales, or in the case of the coloured wool, there will be a single bale of one kind. I might have to wait three weeks or so to get my wool scoured, but at least it is white, so I have a bigger window of opportunity than the coloured wool growers.
Managing the quantity. Because being a yarn producer means I have to commit to quite large amounts of wool, there is no way I as a one woman enterprise can manage to dye and market all of it. A few New Zealand dyers help me out. They buy cones of my yarn to dye and market themselves. One is also a weaver, and her woven throws made with my yarns, especially the natural undyed Rough Ridge yarns, are truly magnificent.
Farmer, Johnny Duncan, with a new ram
KTS: Can you tell us a bit about the development of your yarn lines?
Mary: From simple beginnings with just the one yarn we now have eight different yarns, which are all on Ravelry: https://www.ravelry.com/yarns/brands/maniototo-wool
The development of yarns has evolved in discussions with our processors in Christchurch who have been willing to have a go at something I want to try.
My favourites are the minimally processed, more rustic looking woollen spun yarns. Many New Zealanders are not used to looking at woollen spun yarns, as most mills do worsted spinning (my mill does both). But I do have three worsted spun yarns: a DK, a 4-ply and a sock yarn. These are more expensive to produce due to the milling and combing required for a smooth yarn, and they do look wonderful in projects where a smooth drape is needed.
KTS: Where do you find inspiration for your colorways? I know your “Save the Trees” yarn, for example, is named for native flora. Are there other ways that the landscape inspires you?
Mary: I love colour, and love the process of dyeing wool yarn. All the inspiration comes from the natural environment. We are rural people. My husband is a retired sheep farmer who is currently the “guardian” of an area of regenerating native forest on our property. We look at the forest and walk in it every day. Members of our family are farmers, and of course we have a close relationship with the farm where our wool is from—the arid, timeless land of the Maniototo region with its dusty roads, huge open spaces, clear blue skies and snowy mountain ranges. I guess I soak up the atmosphere and observe what is around, and the colours I dye reflect that. Non-superwash wool takes its time to absorb colour. It will not be rushed, but I can get quite rich and repeatable colours by just taking the time and keeping good records.
KTS: You have an excellent range of yarn–from DK to 4-ply, possum to wool–how do you choose and balance the kinds of yarn you want to produce? Do you have a dream yarn that you hope to produce someday?
Mary: I like to knit things that will grow fast, because I get bored easily, so my choice is for a DK weight or thicker. However, I kept being asked for a 4-ply yarn! I was resistant for two reasons: first, I rarely knit with it, and secondly, I was doing all the winding by hand. There’s a lot of metres to wind in a 4-ply yarn! That changed with the acquisition of my Crazy Monkey, motorised winder from the USA. Suddenly, being able to manage a 4-ply yarn became possible. I now have three 4-ply yarns: a sock yarn; a woollen spun, 4-ply; and a standard, worsted spun 4-ply. They are all different, all beautiful to use, and the lovers of 4-ply are happy.
In 2019 I had a DK/worsted weight possum blend yarn made. The devastation of native trees and birdlife by the Brushtail possum is appalling. It is a species introduced from Australia one hundred years ago and has no predators in this country. It is wrecking our ecosystem and has to be eliminated. If invasive possum are going to be killed, we might as well find ways to use the fur. “SaveTheTrees” yarn is my little contribution to this effort. It is made up of 15% possum fur, 10% coloured Polwarth, and 75% merino cross wool. It will be a one-off yarn for this small producer. I had to wash 10kg of the fibre before delivering it to the mill. It was a smelly and very difficult task to wash and dry it—not one I want to repeat. However it is a very beautiful yarn, and I’ve made fabulous, cosy hats and mitts with it. Possum is a hollow fibre and extremely warm and lightweight. 15% is a good amount to have in a yarn. Any more would be too hot to wear.
KTS: What are you knitting currently and/or what do you love to knit?
Mary: I LOVE to knit and I scour Ravelry for designs that I think will suit my yarns. I always look at the gauge as I know the gauge that is ideal for the various yarns. Whenever I do a market I always have an example garment knitted in each yarn, so people can feel the fabric. I make a lot of hats because they are a quick way to show off a yarn. I get very excited when a designer wants to use one of my yarns for a design. This has happened a few times. Occasionally I will do a test knit for a designer if I think my yarn will suit the design. A few of my knits are on Ravelry pattern pages, which is a big thrill for me.
KTS: Can you share a bit more about the business/marketing side of yarn sales?
Mary: I have paid income tax for the last two years. What does this mean? It means that for more than four years I made only enough money to buy the next year’s supply of wool and have it processed, (as well as buying equipment needed for dyeing, and getting a website going). There were no expectations of making big profits—I was driven by a love of knitting and a desire to produce something that was totally locally grown and made. People seemed to like the idea and like the yarns and there is a real satisfaction in the fact that it is now making enough profit that tax is payable.
KTS: Where can folks find you online?
Mary: I use Instagram @mfurnessweir or #maniototowool and a Facebook page “Maniototo Wool Yarns” to tell people about the products and direct them to my website www.maniototowool.co.nz.
I also use social media to direct people to a local cooperative shop that I help run here in Geraldine, called “Country Rumours” where the yarns are stocked. It helps that Geraldine is on a major South Island tourist route, and I am constantly surprised and pleased that visitors from many countries have tracked it down in order to buy local wool yarns during their visit to New Zealand.
There is so much more that can be done, the potential is really enormous, but I now have eight grandchildren and I’m not 45, or 55 anymore. Even 65 is long gone, so I have a bit of fun with social media, use it as a tool and hopefully don’t allow it to get to me.
KTS: Is there anything new on the horizon for Maniototo Wool?
Mary: 2020 is the first year there hasn’t been a new Maniototo Wool yarn to introduce. At this stage I’m happy with the range of yarns I have. My very first yarn, the woollen spun, aran weight yarn is very beautiful this season. It is particularly soft and well spun by the mill. I’m dyeing some new colours and promoting it as a wonderful yarn for squishy blankets. The Rough Ridge yarn is unique and different. No two items made with it will be the same. I have tried to find a suitable person who might take “Maniototo Wool” into the future and there might be somebody one day . . .
Mary at a local market
Thanks so much, Mary, for sharing your experiences and your NZ fiber culture with us!
I love meeting new people (and sheep!): if you are an indie dyer, a hand spinner, a shepherdess, a small flock owner, a mill operator, or a wool trader, I would love to feature your work on this site. Please get in touch via email (email@example.com) or Ravelry by clicking the “About” tab (above)
Happy knitting! 🙂