Grand Forks wool producer looks to spin up more local business

Gabriele Bialon is hoping to make wool production more feasible for Boundary farmers

Mikey, about three feet tall with black curls, wasn’t always Mikey. For the first few months of his life, he was “Lamb Chops.”

The orphaned lamb had a traumatic start to life in a pasture near Greenwood, when several dozen of his flock were attacked by a cougar this past summer, himself included. The predator’s raids left the black lamb and others orphaned and untenable to be raised at the farm.

So, Gabriele Bialon, a woolworker and former nurse from Grand Forks, brought Mikey, another bonded lamb, a mother and her baby into her small flock.

“I called him Lamb Chops because I couldn’t get attached in case I had to put him down,” Bialon said. When she brought the sheep back, the black lamb was unable to walk. Lamb Chops had been bitten on the neck by the cougar.

But just because she hadn’t committed attachment to the name didn’t mean that Bialon gave up on the animal. Rather, she dropped him into a body sling she’d made – inspired from her days as a nurse – and paraded him around almost like a marionette. He moved all four limbs and Bialon saw possibility.

When Lamb Chops got too heavy, she hung the sling from a low branch on a tree in her garden. She would taunt him with hay, just out of reach.

“He would stumble and he would fall, but he ended up eating on his knees,” Bialon said.

Sometime in October, a good four months of encouragement later, Bialon committed to calling her new black sheep Mikey.

The arrangement Mikey now has at Bialon’s small farm is mutually beneficial too: he gets a new lease on life and she can look forward to spinning his wool into sellable yarn next spring. After doubling her flock’s size this summer, Bialon is looking to scale up her yarn business with more sheep, more wool, more partners and more efficiency. The 70-year old is looking to bring together wool producers of the Boundary to support a “cottage industry for wool” that would include buying and operating a machine that would clean and disentangle raw wool, known as a carder.

Without one, Bialon said, “You’re working for pennies if you’re going to do that by hand.”

Up until Greyhound shut down, Bialon would pay $18 to ship a box of wool to an Alberta town north of Calgary to be carded. Now without that option, the postage looks too expensive. Instead, she said, the bus’s cancellation could be an opportunity to grow the industry locally.

“I know I can do it,” Bialon said. “If I just persist at it, pursue it because there’s a need, maybe I can establish this and offer some job opportunities.”

Of course, scaling up her yarn business at 70 was far from her plan when she got her first sheep a decade ago to look after the hoary alyssum growing on her acreage. The life-long knitter took to the creatures, although somewhat nervously.

“They were very difficult to handle,” Bialon said. “They would knock me over because they came running when I called them, which was awesome. But they didn’t stop.”

Gradually, though, she got a hold of her flock and has been selling the products of their wool ever since.

Raw wool sales are difficult – the price gaps are massive between un-dyed and un-spun fibre and the rainbow of yarn balls that insulate the shelves of knitting shops. Bialon’s own spinning room is a testament to the work needed to enhance the fibres. Tightly spun balls are marked with masking tape denoting the origins of their colours: grapes, rhubarb, black walnut, ketchup and rusty nails among the ingredients all collected by Bialon.

One day, Bialon even harvested her own patch of purple lilies.

She recalls asking herself, “I wonder what colour this will give me?”

“It gave me a bleh –” said Bialon. “No colour, just a muddy looking thing.

Wool work itself is often an exercise of trial and error.

“You fall into it accidentally, like a discovery of some kind,” Bialon said about discovering new hues for her yarns. From the vague recipes for colours to the times when Bialon, then eight or nine years old, would knit her father’s work socks and inevitably make the right one a bit too long for his war-injured foot, it all takes practice.

“He’d just fold it over and say, ‘Just perfect,’” Bialon recalled of her father.

“I think sometimes as you get older, you become more, ‘I don’t care, I’m gonna do it anyway,’” she said. It’s with that attitude and an optimism for the future that Bialon is spinning off to new pathways, new strings to follow, as she attempts to reinforce Boundary wool business. Come next April, when the shears come out, she’ll also get to practice dying, spinning and working with Mikey’s hardy fleece.


@jensenedw
Jensen.edwards@grandforksgazette.ca

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Mikey, a sheep formerly known as “Lamb Chops,” dangles in a sling made by owner Gabriele Bialon. (Gabriele Bialon/Submitted)

Gabriele Bialon’s flock doubled to eight sheep last summer, when she acquired three lambs and a female adult from a farm near Greenwood after their flock was attacked by a cougar. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

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