Other manufacturers might be experiencing supply-chain problems, but not Debbie Hopkins’ fiber art business. Her 14 wool suppliers roam pastures just a few hundred feet from her Columbia County home.
“I shear my own sheep,” she said. “It’s kind of like one-stop shopping.”
Under the brand Mistletoe Wool Works, Hopkins handcrafts and sells apparel and other items created through felting, which is the process of making fabric by combining and compressing fibers from animal coats.
Three years ago, Hopkins visited a McCormick, S.C., art gallery that taught felting classes. That helped inspire Hopkins’ new activity to replace two more rigorous ones – competing in triathlons, and rearing four children.
“I was more of an athlete and didn’t really see myself as a fiber artist or anything like that,” she said. “But as our last child was about to leave home, a couple of years before that, I decided I had probably better find something to do with myself.”
Hopkins kept a couple of sheep as pets when she lived in Michigan, but several years ago she moved to Georgia and its warmer weather, which she initially thought would be too inhospitable for the popular livestock animals.
When she learned otherwise, she first acquired hair sheep, a breed that lacks wool and doesn’t require shearing. That “wasn’t a fulfilling experience,” she said.
“So then I decided to just kind of go with it, and look up all the different breeds of sheep in the world regardless of where they’re at just to see what my preference was,” Hopkins said. “And I saw these breeds of long-wool sheep.”
Two breeds of Hopkins’ sheep are among the world’s rarest, considered “at risk” by the United Kingdom’s Rare Breed Survival Trust. Teeswater and Wensleydale sheep are known for their lustrous wool that grows in long strands that resemble slender ribbon curls of human hair.
Hopkins also keeps Gotland sheep, a longhaired breed from Sweden whose wool can produce fiber similar to mohair acquired from Angora goats. She also owns a merino, a sheep breed credited by many with producing the world’s finest wool.
Hopkins first began producing wool scarves, using naturally curly Teeswater strands for fringes. She later moved away from producing what she called “functional fiber” (“hats, gloves, like that”) into clothing she considers more as wearable art.
It’s more unusual, more artsy than something practical or off-the-shelf at the store. Sometimes it’s kind of outlandish, like that piece over there,” she said, gesturing to a shaggy vestlike garment. “I call it a statement collar, because it really makes a statement.”
Hopkins also began producing rugs this year, known as vegetarian rugs “because instead of the skin on the back they’re shorn, and then I use the felt as the underside, so its renewable,” she said.
Then something interesting happened after she sold her first pieces – they didn’t stop selling.
“I went to a little small craft show in Washington, Georgia, I think it was. I really felt out of my element because I always considered myself more of an athlete than an artist, and I think I sold 12 or 16. I sold out,” she said. “Then I’d go to another show and the same thing would happen. I thought, ‘This is a fluke. Maybe these people are just being kind and taking mercy on me.’ Then I realized, no, there really is a market for this.”
Every type of wool fiber is different to work with, but “you get a real feel for it,” she said.
“Some you can felt really quick and easy. Others are very difficult. Some you have to start gently and move slowly. Others you can be a little bit rougher. They all work differently,” Hopkins said. “It’s been a great journey. I’m not the sad empty-nester I thought I would be. Sheep are great company – and I get to helicopter something besides children.”