The 2018 WSBC Master Shepherd – Wool Award was presented to an individual who has grown her flock by leaps and bounds over the last twelve years, whose passion for fiber has not only produced great fleeces on her own farm, but has also created a thriving Wisconsin business utilizing not only her own produced fiber, but also that of many other state and local producers. And that person we’re honoring today is Kathryn Ashley-Wright, of La Farge, Wisconsin.
Kathryn was not born to an agricultural family. She was born in suburban Albany, New York, then at the age of five, her family moved to Hillsboro, Wisconsin, where her mother was a nannie on a dairy and crop farm. Her early exposure to sheep was the occasional appearance and then sudden disappearance of orphan lambs on the farm.
In first grade she learned to knit and that interest in the fiber arts really blossomed during college at University of Wisconsin-Madison while she majored in women’s studies and rural sociology. She even brought a spinning wheel to campus!
In the fall of 2006, while still in college, she purchased her first sheep – three bred Merino ewes – and while she was taking finals that winter, those ewes were lambing back home under the care of her mother. Having her own livestock and experiencing the care and raising of their offspring really fueled a fire in her for fiber.
Once graduated, this passion continued to grow and Kathryn wished to see the whole process, first hand, from start to finish. She bought a farm in 2009 in La Farge, and then purchased the local yarn shop in Viroqua, renaming it Ewetopia and focusing mainly on dyeing of product for resale. However, she wanted more: She had her own flock of sheep, owned a fiber arts business, and processed product for sale, but there was one piece missing – she dreamed of owning her own mill.
The pieces of that puzzle for Kathryn fell into place over a couple year period. First, she just missed purchasing the processing equipment from a mill in Caledonia, MN, but found another used spinner and carder for sale. She had to purchase the remainder of her equipment new from Michigan. Then a building in La Farge, which was perfect for her mill, came up for sale. Once the pieces were all in place, Ewetopia opened its fiber mill in December of 2016.
Kathryn focuses her product line on raw fiber from local producers. She has developed a product line called Origins, a breed specific yarn and fiber subscription service where on a bi-monthly basis, a subscriber receives samples of locally produced, breed-specific yarns and roving that she has created. Currently she is processing an average of a few hundred pounds of washed fiber every month and travels the country with Ewetopia.
Not only has Kathryn’s business facilities grown, but her flock size has also grown dramatically from that initial purchase of three bred ewes, expanding to over 50 breeding ewes, initially focusing on all white fiber production. She has crossed those Merinos and their offspring with Border Leister and Cormo genetics, and has also added a natural colored ram into the mix. This has generated a multi-faceted fiber supply that provides her mill and shop high quality fiber with varied colors and character. And with 3 children, ages 9, 7 and 4, the days of giving away bottle lambs are becoming a thing of the past.
In a relatively short amount of time, Kathryn Ashley-Wright has taken a passionate hobby to the level of exceptional business and quality fiber production.