by Leonard Shapiro
Twenty-plus years ago, Franny and Walter Kansteiner acquired three Merino sheep. Since then, their Gum Tree Farm near Middleburg has become home to a flock of 70, producing home-grown and hand-made organic wool luxury items.
“We consider the land and each sheep a work of art. From ewe to you, ” Franny said. Gum Tree also is a working organic farm that produces vegetables, eggs, beef, lamb, wool, milk and hay. The vegetable gardens feed several families and, the owner added, “as well as anyone else with an open car window in August when the zucchini comes in.”
Franny learned to spin and knit over the years as their flock expanded. She began by making fingerless mittens, socks, blankets and capes, then added knitters and weavers to their farm family. Local school children in Virginia are always welcome to visit, especially when new lambs are around, as William Wiseman and Paquin Horan recently discovered.
When spring shearing takes place, Franny is truly up to her elbows in wool, and each piece is made by hand.
“We consider it an honor to share our farm with the sheep and our duty to make something beautiful out of their wool,” she said. “Their wool holds an inherently pure quality that’s passed on to the knitter and wearer. The beauty of a small flock is that each sheep and finished product has individual attention.”
The farm is their work space, with a “Wool House” studio for sewing and knitting. “But we all love the sheep shed the most because it is full of promise,” Franny said, adding “new lambs, spring shearing and a lot of sheep. Our design ideas come from our customers, family and friends who wear the things we’ve made for them. We have knitters, weavers and seamstresses all over America.”
Each knitter usually introduces another into the Gum Tree staff and they all receive wool from the farm. They knit the products and mail them back. “We also are beginning a “knit your life back together” program for women coming out of challenging situations,” Franny said. “We provide teaching, wool and patterns and pay for the pieces they knit.”
The Gum Tree Farm products are unique because Franny and Walter see the lambs born all the way through to the finished product. “We actually know the sheep that make our clothes. From beginning to end,” she said.
The fact that everything is “American Made” also is a point of pride.
“Our country is full of incredible stories of production, resourcefulness and resilience,” she said. “Trying to take the small amount of wool from our sheep to a finished product is very challenging. Our country has become very good at producing large quantities of high quality goods. But it also has been at the expense of American workers at the smaller mills and wool processing shops.
“American-made products capture the American spirit and what’s made this country great. We should persevere and preserve our talents and individuality. Take care of the things we have and they know where they come from. Our land. Our hands.”
For more information, visit http://gumtreefarmdesigns.com/.