Last weekend I attended Carolina Fiberfest. I had chosen two exhibits to view. Because of lounging around the house and eating breakfast late I missed the first one, but caught the second, a talk on Bison and other luxury fibers. The speaker was Mr. Ron Miskin of The Buffalo Wool Co. He passed around samples of different fibers, including those he sells. His topic was interesting and his enthusiasm was contagious. He indicated that he had been in the restaurant industry and retired from that to run a buffalo ranch.
I’ll share the highlights from his talk.
Miskin said he originally raised buffalo for the beef and ventured into the fiber industry when brainstorming to see how other parts of the buffalo could be utilized. He said as an experiment he posted a three pound box of buffalo hair on ebay and, too his surprise, a bidding war began between a lady out west and a lady in New England. The Coloradan *won* the box at $420.00, but reported that it was full of guard hairs and “vegetable” matter, partially felted, and took a lot of work to clean. He eventually met up with her to find out how she was using the fiber, and observe the process of hand spinning.
With a small knowledge of beef cattle, I enjoyed hearing about some aspects of bison farming. Miskin said a bison can jump 6 feet straight up into the air. He also said they can bust out of just about any fence if they wish. Nooo kidding—Miskin said he’d been told that bison farming is a good way to meet your neighbors. He also said bison cannot be rounded up on horseback, in the style of a cattle drive. They are larger than horses and know they can throw a horse into the air by putting their head underneath it and lifting. They like to throw cows, too, the bullies.
Tough as they are, Miskin said it is risky to shear bison because of their delicate constitutions. They frighten easily and can have a heart attack if you handle them too much. He said that some ranchers do a quick shearing (a six-second pass with a razor) while they have the animal in the chute for worming, but it’s very exciting work.
Normally, the fiber is chemically stripped off the hide after the animal is butchered or picked off the ground or scratching posts during shedding season.
Because only the fiber around the shoulders is long enough to spin into yarn (1.5 inches), a rancher gets only around 16 oz. of fiber from each animal. Then he or she loses four ounces in the cleaning, and then another third of it when the coarse guard hairs are removed. I think the vendor said they only shear the side the animal does not sleep on, but I may have misunderstood that part. Anyway, the 2000-lb animal will yield about six ounces of usable fiber. Compare that with a sheep, which, according to Sheep 101, can produce up to 30-lb of wool annually.
The fiber costs $172 per pound in processing, so he likes to blend it with other fibers to make it go further. Miskin said he can get cashmere fiber, for instance, for $100 per pound.
Speaking of other luxury fibers, Miskin said the bison yarn made by his company was ranked fifth in performance, by some publishing company of importance in Europe. Seventh was silk, sixth was guanaco, fourth was Qiviut, third was cashmere, second was vicuna, and first was shahtoosh. Before you rush out to buy some shahtoosh I should tell you that it is completely illegal to own without a permit because there are only approximately 200 chiru (the source animal) left in the world.
I purchased a small amount of the buffalo yarn, blended with merino wool. I’m going to make something small and lacy, like a hat or little scarf, with it. (On another topic, I purchased a little bit of angora bunny fiber for the same type of project.)
On a third topic, I went to the fiberfest prepared to buy yarn for a sweater, but I didn’t find anything in my price range that was the appropriate weight and fiber type. My friend, Judy, suggested that I could buy an entire raw fleece from a single sheep and send it off to be processed into yarn. I’m researching that idea, and I will keep you posted.