Gary Sheen is a retired engineer who worked in three dimensional design and construction. He developed a fibre business with his partner, Kristen Ashley, a high school art teacher, as a result of falling in love with felting.
Although his mother was a crafter, he grew up a city boy in Newcastle and had no experience of fibre animals until he went to a Tocal Field Day 10 years ago. After walking the Inca trail in Peru the following year, he bought a pair of alpacas. Within two years the flock had increased to 65 suri alpaca. If he had realised that Huacaya fleece is easier to process . . . . Now he has reduced his flock to 25 with one Huacaya male.
He had a stockpile of 200Kg of fibre when the alpaca industry collapsed. Then Kristen gave him a felting workshop for a birthday present and he fell in love with felt. And he had the fibre to make lots and lots of hats. He has made and sold at least 350 cloche hats in the last three years but still has a stockpile of fibre. Plus he has added other fibres and yarns to his stash. Adding merino to alpaca makes it easier to felt. Mohair yarns make lovely accents. And when you are making articles to sell, it makes sense to buy wholesale, in bulk. This leads to a serious stash. The obvious solution is to share it with other fibre devotees. Hence, his business, FelfFine has developed.
He had a shop in Newcastle for almost a year. But it was in an area that had little foot traffic. His hats sold but not much fibre even though a nearby felter gave workshops. He bought Gerda Smith’s carding machine 3 years ago to help process all the fibre. And he has a large picker which is very efficient. So he has enough processed fibre to take to markets like the Hunter Art Network which sell only handmade or materials at markets held four times a year around the Hunter region.
The batts and scrappy batts he sells are so popular that he recently bought a new carding machine in Italy which will make batts up to 2 m wide or roving in three diameters. He is very excited to get it up and running as soon it docks. While he was in Italy he found suppliers of yarns like a 53%merino/47% acrylic yarn that felts beautifully, feels lovely and comes in many colours. He also has a source for brushed mohair that Gerda has been subcontracted to dye.
He imports (in less than $1000 batches to minimize custom duty) a couple of yarn brands from South Africa and sells silk yarn that Gerda also dyes.
Six months ago Anita Larkin asked him to provide fleece from different sheep breeds. He has Wensleydale, Perendale, Cheviot, Suffock and many others as well as tops from different breeds.
He provides a scour, pick and carding service for about $44/Kg for fleeces less than 125mm long (longer fibres snarl his machine.) At their last meeting, the Spinning Study Group (SSG) put together bags of clean, dyed fibre that he will turn into bats for $18/Kg as it is clean and open already. Scouring takes a long time because it includes 3 hot washes. He will deliver the SSG batts to the Winter Wool Fair in Sutherland and, I suspect, they may have more prepared fibre for him to run through his new machine then.
In future he would like to find a way to import scoured locks but quarantine doesn’t allow them in now because of the risk of weeds. He would also like to import uncarded cashmere.
Gary has a large (1500mm wide by 3.5 m long) wet felting machine that he imagines could be used to make nuno felt. Or bamboo batts for a futon maker in Melbourne. Or prefelt if his current needle felted stock from Germany runs out. He has plans to grow his FeltFine business for our benefit.
The SSG will visit Gary’s shed on October 17. They will make a weekend of it and visit other fibre sites near Dun’s Creek, Pattison.
Visit Gary’s web site: FeltFine, www.feltfine.com