Grand Forks wool producer looks to spin up more local business

Grand Forks wool producer looks to spin up more local business

Gabriele Bialon is hoping to make wool production more feasible for Boundary farmers

Mikey, about three feet tall with black curls, wasn’t always Mikey. For the first few months of his life, he was “Lamb Chops.”

The orphaned lamb had a traumatic start to life in a pasture near Greenwood, when several dozen of his flock were attacked by a cougar this past summer, himself included. The predator’s raids left the black lamb and others orphaned and untenable to be raised at the farm.

So, Gabriele Bialon, a woolworker and former nurse from Grand Forks, brought Mikey, another bonded lamb, a mother and her baby into her small flock.

“I called him Lamb Chops because I couldn’t get attached in case I had to put him down,” Bialon said. When she brought the sheep back, the black lamb was unable to walk. Lamb Chops had been bitten on the neck by the cougar.

But just because she hadn’t committed attachment to the name didn’t mean that Bialon gave up on the animal. Rather, she dropped him into a body sling she’d made – inspired from her days as a nurse – and paraded him around almost like a marionette. He moved all four limbs and Bialon saw possibility.

When Lamb Chops got too heavy, she hung the sling from a low branch on a tree in her garden. She would taunt him with hay, just out of reach.

“He would stumble and he would fall, but he ended up eating on his knees,” Bialon said.

Sometime in October, a good four months of encouragement later, Bialon committed to calling her new black sheep Mikey.

The arrangement Mikey now has at Bialon’s small farm is mutually beneficial too: he gets a new lease on life and she can look forward to spinning his wool into sellable yarn next spring. After doubling her flock’s size this summer, Bialon is looking to scale up her yarn business with more sheep, more wool, more partners and more efficiency. The 70-year old is looking to bring together wool producers of the Boundary to support a “cottage industry for wool” that would include buying and operating a machine that would clean and disentangle raw wool, known as a carder.

Without one, Bialon said, “You’re working for pennies if you’re going to do that by hand.”

Up until Greyhound shut down, Bialon would pay $18 to ship a box of wool to an Alberta town north of Calgary to be carded. Now without that option, the postage looks too expensive. Instead, she said, the bus’s cancellation could be an opportunity to grow the industry locally.

“I know I can do it,” Bialon said. “If I just persist at it, pursue it because there’s a need, maybe I can establish this and offer some job opportunities.”

Of course, scaling up her yarn business at 70 was far from her plan when she got her first sheep a decade ago to look after the hoary alyssum growing on her acreage. The life-long knitter took to the creatures, although somewhat nervously.

“They were very difficult to handle,” Bialon said. “They would knock me over because they came running when I called them, which was awesome. But they didn’t stop.”

Gradually, though, she got a hold of her flock and has been selling the products of their wool ever since.

Raw wool sales are difficult – the price gaps are massive between un-dyed and un-spun fibre and the rainbow of yarn balls that insulate the shelves of knitting shops. Bialon’s own spinning room is a testament to the work needed to enhance the fibres. Tightly spun balls are marked with masking tape denoting the origins of their colours: grapes, rhubarb, black walnut, ketchup and rusty nails among the ingredients all collected by Bialon.

One day, Bialon even harvested her own patch of purple lilies.

She recalls asking herself, “I wonder what colour this will give me?”

“It gave me a bleh –” said Bialon. “No colour, just a muddy looking thing.

Wool work itself is often an exercise of trial and error.

“You fall into it accidentally, like a discovery of some kind,” Bialon said about discovering new hues for her yarns. From the vague recipes for colours to the times when Bialon, then eight or nine years old, would knit her father’s work socks and inevitably make the right one a bit too long for his war-injured foot, it all takes practice.

“He’d just fold it over and say, ‘Just perfect,’” Bialon recalled of her father.

“I think sometimes as you get older, you become more, ‘I don’t care, I’m gonna do it anyway,’” she said. It’s with that attitude and an optimism for the future that Bialon is spinning off to new pathways, new strings to follow, as she attempts to reinforce Boundary wool business. Come next April, when the shears come out, she’ll also get to practice dying, spinning and working with Mikey’s hardy fleece.


@jensenedw
Jensen.edwards@grandforksgazette.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Mikey, a sheep formerly known as “Lamb Chops,” dangles in a sling made by owner Gabriele Bialon.                                (Gabriele Bialon/Submitted)

Mikey, a sheep formerly known as “Lamb Chops,” dangles in a sling made by owner Gabriele Bialon. (Gabriele Bialon/Submitted)

Gabriele Bialon’s flock doubled to eight sheep last summer, when she acquired three lambs and a female adult from a farm near Greenwood after their flock was attacked by a cougar.                                (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

Gabriele Bialon’s flock doubled to eight sheep last summer, when she acquired three lambs and a female adult from a farm near Greenwood after their flock was attacked by a cougar. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

Just Posted

From the left, Midway RCMP seized suspected cannabis, cocaine and fentanyl from a truck pulled over by Conservation Service Officers in the West Boundary Monday, Jan. 17. Photo submitted
Midway RCMP find suspected drugs in traffic stop by Conservation Service Officers

Cpl. Phil Peters said the CSOs were stopping local hunters on Highway 33

A Grand Forks Fire/Rescue water tanker makes it way up the hill on Gibbs Creek Road after a homeowner doused a chimney fire Wednesday, Jan. 20. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Rural Grand Forks homeowner douses chimney fire

Grand Forks Fire/Rescue said the man’s quick thinking put out the flames

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Hicks, 77, in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-Pool
61 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

Twenty-nine people are in hospital, seven of whom are in intensive care

(Big White Ski Resort)
28 more cases of COVID-19 linked to Big White cluster

More than 200 cases have been identified since the cluster was announced

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Hamonic grabs Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson by the face during first period NHL action in Vancouver, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horvat scores winner as Canucks dump Habs 6-5 in shootout thriller

Vancouver and Montreal clash again Thursday night

Interior Health has declared the Cariboo Chilcotin a community cluster. (Angie Mindus photo)
Interior Health declares Cariboo Chilcotin region a COVID-19 cluster, 215 cases since Jan. 1

Most cases are related to transmission at social events and gatherings in Williams Lake

A woman writes a message on a memorial mural wall by street artist James “Smokey Devil” Hardy during a memorial to remember victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. paramedics respond to record-breaking number of overdose calls in 2020

On the front lines, COVID-19 has not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity

Vernon's Noric House long-term care facility is dealing with an influenza outbreak amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (File photo)
Two more deaths at Vernon care home

Noric House case numbers remain steady, but death toll rises

Eighteen-year-old Aidan Webber died in a marine accident in 2019. He was a Canadian Junior BMX champion from Nanaimo. (Submitted)
Inadequate safety training a factor in teen BMX star’s workplace death in 2019

Aidan Webber was crushed by a barge at a fish farm near Port Hardy

Southern resident killer whales in B.C. waters. Research shows the population’s females are more negatively influenced by vessel traffic than males. (Photo supplied by Ocean Wise Conservation Association)
Female orcas less likely to feed in presence of vessel traffic: study

Research the southern resident population raises concerns over reproduction capacity

(Black Press Media files)
Transport Canada not budging on enclosed deck rules, despite calls from BC Ferries union

There have been at least 23 cases of the U.K. variant detected in Canada, four of which are in B.C.

The Elk Valley Hospital is adapting to meet the needs of patients in the Elk Valley.
1-in-5 COVID tests coming back positive in and around Fernie, sparking concern

Dr Ron Clark of Elk Valley Hospital said one in five tests was returning positive for COVID-19

Most Read