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If not now, then when?

Meagan Van Eaton

Full disclosure, I started this entry farther back than I’d like to admit. The week before the election to be exact. I got a little ways, then sort of crumbled in the face of the election results. I drew inward hard, as I know many others did as well.


I’m terrible at picking things up again. A perfectionist through and through, it extends to my desire to see things through in one fell swoop. Life rarely agrees with me though. But, if not now, then when?


I’ve always wanted to create. In high school I almost exclusively wore vintage clothes. I had learned to sew on my mom’s old Kenmore sewing machine before she realized I was doing so. She came home one day when I was six to me zipping along. She was not happy. I told her to relax, I’d been doing this for at least a year. (This was back in the 80’s when it was socially acceptable to leave your children at home alone.) By high school, I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer.


In my mid-twenties I finally had the opportunity to go to school for apparel & textile design in Portland, OR.  I dove right in and sought out an internship with an up and coming eco-conscientious fashion designer before I even sought approval from my school’s program. I worked a 250+ hour internship in which I experienced most of the facets of the fashion design industry. This was exactly what I had always thought I wanted to do. I got to experience a small design brand, with both the ethical and aesthetic focus that appealed to me, during a phase of immense exposure and growth. I learned so very much. Most importantly, what I didn’t want.


I learned I wasn’t interested in churning out new designs each season, paying large overhead fees to showrooms, and putting clothes on underweight adolescents to send them down runways. All the while meeting large up front minimums for fabric yardage. But most of all, I simply wasn’t interested in what fashion had become. The incessant need to be new. The imperative to produce consumption. Don’t get me wrong, I think fashion should be fun, but at what cost?


I left that internship a bit battle worn and slightly unmoored from my former love affair with fashion. The next couple of years would bring about huge changes in my life course. I became a mother.


Having a child changed me in ways I wasn’t even aware were possible. For a time I thought I wanted to go into counseling. I went back to school for a couple of years before deciding that it wasn’t the right fit.


During the summer when my little boy had just turned one and I was going through a divorce, I walked into a vintage store and ran across my beloved Cowichan sweater jacket. I didn’t even know what it was at the time. I only knew that it was most definitely hand made and that I loved it. It was only thirty dollars (which I knew was a steal, but didn’t know how much of a steal it was), but that was thirty dollars more than I had to spend on myself at the time. I bought it anyways. It became the inspiration to return to a childhood goal of mine: knitting.


When I was a kid I was completely and utterly fascinated with handcrafts. I was particularly fascinated with anything that had to do with fiber and textiles. In sixth grade I had the opportunity to borrow a pair of hand carders for a short while and had my first experience carding and spinning a small amount of raw wool. It was instantaneous love.


Around that same time I built myself a back-strap loom and spent an entire summer playing with it in the backyard and gathering wild grasses for basket making. I also desperately wanted to learn how to knit.


Fast forward: A couple months after acquiring my Cowichan sweater jacket; I went to the store and picked up a skein of super bulky, Oscar the Grouch green, acrylic yarn and some knitting needles. Between YouTube instructions and Netflix, I waded through some emotion and into a scarf that I still wear today.      


As my interest in knitting intensified I wanted to explore natural, environmentally sustainable materials. Living in the Pacific Northwest and having little tolerance for the cold, naturally led me in the direction of wool. I knew many of the amazing, natural qualities of wool; however I had mostly been exposed to highly processed wool that irritated my extremely sensitive skin.


I went to a summer barbeque. The wonderful, vivacious host was passing around an alpaca doll and talking excitedly about them. Something clicked in my brain. Alpacas. Years before I had been a studio assistant for an art quilter who used vintage kimono textiles for her work. One time I had helped her at a quilt show held at the Oregon Expo center. While taking a break I explored the building next door, which was having an alpaca show. I left a little bit of my heart in that building.


A year or two after that barbeque I had moved out of the city and was looking for inspiration. I found myself working in a very rural setting and became what can only be described as obsessed with alpacas. I was drawn to the gentle quality of the fiber and the many natural shades of their wool. I poured over library books and scoured the internet. I got in touch with my friend Minka, who had hosted that barbeque, and asked if she could introduce me to her alpaca farming friends.


In my alpaca research I realized that while I was interested in owning animals, there was a market need for domestic mills that process alpaca fiber. Additionally, as much as I had always loved clothing design, I realized my heart really lie in textiles and bringing their production back to the United States. Around that same time, I ran across an Instagram account that captured my heart. After following it, I came to realize that the owner had just launched a podcast of the same name: Woolful. In the first few episodes she explained that her and her husband were dreaming of opening their own small fiber mill. I was so excited to find additional windows into the world of fiber and mills.


Around this time my friend Minka introduced me to Sandi Poutala of Cedar Springs Alpacas in Sandy, Oregon. Sandi, both generous and kind, is a wealth of information on alpacas. I was smitten. We started discussing the possibility of buying some of her herd.


A few episodes into the Woolful podcast, the host had Kim Goodling of Vermont Grand View Farm on to talk about her Gotland sheep. I was intrigued. After listening to the episode I googled Gotland sheep and collected all of the information I could find. I was in love with the little gray sheep of Sweden.


That winter I bought a drop spindle and started to learn how to hand spin wool. In the spring, I stayed out at Cedar Springs Alpaca farm for a few days to assist with the shearing days. Nothing could have solidified my love of working with animals, fiber, and fiber friends more. The shearer was Ann Brezina; a life long shearer, a long time shepherdess, and hand spinner extraordinaire. She mentioned that while she owns alpacas and shears them exclusively now, she prefers sheep. I told her I was interested in Gotland sheep and she mentioned that her ram was a Gotland cross.


On a whim, the following autumn I looked up Gotland sheep on Craigslist. There was actually a listing in my state. The listing didn’t even have any photos. Nevertheless, I felt excitement flutter in my belly. I emailed the shepherdess. We then spoke over the phone. I drove a couple hours to see her sheep that very weekend. I did something a little crazy. A put a deposit down on five sheep, without having a place to put them. But I thought, if not now, then when?


That was almost a year and a half ago. While I’ve learned several lessons the hard way, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I do not know how long I can continue to be a landless farmer, however I do know that every minute is invaluable to both myself and my child. Working with my little flock has also crystalized my vision and desire to be part of the revolution to bring the production of local and regionalized textile production back to the United States.


I would be honored to have you come along this journey with us.


Because if not now, then when?


For water. For land. For economic equity. For animal welfare. For human dignity.