Each year, dedicated spinners pull hundreds of pounds of fiber through their spinning wheels, creating one-of-a-kind yarns that are made into knitted, crocheted, or woven projects. But with spinning wheels costing hundreds of dollars, many spinning wannabes can’t afford to start-and wool producers are missing out on potential profits. That’s why Nels Wiberg invented his Babe Spinning Wheels: To offer a more economical way for potential customers to get “hooked” on a hobby.
When Nels Wiberg’s wife Greta couldn’t find the yarn types she wanted for her knitting projects, she decided to take up spinning-and had to buy an expensive wheel just to take the lessons. Soon after, Nels and Greta opened “The Great Yarn Loft”-a yarn shop in Elmhurst, Illinois-and they offered spinning classes. “I had to buy some wooden wheels which were anywhere from $300 to $500 and rent them out for $20 a week without knowing if I would get them back or not. So I thought well, maybe I can come up with something a little bit cheaper.”
Nels experimented with some wheel designs and eventually came up with a utilitarian type made of black plumbing PVC and a wheelchair wheel. “At the time the movie Babe was out and Babe couldn’t herd sheep, and some said I couldn’t sell wheels looking like that,” laughs Nels. “So we called it Babe’s Fiber Starter.”
(L to R) Greta Wiberg, Nels Wiberg, DiAnn Boehm, at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival.
He took his wheels to the Michigan Fiber Festival and although there seemed to be lots of interest, Nels didn’t sell any wheels. He then put an ad in Spin-Off magazine and had two orders from Alaska.
That was in August of 1996. Since then, Nels and his wife closed the Elmhurst business and moved to Whitewater, Wisconsin. Nels has switched from plumbing PVC to a much lighter furniture-grade PVC, and hundreds of “Babe’s Fiber Starters” have been sold from Nels’ website (www.babesfibergarden.com) as well as through distributors across the United States. But some of the originals are still working-Nels has received parts orders from an owner of one of the black Babe wheels.
Following the old adage “form follows function,” the Babe Fiber Starter isn’t the traditionally beautiful piece of furniture. A simple wheel is framed by a PVC frame (now offered in White or Black Sheep models) and is run by single or double treadles. Because of its simple construction, the Babe weighs only about seven pounds, making it easy to pack for travel.
As for costs, the Babe’s Fiber Starter starts at $142.95 plus shipping, and comes with three bobbins, two Lazy Kate skein winders and the Spinning Babe instruction booklet. Nels has expanded his business to include the ultra-light Babe’s Pinkie Wheel as well as electric spinners, skein winders, drop spindles, and knitting looms and other accessories.
“Spinning opens up a whole new world to knitters,” says Nels. “Knitters soon get more involved with colors, they learn about twist, and they learn the plies and all the things that go along with it.”
Driving Wool Sales On Wheels
Wini Labrecque of Cabot, Pennsylvania, has been spinning and weaving for 19 years. She teaches spinning, weaving and felting all over the United States.
Wini started with a wooden wheel, but purchased a Babe wheel about four years ago. “I bought my first Babe wheel to see how practical it would be to use in a classroom setting. Because they are affordable and very lightweight, I felt that it would be a good beginning, and obviously they are cost effective. It was a good way to show beginner spinners that you could start on a low cost and work your way up. You don’t have to buy a $500 wheel to start spinning.
Wini Labrecque teaches a class how to use a spinning wheel (while building demand for her wool at good prices)
“So I bought my first with the thought of teaching with them. I worked with Babe wheels for a long time before I actually broke down and said, ‘You know, this is a really good idea.’ I always was very critical of Nels’ wheels until I started sitting down and playing with them. The look of them is very industrial. But I painted mine-mine is purple!”
Wini quickly became a Babe distributor, and now supplies the wheels for her students to use in spinning classes. They’re light enough to ship to her class location, and after class she ships them back home. “I provide the wheels for my classes so that students can learn to spin without having to outlay money for a wheel only to find out they don’t like spinning. Most people really like it-and they like the fact that they can afford these wheels. I can have a class with 10 to 15 people and maybe sell five to 10 wheels at a class.”
Wini finds that many of her Babe customers contact her for fiber. Her Star Weaver Farm (www.starweaverfarm.com) offers alpaca and cashmere goats, as well as custom clothing made from her animals’ fibers.
“Soon As We See Sheep, We Ask The Farmer To Sell Us Wool”
Eight years ago Jane Stotmeister of Wausau, Wisconsin, heard some women in her knitting group talk about hand spinning. “I said to them, you don’t do that in this day and age! They said yes we do! I started to become interested and asked more and more questions. And I got my first wheel.”
Jane started out with a wooden wheel but after she tried a Babe wheel at the Wisconsin Fiber Festival, she was convinced. “When I had my first wooden wheel, I was overwhelmed. I thought I would never ‘get it.’ But when you sit down to a Babe it just takes off by itself and it is just so easy. It can make the yarn look so good too.”
Now she has 10 Babe spinning wheels, and says she uses all of them. “They can spin wool and make it look so smooth and so good: You can use any type of wool, where some wheels don’t have quite the pull and they make it look lumpy. You don’t have to keep setting tensions all the time, which is for a beginner very difficult, and even for the experienced spinner.”
“I have used a Babe wheel for demonstrations for kids at a church, and the kids were so thrilled. The wheel is so simple and rugged, kids can try it. The wheel took quite a lot of abuse, but it can do it because it is made out of PVC pipe. It was so much fun to see how excited they were. It is convenient and light and you don’t have to worry about getting it nicked up. You can take it apart very easily. They are made really well, and as time goes on they get better and better.”
Now Jane is so hooked on the craft that she spends most of her weekends looking for local wool.
“I like to do raw fleece, and I’ve had a very difficult time finding raw fleece in this area. My husband and I drive around the countryside and as soon as we see sheep, we find the farmer and ask if they have wool.”
Standing Up To Public Abuse
DiAnn Boehm of Ames, Nebraska, learned to knit as a child, but wasn’t introduced to spinning until she saw a spinning demo for a college textile course, “I was fascinated, and knew one day I was going to learn to spin.” Years later she found a spinner mentor at her local state fair. “[She] took me under her wing-I learned to spin on a drop spindle. Then she introduced me to a friend who had some sheep and had had some wool processed, and I bought a bump of Romney wool for $10. I had $10.75 invested in my new hobby! I was a slow learner. I made some pretty chunky stuff, but I was making yarn! And I used every bit of yarn I made. I think I spun four pounds of Romney before I felt I was ready to move on.”
DiAnn’s Babe spinning wheel proudly displays her patriotism!
DiAnn bought a used wooden spinning wheel, but found that the wheel’s position made her back hurt. “I always had my eye on the Babes. They are ‘bulldog-cute.’ For Christmas I asked Santa for a Babe, and that’s when I got my first one. I can spin on it all day long.”
Her daughter followed her in the spinning obsession, and DiAnn bought her a Babe’s Pinkie Wheel, and another Fiber Starter soon followed. “Then I bought an electric Babe wheel, and I felt I should be a distributor. I think I was selling wheels before I was a distributor. So I went into business.”
Spinning wool has led DiAnn to raising her own fiber animals. Her 7-acre Country Dream Acres (www.countrydreamacres.com) includes alpacas, llamas, rabbits, plus Corriedale and Columbia sheep. “Last year I took my Babe to several different fiber festivals where I had a booth. I taught beginning spinning on Babe spinning wheels. One time I had two students and they were both kids. So we started with the drop spindle, and then did the wheels. One kid was looking over my shoulder and another ran right into my spinning wheel. The bobbin went one way and the flyer went the other way and they knocked it over. I just stood it back up and put it back together. No harm, no foul.” The parents were impressed-DiAnn ended up selling a Babe wheel to one of those students.
At the next festival, DiAnn had 19 students. “I sold more Angora bunny wool. The spinning demos bring people into my booth and then they find what they want. I also have some handcrafted items in there too. I have spun yarn. I sell a lot of yarn and fiber. It ticks me off when people say that spinning is a dying art. It doesn’t have to be. Men are amazing spinners. I think the younger crowd is interested. They think ‘out of the box.’ They are excited about making chunky, bumpy, thick and thin yarn.”
Avid Spinners Buy Lots Of Wool
Pigs herded Jane Evans of Indiana into the spinning world, and ultimately into sheep. “I started with raising guinea pigs and showing them. Guinea pigs are shown in conjunction with rabbits, and I saw a picture of an Angora rabbit-they were like big pillows with little faces. It just so happened that at the next show, someone had some for sale, so I bought one. I thought I could learn to spin and start doing something with their hair instead of spending hours just taking care of these long haired rodents. After I started spinning, I met people with sheep, and I found I liked spinning sheep wool better than Angora rabbit wool. Besides you get every year six or seven pounds of wool, washed, and rabbits don’t produce that much. We bought a 100-acre farm and within a couple months of moving here, I got my sheep.”
Jane Stotmeister has 10 Babe spinning wheels. She spends her weekends looking for local wool to continue her craft.
Jane’s Valhalla Farm (www.valhallaacres.com) is home to about 18 sheep, chosen for the types of fibers Jane likes to use for spinning or knitting. She also raises French Angora rabbits and llamas. She sells her fiber at fiber festivals, and she takes a Babe wheel to her booth to use for demonstrations. “They are lightweight and you can throw them in your van. I have heard of people who keep one of these wheels to use for spinning groups and for doing demos, so they don’t have to take their beautiful wooden wheel. The Babe will do a good job. The bobbins are cheap-so you can have lots of bobbins. I’ll want to try something new so I will set this aside until I fill that bobbin up. I end up having lots of bobbins of yarn.”
Jane took her Babe wheel to one of her spinning groups and asked 25 spinners to fill out a sheet of questions. “I gave them a 2-ounce ball of roving for trying it,” says Jane. “Everyone really liked it except for a woman who was a dealer for a foreign-made wheel. I just find these wheels, for the money, are more than worth it. They spin better than a lot of entry level wooden wheels and they cost about half as much.”
The dealer in foreign-made wooden spinning wheels eventually bought a Babe electric spinning wheel from Jane.
“She bought it to use at her family’s cabin in the summer,” says Jane.
“Everyone that buys a wheel adds up to one more hand spinner out there and potentially a customer,” says Jane. “If you’re the one to sell it to them you are selling to someone who is going to be a spinner, so you are creating more spinners who are going to buy your wool. It is as simple as that.”
For more information on Nels Wiberg’s spinning wheels and accessories, go to http://www.babesfibergarden.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write: Nels Wiberg, Babe’s Fiber Garden, LLC, W8131 Bay View Dr., Whitewater, WI 53190, Ph:262-473-2009