As a young girl, Kathryn Ashley-Wright moved with her mother Lisa Ashley from New York to Wisconsin where farm life became their life, and Kathryn learned to spin wool on her mother’s wheel. She learned to knit at Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School, and later as a student at the University of Wisconsin she studied rural sociology, and she bought three bred Merino ewes, who soon became ten sheep.
Fibers hold it all together. Now Kathryn Ashley-Wright is the proprietress of a yarn shop . She and her husband Keith Wright have two children and a small farm where they raise sheep and the cattle, horses, llamas, donkeys, dogs and cats that accompany the sheep. The warp and the weft form the fabric of our lives; we wend our way, try to avoid the tangles, and tie knots to keep things from unraveling.
Fiber history accompanies our human history on earth. We have been twisting and spinning fibers forever, and the fibers from both plant and animal create strong yarns and cords that really do hold everything together. The turning of the whorl suggests a profound connection to time, and activity with fiber arts provides a connection with the human stream of all who spin and have spun, all who weave, knit, felt and make things out of nature’s fibers.
Many people believe that a natural fiber yarn shop is essential to the health of a community, and when the yarn shop in Viroqua closed, knitters bemoaned their loss. Then Kathryn Ashley-Wright stepped up. In July 2007 she opened her shop Ewetopia, a sister venture to the sheep farm Ewetopia that she and her family operate in rural LaFarge.
Ewetopia is more than a yarn shop, carrying wool and cotton fibers in spun and unspun form, handmade fiber items that are sold on consignment, equipment for work in the fiber arts, and instruction books and patterns. Both Kathryn and her mother have original patterns on sale at Ewetopia, adding to the inventory of published instructions for the knitter. “Designing patterns is really fun,” Kathryn explained. “It keeps me busy and engaged, thinking of new things and new ways to do old things.”
Ewetopia is also a social center. Monday evenings, Friday mornings, and Tuesday afternoons, fiber crafters gather at Ewetopia on Viroqua’a Main Street. They bring their work, and sometimes their children,and around the large work table at the back of the shop people share expertise and inspiration as well as news and information, surrounded by bins of brightly colored wools and cottons. “The social groups fluctuate in size,” Kathryn commented, “and they seem to be growing. It’s what makes a yarn shop a yarn shop – a group of knitters at the back table.”
Kathryn and Lisa Ashley offer classes in knitting and needle felting, and the back table at Ewetopia sees so much activity that Kathryn is already planning expansion to a larger store able to host more inventory, more classes, and more room for the social gatherings.
Viroqua, a city of just over 4,000, is the county seat of Wisconsin’s Vernon County, the center of one of the nation’s major organic agriculture regions. Ewetopia Farm, where Kathryn and Keith keep about 55 sheep, is in rural LaFarge, and Keith works at Organic Valley, his day job, while Kathryn tends shop in Viroqua. On the rare day Kathryn can’t get to town, her grandmother helps out, and other fiber friends sometimes stop in to lend a hand.
Viroqua is within driving distance to three major midwest metropolitan regions- Chicago, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and it is just down the road from LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Local customers are regulars at Ewetopia, and out of town customers get to be regulars, too. Many people plan travel to include an annual stop at Ewetopia, and it is not unusual to hear a customer leave the shop with a cheerful “see you next year!”
Kathryn supplies the shop with her own Ewetopia hand dyed wool, sheared from Ewetopia sheep and dyed in small lots. She has her wool processed into roving at a local mill, and she joins other small agricultural producers in offering customers a chance to participate in farming with membership in the Ewetopia CSA. Membership in this Community Supported Agriculture wool operation assures you a share of merino/leicester or pure bred border leicester roving or yarn at shearing time. Kathryn has found the CSA to be a powerful way to allow others to share in the pleasures of shepherding, and the farm limit of shares is often not enough to serve all who apply.
Kathryn also orders for her shop from the international fiber market, and she points with pleasure to the yarns she carries from Manos del Uruguay, a women’s cooperative in Uruguay. Manos del Uruguay sells fair trade hand dyed Corriedale/Merino yarn, a yarn inspiring in its social politics as well as its rich feel and colors.
Sometimes Kathryn travels in her business, taking her goods to conventions of the fiber community, fiber fairs that are entertaining family events as well as meeting places for vendors and the fiber artists who buy their materials.
“It’s huge,” Kathryn said.“I love going to the fairs. We bring hand dyed wool and our own patterns, and it’s a great boost. There are long waiting lists for the big established fairs. We do three big ones now, and I’m hoping to up it to five or six next year.” (Visit www.fiberfair.org for an international list of fiber fairs.)
Hands on is the best experience in fibers, but if you can’t get to town, visit Ewetopia online. You will probably find yourself inspired to drive to Viroqua, meet Kathryn, and explore in person the beautiful fibers at Ewetopia.