A Touch of the Olde World

Gisela's "Maple Leaves" sweaters - on the right are the colors of early fall and on the left is full peak foliage color.

Tucked away in a small forested hollow on the outskirts of Sterling in northern Cayuga County stands a handsome old farmhouse, today the Maplegrove Bed and Breakfast and Gisela Schneider’s Wool Boutique. Should you pull into the driveway beside the big maple and walnut trees, you’ll likely be greeted by a cheerful black lab bringing a stick or pine cone offering to you. His owner, a small wiry energetic woman, will greet you with a smile, perhaps calling hello from the herb garden where she’s weeding. Spring, summer or fall days often find her outside tending the immaculate beds of iris and phlox, or in the vegetable garden.

Gisela Schneider grew up in post-war East Germany when times were hard and the economy was poor. She was sent off to a trade school as a young girl to learn how to knit, crochet, cook, and sew. As she puts it with some irony, “We learned all the things girls needed to know before they get married.” The art of knitting has been around for a thousand years or more, but as a 20th-century vocation it doesn’t seem like a great choice for survival in the aftermath of a devastating war. But survive Gisela did. Later, she added spinning to her life skills by taking additional classes in Germany at a vocational school run by a monastery. After making her way to the U.S. years later, and then to Sterling, New York in 1992, she has since been knitting masterpieces of fiber art that sell in high-end markets throughout the Northeast and even overseas. She also spins yarn that she sells, and employs her culinary skills to run the B&B with her husband Walt.

Gisela is an exacting craftswoman and soon after coming to America she grew dissatisfied with the selection and quality of the yarns available in her new environment. She decided to spin her own. “I bought myself a big heavy wheel, a Louet. It’s my workhorse. If I had a mile counter on that wheel, I probably could say I’ve spun my way around the world.”

Not long after that, the Schneiders decided to grow their own fiber (Gisela has never been afraid to try something new). They had ample pasture on their 69-acre farm and so acquired a flock of angora and cashmere crossbred goats, some merino sheep and an alpaca to keep the B&B’s chicken flock and geese company. The natural browns and grays of the homegrown wool delighted Gisela and her customers, too, when worked into hand spun yarns and then knitted into sweaters, tunics, hats and scarves.

Originally, Gisela figured she would do most of her knitting and spinning in the winter when the seasonal B&B business slowed down. From spring through fall there were berry bushes and the vegetable garden to tend, the extensive flowerbeds around the house to maintain, animals to feed and water, jams and jellies to put up for sale at various local stands, and all the cooking and cleaning and washing that goes with a four-room B&B operation. Working part-time she could spin the approximately two and a half pounds of yarn needed to make a sweater in a week. Then the knitting, done in between other tasks, took about another two weeks. It was soon apparent that there weren’t enough hours in a day to add the washing and carding of raw homegrown wool required to prepare it for spinning. Unfortunately, few wool mills exist in our area that prepare small lots of wool for spinning, so reluctantly, the Schneiders parted with the flock.

Today Gisela mostly purchases her loose wool fiber from commercial suppliers and wool mill operators. Some of the wool producers attend fiber art shows. Small scale consumers like fiber artists and crafters, Gisela among them, can purchase ready-to-spin fiber directly.

The spinning process looks deceptively easy as Gisela draws out strands of fiber from the roving and feeds them onto the “flier” a guide that puts the yarn onto a bobbin. In an instant, the soft loosely associated fibers are pulled out into an attenuated thread and then transformed with a twist into a single strong durable strand. I found watching the process mildly hypnotic. Both bobbin and flier are turned by a belt off the foot-powered wheel. It’s an amazingly simple yet tricky operation to create a uniform strand of yarn. When teaching spinning Gisela says, “I tell people just relax and don’t let go of your fiber,” (It will immediately make a lovely tangle around the bobbin).

First she spins a single strand yarn, twisting it clockwise, to fill up a bobbin. Then two bobbins are spun together counterclockwise to create the two ply yarn that Gisela usually knits with. The skill is in making yarn reasonably uniform, though Gisela notes she wants a “handmade” look to yarn for her knitting, so she deliberately introduces some variation to her strand. It takes her about a day of spinning to fill a bobbin, approximately 670 yards of yarn (roughly a pound of fiber). The completed bobbin is then transferred to a skeiner (also called a yarn swift) to create a ready to sell loose bundle of yarn.

Gisela creates yarn from many types of fiber including Alaskan muskox and Chinese yak, merino, angora, Peruvian alpaca, man-made acrylics and silk. Sometimes even camel wool, and fiber from a fluffy dog may find its way into the mix. Silk, she explains, helps the handling of shorter fibers during the spinning and gives the yarn a beautiful luster. Expensive but incredibly soft and light, musk ox and yak fiber after it has been spun into yarn creates sweaters of marvelous softness and warmth. “The woman gather up the tufts of wool in the spring after the animals shed it. It’s a short fiber that handles best when mixed with other types of wool,” explains Gisela. Musk ox wool is one of the most costly natural fibers, and is sometimes sold by the gram. A merino and silk mix is one of Gisela’s favorites for knitting. She explained also that her hand spun yarn with its consistent overall thickness makes it easier to size a sweater or tunic for a customer. “I can look at someone and say you need about 60 stitches across the back.”

Much of the unique beauty of the masses of soft silken fibers that shimmer in a multitude of colors and hues comes from Gisela’s interest in dyes. She has experimented with a number of natural dyes from plants on the farm. One of her favorites is a delicate yellowish green produced from black walnuts. “I collected the nuts from the yard and put them in the driveway and drove over them.” Then, she explained, she simmered the green husks in water to extract the color and then dipped the yarn skeins into the dye for varying lengths of time. ”You use sticks to drape the yarn over, then lower and raise the skein and keep some out to get the different shades and colors. I use vinegar to set the color. In the old days they used urine. It’s the acid that sets the dye.”

A few years ago Gisela had a small building constructed near the house for her Wool Boutique. Here she keeps her supplies, batts and rovings of fiber, and her inventory of yarns and finished goods for sale. A tour of it is a visual and tactile delight. The visitor can’t resist picking up and feeling the rovings so airy as to be almost weightless and shimmering in a multitude of earth-colored greens, browns and indigo shot through with tints of rose and threads of gold. The natural colors harmonize into blends of great appeal when spun.

“The softness and supple feel are because the yarn is looser than machine spun,” Gisela explained. Some of her sweaters are reminiscent of those worn by the northern fishermen of Ireland or the Hebrides. “Each Irish village had a distinctive pattern. That way, when the storms came and the fishermen were lost and their bodies washed ashore, they knew what port the man had come from.”

Goods on sale range from $45 hats and other smaller items, including scarves and handbags, on up to the most expensive $900 sweaters made of musk ox and merino wool. Each sweater or tunic is unique. They have handmade wooden or pottery buttons, pockets embellished with raised patterns in color, and irresistible textures. I simply had to feel each one. Most sweater, cardigan and tunic prices run from $300 to 600 dollars.

In addition to the ready-made knitwear on sale at the Wool Boutique, Gisela takes custom work to your order. She also travels around to juried craft shows each fall. In the past she has sold her goods at high-end shows at Killington and Stowe, Vermont; Rhinebeck, New York; and in the Washington, DC, area. This fall she’ll be at Canandaigua’s Christkindl Market November 14, 15, 16; the Clothesline Art Show in Rochester on September 6 and 7, and at the Finger Lakes Fiber Festival in Hemlock on September 20 and 21. Visit the Wool Boutique and Maple Grove B&B in its tranquil setting on the edge of Sterling village on Rt 104A. For more information visit lakeontario.net/maplegrove or call 315-947-5408.

by Susan Peterson Gateley

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