Couple raises Angora goats and process the hair at their Texas Fiber Mill

BLUE, Texas -- Deborah and Jim Sharp are living a dream they didn't know they had. Jim, whose face is being overtaken by a white beard he started in June after retiring from 38 years as a children's cancer doctor, sits under the vital shade of a ...

BLUE, Texas -- Deborah and Jim Sharp are living a dream they didn't know they had.

Jim, whose face is being overtaken by a white beard he started in June after retiring from 38 years as a children's cancer doctor, sits under the vital shade of a blackjack oak. Deborah, in jeans and a teal blue medical scrubs top, stands nearby with a goat whose mohair fleece is so thick and long you can barely see its eyes.

The Sharps are hosting a barnyard barbershop.

They have 75 colored Angora goats, and most are in need of their twice-a-year shearing. Another 60 or so fluffy goats milling about belong to other Angora goat raisers from across Central Texas who came to get haircuts for their animals, too.

"Maaaaah, maaaah," cries an unhappy charcoal-colored goat. Third-generation shearer Stephen Franco of Rocksprings, Texas, flips over the goat and runs an electric clipper over its legs and belly. Then, in an eye blink, he ties the goat's four legs with a thin leather thong so he can shear the long, spiraled locks on the animal's sides, back and head.


"Maaaaah, maaaaah," cries the upside-down goat, its pink tongue flitting in and out to reveal a row of bright white teeth. Franco, who's won medals for shearing in the Calgary, Alberta, rodeo, can shear a large goat in just three minutes.

Shearing day

Shearing day is a time-honored chore on fiber farms. But there's something unusual about this early summer ritual at Inglenook Farms, the Sharps' home about 45 miles northeast of Austin, Texas.

For the first time, the curly mohair fleeces, many weighing more than 10 pounds, won't be going far from this outdoor pen. Just 150 yards away is a fiber mill that can wash and process fleeces into yarn.

Deborah and Jim Sharp have raised goats here for just five years, but in January, they launched a project unique in Texas.

They invested more than $200,000 to start the Texas Fiber Mill, the only place in the state open to anyone with fiber-producing animals, whether common or exotic. The mill uses large machines to wash the fleeces, separate and comb the fibers into long strands and then spin them into yarn.

"We've processed quite a bit of mohair and alpaca," Deborah Sharp says. "We've also processed quite a bit of llama and some cashmere and some buffalo and various kinds of wool.

"We haven't yet processed camel or yak."


The fiber will be sold to knitters, crocheters, handspinners, weavers and others interested in the fiber arts, which are experiencing an explosion of international interest.

And the fiber industry is feeling the same "buy local" movement as the food industry. Consumers want to know who grew their food, and knitters want to know who raised the animals and spun the fiber they use. The Texas Fiber Mill allows farmers and ranchers to process their fleeces close to home and gives artists and hobbyists the opportunity to buy yarn and roving that comes from animals on the farm down the road. Roving is a long rope of loose fiber used to hand-spin yarn.

Fiber mill

Until the fiber mill opened, some central Texas fiber animal farmers shipped their fleeces to New England or the Rocky Mountains for processing. Some even used mills as far away as Peru, Mexico and Canada.

The Texas Fiber Mill is what is known in the industry as a mini-mill or a micro-spinnery.

The mini-mills are "the only part of the (textile) industry that is growing," says Chris Lupton, a research scientist specializing in fiber at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center in San Angelo. "Everything else is moving to China."

The story of how Jim Sharp, a 71-year-old pediatric oncologist, and wife Deborah, a 51-year-old clinical social worker a dissertation short of a doctorate, came to open a fiber mill in the post oak savannah near the tiny town of Blue, about 15 miles northeast of Elgin, Texas, has as many twists and curls as a skein of lustrous mohair yarn.

They had met in 1987 under heartbreaking circumstances. Deborah's daughter, 7-year-old Jonna Daughn, was diagnosed with leukemia and was being treated by Jim Sharp, who at that time was the only pediatric oncologist in Austin. Jonna fought cancer for 2½ years, but died May 20, 1990.


Afterward, Deborah became executive director of the Austin-area Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation, a support organization for children with cancer and their families. Her work brought her into regular contact with Jim, and a romance blossomed. Deborah and Jim married in 1995.

Starting up

Both Jim and Deborah Sharp are drawn to animals and the natural world. Jim has a green thumb for roses, and Deborah raised milk goats when her four daughters were young. It was a dog that brought them to the community of Blue. In early 2003, they bought a Vizsla, a Hungarian breed that needs lots of room to run. They began looking for a weekend home in the country. They bought 40 acres outside Blue and named their place Inglenook Farms, not knowing exactly what they would do with the land.

After much research, the couple decided to raise colored Angora goats, whose fleeces can be black, silver, brown, honey or even mixed. Most Angora goats, like most sheep, are white.

"We talked about the fact that we sure didn't like the idea of raising animals for slaughter," Deborah says. "That was not going to add joy to our lives. And Jim's work has always been very emotionally taxing. We wanted something that was going to add joy to our lives. Something beautiful, having baby goats and the kids born every year. The idea of renewal. We wanted it to be a place of renewal for both of us."

Their inquiries led them to Lisa Shell, an experienced fiber artist who had raised colored Angora goats for two decades. By serendipity, Shell lives only five miles down the road and quickly became a good friend and mentor. One of her colored bucks had especially spiraled locks and spiral horns. That caught the Sharps' attention because of their affinity for labyrinths and circles.

"We shared a history of cancer and death and dying and loss, and part of the way of understanding that is that life and death are all part of the same cycles and that life is a journey, somewhat like a labyrinth, that you follow your path not really knowing where you're going to end up, and to a certain extent you have to operate on faith and enjoy the moment rather than being completely about your destination," Deborah says.

Intensive care


The Sharps began with nine goats, including some purchased from Shell. They later bought two alpacas, which are housed in a barn away from the goat pens.

When their original goats were sheared, Deborah learned to wash fleeces by hand. After ruining a lot of fiber, she realized the task of processing the first 70 pounds of mohair fleece by hand was unrealistic. She decided to work with a fiber mill in Biddeford, Maine.

When the Sharps bought their first goats, "we didn't realize we were talking about hundreds of pounds of fiber," Deborah says. "If you're holding a handful of kid mohair, that's glorious stuff. But if you have a hundred pounds of raw mohair, that's overwhelming."

The Sharps are conscientious goat raisers and put long hours into their care. Two winters ago, an ice storm froze one newborn kid and another kid was abandoned by its mother after it became chilled. Deborah brought the kids indoors and kept them warm in a bathtub filled with towels. She bottle-fed little Nippy and Charlotte for almost a week until the weather warmed enough for them to live outdoors.

In just a few years, the Sharps' goats gained national attention. In 2006, they won grand champion doe and best fleece on animal at the Colored Angora Goat Breeders Association national show in Sedalia, Mo. In 2007, at the Wool Festival in Taos, N.M., they won best fiber goat fleece for the mohair shorn from Charlotte, one of the rescued kids.

Deborah also learned to knit and spin yarn on a spinning wheel. She helped form the Blue Earth Guild, a small group of knitters and spinners who meet once a month at Inglenook Farms. During the past few years, the conversations at those gatherings often centered on fiber mills: What are you going to do with your fiber? What mill are you using? Where is the closest mill?

"It would always come back to 'I wish there were a mill around here,'" Deborah says. "And, 'We should just open a mill here.'"

Then, an unexpected letter arrived last August. The woman who owned the fiber mill in Maine needed to sell her equipment to move overseas to be closer to family.


Deborah stood in her kitchen as she read the letter. Jim sat at the nearby table. She handed him the letter and said, "We ought to do this."

He read it. "Yes, we should," he said.

They went to Maine in early November to visit the Fibre Co. The trip sealed the deal. Less than two weeks later, Deborah had a booth of her fiber for sale at Kid and Ewe, an annual fiber festival in Boerne, Texas. She passed out a small flier that said "Shhh . . . Tell only your closest friends. There is a new fiber processing mill opening in Texas in January! Quick turn-around times!"

Word spread faster than a half-finished sweater can unravel.

By the time the equipment arrived in late January, almost 100 pounds of fiber had arrived to be processed as well as 75 pounds of roving to be spun.

"We were overwhelmed by the response," Deborah says. "People were trying to come to the mill before the equipment was here. It was clear that Texas needed a mill."

"We didn't really plan on doing what we're doing," says the soft-spoken Jim Sharp. "But it worked out and it's great."

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