A Michigan transplant discovers she’s not alone in finding comfort and healing in a Suttons Bay knitting community.
Featured in the January 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
When people ask me why I moved to Michigan, I usually say, “I needed a change!” or, “Living in Washington, D.C. for two years took its toll!” or, “I want to live somewhere with snow before snow disappears!” These things are true. But, not the whole truth.
As I was graduating from grad school in D.C., I was working to get back up on my feet after my second autoimmune diagnosis. The second bout had slammed me to the ground. I was 27 years old and even getting out of bed was a struggle. Eating was a struggle. Sleeping was a struggle. I had my own life and work in D.C., but my body was exhausted from continuous battle. After graduation, in the face of my struggle, my parents suggested spending the summer at our cottage in Suttons Bay. I wanted to live and work in D.C. and stand on my own two feet, but the fact remained that, much to my chagrin, I still needed help making it to the end of each day.
The breeze off the lake was a tonic. I found myself drawn to the outdoors, wanting to play in the beautiful Michigan summer like I did when I was a kid. I wanted to go to yoga classes, and take hikes and swims, but, still, my body held me back. Slowly, with the help of my family, I re-learned how to take care of myself. They helped me find new things to occupy my hazy brain until I could build strength for more strenuous activities.
My mom (and I) decided that a simple long-term project would help me focus. It would bring a consistent thread through my otherwise snarled existence of freelance writing and shaky health. I decided—not having knit a single stitch since I was about eight years old—that I would knit everyone a personalized scarf as a Christmas gift. My family would serve as the guinea pigs for Molly’s Knitting Experiment. About 10 scarves total. My mom raised an eyebrow, but I assured her that YouTube would be my guide.
We went to a craft store in Traverse City to pick up some subpar yarn that I wouldn’t be afraid to mess up. But then, arriving back in Suttons Bay, we treated ourselves to a visit to Leelanau Fiber.
Leelanau Fiber, on St. Joseph Street, feels like an old-fashioned candy shop. A huge variety of colors and textures cover the walls and skeins of yarn are stuffed into every corner. I wandered around the store and took in the incredible array of natural and dyed colorways. Cotton and alpaca and sheep and goat. My mom chatted with Betsy, the woman behind the counter, as I dragged my fingers across the fibers, taking a strand and rubbing it between my thumb and forefinger to feel its softness and weight. I picked out two bright cotton yarns in white and cherry red. I had a new goal: stripes.
As I walked back to the counter, I caught the tail-end of a conversation that was obviously about my health situation. I shot my mom that withering scowl only disgruntled daughters can give their mothers. She held her hands up in surrender and said, “I know, I know, but we’re about to leave you up here by yourself and I’m worried. It takes a village!”
As it turned out, Betsy is also a mom. She immediately sided with mine and invited me to come to the shop’s knitting group the next week. I smiled and nodded with zero intent to return.
My folks left and the days grew colder. I made my own meals and sometimes took short walks around the neighborhood. I began a habit of sitting on the couch in the evenings and knitting while watching a show, and that clear feeling of independence crept back in.
The first scarf I knitted was for me. I figured that, by the principle of the first pancake, this would be the most messed up scarf. It was simple knitted stitches for every single row. After dropping stitches and cursing at the damn thing many times, I finally finished. What I had knit was a wide and uneven gray monstrosity that I hope no one will ever look at too closely. However, I will say, it’s very warm. This barrier smashed, I parlayed the accomplishment high and graduated myself to more advanced sections of knitting YouTube.
As it turns out, knitting stripes isn’t something that translates well on video. I kept catching the yarn and not knowing whether or not it looked right from the back or the front. The trouble with knitting is—much like in life—you often can’t see the mistake until you’re a couple of rows past it. The humbling realization that it took me two full episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to complete a single row of stitches forced me to seek help. Again. I knew I needed to visit the knitting group.
I grew anxious as Wednesday evening approached. The vulnerability and exposure it takes to ask for help were still very raw for me. But, still, I put on my puffer and drove the 10 minutes into town.
The shop looked different but no less cozy on knitting night. There was a big card table set up in the main room and several ladies sitting around it. I walked in and stood blankly. They looked at me and I looked at them. Then, I saw Betsy sitting in the corner. I’d forgotten her name, but she remembered mine. She introduced me to everyone sitting in the circle: Cindy, Jackie, Darryl, Diane, Demarie and a few more. They smiled up at me and invited me to sit down with them.
I explained my stripes problem. Cindy and Darryl helped me while we all shared bits about ourselves and how we came to be there. I learned that Diane and Demarie, who sat knitting with the group, had purchased Leelanau Fiber together in 2017, self-described fiber fanatics whose aim is to promote a community of friends and fiber enthusiasts in Northern Michigan. I also learned that they each have their own fiber farms where they keep goats, sheep, alpacas and even a couple of Angora rabbits.
As Diane and Demarie chatted that night, telling me the story of their friendship, farms, Leelanau Fiber and the personal challenges they’d faced along the way, I felt a connection to these women who had also struggled, and I knew that night I wanted to know more.
“Her kids call me ‘the enabler!’” jokes Diane Kiessel, as she and Demarie Jones toss out peanuts like dog biscuits to Demarie’s small flock of goats and sheep. The animals swarm around us, bumping into our legs and each other as they vie for treats. The smallest goat has buttery-colored curls and keeps nudging my hand in hopes of a good scratch.
“Yeah, Diane’s my B.F.F.!” Demarie says. “My Best Fiber Friend!”
It’s a cold February day when I first visit Demarie’s farm, but the gray light is warmed by the atmosphere inside the barn. Demarie’s Three Little Birds Farm is just west of Omena, and in neighboring Suttons Bay, Diane owns Dragonfly Valley Fiber Farm. Diane began her farm back in 2007, but Demarie’s journey to becoming a farmer began after her husband passed away on February 14, 2016. That spring, one of Diane’s sheep gave birth to a baby lamb on Easter Sunday.
“I had the first baby lamb on my farm,” Diane says. “We had talked about the lamb, so I texted Demarie and said, ‘I have a baby! Come see the baby!’”
Demarie drove to Diane’s farm to visit and fell in love with the lamb. Diane says, “It was the first smile I’d seen on her face in weeks and something possessed me to ask, ‘Do you want the lamb?’”
Demarie didn’t even have her farm yet, but Diane offered to keep the lamb for her, so she said yes and named the lamb Hosanna, “Anna” for short. Five months later, Demarie and her daughter’s family bought the farm where Anna now has a permanent home and is a mother to her own lambs.
“After my husband died, things started snowballing,” Demarie says. “It was the lamb, then the farm, then the shop!”
Each animal on Demarie’s farm has a unique character. She keeps chickens, Angora goats, Southdown Babydoll sheep, two alpacas and two Angora rabbits. All the animals have fun names like Malabar, Captain, Henry, Obama, Poncho, Lefty and Harley.
Captain keeps trying to chew the corner of my notebook, and Harley the ram keeps hitting the wall accidentally turning off the light switch by his stall. The friendly little honey-colored goat is named Sandy.
While all the animals are friendly—Demarie’s 3-year-old granddaughter comes out to play with them all—Sandy stands out as the friendliest. Her tail wags furiously and she reminds me of how my childhood dog would sprint to the front door, tail thumping, as soon as she heard my dad’s car in the driveway. And I notice that she is small. When I ask why Sandy is so much smaller than all the other goats, Demarie and Diane explain that she is what farmers call a bottle baby.
Sometimes, when the mothers give birth, they won’t feed their babies; then it’s up to the farmer to bottle-feed the babies at all hours, hence the term. These baby animals form a bond with their caretakers.
“When you have bottle babies, you’re out there in the barn at two o’clock in the morning with a heat lamp,” Diane says. “It’s completely quiet, and all you can hear is the animals chewing. At first, you feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get up and feed these babies,’ but then you get out there, it’s so quiet and the animals are there. The goats are so funny because they sleep in family groups. I just wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Both Demarie and Diane have been working with fiber since they were very young. Demarie grew up with sheep. Her grandparents had a sheep farm, and her grandmother taught her to knit and crochet. “Goats were new, but sheep aren’t new,” says Demarie. “I was going to stick with the sheep and the alpacas, but then I fell in love with the goats!”
“Are your kids farmers?” I ask.
“They are now!”
Everything with the farm is a learning process. Diane and Demarie both constantly seek opportunities within the fiber community to learn and improve the care of their animals. They attend the Michigan Fiber Festival in Allegan every year. It’s one of the largest fiber festivals in the country, and it’s a great source of information. They go to learn and to meet with the community. It’s a competition, but the primary purpose is to learn better care, husbandry and nutrition for the animals.
“The world is small, but the fiber community is even smaller and everyone is so nice,” Diane says. And while they are constantly learning new and more efficient methods from their colleagues, they can’t do everything on their own.
Every year, Diane and Demarie shear their goats, but they hire someone to shear the sheep and alpacas. You can place goats on a stand and simply move around them, but sheep and alpacas are much more labor-intensive. Once sheared, the goal is to clean the collected fiber and send it out to be milled into yarn for their shop. Right now, it’s all stuffed in grocery sacks around the barn. I ask when they’ll have enough fiber to send out and they both start chuckling, “We have enough!”
The hard part, they explain, is making all the decisions on what exactly to do with the collected fiber. The choices are overwhelming. They plan to send some of their wool to a mill in East Jordan and the rest to a mill in Frankenmuth. Each mill specializes in different forms of production.
Diane and Demarie need to decide how they want the fibers blended with other fibers or if they want it blended at all. Do they want it dyed into colors or spun into yarn or made into roving?
“Roving is pre-yarn,” Diane explains. It’s when the fiber has been cleaned, combed and carded, which is a process by which the fiber is pulled into the same direction by short metal bristles. You can do this by hand with two “carders” that look like pulling two brushes against each other or with a machine that looks like a giant version of the inner mechanics of a music box. After it’s made into roving, a fiber artist can pull the fibers apart and spin it into yarn themselves.
Demarie is more interested in natural fibers; whereas Diane is drawn toward vivid colorways. “We have totally opposite tastes,” Diane says. “It’s not that I dislike it or she dislikes it, but it’s just our different tastes.” I look at these two women and realize it’s this complementary aspect of their friendship that makes their partnership work.
I look back now, and I can see that those first few weeks alone Up North were lonelier than I realized at the time. I was in desperate need of community, and I didn’t even know it. Even though I was afraid, I’m so glad I took the chance.
I left that first meeting with multiple invitations to Thanksgiving dinners. I discovered that one of my “knitting ladies,” as I began to call them, had my grandfather as her high school history teacher in Lansing. Not to mention, I was well on my way to completing my knitting project. I completed all 10 scarves to rave reviews. The striped one included.
That evening, after my first visit to the knitting group, I felt included, comforted and supported in a way I hadn’t felt from anyone but family in a long time. Diane is absolutely right: The world is small, but the fiber world is even smaller. (And everyone is incredibly nice.) In fact, one knitting lady in particular is now a dear friend. I’m so grateful for that initial foothold into my little world up here in the North, for the community on St. Joseph Street that Demarie and Diane so dedicatedly foster and for the inspiration I found on the farm watching two women pursuing their friendship and their passion.
Molly Korroch is a journalist based in Suttons Bay. Visit her website at mollyhunterkorroch.com or follow her @mollykorroch. Courtney Kent is based in Traverse City and photographs weddings, families and lifestyle. courtneykentphotography.com