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Soft art of spinning cashmere

Susan Inglis with yarn that she sells through her Chapel Hill business From The Mountain which imports and sells yarn spun by Afghan women.
Susan Inglis with yarn that she sells through her Chapel Hill business From The Mountain which imports and sells yarn spun by Afghan women. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Given her upbringing, it was only natural that Susan Inglis would grow up to work with handmade items. Her father was a woodworker. Her mother was a potter and a weaver. Her grandmother sewed, knit and embroidered.

Inglis, 59, learned to weave when she was 7 years old, and acquired other skills, such as knitting and crocheting. As a result, she learned not only how things are made, but also respect for the time and skills it takes to make them. She now runs the Chapel Hill-based From The Mountain, a company that imports and sells cashmere yarn hand-spun by Afghan women.

However, her path to that business was far from straight. After her marriage ended and her two kids were little, she started a knitted sweater business. “I just didn’t have enough sense to go and get a job and was bound and determined to be a stay-at-home mama,” Inglis said.

Her next thought: “What can I make?”

At first, she made and sold handmade custom sweaters, eventually selling them wholesale across the country. As the business picked up, she worked with women in West Virginia through an economic development program called Appalachian By Design. Through the program, she found out about a West Virginia conservation organization called the The Mountain Institute. That organization worked on international projects, including an income generation project in Nepal that needed a fiber expert to help create products made from locally produced nettle cloth for international sale. As a volunteer, she went to Nepal with a colleague to a village so remote they had to walk for three days to get there.

That experience launched her career as a consultant on short-term international development projects and led her to work in more than 30 countries. Her Chapel Hill home is testament to that work. It is filled with items such as a nettle cloth shawl from Nepal, a snake made out of a giant root from Peru and brightly colored throw pillows from Guatemala, Jordan and Colombia.

Her latest project has her working with individuals in Afghanistan, which is home to more than 7 million cashmere-producing goats, according to the U. S. Agency for International Development.

More specifically, Inglis partners with an exporter who works with about 100 Afghan women who hand-spin the cashmere on drop spindles. These are not rustic-looking spinning wheels but rather sticks with disks stuck at the end and a tiny hook at the bottom of the stick. Using nothing but their hands and the energy that comes from twisting the fiber itself, these women spin yarn.

The wonderful thing about cashmere yarn is that it pays the spinners well compared to making fiber for carpet, which pays spinners roughly $1 per kilo. In contrast, sport-weight wool pays $20 per kilo, which is important since many spinners are their family’s breadwinners. After training, these women can work at home, which eases their housekeeping chores.

However, importing goods from a warn-torn country does have its challenges; in fact, 4 kilos of yarn for From the Mountain was turned back due to the recent fighting in Kunduz.

Once the yarn does reach Chapel Hill, it arrives in three weights (worsted, DK and sport) and in four natural, undyed colors (natural white, light gray, light brown and dark brown). It then goes out to more than 80 yarn stores across the country and in the Triangle, including Yarn Tree Studio in Raleigh, Cozy in Durham and Yarns Etc. in Chapel Hill. One skein is perfect for smaller projects, and allows for the creation of quick-to-make luxury gift items at an affordable price.

Each skein offers not only soft, cozy fiber hand-spun by women half a world away, Inglis said, but an opportunity to help Afghan women provide for their families and take more control of their lives – skein by skein by skein.

Betsy Greer writes about craft and activism at craftivism.com. Reach her at betsy.greer@gmail.com.

Where to Buy

From the Mountain yarn is sold at these Triangle shops:

▪ Yarn Tree Studio, 8801-117 Lead Mine Road, Raleigh, 919-845-3292, yarntreestudio.com

▪ Cozy, 770 Ninth St., Durham, 919-286-3400, cozyon9th.com

▪ Yarns, Etc., 1322-4 Fordham Blvd., Chapel Hill, 919-928-8810, yarnsetc.com

For more information about the company, go to fromthemountain.com

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