Leicester couple finds home-spun success
LEICESTER — In the living room of her Leicester home, Kristin Francoeur fed alpaca fiber into a wood spinning wheel, listening to its quiet click as she spun.
“This one has a tiny squeak, so we’ll have to adjust it,” she said.
The squeak, she said, was in the pedal. Over the past few years, Kristin has gotten some practice figuring out where the sounds are coming from: She tests each Green Mountain Spinning Wheel as her husband, Paul, makes them.
In recent months, the couple has launched the small spinning wheel business, working out of their home and the workshop out back. While each has a day job -— Paul as a general contractor and woodworker who makes tie racks for Beau Ties in Middlebury and Kristin as the assistant principal at Rutland Middle School — they’re finding ways to fit in the building, testing and marketing of spinning wheels.
It began with the alpacas, said Kristen. The family purchased three in 2004 so that Kristin could make her own yarn for knitting, but it soon became clear that spinning the alpaca fiber by hand wasn’t going to work.
“I was going to have to spin for the rest of my life on a drop spindle just to do that first year of fiber,” said Kristin. “People can tell you that you’re going to get seven-plus pounds of fiber each year, but until that’s there in your living room, you have no idea how much it actually is.”
So she bought a spinning wheel made of PVC plastic.
“It was very functional — it worked just fine,” said Kristin. “But it was very funny looking, and it made lots of noise.”
Her two sons and her husband weren’t entirely happy about the noise, especially while they were trying to watch TV or a movie. Finally Paul, who wanted to try his hand at engineering a machine, decided to have a go at creating his own wheel.
It was a collaborative effort, with Kristin explaining what she needed in a wheel and Paul heading to his workshop to create it. For guidelines, he had plans for a number of types — but none was exactly the kind the two envisioned.
“The plans were either for really fancy (wheels) or really simple ones,” said Kristin. “We wanted something in between.”
What they finally settled on was a design that is at once old-fashioned and modern, made of wood from Lathrop’s Lumber Mill in Bristol.
“Most spinning wheels are made in Europe or New Zealand. We wanted to make them in the United States, out of Vermont materials,” said Kristin.
And it gave Paul the opportunity to use a different skill set than the one he uses building houses, to develop and refine the machinery.
“When I was younger, I really liked the heavy construction. As the years have gone on, my interests lie more in the detail. This is what I love to do,” he said.
Since each wheel is made individually, Paul said that each has its own personality. But the thought isn’t only to the look of the wheels: Paul said each part of the wheel design has gone through many, many iterations. Now he has templates for all the parts so that he can duplicate the precise measurements.
“There’s nothing that drives me crazier than when I’ve got a tool or something mechanical and it breaks and there’s no way to fix it yourself.”
Because of this, the drive band that propels the wheel is easily replaceable, and the mechanism is simple to take apart.
The Francoeurs have been selling the wheels at farmer’s markets and craft fairs, at Vermont Yarn, Beads and Gift Emporium and through their website (www.greenmountainspinningwheels.com), which launched in September. And in the coming year they will take the wheels further afield — to the Jamaica Fiber Festival, and to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival in Tunbridge.
Each wheel, said Kristin, is priced at $395 for local customers, with an added charge for delivery to places further away. The wheels come with bobbins for winding and some of their alpaca fiber, and with personal instruction if the customers live close enough for home delivery.
So far, Green Mountain Spinning Wheels has sold eight spinning wheels, which has nearly exhausted the ones they have in stock. They also sell handmade spinning accessories and alpaca fiber, which Kristin said has also been popular. And the word, she said, seems to be spreading.
“People are surprised to find that there is a local family doing this,” said Kristin.
To the Francoeurs, the business is an ideal one, combining their passions and interests — knitting and textile work runs in her family, and woodworking and engineering in his.
“The dream is that if it ever took off, I’d stay right here and just do this,” said Paul.
Kristin said she wouldn’t quit her day job, but that she can fit in the extensive wheel testing in the evenings and on the weekends.
The couple hopes their work will help bring back spinning as a pastime, and Kristin said that the Green Mountains are just the place for it.
“I think in Vermont, people are not afraid to try things like spinning or knitting,” she said.
“It’s a skill that’s being lost,” said Paul. “It’s nice to see it come back around again.”
As an added bonus, the family welcomes the squeak-free spinning wheels that Kristin now uses while they are watching TV.
“This was all about my football games, when you get right down to it,” said Paul with a smile.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]