Marty Metzger | Fort Collins, Colo.

Cherokee Park family weaves livestock into the fiber of their lives

A close-knit northern Colorado family underwent a “form follows function” city-to-ranch transformation with a happy result that just continues growing.

Elaine Williams was a Midwestern army brat from the Chicago area until her family moved to Colorado when she was in third grade. She grew up and married Darrell Sipes, a third-generation Fort Collins native and construction worker. He travelled on jobs for the first 20 years of their life together while she worked as a full-time mom and electrical engineer.

Throwing yet another iron on the home fires, Sipes also avidly pursued a longtime hobby — knitting.

The 1990s saw a national fascination with exotic yarns and Sipes was no exception. When the trend proved more than a fad, her horizons broadened.

So, in 1996, Darrell gave Elaine a logical gift: three angora goats.

Naturally, the fluffy trio required pastoral accommodations. Sipes not only found the perfect place but paid to board them there. When they reproduced, the confirmed city gal with not so much as a little red hen on her ranching resume found herself making multiple round trips per day from urban south Fort Collins to rural Wellington to tend her expanding herd.

Along with travel time and work load, Sipes’ skills increased. She learned to shear, clean fiber, spin and began knitting custom garments for sale at shows.

She sent her intricate, sought-for pieces to art shows in Fort Collins, Aspen, Portland, Chicago, New Zealand, Japan.

Meanwhile, Sipes remained home to work and raise her children.

In 1998, she realized more people wanted yarn or patterns than finished products and further that her small herd of goats didn’t quite supply the demand.

That conclusion, increasing fervor for her avocation and a desire to add llamas to the mix led to a 2003 big move from town to Cherokee Park in the foothills west of Fort Collins.

Yes, the Sipes family had acquired 40 acres of dream llama land– but apparently not an abode one could consider family-friendly.

The 1,100-square-foot house was in really bad shape, recalled Sipes. The structure had no appliances save a sink and fridge.

Daughter Ivy returned home to help care for the 2-year-old twin Sipes grandchildren, who joined the household. For the following six years, the family used a two-burner hotplate, microwave and gas grill to cook all meals for five people.

They had been initiated into the wild, wild West... and they thrived.

As do many livestock owners, the family believed it was more important to get barns and fences repaired first.

Indoor renovations progressed, albeit slowly; the kitchen was completed in 2011. The Sipes had finished the basement in 2009. Unfortunately, the 2013 floods wiped it out.

Darrell took the loss stoically, saying, “Didn’t do it quite right the first time ... now I will.”

Meanwhile, back in the barn, yaks, llamas and alpacas busily continued producing fiber while the once-agriculturally challenged Sipes family became as rural as a hoedown. For example, Ivy, now 28, advised that their llamas and alpacas are shorn in the safest way possible: gently laid down, feet tied and mouth covered with a tube sock to discourage spitting. One side sheared, they’re rolled over to clip the opposite. The procedure lessens stress on large animals that would otherwise be far tougher to maneuver than a sheep.

The Sipes’ herd dines well from a gourmet menu of lush summer pasture and grass/alfalfa blend hay in winter. Must be onto something, too, as one llama is now 26. (This longevity is apparently rare in a species that, according to Sipes, rarely makes it past their mid-teens.) The yak boys also get sweet feed. A breeding female might soon join them, which would be good news for Franks, the only intact male.

Ivy reported that she has begun experimenting with feathers as a yarn component. A friend recently taught her to lay one at a time between two strands of yarn and twist. The trendy finished product is already available commercially elsewhere.

Minding their fiber business is truly a family affair at the Sipes spread. Ivy is a lace knitter, whose prize-winning, 8-foot diameter wedding shawls are so brilliantly sheer that they can be pulled through a wedding ring.

Elaine, Ivy and 11-year-old Alicia and Alex spin, weave, knit and crochet. Since their grandparents adopted them after their father’s death, the twins have grown up with fiber creatures and crafts. Both children help feed, have other chores on the ranch, and might join 4-H in the future. Alex hand-cards and does demos at shows; Alicia teaches kids’ knitting classes, adeptly runs credit cards, and can work any register, Sipes proudly proclaimed.

But the kids diet isn’t all fiber and no sweets.

Alicia, a budding artist, is also a runner.

Brother Alex runs as well and enjoys building things; he hopes to become an inventor.

Sharing in all the fun is 9-year-old Great Pyrenees Emma, who is supposed to work on the ranch but spends most of her time guarding Sipes. So, while she dotes on her mistress, llamas guard the livestock. Two more Great Pyrenees dogs, Lizzie and Maggie, and Great Dane mix Walter supervise, while guinea hens observe and everyone cautiously monitors the whereabouts of the ranch’s ubiquitous rattlesnakes.

Taking an overflowing hobby to the next level, Sipes opened her shop called Your Daily Fiber in November 2009 in downtown Fort Collins. She’d initially been leery of signing a three-year lease until then 7-year-old Alex put her qualms in perspective, declaring, “If you’re going to be afraid, be afraid of something real, like a mountain lion!”

Sipes signed the lease.

Buoyed by success but seeking better parking space, Your Daily Fiber moved a few blocks southeast to its present home at 325 E. Mulberry in November 2012.

The small, family-run shop is housed in a two-story historic house crowned with original wood floors and trim. In addition to skeins of the Sipes’ animals’ fiber, commercial yarn brand offerings at Your Daily Fiber include Cascade, Elsa Wool Company, Jaggerspun Zephyr, Misti Alpaca, Mountain Colors Yarns, Woodland Woolies and Rovings, Austermann and many others.

The store carries a substantial line of Colorado ranchers’ fiber and rovings (carded fiber for hand-spinning or felting) and, for anyone who spins, weaves or wants to learn, looms, wheels and weaving equipment.

Although Sipes still works in electrical engineering, she teaches knitting and weaving classes at the shop two nights a week, works retail on Saturdays, and sometimes helps out on her lunch hours.

She also does wool shows in Estes Park, Taos, New Mexico and Scottsbluff, Neb.

When someone insists 58-year-old Sipes can’t accomplish something, she does. One particular marketing methods is cleverly unique: a photo of each contributing fiber animal appears on her skein labels. She admittedly doesn’t easily bow to conformity.

However, Sipes follows a well-defined set of rules born of love when it comes to raising the twins.

“We want them to grow up in a farm and ranch culture. We teach them that we don’t eat until the animals eat; chores come first,” she declared.

She’s glad that Alex and Alicia are absorbing responsibility, routine and consequences for actions.

Sipes is also happy that many of today’s youth appreciate and are benefitting from venerable hobbies like knitting, spinning and weaving, which help develop self-discipline and patience. In our rapid-fire culture of two-second soundbites, texting and all things virtual or Internet, Sipes finds it refreshing that, rather than dying off, fiber crafts are growing in popularity with young people.

And one thing is for certain at the Sipes ranch: Everyone in the family benefits from getting their daily fiber. ❖


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The Fence Post Updated Jun 16, 2014 11:32AM Published Jun 4, 2014 08:23AM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.