NORTHFIELD, Minnesota — Both Theresa Bentz and Alejandra Sanchez are shepherds and spinners in southeast Minnesota, and they've recently teamed up to educate and grow the local wool community.

Bentz and Sanchez were recently guests on the Agweek Podcast.

Theresa Bentz and her husband, Jake, run Get Bentz Farm in Northfield, where they raise Icelandic sheep and sell fiber products.

Last spring, Bentz purchased a mini-mill, which she said is able to process from one to 100 pounds of wool at a time. She said it's still considered a mini-mill because it's a smaller set of machinery compared to some of the big mills in Minnesota like Faribault Woolen Mill and Bemidji Woolen Mills.

At the same time Bentz purchased the mill, she created a business partnership with Alejandra Sanchez. Sanchez runs a nearby farm in Kenyon, Minnesota, A Woolen Forest, where she raises a flock of Jacob, Soay, and Leicester Longwool, along with Angora rabbits for their fiber.

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"(Sanchez) was very supportive when I decided to buy this mill, because it's a big investment," said Bentz.

The two said part of their frustration with the industry was the lack of high-quality roving available for spinners to spin, as well as naturally dyed roving. They created Shepherds Share boxes as an answer to that.

"Each Shepherds Share has its own theme, related to the spring on the farm, or the hot July days," said Bentz. "And we connect the person or the spinner who purchases the box, with the sheep that provided the fiber, the natural dyes that dyed the fiber, and then also we tell a story about why we selected that."

It didn't take long after their partnership began that the two started teaching expanded classes for spinners and offering a variety of new products, said Bentz. She calls Sanchez the "brains and talent" behind all of their naturally dyed products.

Alejandra Sanchez holds a basket of native plants used for natural dyes. 
Contributed photo
Alejandra Sanchez holds a basket of native plants used for natural dyes. Contributed photo


Sanchez said that she got into the industry through teaching natural dye classes and doing natural dyeing herself.

"It was really only a couple of years ago that I got onto a farm and became a shepherd, and it was actually through Theresa's help," said Sanchez. "She helped as my mentor and helped me raise my first flock of sheep."

Sanchez said once Bentz got the mill, it seemed obvious for them to expand class offerings directed at spinners, which she called a "market terribly underserved."

Spinning for the soul

Throughout the summer, Bentz and Sanchez were able to offer both natural dyeing and spinning classes. Now in winter when their garden has been put to rest, they are focusing on just the spinning side.

"What's been really great is just to see our community grow, and to really bring in a whole lot of new spinners," said Sanchez. "Because the classes offer a space where they're not only learning from us, but they're learning from each other, so that has been really cool to see."

The range of people attending the classes has been wide, they said.

"We've had young kids as participants, up to retired individuals who are taking this up," said Bentz. "We get a lot of knitters who have always wanted to spin, so we give them the opportunity to try the new craft."

Spinning brings joy to both Bentz and Sanchez, albeit in different ways.

"Spinning to me, reminds me a lot of body work or yoga," said Bentz. "I'm a big snowshoeer and skier, and it's all about that opportunity to get into your body and just do the movements."

Bentz said it's also a "tactile experience."

"You're letting the fibers slip between your fingers as you're spinning it, so you really get to know what's on that fiber," she said. "You kind of create a relationship with the sheep or other animal that created that fiber — so it's kind of a big circle, and then you end up with this finished product."

For Sanchez, the attraction to spinning was more romantic.

"That fairy tale wheel, like spinning next to a cozy fire in the middle of the woods, and I was kind of like, I want to be like Rumpelstiltskin," said Sanchez.

Once she learned to spin, Sanchez said the activity became much more than that fairy tale image.

"It's a beautiful way for people to connect to the land and to the animal, and to the people that grow the wool, even though you yourself might not live on a farm or raise animals," said Sanchez. "And so that has been kind of like the game changer for me, building that connection with all these different animals and people."

Sanchez said it's also a meditation for her.

"Time just flies by because you get into this rhythm, and it's just you and the wool," she said.