Home sweet Nome: Two women will market wool, much more in old North Dakota school house
Two North Dakota women have been paving a new path for their passions, and expanding to share it with others.
Shepherd Industries, LLC is the collaboration of Teresa Perleberg and Chris Armbrust, and their respective businesses, Bear Creek Felting and Dakota Fiber Mill. Their entrepreneurship and craftsmanship have been making an impact both locally and nationally in the fiber and agriculture industries.
North Dakota born and raised, Teresa and Chris have been involved in agriculture. Chris graduated from Casselton High School and spent several years competing in barrel racing and working with horses. She and her husband, Steve, have four children and eight grandchildren. She was a pharmacist technician and Certified Nurse’s Assistant before she found her calling working with fiber. Chris started out with a small herd of alpacas and a spinning wheel, which eventually led to the formation of her own mill due to a national shortage of them, and far too long of a wait for returned product. The shortage is caused by the expensive equipment and long, grueling hours in order to operate it.
“There is a growing interest in knowing where your wool comes from, similar to farm to table. Therefore, there are more small flock owners interested in processing and selling their own products,” Chris said. There are less than 200 cottage mills in the U.S., and they’re unable to keep up with the growing demand.
Teresa grew up near Wyndmere on a farm that produced grain, purebred Simmental, and sheep. She attended the University of Minnesota, Crookston for a degree in Parks and Recreation, and worked for the U.S. Forest Service and Badlands National Park in South Dakota. She and her husband, Jeff, have three sons and a daughter. She began her journey with needle felting when her daughter was young and showed an interest in fiber art. They learned together, and the mother-daughter hobby became something more. Teresa also had her own herd of sheep and learned to spin wool to use in her miniature animal sculptures. Her business now consists of her own artwork, kits with patterns and wool, and an online academy.
“I purchased the sheep first, then learned how to needle felt, and then my felting grew into a business. Chris has processed all of my wool for about 8 years,” Teresa said.
“My family has always helped out with the sheep and my business. My husband, Jeff, does a lot of the feeding and care of the sheep, as well as helping me with shipping products and other aspects of the business. I have 4 children that are available when I need them during busy seasons. I currently have 61 ewes, 45 lambs, and 2 rams. All the wool in my felt creations and kits come from my sheep. I also sell wool by the ounce to needle felters,” Teresa said.
The two women came together first to work on a project in 2017, and the transition to being partners was smooth. Their businesses were booming and they recognized the need for growth, so they joined forces and began the search for the perfect location to expand, as they collectively became known as Shepherd Industries, LLC.
Teresa had admired the abandoned 1916 schoolhouse in Nome for many years, and Chris agreed that renovating an old school would benefit them. They said they chose it because it had the most character, and was structurally sound. They were able to purchase the building, and their next step was planning the renovation.
“We had people ask how they could help financially, knowing how expensive renovating an old building can be,” they said. The women chose the website Kickstarter, an online platform focused on helping artists fundraise for various projects, because it was the safest for both the donors and for them. “We hoped to be able to reach a wider audience with a campaign to create an urgency and reason for them to donate. The outcome greatly exceeded our expectations.”
The Kickstarter campaign, named ‘Saving the Nome Schoolhouse’, ran through the month of May, and fundraised a total of $44,103 from 214 backers. They plan on completing the first phase by 2020.
“It will bring employment opportunities, provide education about the fiber arts, and offer a space for makers to come and relax as well as bring fiber enthusiasts from all over the world to North Dakota,” They said. In addition to those benefits, they’ll also be saving a historic building from further deterioration and destruction.
Leanne Smedshammer has been living in the small town of Nome, population of approximately 60, for 26 years of her life. The schoolhouse is directly behind their backyard. She and her husband, Curt Schall, were skeptical of the undertaking when it first began.
“We were wondering who in the world would come to the tiny town of Nome for what we thought was a fantasy. Well, the more we learned, the more our thoughts turned around, and we found out that people around the world actually would come to Nome! We’ve done a complete 180 in a few short months, along with many other previous skeptics,” Leanne said.
Leanne has realized that Chris and Teresa have dedication and passion, along with the people interested in the fiber arts. She even wrote a widely shared letter on Facebook that discussed the benefits of the renovation.
“When people ask me who would come to Nome for these things, especially once the ‘novelty’ has worn off, I tell them it’s no different than a dedicated sports fan who follows their team around and goes to all the games, or an avid hunter or fisher who travels to other states and countries to do their activities, or golfers, boaters, car racers, and people who go to the lakes every weekend.”
She notes that there will be many different things going on in the schoolhouse. “If you’re not interested in wool specifically, there will be other things to do as well. It will benefit our town because there will be numerous jobs to fill. We choose to support these ladies and their project because it will bring new life to Nome. These are extremely hard working and ambitious women who have an incredible vision. It will be incredibly unique with something for almost everyone,” Leanne said.
Both Bear Creek Felting and Dakota Fiber Mill will be located in the new location of Nome, population less than 100, situated in Barnes County. Along with their businesses, which include the fully operating fiber mill and crafted fiber animals, they plan on hosting a retail store, classrooms, bed and breakfast rooms, an in-house chef, and an event center for retreats, weddings, graduations, and reunions.
With all the different facets of their busy lives, their daily to-do lists can be hefty. Teresa said her day is filled with checking emails, answering questions and creating videos for her online Academy, marketing on social media, placing orders for supplies, checking with her assistant in Tennessee that helps her with customer service and creating online needle felting courses.
“During the lambing season I spend a lot of time in the barn, as well as checking on them while working in the house with the barn cameras. I work on assembling my 19 different needle felting kits so they can be ready for shipping. In the evening, I work with my husband packing and shipping out the day’s orders,” Teresa said.
Chris’s days are filled with the process of turning raw fleece into yarn or felt. An explanation of her process can be found on their YouTube channel, but in summary includes shearing, skirting, washing, picking, carding, drafting, spinning, plying, and skeining. She said her daily production varies greatly, producing anywhere from 5 to 30 pounds of fiber.
“Some customers send me 2 pounds of fiber, and some over 100. Customers wait 8-12 months (a normal wait time for mills across the country) to get their finished yarn or roving from me now. I need to expand to add more machines and increase production so I can get the wait times down for my customers. I’m currently not taking new customers.”
The business owners communicate with each other throughout the day, and meet up at least once a week to discuss details and make plans, as well as film a weekly video for YouTube, where they answer questions and share the projects they’re working on.
With all of this, it’s easy to believe their most challenging aspect of the schoolhouse project has been finding the time to learn the new aspects about their businesses. Fortunately, they have each other.
“Having someone to share the enthusiasm and excitement of building a business after doing it alone for so many years is the aspect we love most.”
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