Monday, May 10, 2010

Road Trip: Kai Ranch-- Meet Lisa Shell & Her Angora Goats

Several years ago, I was at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar when I came across a booth carrying locally handspun mohair made from the coats of Angora goats. I began salivating immediately, and stopped to chat with Lisa Shell, who with her husband, Randy, runs Kai Ranch about an hour east of Austin. Lisa raises and shears the goats, cleans the mohair, spins some of it, and—most time-consuming—dyes a bunch of it before selling it. (She also sells natural, undyed roving and fiber, also really beautiful.)

During that first encounter, I asked if I might visit the ranch one day, and Lisa said springtime was best—that’s when all the new kids arrive. I made a mental note then to pay a visit. It took me four years to get out there, but a few weeks ago, returning from a trip to Houston, I popped in.

Oh boy!

By my estimation, Lisa lives a fantasy life. Which isn’t to say raising a herd isn’t sometimes hard—it is. And it also isn’t to say that I could actually do it myself (remember, for me, it’s a fantasy). But spending time with someone whose entire life is dedicated to fiber like that, well let’s just say it was a magical and inspiring afternoon for me.

The ranch is off the beaten path, and Lisa sent very careful directions since once you get to a certain spot odds are pretty good your cell phone won’t work. We turned this way and that (my boyfriend/photographer was in tow), and finally found the entrance. Lisa greeted us, stepping outside of her cozy house. We headed right out to the pastures.

On the way, I asked her how many goats she has. Her quick answer: “Too many to feed and not enough to sell.”

Before long, we came to a clearing and there they stood— around forty does and about as many adorable little kids. The bucks were over in their own area in a pen. Guarding the herd: three Great Pyrenees-- Sue, Lola, and Anu. The massive white dogs, appearing to be distant kin of small polar bears, know their jobs well. Lisa makes sure to bring a new pup into the pack when the eldest starts getting up there in age. That way, the youngster can learn from the old hands to guard, not attack, the goats.

She raises fine white and
colored Angoras—the former breed dating back 2,000 years. Colored Angora goats are, she says, something of late-- no more than 100 years old. On average, each will live to be 8 to 10 years old, producing 10 to 20 pounds of mohair yearly through their entire lives. They are a vision to behold, all those curly locks, those peculiar eyes, those curving horns. And the babies—oh the babies. I wanted to load up at least six of them and move them directly into my house.

Next year will mark a full quarter of a century since Lisa started raising the goats, a life she came to possibly by accident though, from the looks of things, might likely more have been fate. In the eighties, she and Randy were living in California, where he was stationed in the military. Lisa took a class in spinning and weaving and, in an instant, fell in love with the processes. When they later moved to Japan for several years, she continued to pursue her passion, both practicing her newfound art and reading as much as she could on the topic.

During this time, she and her husband took a six-week trip to Australia, where they stayed with a sheep rancher during shearing season, a working vacation to understate the matter. She left thinking that attempting to raise her own fiber-producing animals would be too much work. But then, when they moved from Japan to San Angelo, she spotted a guy in a truck with a Morrit ewe (Morrit refers to a true brown color). She stopped him and bought both the ewe and a ram. That was the start of it.

Before long, she switched from sheep to goats, her decision informed by her affinity for mohair. Building her herd—she wanted colored Angora goats, not the far more dominant white kind— was not an easy task. “There were not many people who would talk to me,” she explains. “I was beyond the black sheep. Breeders of white goats didn’t want to admit they had colored goats.”

Eventually, though she assembled a respectable herd, which, at one point, grew to 200. With each season comes a different set of tasks. She breeds them in the fall, with does assigned to specific bucks since they all have to be registered, and the papers require accounting for heritage. Twice annually she shears. Then there are vaccinations, “ear-piercing” (they’re all tagged), and—in winter—
outfitting them in warm clothes, buying thrift shop sweaters, and “tailoring” them with zip ties to fit the goats, who seem to appreciate trying on wool for a change.

Winter also means Armadillo Christmas Bazaar time, and with it brutal hours but profitable business. Her booth is open from 11 til 11 for the duration of the event. Add in her round trip drive from and to the ranch—and that’s a mighty long day, though she does get help running the booth in the evenings.

After our visit with the goats, Lisa took us into her studio, which doubles as a workspace and a salesroom. “It’s not big enough” she says. And true enough, the room is packed to the rafters with mohair in all states from freshly sheared fleeces (some of which will be entered into competitions), to roving for customers who like to spin their own, to mohair yarn that is already spun, dyed (or left natural).

As we talk, Lisa sits at her upright Columbine wheel and spins seemingly effortlessly, and I observe, hypnotized. It’s like watching a top chef or world-class ballerina in action. Her motion is steady and swift, the results consistent and beautiful. (Here's a picture of one of her spinning wheels:)

These days, Lisa is trying her hand at fused fiber art, using silk, bamboo, and mohair. She shows us some smaller pieces, impressionistic and bright, that remind her of exotic fish. She’s also got a bigger work, a kimono (for displaying, not wearing) that is breathtaking. Here are some pictures:

She’s also been having a great time pursuing solar dyeing, to the point she says, “I may never go back to the cooker. The colors are really different—the way the sun breaks down the dye, the result is magical.”

She never tires of life at the ranch with her herd. “It’s a lifestyle,” she says. “They can test you in ways you wouldn’t dream of. What I love about my job is that I’m never bored. As soon as you get done with one task it’s on to the next.”

Lisa welcomes visitors. Email her ahead of time to make an appointment. You can reach her at:
lisa shell

For more info on Angora goats, Lisa recommends these websites:

Colored Angora Goat Breeders Association

American Angora Goat Breeders Association

Mohair Council of America

(All photos copyright Ori Sofer 2010.)

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