The Scent of a Woolen, by Deb Witwicki
The life cycle of wool, from sheep to shop and onto the needle, is bred in the bone of Fibre Nook co-owner Ros Gullickson. She was born in the little town of Bairnsdale in southeastern Victoria, Australia. Her grazier father raised sheep and cattle and grew such crops as barley and oats on a farm in a small community near the Gippsland Lakes.
Young Ros loved the freedom of living on the land, “being able to ride the horse” through the open country. “Of course, as farmers, our livelihood depended on the weather. When I was 11 years old, we had a severe drought; it lasted a few years,” recalls Ros. “The wind swept the dry top soil against the fences. My parents and I spent those years feeding oats and other grains to the sheep as the ground was literally bare earth. We even set up a hospital paddock to try to nurse some back to health. Our cattle ended up at the other end of the state as my parents paid to have them graze on non-drought land, trying their best to keep the farm and the animals alive.
“One year we raised 43 poddy (orphaned) lambs, feeding them milk from specialized galvanized drums equipped with teat-like spouts. We needed to stay with them as they fed to make sure they all got their share and some didn’t push others away from the milk.”
“You had to get on with your siblings. They were your entertainment,” says Ros. Farm finances and the distance to town limited her ability to take part in after-school activities. Ros has two sisters as well as her brother but she is six and a half years younger than the next in line so by the time she was finished primary school, the others had left home. She learned early on how to be content keeping her own company.
The Gullickson’s raised Merino sheep, a breed prized for the fineness of its wool. Ros took an active part in shearing, which was scheduled for September school holidays so the children could help out. She brought the sheep to the shearing shed and back to the paddock and swept up around the shearers to get rid of the short fleece (locks) from the sheeps’ legs. The fleece was picked up from the feet of the shearer and thrown onto a table where a wool classer would assess its value (partially determined by the length, strength and the number of crimps in the staple). The fleeces were finally put it in a wool press and condensed into bales. The family sent the bales to Melbourne to be auctioned off to large manufacturers, primarily in Australia and Italy and later on, in the late 1970s and 1980s, in China.
Ros’ family purchased their yarn from local stores. "I don’t even remember starting to knit,” laughs Ros. During the drought, she and her mother knit sweaters for a local woolen mill using the mill’s stock, “yarns with lots of lanolin in them. Thus began my love of wooly wool! It always takes me back to working with the sheep! My mother and grandmother both knit and it was just something we always did.” Ros knit sweaters and mittens and was surprised recently to hear from an old boyfriend who still had a sweater she had made him over 40 years ago.
At 18, Ros went to Melbourne to attend university where she studied biology and then nursing. She continued to return to work on the farm on holidays. She has also knit throughout her life, except for a ten-year period when she, her husband and two daughters moved to the tropics of North Queensland, where she took up quilting.
Ros lived in the Falkland Islands for over two years before coming to Edmonton in 2001. She had a difficult time finding the kinds of yarns she prefers in this city. “I like anything from soft, fluffy mohairs,” she says, “to alpacas and more rustic yarns, stuff that smells like wool.” Her nose for lanolin had been cultivated early on.
In Edmonton, Ros worked as a registered nurse and joined up with a local knitting group called the Woolies. Members often lamented the city’s shortage of yarn stores; some even travelled to Calgary to shop for their yarn. “We knew there was a market and the concept of The Fibre Nook just grew from there,” says Ros.
“It was a leap of faith,” claims Ros, “trusting that I could find stuff that people would be interested in.” Judging from the following The Fibre Nook has drawn since it opened in 2017, knitters and crocheters indeed seem to be interested in what the shop has to offer. Both Ros and co-owner Leslie Latta kept their day jobs. Ros worked for 33 years as a Registered Nurse and currently is treasurer of her union local of the United Nurses of Alberta, a posting that fits well with her abiding interest in fairness and social justice.
At The Fibre Nook, Ros’ nose for yarn is put to work stocking the store. She purchases yarn primarily from large and small companies but also directly from the mills, including Custom Woolen Mills, a small family-run operation near Carstairs, Alberta. She would like to source directly from local mills more in the future. The Fibre Nook’s yarns come from animals in Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, United States and, of course Canada. The shop also purchases yarn from hand dyers. Both Leslie and Ros work some shifts in the store and share responsibility for the demands of entrepreneurial life.
They are both grateful for the support of clients and their dedicated staff through the Covid pandemic. “I haven’t had to worry about the shop at all,” notes Ros. In her home life, the social distancing has yielded some 13 pairs of socks, two sweaters and at least one shawl. Ros has two daughters and two grandchildren.
“Creating The Fibre Nook has brought me full circle,” says Ros. “My one regret is that my parents didn’t live to see me with the shop. My mother and, especially my father, would have been so happy to see the circle completed.”