From Activist to Yarn-Shop Owner to Sheep Farmer: A Profile of Anna Hunter

16 December 2020

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It’s a common truth that many of us end up doing things that we neither planned nor expected to do. Though there’s one aspect of Anna Hunter’s life that she had been working towards – living on a farm – she absolutely didn’t expect to ever run a wool mill.

Anna and I chatted recently, me in my tiny little house in downtown Toronto, Anna on her farm in rural Manitoba, and she told me her story.

Anna studied international development and environment studies at Dalhousie University, in Halifax. Visits to Malawi and India confirmed for her that she could do just as much – perhaps even more – good at home. Her focus shifted to Canadian housing policy, and for nearly ten years Anna worked as an anti-poverty advocate in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Knitting was a constant presence in her life during this time, but not always without complication. She’d learned to knit while working as a nanny for a family in Switzerland. Anna had fallen in love with a colourwork sweater belonging to a fashionable friend of her employer, and she decided to learn to knit so she could make one for herself.
A woman kneels by a sheep eating from a bucket, with her hand on its head. A young boy is behind her, petting the sheep. A slightly older boy watches, shown blurry in the foreground.

Anna Hunter and her two sons gently socialized their first sheep.

Image description: A woman kneels by a sheep eating from a bucket, with her hand on its head. A young boy is behind her, petting the sheep. A slightly older boy watches, shown blurry in the foreground.

Back in Canada, her experiences in yarn shops weren’t always great. Anna admits, with a nostalgic chuckle, that at the time she “very much looked the part of an activist” – sporting shirts with political slogans, having unkempt hair and wearing clothes in less-than-pristine condition – and recalls that yarn shop staff tended to assume that she was either shopping for her mother or looking to do a bit of shoplifting. She rarely felt welcome to browse, let alone shop for herself.

Facing unemployment as a work assignment came to an end, and feeling burned out from the stress and emotional toil of her activism work, Anna decided to open the yarn shop that Vancouver was missing: a place that would be welcoming to all customers, especially those who were not traditionally considered – or perhaps just not dressed like – typical knitters. She wanted Baaad Anna’s to be a safe place for people who experienced exclusion because of gender identity, race, age, or because they just didn’t fit into the mold of “knitter.” Though she was motivated in part by her own experiences in yarn shops, she also designed her new business to be an expression of her commitment to anti-oppression in all spaces, and especially in craft spaces.

Anna’s goal was to create a 100-mile yarn shop, stocked exclusively with yarn and products made within that distance of Vancouver. There were plenty of sheep farms in the Fraser Valley, surely there was locally-produced yarn available, too? It became clear very quickly, however, that there wasn’t even enough locally manufactured yarn to fill a single shelf, let alone an entire store. So Baaad Anna’s Yarn Store opened in East Vancouver with an expanded inventory focusing on natural fibres and products from local dyers and designers.

After the birth of her second son, Anna and her husband, Luke, found themselves wanting more space. Vancouver real estate is notoriously expensive, and even with one partner running a successful business and the other with well-paid full-time work, a house for a growing family was simply out of reach.

It had been a long-term dream of the couple to move out of the city, to “homestead.” Their desire for more space coupled with the inaccessible Vancouver housing market led them to accelerate their plan significantly. After five and half years running Baaad Anna’s, they sold the business and moved to a 140-acre farm outside of Winnipeg. Their initial plan was to slowly build towards being able to provide for themselves, living off their own land as much as possible, with the expectation that within about five years of the move, they’d keep livestock. As with Anna’s approach to knitting, however, enthusiasm accelerated those plans: By their first winter they found themselves raising chickens in their living room, and within six months of their move they’d bought three piglets from a seller on Facebook.

Sheep were the natural next step, of course, which the family funded through what they call a SponsorSHEEP initiative. A brilliant mix of fibre community-supported agriculture (CSA), education and activism, the program gives yarn crafters insight into how their yarn comes to be: from the birth of the sheep, to the shearing, right through to the processing of the fleece into roving or yarn.

Anna learned that there aren’t many fibre mills in Canada, and those that do exist are focused on huge orders, or have very long wait lists. Anna was forced to send the fibre from her sheep to North Dakota to be cleaned and prepared, another blow to her persistent dream of selling – or producing – 100-mile yarn.

Fibre mill machinery

Machinery in Long Way Homestead’s fibre mill.

Now, if Anna’s homesteading journey were a movie, this next moment would be accompanied by swelling, triumphant music: In mid-2017, a couple of years after moving to the farm, Anna unpacked a box of items she’d moved from her old shop. Amongst those items: a poster. A poster from a wool mill in the Maritimes, a wool mill that manufactures and sells small-scale milling equipment. Equipment that – crucially – fits through a normal-size door. By the summer of 2018, Anna and Luke’s Long Way Homestead was set up to mill their own wool, and wool of other small-scale farmers.

They offer custom milling as a service, and mill their own wool, and buy other farmers’ wool to create their yarn line, and business is growing. They sell yarn through their website, at the farm store, and at fairs and events around Manitoba. And they’re meeting a crucial need, providing a secondary market for Canadian wool, allowing farmers to take more control over what happens to the fibre from their sheep. Read Anna’s article about the state of the Canadian wool industry, to learn more.

Anna writes a blog about her motivations, her family’s sheep, and about her transition from yarn-shop-owner life to full-time sheep farmer at longwayhomestead.com. The blog posts are fantastic, illuminating, honest and funny.

And that colourwork sweater that started Anna down this path all those many years ago? Anna laughs when recalling it. She’s still got all the pieces of the sweater in a bag somewhere, but admits that once the knitting was done, she somehow never got around to sewing it up.

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The articles, tutorials and patterns we publish about Canadian fibre and textile arts, crafts and industry are made possible by our members.

Copyright © Kate Atherley except as indicated.

About Kate Atherley

Kate Atherley (she/her) is a co-founder, editor and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2002 as a designer, editor, writer, and instructor. She's authored eight books about knitting, from a next-steps guide for newbie knitters to the industry's only guide to professional knitting pattern writing. Kate lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and their rescue dog Winnie.

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