Making It

A NEW SPIN: Ellen Kardell, daughter, Lily, 15, and mohair goat Madeline.
A NEW SPIN: Ellen Kardell, daughter, Lily, 15, and mohair goat Madeline. (Copyright Keith Barraclough)
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By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, July 20, 2008

At sunset, Ellen Kardell gazes out over ponds, trees and the pasture where her sheep and goats graze, savoring what she calls "the particular quiet of a country evening." On Pocket Meadow Farm, her two-acre homestead outside the tiny spa town of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., the crush of Beltway traffic seems as distant as Mars. So does the graphic design job Ellen left behind when she moved here nearly two years ago to raise her own animals and sell their wool, along with other rare, local and hand-dyed fibers and knitting tools.

"It's a dream: Get fiber animals, have a little place in the country and spin from your sheep," says Ellen, 52. "Working in a corporate environment is so rigid. I'm kind of an anarchist and a free spirit, and I just couldn't do it."

Born in Washington, Ellen grew up in Kensington and returned to the District after graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York. For 15 years, she ran a glass-art studio out of her rowhouse in Shaw, making stained-glass windows for corporate clients and churches before switching to computer-based graphic design, ultimately landing a job as a senior designer at Geico.

Ellen, who is divorced, and her daughter Lily, then 7, moved to a "little brick box" of a house in Silver Spring. But the suburban aesthetic bothered Ellen. Working in an office wasn't for her, either; she felt "pinned down, like a butterfly on paper."

A knitter since she was 8 -- she made her daughter's baby clothes and even worked as a freelance stitcher for the Washington Opera -- Ellen considered opening a yarn shop in downtown Silver Spring, but couldn't find a business partner. She started looking for land in the country and found a quaint Craftsman-style house on a jewel-like parcel two miles from a renowned arts town. She bought it and raided her IRA to stock the shelves of the store she opened on the first floor with yarn and organic fibers. In all, she has invested about $60,000 in the business.

Ellen acquired four Leicester Longwool sheep -- the glossy, curly-locked breed once owned by George Washington and now raised at Colonial Williamsburg -- two mohair goats, a flock of chickens, a sheepdog and a ragged band of cats. She dove into the town's artistic life, opening her home for a studio tour, starting a spinning circle and curating an upcoming exhibit of wearable fiber art at a local gallery.

Ellen's store is open four days a week, and she has a Web site. She stocks alpaca fleece and hopes to sell wool from a neighbor's heritage sheep as well as her own (her first shearing will be available for sale late this fall). She also sells hand-dyed yarns, based on palettes she created, including shades such as "redbud," "melon" and "amber,s" and her own line of handmade felted bags and hats.

Her shop did about $12,000 in sales last year, which exceeded her expenses by about $7,000. She is growing her business through online advertising and lace-knitting seminars, among other efforts. And while she still does freelance graphic design to cover her living expenses, she hopes to earn a full salary from the wool business within the next several years.

Meanwhile, Ellen relishes the freedom to work her own hours without ever going into an office. "It's so delightful," she says, "to be sitting at your computer, watching your sheep."

Are you succeeding with a new and unusual business? E-mail vgezari@gmail.com.


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