Pre-Rhinebeck Untangling: Jennifer Tepper Heverly of Spirit Trail Fiberworks

This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of the 2018 Rhinebeck Trunk Show.

Since I started attending the New York Sheep & Wool Festival in 2011, I’ve known of Spirit Trail Fiberworks, one of the very first indie dyers to come on the scene. I gravitated toward Jennifer’s striking blues and her silky soft bases. Five years later, I purchased my first sweater quantity of Sprit Trail Birte, a luscious blend of Merino, Cashmere and silk that I used for Mary Annarella’s You Wear It Well, which is one of my all time favorite sweaters.

Shortly after I showed off my sweater at Maryland Sheep & Wool, where Jennifer also vends, she started posting on Indie Untangled, and I got to see what a variety of colors she creates on her luxurious bases. Jennifer’s Subscriber Inspiration Colors, in which she dyes colors based on a photo taken by one of her newsletter subscribers, are particularly unique, and I’m so looking forward to what she comes up with for installment for the Knitting Our National Parks series later this year.

If you’re going to Rhinebeck, Spirit Trail should definitely be on your shopping list.

Tell me about how you got started dyeing yarn.

I left my career in commercial real estate in Washington, DC, in 1998, after my son was born in late 1997. My daughter followed in 2000, and it was around mid-2001 when I started thinking about what I would do next for work. I had left real estate because I wanted to stay at home with my kids, so I was looking for something I could do from home.

I had started knitting again when I was pregnant with my son, so was really focused on trying to figure out how to turn knitting and textiles into a business. In early 2002, I took a dye workshop from Barbara Gentry at Stony Mountain Fibers in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then a few more dyeing classes at the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild. It was during the workshop with Barbara that a lightbulb went off in my head and I thought, “I could totally do this from home!” It seemed like it would be much more feasible than trying to knit for pay, so that’s what I did!

I spent the rest of 2002 investigating dyes and yarn suppliers, festivals and shows, website design… all the fun stuff. Then I started playing and experimenting with dyes and different yarn bases and fibers. I officially opened Spirit Trail Fiberworks in January 2003 with a small online shop, applied to all the shows I could and started doing shows that fall with the Knitter’s Review Retreat and the Fall Fiber Festival of Virginia. MDSW and NYSW followed the next year, along with a few other East Coast shows I did for a few years.

I was definitely on the very early side of the indie dyer explosion. I can remember customers at NY and MD looking at my yarns and saying they didn’t know what to do with them; indie dyeing just wasn’t much a thing yet. The industry has certainly evolved since then, and it’s been fun to watch and participate in this evolution.

How did you decide on the name Spirit Trail Fiberworks?

I sort of fell into my real estate career (my dad was a local DC architect and I worked in his office after college), and really, the entire 15 years I worked in real estate I pretty much longed to be doing something more creative. I have a degree in English literature with concentrations in fine art and philosophy, so the business world was not where I thought I’d ever be.

When I was trying to come up with a name, I came across a concept in Navaho weaving called the Weaver’s Pathway, or Spirit Trail. I wrote up a description of what it means and where it comes from on my website.

What inspires your colorways and your colorway names?

Gosh, everything. An image, an idea, a song, an impression. I get a lot of inspiration from the beautiful area where I live, in the shadow of Shenandoah National Park. But I get inspiration from all sorts of places. Usually, the colorway name comes from whatever inspired the color, but when I’m dyeing based on a feeling or impression it’s more difficult to put a name to the color. Sometimes there’s a lot of back and forth between myself, my friend Brooke who works for me, and my mom who also works for me — each of us throwing out words or phrases, and building from there until we get to the final name.

Do you have a favorite color or colors, and have they changed since you became a dyer?

My favorite colors definitely change. I used to be drawn to earth tones like deep greens, browns and more muddy colors. Then it was grays and neutrals. These days, my favorites tend to be aqua blues and oranges. I’m sure they’ll change again. My ideas about color have definitely changed since I became I dyer. I used to have certain colors I hated – bubblegum pink and pastel colors, for instance. For years, I just didn’t dye pink at all. That’s definitely evolved – there are no colors I don’t like or won’t dye. I wouldn’t even say there are colors I wouldn’t wear anymore; I’m game for just about anything.

When and how did you learn to knit?

My mom taught me to knit when I was 14. Being the over achiever that I was/am, my first project was a long, cabled tunic in some nasty acrylic yarn (because that was mostly what was available back then). I pretty much cried through the entire process and my mom was not sympathetic at all, since I’d insisted on starting with something so big and complicated. I got through it, wore that tunic until it was frayed and pilled and nasty, and continued knitting through high school and college. I stopped knitting during my real estate years, started up again when I got pregnant with my son, and haven’t stopped since. He’ll be 21 later this year.

Is there a color that you would love to dye, but that is challenging to create?

One color I’ve been trying to create but have never done to my satisfaction is a “shimmery” silver on a wool yarn. It’s easy to get silk or Stellina to be a shimmery silver, since they’re already shimmery or sparkly. But to get a silver-gray with the characteristics of metallic silver on a matte base is tough. I’m still working on that.

What are some of your favorite FOs you or your customers have made with your yarn?

This is a hard question! I absolutely love seeing what my customers make with my yarn. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Of my own projects, I love my Traveler Tunic by Joji Locatelli that I turned into a dress and my Gola sweater that I test knit for Laura Nelkin with the addition of some fun vertical stripes (editor’s note: Jennifer is wearing it in the photo at the beginning of this post).

Other favorites include North Shore, (I wear this one all.the.time; pictured above), the “Caragh Sweater” I made for my daughter, Caragh, Obsidian (so super-sexy), Beck (crazy-gorgeous!), Starting Point (love how this kit turned out) and Lotus Mittens (I’m a sucker for anything colorwork).

What are some of the best things you’ve learned running your fiber business?

I’ve learned so much. The one huge benefit of my past career, which I now appreciate very much, is that I am really good at budgets, spreadsheets, financial forecasting – all the business aspects of running a business. But, beyond appreciating my experience much more now than I ever did before, I’ve learned quite a few valuable lessons over the last 16 years.

First, customer service is key. It’s essential for a small business. My focus is creating the best quality work so I have happy customers; I really work to have the best customer service I can in every aspect of my business.

Second, it’s a business, not a hobby. My prices have to reflect realistic margins (while still staying as competitive as possible) that will allow me to continue to run my business.

Third, work can’t take over every aspect of life. This last one is the most difficult for me – the work/life balance – because I’m so Type A and can get pretty obsessive. It’s so easy to let work consume every waking minute (and more), but in order to have a full life and not get burned out, there need to be boundaries. About six or seven years ago, I really put the brakes on my business because I felt it was growing beyond what I could manage, with two small children still at home, and keep it to my philosophy, which was that it remain a small business, and that I am the one dyeing all the yarn (the latter has been my driving focus since day one, and it certainly limits growth potential). Hindsight being 20/20, part of me regrets that decision now, but it was the right one for me to make at the time. Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint, so I have to make decisions to the best of my ability, and then continue to move forward.

Last, if you have your own small business, it’s essential to love what you do, at least if you’re going to do it well. But no matter how much you love your job, some days it’s going to be WORK and not so much fun. My gauge that I’m doing well is when I can successfully dye and have it turn out great, even when I’m not in the mood to do it, and that 29 days out of 30 I love what I do. A good friend of mine is a potter and he told me once, “You can only create something once. After that, it’s just production.” This is so very true, so to keep my creativity alive and well, I started dyeing non-repeatable colors (my “Lucky Pots”) in addition to repeating colorways. His answer was to build himself a salt-fire kiln, since the salt firing process is more unpredictable. So that’s how he creates one-of-a-kind work, versus his major production work. It’s essential to keep things fresh, and feed your soul with your work.

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