Toots LeBlanc & Co. spins yarn in Bend

By Rachael Rees The Bulletin
Published Mar 6, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Mar 6, 2014 at 08:56AM

Beyond couches and a coffee table, you’ll find two spinning wheels and most likely a bag of fleece when you walk into the living room of Michele LeBlanc’s Bend home.

“I’ve been knitting since I was a little kid, and somewhere in my early 20s I got a spinning wheel and I learned how to make my own yarn,” said LeBlanc, the owner of Toots LeBlanc & Co.

“It’s creative; it’s meditative; … it’s emotionally soothing. … It’s a nice, peaceful, restful activity, but it also challenges the brain.”

LeBlanc knits items including scarves, socks and tea cozies from four different blends of yarn she has formulated over the years that include various kinds of sheep, angora rabbits, goat and alpaca wool. And according to bloggers, her yarn is soft and supple, and the angora rabbit blend doesn’t shed, which is a typical problem associated with angora items.

LeBlanc uses no harsh soaps, chemicals or dyes, which makes her yarn stand out to consumers, and she sources her wool from small farms. Her creations and yarn can be purchased online and at fiber shows, such as the Fiber Market Day in Prineville scheduled for March 29.

LeBlanc started her business in 2003 in Seattle and recently moved to Bend. In addition to making yarn, she also works as a full-time nurse at St. Charles Medical Center.

Toots LeBlanc & Co isn’t her first fiber company, though. She operated several other knitting businesses before adding in the component of making her own yarn, which she says gives her more freedom and enjoyment.

“I found if you make your passion pay, it becomes work,” she said. “The things that are meaningful to me about it … the pure enjoyment of wool running through my hands …the personal expression, went away when it became a job, when I was knitting for other people or I was knitting X number of things for a job.”

LeBlanc prides herself on purchasing raw wool from family farms in Oregon, Washington and California.

She purchases a clip, a whole season’s wool from a single farmer’s entire herd of sheep , and has a professional sheep shearer cut off their fleece. The wool is bagged and picked up by LeBlanc, who teases it apart to prepare it for the mill, removing hay, pine needles, grass seed and twigs. Once the fleece is ready, she sends it to a small mill in Canby, where it is washed and spun into different blends based on LeBlanc’s specifications.

She said the different fibers have unique textures and properties with various sheens and levels of softness that are good for different items. For example, Angora rabbit has no elasticity to its fiber, she said.

The cost of the yarn differs based on the strength or weight of the yarn and the type of fibers it contains. The price ranges from $12.50 to $35 for a 250-yard skein that averages 2.5 ounces, according to her website (www.toots leblanc.com). She said her prices are a lot higher than, for example, a Wal-Mart yarn, but the quality is also higher. A 4-ounce package of Caron Simply Soft Yarn ranged from $3.27 to $7.19 on Wal-Mart’s website.

“It’s a successful, little-small business, and I want to keep it small,” she said. “I’m really proud of the yarns that I make because I am able do some small part to keep family farms alive. I wish I could say that I could become the Whole Foods of the yarn world, but I don’t see that happening.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7818,

rrees@bendbulletin.com

ORIG 02/20/2014 Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin Michele LeBlanc works on spinning fleece in her Bend home on Thursday.
ORIG 02/20/2014 Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin Michele LeBlanc works on spinning fleece in her Bend home on Thursday.
ORIG 02/20/2014 Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin A bag of raw fleece that has been cleaned and is ready to be spun by Michele LeBlanc.
Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin A variety of yarn blends in skeins made by Michele LeBlanc, owner of Toots LeBlanc & Co. in Bend.