Bozeman company makes bison wearable

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

Still sinewy with flesh and matted with dirt and dung, 27 bison pelts are stretched taut on large custom frames in Jennifer Olsson’s Bozeman backyard.

Once the hides are thoroughly dried by the sun, Olsson begins the long process of transforming the thick, downy bison fibers into wearable garments that rival the softness and warmth of fine wool. She sells her creations – hats, sweaters, mittens, scarves and boot warmers – under the no-frills label Montana Sweater Co.

Before Olsson removes the fur from the hide with industrial power shears, she combs it out, the first in an arduous, multi-step process of cleaning and preparing the raw fibers to be spun into yarn that can be knitted into garments.

Jennifer Olsson demonstrates how she uses industrial power shears to remove bison fur from each hide, once the sun dries the hides. PHOTO BY SARAH GIANELLI

Jennifer Olsson demonstrates how she uses industrial power shears to remove bison fur from each hide, once the sun dries the hides. PHOTO BY SARAH GIANELLI

“I call it the bison beauty parlor,” Olsson said, burying her hands in the surprisingly thick, cushiony fur. “They’ve never looked as good as they do when I’m done with them.”

Olsson collects her hides from several Montana bison ranchers. If she didn’t utilize the hides – which weigh close to 175 pounds when fresh – they would end up in the dump. Bison can’t be sheared while alive because they don’t like to be touched. Doing so raises their stress hormones, ruining their meat for consumption.

“It allows me to get close to an animal I can’t pet while alive,” said Olsson, who began researching the viability of knitting with bison fibers after spending a day in Yellowstone National Park with her late Swedish mother-in-law. Olsson learned the basics of the craft from Eva Olsson in 2005.

“I know it sounds weird, but I started to feel an affection toward the hides and sort of started talking to them,” Olsson said. “For me, it’s like they’re not dead; they’re living on again in the way I use the fiber and the fur.”

Once the fur is removed from the skin – which she sells to a local tanner who processes it into leather – she cleans it in a washing machine reserved solely for the bison fur, soaking and rinsing it repeatedly until the water runs clear. After it air dries, the fibers return for a second time to a custom built tumbler that removes any remaining grit and dust.

Olsson sends the clean fur to a Michigan mill – one of the only out-of-state companies she works with – that separates the coarse from the fine fibers. The finest, which come from the underfur is similar to cashmere, and will be used for her highest, most delicate “lace grade” scarves or shawls. The coarsest fibers will be worked into felted wool, with many grades in between.

Once separated, Olsson’s fibers return to the Gallatin Valley, specifically to Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company, an organic sheep farm and mill in Belgrade that spins Olsson’s bison fibers into yarn.

A Montana Sweater Co. scarf, one of many bison fur products offered by the Bozeman company. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA SWEATER CO.

A Montana Sweater Co. scarf, one of many bison fur products offered by the Bozeman company. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA SWEATER CO.

Bison fibers, because they are so short – about 1.5 inches at the longest – have to be blended with other natural fibers before Olsson can knit with them.

“You’d be like a shedding cat if you tried to go with 100 percent bison,” Olsson said. She blends her bison fiber with varying amounts of Montana alpaca, llama and sheep fibers to create her line of yarn Montana Bison Wool.

“I’m very proud that almost all of what I do is done in Montana, and all of it in the USA,” Olsson said. “Literally from the ground up, from the ranch to the mills, processed and then knit here by me. That to me is a huge selling point.”

Most Montana Sweater Co. garments and accessories come in slight variations of natural bison brown. The thought of dying the fibers is nothing short of absurd to Olsson. The natural color also appeals to the men who comprise her most loyal clientele: fishermen in Alaska, Chicago construction workers, steel mill workers in Indiana, and recently a group of research scientists in Antarctica.

One of the designs she is most proud of is her “multi-mitt,” a versatile finger-free mitten whose popular design grew out of her desire as a world class fly fisher for a glove you never have to take off.

Olsson does create some colorfully whimsical pieces though, such as her felt appliqué “boot blankets” that wrap below the knee and clasp with carved elk bone buttons. Attempting to use as much of the animal hide as possible, Olsson is also working on a new design of elegant fur neck collars made from velvet, bone and the tail of the bison.

Olsson’s Montana Bison Wool yarns and extensive line of bison fiber clothing and accessories can be found at montanasweaterco.com.