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Mother and daughter both use bison for their cottage industries

Whether it’s tallow for soap or fibre for yarn, bison are a handy, nearby source

One of Barb Janzen’s enjoyable summer activities is roaming the quiet countryside foraging for wild rose petals, wild chamomile, sage, yarrow and mint to use in her homemade soap.

Janzen, her husband Don, and his brother Larry raise bison near Glenbush, Saskatchewan, and having now retired from a long nursing career, she is eager to devote more time to her hobby.

“About 25 years ago some friends and I would exchange homemade Christmas gifts every year. Our two daughters both have a creative side and helped come up with gift ideas we could make. One year we decided to make a small batch of soap, which turned out really well. One of my friends challenged me to sell it at her church’s bazaar, and I was pleasantly surprised how much the ladies liked it,” Janzen said. It was the green light she needed to forge ahead.

Using local, natural ingredients in her soap, such as bison tallow, and locally grown wild herbs, is important to Janzen. “I believe the world would be a better place if we all used local products instead of relying on imports from other countries. Also, making the soap in my own kitchen brings it back to basics and cuts out all the chemicals that harm our skin and our water supply.”

She initially consulted a book on how to make pioneer soap using the basic ingredients she could access locally. The process requires precise weights and measurements, and there are many steps and pauses while you wait for it to dry and cure. It takes about a month from start to finish.

“Even after 25 years, I continue to work at improving my soap. It’s like all skills — the more time you invest, the more you learn and the better you become,” Janzen said.

Barb Janzen and daughter Pam are both using bison in their products.
photo: Courtesy Barb Janzen

In 2013 Janzen’s oldest daughter, Pam, started an online Etsy shop selling bison fibres. An avid knitter, Pam loves working with natural fibres, and the unique and special bison fibre was easily accessible through her parents’ farm.

Pam and her husband Charles (who live in Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan) wanted to learn how to turn the raw fibre into yarn. Since then, Pam has learned how to spin the fibre on an electric spinning wheel, but she’s also had some commercially processed into rovings (a long bundle of fibre prepared for spinning) and yarn. Their Etsy shop is called “Buffalo Charlie.”

“Bison fibre is extremely soft and warm and has a high moisture ‘regain,’ which gives it the ability to wick moisture away and insulate while wet. Additionally, it contains no lanolin (perfect for those allergic to it), doesn’t attract moths, and is considered to feel and look similar to cashmere, but is more durable,” said Pam.

The question is: how do you go about harvesting fibre from a bison? Initially, Pam would go to her parents’ farm and collect the shed fibre. “We have since found that we are able to get cleaner, better-quality fibre directly off the animals, so in the spring when the bison are put in the squeeze for deworming, we are able to remove some of the fibre they shed with the change of season.”

Because bison fibre is difficult to obtain there are a limited number of suppliers, and as interest in it is growing, the Etsy shop quickly sells out.

The Etsy shop also serves as a place where Barb can sell her handmade natural soap.

“For me, the benefit of having a home-based business is that I can work at my own speed, in my own kitchen, without leaving the farm,” said Janzen.

She also sells her soap at the annual Northern Horizons Studio Tour where the public can drive out to visit various Saskatchewan artists and see their work. “I love meeting the people who come to the art tour because they’re truly interested in what we do. Most of the visitors love coming out to see the artists and get the chance to talk to them about the work all of us are obviously passionate about.”

For more information visit Buffalo Charlie’s Facebook page or northernhorizons.ca.

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