“I didn’t grow up on a farm at all, but my closest childhood friend did. It was all I ever wanted to do, to live on a farm, to have this rural life. I often stayed on their horse farm in Leeds, Alabama, and was given chores to do each morning, which the children in that family might have resented but I cherished,” says Birmingham, Alabama native and shepherd and fashion designer of Gum Tree Farm, Frances Dean Blount Kansteiner.
Frances, or “Franny” as she prefers, continued to love horses and riding, and her dream for a rural life came true in 1984 when her husband began attending Virginia Theological Seminary, and they settled on their first farm in Middleburg, Virginia. There, Franny taught children horseback-riding and boarded others’ horses in her stables.
“In the mid-1980s, I began my first small flock of sheep with three souls, primarily to delight my children and myself,” says Franny, whose ever-expanding flock of fine Merino sheep, in shades of cream, silver and chocolate, now numbers more than 100. “I love their wool, their silly and joyful lambs and their peaceful countenance. I only ever dreamt about horses as a child, so I knew I had officially crossed over into being a shepherd when I started having sheep dreams.”
The family acquired Gum Tree Farm in 1995, and when she stopped teaching horseback riding, Franny spent most of her time at her art gallery in town. During that time, her newly expanding flock had taken a year to grow gorgeous, ultra-fine Merino wool — the softest next to the skin, warming while also moisture-wicking and microbial, nature’s perfect protector. Franny knew she had to do something with it, so she had a friend’s daughter teach her to spin and knit it, and thus fashion was born on Gum Tree Farm.
The cape was Franny’s first design, inspired by an Austrian piece her mother gave her long ago. Her brand has since expanded to include four lines of products: hand-knitted items, including fingerless mittens, sweaters, scarves and hats; hand-woven items, such as throws, blankets and the original one-piece cape; sewn pieces, including the “Triangle Tunic,” “Soho Vest,” “Amelia Dress” and a sweeping cape lined and hooded with pockets; and a baby line, featuring the origami baby sweater, moccasins and baby blankets.
“I’d describe the brand as simple yet elegant,” says Franny. “I love the juxtaposition of clean, modern lines with the organic Old World fabrics and glamorous, sometimes exotic trims like guinea feathers and fur.” Franny says that the farm and her sheep inspire her, of course, but she also finds a muse of fire in art and architecture on her travels. “I designed the ‘Circle Shirt’ after an exhibit of Henri Matisse’s cut-out compositions, echoing the way he layered abstract forms to invent such a lively, graphic decoration,” she says. “My ‘Triangle Tunic’ was conceived after viewing the Agnes Martin show at the Tate Modern, meditating on the shading of colors and repetition of lines.”
One might wonder how a farmer at heart, one so tied to the land, could also be such a visionary and artistic designer. Franny will be the first to tell you that the two aspects of her personality are inextricably woven. “I’ve always been interested in the arts and had an internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities before taking on horses full-time,” she says. “From early on, I felt horseback riding a creative pursuit, with the rider directing and the horse performing, an alliance with another living being that is very similar to ballet. With the sheep, too, it’s a partnership.”
And while Franny is central to the entire design process — from breeding the sheep, gathering the wool, creating the designs and selling the lines all herself — she couldn’t do it without the partnership of her production family. The production team is a flock that includes her own family members as well as weavers, knitters, pattern makers and tailors across the country — an important point of pride for Franny, who worked hard to find small mills and local artisans in order to keep every leg of production domestic. “It takes a year and a half to make a garment, and everyone that touches each fabric and fiber influences its creation,” she says. “While my designs are the basis of the pieces, their knowledge of the characteristics and possibilities of the fiber and fabric definitely influence the process. And these partnerships are crucial to the finished pieces.”
An old, beloved homestead and stall barn are central to Gum Tree Farm, and pastures of rotating flocks of Merino sheep radiate from the nexus of the sprawling green property. The Wool House is a small cottage with easy access to the road, set up for guests to drop by and knit, shop or simply visit. The charming structure is brimming with beautiful textiles, sumptuous skins, plush pillows and chic garments. “When people come, I love to dress them up in our clothes and accessorize the look with exotic jewelry picked out on our travels. Dogs and kids usually play out in the yard or at our feet,” says Franny, who adds that lambing season is the hands-down highlight of each farm year. “It’s exhausting, but joyful — all that wiggling life is so full of hope and promise. We see them born, then grow up to be mothers themselves, all the while producing wool.”
And while this idyllic image of rebirth and high fashion hidden among the Virginia hills delights the imagination, it’s simply Franny’s everyday reality. Her own delightful moments come from unexpected places as well. “I definitely get joy seeing my pieces on the street in our travels — it’s like a part of the farm in different cities and even far-flung countries,” she says. “People tell me that when they wear my garments, folks stop them to compliment them. It’s happened to me enough that I know it to be true: there is something authentic, something recognizable, even to strangers who don’t know its origin.”
“My favorite time is in the early morning or still evening hours, sitting in the shed with the sheep. There is a peace that comes with being with the sheep that is appealing,” Franny delves deeper to explain, adding, “My creativity is deeply intertwined with my spiritual beliefs. I feel that it is my responsibility – and my joy – to use all that falls under my stewardship, and Gum Tree Farm wool has an inherent purity that is passed onto each knitter and wearer, which I truly feel obliged to share.”
Gum Tree Farm is located at 21980 Quaker Lane, Middleburg, Virginia 20117. To shop Gum Tree Farm products, peruse and purchase online at gumtreefarmdesigns.com/products, attend a trunk show or schedule an appointment at the farm. To contact, call (540) 592-9561, email [email protected] or fill out the online contact form.
Thank you to Franny for the fabulous photos of the products and sheep of Gum Tree Farm.
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