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Putting a spin on fiber

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS  Cathy Riotto, Barnesville, displays the fisherman's sweater she created from scratch, a garment that launched the Holly Road Fiber Farm.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Cathy Riotto, Barnesville, displays the fisherman's sweater she created from scratch, a garment that launched the Holly Road Fiber Farm.
Published January 14. 2011 05:00PM

Cathy Riotto and husband Frank are the tag team of textiles.

She works as a part-time secretary at St. Richard's Church in Barnesville and he works as a mechanical-electrical engineer. But when they're not at those jobs, the Holly Road couple wears a surprising variety of hats.

Their additional titles include goat tender, shearer, spinner, and knitter, in which they use all-natural wool yarn generated from livestock that roams their 13-acre farm.

For the Riottos, it's become a way of life, one that proves healthy and productive as they function each day with tag team precision.

Frank, a humble and quiet man, tends to the goats and manages the farm while Cathy puts a creative spin on the production line.

"I've made socks, scarves, hats ... and they're always Christmas presents," says Cathy.

But she's made other items, too, and they're items worthy of note.

In 2010, she won a blue ribbon at the Pennsylvania Farm Show for a six-feet round, lace-inspired tablecloth. She produced the delicate masterpiece using a pattern from Germany's acclaimed design expert Herbert Niebling. On Sunday, she won two additional red ribbons at the 2011 Pennsylvania Farm Show, including one for the quality of her hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn.

For Riotto, 45, the craft began unexpectedly over ten years ago when she decided to try some knitting as she recovered from major back surgery.

Of course, others might typically begin such a hobby by creating doilies or maybe a simple pair of mittens. But Riotto, a 1983 graduate of Tamaqua Area High School, is a gal who embraces a challenge. She decided to knit a traditional fisherman's sweater.

A fisherman's sweater is a thick, bulky garment with prominent cable patterns on the chest. The sweaters are noted for their complex, textured stitch patterns, several of which are combined in the creation of a single garment.

Riotto, the former Cathy Hower, a native of Rush Township, ran into a roadblock right from the start.

"I was trying to find wool and it was impossible," she recalls. "Of course, now it's possible. But back in 2000 it wasn't. I finally found it online in Canada."

Riotto traveled to Ontario to purchase the product, and proceeded to create the sweater. As months and years went by, she honed her skills, getting better and better at the craft.

By 2006, she decided to acquire two goats in order to generate homegrown fibers. That was the start of the farm. She and Frank now own a herd of 17 registered, colored Angora goats which roam the hillside and enjoy the scrub brush, an environment which is sheer heaven to a goat.

The Riottos are one of few goat farmers in the area, although Cathy's sister-in-law, Anne Riotto, of nearby Silliman Farm, also own goats.

The Riottos revel in their life on the farm, which includes 50 chatty, friendly hens and roosters, assorted adopted cats, one gentle guardian Great Pyrenees dog, and any non-threatening stray creatures that need a helping, loving hand.

As for the contented goats, the Riottos carefully shear the animals for fiber twice a year. Then the wool yarn production process begins.

"First you wash it, then pick it, cart it and then spin it," says Cathy. Each step has a purpose. For example, picking is a technique to eliminate knots. Carting is a process to straighten fiber threads, and so forth. For spinning, she uses one of a few different spinning wheels. One is from New Zealand, another from Colorado. They can cost from $400 to $4,000.

After spinning and plying, she dyes wool by hand if special colors are desired.

Cathy is largely self-taught, having taken only one class. She just happens to be a fast learner and has a knack for grasping concepts right from the start.

"You just take a guess at things," she says with a smile.

For Cathy, the challenge of taking a project from start to finish is particularly appealing. She realizes that she and Frank are preserving the time-honored trade of goat farming and the long-lost practice of spinning.

According to Wikipedia, spinning as a textile art goes back to ancient times when plant, animal or synthetic fibers were twisted together to form yarn. For thousands of years, fiber was spun by hand using simple tools, the spindle and distaff.

"Only in the High Middle Ages did the spinning wheel increase the output of individual spinners, and mass-production arose in the 18th century with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution," claims Wikipedia.

Cathy acknowledges that spinning isn't a main stream activity.

"It's a dying thing. Nobody wants to pick up the craft," she laments.

But that reality doesn't discourage Cathy one bit. She follows the beat of a different drummer, striving for the best in not only her spinning, but in her knitting and wool production, too.

In fact, she is a perfectionist known to unravel rows of finished knitting in order to correct a single, minor flaw. Using that technique, it can take a month to produce a sweater, but Cathy feels it's worth the time and effort.

"It gives a good sense of accomplishment," she says.

And Cathy has no plans to limit herself to textiles. She wants to explore a world of opportunity and exploration, and nobody is going to pull the wool over her eyes.

Someday she'd like to have her own grain mill so that she can mill her own wheat and use it to bake homemade bread. There's no doubt she'll eventually do it. She already has perfected the temper process in making her own chocolate, and is an advocate for making homemade marshmallows. Whoever thought one could make marshmallows at home from scratch? For Cathy, it's a piece of cake, no pun intended.

Put it this way: if you can think of something our pioneers did back in the early 1800s, then you can bet Cathy Riotto is already studying how to do it in Barnesville. If not, she's already done it and has shown others the tricks of the trade. A year ago, Cathy and a few others teamed with Lorraine Zukovich Blickley of Barnesville, to begin monthly arts demonstrations at the Blickley home. The group has grown to 30 or more women who, on Tuesday, presented Blickley with the gift of a money tree in symbolic gratitude for the wealth of friendships that have developed.

As for Cathy, her uniquely self-sufficient, start-to-finish philosophy drives her to develop skills and to challenge her limits, all with the support of Frank, her number one enabler.

But she doesn't necessarily see herself that way, nor does she consider herself a modern-day pioneer.

Cathy Riotto simply believes in being herself, learning the ropes, and exploring the secrets of man's ingenuity. More information about the Holly Road Fiber Farm is available at, or (570) 467-3132.

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