Missoula artist and fiber specialist Kris Crawford's company, Fireside Basics Doll Hair Company, processes and sells felt, yarn and doll hair made of wool and mohair. For Kris Crawford, the Christmas rush begins in August.
Fireside Basics provides the bristly beards and soft flowing hairs for Santas' and other doll-like characters around the country. Thousands of Santa-makers in the United States, Canada and abroad depend on Crawford to supply them with fiber for their Santa beards and clothes.
"I process about 1,500 pounds of hair a year that's nearly a ton," Crawford said. Fireside Basics is the only company in the world that offers many different types of hair and works with many different breeds of sheep and goats.
Recently, the Missoula, Montana native branched out into polymer clay sculpting of Santas and other related characters, dressing them in homespun garments made from natural fibers and surrounding them with handcrafted trinkets such as sleds or rocking horses that are hand built in the basement workshop.
As reported in the Helena Independent Record in the November 28th, 2004 issue, Kris said "I started making Santa sculptures in 1999 so I could better understand my customers' doll-hair and Santa-bearding needs." Kris also reported "I enjoyed the sculpting so immensely, I continued to make a couple each year for the next few years, eventually sending some photos to magazines for possible publication."
Kris donated her first Santa to an area spinning guild for a raffle. The "Prairie Santa" now resides in the office of a Great Falls log home company, she said.
Kris' second creation, an "English Santa," on which she used hair made of fleece from seven different endangered breeds of sheep, was a gift to her husband. It took about 150 hours or three months to make, she said, and is one of the most popular Santas, appearing on magazine covers, in advertisements and in instructional videos Crawford produced for fellow artists and crafters.
In the past Crawford graced the cover of "Country Woman" magazine along with two of her homemade Santas (and four others pictured inside). Since then, Crawford's phone rings off the hook and the mailbox keeps filling up with letters. People want to know what she has immediately available or if she takes special orders.
Crawford's interest in fibers dates back to the cradle. She had yarn in her crib as a baby and learned to knit when she was 5. With a smile, she blames her grandmother for getting her interested in spinning.
Her grandmother had a spinning wheel that Crawford played with as a little girl. Years later, when she married and became a mother herself, she wanted to make a handspun skein of yarn on the old spinning wheel.
She's been spinning ever since - about 15 years - and now has four spinning wheels in her home. "I went from making garments for other people to teaching about fiber to supplying fiber to students for beards and hair," she said.
While teaching, she discovered there wasn't anyone out there selling doll hair. Nor had anyone produced educational videos on finding and processing fibers or on doll hair creation and application.
"I found out when teaching that it is best to stick with what you know," she said. "All along, I've tried to stay connected with my specialty." That specialty is fibers.
Crawford buys much of her wool from local and area herders, whenever possible searching out flocks of endangered breeds of sheep that are raised strictly for their fleece. She hopes that providing a market for their wool will help preserve such rare flocks.
"I just think it is important for me to find a market for those breeds. They shear them; they don't butcher them," she said.
Crawford also schedules demonstrations at local schools and gives presentations for Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Her three children ages 7, 10 and 13 have been introduced to the family business.
The Missoula artist uses several rooms in her O'Brien Creek-area home to house the tools of her trade and to provide workspace for spinning, woodworking, clay sculpting, the washing and processing of hair (llama, sheep, goats, rabbits, cats, dogs "anything that will hold still long enough to be shorn"), packaging, recordkeeping and teaching workshops.
"I'm having so much fun with it," she said. "I'll never live long enough to make everything in my head ... or I would have to live to be a very ripe old age with perfect vision for creating."
"I'd like to build up this business so my children can take it over someday if they want to," she said. "It would be nice to give them at least the opportunity."
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