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University of Missouri

The Fiber that Binds

Local artists specialize in natural dyeing of fiber.

It wasn’t until Carol Leigh Brack-Kaiser graduated from Mizzou that she found the thing that “makes her heart sing.” She has never given it up, and now she is working to pass it on to her daughter, Rebecca Oliger, BS Ed ’98, and the world. For 35 years, Brack-Kaiser, BES ’79, MS ’99, has owned her own business spinning, dyeing (with natural dyes) and weaving yarn, designing garments made from that material, writing books, developing user-friendly looms, and teaching all of the above.

Brack-Kaiser spent 17 years at five universities before earning a bachelor’s degree in vocational evaluation from MU (life, including marriage and children, got in the way). By then, she wanted to take a class just for the fun of it. She landed in a spinning course at MU’s Craft Studio, where her teacher, Sandy Robertson Smith, introduced her to natural dyeing of yarns. At first, Brack-Kaiser helped Smith mount natural-dyeing demonstrations at festivals and fairs. But she loved it so much that she continued on her own.

Carol Leigh Brack Kaiser

Carol Leigh Brack-Kaiser, center, teaches, practices and writes about fiber arts from her Columbia home. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Brack-Kaiser worked one year performing vocational evaluations at the Columbia Area Career Center before heading back to school. She knew she needed to learn more about fibers and color. Her business, Carol Leigh Specialties, launched in 1982. Not long after, to meet customer demand, she added workshop space to her house and in 1986 added the name Hillcreek Fiber Studio, located at 7001 S. Hill Creek Road in Columbia.

Oliger grew up loving fiber but opted to teach science at Columbia Public Schools. As Brack-Kaiser began looking toward retirement, Oliger took on a role in the business. When she left teaching, she returned to Hillcreek Studio and developed the knitting niche of the business. In July she will again become owner of Hillcreek Yarn Shoppe, a business she founded in 2003 and left in 2007. “So that has come full circle,” Oliger says.

When the time comes that Brack-Kaiser no longer takes part in day-to-day aspects of the business, she intends to travel and study other cultures’ weaving and dyeing practices. She is at work on a new book about how to obtain colors in each of three different natural dyeing classes. “That way, when I retire, someone else can pick up the book and teach a workshop or dye their own rainbow with natural dyes.”