Kimber (Clark) ’87 Baldwin blends art and science to produce multihued skeins of yarn that are pure alchemy.
Since opening Fiber Optic Yarns, her studio and shop in Milford, Ohio, Kimber (Clark) ’87 Baldwin has provided custom-dyed skeins of yarn, not just for knitters, crocheters, and other fiber artists, but also for interior designers, theatrical set designers, and brides — lots of brides. In particular, she remembers one woman who requested individual color palettes for eight coordinating shawls that she wanted to knit for her bridesmaids. Often, such newlyweds will return as young mothers, looking to make heirloom baby blankets and clothes.
It’s that sense of community that Baldwin most cherishes about the business. She founded Fiber Optic Yarns in 2008 when it became increasingly difficult to balance her career as a medical researcher with managing a young family. “I began to wonder if I could better integrate my love of creating something out of nothing with my need to be there for my children,” she says.
She discovered the answer in knitting, which has been her “constant companion, for the creative joy and relaxation” ever since her days as a chemistry major at Colgate, where Sharon (Hefter) ’87 Loving taught her the craft. Acting on that passion, Baldwin and husband Michael, a chemistry professor at the University of Cincinnati, invested a few hundred dollars in a variety of yarns and nontoxic dyes. “I’d run experiments with color mixes, and I’d go to my knitting group and say, ‘Look at this really fun blue-purple-green yarn I created,’” Kimber remembers. “I wound up hosting knitting night at my house and selling everything.”
An Etsy shop soon followed. “We had storage bins [filled with yarn] stacked to the ceiling and along the walls of every room in the house,” Kimber laughs. “It was very organized — to find the worsted wool, go to the dining room.” In 2013, the couple bought and gutted a blighted property and divided its 3,500 square feet into a studio space, office, and a selling/inventory floor. These days, Fiber Optic employs seven people who prepare, dye, and fulfill orders (90% of the company’s business comes from online sales and appearances at textile festivals).
The luxurious textures — merino and cashmere, yes, but yak down and bison fiber — as well as the intricate, carefully considered color schemes that characterize Kimber’s yarns and fibers place them in a rarified realm beyond the acrylic yarn your grandmother used when crocheting her afghans. Priced at roughly $20-$50 per skein, these hand-dyed delicacies bear evocative names like the “Jabberwocky” collection, a sophisticated take on the Lewis Carroll classic, replete with regal reds and moody mauves. The seasons, too, are a source of inspiration, as in “Fir to Frost,” a wintry mix of merino and cashmere strands arrayed in a gradient from deep piney green to hoary gray.
Turning her imagination loose is one of Kimber’s favorite tasks. “I don’t follow trends,” she says, “but instead think about color combinations or dye application methods that haven’t been used before. We like to set the curve, not follow it.” She also devotes much of her time to designing and building the equipment that allows her to capture the color on her yarns. Ultimately, though, Kimber remains mindful of the individual customers who keep coming back. “That collaboration between the dye studio and the fiber artist is a primary force for inspiration, keeping what we do fresh and cutting edge,” she observes. “It forces me beyond my comfort zone and drives a flurry of creativity.”