It all started with a barn. A barn near Whitehall, Montana, built in the 1800s by the Parrot Silver and Copper company. A barn that has been in Kami Noyes’ family for generations. A barn where she happily remembers feeding lambs as a kid and playing under its giant wooden rafters. Her sister Lacee Kountz now owns the barn, situated on land passed down from their great-grandfather, and manages it as an event venue. Kami and her husband Reid Noyes raise sheep and cattle down the road on land inherited from her grandfather.
Kami was helping her sister clean out that old family barn several years ago to prepare it as a rentable venue when she began “dreaming out loud” about how she wanted to have a fiber festival one day and how the barn, the future Copper K Barn, would be the perfect location. As a fiber artist and creator of Ranching Tradition Fiber, Kami was interested in hosting a fiber festival in Montana, which, at that time, didn’t have any. Her husband and sister—“loving enablers,” Kami calls them—encouraged her to follow her dream. She’d organized small local craft festivals, but never anything sizable. In fact, she had never been to a major fiber festival in her life, and she still hasn’t.
Back to its roots
A friend helped Kami organize the inaugural Copper K Fiber Festival in 2017 and worked with her for the first three years. Now Kami is the sole organizer. The festival’s tag line, “Fiber Arts . . . getting back to its roots,” is apt. Generations of Kami’s family have planted their roots in this valley, on the northwest edge of the Tobacco Root Mountains. It’s the festival’s connection to the land, family, and farming traditions that attendees of the Copper K Fiber Festival mark as one its most unique attributes. Of course, the festival also honors the roots of fiber traditions as participants gather in the old sheep barn to buy fleeces, spin wool, ply, dye, and knit.
Spread over a weekend each July, the festival, now in its eighth year, offers fiber workshops, a varied lineup of vendors, catering to the needs (and desires) of every fiber enthusiast, and educational demonstrations and displays of the various stages of fiber production.
Participants concentrate during a basketweaving workshop inside the Copper K Barn. Photo by Kayla Melhoff, Silver Sage Photo & Design
Copper K typically offers twelve workshops, varying from year to year, everything from needle felting, spindle spinning, and plying to natural dyeing, basket weaving, and quill dyeing. Kami receives dozens of workshop applications each year but is selective in what she chooses, hoping for a distinct assortment of workshops each year.
A diverse range of products are on offer at Copper K, and Kami wants to avoid having too many vendors selling the same type of wool or similar products. It’s also important to her to have products “that go with fiber,” such as pottery and herbal essential oils. This way, non-fiber attendees have an opportunity to shop, too, and possibly purchase gifts for fiber enthusiasts in their lives.
Kami limits the number of vendors to 40 each festival. She receives 20 or more applications above that each year but wants to maintain the cozy and relaxed atmosphere of Copper K, and she wants “everyone to be successful.” She hasn’t thought of expanding the number of vendors, even though more vendors would mean more profit. “But that’s not what it’s about,” she says.
Yarns offered by the Montana Wool Barn, a local mill that also processes Kami’s wool for her Ranching Tradition Fiber. Photo by Kayla Melhoff, Silver Sage Photo & Design.
What it is about is camaraderie and relationships. What keeps LaVonne Stucky of The Wool Mill going back to the festival year after year as a teacher and a vendor is the “camaraderie of fellow vendors” and the support of loyal customers. “You know when you feel welcome somewhere,” she adds, “and Copper K feels like family.” Vendor and knitwear designer Joanna Johnson of Slate Falls Press says Copper K “is the only show we do where the organizer is a vendor as well.” Because Kami has a booth, too, featuring her Ranching Tradition Fiber wool and yarns, she understands and anticipates the needs of her fellow vendors, making their work much easier.
A yarn and shawl display from vendor Blue Savannah. Photo by Kayla Melhoff, Silver Sage Photo & Design
Several collaborations have grown out of the Copper K Fiber Festival. Kami partnered with vendor Kristin Milloway of Blue Savannah for The Knit Together shawl knit-a-long featuring combinations of their yarns. Vendor LaVonne Stucky of The Wool Mill joined forces with instructor Billy Maxwell to create traditional wool and indigo-dyed Point Blankets.
Copper K bills itself as a “destination fiber festival.” Its remote location “is a lot of our draw,” Kami explains. “People love it—the location, time of year; it’s just laid back.” Holding the festival on family land, in the family barn, hosted by a fifth-generation sheep and cattle rancher creates an ideal setting. Fiber artisans and enthusiasts can experience firsthand the connection of farm to fiber. Joanna Johnson goes further, saying, “Copper K is a gathering of folks who very intentionally chose to set aside convenience in favor of a long weekend together with like-minded people. We just seem to be able to connect on a more intense personal level at a show like this. Because we all put a lot of effort into getting there and being there, we put the same effort into connecting and inspiring each other throughout the weekend.”
Vendors offer a variety of yarns and fiber products, including some of our favorite magazines. Photo by Kayla Melhoff, Silver Sage Photo & Design
Attendees come back year after year, and some start planning their trips for the following year at the end of the current year’s festival. Others plan vacations around the festival because it’s a beautiful location and held in July, when the weather is good for visiting Montana. Each year, returning customers bring new friends with them, so the number of attendees continues to grow. Kami doesn’t keep an official count but estimates the 2023 festival saw between 500 and 600 visitors from across the country. While some attendees plan ahead, reserving camping sites near the Copper K Barn or local accommodation, others may wander into the festival as they hike trails in the nearby mountains (or even bicycle by). They see the festival, walk off the trail to check it out, and it turns out that many of those hikers are fiber enthusiasts thrilled to have discovered something new. LaVonne Stucky, who has been a vendor since the first festival, notes how the customer base has changed. She remembers the first-year attendees were mostly “lookie-loos,” wanting to check out the recently refurbished Copper K Barn. “Now, we have serious fiber people” who come from all over the country.
And this is Kami’s favorite part, “seeing the people.” She describes the festival as “a big family reunion every year.” Attendees, teachers, and vendors might arrive a bit weary from their travels, but they leave, “beaming,” Kami says, and that’s what she loves the most.
When asked how she can organize the Copper K Fiber Festival all by herself on top of being a rancher and fiber artist, Kami laughs and says she gets this question a lot. Her husband says, “She doesn’t sleep!” She insists she does. “Now, it sort of runs on autopilot,” Kami explains. She cites a terrific group of vendors who make her life easy, and when it’s showtime, her husband, sister, and adult children help out. Passion, determination, and a love of fiber and people propel her forward. Kami says about all her projects, past and future, “I have dreams and sometimes they work out, and sometimes they turn into something else.” The Copper K Festival is one dream come true.
Copper K Festival
July 20 & 21, 2024
Karen Elting Brock is a contributing editor for Farm & Fiber Knits, Spin Off, and PieceWork.