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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

Crafty Couple

Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo

Bill and Donna Kallner from eastern Langlade County are what you might call a “crafty couple.” Bill constructs fish landing nets and Donna makes textiles with natural wool and dyes. For the last 20 years this has been their primary source of income.

Bill Kallner talks as he works in his small shop kept warm this cool morning by the wood steamer.

“I bend white ash, walnut, and cherry. All those seem to bend really nicely.”

He works quickly, pulling the strips of white ash out of the steamer. He bends the strips into teardrop shapes as he has done thousands of times to form the frame of a fishing net. In seconds he clamps the ash strip in place on a decades-old form. He then puts it aside to cool and moves to the next strip.

Credit Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo
Bending steamed ash on a net frame

“And so, when the handles go in they sit like that for a few hours.  From there it goes to the cleanup process. They get sanded down, rounded over, a groove gets put in and its ready for first coat.”

The result is a fine piece of woodworking, often with walnut or cherry inlays in the handle. They are beautiful but they are meant to be used. He sells the nets online and to dealers across the country. Although he has scaled back production lately, this has been the primary source of income for the past twenty years.

“The most I sold in a year was a thousand. Over the years I have probably averaged selling about 500.”

Credit Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo
Net handle

He learned the business from craftsman Neil Sanvidge, who lived down the road a few miles.

“I got the net business from Neil. We were fishing buddies. He started making nets after he retired from contracting. He was one of those guys that was if he was in his shop by 5:00 AM he was late.”

Before Sanvidge passed away he taught Bill how to make nets. He also gave him the bending forms.

These are some of Neil’s original forms. These forms have been in use for close to 30 years. It is kind of fun when I do this to think of him a little bit.”

Credit Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo
Net inventory

Once Kallner took over the net-making business, Sanvidge would stop over frequently to check on his work and chat. That often led to a game of cribbage.

“He was just a neat old guy.”

Sandvidge made four types of nets, but Bill expanded that to 18 different styles that include not just trout fishing nets but nets for use on boats or for much larger fish.

Credit Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo
Larger nets

Net making has been their primary source of income since they closed their kayaking and canoeing school and shop, which Bill and his wife Donna operated for 20 years. When the shop closed in 2000 Donna focused on her passion, fiber arts instruction. Since the pandemic, in person workshops have not been possible so she turned to selling her own creations that she makes from hand spun wool. Today she cleans some recently acquired wool.

“I got some raw fleece when the sheep were sheered. I went to the farm and picked out the fleeces. This particular farm is breeding for lambs. So, fleece is not their primary product.”

After the wool is hand-cleaned, Donna colors it with dyes she makes herself.

Credit Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo

“I can grow my own plants and from my own harvest I can create the blues and greens. We are so lucky; the whole pallet is just out the door. We have the colors of the woods, the colors of the water, the colors of the sky, the soil and everything else. What I really like is that the colors fit in this landscape.”

Credit Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo
Donna's Creations

Once dyed, Donna turns the wool into yarn using technology that goes back hundreds of years. The first step is the drum carder, which disorganizes and then aligns the wool fiber. After spinning the wool into yarn, Donna then turns it into a variety of items using a technique called “looping.”

“It creates a really strong structure that cannot unravel.”

According to Donna, looping is an ancient but effective technique that predates knitting and crocheting. She makes a variety of hats, mittens and other products and then sells them in her online Etsy shop. Her newest creation is a wool jar cozy.

“This fits over a mason jar and this is how we make our yogurt. It is an insulating sheath that fits over a mason jar. You can make a never-ending yogurt; you just save your starter from one time to the next. The insulating properties of the wool make it a little more consistent.”

Credit Image Courtesy of Jim Skibo
Jar Cozy

Besides selling her own items, she has also been able to sell some of Bill’s nets and other woodworking products online. Despite the pandemic, this crafty couple has found a way to survive and thrive by producing and selling handmade projects.

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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