By Jennie Zeitler
Minnesota is a far cry from Texas or New York, but it’s home to Jason and Maria Kohnhorst, owners of Northland Woolens. They live in Alexandria and commute a short seven miles to their business north of Nelson.
Maria had travelled a lot, moving from Texas to New York City and back to Texas. For a time, she worked as a costumer with a circus. She took other summer jobs, one of which brought her to Alexandria and Theater L’Homme Dieu.
“It was a wonderful job where I did not work a million hours and got to enjoy the area,” she said.
She returned to Texas after a different job and met Jason. She continued to travel for work, going back to Texas often to see him.
Together, they decided to move to Minnesota, living first in Minneapolis. They took another step west by moving to St. Cloud. Jason’s job there involved travel to Alexandria.
“We both just really liked Alex, so we moved here,” Maria said.
“I had sold insurance for five years and wanted to find something I was happy with,” said Jason.
He joined the law enforcement program at Alexandria Technical College, while Maria worked as a photographer.
“One of my clients took me out to Northland Woolens,” she said, and she was soon working there.
When previous owner Vicki Johnston wanted to retire, Maria thought to herself, “She can’t just close the doors.”
“Vicki asked Maria if she wanted to buy, which meant we were purchasing a business,” Jason said. “Instead of buying a home when we got married, we bought this.”
Jason finished his program at Alex Tech first, rising at 5 a.m. to go to the gym and then classes. He would be at the business until at least 11 p.m. during his last semester.
“We had purchased the name of the business, some of the inventory and the contacts,” Maria said. “There was a lot of work moving things and cleaning.”
During their first year, Johnston helped them “with everything — ordering, running and maintaining the machines,” Maria said.
Hats and scarves are made on Scott and Williams circular knitting machines from the 1940s and 1950s. They can hold up to 12 cones of yarn, each cone weighing up to five pounds.
Socks are made on Bentley Komet knitting machines.
Jason and Maria like to reuse wool sweaters, making them into “twice-baked” mittens and hats.
“These items are made with some part of a reused wool sweater,” said Jason. “‘Twice-baked’ is anything that has recycled wool sweaters in it.”
In the past three years, they have made more than 20,000 pairs of mittens.
Custom-made items are available too. Past orders have been sent to Japan and Canada.
“People send us sweaters that used to belong to someone very special to them and they ask Maria to make something for them and for family members as gifts,” Jason said. “Maria turns them into mittens or hats for the whole family. We call these remembrance items.
“For every wool sweater brought in, we give $3.50 toward twice-baked items,” he said. “So don’t throw them away — bring them in.”
Quality is important no matter what item is involved.
“We don’t allow less-than-perfect items out the door,” Maria said. “We’re competing with China, and we want to make sure our products are 10 times better than anything from China.”
All materials used are from the United States with one exception — the Swarovski crystals which are only made in Austria.
“We support our American manufacturers and distributors,” said Maria. “We use crystals on one hat pattern and have been certified by Swarovski to use them and their name.”
“I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life but was not happy doing them,” Jason said. “I love going to work. Every day I learn something new. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”
“I didn’t envision this, but I’m very grateful to be doing it,” said Maria.
For more information, call (320) 762-2293 or visit www.northlandwoolens.com.