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Buffalo Gal

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Ruth Huffman has never been one to follow the crowd. As a pre-teen she sewed her own wildly colored clothes. As a young mother, she homeschooled her three kids. And in 1994, when she read a National Geographic article about the increasing number of buffalo in the American West, she had an idea it’s reasonable to assume was hers alone. “If you can knit hair from animals like goats and rabbits,” Huffman thought, “why not bison?”

Why not, indeed? Eight years later Huffman, 59, holds the world’s first patents for processes to transform buffalo hair into a soft, cashmerelike yarn. She also has a line of her own buffalo originals—hats, suits, capes, scarves and coats—that sell at a dozen boutiques from Indiana to Alaska and through her Web site. To date, some 1,000 customers have purchased her designs (all brown, though black and cream are in the works), and she expects to see sales of $150,000 this year. The appeal of Huffman’s creations? “The weight and the movement,” says Jan Strimple, a fashion columnist for the Dallas Morning News. “She hasn’t re-created the wheel, but she has a unique product.”

Truth be told, Huffman isn’t the first to have fashioned clothing from bison hair. People have made rough fabric from homespun buffalo wool since frontier days. But “hand-spinning can’t get all the coarse hair out,” Huffman explains, “so the yarn has a very scratchy texture.”

It took trial and error to remedy that. Huffman, the daughter of a Richmond, Va., engineer and his secretary wife, was separated from her husband of 26 years, Jesse, a teacher, and living in Dallas with the two younger of her three children (Roxanne, now 32, Amon, 27, and Rachel, 25) when her buffalo brainstorm hit in 1993. Never trained in design, she had been making ends meet by creating clothes for friends and had gained recognition—but little cash—from a mohair dress that was featured in Women’s Wear Daily in 1994. She thought buffalo hair could be a breakthrough material—if she could find some. A Colorado rancher offered to sell her 1,000 pounds of the fiber for $10,000. “Here I am barely able to afford food,” says Huffman, who relied on food stamps for three months in 1993, “and I need to come up with $10,000.”

A friend lent her the money, and she became the proud owner of half a ton of buffalo hair. She found a plant to clean it and a mill that worked with her in developing the spinning method. By chance she discovered that machine-washing and drying actually improved her fabric. “I left a swatch in the dryer too long, and it was soft and fluffy,” Huffman says. “I screamed to my son, ‘Look, I made buffalo cashmere!'”

Married since February to ranch foreman Don Bell, 60, Huffman calls his 250-head buffalo ranch in Blanchard, Okla., home. She whips up her designs on three home—knitting machines-and, like the Native Americans who roamed the plains before her, thanks the buffalo for her livelihood every day. “My dream has become reality,” Huffman says. “It feels great.”

Chris Coats in Blanchard