Taking farm to table one step sideways - two mills in Kansas help small ranchers take their animals' wool directly to the consumer
Like other farm to table enterprises, the farm to apparel market is steadily increasing throughout the U.S. As of now, Kansas has two small mills that process the fiber from alpacas, goats and sheep.
According to the newly formed Artisan Fiber Mill Network, stationed out of Gallatin, Tenn., there are more than 125 artisan mills in the United States and Canada who provide custom processing services to the fiber industry. The group’s vice president, J.C. Christensen, who runs The Master Crafter, a fiber mill consultant organization, said in 2005 there were fewer than a dozen small specialty mills. Back then, there was only one mill in Kansas – Shepherd’s Mill, run by Sally Brandon in Phillipsburg.
With neighboring states of Missouri and Arkansas lacking mills, and Nebraska recently opening its first, such a mill in the Midwest is unique.
“We could probably have another one hundred mills in the U.S.,” Christensen said.
Five years ago, Sara and John Morris, of Augusta, opened up HLA Fiber Mill. Recently retired, Sara Morris decided to turn to her passion – weaving and raising alpacas. She realized there were not enough fiber mills in the country, researched the industry and started her own fiber mill.
“We decided to take the dive,” Morris said. “We wanted to treat people the way we wanted to be treated with our fiber.”
Both Brandon and Morris are open to spinning many types of animal fiber. These range from angora from rabbits to the hair on camels and yaks. Morris also spins llama and bison fur. Other mills across the U.S. are not as versatile.
“Every fiber has a practical use,” Morris said. “The limit is your imagination.”
Along with knitting sweaters, gloves and scarves, people can make batting, rugs and felted insoles from these animal fibers.
Because the process is expensive, the local market is small. But Brandon and Morris said they hope to continue to educate others about the benefits of using home-grown wool.
To process animal fiber, the mill must first receive the shorn fiber from the rancher – whether it is cashmere from a goat or wool from a sheep. The fleece is analyzed and cleaned, making sure any dirt is removed. It is then dried on racks, and after drying placed in a picking machine, where the fiber particles are opened up. The fiber is then sent to a carder, which smooths out the substance. From here, it can either be handspun or spun into yarn by machine. If spun by machine, this involves a multi-step process that produces single-, double- or triple-ply threads that are placed on skeins. In addition, the fibers are then either hand-dyed or placed directly into yarn products, which can be used for knitting and crocheting. The yarn ranges from $25 to $50 a skein – dependent on the animal and quality.
Both Brandon and Morris take great pride in their work, making sure each pound of fleece is well taken care of from start to finish.
“Mills are constantly changing,” Brandon said. “This process is a labor-intensive process and can be quite dirty.”
The average alpaca, which gets shorn annually, produces from a little more than one pound to four pounds of yarn. This amounts to about 1,000 yards of yarn or enough material to knit three blankets. Like processing the fiber, weaving takes a long time.
Brandon enjoys weaving and sells many of her scarves, hats and tapestries at her store in Phillipsburg and online. She is always looking out for clean, well taken care of fibers to purchase and make into yarn.
“My passion is weaving,” Brandon said. “That’s why we started the mill.”
For both Brandon and Morris, the majority of their fiber business comes from out-of-state customers.
Both Kansas mills have a long wait for processing. At HLA, the wait is up to nine months. Both Brandon and Morris visit fiber shows across the country, selling their products. This year, the exhibits have slowed down, but the mill work has remained constant.
Collen McGee, an alpaca owner in Abilene, has her yarn processed at HLA. She said she enjoys seeing how the process works and seeing the fiber spun from her animal's coats.
“It's nice to see the process from beginning to end,” McGee said.
Although the work for the mills is plentiful, marketing the finished product is difficult, as the cost is high.
“It takes a little bit different style of marketing,” Brandon said. “Our agricultural community doesn’t have the same perspective on natural fiber. It’s hard for us to figure out how to tap into this market.”
Brandon said there are buyers on either coast, but she would love to see more individuals using these products in the Midwest.
“These yarns are U.S. sourced and U.S. produced,” she said.
The past and the future
Sheering wool used to be a part of the harvest. Then they would process the wool into yarn and ultimately weave it into garments, hats or bedding. Some of these skills are being lost. Mills and weavers across the country are working to maintain this artisan industry.
Christensen said more mills are opening nationwide. He said these mills are becoming popular because they are versatile and adaptable and can handle many fibers. Unlike large mills, the batch sizes can go down to a single animal.
“A lot of people are looking to start mills as a retirement strategy,” Christensen said. “Others are understanding the value of working for themselves.”
A consumer can even go to a ranch or show and pick out the animal’s fleece, which can then be turned into yarn.
"They are doing what 100 years ago was done under one roof in a few places," Christensen said. "That heirloom sweater that came from an animal's fleece can be made into a sweater and passed down."