Monday, November 23, 2009

Tour: Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill

Awhile back I purchased a skein of yarn at a local apple orchard, that came from sheep raised at the orchard, and was spun at a local woolen mill (local = 30 mile radius of where I live). At the time I was amazed by the idea that I had purchased a skein of yarn that came from a sheep that I was staring at just 5 minutes before.

The tag on the skein noted that it was spun locally, and thus I started to think about how that yarn actually went from the muddy, prickly, dirty fleece coat on the sheep into the soft, beautifully wound skein of yarn in my hand. Enter Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill.

I found myself with some extra kid-free time on Saturday afternoon and took a chance to get away. I drove out to Mount Horeb, WI and attended an open house hosted by BBR Woolen Mill.

I can hardly describe what I saw::

: A living museum to America's industrial age. Many of the carding, processing and spinning machines date from the early 1910's.

: Bales, and bales, and bales of raw and washed wool.

: More spindles and cones then I could ever dream about.

: Skeins, upon skeins, upon skeins of yarn - some natural, some dyed and some hand painted.

: A team of highly skilled and knowledgeable machines(wo)men, spinners, and artists.

The mill processes its own merino (white) and corriedale (grey) fleeces, purchased from farmers in South Dakota and other midwestern locales . After processing they sell yarn and roving direct from the mill via the internet or by appointment only. The mill also processes fiber from other farmers around the country (the farmer at the apple orchard, for example) - the minimum processing weight is 20 lbs. of fiber. An average garbage bag of wool weighs approximately 9 lbs, but I'm not sure how many sheep that 9 lbs. of wool represents. On the top end, they can process up to 2,000 lbs.

Records of the different yarn runs are meticulously kept by hand in a series of notebooks - everything is recorded: from the initial weight of the fiber, to the final yardage and all the machine settings in between.

The mill hasn't been in its current location for very long (I think only about 6 years, but I could be mistaken on this point), and the machinery was originally purchased from a manufacturing company on the east coast. I'm not sure how the machines and parts made their way to Wisconsin, but I look forward to learning more at their next open house.

I took many photos of the machinery - I rarely, if ever, get this close to the machines that process and make the things I use daily. You can find photos of my tour here.

This trip was a peek into one of the 'missing links' of my handicraft/artwork. I understand on an intellectual level how wool and other fibers are made into yarn. But before this trip I didn't truly appreciate how yarn got from an animal (or from a plant) into my LYS. I saw up close how raw materials shift from one state to another. Now I know, experientially, how wool from the back of a sheep is transformed into something for my own back.


Holly Jo said...

Thanks for all the great photos.

I spin (some) and always think it is amazing how it is spinning on just a very large scale. Same exact thing, just bigger. :) Humans can be very ingenious.

MamaMidwife said...

Wow. I just saw some of this yarn at the Sow's Ear (on my very first trip there ever) and I also thought it was really neat that somewhere, here in WI, there is a place where they actually make the stuff I use everyday. Cool.

BTW, I love your blog! Added to my blogroll today. :) Happy Knitting.