Wool and other fiber production has been an important part of agriculture in the Adirondacks for many years. In the 1800s many of the new settlers in the region were from Ireland, Scotland, and England. With a landscape conducive to raising sheep, there was boom in merino wool farmers in the region. It was commonplace for people to make mittens, socks and other merino wool products to sell during this time. As with most other agricultural products, the introduction of the rail system meant increased competition from farms and ranches in the Midwest, in the large cities where Upstate NY and Vermont farmers shipped and sold most of their product. Consequently, merino sheep farming gave way to dairy farming, which then gave way to industrial farming.
Today, over 60% of textile fibers are synthetics derived from petrochemicals. Inexpensive synthetic fabrics (like fleece, spandex and nylon) all come from oil that has undergone a chemical process. When these materials degrade, their fibers become microplastics in our environment. It’s estimated that over a third of all microplastics found in the ocean come from synthetic fabrics. In addition, the dyeing process for most commercially made fabrics is a health hazard and major source of water pollution.
Today’s textile industry also is notorious for putting young women at risk. Most of the 75 million people that work to make clothing are young women aged 18-25, and they make about $3 a day. And after an incredibly consumptive process that harms the health and wellbeing of the people and planet, 85% of all textiles end up in landfills each year.
However, there has been a resurgence in the “Local Fiber” movement since the early 2000’s. Fiber farmers (farmers that raise animals, like sheep or alpacas, for their fiber), artists, small business owners and community activists have joined forces to raise awareness and create networks to support bringing more local wool from pasture to home.
A Look at Small Scale Fiber Farming in the Adirondacks
Kirsten Liebl first learned about weaving in college when a mentor taught her the craft on old looms in the the student union. Kirsten worked at Essex Farm for a few years after college, where she developed an appreciation for working with livestock and the role that they could play in supporting healthy soil and larger food system.
A few years later, Kirsten bought 2 sheep and a loom on Craigslist and her interest became reality once again. She grazed her sheep on friends’ properties, moving them around via trailer for a few weeks or months at a time.
Kirsten now raises her herd of 21 “mutts”- a mix of romney, cotswold and shetland crosses that produce good wool and meat, thrive on grass-based diets, do well in harsh Adirondack winters, on her property in Westport, NY. Kirsten works with a professional mill to turn the shorn wool into clean, useable yarn that she can sell in skeins for home knitters and crocheters, and she can use on her loom to make luxurious blankets and other items for her new business, “Wollecru.”
Kirsten says that the farming techniques used to raise sheep can be lower impact on the landscape than other livestock too, they are lightweight animals that don’t damage the soil and will eat shrubby, and even invasive, vegetation that other ruminants won’t.
Healthier Soils and Ecosystems
Kirsten is incredibly passionate about grazing sheep as a tool for carbon sequestration. Her method involves intensive rotational grazing of pastures between periods of rest and regrowth. She says, “Every time a blade of grass is nibbled down, the roots compensate for its top getting chopped off by shedding root matter. When the top regrows, the roots regrow; if that cycle happens then the plant deposits a lot of carbon material in the ground, keeping it in the teenage vigorous growth stage. Having land managed with intensive grazing keeps the plants pumping carbon into the soil, which feeds the microorganisms in the soil.”
Mary Lake, a seasoned professional sheep shearer based in Vermont, visits Kirsten’s herd in early spring to trim the wool off the sheep in anticipation of lambing season and warmer weather. The shearing process is not painful for the sheep, and must be done each year to keep the sheep comfortable. We have cultivated many breeds of sheep to grow an abundance of wool, and it is heavy, covers the animals eyes, and impacts their movement and temperature regulation if it’s not shorn off at least once a year, and for some sheep twice a year. You can see the Livestock Conservancy’s stunning video about humane sheep shearing here.
The wool that comes off the sheep mostly remains in one intact piece called a “fleece”, that ranges from 5-10lbs. Once the wool is cut from the sheep, Kirsten “skirts” the fleece, removing any hay, grass, or manure from the material by hand. Then, she brings the bagged fleece to Battenkill Fibers in Greenwich, NY where it is spun into custom yarns and returned to her about 6 months later.
Kirsten dyes some of the yarn at home using natural materials from her gardens and land. She leaves some the white, tan, brown and black colors from her mixed flock of sheep in their natural tones. Looking at the palette of colors each season brings, she finds inspiration to weave the yarn into one-of-a-kind blankets, wall hangings, zipper pouches and other items that she sells at markets and online.
Kirsten recognizes that currently, locally grown and made wool products are a luxury item. While $300 for a blanket might seem overpriced, it takes one sheep an entire year to grow enough wool for just one of Kirsten’s handwoven blankets.
Kirsten says, ”If you spend $250-300 for a blanket, or $200 on yarn to make a sweater- it becomes an important object, not a throwaway thing. If it gets torn you will fix it, if it’s stained you will learn how to clean it. The goal is to pass it on and hold on to it your whole life.”
You can learn more and contact Kirsten at her website: wollecru.com.
From Sheep to Shop
The miles a product travels has a serious impact on the environment. Even purchasing wool products from international companies that prioritize “sustainable and humane” sourcing of their wool involves shipping fleeces from sheep in New Zeland to Italy for dyeing, China for weaving, and then to the United States for distribution. This is why regional fiber mills like Battenkill Fibers in Greenwich, NY is an invaluable resource for the “Local Fiber” movement.
Mary Jeanne (MJ) Packer founded Battenkill Fibers in Greenwich NY in 2009 in her “retirement” after seeing firsthand thegap between fiber farmers and customers. MJ owned specialty yarn shops in Rutland VT and Watkins Glen NY, and tourists that visited the area would ask about local yarn from the sheep they saw grazing on the nearby hillsides. She would try to source yarn from local farmers, but most farmers sold their fleeces to bulk markets. They didn’t have any yarn made with their own wool to sell.
Today Battenkill Fibers bridges a critical gap for small farmers like Kirsten. Most fiber mills can’t guarantee that you will get your own wool back unless you’re processing 1,000 lbs or more of wool, the equivalent of fleeces from 100-200 sheep.
Her growing customer base is small farmers like Kirsten, who have their own wool made into specific products that they can sell back directly to their customers. MJ works directly with fiber farmers to find a customized solution, whether it is yarn in different weights for customers at farmers’ markets, or a yarn company looking for a certain type of wool.
Once the fleeces come in the door, they are hand-sorted, washed and dried. Then it is “picked” or loosened in a machine, and “carded” or spun into thick coils called roving. From there it is either used as is for felting, or spun into varrying thicknesses for yarn or thread and packaged into skeins.
A More Sustainable Process
When you buy wool yarn, garments or products from a commercial source, you can be sure it has most likely been “super washed”. This is a standard industry practice that involves using chemicals to strip microscopic barbs from the wool to create a smoother surface for more consistent coloring and shrinkage reduction. The chemicals remain in the fabric for the duration of its life, and the chemicals washed out into the wastewater are a major source of water pollution.
Battenkill Fibers does not use this process; instead they offer customers either Kettle Dyeing (dyeing the coils of roving, producing solid colors) or Loose Stock Dyeing (dyeing a skein of yarn, producing beautiful variations in color), services using natural dyes.
You can watch a full breakdown of the process from fleece to yarn on their website at BattenkillsFibers.com.
After the wool is spun into yarn, some fiber farmers willwork with weavers and knit companies who create productslike socks and hats with their wool. The weavers and knitters may also sell the those products. But the profit margins on that process are much smaller, and there must be a stronger investment in infrastructure to continue to have regionally-produced products available for customers, even if there was an increase in demand.
MJ is optimistic about the new Hudson Valley Textile Project, a coalition of local fiber and community organizers that are working to bring the necessary infrastructure to the region. The coalition is needed to make value-added productsfor bulk dyeing and wet finishing. Currently most small-scale weavers finish products in their home bathtubs and sinks. Doing this for large bolts of wool fabric would be impossible.
Consumers Are the Key
So how can we, as consumers, support more sustainable production of local wool and fiber products? MJ says, “They have to put the money where their fashion is.” She explains that the industry is “in the hands of the consumer… We as a industry can be really responsible, but that doesn’t matter if the consumer is still only buying stuff from sweat shops and factory farms. We can’t survive without the consumer.”
Natural Dye for Local Wool Yarn
With natural dyes, the outcome is always going to be variable in color, saturation, and adhesion to the fabric. But that is the beauty of it! Save your onion skins in a sealed container in the freezer until you have enough to make a pot of dye.
Process below adapted from myramadecolor.com
- Onion skins, either yellow (will make your dye yellow) or red (will make your dye forest green). You will want a 2:1 ratio of skins to fiber.
- Light-colored wool yarn or roving
- A large pot that is only used for dyeing
- Dye spoon for stiring
- Bowl/container for soaking fiber in warm water before dyeing
- Fill your dye pot ¾ full with water
- Add skins to water and boil for a few hours
- Strain out skins reserving colored water
- Soak your fiber in a bowl of plain warm water (wet fiber absorbs the dye more evenly)
- Turn down the heat of your dye pot to a simmer and add the wool
- Let simmer for at least 30 minutes; you may even want to turn off the heat and let it soak overnight
- Rinse the dye out the wool until the water runs clear
- Enjoy the beautiful natural color variations of your wool
Find Local Wool Yarn & Products Near You
The best way to find local wool yarn and products is to find a local fiber farmer first, and order directly from them. You can also check with local yarn shops, at farmers’ markets and at farmstores.
You can connect with fiber farmers and retailers in the Adirondack region at adirondackharvest.com.
PS- The theme for the 2023 Adirondack Harvest Festival will be FIber & Wool! Save the date for Saturday, September 23 from 12-5pm at the Essex County Fairgrounds.
This article also appeared in Northern HGL Magazine
Photo at top: Kirsten weaving blankets on her loom (photo by Kelsey Foster Photography)