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Specialty Wool

You Can Fill A Widespread Need

By Tim King

Yolo Wool Mills is working to take advantage of the shortage of wool processing capacity in the United States and Jane Deamer (who owns and manages the Woodland, California plant) thinks that smart entrepreneurial shepherds should too.

“Because of the closure of most of the woolen mills in the U.S.; and with the textile processing industry moving to other countries; and due to the drastically reduced prices being paid for American wool; we feel that small to medium range custom processing may be the way to go in this country,” she says.

“There’s still a demand for good woolen yarn: You hear that all the time. And on the other hand there are growers raising good wool who are dumping it.”

Yolo Mill’s Rise

Ten years ago Yolo Wool Mill only offered area shepherds a wool washing facility: That was an alternative to scouring fleeces at home. If wool producers wanted the fleece carded they had to take it to the nearby town of Winters. If they wanted it spun, they had to look even farther afield.

“In 1992 we made a decision to purchase a card and a spinning frame,” Jane (who had been operating the scouring plant since 1982) says. “We purchased a 1923 Davis and Ferber card and a 1941 spinning frame from Warren Woolen Mill in Connecticut.”

From those fairly humble beginnings Yolo Wool Mill has obtained an array of textile manufacturing equipment that now allows it to offer a full line of wool products to shepherds who want their wool processed for their own use or for resale as finished, value-added products. The plant offers a range of products from scoured fleeces to fine worsted yarn.

Yolo Wool Mill makes a lot of wollen goods for flockmasters.
Yolo Wool Mill makes a lot of wollen goods for flockmasters.

Since Jane wants to keep up with trends in small and medium scale textile equipment she, and her partner Lauren Vaage, traveled to Birmingham England last year to visit the International Textile Equipment Show. They learned two things: New mid-sized equipment designed for larger, factory-scale operation is being manufactured not in the United States, but in Italy, China, and Japan. They also learned that a small fortune is required to buy new equipment. Instead of buying new equipment Vaage and Deamer intend to keep collecting used machinery-Jane says the plant is a bit like a textile equipment museum-from closed American plants. As they expand they plan to create new textile opportunities for themselves and their customers.

Breed Sells; So Does Variety

“We’re working on some unusual yarns that we will market ourselves,” Jane says. “I’m thinking of developing breed yarns. Jacob wool, for instance, makes a beautiful speckly yarn, like so-called ‘ragg wool.’ I made some and it sold like, boom! The Shetland growers seem to be interested in marketing as a breed and I’ve also been talking to the Churro shepherds.”

Yolo would market these breed yarns themselves, Jane explains.

“We could offer better than commodity prices,” she says. “Right now colored wool is worth nothing on the commodity market but there are a lot of people wanting to use it. Growers are getting anywhere from three to twenty dollars per pound for their fleeces at shows. I’m not positive, but I should be able to offer between five to ten a pound depending on the wool. I won’t be sure until these markets are established.”

For the time being, however, ninety-five percent of Yolo Wool Mill’s work is custom processing. So it’s good business for Jane to urge shepherds to do some of their own marketing.

“I really encourage growers to develop a market for themselves and I’ll process the wool,” she says. “People need to go to their local knit or quilting shops, and ask ‘would you-if I,’ kind of questions. It’s important for wool growers to have a marketing plan.”

If, for instance, a shepherd’s question to a knit shop is, “Would you purchase a fine worsted yarn made from the wool of my sheep if I had it made?” When a shop answers “Yes,” then the shepherd-and Yolo Wool Mill-have an assignment. Jane can make that worsted yarn using the mill’s French comb: “Top” is what comes out of the four-by-four-foot, many-toothed device. The French comb, which was purchased used from a USDA wool research lab that closed, can be programmed to remove fibers a certain length or shorter.

“With top, all the fibers are laid in a straight line and the short fibers are taken out, so it makes a smooth, satiny-looking product for hand or machine spinning,” Jane says. “No one else among the small mills is making top. It’s used to produce a smooth, consistent, worsted yarn-especially good for weaving. It is also used for needle-punching and crafts, like for doll’s hair, where a long, lustrous fiber is wanted.”

The best worsted yarns are made from sheep with fine wool such as Merino or the California Variegated Mutants (CVMs) that Jane raises on the small farm where the mill is located.

The main style of yarn made at Yolo Wool Mill is a “semi-worsted” type, however. Semi-worsted yarn is less expensive than worsted because it doesn’t pass through the French comb.

“The semi-worsted yarn comes from the auto leveler and pin drafter,” Jane says. “Once you have carded the wool with the combs you lay the fibers in a straight line. True worsted means all the short fibers are carded out and all the fibers lie in a straight line, making for a more ‘suiting-type’ yarn. It is a smoother, harder yarn. Semi-worsted means we just don’t run it through the French comb, so it still has shorter fibers in it-but everything is laid in a line. It’s still kind of a smooth yarn.”

Slivers, Blankets & Batts

Yarn isn’t the only product that a shepherd can have made at Yolo Wool Mill. The mill also makes batting (loose wool fluff useful for crafting), and various styles of roving.

“Once the wool is picked and carded, several products are available. You can take it right off the card and that’s called sliver. Sliver is good for hand spinning,” Jane says. “You can also felt with sliver. We also make pin-drafted roving. It’s like it’s run through the auto leveler pin drafter, and the fibers are laid in a straight line, but the short fibers are still there. People can spin their own semi-worsted that way. Another facet of that is pencil roving where we get it down very thin to the size of a thick yarn. The rug weavers like that because they can let it run through and twist it very fast.”

Yolo's pin drafter.
Yolo’s pin drafter.

The mill does not do felting but Jane will prepare the wool for felting and find a felter for a customer. She will also help you find a hand spinner. And one Mill customer who raises Jacob sheep weaves blankets for Yolo patrons.

Yolo will make batting from your wool to use in quilts or comforters.

“Instead of carding the wool into sliver when we take it off the card we put it onto a batting drum,” Jane says. “We have 48 inch wide cards and for sliver we condense it to make it like a rope but for batting we don’t. We let that web come off the card and we stick it up on a drum and we rotate the drum until it reaches the thickness we want. The drum is 90 inches in circumference and 48 inches wide but we can vary the thickness.”

Columbia wool, Jane says, makes excellent batting.

“If you’re a quilter you probably want a long fiber without any ends sticking up. But you can either go coarse or fine. For felting, a fine wool like Merino is excellent, or a combination of coarse and fine will also felt really well,” Jane says.

It Starts With Washing

But the heart of the Mill could be considered to be at the beginning. Wool washing is at the heart, and beginning, of Yolo Wool Mill in two ways: The Mill started, in 1982, as a washing plant. A group of local citizens, calling themselves the New Franklin Society, were looking for environmentally friendly ways to develop local resources. A wool washing plant seemed like a pretty good idea in an area where there were plenty of sheep. Jane, who had been given some Columbia sheep, found herself attending an evening meeting. She got more involved than she expected to.

“I met another lady at the meeting and we wrote up a grant proposal to the Department of Energy to do small scale washing equipment,” she says. “The USDA in Albany, California, was already kind of working on this problem. There was nothing between tub washing and big scouring mills.”

The grant proposal was accepted and a wool-scouring cooperative was formed. The co-op is still part of Yolo Wool Mill today.

“We basically retrofitted a big laundromat-style rug-washing machine using the grant funds,” Jane says. (She uses a biodegradable ionic detergent for washing.) “It took an engineer to find out what was needed to wash wool and not mat it. We spent a good six months figuring out what we needed but we’re still running the prototype today. It does ten pounds at a time whereas home washing does less than half that. We just got a couple more and had them retrofitted in the same way.”

Most of Yolo Wool Mill’s customers send their fleeces to the mill raw. Even with shipping from places as far away as Alaska and the east coast, Jane thinks having Yolo do the washing makes sense.

“You have to think about what your time is worth to you,” she says. “We charge three dollars a pound to do the washing. I think you can do maybe five pounds an hour by hand.”

Skirting Pays

One way shepherds can save money with raw wool is by doing a good job of skirting. Shipping poorly skirted wool will only cause the staff at the wool mill to have to do it for you. They don’t actually charge you to skirt your wool. They do charge for the total weight of the wool you ship them. If they skirt half to a pound of manure covered belly wool you’ll still pay to have that wool washed even though it ended up in the compost bin. Jane emphasizes that poorly-skirted wool will also result in lower quality finished products.

Robin Lynde at the loom.
Robin Lynde at the loom.

Mill Tour & Festival

As Jane and her staff have gradually expanded their line of equipment, products, and possibilities for new products, they’ve tried to reach out to the public. In the spring of 2003 they held a mill tour and festival that they called a Mill-in. Jane is planning on holding a 2004 Mill-in although she’s not yet sure if it will be in the spring or the fall.

“The shepherds come to get a tour of the mill and see the equipment during the Mill-in,” she says. “I don’t actually run the mill but I have it set up so it shows fiber going in and out of each machine. I also invite a lot of vendors to come and show the products that they make from the yarn we make here. Shepherds can see that and be inspired and make connections. On the side we have a big lamb barbecue and children’s activities but the main reason people come is to see the mill. It’s so unusual to see mill machinery at all. There are so few left. I believe there are only seven of us on this scale in the U.S.”

Jane credits her ability to come up with new ideas and to expand production at Yolo Wool Mill to her customers and her staff. She says she particularly appreciates the mechanical abilities of Jesse Tovar, who has been with the company since 1992. Tovar, along with the local machine shops, keeps the 50 to 75 year old equipment running at top performance. When they can’t repair a part or find a replacement they simply engineer a new one, Jane says.

Entrepreneurial shepherds can take a lesson from the creativity and persistence of Jesse Tovar, Jane Deamer, Laurel Vaage, and the staff at Yolo Wool Mill. An American wool trade made up of creative and persistent woolgrowers and processors can make for a vibrant industry.

For more information about Yolo Wool Mill call them in Woodland, California at 530-383-4471, visit their web site at www.yolowoolmill.com.

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