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From Market Niche To Core

Industry Down-To-Earth Plan For Wool Biz Expansion

by Alan Harman


Spinners and weavers in Michigan are seeking to throw off the romantic image of dreamers and traditionalists so they can do something truly evolutionary with their craft—make money.


Spinners and weavers in Michigan are seeking to throw off the romantic image of dreamers and traditionalists so they can do something truly evolutionary with their craft—make money.

The Michigan Fleece and Fiber Industry Coalition, now closing in on its second anniversary, is building on a tradition in the Great Lakes state that has seen animal fibers produced and processed for commercial use for more than 100 years.

The group aims to promote growth and profitability of family farms through fleece and fiber production.

East Lansing fiber artist Nancy McRay put it this way in a newspaper interview: “Years ago, people were interested in doing it themselves and saving money,” she said. “Now they’re interested in doing it themselves, but they’re not saving any money.”

The Coalition aims to boost the returns for fiber growers and is researching the feasibility of a cooperative to market and sell Michigan-grown fleece, yarn and fabric in everything from handcrafted art to mass-market clothing.

It’s also looking at a pilot project to create a network of sellers and buyers of fleece and fiber in Michigan so growers receive fair market value for their product.

Future projects involve increasing the number of small family farms interested in growing fiber animals by holding meetings with vendors interested in supplying, buying and networking with fiber livestock growers.

Pieces Of The Profit Puzzle

One of the Coalition’s boosters is Bridget Patrick who raises merino sheep cross-bred with other finewool sheep on a farm in Mason, 90 miles west of Detroit.

Patrick is also an assistant administrator in the animal industry division of the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. A Coalition request to help coordinate fiber producing farms statewide landed on her desk.

Subsequent research found Michigan has some 700 to 800 spinners who support three larger fiber processing mills, Zeilinger Wool Co. in Frankenmuth, Stonehedge Fiber Mill in East Jordan and Pufpaff’s Fiber Processing in Nashville, along with a number of smaller operations.

“People are spinning almost anything you can imagine,” Patrick said.

The Coalition wants to spread a wide net. “Besides fiber growers, we thought it would be nice if we could have people join in who represent other parts of the industry,” Patrick says.

The result was an invitation to mill owners, yarn shops and the Michigan State University (MSU) Product Center to become involved.

“Our goal is both to expand the industry and raise its profile,” Patrick said. “We hope to bring natural-grown fibers from Michigan animals into the market by coordinating with garment manufacturers and fashion designers.”

The Coalition is also planning a magazine focused on Michigan’s fiber industry along the lines of the successful Michigan Wine Country magazine created by the Grape and Wine Industry Council.

Patrick said the magazine, which will include visitor information about farms, shops, classes and events, is probably a year away.

She said there are a number of ways the fiber industry can develop beyond clothing, including using wool as insulation and processing alpaca fiber into finished fabric for car seats.

“There is just so much to do, so much to explore— it’s very exciting,” she said.

Eager Buyers All Around Us

Hand painted Merino yarn. Finewool is one of Michigan’s best unsung sheep treasures.

The Coalition’s activities come at a time when increasing numbers of knitters, weavers and other crafters want to buy locally produced materials amidst concerns about how foreign-made materials are processed, whether foreign workers are paid fairly, or what damage is being done to the environment.

The group has drawn up a three-year plan that would see it apply for a grant in the first year to conduct a feasibility study.

Its purpose is to explore the demand for fiber and growers’ ability to supply it, along with whether a sorting center is practical for Michigan producers.

The Coalition sees potential markets everywhere from the prison system to the traditional yarn shops, outdoor clothing shops, mills and textile companies. It also hopes to encourage research into alternative uses of animal fiber, uses like oil spill clean-ups for example.

The second and third years of the plan envision the start of a pilot project involving the establishment of the sorting center and the holding of a “Grow it in Michigan” fiber conference.

Michigan Fleece and Fiber Industry Coalition members are an alliance of woolgrowers and wool users focusing on bigger ways to make animal fibers pay handsomely.

Coalition members cover everything from angora to llama, mohair and even yak wool spinners, but the sheep section is the biggest.Until now, the state’s woolgrowers have relied on the Michigan Sheep Breeders Association to represent their interests, but they say it usually concentrates on meat production. Even so, the association’s Summer Picnic meeting in late July did feature a theme of “Working with Wool.”

That event scheduled Suzanne Pufpaff of Pufpaff Fiber Mill to detail each phase of processing fiber at a mill.

The organizers contacted fiber artists too, to demonstrate various ways to create functional or artistic pieces using wool, with a focus on different types of wool, the crafters’ equipment and the manual skills involved in creating handmade items.

The Coalition’s Bridget Patrick detailed the organization’s activities, including research and pilot projects for those interested in the supplying and/or purchase and also networking with fiber livestock growers.

Today’s Weaknesses & Strengths

Luxurious Michigan hand-spun and handknit fine wool sweater.

While Michigan has about 62,000 woolproducing sheep, the clip is usually given to the shearers, who sell it to a co-op in the neighboring state of Ohio for an average of 43 cents a pound—no matter the type of wool.

The Michigan clip is mostly the wool of Suffolk, Hampshire and other meatfocused breeds.

Finewool growers in Michigan already have outlets such as The Spinners Flock, formed in 1980 by a small group of handspinning enthusiasts. The Spinners Flock includes sheep owners—who have lots of wool to spin—and handspinners who are looking for wool to spin. The group has grown to more than 200 active members and the group holds three annual sales events.

The Coalition says that such organizations may be accomplishing good things in a narrow sector of the market, yet some useful elements are missing, including a sorting center, promotional capabilities and interest from the conventional textile garment industry.

The Coalition’s three-year plan would start with a SWOT analysis—Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats— and the creation of an “asset map” for the Michigan fleece and fiber industry.

Ron Cole, wool education coordinator for the American Sheep Industry Assn. (ASI), leads wool classing instruction for the Coalition.

This was proposed because while firms in the industry have expressed an interest in expanding their business opportunities, few understand their position in the supply chain and an overall understanding of potential opportunities and barriers is lacking.

Strengths refer to factors internal to the firm or sector that enhance the potential for success.

Weaknesses are factors internal to the firm or sector that reduce the potential for success. Generally speaking, the best strategy is to exploit existing strengths rather than try to invigorate areas of weakness.

Opportunities are external factors that improve the potential for success.

Threats are outside factors that reduce the potential for success.

The work would be led by MSU’s Product Center personnel and a New Jersey based consulting firm, Understanding and Insight Group.

The Coalition says the group and the Product Center were involved in the reorganization of Michigan’s Great Lakes whitefish industry, with a substantial increase in wholesale prices for redefined product outputs.The Understanding and Insight Group would be employed to create an industry summit to start the process through the creation of a complete outline of the fiber and clothing sector and the definition of its critical needs for development.

Product Center personnel would use this as the base material for the strategic plan that would be written and vetted with industry participants.

The plan would include:

  • Identifying consumer preferences for fiber and clothing products
  • Assessing the U.S. market potential, and
  • Developing marketing strategies for expansion of “Michigan produced” products

Barriers to market expansion would be analyzed and ways to overcome these barriers would be addressed in the strategic plan.

The research is expected to also identify and evaluate the current supply chain structures for fiber and clothing production across the state. Contractual issues too, have to be analyzed as well as alternative business structures such a cooperatives. Missing links that are a barrier to expansion of the industry would be identified.

In addition, the plan involves an assessment of the associated benefits that Michigan would gain thr  ough expansion of the state’s current commercial fiber activities into a fiber and clothing sector.

In the end a strategic plan would be prepared, followed by an industry summit to present the report and work on issues of implementation.

The asset map’s purpose is to determine the potential size and scope of the industry. The SWOT analysis would aid in determining the probability of success of the industry and what market segments and trends offer the most potential.

This in turn would help in the development of business plans and feasibility assessments that could be used to effectively obtain grants and loans.

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