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White River Junction wool mill spins yarns on a small scale

  • Amanda Kievet, left, and Peggy Allen of the Junction Fiber Mill look over the first yarn they made at the mill in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The first yarn made at the Junction Fiber Mill in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Peggy Allen watches wool fall out of the picker machine on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in White River Junction, Vt. The machine cleans the wool, prepping it for the next process it takes to become yarn. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 3/13/2021 10:47:38 PM
Modified: 3/13/2021 10:47:35 PM

After a silence of 64 years, the clack-clack-clack and rum-rum-rum of wool mill machinery is being heard again in Hartford.

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, the picker, carder, pin drafter and spinner were switched on for the first time at Junction Fiber Mill, a new wool processing facility in the former Kibby Equipment building across from Hartford Town Hall.

Six hours later, 1,100 yards of two-ply yarn weighing 4 pounds was neatly wound around spindles, the end stage in the process that turns raw wool into the fiber beloved by knitters and fiber artists.

“Not a lot,” said Junction Fiber Mill co-owner Peggy Allen. “It was just practice.”

It was practice for what Allen and her business partner, Amanda Kievet, hope will become White River Junction’s first operating wool mill since the Hartford Woolen Mill shut down in 1957. Allen runs Savage Hart sheep farm in Hartford with her husband, Todd Allen, and Kievet discovered a passion for fiber when she worked at former White River Junction wool apparel company Ibex Outdoor Clothing. Now, the two entrepreneurs see their new business venture as catering to sheep farmers from Vermont and other states who need to turn their wool into yarn.

With eight spindles compared with the 1,200 or more in the woolen mills of yore, Junction Fiber Mill clearly will be a boutique operation, but one that is sorely needed by small Vermont sheep farms, the owners believe.

“We would be categorized as a cottage industry,” Kievet said while giving a tour of the machinery visible through the front windows facing Maple Street. She explained that the majority of farms in Vermont have fewer than 25 sheep and can face wait times of up to six months to get their wool processed into yarn at one of less than a half-dozen mills in the state.

“We’re here for those farmers,” she said.

Kievet, 29, and Allen, 63, met two years ago at Allen’s yarn stand at the Norwich Farmers Market, where she sells yarn spun from the fleece sheared from her herd of Corriedale sheep she and husband raise on their 32-acre farm in the Jericho District of Hartford.

The two women bonded over their shared passion for wool, yarn and sheep; Kievet and her husband also moved onto the Allens’ farm to help during lambing season when Peggy Allen was recovering from an injury. Both had left their high-stress careers several years earlier — Allen as a TV executive in Chicago and Kievet as a web developer in New York City — and moved to Vermont.

One night in June 2019, Kievet said she was musing with her husband over dinner that developing websites wasn’t providing the gratification it once did and what she really wanted to do was build an enterprise around her interest in wool and the fiber community.

“I got the idea I wanted to start a mill,” said Kievet, adding that the topic became a regular conversation between her and Allen.

And Allen knew exactly whom to reach out to: Michael Hampton, owner of Hampton Fiber Mill in Richmond, Vt., whose vintage but exquisitely restored and updated wool mill equipment had been sitting idle since he stopped making yarn in 2017.

“We started talking about it,” added Allen, who had just come off an unhappy experience with the out-of-state mill she had been using after it botched 25% of her season’s fleece, making it unusable.

Kievet and Allen made an offer for Hampton’s equipment — they decline to say for how much other than the amount ran into the six figures — under the provision that Hampton train them on how to run the machinery. He agreed, and that led to trips to Richmond in Chittenden County for hands-on instruction while they also scoured the Hartford area for at least 3,000 square feet of factory floor space.

Eventually they found it in the former Kibby Equipment building at 101 Maple St., which was acquired by Upper Valley rental and commercial property owner Mike Davidson in 2018.

Sheep farming and fleece production have long been on the decline in Vermont; there are only 704 sheep farms in the state and 17,300 sheep that produced 57,000 pounds of wool, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census data.

Still, there remains a vibrant wool, yarn and knitting culture in the state, according to Katie Sullivan, owner of Bobolink Yarns in Irasburg, Vt., who acquires fleece from Vermont sheep farms and contracts with mills to have it made into yarns she sells in northern New England.

“There’s kind of a ‘hobbifcation’ of sheep in Vermont,” Sullivan said, with people who own a handful of sheep but often have to ship their fleeces to mills out of state because there is not enough yarn-processing capacity in Vermont. “It’s expensive to ship wool and expensive to bring the yarn back.”

The logjam and long delays in turning around wool orders means that yarn sellers may not even have product to sell between shearing season in late winter and the fiber festival circuit that occurs in the summer. Many of the mills also require a certain minimum wool poundage before they will accept an order for processing, which exceeds the amount small farms often produce.

“When Michael Hampton shut down a couple years ago, there were a lot of us left in a vacuum, saying, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ ” recalled Elaine Fortin, of Morrisville, Vt., who has “two enormous sheep” that each produce about 10 pounds of fleece a year.

But it’s such a small amount that Fortin finds herself at the back of the queue for processing at mills and can expect a “four- to six-month wait” for her order’s turnaround, she said.

Although the wool market in Vermont is small, Allen said there is a growing interest among millennials in knitting and the fiber arts.

“They are connecting online,” she said. “They are at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival in Tunbridge” (which was not held last summer because of the pandemic).

Allen said Kievet said they are now accepting “roving” (wool that has been already clean and carded) for processing into yarn and will begin accepting raw wool fleece on May 1. Allen couldn’t specify how much Junction Fiber Mill can process weekly, saying it depended upon factors such as the variety of the wool and how many plies customers want in their yarn strands.

But Allen said they expect the “typical customer” will want between 10 pounds and 150 pounds of wool, and she and Kievet expect to be able to wash and clean about 50 pounds daily. She said about 80% of Hampton Mill’s customers wanted yarn and 20% roving.

“The money’s in the yarn,” Allen said.

When Kievet and Allen started publicly talking last year about their plans for Junction Fiber Mill, word spread quickly in the close-knit Vermont wool and fiber community.

At least one said she can’t wait.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” said Fortin, the Morrisville sheep owner. “If those ladies can run the equipment as well as Michael did, (the yarn) will be gorgeous and definitely worth the trip.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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