Pioneer From Sheep to Shelf Part Three: The Green Mountain Spinnery
Posted by Kristine Vejar on June 10, 2013 4 Comments
Just of off Route 91- a few miles from downtown Putney, Vermont- is an unassuming little building that’s been a pilgrimage site for knitters for over thirty years. That’s where the Green Mountain Spinnery, a worker-owned cooperative, spins a vast array of natural fibers into yarn.
Every step of the milling process, from scouring to skeining, happens at the Spinnery on iconic antique machinery. A small staff of dedicated worker-owners oversees the entire process, with incomparable expertise and love of their craft. They've also published a host of beautiful patterns and books, designed especially for their unique array of natural fibers. Between their own line of beautiful, domestic yarns, and the many different yarns they custom-mill for farms, The Spinnery is home to some of the hardest workers in the business.
It might seem odd that we brought the snowy little state of Vermont in on our California Wool Project. Someday, we hope we can mill a high-quality organic wool like Pioneer here in California. However, for our first batch of California yarn, we wanted to get every detail just perfect. We loved Sally Fox’s organic merino fleece so much, that we wanted to make the best possible yarn from it, and, most importantly, to keep it organic. The Spinnery could do that, at the scale we needed and with the attention to detail we needed. Kristine had some very specific ideas about her dream California sweater yarn, and David Ritchie at the Spinnery was the man to help her bring those ideas to life. The Spinnery could also do every step of the process without harsh chemicals. They use detergents and spinning oils made with vegetable-based oil, rather than petroleum, to minimize their environmental impact. David and the team at the Spinnery had the commitment to their product, and to their planet, that the California Wool Project required.
If there were any doubts that milling our yarn in Vermont was the right choice, they were dispelled when we opened the first box of Pioneer. The yarn was soft and sturdy. Fifty grams held a whopping 160 yards, but it was lofty enough to make a firm, warm fabric at 4 ½ stitches per inch. We couldn’t imagine having made a better yarn anywhere else. Pioneer was perfect.
Naturally, I wanted to interview these amazing Vermonters behind Pioneer. David Ritchie graciously agreed to tackle my sweeping questions (I was curious about literally everything the Spinnery does!), with some help from worker/owners, Ashlyn and Gail.
HD: For our readers/customers who’ve never been to Putney, can you describe the Green Mountain Spinnery very briefly? How big is your mill? How old are your machines, and what makes the Green Mountain Spinnery unique?
David: The Green Mountain Spinnery is located in southeastern Vermont. Friends from the northern part of the state call this the “Banana Belt.” The building was a Mobil gas station in its previous life. Now instead of fossil fuel, our product is renewable fiber for keeping out the wet and cold.
We believed the wool from those sheep on the nearby hills could do more for us than they were at the time, although we were told then that it was nearly useless. So- very naively- with a few local men with lifetime relationships to the old textile machinery world, we put together this mill, and went out to talk to the breeders. Today we produce about 200 lbs of natural fibers yarn a week. Everything here is almost an icon: the machines, the fiber from each flock and particular weather cycle, and the people- who, one way or another, are usually fiber-holics.
It is not all glory working here. It can get hot. Machines and people are fragile sometimes, and so is the fiber going through, so people have to have a kind of crazy commitment beyond a normal job. We have been blessed with this, and it is especially true today!
Vermont's Banana Belt
What's the most rewarding thing about working in the Spinnery for you?
David: As a founder, rewarding for me is to have created our basic principles for the kind of business we wanted, and then to meet the challenge of practicing them every day, in the real world. This can be very difficult, but is also so exciting when it really does happen! Working with Verb to create Pioneer is a great example.
Ashlyn: As a newer employee of the Spinnery, it's challenging to decide what the most rewarding aspect of working at the Spinnery is- there are so many! I would say that the process of sussing out what each customer wants, combined with what their fiber wants to be, and how to achieve that, is the most satisfying for me. I also always love finding new ways to achieve what we want from the spinning frame- my particular favorite machine to run.
carded fleece at the Spinnery
Since the Spinnery was founded in 1981, how has your business changed (have you been there since the beginning)? How has the yarn industry changed in that time?
David: I cannot really comment on the yarn industry in general, but I do know that when we started, in 1981, we were called the smallest yarn manufacturer in the country. For someone to get their own yarn from their own locally grown fiber was basically unheard of. We wanted to change that.
Gail: When the Spinnery began, only wool fibers were used and only in natural colors. Shortly after, there were two bales of fiber that were dyed and in combinations there were then several colors of yarn. Now there are many lines of yarn where wool is blended with other natural fibers. We use cotton, alpaca, mohair, and Tencel (a cellulosic fiber). We now have many more colors of dyed wool to blend into many, many combinations. A few years ago, our book of Spinnery patterns was published with the title 99 Yarns and Counting to reflect that huge increase.
some of the Spinnery's wide array of yarns
Can you tell us about the machinery you used to spin Pioneer?
Ashlyn: Pioneer was scoured, picked, carded, spun, plyed, and skeined on beautiful, antiquated, rare, and in most cases, uniquely hands-on machinery. The extractor (used to pull out water after scouring) is our oldest machine, from 1896, and was found in an old laundry room in a hotel in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Our carding machine dates from 1916 and is one of eleven left in the country. Parts of it are closing in on a century old, and it runs almost every work day, with its stripper and worker rolls tuned to an almost perfect 1/32 of an inch apart. The lack of computerization in our process both requires and allows us to employ a heightened degree of hands-on work and observation. Each break in the roving on the spinning frame is amended by hand, and each skein knot was tied by a person running the skeining machine- a rarity! Like most artisanal products, the work of our hands is made visible in the quality of the work.
Gail: The spinning and plying frames are from around 1950. The process begins with scouring the fibers, removing the lanolin/grease and dirt that may have gotten on during the life of the sheep. The fibers lose about a third of their weight from removing all the grease. The scoured fibers are then separated and fluffed in the picking process. Next comes the carding to separate to individual fibers, blend the colors together, and line them up in one direction. The pencil roving is put onto rolls and the rolls are carried over to the spinning frame. After spinning, the old wooden bobbins full of single-strand fiber are steamed for three hours to set the twist. Those bobbins are put up on the plying machine and the strands are twisted together in the opposite direction to create a two-ply yarn. Those bobbins of plied yarn are then steamed for three more hours. The bobbins of finished yarn are then put up on the skeining machine, and 12 skeins are made at a time, all to the desired yardage.
The Spinnery is unusual for many reasons, one in particular being that it's a worker-owned cooperative. When/why did you decide to go co-op? What are the challenges and rewards of being part of a co-op?
David: We founded the company in 1981 with the expressed wish to be a worker owned co-op, but it took many years for this to come to pass. In 2007, we went from a three-person ownership to seven, and therefore a fully worker-owned company. This means we have a lot of collaboration throughout the company, and we are often consulting with other co-op support organizations to help us work out the many challenges of working this way. Next month will be our annual Vermont Employee-Ownership Conference that some of us usually attend. It can be a challenge to feel everything you do has to be evaluated by a group, but we keep that problem minimized by making sure each owner has some freedom to act on her/his own. Then, with that in place, we take advantage of all the resources available among us for deciding new directions and creating new yarns.
I can't imagine anyone hearing the story of the Spinnery and not being inspired. Through some of the toughest years in the history of this country's textile industry, they've grown into one of the most revered mills in the country. And they've done it with a commitment to cooperative values and environmental sensitivity, every step of the way. -HD