Making Yarn: Part 2

Part two of a three-part series. You can read part one here.

Raw wool, scoured wool, yarn.

Raw wool, scoured wool, yarn.

Green Mountain Spinnery

There's no fast way to get from Maine to Vermont. All the interstate highways around here run North-to-South, so we settle in for a relaxed drive across New Hampshire on the back roads. On the map, Green Mountain Spinnery appears to be barely over the Vermont border. We wonder how Vermont-feeling it's really going to be. Maybe this "Green Mountain" thing is just an exercise in branding?

We shouldn't have doubted. As we roll into the town of Putney, the Vermont vibes are unmistakeable. Green farmland, tree-covered hills. Firewood stacked in every yard. A little downtown where the main grocery option is the Putney Food Co-op, a cooperatively owned health food store. A roadside eatery called Curtis' Bar-B-Q operating out of a broken-down, colorfully painted school bus. But the best part of all turns out to be the Spinnery itself.

We pull in, park the car, and walk through the front door of what looks like a big farmhouse and into the Spinnery's retail shop. Inside we're surrounded by yarn and smiling faces. "Hannah and Abe! Welcome!" In quick succession we meet David Ritchie, Lauren VonKrusenstiern, Maureen Clark, and Laurie Gilbert. All of them seem unusually comfortable and unhurried for employees in a workplace. Their demeanor is of people welcoming guests who have dropped in to visit while they're enjoying a day off at home. We're trying to figure out which one of them is the owner, but nobody seems to be claiming that role. The answer is that they all are: it's an employee-owned cooperative and they're four of the members. Ah ha! That explains it.

David and Lauren tell us where to unload the wool, and we drive around back to the shed and awkwardly haul our two giant bags up onto the loading dock. Inside, it's a treasure vault of raw fiber. Green Mountain Spinnery works with a lot of small farms and fiber producers, so their shed is packed full of small batches like ours, all in different textures and colors. Among the earthy natural colors are bags of wool in bright blue, purple, and green. These have been dyed in-the-wool, before spinning, and they'll end up being blended with undyed wool to make tweedy and heathered yarns.

Kate and Hannah in the shed. That bag she's sitting on is our wool.

Kate and Hannah in the shed. That bag she's sitting on is our wool.

David helps us get our wool logged in. We work the bags over to an old sliding-weight scale by flipping them end-over-end. He weighs them, and writes down the numbers on a pen-and-paper ledger sheet. With that business taken care of, we meet Kate Salomon back up front. It's time for our tour!

Kate's tour of the Spinnery is a fascinating introduction in yarn manufacturing given by a knowledgeable and patient tour guide. Going in, we weren't sure if we'd even be allowed into the production area, but Kate takes us through every part of the facility, explaining the process in the order it happens. (She also volunteers to take photos and video of our wool being processed, which we're so happy to have and to share here. Thanks, Kate!)

The inside of the Spinnery is both whimsical and steampunk-industrial. The walls are decorated with little notes, collages, poems, quotes, and sketches. The rooms are full of machinery dating from the 1890's to 1950's, boom times of American textile manufacturing. Some of the machines have been taken apart and recombined to meet the Spinnery's needs. As in a post-apocalyptic novel, a band of resourceful tinkerers have found ways to repurpose the abandoned machinery of a previous age.

The scouring machine

The scouring machine

First up on the tour is the scouring machine. Sheep live outdoors, and their wool can get grimy and collect debris. Wool also comes with a greasy coat of naturally-produced lanolin, which gunks up machinery. So all that stuff has to go. At the Spinnery, wool goes through four cycles of scouring in a special machine, using a hot water temperature and process designed to clean the wool without accidentally felting it. It gets a final rinse and spin (in a machine manufactured in 1896, as Kate points out), and then a cycle in a dryer. Now the wool is clean and dry, ready to process.

Wool being fed into the picker

Wool being fed into the picker

Next, the wool goes into a picking machine. This takes the chunks of wool and loosens them up, then blows them through a chute into an enclosed room, where they flutter down and land all mixed up. It's like shuffling a deck by throwing all the cards in the air.

Carding machine, stage 1.

Carding machine, stage 1.

Now we get to the machine we've been wondering about since we first glimpsed it: a room-sized series of rollers that looks kind of like a printing press. This, Kate tells us, is the carding machine. The rollers are covered with carding cloth whose little teeth get progressively finer as they go along. The teeth gently comb the wool to get its fibers aligned and interlocked, until it forms a gauzy sheet called a batt.

A batt coming off stage 1

A batt coming off stage 1

Halfway through the carding machine, the batt gets turned sideways and repeatedly folded over itself. Then it goes through another series of toothed rollers. This creates a batt with fibers that interlock in all directions, and it's this process that gives woolen-spun yarn its distinctive warmth and fuzziness.

A batt being folded over before going into stage two

A batt being folded over before going into stage two

At the end of the of the carding machine, the batt goes through something that looks like a pasta slicer and comes out as thin strands of wool, which get wrapped up side by side onto a big roll. The strands, Kate tells us, are called pencil roving. They look like yarn, but they don't have any twist to them. And they're not very strong, as she demonstrates by easily breaking a scrap piece. To become yarn, they have to get spun. We walk into the next room, which is also dominated by a huge machine: the spinner.

The big rolls of pencil roving go on top of the spinner, and each end gets threaded by hand, ninety-six in all. Multiple strands of roving can be combined to create a thicker ply. We get to watch the spinning machine whirr into action. As it's wrapped onto bobbins the ply spins around so fast you can barely see it, but you can see the bobbins slowly filling up.

At this point, our wool will have become what Kate calls a ply. In a single-ply yarn, the ply and the yarn are the same thing, but for a two-ply yarn there's an additional step, and of course there's some vintage machinery on hand for that too: the plying machine, which twists the plys together. Why doesn't it come untwisted? Kate explains that the steam the yarn after every step that involves a twist. That relaxes it, and it re-sets with the twist permanently in place.

Single plies of yarn. Two of these plies will be combined to make our two-ply yarn.

Single plies of yarn. Two of these plies will be combined to make our two-ply yarn.

It's all really awesome to see. Amazing vintage machinery being maintained and run by clever and friendly people. "The great things about these machines is that they never become obsolete." Kate says. "As long as you maintain them, they'll run forever." Seeing the process also leaves us meditating on the fractal nature of wool garments. Individual wool fibers interlock to become roving. Roving is spun into plys. Plys are twisted into yarn. Yarn is knitted into fabric. At each step it becomes bigger, stronger, and more useful.

Yarn!

Yarn!

By the time Kate finishes our tour it seems like we're the only people left at the spinnery. We chat for a while and thank her for spending so much time with us. Our wool is in good hands. In a few weeks, the two giant bags of raw wool currently sitting in the shed will come out the front door as a thousand skeins of yarn, ready for knitting.

Or, rather, it would be ready for knitting, if were content to keep it the buttery-white color of the sheep at Noon Family Sheep Farm. But we have other colors in mind, and there's another part of the yarn production process we want to see. So when the yarn is ready we'll take another road trip. Next time we'll be going a bit farther North to Quebec, where our friends Julie Asselin and Jean-François Mallette will dye the yarn to its final colors.

Next Time: Making Yarn, Part 3: Dyeing