July 17, 2019

All Wool & a Yard Wide

How a 4-H project launched an East Jordan fiber empire even Ralph Lauren noticed.
By Eric Cox | March 2, 2019

Debbie McDermott doesn’t miss much.

From across the shop floor of herwool-processing company,Stonehedge Fiber Mill, near East Jordan, her eagle eyes spot a minor problem on one of five chattering, clattering machines, each spinning, carding, plying, or performing some other wool-milling process.

Mid-sentence, she darts to the misfiring mechanism and remedies the problem, her calm confidence guiding a series of deft hand movements that quickly have the machine ticking away again.

Each machinelooks complex, with spinning bobbins, combs, belts, and gears whirring away. But, these milling workhorses are really quite simple, dramatically reducing what 200 years ago would’ve been hours and hours of methodical, labor-intensive work.

Though much of wool milling today is automated, it retains many of the same techniques employed down through the ages. Once sheered from the animal, the raw fiber is known as fleece, or grease wool. Its many imperfections, including sticky lanolin, manure, and bits of vegetation enmeshed in the fiber ends, are then “skirted,” or clipped off. After skirting, the wool is then vigorously scoured in scalding, soapy water to remove the waxy, aromatic lanolin and other matter. Coarse and fine fibers are then separated from each other, as are long and short ones.

After drying, the wool is then “picked,” a mechanized process similar to teasing one’s own hair. It injects air into the fibers, resulting in more volume, while also forming a thin, fibrous web. That web is then combed in a “carding” machine; its thousands of teeth are like those on a dog comb. Wool that is not carded is often “worsted,” a process that aligns the fibers, like in thread, instead of enmeshing them.

“Roving” is the penultimate phase in wool milling. It divides the woolen web into small strips called pencil roving. The roving is fed into a “spinning” machine, which twists the fibers into a loose thread. The spinner also performs another important function: plying. The plying process braids multiple threads into a single strand. This is what most people envision when they think of yarn.

A variety of methods are used to finish wool, and dying is sometimes required or desired.

Custom wool processing is a super specialized cottage industry that McDermott knows by heart, hand, and head. Her heart’s in it because of her love of animals. Her hands are so skilled she can gauge the quality of a batch of raw fleece simply by touching it. McDermott’s head is certainly involved — as a container for her vast knowledge of wool processing and sheep raising – and perhaps more importantly, her 30-year business doing all that quite successfully.

Head, heart and hands ... Why do those three things sound so familiar?

Well, they represent three-quarters of 4-H (head, heart, hands, health) — the beloved youth activities program ultimately responsible for Stonehedge Fiber Mill’s inception.

This story began 30 years ago, in February 1999, when the McDermotts’ daughter, Jamie, decided she wanted to raise a few Suffolk lambs for 4-H. As that project progressed through 10 years, the family’s small flock grew.

An avid animal lover, Debbie, who taught herself to crochet in junior high school, was as interested in the wool as the sheep themselves. She wanted to knit her own sweaters and mittens with the wool the family harvested from their own animals. But, as she quickly learned, sending their fleece to a processor resulted in a frustrating waiting game; it often took several weeks or even months to get the finished fibers back.

So McDermott and her late husband, Chuck, decided to start processing their own. Realizing that other families also wanted to harvest and utilize their own sheeps’ wool in their very own products, too, the family decided to start custom processing wool, and Stonehedge Fiber Mill was born.
“We were taking wool, alpaca, and llama from other people and processing it into either roving (long and narrow bundles of fiber prepared for hand-spinning), or batting (cushiony wool used as quilt filler, etc.) and — eventually, after a couple of years — we started making yarn. Then we’d send it back to them as their own animals’ fibers,” she said.

As the years passed, the business grew. Stonehedge began spinning wool for a growing list of customers. As a logical next step, they trained their eyes on their own line of yarn. Hence, Shephard’s Wool Yarn was launched — a brand that is now sold in over 350 shops in 38 U.S. states and other countries, including Canada, Norway, Australia, Israel, and Sweden. 

The success of Shephard’s Wool Yarn caught the McDermotts a bit off guard. Like their custom processing orders, demand for Shephard’s Wool Yarn swelled beyond their physical production capability. The family soon turned to a derelict plastics factory in East Jordan proper, renting there.

“When we’re doing good, we might put 2,000 pounds of yarn out of that building per month,” Debbie said.

Eventually, the family constructed a few more small outbuildings on the rural farm, adding more processing machines and, eventually, building their own machines.

What?

Yes.

Debbie’s late husband, Chuck, was a retired GM employee with a knack for engineering. His mechanical know-how, combined with the couple’s close study of their own machines, yielded a sister company, Stonehedge Fiber Milling Equipment.

“Chuck could never sit still after he retired,” said McDermott. “He wasn’t the kind to sit and watch TV. He had to have projects to work on. So he started building these machines.”

Despite Chuck’s passing, McDermott and her employees continue to sell custom-made wool processing equipment. She helps clients install, calibrate, and operate the machines, training buyers until they’re comfortable. She even provides customers with business-planning guidance and monthly expense projections.

In spite of McDermott’s apparent ease with all things woolly, she insists that nothing relating to Stonehedge ever came easy.

“Everything out here was just a learn-by-doing process. We didn’t have anyone to teach us these things,” said McDermott, referring to the entire process, from raising sheep to finishing fine wool. “I learned how to use the spinning machine from my own knowledge of hand-spinning on a spinning wheel ... I just learned by doing. I had no training, none.”

Clearly, the McDermotts are quick studies, and they’re happy to share their knowledge — not only with the immediate family members who’ve worked there over the years but also their 10 employees.
Jennifer Olson is a 12-year Stonehedge veteran who mainly works the spinning and pin-drafting machines. She came to the fiber mill from an office job that was about to be relocated. Like all the other Stonehedge employees, Olson is an animal lover who finds solace in her work.

“I take a lot of pride in what I make,” she said. “I know Deb trusts me to put out a lot of good stuff, and whenever I have a question, I make sure I ask. I do take pride in making sure I give back to the customer something we can both be proud of.”

Olson said her favorite part of the job is working through the milling process  and seeing finished products. “It takes patience because it is meticulous sometimes,” she said. “Every batch of fiber is different and some take more work.”

Aside from selling Shephard’s Wool Yarn in hundreds of stores, people have taken notice of Stonehedge wares in other ways. Famously, in 2013, a woman visiting the area happened into the Stonehedge Yarn Shop, McDermott’s tiny retail space, and purchased a few skeins she said she was taking back to her employer in New York City.

No one thought much of that occurrence until a few months later when a man called from Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand. He had appreciated the samples the woman had brought him from East Jordan. In fact, he wanted many more samples. McDermott, of course, sent them. Her expectations were still low, however.

Several more weeks passed before the phone again rang. This time it was someone else from Ralph Lauren saying the McDermott’s wool, judged along with many others, had been selected for sweaters and hats worn by Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“That was a really weird thing, a fluke,” McDermott said. “We were really floored.”

For as prestigious as the honor was, however, the Stonehedge crew seems more interested and enthusiastic about the colorful yarn skeins they produce and process for everyday people.

 “We’re not in it for money,” said McDermott. “Making a good product is the most important thing, and providing a job for people. What I also started doing it for was so that I could get something back out of my animals that I was spending time and money raising — and get a product back that I could use for myself or resell. And other people can do the same. It’s a value-added agriculture thing. You’re giving people a way to make something off their animals so that they can continue raising them. Otherwise, why do it?”

To find out more, visit www.stonehedgefibermill.com.

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