Thursday April 21, 2011
GREENWICH, N.Y. -- Before the wholesale loss to overseas manufacturing, upstate New York had a thriving textile industry, with mills lining the region’s rivers and tributaries. With the recent renewed interest in local goods and products, area farmers now have a local venue for processing fiber from shorn sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas.
"At one point, there were 13 fiber mills located between the Battenkill’s mouth with the Hudson and East Greenwich," said Mary Jeanne Packer. Now, there is only one -- Packer’s recently opened Battenkill Fibers Carding and Spinning Mill, located at 2532 State Route 40 in the town of Greenwich.
Battenkill Fibers officially opened its doors at the end of December, and it is now the region’s only commercial semi-worsted mill. "Semi-worsted is the preferred method for the slippery fibers like mohair and alpaca, or mohair and alpaca blends," said Packer.
The Rutland, Vt., resident said opening the mill was a lifelong dream, spurred by a degree in engineering as well as her primary business, Ghostwriters Communications, a consulting firm catering to the natural resource and agricultural industries.
"I’m always fascinated with how things are made and how machines operate," she said. Through her consulting business, Packer said that she "became aware of the need for value-added agriculture -- a way for farmers to make more money than simply selling their fleece as a commodity."
"I also own two yarn stores," she continued. "So I know the yarn industry and what the demands are for premium quality natural fibers. So I just put that all together, and said, ‘Geez, this is my next business,’ and here it is."
There were setbacks along the way, however, including a fire last June which destroyed the Greenwich Aubuchon Hardware Store, where the mill was slated to operate in a rear room. "We had everything in place" to open, said Packer, "and the funny thing was, as we were sitting in lawn chairs in the parking lot watching the roof smoldering and water running out of the doors and windows, National Grid showed up to turn our power on."
Washington County fiber tour
This weekend, Battenkill Fibers in its new location will participate in the 19th annual Washington County Farm and Fiber Tour, which allows people the opportunity to explore the county’s fiber farms. Packer said that the event attracts avid knitters, farmers, and "fiber enthusiasts" from the greater upstate region, and as far as Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. For more information on this weekend’s event, visit www.washingtoncountyfibertour.org.
Battenkill Fibers has three principal lines of business including custom processing for fiber farmers, who return to collect their yarn or roving for their own use or distribution at the farm or farmer’s market. The mill also sells directly to yarn stores throughout the Northeast. But the "bread and butter" of their business, Packer said, is an independent industry group of individuals who hand-dye fibers and yarn to sell at fiber festivals and wholesale.
"What they need is an affordable, high quality source of just plain, white fiber, yarn, in a variety of weights and types, wools and wool blends," said Packer. "Right now this industry has to buy it in the container load from China. This is more fiber than they can use, it’s not processed in an environmentally responsible manner, and their customers are demanding that they have a more local product -- so we are really able to fill that niche beautifully."
The response has been positive, and over the past two months Packer said that business has been booming. "The response from area farmers is heartening -- folks have really embraced the idea of having a local facility for custom processing."
The mill will spin fiber from any animal typically sheared, including alpacas, whose burgeoning popularity in the U.S. and worldwide can be attributed to their manageable size, gentle demeanor, and plush coats. But the bulk of Packer’s business is in traditional sheep wool.
"There are so many sheep farms and a lot of them are dual breeds -- they raise them for the lamb or dairy market," said Packer. "That said, they still need to pay for their shearing costs. And by having some of their fleece made into yarn or roving for resale on their farms, that really helps the farmers cover their shearing costs, sheep costs, and it’s also a nice way for the farmers’ customers to continue to connect with the farm experience."
Packer said that the mill currently processed roughly 250 pounds of raw wool a week, but the capacity is there to quadruple that number.
For more information, visit www.battenkillfibers.com. Tours are available on week days during normal business hours, and the mill will also be open both days this weekend, from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m., as part of the Washington County Farm and Fiber Tour.