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Bottlenecks in US Fiber Systems

Bottlenecks and missing links in supply chains hamper a US regional farm-to-closet movement. Two major national bottlenecks are present in New England's wool fiber processing and impact local production. Potential models and solutions exist to strengthen regional Fibersheds. I will return to this subject again when discussing flax and other potential bast fibers.

sheep coming in barn at farm.

Barriers to creating Vibrant Fibersheds

#Fibersheds can invigorate rural communities of fiber farmers, makers, and creators, but only if sufficient infrastructure exists to process and promote the fiber. The US wool fiber milling industry is insufficiently robust to handle most local processing of wool fibers. A 2016 report by the national Fibershed nonprofit found bottlenecks in the value supply chain for local fibers at both ends of the farm-to-closet processes.

Entry Bottleneck - Cleaning the Fiber before Processing

The first step, cleaning the fleece to remove lanolin and debris accumulated from outdoor life, is an entry bottleneck, limiting production. Only a few US mills scour (or clean the wool) at an industrial scale and due to processing protocols only accept large volumes of wool. The two largest-scale mills located in Texas and South Carolina accept minimums of 1,000 and 10,000 lb. of fleeces respectively. The average weight of a sheared sheep in the US is approximately 7 lbs. Herd sizes of more than 140 sheep are needed to meet these weight requirements in one shearing. New England sheep herd sizes recorded by voluntary responses in 2019 found that the majority (61.5%) of farm herds ranged from 11-50 sheep. Only 11% of farm respondents had more than 100 sheep.

These minimum volumes limit smaller producers' ability to process their fibers at these facilities. Small farmers must send their fleece to smaller mills that often hand scour with one machine or in a series of basins, a more labor-intensive process that increases the processing costs. The presence of these mills is essential to build out production volume, but without industrial-scale scouring available to local farmers costs increase due to hand scouring. Many mills in the region also do not allow producers to hand scour before sending the fleece to them for further processing. This is to ensure quality control and, more essentially, that wool processed on their machines is adequately cleaned to not "muck up the machinery" forcing them to incur costly repairs.

raw fleece just after shorn and in skirting process
A fleece spread out to remove the dirtiest parts - skirting the fleece.

It might seem like a single fleece could not hold that much lanolin, manure, and other organics but they can. In fact, typically a fleece will be "skirted" immediately after it is shorn from the sheep and before any mill processing is done. Skirting is traditionally performed on a table where a worker will remove the areas of thick debris and lanolin on a fleece, typically along the edges. After scouring, the weight of a single fleece can be reduced by 50% and the final weight of the processed yarn is reduced even further.

How many sweaters can an average sheep fleece create? If we start out with the average weight of a fleece in New England of 6.8 lbs, about 1/5 will be lost to skirting the fleece immediately after it is shorn, leaving about 5.5 lbs. Washing the remaining fleece will lose another 50%, leaving 2.75 lbs. The final processing of aligning the fibers and spinning the yarn can reduce the yield another pound. At the end of processing a 6.8lb fleece will yield approximately 2lbs of finished yarn, enough to create 1-2 sweaters depending upon size and style of the sweaters.

Exit Bottleneck - Industrial-scale Weaving

At the other end of the production cycle, mills that turn yarns into cloth to produce clothing or home goods are rare in the US. In 2016 less than one dozen industrial weaving mills existed including only one mill within the 150-mile radius around my home. Most weaving mills, like scouring facilities, require large volume orders. Smaller brands or independent artisans are squeezed out due to the inability to meet order minimums. Thistle Hill Weavers is an exciting mill in New York state providing high-end historical and custom fabrics. It is a niche market but shows with thought, machine weaving can exist in the US. There are also a few branded mills in New England that produce clothing exclusively for their company brand. Such mills may source materials from the US or around the world. The presence of these mills indicates potential exists for local mills using local fibers.

Finally, because of the scouring and weaving bottlenecks and other economic factors causing turnover in mill ownership and equipment relocation, local artisans and small brands may find little selection and high pricing when attempting to source local yarns and cloth.

“It isn't enough to just look for quality in the products we buy, we must ensure there is quality in the lives of those who make them.” Orsola De Castro

Possible solutions?

When Fibersheds look to solve problems, the best models come from Buy Local movements. Since these two efforts have common goals, they also share common solutions. Regional Buy Local groups aggregate and market small farm crops. This provides stability and income to the farmers by securing larger markets to sell their goods. Regional Food Hubs as they are called, such as Three Rivers Farmers Alliance in NH, gather local crops for sale to customers, businesses, and restaurants. This enlarges the quantity available for sale at one time and benefits small farmers. Mimicking this format by creating Fiber Hubs (Fibersheds) could provide a possible solution to the input bottleneck of volume weight for scouring and processing. Consistent and efficient fiber processing is the first step. Although this type of model would require sending the fiber out of state to large processing mills, the benefit to the farms and the creation of local markets to sell the processed fiber could increase fiber demand.

Bobolink Yarns is presently doing something similar on a small scale. They collect and clean fleeces from local farms, send them to a nearby mill in New York for processing, and sell the yarn wholesale to shops throughout New England. Bobolinks is helping farms increase their income without investment in fiber processing. Shearing must be done yearly, but farmers do not have to turn their fleeces into yarn, and often shorn fleeces will sit in barns unprocessed, collecting year after year.

Bobolinks wants to change this cycle and provide valuable income to farmers. Purchasing the fleeces relieves the farmers from making the large monetary investment of turning their fleeces into yarn. Selling to local shops provides artisans a place to purchase local yarns; a critical link in the farm-to-closet pathway. I will be writing more about Bobolinks in a future blog.

Another possible solution is creating a machine scouring facility locally. This would require capital and incentives for the potential owners to take this risk. A mill outside my home range in Maine has set up machine-driven line scouring using a 1950s system and can process 200-300 lbs of wool per day. This is far from the large scouring minimums discussed above but New England boasts 52,000 sheep (353,600 lbs. of fleeces) in 2020 and thus, much less than states with large-scale farming. Quicker scouring would enhance local accessibility to processing with shorter time tables required for the raw fleece to yarn.

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