Buffalo Business keeps Wyoming wool in the state
Mountain meadow wool can be found in any warehouse just outside of Buffalo. The company works with small wool producers across the country, but primarily in Wyoming, to process raw wool into a variety of products.
According to COO Ben Hostetler, the company was born out of his mother’s interest in crafting with natural fibers. But she couldn’t find a local wire to use. After obtaining raw wool from a Johnson County rancher, she took it to a small factory in Canada to process it into yarn. That’s when she realized it could be a business.
“And that started this brainstorming on,” Well, there’s this rich history of wool in Wyoming and Johnson County, especially with a strong Basque culture that has come to raise sheep here for over 100 years, “” Hostetler said. “And so it was a little sad to see this rich history of quality wool and no traceability to its origin, and that’s how this idea started in the mind.”
With an innovative research grant for a small business in hand, the factory opened in 2007.
“To this day my mom is going to come out here and tell you that she never imagined that would happen, the scale and growth that we had, but just one thing led to another and a kind. snowball effect, ”he said.
According to Hostetler, they are unique in the country because they do every step of turning raw wool into a finished product. He added that their products are also easily traceable to the ranch that supplied the wool.
“Knowing where your food comes from, knowing where your clothes are made, is certainly a growing interest in the United States, or the world at large, and has been for some time,” Hostetler said. “Being in a vertically integrated business where raw wool comes in through one door and the finished product through the other is the norm for us.”
The wool that arrives at the mill is carefully labeled to separate the different producers. After a quick check for unwanted materials like vegetation or ear tags, the wool passes through a five-basin wash line. Here all the dirt and grease is cleaned off.
“During the process, we will lose about 50 percent of the weight of the raw wool in the form of dirt and grease,” Hostetler said. “So 100 pounds going in only makes 50 pounds of clean wool going out.”
Once the wool is dry, it goes to a machine that carefully combs or cards it to align the fibers. This is important so that the thread comes out smoothly and consistently. Now the wool looks like loose, thick ropes. They are carefully loaded onto the spinning machine, which simultaneously stretches and twists it into yarn. It takes almost two and a half hours to charge each side.
“When it goes through the machine, it’s almost like a hand spinner. So people see an old hand spinning wheel, they use the pedal, and they use their hands, so they take this thick rope, or this roaming, and they pull it apart and make it thinner and that’s called drafting, ”Hostetler said.“ And then when they pull it apart, they spin the wheel, and that provides the twist. So machines do the same thing, but they do it a lot faster. “
Wool is stretched almost 15 times its original length when it becomes yarn. What is not sold or used in its natural color is hand dyed in what looks like an industrial kitchen.
“We have recipe books just like you would in the kitchen. So the recipe books have different powders that we put in different powder combinations, and we mix and mix them and then apply them on the wire,” said Hostetler.
The dyed yarn is dried and coated with wax. This helps it to pass through the knitting machine without getting caught. Six large machines use a programmed pattern to create a range of products from beanies to hoodies to blankets.
“We programmed it to, it’s kind of an old computer, which uses three and a half inch floppy drives,” Hostetler said with a laugh. “And then the machine knows the pattern we’re calling it. So it has a bunch of different feeders, a bunch of different thread cones, and it selects the necessary cone to create the pattern that we programmed into the machine. Each machine has about, oh, about 750 needles on the machine, and those needles are used to grab the pull thread for the blanket being made, ”he added.
Each product must be completed by hand, using a technique called chaining. In it, each stitch in a row is fed individually onto a needle spool before it, much like hemming pants, a sewing machine sews a row to keep it from unraveling. A product is ready after stitching a leather patch and steaming.
Hostetler said they are taking extra care throughout the process to not create waste and be environmentally friendly. They use biodegradable soap and even the grease and dirt from the wash is put in huge compost bins to be broken down by microbes and used for landscaping.
“If something goes in the dumpster, there must be a very serious reason why it’s in the dumpster, and usually it will be floor sweeps. So it would be dirt or debris or dirt. garbage would be about the only things we put in the dumpster, he said. “Sometimes someone brings in some raw wool and says,” I have this wool in my grandparents’ attic, and it has been there for 20 years. “And sometimes it’s great, but sometimes it’s full of moths and moth larvae and so it would be thrown out because we don’t want that in the factory.”
Tiny pieces of wool are also put to good use.
“Every time we set up a machine, there will be a little tuft of wool or when it ends that has not been put in the yarn, and all those tufts, we baled them back together and put it back into the yarn. production line once or twice a year. It’s called Nitty Gritty, “he said. “So that’s a bit of all that we ran, we blend together and make a thread out of that.”
The short fibers that have been removed during combing are placed in drying balls. Even damaged knitted products are reused.
“Anytime we have a drop in clothing production, we’re either going to unwind the garment if we can and put it back on a cone and knit it back, or if we can’t unroll it, we’re going to feel it and do it. sew products off of it – a purse or a purse – something that we can use that felted product for, ”Hostetler said.
Another thing that makes Mountain Meadows Wool unique is that they work hard to give the breeders they partner with a fair price for their products. They have a minimum price they pay for wool, regardless of the international market price that year.
“Overall, the wool industry, like agriculture in general, is cheap. It’s harder every year and generation for these producers to stay in business. Whether it’s raw wool or beef. or the meat side is, I think, a necessary part of our state economy to continue to add value to these products so these ranchers can stay in business, ”Hostetler said.“ I don’t breed. no sheep myself, but I really appreciate those who do. And I think we all do it in Wyoming as a whole. That’s what makes Wyoming a pretty cool state, it’s that farming community, and I think in order to preserve that, we have to make sure these ranchers can get better bounties so they can keep this operating ranch and make good, sustainable decisions about their operation. “
The factory employs 26 part-time workers and the whole family lends a helping hand. No one who works there has any textile experience before starting the business.
“So it’s on-the-job training. And it creates a lot of challenges, but also fun in a lot of ways. I was an engineer. So it’s a very different career field,” Hostetler said. “But I guess the problem solving and critical thinking that characterizes the engineering profession – I guess you could call me a textile engineer at this point, doing a lot of problem solving every day with the textile process.”
Hostetler makes a point of traveling the country and learning as much as possible about the textile industry. But many experts in the field have since retired, and most universities no longer have woolen programs. The University of Wyoming recently rehired a Sheep Extension Specialist and Hostetler is excited to start partnering with them. He looks forward to welcoming interns in the future. He is a big believer in education and hands-on experience.
“For my part, I got my undergraduate and masters degree, and I remember when I got my first job after my masters in an engineering company and there was something that I had seen it on paper countless times during my studies and had no real concept of what it looked like in real life, ”he said. “And when I first saw it it was mind-boggling. I had probably solved some issues with it and used it and maybe passed an exam where it was mentioned and then in real life , I had no idea what it actually was. “
According to Hostetler, interns will also learn how to combine farming and other interests.
Mountain Meadow Wool is currently partnering with the University of Wyoming Sheep Program to create custom blankets from the wool of the program’s sheep.