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Buffalo Business Keeps Wyoming Wool In The State

Wool packaged in bales, boxes, and black trash bags are piled in a warehouse. Black wool is open and piled on the floor in the center.
Ivy Engel
/
Wyoming Public Radio
Springtime is shearing season, which means the warehouse is full of wool.

Mountain Meadow Wool can be found in a nondescript warehouse just outside of Buffalo. The company works with small woolgrowers from across the country, but mostly from Wyoming, to turn raw wool into a variety of products.

According to operations manager Ben Hostetler, the business was born from his mother's interest in crafting with natural fibers. But she was unable to find local yarn to use. After getting raw wool from a Johnson County rancher, she brought it up to a small mill in Canada to have it turned into yarn. That's when she realized this could be a business.

"And that started this brainstorming of 'Well, there's this rich history of wool in Wyoming, and in Johnson County, in particular with strong Basque culture that came in and raising sheep here for over 100 years,'" said Hostetler. "And so it was kind of sad to see this rich history that's quality wool and no traceability back to where it came from, and so that kind of started this idea in the mind."

With a small business innovative research grant in hand, the mill opened in 2007.

"To this day, my mom will walk out here and tell you that she never imagined this happening, the scale and the growth that we've had, but just one thing led to another and kind of that snowball effect," he said.

According to Hostetler, they're unique in the country because they do every step in turning raw wool into a finished product. He added their products are also easily traceable back to the ranch that supplied the wool.

"Knowing where your food comes from, knowing where your garments are made, is definitely a growing interest in the United States, or globally as a whole, and it has been for some time," said Hostetler. "Being in a vertically integrated company where the raw wool comes in one door and the finished product out the other, it's standard for us."

Black wool waits on the conveyor belt of a large wool washing machine.
Ivy Engel
Mountain Meadow Wool will run black wool for a few weeks before moving on to gray wool and then back to white wool.

Wool that arrives at the mill is carefully labeled to keep different producers separate. After a quick check for unwanted materials like vegetation or ear tags, the wool runs through a five basin wash line. Here, all dirt and grease is scrubbed out.

"In the process, we'll lose about 50 percent of the weight of the raw wool as dirt and grease," said Hostetler. "So 100 pounds going in is only 50 pounds of clean wool coming out."

After the wool has been dried, it moves on to a machine that carefully combes, or cards, it to line up the fibers. This is important so the yarn comes out smoothly and consistently. By now, the wool looks like loose, thick ropes. They're carefully loaded onto the spinning frame that simultaneously stretches and twists it into yarn. It takes almost two and a half hours to load each side.

"As it goes through the machine, it's almost like a hand spinner. So people see an old hand spinning wheel, they're using the foot pedal, and they're using their hands, so they're taking that thick rope, or that roving, and they're pulling it apart and making it thinner and that's called drafting it," said Hostetler. "And then as they pull it apart, they're spinning the wheel, and that provides the twist. So the machines do the same, but they do it a lot faster."

Black wool is strung over an industrial spinning machine. It is in thick ropes on the right and goes into thinner yarn on the left.
Ivy Engel
This machine lengthens and twists loose coils of wool into yarn. This particular batch is “rough” with small bits of vegetation left in it for a rustic feel.

The wool is stretched almost 15 times its original length when it becomes yarn. What isn't 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 cooking. So recipe books have different powders that we put in different combinations of powder, and we mix and blend them and then apply it to the yarn," said Hostetler.

Dyed wool yarn is hung over poles to dry.
Ivy Engel
Dyed wool must dry for about a day before it can be put back on a cone.

Dyed yarn is dried and coated in wax. That helps it run through the knitting machine without snagging. Six big machines use a programmed pattern to create a range of products from beanies to hoodies to blankets.

"We've programmed it on, it's kind of an old computer, that uses three and a half inch floppy drives," laughed Hostetler. "And then the machine knows the pattern that we're calling out. So it has a bunch of different feeders, a bunch of different cones of yarn, and it selects which cone is needed to make the pattern that we have programmed onto the machine. Each machine has about, oh, 750 or so needles on the machine, and those needles are being used to grab the yarn to pull down for the blanket that's being made," he added.

Each product must be completed by hand, using a technique called linking. In it, each stitch in a line is individually fed onto a spool of needles before, kind of like hemming a pair of pants, a sewing machine sews a line to keep it from unraveling. A product is ready after a leather patch is sewn on and it's steamed.

A mini sewing machine is connected to a large, round wheel with large needles on the edge. Someone is putting the threads of a blanket on the needles.
Ivy Engel
Linking is a specialized technique that few people are trained to do.

Hostetler said they take extra care throughout the process to not create waste and to be eco-friendly. They use biodegradable soap and even grease and dirt from washing is put into huge composting bins to be broken down by microbes and used for landscaping.

"If something's going in the dumpster there has to be a very severe reason of why it's in the dumpster, and usually it's going to be floor sweepings. So that'd be dirt or debris or trash would be about the only things we send out into the dumpster," he said. "Occasionally, someone brings in raw wool and they say, 'I've got this wool in my grandparent's attic, and it's been there for 20 years.' And sometimes it's great, but sometimes it's full of moths and moth larva and so that would get thrown away because we don't want that in the mill."

Tiny bits of wool are also put to good use.

"Every time we set up a machine, there'll be a little tuft of wool or when it finishes that wasn't put into the yarn, and all those tufts, we bale them back together and we run that back through the production line once or twice a year. It's called Nitty Gritty," he said. "So it's a little of everything that we ran, we blend back together and create a yarn out of that."

Short fibers that have been removed during combing are put into dryer balls. Even damaged knitted products are reused.

"Any time we have a scrap in garment production we'll either unwind the garment if we can and put it back onto a cone and reknit it, or if we can't unwind it, we'll go and felt it and make sewn products out of it - a purse or handbag - 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 ranchers they partner with a fair price for their products. They have a minimum price they pay for wool, no matter what rate the international market dictates that year.

"Overall, the wool industry, like ag in general, is cheap. It's harder every year and every generation for those producers to stay in business. Whether it's raw wool or beef or the meat side, that is, I think, a needed part of our state economy to keep bringing value to these products so these ranchers can stay in business," Hostetler said. "I don't raise sheep myself, but I have a great appreciation for those who do. And I think we all do in Wyoming as a whole. It's what makes Wyoming a pretty cool state is this agricultural community, and I think in order to preserve that, we need to make sure that those ranchers can get paid better premiums so they can keep that ranch in operation and make good sustainable decisions on their operation."

The mill employs 26 part-time employees, and the whole family helps out. No one who works there has any textile experience from before the business started.

"So it's all on the job training. And that creates a lot of challenges, but also fun in many respects. I was an engineer. So a very different career field," said Hostetler. "But I guess the problem solving and the critical thinking that goes into being an engineer - I guess you could call myself a textile engineer at this point, doing a lot of problem solving every day with the textile process."

Hostetler makes a point to travel the country and learn as much as he can about the textile industry. But a lot of the experts in the field have since retired and most universities no longer have wool programs. The University of Wyoming recently rehired an Extension Sheep Specialist and Hostetler is excited to start partnering with them. He's looking forward to hosting interns in the future. He's a big proponent for hands-on education and experience.

"Speaking for myself, I got my undergraduate degree and my master's degree, and I remember when I first got my job after my master's degree in an engineering firm and there was something I had seen on paper countless times going through school and I had no actual concept of what that actually looked like in real life," he said. "And when I first saw it for the first time, it was mind boggling. I'd probably solved problems with that and used it and maybe aced an exam where that was mentioned, and then in real life had no concept of what that actually was."

According to Hostetler, interns will also learn about ways to combine agriculture and other interests.

Mountain Meadow Wool is currently partnered with the University of Wyoming Sheep Program to create custom blankets out of wool from the program's sheep.

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