Fiber Mill Feature: Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill

I just want to say, I love this community! There are so many interesting people to meet, so much knowledge, and so much generosity! A couple of weeks ago, Anne Bosch of Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill got in touch with me. She’d seen Dawn Brown’s blogspot and thought our little knittingthestash community might be a good place for her to spread the word: it turns out she and her husband Marc are selling their mill–one of the beloved fiber mills of the midwest! Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill has an excellent reputation and I’ve seen them at many of the local fiber festivals, including Wisconsin Sheep and Wool. Well, Anne and I got to talking over email and she agreed to an interview (yay!); plus, she has been kind enough to answer so many of my questions about the ins and outs of running a mill–she’s an amazing resource! Spencer and I have been toying with the idea of running a mill someday and I have to say, this was an opportunity too good to miss! I’ll share a few more bits and pieces on the next podcast along with a giveaway from Anne’s own line of yarn.

If you’d like to visit, Anne and Marc are hosting a mill open house on Nov 23rd and 24th–all are welcome! Details are on their main website. And if you know someone who might be interested in the mill, there is a PDF if information available here; please feel free to share this post far and wide!

Without further ado, let’s get to some beautiful photos, an interview with Anne and some links to the woolen mill that is now on the market and ready for its future owners!

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Spindles with some of our Colorflow yarns being spun

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Our dye pot for doing “nearly solid” colors

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Picture of the feed bin for the carding machine where the blending of the fibers begins

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The blended fibers as they come off the card and are divided into pencil rovings which are colored on spools

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Overview of the spinning area with the Twister on the left and the Spinning Frame on the right

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Outside of the building as you come up the driveway. House is on the right, mill is on the left

KTS: What is the history of your mill and farm? How did you get started?

Anne: My husband, Marc, and I both worked in Madison. Marc wanted to do some farming, at least part time, so we bought some land and built a house. Then we got sheep and built a barn, in that order. I have always been a knitter. So I learned to hand spin since the wool was essentially free. It was very easy to save fleeces faster than I could spin them, but I still wanted yarn to knit with. At that time, Green Mountain Spinnery had a backlog of a year.  It seemed like there was a good opportunity to start a business like that in the midwest close to where I knew there were many hand spinning flocks.   About that time, Spin Off magazine had an article about cottage industry yarn  manufacturing. I called them up and got some contact information which started the ball rolling.

KTS: How did you acquire your milling equipment?

Anne: We were given the name of a broker, Charlie Haynes, who sold old wool processing machinery and parts. He was very very helpful with his own personal goal of seeing the equipment from the disappearing textile industry be put to use rather than sent to the scrap metal heap. We “shopped” for 2 years looking at several mills in various stages of decay, but finally found some that would work for us and was still in working order.

Charlie Haynes died back in the 90’s, but he helped to organize the moving company (Riggers) and trucks necessary to move the machinery from Worcester MA to WI. We had to organize the riggers on our end which involved a crane and an experienced crew to lift the machine sections off of the flat bed semis and into the building. They had steel plates on the ground and small moving pads to roll the sections into place.  It all went in a very organized manner. The set up that took place after the machines were moved in took a while because we only needed part of the spinning frame. It had to be cut almost in half and the end refit to the part that we now use.

KTS: What’s it like to maintain the mill?

Anne: Marc is a good mechanic and can fix many things that can go wrong with the machinery, but there are times that we need to take parts to a machine shop to have them repaired or rebuilt. We also have a person who used to work in the Portage Woolen Mill who can come and help when it takes more expertise, like sharpening wire and replacing card cloth. We pay a lot of attention to squeaks and unusual noises which helps to prevent break downs in the first place.

KTS: What are your favorite fibers to process, to spin or knit with?

Anne: I really like a cross between Rambouillet and Finn sheep.  It is not as fine as Merino, but it has a smoothness that is great to knit with. My next favorite fiber is Cormo which also has a smoothness that merino does not have. Third is a commercial breed, Polypay, which is often over looked simply because the farmers that raise the breed have bigger flocks and don’t keep the fleeces clean enough for the hand spinners to gravitate towards.

KTS: Where do you find inspiration for all of your colorways?

Anne: Nature is the main source. It is always changing and provides beautiful color combinations from morning to evening and from season to season.

KTS: Why are you invested in working with local wool (in addition to your other wool and yarn sources)?

Anne: The local shepherds are who inspired me to start this business (30+ years ago). I could see many of then struggling to make money from their sheep and part of that was the difficulty in doing the marketing of their own fibers.  Hand spinners are a very small market. Knitters are a much bigger market, but the wool needs to be in the form of yarn for them to use it.

KTS: Can you give us a snapshot of a day-in-the life working at the mill?

Anne: I spend a lot of time washing wool and yarn even though we have a part time person who helps with that. My day often starts with starting up the washing machines and working on answering emails while they fill and the water heats up again for the next batch.  We have a full time employee and a part time employee and the three of us sort of “job share.” I do much of the organizing (making lists) of what needs to be worked on next.  Then a good part of my day is spent carding and spinning. Carding takes all of my attention, but spinning usually goes well enough that I can do other things.  The dye pot is run almost every day of the week but most of that is done by one of the employees.

KTS: I hear you are retiring and selling your mill and farm . . . why would this be a great business to get into?

Anne: I love working with fibers and working with the people that grow them and use them. They are a great group to work with. Anyone that enjoys working with fibers and fiber enthusiasts would likely enjoy this business.  At the end of the day, it is always rewarding to see what had been bags of loose fibers go out the door as yarn that will make someones hands happy as they make hats and sweaters for others. Being your own boss is a plus. Having worked in the corporate environment for many years, I value being able to do productive work and not spending time “blamestorming.”

KTS: Where can folks find your shop?

Anne: They can visit our web page at:  www.blackberry-ridge.com.  For those that want to see our yarns in person, there is a shop on one end of the mill.  We welcome visitors, but appreciate having a call or email ahead of time so that we can hear people come in. When we are running machinery, we can’t hear them arrive. We also vend at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival held every September the weekend after Labor Day.

***

Thanks so much, Anne, for sharing your mill, years of experience, and a bit about your life with us! I love meeting new people (and sheep!): if you are an indie dyer, a hand spinner, a shepherdess, a small flock owner, a mill operator, or a wool trader, I would love to feature your work on this site. Please get in touch via email (knittingthestash@gmail.com) or Ravelry by clicking the “About” tab (above)

Happy knitting! 🙂

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6 Responses to Fiber Mill Feature: Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill

  1. Kephren says:

    Thank you for this interview Melissa! My local shepherdess has her wool spun at Blackberry Ridge, and I have had the pleasure of making two sweaters out of it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. metaspencer says:

    Nice machines! I see a mill of some kind in our future … I’ll have to clear out the barn

    Liked by 2 people

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