Wool mill offers both a product and a good story

Apr 6, 2017 The Associated Press

SHERIDAN (AP) -- These days, consumers are searching for more than just products while shopping. They're in search of a story.

Karen Hostetler recognized this nearly 10 years ago and applied it to the wool industry when she and her friend Valerie Stanos opened Mountain Meadow Wool in Buffalo, Wyoming. The now family-owned mill supports local ranchers in an effort to revitalize the wool industry not just in Wyoming, but in the West.

The mill connects the origin of a product with its finish, consequentially creating a story for the consumer. Hostetler said that at first they'd print the name of the ranch wool came from on the label of the finished product, similar to what was being done for food in farmers markets.

She said that Mountain Meadow Wool Mill was the first U.S. mill to trace wool to its ranch.

"They want that connection, as consumers get more savvy with their spending they want more of a story with what they spend their money on," Hostetler said. "So our wool that we sell, and that goes even for knitters, it's not just, you know, coming in on a boat, they want to have the story and they don't mind paying a higher price."

When the mill opened, Hostetler said sheep wool prices were low, leaving ranchers unable to cash in on fair prices for fine wool. Since opening, Hostetler said wool prices have risen but fluctuate with the market. She's now able to give a premium to ranches the mill works with.

But it wasn't just the market that Hostetler wanted to help.

Hostetler wanted to put Wyoming on the map for something other than cows, ranching, oil and gas.

She said that neither she nor her business partner had experience with machinery or production when they opened the mill. They hired Gary Senier, who had been working at a saw mill for about 30 years, to find machines and get them running.

Senier, who is now the plant manager, said that the machines in the mill date back to the 1950s and the newest piece of equipment is probably from the 1980s.

Senier helped set up the mill mechanically and electrically, but didn't have experience with wool or this type of machinery.

"It was really exciting; it was a big challenge for me and I really enjoyed it," Senier said about setting up the mill. "I always worked mechanically anyway and with electrical, so it was just a different industry, same thing."

He said it's hard to find replacement parts when machines break down, and that when this happens it's up to him to construct or redesign parts.

When it comes to processing wool for yarn, Senier said it's all about getting fibers as parallel as possible. He said each machine straightens and uniforms the fibers until they all run in one direction.

He said the many variables in the fibers can make the process tricky.

"Every fiber is different," Senier said. "So it's not just you learn it once and you've got it figured out, it's like every job is a new project."

Hostetler said that while many small and local businesses, like Twin M Design Co. on Sheridan's Main Street, have used her wool for products, she receives about three requests a week from companies that want U.S. yarn.

She said that not every inquiry turns into an order, but the calls come regularly. Larger companies usually use Mountain Meadow's wool for prototypes and then a bigger company for larger production. She said that The North Face recently contacted her, though no orders or contracts have been made.

Hostetler said the mill works with about eight ranches from all over the state and makes about 32 different types of yarn that range from thick and fat to fine and thin.

Hostetler said they also produce blends of wool with alpaca, bison, silk and bamboo. Currently she said they process about 15,000 to 18,000 pounds of wool a year.

There's more to come from Mountain Meadow Wool. Hostetler said they got a small education grant and started working with Lisa Norman of Images West Studio to put together a video to show the whole story, from lamb to yarn. She said the videos will be given to extension offices and will be sold.

"There's always new ideas out there, and more to come, so we keep looking," Hostetler said. "So there's always ways we can continue to grow."

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