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Where to shop in New England>>>> Bartlettyarns, Harmony, Maine

Great Maine Travel Stories

Maine Spinning Mill Uses "Mule" Power to Craft Fine Wool Yarns

Posted 2/8/08

Maine Spinning Mill Photo

A longtime New Hampshire farmer, Lindsey Rice II purchased Bartlettyarns in Harmony, Maine in 2007 after more than two decades of visiting the mill annually to have the raw wool from his sheep turned into brilliantly-colored skeins of yarn. Bartlettyarns is beloved by knitters around the nation, who gush about its softness and strength in online forums and at yarn shops.

The story below is reprinted with permission from VisitMaine.com.  If you have an interesting New England story to share on our Web Site, please e-mail us and we'll consider it for publication.


HARMONY, Maine - For nearly two centuries, farmers from around the Northeast have been flocking to Bartlettyarns where their herd's fleeces are spun into skeins of soft yet strong yarn.
 
And since the 1980s, New Hampshire farmer Lindsey Rice II has been one such shepherd, bringing the raw wool from his 50-head of sheep to the rural Harmony mill several times each year and returning with yarn to sell at his family's farm shop.
 
Always impressed by the infrastructure and machinery of the mill and its willingness to work with small farmers, Rice jokingly told Bartlettyarn's owner during a delivery last year "It's such a neat business. If you ever want to sell, give me a call."
 
Within weeks, his phone was ringing.
 
"The next thing you know, I am broke and I have a wool mill," Rice remembers with a chuckle.
 
Now, he oversees a staff of seven and a mill that boasts the nation's only active "mule" spinning frame, which duplicates the motion of a hand spinner with a 240 bobbin mule to create a softer yarn with more loft and homespun charm than its mass-produced counterparts.
 
More than 50,000 pounds of raw wool arrives each year at the circa-1821 mill with its worn wooden floors from farmers -mostly from the Northeast but from as close as the neighboring town of Ripley and as far away as California. Soon after, it's shipped in man-sized burlap bags to South Carolina, where the wool is washed before traveling north to Pennsylvania to be dyed into 14 different colors like spice, garnet and gold.
 
When the wool returns to Harmony, the artistry truly begins. Following formulas from past and present, mill workers blend the 14 basic colors to create a brilliant palette of more than 60 from bracken -an earthy green with flecks of brown, blackberry and bark.
 
The blended wool is then carded, spun and twisted onto skeins of 4 ounces or cones of a pound. It's sold at Bartlettyarn's retail location across the street from the mill at 20 Water Street in Harmony, over the company's Web site and at yarn shops around the country. And nearly half of the finished wool is returned to the farmers who provided the fleece, to be sold at farm stands and stores or to be spun into snugly sweaters and thick hats and mittens.
 
"We're one of the few people left who are willing to work with small farmers like this," explained Rice. "Whether it's one fleece from one lamb or from 1000, they are giving us their raw wool and in return, they are getting a finished product that has so much value added."
 
With the decline in the price of raw wool in the United States thanks to heavy competition from the Australian market, Rice says adding value is essential for the survival of many small sheep farmers. When he sheered sheep in 4H decades ago, raw wool retailed for $4 a pound. Today, it's worth less than 35 cents. But a skein of Bartlettyarns can be sold for at least $7. Given the market shifts, Rice knew that while he wanted to keep the 1900s era mule and other mill machinery, making Bartlettyarns viable would demand modernization to the company's business practices.
 
That meant getting rid of the typewriter invoices were hammered out on when he bought the business and going computerized. He also hooked up an answering machine and hopes to better develop the Web site, which lately is attracting more international orders. Soon he hopes to add a line of knitwear.
 
While fiber from alpacas and angoras has lately been in the limelight, Rice is confident wool will win out.
 
"Wool has stood the test of time," he said. "We're sticking to wool but what we're going to do is add value to our wool. We're adding new colors so it's still the same yarn but there is something new about it to build enthusiasm. It's the balance between the old and the new. I want to build the business back up so that we can celebrate its 200 year anniversary, and be viable for another 200 years."
 
Bartlettyarns is based at 20 Water St. in Harmony, Maine and can be found on the Web at www.bartlettyarns.com. For more information, phone (207) 683-2251.

Other Maine Accessories/Clothing Producers:
Woolly winters means Mainers know a thing or two about keeping warm while staying stylish. The state is renowned around the world for its quality clothing; after all, the state is the home of LL Bean and both Bass and Dexter shoes were born here. Across the Western Mountains and Lakes region, artisans are creating clothing and accessories that build upon Maine's textile traditions, whether its an 1821 wool mill on the banks of a stream that is being kept humming thanks to modernization or a team of seamstresses working out of their homes to make warm woolens as Maine women have for centuries.
 
Blueberry Woolens (Embden, Maine (207) 566-5500) -  Blueberry Woolens is a rural Maine cottage industry employing knitters and seamstresses who work in their homes up and down the Kennebec and Sandy Rivers. Many of their designs reflect traditional and classic Scandinavian Tyrolean folk motifs while others are of contemporary origin. Hand loomed sweater are made of the finest yarns available using 100 percent pure wool, which is grown and spun primarily in Maine and 100 percent cotton.
 
Erda Leather (Cambridge, Maine (888) 475-3732, www.erdaleather.com) - Based in Cambridge, Erda Leather has been making bags of deerskin and other soft leather since 1971. More recently, they've begun selling contemporary fabric bags, woven from chenille, line, cotton and wool. The eclectic yet elegant bags are sold at 1200 galleries and specialty stores around the nation, like the Grasshopper Shops in Maine or the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, New England's leading museum of contemporary American art by regional artists. The company is located in a rural corn field and in 2008 is a finalist in the fabrics category of the crafting industry's highly coveted NICHE Awards.





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