2022 was a very good year for Skagit Woolen Works!
Welcome to our first update from the mill! We thought it would be nice to have a place to share a bit more in depth information from what we normally share over on Instagram & Facebook, and our twice-a-month newsletter. This will be a place for us to talk a bit about our process, what we're up to, fiber education, and more.
Without further ado...
Let's recap our year, because it was a really good one for us.
An advertisement for 'an industrial carder for sale' located in Ferndale, WA caught the eye of Anna, who was familiar with the machine and knew the current and previous owners. A text to Jess saying 'hey that big carder in Ferndale is for sale!' prompted the reply 'How much room do we need?'...and that's how our journey started.
We'd both long dreamed of creating our own mill one day, one fueled by our love of wool and fiber processing, our dedication to hard work, and our strong friendship. We went from 'wouldn't it be fun' to 'what if we could...' fairly quickly. We made an appointment to view the machine and were smitten from the start. The quality of the product was impressive, as was the possibility of carrying on the long history of this beautiful 100-year old Davis & Furber carder. Built in 1922, and purchased in 2022...it seemed a very auspicious beginning.
Jess & Kelley Dragon, the previous owner. Kelley gave us many lessons on how to use the machine, how to process fibers, and was instrumental in helping us along the way. We still use that spray bottle shown in the photo too!
Later that month we made the decision to purchase the carder. We had a lot of hurdles ahead of us but we felt confident that our region needed this piece of machinery to continue serving small fiber producers, and we were just the women to do it.
We immediately began looking for small commercial spaces to lease in the Skagit Valley. Many mills are run out of garages or pole barns, which is very convenient for those running the machines, and help keep their overhead low. We found that small commercial spaces are the unicorns in real estate and were starting to get discouraged when everything was way too big or way out of our price range. A phone call in the nick of time from Anna's friend resulted in finding the perfect space for us; walking distance to Jess's house and a 10 minute drive for Anna, in an easy to access commercial area, with the exact amount of space we needed. Huge bay doors, a back patio area, and a front entry for an office were icing on the cake. That, and the most supportive and keen landlord we've ever known, cheerfully letting us move Rosie in through his flooring show room, tearing out doors, whatever we've needed he's been game and we couldn't do it without that kind of support!
The front door of our new home, at 721 N 1st Street in Mount Vernon.
We wouldn't sign the lease to move in for another month, so we spent March researching what upgrades we'd need to make, what equipment we wanted to invest in, and securing funding for the whole endeavor. We purchased our Brother Picker from Oregon and had it delivered to Anna's garage. Most importantly, we connected with long-time friends and fellow mill owners Lydia & Alan Christiansen of Abundant Earth Fiber Mill on Whidbey Island.
We met in person several times over the course of the following months, along with frequent calls and texts to our stalwart champion and mentor, Lydia. It's safe to say that were it not for their gracious sharing of knowledge and hard-won experience, we'd be nowhere near where we are today. We were on a steep learning curve but Lydia & Alan never faltered in their commitment to seeing another local mill survive, and thrive, during the early stages.
We signed the lease on our new space! It needed a bit of sprucing up, and we were eager to move some things in to be prepared for whenever the timing was right to move in Rosie (weather being an uncooperative partner in the spring).
We printed up a few business cards, after getting our business name and email all set up, and headed out to a few fiber events! It was really fun transitioning from 'fiber enthusiasts' to 'fiber entrepreneurs' and we met producers and fellow processers that gave us a super warm welcome to the industry.
We were still not-so-patiently waiting to move Rosie in to her new home; we only had until June before she had to be moved and the clock was ticking. We needed a good dry day, when the flooring showroom was closed, the availability of a heavy duty truck plus the machine experts on hand to coordinate the whole show.
While we waited, we got our scouring station set up, which was actually a piece of cake (although a huge chunk of cash) with the right plumber involved. We secured and retrofitted some good quality used washing machines and installed a commercial grade on-demand hot water heater, which heats the water to a much higher temp than standard tanks. It proved to be a great investment.
Finally, no longer able to wait, we scheduled a day that looked like it might be dry enough to move Rosie down the freeway from Ferndale. Because of her size, we had to rent a wrecker, so she'd be travelling out in the elements for over an hour, and we didn't want rain ruining the day. Of course...it started pouring. But our stalwart moving crew, including one of the carders' former owners, our landlord, our husbands all on hand, got her safely installed. Wrapped in canvas and plastic wrap, she suddenly looked very small on that big truck!
We laid down heavy duty plywood to cover the showroom floor, and rolled Rosie in with the use of some steel pipes and a forklift. No easy feat for a 7 ton machine!
June & July 2022
Anna and her husband Bobby built us an amazing picker room so we could get to work. We used all that plywood from the move and a cool used door; we try to reduce our costs and be mindful of our materials as much as possible, and this was a great way to give us a functional and stout space to hold the picked fiber.
We were now able to spend the summer learning All The Things. We skirted, scoured, picked, carded, blended, dyed, made mistakes, tried again, tore our hair out a few times, experimented some more, tried not to overheat in our giant metal box of a warehouse, and generally got a lot of work done.
We finally launched our social media and our website, which was a huge step for us. We were making great local connections but we knew we'd need the awareness of the larger fiber community, and this proved really useful in finding local producers and fiber artists, who showed us such encouragement and enthusiasm. We were invited to attend the San Juan Island County Fair and spent time in the wool barn meeting with more fiber producers and making plans to collaborate on projects. We soon discovered one of our favorite things was to chat all things wool with not just fiber enthusiasts but folks curious about what they could do with their wool.
Lydia Christiansen judges fleeces at the SJI County Fair, and makes it an interactive enjoyable day for everyone.
This was a huge month for us at the mill. After much discussion, planning, deliberating some more, we purchased a pelletizing machine to turn waste wool into wool pellet fertilizer! With the advice of Anna Hunter from Longway Homestead in Manitoba, CA, we took the plunge and ordered our pelletizer from Buskirk Engineering in Indiana. This was in some ways a no-brainer for what we wanted to do with the mill: take the vast amount of lower quality and waste fiber and turn it into a zero-waste, value-added product that benefits the land. We're eager to get the pellets into more hands this spring; it's already been a big hit amongst local gardeners and we hope to collaborate with some local farms to get good data on the benefits of using wool pellets on crops.
We also had our first big in person and retail sale event at Abundant Earth on Whidbey!
We'd accumulated some roving we could share with local hand spinners, made our first batch (and immediately sold out!) of our wool stuffed pillows, and we took in small batch processing projects to work on in collaboration with Abundant Earth. The event was a huge success, and gave us just the encouragement we needed to pursue more retail-ready products.
Our second big in-person event was held at FiberFest in Ellensburg, WA. It's a lovely little gathering of farms and producers from all over central and eastern Washington, and we really appreciated the opportunity to attend as relative newcomers to the industry. We made great connections and were so pleased by the warm welcome we received.
We began opening up the mill for in-person tours and small gatherings and were able to host a lovely group of spinners for a morning of fiber love. We also spent some time fine-tuning some new products and preparing for our first big online sales event, which was a lot of work but definitely worth it. It means a lot to us when people spend their hard earned dollars on our products, and that support continues to be more than just monetary for us - it informs our choices as a mill and gives us the encouragement we need to continue working hard for local fiber producers.
The most exciting day of the year for us - our first big Open Mill Tour! A ton of preparation led up to this event. Since we'd purchased Rosie in her 100th year of hard work, we knew we needed to celebrate her and open our doors to the local community. It was so well attended, it absolutely blew us away. Three demos, packed parking lots, lines to check-out, and easily over 100 people in attendance. We met so many amazing folks, ate cupcakes, toasted Rosie into her next century, and generally felt the buoying effect of so many well-wishers in our area. To all that attended - thank you. We will never forget that special day.
If you made it this far, thank you!! We're nothing if not overly verbose when it comes to talking about the things that excite us, and bring us gratitude. Thank you from the bottom of our wool loving hearts for making this first year not only a huge success for our little business, but for sharing and showing us the kind of support we could only dream about. Here's to more amazing wooly adventures in the coming years!
~Jess & Anna