March 20, 2019
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Yarn of a different century: Traditional spinning takes center stage at Maine mill

HARMONY, Maine ― History radiates from the floors at Bartlettyarns, a 196-year-old yarn mill tucked on a winding back road in Somerset County.

On the floor, years of markings and fiber scraps show the age of the place, but nothing proves that the three-story building is a relic from a different era more than what causes the floorboards of the building to vibrate: an expansive mule machine on the third floor that races back and forth on tracks, a process that spins barely held together wool roving into single-ply yarn.

The machine dates back to 1948. It is the sole existing mule in use in the United States and the newest piece of machinery at Bartlettyarns.

The mill’s newest owners, Lindsey Rice and his wife, Susan, have owned Bartlettyarns for the past 10 years. In that time they have brought the administrative side of the company into the 21st century, swapping out rotary phones for cordless ones and replacing the ledger books with QuickBooks software.

But Rice has no intention of modernizing the manufacturing side of Bartlettyarns. With regular maintenance, the vintage machinery works as it did during the mill’s heyday in the early 1900s. All modernizing would do, Rice said, would increase production — and that’s not why he got into this business.

“We make an awfully good yarn,” Rice said. “We’re not in the business of making yarn by the volume. It’s a handknitting yarn. … We want to make sure that every single skein of yarn that goes out of here is something that I’d be proud to knit with, you’d be proud to get and look at and [know] it wasn’t made in a factory in China.”

An old mill finds new owners

Bartlettyarns opened for business in 1821 under the ownership of the Bartlett family. Originally a water-powered mill, after a fire destroyed the building in the early 1920s, the factory was rebuilt to be powered by electricity. “For it’s day it was absolutely state of the art for the machinery it had,” Rice said.

On the sides of the dozens of pieces of antiquated machinery operating inside Bartlettyarns you can see the year each machine was made, most dating back to the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Bartlettyarns has had a role in Rice and his wife’s life long before they took ownership. The couple, from New Hampshire, met through their local 4H club. Rice raised sheep, and his wife was an avid knitter. When they married in 1984, they began raising sheep in their backyard, shearing them for their fleece and taking the raw product to Bartlettyarns for it to be spun into yarn. Coming from New Hampshire, Bartlettyarns was the closest business that would spin the wool from the Rices sheep into yarn, which Susan Rice would then knit with.

Their 1-acre homestead quickly turned into 5 acres and then 20 acres, until the Rices ultimately bought a 175-acre farm just outside Portsmouth. Susan Rice sold her knitted goods at local farmers markets, so the couple only found it natural to add homegrown produce to their market offerings. As their farm and herd of sheep grew, the Rices continued their trips to Maine to have Bartlettyarns make their yarn, developing a love for the handknitting product the company specialized in, as opposed to yarn made for commercial purposes.

“Since ’84 we were consistent customers every year, bringing in 1,000 or 2,000 pounds of wool a year,” Rice said.

On one of those trips, a rope that runs inside Bartlettyarns’ mule machine broke and needed to be spliced. Rice, who knew how to do the needed splice, stepped up to help the owner with the task.

Then about 10 years ago, the rope broke again. The owner at the time was on the West Coast visiting family and wouldn’t be able to return for a couple of weeks. Aside from the owner, Rice was the only person who knew how to fix the rope. So upon request from a person working at the factory, Rice drove up from New Hampshire — on what, coincidentally, was he and his wife’s anniversary — to fix the rope and get the machine up and running again.

When the owner returned to Maine, he thanked Rice profusely, offering him $50 for his services. Rice accepted the money and told the man that if he ever wanted to retire, he and his wife would be willing to buy the factory.

In 2007, driven by a love of fiber and an admiration for the unique process by which Bartlettyarns made its yarn, the Rices became the company’s newest owners.

“We’d done the sheep production, and we’d done the selling. We just hadn’t done the manufacturing [of the yarn],” Rice said.

The cogs of the factory

Rice describes the process by which Bartlettyarns makes yarn as somewhere in the middle of artisan yarn being spun at home and the yarn made at large-scale factories.

The mill’s vintage machinery limits the scale at which it can produce yarn. However, Bartlettyarns still manages to produce 120,000 skeins of yarn annually from the 60,000 pounds of woolen fleece it brings in.

The raw fleece comes from a variety of wool producers throughout the Northeast region, whether it’s a farmer who has a couple of sheep in their backyard and want yarn made from their wool or from a sheep farmer who raises the animals for meat and sells the fiber as a commodity.

The finished yarn also has a couple of different paths it takes after leaving Bartlettyarns. Some of it goes back to the farmer who wanted their own fibers spun into yarn and some is sold to commercial knitting mills to be made into sweaters or hats. But the major focus of Bartlettyarns, as it was at the mill’s inception, is selling its yarns for use by knitters at home.

Aside from the vintage machinery, Rice said Bartlettyarns is also unique in that it dyes its raw fiber before it is made into yarn instead of after. This allows for a bit of artistry in creating new colors of yarn. As the yarn is being made, different color fibers can be mixed together to create a finished product that is an entirely different shade from what that starting fiber was.

On a recent snowy Tuesday, two colors of yarn were being made at Bartlettyarns — a natural oatmeal shade and a bright purple dubbed “lupine.” On the first floor of the factory, the oatmeal fleece was in the early stages of the yarn production. It had gone through two machines called a duster and a picker, which clean the woolen fleece of any dust or straw that is in the fibers.

The fiber was then transferred to the third floor, where it goes through a massive carding machine that pulls and forms the fiber into pencil roving. Once the fibers are in the roving state, it’s time for the mule to get to work.

The roving is spun onto large spools that sit horizontally on the mule machine that spans the entire length of the third floor. On the opposite side of the machine are 240 bobbins. Once Rice turns the motor of the machine on, the vintage process comes to life. The spindle side of the machine races back, twisting the strands of roving into single-ply yarn. The machine stops momentarily, then races back to the base of the machine, a process that spins the yarn onto the bobbins.

“It’s going to make yarn, stop, and then wind it onto the bobbin. So it’s only making yarn half of the time,” Rice said. “On a modern spinning machine, it’s putting in the twist and winding it onto the bobbin all in one fast motion.”

While modern ways of spinning allow for continuous making of yarn, the rest the mule takes from spinning to wind the yarn onto the bobbin, means there is less stress being put on the fibers allowing for a “different feel and texture of the yarn,” Rice said.

On the second floor, the lupine-colored yarn is in the final stages of production. After being spun through the mule, the single-ply yarn is transferred from the small bobbins to a large spool.

On a long machine being controlled by one woman, the single-ply yarn is twisted with another strand of single-ply yarn to make it the final two-ply product. Once the yarn is in its final state, the spindles of yarn are placed on a machine that fits 40 spindles across the top, pulling the individual strands onto a rotating cylinder that measures the yardage for a 4-ounce skein of yarn.

Justine Kiernan, who has worked at Bartlettyarns for three years, was forming the final skeins on a recent Tuesday. Even though she doesn’t knit, she finds herself infatuated with the old-school machinery she has learned how to master.

“It seems like a lot when you first [start working], but once you’ve done it, it really is simple technology,” Kiernan said. “I love it. I’m fascinated more than anything. I didn’t know anything about yarn until I worked here. The machinery is what’s got me.”

Bartlettyarns presently employs seven people, not including Rice and his wife. But even with a small staff, in a remote area of Maine with limited job opportunities, the prospect of a mill still in operation is something Rice will argue is a reason not to modernize his machinery.

“Do I really want to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the latest and greatest fancy machine, just to tie that little knot when we can have somebody [do it]?” Rice said. “Maybe we’re not paying $40 an hour, but it’s good, dependable work for up here in Maine.”

Because of the diverse customer base Bartlettyarns serves, Rice said business remains generally consistent, allowing the company to maintain a consistent employee rate and demand. With nearly 200 years of history and reputation behind the Bartlettyarns name, Rice has no intention to modernize the yarn-marking process, which is what drew him into the mill in the first place.

“I love the old machinery. It does a fantastic job,” Rice said. “We’re producing something more of quality than quantity.”

 



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