Valley Bounty: Bloom Woolen Yarns
Published May 26, 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
A push to localize textiles
‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we employed more people making clothes and textiles right here in western Massachusetts?” asks Lisa Fortin, founder of Bloom Woolen Yarns in Ashfield. “Working on the land with animals, designing things in fiber mills – these are great occupations.”
Less than 4% of clothes bought in the U.S. are still made here, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. Similar stories affect other parts of our economy, as cheaper labor and materials lured manufacturing overseas. As costs dropped, social and environmental concerns mounted, and some began exploring more local alternatives.
Today, in western Massachusetts and across the country, people are organizing to increase demand and rebuild the relationships and infrastructure needed for local textiles. Bloom Woolen Yarns is showing one way to do that at a local level.
“Bloom Woolen Yarns is a small yarn company gathering wool from local farms, including from our own flock of sheep, making different kinds of yarn with local mills, and naturally dyeing them in small batches,” Fortin explains.
The idea rose from Fortin’s own passion for knitting and recognition of how much wool grown on local farms is otherwise discarded. Usually that happens when farms raise sheep for other reasons, like meat or pasture management, and don’t have enough wool or time to justify doing something with it themselves. Collecting this wool to make something useful was not a get-rich-quick scheme, but she had the right knowledge and connections to make it work.
“Living in the farm scene, I’ve always had my ears open for wool that’s available for one reason or another,” Fortin says. She visits farms herself, stuffing her car full of shorn fleeces. She brings them home for what’s called skirting – laying them out to remove larger debris by hand.
“From there, I know what yarn I want to make from it and which mill can do that best,” she says. “I work a lot with Green Mountain Spinners in Putney, Vermont, but I’ve also used Battenkill Fibers in Greenwich, New York, Bartlettyarns in Harmony, Maine, and Still River Fiber Mill in Eastford, Connecticut.”
Fortin works with these mills to design each batch of yarn using fleece from just one flock of sheep. Like a single varietal wine, this allows the unique qualities of that wool to shine through in the final product.
“The yarn I make with wool from Four Blessing Farm in Leverett – one customer told me it was almost as squishy as her newborn baby,” she says. “I also make a soft yarn with wool from the lambs at Leyden Glen Farm, while wool from York Farm in Shelburne makes a Cheviot yarn I call Hearth. That’s heavier weight and great for New England winters.”
For the final step of dyeing, “sometimes I use organic acid dyes, where you use vinegars to set the color,” says Fortin. “But my favorite dyes are the local and natural ones.”
Marigolds make a warm golden yellow, madder root a fiery orange-red, and logwood a deep purple.
“Avocado pits and rinds also make a beautiful pink,” she says, “and I jokingly call those local because unless New Englanders stop making guacamole, that resource will always be here.”
Bloom Woolen Yarns also makes wool fill for cushions and felted wool dishcloths and sponges out of material that isn’t fit for yarn. Wool sponges are both compostable and tend to last longer than other common materials.
All these products are sold online on their website, bloomwoolenyarns.com. They also sell at local craft festivals and offer a yarn CSA, where subscribers receive a new kind of yarn and project instructions six times throughout the year.
“We sent out the Hearth wool for the mid-winter share,” says Fortin, “and this month we’ll have a lighter wool that you could use for a shawl for cool summer nights around the campfire, for example.”
Fortin’s work is making local wool more accessible in her corner of the world and making better use of a valuable resource grown by local farmers. She’s also hitting roadblocks posed by economic realities far bigger than her small business. Other fiber farmers and business owners are too.
One obstacle is cost. In the fast fashion clothing industry, costs are kept low at the expense of environmental harm and unjust labor practices. In contrast, growing and making local textiles with more respect for fair wages and the environment costs a bit more, so the price of local textiles is often higher.
New England also lacks critical infrastructure for making textiles. For example, the first step at most fiber mills is scouring, which removes contaminants and excess oils. No mills in the northeast still have largescale equipment for this, and many do it slowly by hand. The result? Fortin often waits six to nine months between delivering wool and getting products back from a mill.
However, many are working to bring more efficiency, equipment and collaboration into the local fiber community. Western Mass Fibershed is one local leader in this movement. They collect wool from many small farms to send to mills and create blended yarns and more, and are also a collecting point for new ideas and projects. Those interested in getting involved can learn more at westernmassfibershed.org.
One project of theirs that Fortin is involved in is testing the marketability of pelletizing lower quality wool from farms that raise sheep for meat to use as a soil amendment.
“These pellets add nutrients, aerate the soil, and can deter some pests,” she says. “People can come learn about it at Atlas Farm Store in South Deerfield this Saturday, May 27, and we’ll have samples too.”
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) has also hosted networking sessions for local fiber producers to find more opportunities for collaboration.
“What CISA does for local food is wonderful,” Fortin says. “Branching out to support local fiber is a great next step.”
Bloom Woolen Yarns also offers two week-long youth summer camps. In sewing camp, kids learn how to use a sewing machine to make an entire outfit. Fiber arts camp offers a different project and new skills each day, from embroidery to knitting, felting, and weaving. Fortin runs these through their sister business, Growing a Bunch Farm (growingabunchfarm.wixsite.com).
These camps are for fun. They’re also a way to encourage more people to love their local fiber.
“We have this amazing resource,” says Fortin. “I just want more people to be able to knit their own hats and cardigans if they want to.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To learn more about local fiber farms near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.