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Spinning a Future: Maine's Barlettyarns

For nearly two centuries, farmers from around the Northeast have been flocking
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, Maine 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.

Raw Wool From All Over the U.S.

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.

Moving into the Modern Age

"We're one of the few people left who are willing to work with small farmers
like this," explains 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," he says.

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 4-H 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

Bartlettyarns is based at 20 Water St. in Harmony, Maine and can be found on
the Web at
Bartlettyarns. 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, Erda Leather) - 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, Mass.,
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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