Before the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, most families made their living by a small-scale, decentralized manufacturing business often operated out of their homes. By far, the most important “cottage industry” – as it would eventually be called – centered on the production of yarn and textile fabrics. Key to its operation was the entrepreneur who purchased the raw materials, distributed them among working families, passed the semi-finished products from one artisan to another, and then marketed the finished products. In time, hand production methods led to the rise of the mechanized factory system in which textiles were still the dominant industry.
In the 21st century, as the Industrial Revolution has become gradually replaced by the Digital Age, many makers are still producing their crafts through small-batch manufacturing whereby small amounts of product are commissioned from a factory that can still achieve the economies of scale necessary to make money. A case in point is Junction Fiber Mill, a new wool processing mill in the heart of White River Junction. With a goal “to promote and invigorate the local fiber shed by providing top-quality custom processing, local fiber products, and educational opportunities to inspire the community about sheep and wool”, owners Peggy Allen and Amanda Kievet welcomed their new mill equipment this past winter.
The seeds of their partnership were sown last spring on a road trip to drop off wool at a mill during the height of the pandemic. As they sat in Peggy’s farm truck, they talked and listened to each other about wool mills, partnerships, and work ethic. Peggy and her husband, Todd, run Savage Hart Farm in White River Junction, and Amanda and her husband, Cody, became sheep farm hands “extraordinaire,” moving onto the farm for a lambing season in 2019 to help Todd while Peggy was recovering from a traumatic brain injury.
In a recent interview, Peggy and Amanda reflected on their dedication to supporting small farms and fiber farms geared toward raising sheep…
QT: How did you and Amanda become interested in wool, yarn, and sheep initially?
Amanda: I became interested as a knitter looking to better understand the fiber I was working with. Initially, I just bought the acrylic yarn from the available big box craft stores in my hometown in Wisconsin. When I moved to NYC, the yarn store down the block sold many wonderful yarns made from natural wool yarn and I immediately felt the difference. After moving to the Upper Valley, I got a job at Ibex Outdoor Clothing and became a total wool convert when I experienced the difference of wool clothing: way less stinky and better feeling on the skin, great temperature regulation (a major benefit for hiking and running). I met Peggy at the Norwich Farmers Market a few years ago and bought some yarn from her made from her flock of Corriedale sheep. My husband, Cody, and I had recently bought a home with a small pasture so I was interested in getting a few sheep to keep it down. Peggy agreed to show me the ropes of shepherding and she and her husband, Todd, became our sheep mentors. We started our small flock from two of their ewe lambs and are on our third-year shepherding.
Peggy: I’m a so-so knitter, but I have always loved wool fiber. While biking in the San Juan Islands of Washington state, my husband and I came across a small sheep farm run by a woman named, Annette who sold her yarn right there in a section of her barn. We stayed and visited with her for much of the afternoon and, as we left, my husband, who knew I joked about having a sheep farm someday, said, “If I could have a sheepdog like hers, I’d consider having a sheep farm.” We spent the rest of the vacation talking about how we could pull it off and in less than 10 months we went from the Chicago area to living with sheep in Vermont.
QT: We understand that you both consider your new business to be a cottage industry. What makes it so?
Amanda: Actually, we consider our mill to be small-batch manufacturing. We use extremely high-tech heavy machinery in a dedicated mill building to produce between 15 and 20 pounds of yarn per day. Compared with the large-scale fiber mills used to produce textiles and yarns for the majority of the fashion/craft economy, ours – at eight spindles – is comparatively tiny. By comparison, the wool mills of yore in our area had hundreds to over a thousand spindles each. The benefit of being a small batch mill is that we can produce yarns made from a single farm or even a single sheep’s fiber. This gives fiber farms the ability to market their unique fibers as finished yarns rather than sell their fiber to a wool pool to meet the processing minimums at large mills.
QT: Why is there an alleged logjam and long delays in turning wool orders around the state?
Peggy: Processing raw wool into yarn is very labor intensive. Scouring, or cleaning, raw wool alone can take several hours. In addition, there simply aren’t enough small mills to accommodate all the demand from area sheep farms.
QT: And why is there a decline in sheep farming?
Peggy: We’re not sure there is a decline in sheep farming. We think there is a growing interest by old and young people to experience the whole circle of raising sheep, shearing for wool, processing that wool and pursuing fiber crafts.
QT: Please tell us about Savage Hart sheep farm in Hartford and raising a small flock?
Peggy: Savage Hart Farm is a 32-acre farm in White River Junction and we raise colored Corriedale sheep. This spring we had 34 lambs bringing our flock up to 64. I’m not sure we consider raising sheep work; it’s just a way of life for us. Todd has a full-time job with Mascoma Bank on their wealth management team, and I work full-time at the mill. Amanda is a brilliant web and social media developer but she too now works full time at the mill.
Amanda: As Peggy said, I was doing web development and design previously but have stepped down from doing that entirely, other than of course putting those skills to use for Junction Fiber Mill. As I mentioned, my husband Cody and I are raising a small flock we started with Todd and Peggy’s sheep. After lambing this year, we’re now up to five and will keep it there.
QT: When did you officially open the new mill? And where you are in the business cycle now?
Peggy: Our mill equipment arrived at 101 Maple Street on a snowy day in February of this year. We immediately began working with raw sheep’s fleece we had acquired to ensure we understood not only how the equipment worked, but how the wool from different breeds of sheep behaved. We began taking roving orders on April 1 and yarn orders on May 1 (roving is wool that has been washed and prepared for hand-spinners).
Amanda: Currently we’re busy fulfilling custom processing orders but we have exciting plans to start experimenting with fiber we’ve acquired to create yarn we can sell directly to knitters. We’re excited to see what balance of services versus products serves us and our community as we get some experience under us.