Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill, located in the hills of Vermont Township in south central Wisconsin, is a family owned spinnery that produces their own line of wonderfully soft, warm and lofty yarns made from Merino (white) and Corriedale (gray) wool from sheep flocks grown in the Midwest. The fiber is spun, dyed and hand painted at the mill.
Before Blackberry Ridge came into existence Anne Bosch and her partner Marc Robertson raised sheep. From experience, Anne knew demand for processing wool far exceeded the services available. Few mills took small lots of wool. Those that did were often booked for up to a year. It was this, the vagaries of the sheep market and their less than satisfying jobs that decided Anne and Marc. Plans to construct Blackberry Ridge were drawn up and the search for equipment began.
Anne has nothing but praise for Charlie Haynes, the broker who worked with them from the time they decided to build the mill to the day the massive carding machine was backed into the building and bolted into place. She admits that, at first, he was not very positive. Charlie asked some very pointed questions, many of which Anne couldn’t answer. For example, “What’s the difference between worsted and wool?” He advised Anne and Marc to visit a working mill, talk to the owners and do some more research before they went any further. Once he realized they were serious, though, Charlie became an invaluable resource and a dedicated partner in the enterprise.
Finding the equipment proved more difficult than expected. When they embarked on the project, twenty-six years ago, textile mills still existed in New England, but were in rapid decline. Equipment in good working order had been shipped to Mexico, South America and Canada. The rest was left to rust in long abandoned buildings. To complicate matters, many of the places they looked at had foreclosed and were owned by the banks, making the equipment unavailable for purchase.
It took over two years, but finally everything came together in what Anne describes as a “marathon whirlwind session.” Within six weeks of finding the four breaker, 60 inch Davis and Furber Woolen Card, the Whitin Spinning Frame, and the Coner and Skeiner, the equipment was purchased, delivered and installed. A Twister was installed at a later date to do the plying.
Blackberry Ridge opened its doors for spinning wool in March of 1988.
Visiting the Mill is like stepping back into the industrial era of the early 1900’s and witnessing the same detailed process of making yarn employed since the late 17th Century.
The tour begins in the wash room where most of the wool arrives as fleeces. All the wool Blackberry Ridge puts into their line of yarn is scoured either by the customer or at a facility in Texas with the capacity to process up to 5,500 lbs of wool in an afternoon.
The clean wool is fed into the picker, which separates the locks into loose fibers, fluffs them out and adds spinning oil. The oil acts like a conditioner to prevent the fibers from tangling and breaking. It then goes to the four breaker, 60 inch Davis and Furber woolen card, manufactured in 1905. The card untangles the individual fibers and reduces the sheets of wool into small strips called pencil rovings.
These are collected on large spools on the end of the card. They are then placed on spinning frames. Spinning puts the actual twist on the roving, turning it into yarn.
The yarn can either be wound onto paper cones for use on knitting machines and for weaving, or looped into skeins for knitters.
The tour ends at Blackberry Ridge’s small storefront where the friendly, knowledgeable staff is available to answer questions and help with purchases of wool, patterns and knitting supplies. If you’re a knitter or just want to see how wool was produced before the advent of large automated mills, Blackberry Ridge is a must see.
You can schedule a Mill tour by calling 608-437-3762 or email Anne at Anne@blackberry-ridge.com.