New Brandon business mills alpaca fiber
BRANDON — Find a need, and fill it — that’s the recipe for business success.
Ed and Deb Bratton saw firsthand the need for a local fiber mill after 10 years in business with Maple View Farm Alpacas on Adams Road in Brandon. Now, they hope their new venture, Vermont Fiber Mill and Studio, will pay off as well.
“We’ve been thinking about it for two or three years,” Deb Bratton said during a tour of the new, 1,600-square-foot building erected last winter. “It was out of our own frustration. There was nothing in Vermont, nowhere to take our fiber.”
Bratton said there was a man in Vermont who processed alpaca fiber, or hair, into yarn, but he closed the business. Then the couple sent their fiber to a place in Maine, but that business moved its operation to Kentucky. And the time it took to get the yarn back got longer and longer.
“It was basically what you shear this year, you’ll get back next year,” Bratton said.
The couple has had a good working relationship with Cas-Cad-Nac Farm in Perkinsville, known for raising championship alpacas, and when the Brattons shared the idea of starting a fiber mill, the owners at Cas-Cad-Nac Farm came on as business partners in the venture.
The mill and studio building was erected by McKernon Design-Build in November, the equipment arrived from Belfast Mini-Mill in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and the mill went online in late April. Customers seeking someone to process their fiber appeared almost immediately.
“People have just come out of the woodwork,” Bratton said. “There is no shortage of need. The first customer came from Rutland with three years’ worth of fiber.”
The increased interest in knitting, fiber arts and the keeping of alpacas and sheep in Vermont over the last decade made this an opportune time for the Brattons to establish a mill. They’ve hired three part-time employees, including Debbie Kirby, a well-known Brandon fiber artist, and Donna Herrick and Gloria Chandler, retired General Electric machinists who are also fiber enthusiasts.
The mill is spotless and climate controlled, sporting at least six brand new machines, each with a specific purpose. There is a washing vat for cleaning the fiber. The picker/opener teases out entanglements and opens the fiber to achieve consistency. It also blends fiber types and colors.
Then there is a separator, which separates the coarse hair, leaves and other foreign matter from the fine fiber. The carder is the real timesaver, mechanizing the process of separating and aligning the fibers into a continuous web. The fiber web can be turned into batts used in quilts and for felt making, or into roving — long, lightweight ropes of fiber that are made into yarn.
The draw frame takes fiber from the carder and creates roving. The spinners draw in the rovings and spit out twisted streams of yarn, turning them onto large spools known as bobbins.
The steaming process then steams the plied yarn so it holds its twist, and the skein winder produces a skein of yarn. There is also a felt loom, which makes products from carded fiber, such as felt insoles and large pieces of felt.
The machines can process any type of fiber, including alpaca, sheep’s wool, llama, mohair and more.
The fact that the new mill is climate controlled allows it to operate year-round, as fiber is sensitive to heat and humidity. If it’s too dry, the fiber becomes full of static; too humid and it clumps. Either way, it’s hard to work with. The magic number for the optimal combination of temperature and humidity is 120. For instance, if the temperature in the mill is 68 degrees, the humidity level should be at 52 percent.
“A lot of mills closed down in the summer because it got too hot and humid,” Ed Bratton said. “This way, we can operate year-round.”
“And the humans like it, too,” Deb added.
It’s the Vermont Fiber Mill and Studio because the Brattons will offer fiber art classes as well. Summer workshops are already scheduled to begin in June, covering such areas as processing alpaca fiber and hand-painted dyeing as well as a summer fiber camp for kids.
The felt loom is available to rent for $20 per hour, and there are varying prices by the pound for each phase of the fiber process, depending on the end product desired.
All told, the mill and studio represent a $400,000 investment that the Brattons and their business partners hope to recoup in three years. So far, the future is bright as there appears to be no shortage of customers — or fiber.
For more information, visit www.vermontfibermill.com or call (802) 236-9158.
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