In 2001, a couple with science backgrounds were looking for a small business in a rural location when they came across an ad in a county journal. Discovering the ad was for an old wool mill in Genoa, New York, they took the opportunity to take over operations from the previous owners. After a week of on-site training, they found themselves on a whole new adventure in life. Now with 14 Hog Island Sheep, 29 chickens, several goats, and a cow, Jay Ardai and Suzanne O'Hara run the Fingerlakes Woolen Mill, a sustainable operation that functions in a local context and produces beautiful, natural fibers that many eco-minded New York designers use in their work.
Suzanne had been a fiber hobbyist but never envisioned running a mill with Jay. The Horschler family, the former owners, ran the mill since the 1970s as a phone order business for wool hobbyists. They raised about 50 fiber rabbits in the basement of their barn and sold their own commercial yarns, processing very few outside orders. Most of the equipment came from New England textile mills that moved south in the 1950s and 60s. The machines were originally water and steam powered but had been adapted to use electricity. The heavy duty machines are exquisitely maintained with their steel, wooden and leather parts still working perfectly. The spinning machine itself is a site to see. The 120 spinners have to be individually loaded and if one strand breaks, the whole machine has to be stopped.
Thanks to Jay’s background designing and building oceanographic instruments, he has some knowledge when it comes to mechanics. When he and Suzanne took over the farm, they began processing raw fleece for farmers and hobbyists. Their reputation has drawn customers who drive hundreds of miles to bring their wool to the mill.
The work is time consuming and grueling. With the number of orders they receive and only the two of them operating all aspects of the mill and business, there is usually a two to three month turn around time. After washing and carding the fleece, it can take five to six full days to spin a 50-60 pound order of raw wool. To get a better idea, each sheep produces about four to six pounds of raw fleece, which after processing produces around two pounds, enough to make about two medium sized sweaters.
Despite the amount of time and effort to maintain the mill, Jay and Suzanne try to keep prices reasonable and offer one of the lowest processing prices nationally. They charge $24 per pound of processed Hog Island fleece and the quality of their wool has become so well known that customers even request fleece from specific sheep, referring to them by name. Each year the couple sells out of the processed fleece from their farm, which makes up about 10% of mill operations. The other 90% of work comes from custom processing requests from outside sources, for which they charge $5.50 per pound.
While fibers are of great interest to Jay and Suzanne, they also greatly value genetic diversity. Their small flock of 14 Hog Island sheep were some of the first to arrive in New York State and are closely monitored by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Originating on Hog Island off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, there are only about 300 of this breed that exist in the world. They sell offspring at a reasonable price with the hopes that rather than treating them as an exotic rarity, others will be drawn to the breed and help it prosper among more commercial, mainstream breeds.
Hog Island sheep were also the perfect choice for Jay and Suzanne since neither had much experience raising animals. They are hearty, lamb in the pasture without assistance and prefer to eat brush and shrubs to manicured grass. In an effort to increase excitement among younger generations, Suzanne and Jay also donate the services of their rams to produce offspring which are donated to the Maryland Youth Conservationist Program, a contest where young kids write in with the hopes of winning an ewe.
With an increased demand for local products that have a story, Jay and Suzanne may have to figure out how they can process more of their own fleece. “I’m hoping that as people turn to local, farmers are going to find a better market,” says Jay.
There also seems to be a revived interest in handicrafts that both Jay and Suzanne have noticed by the growing number of attendees, especially among the younger crowd, at various wool festivals. Jay explains, “There’s a tie between something that’s going to be used and we’re willing to show them how it’s made. At the end of the day, you turn your computer off and there’s not much to show for it.” Suzanne adds, “We offer a medium range priced handicraft; it’s something people can do.”
Run as a highly local, ethical operation, the Fingerlakes Woolen Mill could be a highly valuable resource for New York based designers looking for natural, raw materials. Suzanne and Jay’s concern for the environment, genetic diversity and high quality fibers makes them the perfect match for people who want to be sure the life cycle of their final product is sustainable and full of history.
All images © Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat