Bartlettyarns keeps spinning the old-fashioned way.
By Kim Brawn
Photographed by Cait Bourgault
[P]erched on the bank of Higgins Stream, 20 miles north of Skowhegan in the tiny village of Harmony, the Bartlettyarns woolen mill looks every bit its age. The metal siding, though freshly painted blue, is dented and crumpled, and the rusted corrugated roof sprouts an equally rusted tower. Inside, the wood floors have been polished to a patina by nearly a century of footsteps, but the vintage machines click and hum as they always have, spinning raw wool into yarn.
For nearly two decades, New Hampshire shepherd Lindsey Rice and his wife, Susan, a prolific knitter and clothing designer, would drive to this mill several times a year to trade raw wool for the distinctively soft and lofty yarns that those old machines produce. On one visit, the pulley system on the 1940s-era spinning mule — the newest of the mill’s vintage machines — wasn’t working. Lindsey offered to splice it back together, and the spinner was up and running in about 20 minutes. Years later, when the mule spinner broke down again, a panicked employee called Lindsey for help. He was there the next day. His off-the-cuff comment — “Hey, if you ever want to retire, give me a call” — must have struck a chord, because two weeks later, the owner told him he was ready to sell.
“We did have to think long and hard before buying,” Lindsey admits. “It was right on the precipice — it would have gone out of business in a year.”
But the Rices believed they could turn things around, so they disregarded their accountant’s advice (“run away!”) and became the owners of the last remaining mule-spun yarn mill in the country.
If you’re like me, you might recognize Bartlettyarns as the setting for the 1990 film version of Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift. The company has been processing wool alongside Higgins Stream since 1821, when it was founded by Ozias Bartlett. The mill has shut down only once since, in the early 1920s, when the original building was destroyed by fire. The Bartletts ran the business for four generations, until 1947, when it changed hands for the first of several times. When the Rices took over in 2007, the mill was still using typewriters, handwritten ledgers, and other antiquated business systems. They brought in computers, introduced email and accounting software, and developed a website with online shopping. They also expanded their yarn colors, creating 65 unique shades with their 14 base colors, and they beefed up the selection of rovings (wool that hasn’t been spun or twisted).
Some of the old ways, though, have proven to be the company’s best assets, says Lindsey, who oversees day-to-day operations with seven employees, while Susan handles advertising and retail. Bartlettyarns still works with small (and large) local farmers, buying raw wool, 10 to 10,000 pounds at a time.
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Across the road from the mill stands a timeworn blue barn. The sign on the white sliding door reads “Wool Received Here.” Inside, wool scraps of different shapes, sizes, and colors are scattered across the floor. The earthy scent of fleece and sheep permeates the air. When there is enough to fill a tractor-trailer, the wool is sorted by color and driven to South Carolina to be commercially washed, then sent to Philadelphia for dyeing, a step that gives Bartlettyarns’ products their distinctive heathery, or textured, appearance (other mills typically dye the wool after it is spun).
Back at the mill in Harmony, the washed and dyed wool is sent through a duster, a machine that removes dirt, seeds, and other impurities. Swirling clouds of wool fly out of the duster into a small room whose wooden walls are etched with decades-old graffiti (“Randy was here,” reads one). The wool is collected by hand and fed into a machine that blows it upstairs to the carder, where the fiber is teased into long strands for spinning.
On the day I visited, the 67-year-old spinning mule that distinguishes Bartlettyarns from any other woolen mill in the country was down for maintenance. It needed a new gear, so Lindsey, my affable tour guide, couldn’t whip it back into shape himself this time. Because of the machine’s age, replacement parts are not readily available, so they may have to be welded or fabricated, but Lindsey takes the upkeep in stride.
Why keep the mule at all? It gives Bartlettyarns historical cachet, for one thing. More important, it mimics the motion of a hand spinner, which retains the natural elasticity of wool fiber and results in a distinctively springy and lofty yarn. Capable of spinning up to 100 pounds of fleece a day, the mule spinner carriage rolls mesmerizingly back and forth on its tracks, with each pass pulling the roving through rollers, twisting it, and, on the return, wrapping it onto 240 spindles, or bobbins.
The bobbins then drop to the second floor, where the twister plies the wool threads. On this day, a lone worker, a young woman named Amanda, is filling an order. Talking over the twister’s loud, rhythmic thumping, she tells me she likes the old machines better than modern touch-button technology because she can control the results, for example, by changing a gear to make the fiber lighter or heavier. Amanda then moves to the spooler, where the familiar skeins and cones of yarn materialize — yarn that will make its way to the Bartlettyarns shop across the street and to stores around the country. Nearly a third of it is returned to the farmers who provided the fleece, who then sell it at farm stands, either in skeins or as knitted sweaters, hats, and other goods.
Before I leave, Lindsey shows me a 1940s ad that boasts Bartlettyarns’ products as “Harmony grade,” which he interprets as having robustness, strength, and flexibility. As the woolen mill approaches its 200th anniversary, the same might be said about Bartlettyarns itself.