Wellington Fibres: Virtual Tour of the Woolen Mill

5 January 2022
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Take a peek at how wool fleece is processed into yarn.

Wellington Fibres is a small fibre mill outside Elora, Ontario. Two buildings reside on the plot alongside the mill itself. One is the owner, Donna Hancock’s, house, and the other is a barn where she raises goats for mohair. Donna’s practice is based upon renewable, reliable, low(er) cost techniques, and upon her experience as an agriculture research technician at the University of Guelph.

When entering the building you are greeted by colour.

image description: a gravel road, with two farm buildings visible in the distance, partially hidden behind trees

The tour begins…

The first of two large rooms is the storefront, filled with roving, yarns, and boxes securely storing wool. The high ceilings provide a welcome, sunlit, airy space, while the floors are decorated with Ashford looms, spinning wheels, and mannequins bedecked in garments knitted or woven from the mill’s yarn. Navigating through the storefront is not difficult, only requiring enough care in your step to appreciate the product as you pass by.

image description: a store, a large loom is in the front of frame, in the background are shelves holding yarn, knitted and woven goods, and boxes of wool roving

The shop.

A door in the wall provides access to the larger of the two rooms. Within is the sound of hot water flowing and the whir of machinery. To the left of the door is a larger container, the water inside kept hot by solar heating. Donna tells you about the solar panels on the roof, and how they provide most of the power to run the machinery in the mill. The sinks along the left side of the wall are full of water, with wool weighed and organized, securely tucked into lingerie bags. The precious heated water is conserved by soaking the dirtiest wool bundles in used water, before being moved to a fresh bath that removes the remainder of the oils and dirt. Between baths the bundles are all placed inside a repurposed laundromat machine, which spins out the remaining water.

image description: a workshop, with various pieces of industrial spinning equipment visible

The workspace.

After the wool is washed it is dried on a rack. It then passes through the first of many fantastical devices: the picker. A conveyor belt steadily feeds the wool into a series rotating cylinders that have metal teeth poking out of them. They pull the fibres apart and launch them along an enclosed belt into a small wood-walled room. Inside this room it is difficult to tell if the contents are wool or clouds. The soft white fluffy mass on the floor of the wood-walled room beckons you to touch it, but then the door is closed. The cloud is sealed away from airborne contaminants, and the next machine is before you.

image description: a weaver at her loom

Fibre being pulled into the picker.

This machine is familiar to most fibre artists, although this particular drum carder is a mighty beast. The main drum has the diameter of a small mannequin’s torso, rotating diligently in a cage meant to protect visitors instead of the great beast itself. Once again wool is fed in on a belt, evenly spread out to control how colours mix. The carded wool emerges as a floating layer of cloud-stuff, falling down into a rotating bucket that applies a gentle amount of twist. This twist keeps the cloud-sheets of wool organized as it awaits drafting.

image description: a close up of flannel fabric being woven on a loom

This machine is known colloquially as “the great beast”.

The machines thus far have lined the side and back walls of the mill, but the next few are in the centre of the room. Before approaching the drafting machine, a set of shelves on the right distracts you with its contents. Two lines of beautifully drafted and coiled cylinders of roving greet you. The black fibres have a lustre to them, and your curiosity is piqued. The back roving is a mohair blend, a mix of 70% off-site wool and 30% on-site mohair. You learn that these twelve cylinders are awaiting their turn to be spun into yarn as part of a commission, and turn your attention back to the drafting machine. 

image description: a close up of flannel fabric being woven on a loom

Mohair-blend roving, waiting to be drafted and spun.

Buckets full of carded wool rest at your feet, slowly being fed into the machine and stretched by grooved discs. It has mirrors on the far side so the exiting fibres can be constantly checked for consistency. They fall into another rotating platform, and are carefully laid into the same cylinder shape as the black mohair blend behind you.

image description: a close up of flannel fabric being woven on a loom

Fibre entering the drafter.

The fate of this purple, blue and green draft is to be spun. In the centre of the room rests the spinning machine. The drafted roving is fed in from a table, going up and over top of a metal rack like vines growing over a trellis. In the bowels of the machine a complex feed of interwoven belts powers rolling cylinders and spindles to incorporate the first twist into the wool. The gauge can be adjusted by moving the distances between the cylinders, although the adjustments are made efficiently in order to save time and energy.

image description: a close up of flannel fabric being woven on a loom

Fibre being pulled into the spinner.

 …. The spindles are then brought to another machine to be plied…

image description: industrial yarn spinning machines

Full spindles, ready for the plier.

This plying machine feeds the yarn from single spun spindles downwards and through more cylinders onto a second larger spindle. The yarn tumbles down like snow from a mountaintop. One of the tricks that Donna has learned is how to use the cylinders to unbalance a third ply to create boucle yarn. Plied yarns are wound onto skeins, their twist set, and are prepared to be put in the shop.

image description: industrial yarn spinning machines

The plier.

Yarn can be dyed before or after it is spun. The acid dyes used at Wellington Fibres conserve on water, and do not bind to it so theres no toxic wastewater created in the process. The dye kitchen is spread along the wall with the door you entered from. The dye supplies are located close to the plyer, and the vat near the sinks and water supply. The giant vessel can contain three stew pots, allowing multiple colours to be created at once. In-house colours will be placed in previously used dye baths to conserve water, slowly working from light to darker colours.

image description: mohair goats in a pen

Ready for dyeing.

The last spot to visit is in the barn adjacent to the main building. Inside, the goats who provide mohair for the mill gaze about curiously. Young does and billies are kept in separate areas, and the bucks have their own pens. Inside the barn a visitor bumps your hand with their cold nose. The farm dog leans against your leg while goats curiously lick the bars of their enclosure. Donna advocates feeding them good food to promote a healthy coat, and carefully selects who stays on the farm by their coat, genetics, and temperament. They live a good life for a year and a half before being sold for slaughter, and provide three shearings of mohair to the mill.
image description: mohair goats in a pen

This year’s flock.

As you prepare to depart, you think that this realm of woolly magic is one that was meant for visiting. The memories seem certain to come back again and again. You leave, watching the quiet wonder of three buildings disappear into the distance.

image description: mohair goats in a pen

All images by Magan Wilson.

Copyright © Magan Wilson except as indicated.
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About Magan Wilson

Magan Wilson is a potter turned fibre artist with a love of plants, experimentation, cats, and the hidden beauty of the natural world. Her love of glaze chemistry and form transformed into a love of dyes, fibre, felt, and knitwear. Her work catches the wholeness of existing in the present. The wild nature of the world that flourishes on the fringes of awareness. Chasing the idea of a 'wild night' you can find her work via her alias of Oíche Rua (EE-ha RU-ah), an Irish phrase capturing the chaos and wild beauty of the night sky. https://oicherua.substack.com/

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