Philipsburg business grows with careful shepherding by owners
February 25, 2012
by Maureen Connor/Philipsburg Mail
Ed and Sue James have created a new dimension in local agriculture. The James’ have been traditional ranchers their whole lives, raising both cattle and sheep. Times got especially tough for the sheep industry in the l980’s with the demise of tariffs on the importation of lamb and wool. Being forward looking people the James’ started seeking ways they could add value to their main product—wool.
They found what they were looking for seven years ago with a little help from the Montana Department of Agriculture in the form of a feasibility study, and good advice from wool experts from the University of Wyoming. They decided a wool processing mill could work and searched for mill equipment.
The search led all over the United States, with the gathering of the machinery to process wool and has turned in to small but thriving business. James has collected specialized machines, such as the amazing double bank carding unit, a contraption that weighs 32,000 pounds and is the largest piece of equipment involved in processing wool at the Sugar Loaf.
Some of the equipment came from the Midwest, some from the East, and is all located a couple of miles from Hall on the James ranch. The Sugar Loaf mill happened to be the first carding mill in the State.
The processing of wool in Hall works some thing like this. Wool arrives from a customer, for a large sheep operation; this means it comes in bags, full of 400 pounds of greasy sheared fleece. The Sugar Loaf can handle the ‘harvest’ from a large ranch of commercial sheep to a small specialized batch from one or two specialized rare breed sheep, popular with fiber artisans. According to Ed, “We custom process for Montana people, and the surrounding states, which keeps the money in Montana—because producers were sending it elsewhere before.”
First the raw wool gets picked over by hand, removing sticks and large pieces. Next, the wool is run through the opener, which fluffs it up a bit, and helps debris that its former owner may have rolled in fall out.
Then the opened-up fleece heads for a bath, where soil and whatever else washed out with water and soap solution—Dawn dishwashing liquid works pretty well according to Ed. The bath water is heated by a large solar panel, visible on the back side of the mill.
The wet (and only tiny bit smelly) wool is dried in what is almost biggest drier in the county, second only to the lumber drying buildings at Eagle Stud. After a quick cycle the wool is dry, and it heads to the big machine, the double bank carder. The carder lines up the fibers, and makes a sort of pad of very fluffy wool called a batt. Or it can go through a different ending, and get rolled up in a roughly circular shape called ‘roving’. The roving is ready to be turned into high quality-spun with love-yarn by the spinning wheel crafters.
The batts can be used as is for mattress pads, pillows, dog beds, or the inside of quilts. These are the key products the Sugar Loaf sells in the retail part of the mill. Some of their customers include the Mattress Mill in Bozeman, and Small Wonders in Missoula, who use their products for futons. The Sugar Loaf web site (www.sugarloafwool.com) is an important part of the business located in a quiet corner of Granite County. Ed James says, “We have shipped products to over 40 states so far, and Canada. We had a customer traveling to Holland bring home some fleeces for processing to make hand spun gifts for Dutch relatives.”
The James’ have a regular group of people who ‘spin in’—show up with their spinning wheels, to share craft secrets and socialize. When the spinners need a break from their wheels, they knit and socialize. Or if they need to stretch their legs, they go out behind the mill and visit the product in the original form, with a couple of friendly lambs looking for a bottle.
Some of the spinners have been at their craft for decades, while others are just starting with lessons at the Sugar Loaf. The spinners often knit with their own yarn and some of them have beautiful items nearly complete, while others candidly admit they plan to put the yarn in baskets around their homes for that country décor touch. A new class is about to start soon, due to customer demand—the art of dyeing wool.
Ed and Sue have been traveling to various trade shows, taking their wool products out on tour, and continuing to develop their business. James is a true believer in the benefits of a return to ‘all natural fiber’ products. Their own home and travel trailer are full of their wool products. “It seems like the demand is growing about 20% a year.” said Ed.
Ed also noted that a doctor in Missoula is testing the claim that heart patients sleep better on wool mattress pads, which has the reputation of lowering sleeping heart rates. He is quick to point to studies in Wales and Montana that indicate breathing problems are eased by wool bedding, and other studies that show wool doesn’t harbor bacteria and dust mites in bedding as do some other materials.
The Sugar Loaf Wool Carding Mill was named after a mountain that can be seen immediately over to the top of the mill, located on a corner of the ranch. Even if you don’t feel like taking up the traditional craft of spinning wool, the James’ are gracious hosts, and gladly arrange tours.