When the Wednesday Spinners get together, as they have since 1975, they are participating in Maine’s fiber economy, a farm-based industry, with roots in the rock, that raises fiber animals such as sheep and alpacas, and produces yarn spun from the fleece of those animals. They are women who like the whole process of getting the fleece off the back of the sheep, cleaning and carding it, then wearing the sweater they knit from yarn spun and dyed from the fleece, said group member Penelope Olson. “These are strong, confident, independent, creative women,” Olson said. “They are encompassed in the fabric of life.”
Olson said that to her knowledge Maine has 10 fiber-processing mills located in Charlotte, Sabattus, Gorham, Monmouth, Kingfield, Hope, Wilton, Waldoboro, Otisfield and Monroe and Harmony.
Olson said that approximately $12,000 worth of Maine-produced fiber was sold recently at the Common Ground Country Fair. That breaks down to 1,005 pounds of wool, 89 pounds of alpaca, 3 pounds of llama, 28 pounds of mohair, nearly 2 pounds of rabbit angora and nearly 2 pounds of cashmere.
How much revenue all fiber producers and those in fiber-related businesses in Maine generate for an entire year has yet to be calculated. But Sue Watson of the USDA office in Bangor is attempting to correct that blank in the tally of Maine’s fiber economy. She was instrumental in launching a survey, in partnership with the Maine Department of Agriculture, of fiber producers in Maine that she hopes will determine how much the fiber industry contributes to the Maine economy.
Watson, a member of the fiber-producing community herself, keeps a flock of 22 ewes, Corriedales and Cotswolds, on her farm in Garland. “I’ve been around sheep most of my life. I can’t imagine life without them,” she said. “I was so lucky, I grew up in a home where there were looms and spinning wheels.”
According to University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin 2186, the sheep population in New England in the mid-1800s was numbered at several million — clearly, Maine has a rich heritage when it comes to homegrown fleece.
Today, Kelly Corbett of Romney Ridge Farm in Woolwich said in an e-mail that Maine has more than 1,000 sheep farms. She did not have sheep population numbers available.
To date, Watson estimates that 50 fiber industry producers already have taken the nine-page survey. She expected many more to participate in the survey by handing out it out at the Common Ground Country Fair last weekend.
Farmers who raise fiber animals, fiber-processing mill owners, spinners of fleece and those who knit and crochet the yarn into products, such as garments they sell in shops at fairs and online, are all considered participants in the Maine fiber-producing economy.
The survey will be conducted through October and perhaps beyond. It can be found online at www.maine.gov/agriculture/index.shtml. Click on HAVE YOU ANY WOOL? in the right-hand corner box of the Web page.