September 15, 2003
A Unique Lesson in Multiplication:
What started out as a 4-H project has turned into one of the nation?s largest cottage industries for this Michigan family
By Tharran E. Gaines
Have you ever heard the story about the homeowner who bought a wood stove to more economically heat his house, only to 'need' a chain saw, wood splitter and 4-wheel drive pickup in the months that followed? Well, the development of Stonehedge Farm and Fiber Mill near East Jordan, Mich., followed a surprisingly similar progression, but with more positive financial results.
What began as a retirement farm with two sheep, purchased for a 4-H project, has today become an enterprise that employs a half dozen family members, sells wool products and textile machines throughout North America and offers a variety of custom spinning services to a loyal group of clients.
Equally important, the business has generated millions of dollars for other wool producers and spinners through its multiplying effects.
"It all started when I retired from General Motors 15 years ago and we bought an 80-acre farm to keep a few horses," explains Chuck McDermott, who claims he?s an "assistant" to his wife, Debbie, who owns and operates the business. "However, about a year later, we also bought two Suffolk sheep for our daughter, Jamie, who was nine years old at the time, as a 4-H project."
As McDermott explains, the next step in the unexpected progression was to buy a good ram, since they decided to keep the ewe after the fair. At the same time, they also bought a few more ewes.
"Before we knew it, we had 100 Suffolk sheep on the place, including the first crop of lambs," adds Debbie. "In the meantime, we had started a petting zoo and were offering hay rides. That?s when we decided we needed to do something to generate an income from what had become a large hobby."
Ironically, Debbie, who had been knitting fibers since she was seven years old, began taking a real interest in wool. The first fruits of her new-found passion were approximately 1,000 wool angel centerpieces that were sold at craft shows and flea markets.
"Then, about five years ago, we attended a fiber festival that was a few counties away," Chuck continues. "And on the way back, we talked about the possibility of starting a small fiber mill in northern Michigan. However, at the time, there were only two manufacturers of cottage-industry milling equipment. One was on Prince Edward Island and the other was in British Columbia."
After driving to Prince Edward Island and buying a machine that they were still unfamiliar with, the McDermotts discovered that it was inadequate for the volume they had in mind. So, using his years of experience as an engineer and manufacturing supervisor for GM, Chuck designed and built his own carding machine, which led to yet another aspect of their budding business. Today, the machine is being duplicated for sale to other cottage businesses nationwide.
"To date, we have assisted 14 other mills by either outfitting them with new equipment or replacing existing equipment," says Chuck, noting that McDermott Textile Machine Co. is now a separate entity operated by one of his sons.
To produce the custom carding machines, McDermott starts by having a local machine shop build a frame from two-inch-square steel tubing. He then has the rolls built by various suppliers and assembles them on a unit that utilizes a 26-inch main drum and accommodates four worker rolls.
"We also equip the unit with variable speed motors, which allows the operator complete control over the quality of the carding job and the thickness of the web," he says. "On average, the machine can handle 10 to 15 pounds of fiber per hour."
Textile machines, of course, are only an off-shoot to the real business at Stonehedge Farm and Fiber Mill, which is custom fiber processing.
"The average lot of wool that we receive for custom processing is about six pounds," says Debbie. "Most of that comes from around 600 private spinners in all 50 states and four different countries. In fact, we often get wool from up to 36 different states each month."
Debbie says processing charges are based on incoming weight of fiber. Although there is no minimum, batches under a pound are charged as one pound. Meanwhile, she offers to return batts or roving from either raw wool or washed wool for a difference of 50? per pound. If it is necessary to rewash fibers that have been sent as washed, however, the price goes up dramatically.
"Our carding prices are based on ?incoming weight,'"Debbie explains. "If a customer sends us 10 pounds of raw wool, they?re charged on that amount. They have to realize, though, that after washing, they?ll only get about half to two-thirds that amount back."
"There is an enormous number of hand spinners around the country," adds Chuck, noting that they?ve occasionally had up to 5,000 pounds of wool waiting to be processed. "As a result, about half of the wool we process in a typical month goes back to hand spinners as roving or batts," he continues. "The other half is sent back as semi-worsted yarn in the customer?s choice of counted skeins or cones."
Stonehedge?s services don?t stop at carding and yarn making, though. In recent years, they?ve also added custom knitting, sock knitting, needle felting and weaving to the list of services. They can even blend exotic fibers, including mohair, llama, alpaca, angora, dog hair, camel, yak, qiviut and extra fine wools into a customer?s material for special materials or processing.
"We?ve been very pleased with the finished product from our recently added needle felting machine," Debbie adds, noting that the unique, 36-inch wide machine was also developed by Chuck with some help from a company in South Carolina. "We?ve made vests with some of the felted material, but the list of potential uses for needle felted batts is unlimited. We?ve produced some beautiful black vests from 100 percent alpaca fiber, as well as tan vests from 50 percent wool and 50 percent angora seconds," she adds. "Other possible uses include hats, mittens, slippers, boot liners, Christmas stockings and tree skirts, lap throws and a variety of craft applications."
The McDermotts have even experimented with turning lower-quality wool into plant and tree rounds and bedding runners that can be placed around plants in place of plastic to keep moisture in and weeds down. Just as it is with yarn and batting, though, it?s vital that vegetation in the wool be kept to a minimum.
"Customers can save themselves a lot of time and money by learning to evaluate fiber before sending it out to be processed by us or any other fiber mill," Debbie relates. "Moreover, how the animals are fed and the conditions of their surroundings make a big difference in fleece quality. Using feeders that don?t allow the animals to get hay all over themselves, keeping the surroundings clean, using bedding that easily shakes out and shearing on a mat instead of the barn floor can make a tremendous difference in the amount of vegetative matter in the fleece."
One doesn?t have to own sheep or even provide their own wool to Stonehedge Fiber Mill to benefit from the McDermotts? talents, though. The farm?s Fiber Shed stocks roving in a wide variety of fibers and colors. The material, which can be either natural colored or dyed, is neatly layered in clear bags or boxes, and is ready to open and spin. Although the McDermotts purchase some of the raw materials from outside, a lot of it now comes from their own farm, where the number of sheep breeds has gone from the original Suffolk to include Romney, Rambouillet, Jacobs, Cotswold, Navajo-Churro, Shetland, Dorset, Targhee, Cormo, Coopworth, Columbia and Finnsheep. In addition, the farm has two llamas, one alpaca, colored angora goats and angora rabbits.
Chuck McDermott, who is always crunching numbers as the result of his years as a manufacturing engineer and a time-study analyst, insists that it costs the average sheep producer $172 to keep an animal based on a $7-per-hour salary for the owner.
"If you sell one offspring per ewe at $125, you haven?t paid for the upkeep," he says. "If you have twin lambs, you?re in a little better shape; but if you can turn the wool into yarn or wool products that you can sell off the farm for added value, you can do even better in the sheep industry. Your total costs, of course, depend on where you live. Pasture costs nationwide average around $586 per acre," he continues. "However, pasture costs in New Mexico, for example, are about 12 percent of what they are here in Michigan."
McDermott says his present goal is to develop a cottage-industry scale garnet-type machine that will open the fiber and remove and crush any existing vegetative matter.
"Before the large wool processors developed the carbonization method of using acid to decompose vegetative matter, this was the type of process that was used in the industry," he relates. "But small, cottage mills can?t use the acid process, and it?s very difficult and time-consuming to work wool that hasn?t been well cleaned. So I?m trying to develop an alternative. All I need is money," he adds, joking that most of his research to date has been "GM subsidized" by retirement funds.
On the other hand, few people in America have the good fortune of seeing a 4-H project multiply itself hundreds of time over into a thriving business. The Stonehedge Farm and Fiber Mill is proof that some things can "snowball" into bigger entities without going out of control.
For More Information
To learn more about Stonehedge Farm and Fiber Mill and their services, contact Chuck and Debbie McDermott, 2246 Pesek Rd., East Jordan, MI, 49727; Phone: 231-536-2779, or e-mail: www.stonehedgefibermill.com