Area yarnmaker spinning her way toward hemp

Mary Jeanne Packer hopes to find equipment to start processing her own hemp
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Mary Jeanne Packer wants to tag along when industrial hemp grown at SUNY Morrisville goes to Poland for processing.

Packer, president of Battenkill Fibers in Washington County, is interested in seeing the machines that break down the plant’s sturdy stalks into usable material, in the hopes of someday incorporating a used one into her carding and spinning mill.

Packer bought the first machine for her business in September 2009. A fire several months later at an adjoining hardware store wiped out her operation before it really got going. But she found new quarters and machines in just a few months and was up and running on Route 40 in Greenwich by August 2010.

Five years later, she eked out her first “small – very small” profit, and has been profitable every year since.

Battenkill Fibers takes in all kinds of fleece – sheep, llama, alpaca, goat, rabbit – and processes it into various blends, colors and weights of yarn.

Packer touts the company as providing an outlet for farmers whose animals need to be shorn. It returns the spun wool to them to sell or turn into other products – “value-added ag” in her lexicon – or buys the fleece outright and sells the resulting yarn to third parties – what she calls “ag-manufacturing.”

Those third parties could be large yarn companies, like current customer Quince & Co., that then sell to consumers. Or they could be artisans and crafters who want a locally sourced product. The mill also sells its own yarn at an on-site store and at fiber festivals that Packer attends to keep in touch with knitters like herself and to drum up new business.

Last weekend, Battenkill Fibers opened its doors for the annual Washington County Fiber Tour of farms raising animals for fleece and food. This weekend, it will be at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, after delivering en route a “big job” just finished for a customer in Delaware.

Business is so good right now that orders have about a four-month wait. Packer says additional space wouldn’t solve the backlog, but finding workers for an overnight shift would.

The company currently has 17 employees, many of whom are part-time. “Ideally, we would find people who could work more hours,” Packer says. “But we have learned that it’s better to give employees flexibility and in exchange have their good quality work.”

Packer always has her eye out for equipment – usually used – which is why she’s interested in traveling with the industrial hemp from SUNY Morrisville to see how machines “decorticate” or strip off the fibrous outer bark of the stalks and process it. Morrisville has been growing and researching industrial hemp since 2016 under a state program exploring its cash-crop potential.

Equipment at Battenkill Fibers that stretches and aligns fibers for spinning can blend in already-processed industrial hemp, which adds strength and luster to yarn, Packer says. She now has to buy the hemp “sliver” from overseas.

But given the growing interest in hemp-infused products, Packer figures it “might as well be me” meeting that demand in yarn if she can manage to get her hands on the right machine.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

 

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