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WVU researcher working to add value to wool by localizing sheep farm-to-fiber production

Lisa Jones (left), program coordinator for the WVU Extension Small Farm Center Program, and WVU researcher Jordon Masters examine a spinning machine that could help small producers process wool more effectively.

At a time when wool production in the Mountain State is declining,  West Virginia University  Extension and  Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design researchers are exploring new ways to support sheep farmers and wool producers in the region.

Jordon Masters, a research assistant, is leading the effort to promote farm-to-fiber production in West Virginia — with the goal of adding value to wool — with grant funding from Fibershed, a nonprofit that develops regional fiber systems.

“I think it is important to promote farm-to-fiber and farm-to-fashion for West Virginia farmers,” Masters said. “Too often, West Virginia farmers have been left behind and, hopefully, the work through this grant will help to end that.”

For wool to be turned into usable material to make garments, it goes through a preparation process that occurs at a mill. There are several steps in that process, including picking, carding, drafting and spinning.

However, mills are scarce in north central Appalachia, so farmers who want to spin fiber have to ship it out of state, which is not cost effective. This causes producers in the region to stockpile wool for multiple years before sending it off to mills farther away, increasing ruined fleeces and disrupting revenue streams.

Masters aims to create a kind of “micro mill” to help West Virginia producers process their wool more effectively and shorten the supply chain.

“I grew up on a small farm in West Virginia and I had sheep when I was in  4-H , so I have always had this connection with wool,” Masters said. “However, it was not until I started my graduate studies, under the direction of the Davis College’s  Beth Shorrock, that I actually understood how my background in agriculture and my interests in textile and fashion development could intersect. Having access to this micro mill suite will allow me to do research to figure out what we can do with West Virginia wool.”

Masters’ project began with Studio HILO, a Berlin-based company that develops devices designed to change traditional supply chain methods for processing fiber.

Studio HILO has two open devices, including the HILO Spinning Machine which allows the user to convert raw fibers of any type into commercially spun yarn, forgoing the traditional and limiting factors of processing fiber.

“This grant allowed me to get the supplies to build out my own open-source spinner that was designed by Studio HILO,” Masters said. “My colleagues from the United Kingdom and I have made a few modifications to the spinning machine to make it more user-friendly for the farmers. Since I have built the spinner, I am now working on developing other stages to create a micro mill suite.”

The micro mill suite will allow farmers to process the fiber themselves, adding value to the fibers they sell by creating a multitude of different products, such as garments, accessories and carpentry fiber.

“This is the initial phase of Central Appalachia Fibershed,”  Lisa Jones, WVU Extension Small Farm Center program coordinator, said. “We have multiple phases where we are looking at how much wool is being produced in West Virginia and how that ties into the topic of farm-to-fiber and meeting the farmer’s needs.”

Going forward, Jones said there are many goals for Fibershed.

“At Extension, our role is making sure the knowledge that comes out of the University gets into the community, but also vice versa, where the needs of the community feed back into the University, and that is what we are doing here,” Jones said. “We are making sure we benefit everyone from the University professor to the student who goes here to the farmers that are actively doing the work.”



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