‘Sweater farmer’ recycles 600 pounds of wool and launches yarn business

  • Huntington resident Lisa Fortin has founded her own yarn business after obtaining more than 600 pounds of wool from farms around Franklin County that were going to be composted. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Huntington resident Lisa Fortin has founded her own yarn business after obtaining more than 600 pounds of wool from farms around Franklin County that were going to be composted. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Huntington resident Lisa Fortin has her own flock of sheep to go along with the 600 pounds of wool she's recycling from farms around Franklin County. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Huntington resident Lisa Fortin has founded her own yarn business after obtaining more than 600 pounds of wool from farms around Franklin County that were going to be composted. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Lisa Fortin dyes her own wool by heating up a solution, letting the wool sit for a day or two and then rinsing it before tidying it up into bundles. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Lisa Fortin dyes her own wool by heating up a solution, letting the wool sit for a day or two and then rinsing it before tidying it up into bundles.

  • Lisa Fortin's daugther, Clara, helps tend to their flock of sheep. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Lisa Fortin dyes her own wool by heating up a solution, letting the wool sit for a day or two and then rinsing it before tidying it up into bundles. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2021 5:14:05 PM

There are potato farmers and poultry farmers, but have you ever heard of a sweater farmer?

That’s how Atlas Farms’ assistant manager Lisa Fortin describes herself and her four kids. Fortin has launched Bloom Woolen Yarns, which sells locally made yarn created from her own sheep’s wool and more than 600 pounds of recycled wool from around Franklin County.

Fortin, who lives and home-schools her children in Huntington, said she wanted to take the idea of the locally grown food movement and apply it to the clothing industry.

“I look at fashion in terms of our food system,” Fortin said in a phone interview. “I try to focus on natural fibers as much as possible … finding anything made in the U.S. is almost impossible these days.”

She said clothing made from yarn and wool is resilient and doesn’t wear out like a cotton T-shirt would. She added cotton cannot be grown in this region and we should use the resources we can harvest here.

“My feeling is we could start to utilize the wool that is produced here,” Fortin said. “We can even do things like shirts and it’ll start to lessen the dependency on our imported, cheap clothing that is disgustingly filling up our landfills.”

She said the idea came to her in the “darkest part” of last year’s COVID-ravaged winter. With her “background loosely in fashion” and some experience with farming, Fortin called up farmers in the region to try and secure some materials to go along with her small flock of sheep at home. Despite some small bumps in the beginning, her phone started ringing with farmers looking to offload their excess wool.

“I was feeling kind of discouraged but then I started getting callbacks,” Fortin said. “One man had 400 pounds of wool and wool is really light, so 400 pounds is extremely large.”

She explained that the pandemic’s arrival in March, which coincides with shearing season, had upended the wool industry and farmers across the region were looking to just compost the previous season’s products or sell them at an extremely disadvantageous price.

“(The farmers’) outlet had disappeared … There were six or seven farms that I worked with initially,” Fortin said. “They seemed to be thankful I was taking it at a very low price.”

Fortin highlighted Winterberry Farm in Colrain, York Farm in Shelburne, Four Blessings in Leverett and Tanstaafl Farm in Greenfield as some of the places she’s worked with.

Fortin’s wool ranges from more “earthy” textures from her own sheep to “very high-quality wool” that can be used to create yarn. This range of quality allows her to create anything from scrubbing cloths to yarn that can be spun and sewn into a nice sweater.

The process from wool to yarn can take a “minimum of three to four months” as the wool is cleaned of debris, sent to a mill to be spun and then cleaned and dyed when it returns. Fortin calls it “slow fashion” and said the higher price of yarn reflects the true labor put into it.

“The yarn is expensive,” Fortin said, “it’s just like the price difference of a red tomato at a supermarket and an heirloom tomato at a farm stand.”

During this long, slow process, Fortin gets her children involved to learn about the process of locally manufactured products.

“They definitely have a hand in it and I love that they see the process of sheep to sweater,” Fortin said. “They watched me start a business from scratch. It’s maybe a little bit crazy but now they see it come to fruition.”

Clara, one of Fortin’s daughters, said working with her mother has been a chance to do environmentally friendly work.

“I’ve kind of been into sustainability,” Clara said. “I sew all my clothing and I like working with linen and cloth.”

The process

After the mill spins the wool, Fortin receives it back as a generally bland color that needs to be cleaned of spinning oils before she takes on the dyeing process over several days.

The process of dyeing the yarn is almost like making a batch of spaghetti. Fortin starts her day by boiling a pot of water and dropping in the noodle-like yarn into a mordant solution, which is a substance that allows the wool to take on a dye or other coloring.

“It’s like a recipe,” Fortin said while dropping the yarn in the pot. “I heat them up for an hour and let them sit for a day or two.”

When the yarn is left to sit in a dye solution for a day or two, the spaghetti-like recipe turns into a science experiment where Fortin needs to measure the pH of the dye to make sure it is not too acidic.

In keeping with her home-grown ideals, Fortin uses organic products like goldenrod to create her dyes and noted she wants to begin growing some plants of her own. She does, however, order some dye extracts from carefully “vetted companies.”

“I want to delve more into (dyes) in the future,” she said, pulling yarn out of her pantry. “These plants have been used for thousands of years.”

Fortin said her “signature” is adding a strong color, but leaving hints of individual, gray strands.

“I put colors on top of it,” Fortin said. “Richness in color is how I want to go forward … I don’t want a solid, bland gray.”

Once the yarn is dyed, rinsed and dried, Fortin, and sometimes her kids, take the yarn and turn it into a skein, which is the oblong-shaped twist of yarn customers can buy.

Finished product

When the process of creating the yarn is finished, Fortin stocks her website and local stores like Atlas Farms and Northampton Wools.

She said she wants to make these local products available so people can have a long-lasting article of clothing made for Franklin County, by Franklin County.

“I want a local yarn so people can make a local garment,” Fortin said. “Our clothing needs to be grown … there’s no shortage of wool in the valley.”

She said using the region’s abundance of wool can help stimulate job and economic opportunities for folks as well as establishing a bigger wool industry, which would go beyond yarn production into potentially stuffing pillows or insulating buildings with yarn.

“Bringing more of this to the area opens more of these opportunities,” she said, “If you want to have a regional wool system, yarn is only going to get so far … there’s lots of other ways to use this local resource.”

Fortin’s yarn can be found at https://bit.ly/3BdEXAl.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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