This week a few friends and I played hooky and took a tour of Brown Sheep Company in Mitchell, Nebraska. None of us had toured a big operation before. It was impressive. The wool (all from sheep in neighboring states) is washed, cleaned, and carded in a mill in South Carolina, then sent to Nebraska to be blended, spun, dyed, and wound into perfect balls or skeins.
Our tour guide, Donna, took us through the mill where we got to see each step of the process. For privacy reasons, cameras are not allowed in the mill so you'll have to believe me when I say that the machines are big and noisy, but impressive in their speed and efficiency. I can't remember how much yarn is produced in a day, but it looked like about twenty 5-pound skeins were processed at a time at each station. Something like 500 pounds of yarn can be vat-dyed at a time -- they were dyeing a nice dark red the day we were there. The all-around best selling color is black (go figure), followed by white, cream, and gray. We didn't think to ask what was the most popular dyed color.
You probably know that dyeing takes a lot of water. After a couple of years of research, the company has installed a state-of-the-art water filtration system. They are able to remove the dye particulates from a dyebath, then store the hot water to use again for the next bath, even if it's a different color.
The final stage of production is attaching the ball bands. This is probably what impressed me the most about the operation. After all those perfectly calibrated machines and processes, a person examines each ball or skein is individually examined before putting on the ball band. Except for the Lamb's Pride bands (which are secured with a machine), each band is manually taped around the ball. When we questioned this labor-intensive process, Donna told us that it was the best way to ensure quality. If there is a knot or if the ball looks less than perfect in any way, it goes into the "seconds" pile.
And where do those "seconds" go? The mill has it's own yarn shop where they are sold by the pound at a significantly reduced price. You or I wouldn't be able to tell what's "wrong" with these skeins, but Donna says that's because they work so hard to maintain the highest quality possible. In addition to balls that have visible knots, you can also buy yarns where the dye is a little off. So, we loaded up. That's Donna at the counter and packing our yarn in bags.