January 19, 2015

Eastford mill aims to preserve CT’s textile history

PHOTOs | Christna Davis
PHOTOs | Christna Davis
Eastford’s Still River Mill, shown above, is a rare breed in Connecticut, serving as one of the few remaining textile mills operating in the state. Still River founder Deirdre Bushnell, shown at right tending to a batch of yarn, started her family-owned company 15 years ago with her husband Greg Driscoll. They now churn annually up to 7,000 pounds of raw fiber into yarn.
PHOTOs | Christna Davis
The technology used by Still River Mill, shown above, to convert raw fiber from sheep, goats, and other animals into yarn hasnít changed much over the last century. Still Riverís 4,000-square-foot barn also serves as a yarn retail outlet.

When Deirdre Bushnell started her Eastford home business manufacturing yarn, she figured it would be a small side project — a good way to supplement her income while she raised her young family.

Much to her surprise, within six months of opening Still River Mill, her husband, Greg Driscoll, had to quit his job and join her full time because demand was so high.

That was 15 years ago. Today, Still River Mill processes annually up to 7,000 pounds of raw fiber, freshly shorn from the hides of sheep, goats, Alpacas and even some dogs. Still River is a rare breed in Connecticut, standing as one of the few remaining textile mills able to remain economically viable amid decades of growing competition from lower-cost southern states and countries. The mill's focus on quality and small-batch production, and diverse array of services have helped keep the business churning over the years, Bushnell said.

Still River occupies a 4,000-square-foot barn on a hill near the center of the small northeastern Connecticut town. The family's herd of goats greets barn visitors, who can peruse the vibrant colored yarns that Still River produces and sells through its retail operations. Behind a door, you can hear the not-so-gentle whir of a manufacturing operation that covers about 1,500 square feet. Still River Mill has five full-time employees who work alongside Bushnell and Driscoll to produce fine, American-made yarn.

CT’s textile roots

The textile industry was once the center of northeastern Connecticut's economy, focused largely around American Thread Co.'s huge mill complex in Willimantic. By the 1980s, the industry left Connecticut for cheaper labor in southern states. Still River is one of only a handful of such businesses that still carry on the textile tradition in Connecticut. Another notable mill is the Warren of Stafford in Stafford Springs, which was shut down in December 2013, but recently resurrected by a new investor. The mill now operates under the name American Woolen Co.

Bushnell is aware of the historical legacy her company is helping carry on and she's trying to do her part to bring more manufacturing back to New England.

"I can't change the manufacturing environment," she said. "But myself, and all my other millers, can."

Labor is the biggest cost driver for small mills like Still River, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage to overseas competitors, where employee wages are much cheaper.

To remain competitive, and perhaps chart new territory for American mills, Bushnell said she's continued to meet with other like-minded mill owners to develop ways they can work together and grow U.S. manufacturing.

"There's no reason why I and a bunch of other mills couldn't take on a larger project that would have an impact," she said.

However, Bushnell is also realistic about the gap between people's intentions to buy American-made products and the economic reality.

"People want things manufactured in the U.S., but once they get that price tag, it's not going to work for them," she said. "I think a lot of things are going to have to happen to change that, but I think we are on to the start of something."

Still River has found a niche that has enabled its growth over the past 15 years. Without mills like Still River, the only option for small American herd owners to turn their fibers into yarn is to do it themselves or send it overseas, mostly to China. The mills in China, however, are so large that they don't typically take small batches.

Still River differentiates itself by accepting small orders and performing custom blends and dye jobs. In addition, Bushnell said Still River's manufacturing operations are flexible, allowing them to quickly adjust yarn thickness their machines produce. A larger mill, on the other hand, would have to shutdown production and retool to change thickness, adding time and costs to the process.

Bushnell chose the difficult path of turning a hobby into a business. She was a knitter and a hand spinner. Over time, she couldn't keep up with the amount of fiber she was harvesting from her sheep flock, but she couldn't find a mill that would accept such small quantities — only 100 pounds. At a yarn industry event, she and her husband met some business owners who were looking to off-load some mill equipment. On a whim, they decided to purchase the gear, and start their own company.

Nationwide, local reach

Still River's business is mostly made up of its wholesale work, taking fiber from small U.S. herd owners and turning it into yarn. The finished yarn is sent back to customers who sell the finished product. Still River does produce and sell some of its own yarns, but Bushnell said she's careful to only market products that are unusual and don't compete with her wholesale customers.

Still River's yarn is also priced well above what is mass marketed in the United States. The company charges about $22 for four ounces of basic yarn and up to $70 an ounce for some of their higher-end fibers. By contrast, typical yarn at a craft store, which is likely produced in China, sells for $4.50 per ounce.

In addition to the yarn business, the company also has two large looms on the second floor of its building where it produces rugs. It also got into the dye business, branding its own line of environmentally friendly dyes called Greener Shades, which is now being sold globally.

Still River's customers are located throughout the United States, as well as in Connecticut, including the Palmer Family Farm in Tolland, which has a herd of 19 sheep.

Peg Sorensen, who helps run the Palmer Family Farm with her daughter and son-in-law, said they've been sending their fiber to Still River Mill for nearly 15 years. They first learned about the business when Bushnell appeared at a local spinner's guild meeting. Prior to Still River, Sorensen said her farm had its wool processed in Michigan.

In addition to being local, which reduces shipping costs, Still River beats out competitors with its focus on quality, Sorensen said.

"You might pay a little bit more but you are getting a quality product," Sorensen said.

Sorensen said she sells her yarn mostly through area fiber shows and events. It's not a huge money-maker, but it does largely cover the cost of caring for the sheep herd.

"We make money to pay for the sheep feed," she said. "Everything goes right back into the farm."

Still River's shop floor is loud and crowded. The technology used to produce yarn hasn't changed much over the years, meaning that the experience of working at a textile mill in the 1900s is probably very similar to the experience working at Still River today, Bushnell said. Even so, it's not uncommon for hobby spinners to tell Bushnell how they'd love to come work at the mill.

"The glamour runs out pretty quickly," she said. "We're usually covered with a lot of dust."

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