Northwestern Colorado has a rich heritage of raising sheep – either for their meat or for wool.
But for decades the sheep herd has been slipping in numbers, both nationally and in Colorado, often outcompeted by countries like New Zealand and Australia.
Where there’s been a resurgence though has been in local, niche markets. Some sheep ranchers have taken advantage of the local food movement to sell to customers at farmers markets and through community supported agriculture models.
In the case of Yampa Valley Fiberworks, the emphasis is on reinvigorating the wool economy.
Inside their small warehouse outside of Craig, Colo., Lorrae Moon and her husband Lewis spend their days turning dirty, oily, scratchy wool into fine yarns. Inside the wool milling room at Yampa Valley Fiberworks and the first thing you notice is the humidity.
“Can you feel the humidity? We can too by afternoon,” says Lorrae. “We keep the humidity up to 88 to 94 percent to keep the static electricity at bay.”
That’s just one of a handful of careful tricks needed to make the yarn-making process run smoothly. The couple’s had a crash course on both the physical aspects – removing lanolin, dyeing fiber, spinning on industrial equipment – and the business acumen needed to start something from scratch.
The multi-step process of making yarn starts with a wash to clean out dirt. The raw product is then pulled, tugged and twisted through a series of machines meant to coax the fibers into manageable strands, which can then be spun into yarn at the desired weight.
The couple bought the equipment to start milling in 2013, and once word got out among those in the area who raise sheep, alpaca and bison for their fiber, orders started coming in from all over the country.
“We’re doing some buffalo from North Dakota. This particular fleece is just from Walden,” says Lorrae as she pulls fistfuls of dark fiber from a pouch.
Other machines spit out playful tufts of merino wool. Another feeds long, brown alpaca fiber into a machine that coils it into a tall stack. The machines whirr and hum and rattle as they do their diligent work.
“This has been a fragile fleece. It’s needed a bit of babysitting,” Lorrae says, coaxing long tendrils into a machine painted an army green color.
Other fleeces that sit in bags along the wall have come in from nearby Steamboat Springs and Hayden. The neighboring communities have been a driving force behind the business’ early success.
Sheep are an indelible part of the culture in Moffat County. Craig plays host to a Sheep Wagon festival every year. One of the largest sheepdog competitions in the world is held in nearby Meeker. Lorrae says the agricultural ties go much deeper.
“Down here it’s grown and busted, grown and busted. And agriculture’s been kind of the one constant, even though it’s subsided a bit too. It’s still the constant that’s always here. That’s the rich part of Moffat County,” Lorrae says.
Even so,the area has never been home to a large-scale wool processor. As a small producer, Lorrae says she’s unable to take in the massive orders from sheep ranchers nearby.
“There’s a lot of producers who have their big flock of sheep, and then they might have a little specialty flock of sheep that they do a little extra something with. It’s small right now, but we hope that grows,” Lorrae says.
Having just started taking orders in late 2013, the couple is still in the first year of production and are taking things slowly, only accepting as much as they can handle. Lorrae’s husband Lewis, a former heavy equipment operator, says that gives quite a bit of time to let the mind wander while working.
“Every fleece has its own personality. It’s just like people. We have not run across two fleeces that were identical yet. Every single one of them has a little twist to them,” Lewis says.
The couple says they’re happy to keep discovering those new twists along the way together.