Dyed skeins hanging at Battenkill Fibers.
Photo courtesy of Mary Jeanne Packer.
Battenkill Fibers founder and owner Mary Jeanne Packer and her team know how to spin a beautiful yarn, sure, but Battenkill is also part of a hub that brings together local farms, fiber businesses, and makers in the Hudson Valley.
Packer started Battenkill Fibers—a carding and spinning mill located in Greenwich, New York—in 2009. Many businesses tout the benefits of connecting and sharing knowledge with the community, but few go the extra mile that Packer does.
Her advice to businesses: “Take advantage of business networks and community groups. If you don’t have a community, you’ll have to make one. That is my story.”
In addition to owning Battenkill Fibers, Packer is one of the founders of the Southern Adirondack Fiber Producers Collective. The organization’s purpose is to connect the region’s sheep farmers with a larger market to sell their wool. One of their first initiatives was a 2011 wool pool that helped Battenkill Fibers and many local farms make a profit from unused wool.
“Fortunately for us, that coincided with a move by the airline industry to replace all their upholstery and carpeting with either wool or leather,” Packer says. “No one had any more than a few hundred pounds at any one farm, so by pooling our resources, we had enough to send to a national broker. So that’s how it all started.”
Packer wearing the Shift Cowl designed by Andrew Mowry and knit with locally sourced hand-painted Corriedale wool yarn.
Photo courtesy of Mary Jeanne Packer.
Packer’s community initiatives didn’t stop there. Gail Parrinello, the owner of Cornwall Yarn Shop, shared with Packer that customers were looking for something fresh, something more than just the usual national brands of yarn.
To meet the customers’ requests, Battenkill started making yarn from locally sourced materials. One yarn, in particular, used the Romney sheep. This fiber is normally found in carpet, but Battenkill Fibers blended it with merino and spun it on their worsted system, producing a fiber that is very soft.
“So we started making these yarns for Gail, and she was listening to her local customers and her online customers, and she was saying, ‘You know, there’s something happening here, this desire by makers to want to connect with the local materials,’” Packer says.
Seeing that this partnership benefitted not just Battenkill and Cornwall Yarn Shop but also local farms, Packer and Parrinello teamed up to form Hudson Valley Textile Project, a nonprofit that connects makers to people who are raising, making, and processing fibers.
Establishing this connection benefitted everyone from Battenkill to farmers, yarn shops, and consumers. “Having networks like that has really helped—I wouldn’t say it changed the business because the business was going in that direction anyway—but strengthened and aligned our organization and our business with the other people who want to join an organization like that,” Packer says.
Packer encourages that same idea of teamwork and sharing knowledge within the walls of Battenkill.
“If we don’t treat each other with kindness, none of this is really possible. We certainly couldn’t produce the volume of wool we’re producing in our little 6,000-square-foot building without every person on every shift being kind to the next person.”
Battenkill employs sixteen people. To stay organized, employees leave notes for each other in a shift notebook, but Packer started to notice that some of the notes go beyond production. For example, if a person on the first shift hears that the family member of a person on the second shift is in the hospital, they will leave a note to let the person know they’re thinking about them.
“It brings tears to my eyes when I read the shift notebooks,” Packer says.
Finn Sheep at Point of View Farm.
Photo courtesy of Gale Zucker for Hudson Valley Textile Project.
Packer also sees that a culture of kindness eliminates any fear of sharing knowledge. “When a new person arrives, you’re more apt to not think, ‘I’m going to lose my job, I’m going to be replaced’ but rather ‘here’s somebody else to help me carry this ever-growing workload.’ Instead of being silos of knowledge, people in our mill are happy to share and see the new employees being cross-trained.”
This past year was quiet because of Covid, but Packer and her colleagues still accomplished several initiatives, including twelve episodes of the Common Threads podcast and the Sheep of the Hudson Valley video series. Several grants helped farmers sell at outdoor locations, and a Fabric Comes From Farms program brought textile education to high school students.
As Battenkill continues to work with local businesses and organizations, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021 to encourage crafters to buy local, including a fiber box, fashion challenge, and yarn-tasting event.
“When you’re in that kind of network, it’s very affirming, and one thing leads to another,” Packer says.
Ashley Little is a craft writer and copyeditor living in Asheville, North Carolina. She has given up on reducing her yarn stash and refuses to feel guilty about it. You can see more of her work at thefeistyredhead.com.