Maryland Fiber Mill Owners Love Their Colorful World

4/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

FREDERICK, Md. — “We don’t do one-size-fits-all processing,” said Mary Singleton, who along with her husband, Dwayne, owns and operates the Singleton Fiber Processing mill in Frederick.

“Every customer is an individual and a bag of fiber from their animal is special to them and we care about that,” Singleton said. “They are really going to be proud of the product we give them.”

The first cottage fiber mill in Maryland, the Singletons’ mill is almost hidden at 580 E. Church St., inside a large, white industrial-looking building where most of the signage extols various types of automotive repairs.

“This location was an auto repair garage and it is good for us in that it has an oil and water separator,” Mary said, referring to their unassuming location. “Here in Maryland, it is illegal to wash wool without an exception permit, and we got our permit because the water that drains off our fiber washing goes through the separator and the lanolin does not plug up the county’s sewage system or make it into the bay.”

The business recently celebrated its fourth anniversary, Mary said, as she sat among bags of colorfully dyed roving.

“Our business model is built around the fiber artist and those customers who raise a few fiber animals and want to spin but don’t want to do the washing, picking, carding and dyeing,” she said.

Mary and Dwayne have added services each year the mill has been in business.

“The first thing we added after washing fiber was dyeing services,” Mary said. “We can custom color the fiber and make it any color the customer wants, or create 2½-by-4-foot bats for felting or quilt stuffing. Recently my husband took weaving classes, so we began making rugs and we added spinning equipment for making yarn.

“We are a value-added service to the agricultural community,” Mary said, noting her hand-spinning roots. She routinely gives spinning lessons to many new customers, and she has a twice-monthly spinning group meeting at the mill affectionately named the “Sippin Spinners.”

For Mary, the business was a necessity that grew from her hobby.

“Someone taught me to knit with nice, forgiving hand-spun yarn and I made a sweater for Dwayne,” she recalled. “And then I went to the store and bought some cheap yarn and thought I would have a similar experience. It didn’t work out that way, so I learned how to spin. I started buying fleeces and lamenting the fact that there were no local mills to process the fiber.”

“We spent a year researching this to find out whether Maryland should have a mill on our dime,” Dwayne said. “Mary taught me how to work with fiber and we wrote a three-inch thick business plan.”

For Dwayne, who left a career as a computer programmer, working at the mill has put him out of his comfort zone.

“I run the carder, which is the heart of the mill, and take care of the equipment,” he said. “I have learned that there is so much involved in this that many people don’t understand. Many people think that yarn is yarn and wool is wool and that is not the case. Even the dyes affect the way fiber processes.”

“He has become quite a mechanic,” Mary said with pride. “He likes the technical aspects of the mill. It is the custom aspect that I enjoy.”

Mary speaks with an enthusiasm for color matching and giving customers something they can’t find at a big-box store.

“If I make a specific green for a particular customer, then I won’t dye the same color green for any other farm,” she said. “They can have a logo and I can match the colors for them and I will not make that exact color yarn or roving for anyone else.”

The mill is growing and has the capacity for many more customers.

“We are built around the fiber artist, but we like to get the work from the fiber farms as well,” Mary said, recognizing the need for large fiber producers. “The larger farms are how this business thrives. We are a small custom mill but we can do everything the big mills can do.

“We have a very loyal alpaca contingent, but 90 percent of our business is generally on the medium and long wools,” Mary said.

Wool from Romney, Corriedale, Cotswold and Leicester Longwool sheep works well on their equipment, Mary said, but finer wools, such as Rambouillet and Merino, are referred to another mill that has different carders.

“Not all fiber is appropriate for all types of products,” Mary said, her hands sweeping through the bags of fiber to be processed. “If you are talking about sheep, then almost all of the fleece can be used, except those parts that may be contaminated with dirt or feces, hay and other small particles.

“Farmers that are very careful about vegetable matter can get very good results from this mill,” she said. “On an alpaca, the fleece that can be used for fiber is the blanket of the animal, from one side to the other across the back.”

First-time fiber customers may have issues with their fleeces.

“We get a lot of new fiber producers and there is a teaching and learning curve on their part,” Mary said with friendly conviction. “The fleece should have fibers of a uniform length and not second cuts or small pieces. We want them to be proud of our product. We want the longest locks and the cleanest fiber. The cleaner and healthier the fleece, the better the product will be.”

Mary is a stickler for keeping each customer’s fiber separate and distinct.

“Customers want to know that they are going to get their animal’s roving or yarn back,” she said. “We run everything in batches and we do not mix batches. We do not even batch color dyes. Each person’s fiber is kept separate, so when they get the roving back they know that this one is from a specific animal.”

Business continues to increase and the Singletons now have two employees — Cheryl Stunkel, who makes most of the yarn, and Ashley Sanger, who washes the fiber and raises alpaca’s herself. Looking to the future, Mary said she can the business getting to a point where they would start running shifts.

“This state is unique. The farmers here are all about making their product and that is a state pride thing,” she said. “We get a lot of business from Virginia, but there are over 1,000 fiber-producing farms in Maryland. If all of those farms use our mill, Maryland alone would keep us on three shifts every day.”

Although they sometimes drive each other crazy, Mary said she likes working with her husband and is thankful they decided to turn her hobby into a business.

“I like having our own place and I really enjoy working with our customers to make something they can use to make a one-of-a-kind product.”

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