Texas Wool Mills Hang On To A Tradition

Jan 31, 2020

From Texas Standard:

In the 1950s and '60s, the idea that Texas would one day relinquish its position as the epicenter of the wool and mohair world must have felt unfathomable.

Raising sheep and goats was crucial to the state’s economy and culture. Land and herds were passed down for generations. The state’s sheep and goat industry even held an annual pageant to crown Miss Wool Texas.

Those days are gone though. Texas used to be home to over 10 million sheep and 4 million goats. Now there are less than a million of each. The industry built around them is smaller too. But it hasn’t disappeared.

Part of what’s left of it is inside the Marathon Basin Wool Mill, about 40 miles south of Fort Stockton. Its owners, Seth and Bonnie Warnock, have deep roots in the Texas sheep business. The mill itself is a lonesome tan building in the West Texas desert. Inside, dozens of sacks filled with dirty wool sit on a concrete slab. Turning it into usable yarn can be a difficult, persnickety, and tedious task. On a cold day in late December, Seth showed reporters part of the process.

“It’s kinda loud and everything moves, so keep your hands to yourself,” he says while adjusting the gears of a spinner – a machine that converts wool into yarn.

It’s one of the last parts of the process. At this point, the wool has already been washed, dried, combed, and picked – tasks that each require specialized machinery with pesky parts that are liable to break or malfunction on a whim. So it goes with the spinner – almost as soon as he turns it on, a stray strand of wool gets tangled in the machine. Seth is unfazed.

“Part of it,” he says, mechanically freeing the fiber from the spinner.

He’s used to these complications. Seth’s been milling wool for three years now. He processes wool from his own sheep, and from other ranchers around Texas. His wife Bonnie helps out, but mostly he works alone. His family has raised sheep longer than he’s been alive, but he essentially started from scratch when he decided to buy milling equipment from a woman in San Angelo a few years ago.

“We built the building, poured the floor, bought the equipment, moved it in, and then learned how to run it,” he says.

The learning curve has been steep. The machines are old and didn’t come with manuals – some didn’t even work when he brought them to the ranch. Once he finally got them all working, Seth didn’t even try to sell his wool for the first 18 months that he milled – he just practiced the process, and worked on making consistent yarn.

But things run smoother now. The problem with the spinner is sorted out in short order, and soon the machine threads yard upon yard of soft, clean, off-white yarn onto spools.

Besides Warnock, nobody in Texas knows better than Dawn Brown how difficult milling can be. Brown runs another mill. Actually, it’s Texas’ only other wool mill – Independence Wool and Mohair, located just north of Brenham.

“It’s not just knitting all day or playing with fiber all day,” she says. “There’s the maintenance of the machines, there’s all the supplies, there’s also the safety factor. There have been mill operators that had serious injuries, mostly to their extremities.”

Brown’s ancestors raised sheep in Texas before the territory had even separated from Mexico. But over the time, they got out of the industry. Her first career was as a gynecologist in Corpus Christi. Taking up knitting as part of rehab for a shoulder injury started her down the path to making the mill her full-time job. Now she raises sheep and goats on her family’s 100-acre ranch, and processes exclusively Texas-grown wool and mohair.

That she and Warnock run the only mills in Texas would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

There are several reasons for the decline. Over time, synthetic material replaced wool. Processors in places like China and South Africa produced fiber more cheaply. Congress phased out a program to incentivize wool production. And Texas changed.

“Ranches are sold. The younger generation goes off to do other things. There’s all kinds of external factors that influence the industry,” Brown says. “Now it’s so small, you don’t want it to go away.”

That’s a big reason why she and Warnock spend so many hours toiling in their mills, picking cedar twigs out of wool, spinning yarn, fixing machines. It’s certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme. Warnock started his mill three years ago, and he’s just now turning a profit, mostly by selling yarn online.

“Until we sold the first think, you’re wondering if it’s going to sell. ‘Cause we launched our Etsy shop and it was 10 months from the day we launched it ‘til the day we made our first sale. You had to have some grit to stay with it,” he says.

Warnock’s family has raised sheep on the same land in West Texas since 1829. Despite those deep roots, he says he’s not trying to save the state’s industry. Even if he was, that’s a big lift for one mill in the middle of the desert.

“It’s just neat to make something that’s going to outlive me,” he says.

But as more Texans move into cities, they also become more disconnected from where their food and fiber comes from. Through the mill, Brown wants to try to bridge that gap.

“Somebody has to grow it. You’ve gotta have land, you’ve gotta have people who work on the land, you’ve gotta have people who shear the sheep and goats. If you don’t have ranchers, you don’t have land, you don’t have shearers, you don’t have wool and mohair,” she says.

She gives lectures around the state about the sheep and goats, and she’s started an apprentice program at the mill. The idea is to hopefully inspire a new batch of wool and mohair processors to keep the wheels spinning.

“I can only make so much yarn, I’m 52 years old, the equipment is small,” she says. “But if you can impart that to a younger generation, to be proud of their heritage, to be proud of their land, maybe they’re going to stay. Maybe they’re going to come back. I did.”

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