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Vintage and Viable

My trip to Bartlett Yarn Company
Friday, March 19, 2010

While visiting son Bryce and his family in Farmington, Maine on a beautiful Friday morning in March, we traveled just under an hour to the hamlet of Harmony, Maine, to visit the Bartlett Yarn Company.  Though I had checked out their information on line (www.bartlettyarns.com) , I was totally unprepared for seeing their mill “up close and personal.”  Their yarn is spun on a knitting mule that spins yarns  using the same methods they did back before the turn of the century (and I mean the 20th century – not the 21st!)  Why would they continue to use these very old methods?  Simply stated, Bartlett Yarns explain “Mule spun” yarns have a distinctive appearance and desirable homespun qualities, compared with the more common worsted spun yarns.”

In 1821, Ozias Bartlett started his yarn spinning mill (pictured above) on the west bank of Higgins  Stream, taking in locally raised wool and returning spun yarn in much the same manner as a village miller taking in grain and returning flour or ground meal. The original Bartlett spinnery probably was first powered by an undershot water wheel that was replaced some time in the 1840’s by a water turbine. Great-grandson Harry Bartlett took over management of the mill at age 16 in 1899, and operated the mill into the 1940’s when the first owners outside the Bartlett family took over.  Today they accept shorn fibers from white- and black-faced sheep (which is the only differentiating factor) all across the United States in a barn that is as ancient as it is full of fiber (pictured above). All washing is done in Texas and dying is done in Philadelphia.  Tim told us they lose approximately 30% afterwashing. 

Once the yarn comes back, however,  there remains hay and other matter in the fiber.  They then are separated using a machine that dates from the 1880s (pictured right). Using another machine (circa 1935) (pictured below on left) the fibers are shaken, releasing hay and dust  which falls to the ground  or accumulates in bags. This means another loss of approximately 15%.  They can also blend colors in this stage of the processing. 

Fiber is stored in a large closet and grandson Tomas had a blast playing in there (pictured below on right) before moving  up to the second floor, where it is further cleaned and carded.  The “mule” operation is highlighted by these 1929 machines all moving at the same time (see photos below) from left to right, making 480 yards with each pass.  Watching it happen is truly exciting!  And to think they did it like this before Edison invented the electric light!  These machines have to be oiled (carefully, just a drop at a time) once or twice a day, depending on how much use they are getting.

These yarns move up gloriously antique stairs (see photo below) to the third floor of their building where they are put through a series of weights which determine their thickness and are put onto cones. The day we visited they were doing bulky yarns (pictured below).

While these machines could never begin to process alpaca, the tour was exhilarating and the process is intensely personal.  Employing a staff of just seven people, including those working in their factory store, Bartlett Yarns is a testament to the hard-working ingenuity of the Mainers who celebrate the past  and recognize the value of these time-honored early machines.

 




1929 mule-spinning machines carding machine carding the fiber
     
antique stairs bulky yarn 1929 mule-spinning machines
     
spool holder weight and thickness machine mill store