CASE STUDY: Transitioning to organic
Tierra Wools, Part II

From fleece to finished product
Transforming Churro wool into rugs and tapestries requires more hard work--from shearing and washing to spinning, dyeing, weaving and managing the Tierra Wools' retail store.

By Robert Gerard

Click here for Tierra Wools, Part I: How a community effort brought back the Churro breed, and how one local rancher is now raising and marketing organic Churro lamb

Farm enterprises
at-a-glance

Tierra Wools and Los Ojos Handweavers, LLC
Los Ojos, New Mexico


Year established: 1983
Products: Wool, yarn, weavings
Marketing: Retail shop, telephone, Internet, special exhibitions
www.handweavers.com


Shepherd's Lamb
Antonio & Molly Manzanares
Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico


Certified organic since: 1998
Products: Certified organic, grass-fed lamb
Marketing: Farmers' markets, restaurants, grocery stores, mail order
www.organiclamb.com

Posted September 16, 2005: The Manzanares' connection with Tierra Wools starts at the beginning of April, with shearing. Sophia Chavez comes out and makes selections of the Manzanares' wool and that of other producers. About 70 percent of the wool she buys is from Churro sheep; 30 percent from Rambouillet. In 2004 the Manzanares sold about 2,000 pounds of wool to Tierra Wools, amounting to well over 90 percent of the wool company's purchases. The remainder came from the small flocks of a handful of other local producers.

On average, a ram fleece weighs 11-13 pounds, a ewe fleece eight to nine pounds. Just under a pound of this weight is lost when the fleeces are "skirted."

The fleeces are sorted according to the fineness of the wool--the coarser wools are destined for rugs, the finer wools for blankets and hand spinning. Rug-quality wool fetches $2.50/lb., blanket wool, $3.50/lb., and the finest hand-spinning wool, $5.00/lb. Premiums are paid for wool that holds together well or has a unique color. Chavez says there is a shortage of colored wools and feels this is a problem that should be worked on.

The going rate for Rambouillet wool on the commodity market is just 15¢/lb. Antonio points out that this price has not changed since his grandfather was selling wool 80 years ago—and in real terms it has dropped substantially. The price that Tierra Wools pays enables the small sheep producers to earn a living wage managing their flocks. It also creates an incentive for them to keep raising Churros.

The price paid by Tierra Wools has fluctuated over the years. At first, thanks to a government incentive, wool producers were receiving about $50 per Churro fleece, and the Churro was increasing rapidly in the area. Around this time, Ganados del Valle hired two agricultural specialists to help producers improve their methods, from feeding to keeping the wool clean. Ganados del Valle also ran a Sheep Share Program, through which producers could receive 10 Churro ewes in exchange for agreeing to breed them to a Churro ram and return a lamb (or its dollar equivalent) to Ganados del Valle every year for 10 years.

When the government incentive ended and fleece prices fell, these programs also came to an end and Churro numbers started to decline. Sophia Chavez is now appealing to growers in Colorado and the Navajo Nation to fulfill Tierra Wools' need for Churro wool.

Processing the wool

After the fleeces are purchased, they are placed in storage for up to a year. During this time, they are kept cool so there is less chance of moth problems developing. They are also separated from the processed wool so that if moth problems do develop, the processed wool will not be damaged.

The first step in processing is to wash the skirted fleeces. Originally the washing was done in tubs outside the Tierra Wools store filled with boiling water, soap, and washing soda to soften the fibers. This method was abandoned because it was slow and ineffective. Later, Tierra Wools began sending their unprocessed wool to Alamosa, Colorado, to be washed in a machine called a Sargent Wool Scouring Train, which could gently clean up to 400 lbs. of wool a day.

Eventually, Tierra Wools bought the scouring train and installed it at the shop in Los Ojos, but unfortunately this arrangement also fell short of expectations. To be profitable, the scouring train needed to be used regularly, but the Los Ojos area was suffering a prolonged drought and the machine put a strain on the community's water reserves. Tierra Wools also found they had neither enough labor to keep the machine in operation nor enough drying racks to handle the volume of wool being scoured.

For the past few years, the unprocessed fleeces have been sent to a facility in Texas in burlap bags containing about 105 lbs. of wool each. There they are cleaned and washed using natural detergents and a small amount of washing soda.

After washing, the wool goes to the Taos Valley Wool Mill to be carded and spun. Carding is the combing and blending process done in preparation for spinning, and it must be done differently for different types of wools. With the shorter Rambouilett fibers, a "woolen" process is used, whereby the fibers are laid in a cross-thatched pattern before spinning. For the longer-fibered Churro, a "worsted" system is used, with the fibers laid horizontally.

About 80 percent of the Churro wool is spun into yarn at the mill in Taos. The remaining Churro wool is hand spun by Tracy Martinez at the Tierra Wools’ store.

Through the skirting, washing, carding and spinning process, the wool loses about half of its original weight. Most of this loss is due to the dirt, grease and other debris removed during washing. A small amount is lost when short, excess fibers are not taken up during the carding process.

The gentle processing that Tierra Wools uses for all its wool is superior in a number of ways to the processing methods used by most of the industry. Tierra Wools' processing uses natural soaps and washing soda and air drying. Conventional processing involves cleaning with chemicals such as sulfuric acid and alkali and oven drying. Although conventional processing is cheaper and faster, it can weaken the wool fibers and make them brittle. It can also leave chemical residues in the wool with potentially unhealthy effects, especially for sensitive individuals.

Tierra Wools' transporting and processing costs are high and can raise the price of the wool to four or five times that of conventional. Chavez says for rug-quality yarn, the carding and spinning alone costs from $4 to $6/lb. For thinner, blanket-weight yarn, the price goes up to $8/lb. (thinner yarns have more yards per pound). Hand-spun yarn costs even more.

Dyeing the yarn

After the wool is made into yarn, it is ready to be dyed, either with natural or commercial dyes. Natural dyeing takes longer and produces a more expensive yarn--whereas the natural process dyes 10 to15 lbs. of yarn a day, commercial dyeing can color as much as 150 lbs/day.

The natural dyeing is done by Lupe Valdez in a back room of the store using locally collected wild plants and purchased natural dyes. Before applying the dye, Valdez dips the yarn in a hot mordant bath of alum and cream of tartar to help the dyes take hold in the fibers. She then simmers the yarn in a series of hot dye baths to obtain a variety of colors. A local plant called cota is used for golds, another called yerba de la negrita for yellows, walnut husks for browns.

Reds come from imported cochineal beetles, and are unusual in that successive dye baths lighten rather than darkening the reddish color. For indigo, Valdez places the skeins in tubs to which sugar, bran, nitrogen and oatmeal are added every couple of weeks to feed a bacterial culture that breaks down the water-insoluble indigo powder, releasing its dyeing action.

Valdez gathers most of the local dye materials herself. “I like to get the chamisa when it first starts opening and it looks green underneath," she explains. "I have never gathered any when the plant turns brown. I figure that it doesn’t have good color anymore.” To get the dye color out of the plants she boils them for one hour. She blends the dyes from different sources to produce intermediate colors.

Using natural dyes means that each batch of color is unique. “I don’t get the colors exact," Valdez says. "I only get what the plants will give me. A lot depends on the season, on the moisture and minerals in the water and soil.” In addition to the variability within the dyes, the yarn itself will vary in its dyeing characteristics. Valdez says the Churro wool grabs dyes and accepts color better than the Rambouillet.

The natural, seasonal variations in dye materials, wools and the dyeing process mean that every skein of yarn and every weaving produced at Tierra Wools is unique, a work of art unto itself.

Dyeing with synthetic or commercial dyes begins with soaking the yarn overnight in cold water. In the morning, the yarn is transferred into tubs of boiling water, dye and mordant heated over a fire of piñon and oak. When the yarn has taken up all the dye, it is placed on a rack to cool, rinsed in cold water and then hung to dry. The amount of dye used and the depth of color achieved are determined by the dyer.

The sales of different yarn colors are tracked closely in the shop so that the dyers can adjust their output accordingly. Sophia Chavez says that some colors, such as reds and greens, always sell briskly. Even so, it is difficult to keep all of the colors in stock at all times because the dyeing process is slow. At other times Tierra Wools cannot keep up with the dyeing because of a shortage of processed yarn. “This year we ran out because we didn’t have a place to have it spun,” explains sales manager Tina Ulibarri.

Weaving and marketing

In the early years of the business, the naturally dyed yarns didn’t sell well, presumably because of their higher price. As word of their quality and uniqueness spread, however, sales picked up. Tierra Wools would like to produce more naturally dyed yarn, but Chavez feels it is important to carry the more affordable, commercially dyed wool as well, so "there is something that everyone can afford."

Ulibarri says most people are interested in the Churro wool for weaving and Rambouillet for knitting. They're also interested in the wool colored with natural dyes—about 70 percent of the wool products that Tierra Wools sells are colored with natural dyes. The naturally dyed wool fetches $5 to $10 more per skein, and also increases the value of the weavings made from it, especially if it is Churro wool.

Over the years, Tierra Wools has developed the talents of many weavers through its training and apprenticeship programs and incentives. Behind the looms in the store hang ribbons and awards from national and international competitions. "This is a dream that has developed over the years," says Angie Serrano, one of the original Tierra Wools weavers. "I was a hobby weaver. When Tierra Wools opened its doors, I refused to be left behind.”

Apprentice weavers begin with simple designs and progress to a tapestry. Laura Monroe, a former school teacher, went through the three-month training and has been honing her skills for the past year and a half. Of her experience at Tierra Wools, she says, “I have freedom and can work when I want, on what I want, with no federal mandate.”

 

Tierra Wools currently has 12 weavers. Two, Teri Garcia and Pauline Moya, have been with the company for about 10 years and are now considered master weavers. Each weaver receives a standard rate based on the quality of their work, with bonuses available for unique design elements or color changes. "If it is an exceptional piece" and it can be sold for a higher price, Chavez explains—say $675 instead of $600—"some of this increase is passed on to the weaver.”

The weavers are encouraged to do their work on the store looms during showroom hours, especially on the weekends. The group has learned that having the looms operating helps educate customers and motivates them to make a purchase. “When the customer comes in and sees the weavers, they get really excited and want to buy something,” says Mary Velasquez, the Tierra Wools bookkeeper.

Management and sales

Tierra Wools was spun off from Ganados del Valle in 1997, with the wool producers and weavers forming a limited liability company, Los Ojo Handweavers, LLC. Under the new structure, the wool growers, spinners, dyers and weavers assumed control of the business, sharing profits and losses 50/50 with a group of outside investors. With the help of the non-profit Regional Campaign for Human Development, an equity account has been set up which matches funds for employees who invest in the company. So far, more than a third have done so.

Tierra Wools also offers classes in natural dyeing, spinning and weaving. The School of Rio Grande Weaving Traditions is extremely popular and brings in funds both through the classes themselves and through rentals of the “Casitas," where the students stay. Classes are limited to four students per session due to limited space both at the Casitas and on the looms. Tierra Wools hopes to expand the facilities in the future and make the school a bigger part of their venture.

Sales at Tierra Wools follow the summer tourist season, with 98 percent of total sales made directly out of the showroom between June and October. Although a growing number of off-season visitors, many of them retirees, frequent the store in the winter, business is very slow. The company's general strategy is to build inventory through the winter and sell it off in the summer, but cash-flow problems occasionally force them to lay off weavers in the slow months, even when they have enough wool to weave.

Anything that influences tourism--the Cerro Grande fire that burned Los Alamos, the 2001 recession, the Iraq war, high gas prices--affects business, and Tierra Wools recognizes that their isolation is an ongoing challenge. Entering competitions in the New Mexico State Fair and arranging temporary exhibits in other towns are some of the ways they seek to attract new potential customers.

Tierra Wools also sells skeins of yarn via the Internet. Although still a small part of the business, Internet sales seem to have potential. The current website is several years old and has no online ordering facility, just a toll-free phone number.

A final challenge—but also sign of success—is that they need to make structural improvements. “When we bought this building we had a gallery that had a hole in the wall so that you could see the post office next door," recalls Angie Serrano. "Now the roof leaks. We. . . . used [to use only] the front room for the business and a few looms, and now we have outgrown the building.”

The members of Tierra Wools are determined to solve these problems and make their business a success. “Tierra Wools is a lot of fun but a lot of work," says Lupe Valdez. "It has many dedicated people, and that is what you need to make it work.” “We all have a sense of ownership and take the business to heart," adds Sophia Chavez. "We are all going through the same struggle and have to stick together.”

From sheep producers to weavers, the members of Tierra Wools will continue to move forward, working together to improve a company that has become a central part of their lives. They have brought back the Churro and the traditions associated with it while at the same time forging a model for a vertically integrated local enterprise using identity-retained marketing. From organic lamb to high-quality yarn and weavings, these farmers and craftspeople have closed the loop. As both producers and marketers, they have restored a way of life.

Part I: How a community effort brought back the Churro breed, and how one local rancher is now raising and marketing organic Churro lamb