DUNDAS, Minnesota ― The Norn sisters include Alejandra Sanchez, Theresa Bentz and the mill they are trying to build to serve Minnesota shepherds.
Sanchez and Bentz are both farmers and fiber artists who formed a partnership last year in which they helped each other expand their herds as well as their supply of natural dyes. The two also teach classes to educate others in the wool community. Over the past year, the duo have purchased over 2,500 pounds of raw wool to use with their current milling equipment.
The two shepherds are now co-owners of the Norn Sisters Woolen Mill, which is said to be the only spinning mill in the United States to use exclusively natural dyes.
“We started producing roving for hand spinners and giving courses, and once we saw that there was such a demand for what we were doing, we decided to formalize our partnership and create the Norn Sisters Woolen Mill,” Sanchez told Keepsake Cidery in Dundas. on May 1, where they launched a Kickstarter to fund the factory.
“For our launch party, we wanted to give people a more hands-on experience of what we do,” Sanchez said. “We had lambs here that they could take pictures with, a silent auction featuring produce from farms that are here in the Cannon River Valley, as well as hand-knit items that our students have donated, then also a table where people can sow plant seeds from the dead.”
The project raised more than $20,000 of its $30,000 goal in the first two days of its campaign. 278 backers have pledged a total of $34,625, as of May 8.
According to Bentz and Sanchez, the overall project will cost around $75,000, but the goal amount would allow them to put down a deposit for equipment, cover transport costs for machinery and begin improvements on the current building. where the plant will live.
“The Norn Sisters come from Germanic mythology, and they are about the three sisters who weave the threads of fate for mankind,” Sanchez said of the name of their mill. “One of them is the spinner, one of them is the weaver, and one of them cuts the threads.”
With two of the sisters being Bentz and Sanchez, that leaves one more sister.
“We realized that the third sister is our mill,” Sanchez said.
Bentz said what they need to produce an “end product of yarn” is a drawing frame, spinner and skein winder.
“Those are the three pieces of equipment we need, and I like to tell my farmer friends that it’s like buying three new tractors, because it’s expensive equipment,” Bentz said.
Shepherds turned to Kickstarter because Bentz said many grant programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture or other agricultural outlets are restricted to those working strictly in food production. She said wool and textiles are often not recognized as agricultural products, even though they are.
“A lot of farm grants look at that side of the sheep industry — the textile side — as just making textiles and apparel, even though we don’t make apparel, we just make yarn,” Bentz said. “So we don’t qualify for a lot of agricultural value subsidies.”
Current milling infrastructure in Minnesota and Wisconsin is made up mostly of cottage mills that process raw wool into yarn, Bentz said, and small mills are “few and far between.” Most of them have a waiting list of nine months to a year
“So you dangle your product, and your whole harvest, over an entire fiscal year, which is really difficult,” Bentz said.
Understanding Minnesota’s Wool Economy
In 2019, Bentz outlined a plan to team up with Three Rivers Fibershed – a group working to develop regional fiber systems in Minnesota, and the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainability Partnerships (RSDP), to launch a statewide project focused on mapping Minnesota sheep. agricultural industry.
“We wanted to see what breeds of sheep are grown in our state and what people are doing with their wool,” Bentz said.
The project showed that there was a great diversity of breeds kept in the state, but most people who raise sheep in Minnesota raise smaller flocks.
Thirty-nine different breeds of sheep are raised on Minnesota farms, according to the report, for both wool and meat. Low financial remuneration, marketing difficulties and the cost of processing were described as the main obstacles to the sale of wool by herders.
“A lot of people have no way of treating their wool,” Bentz said. “And they might not want to be the distributor, or they might not want to get a website and sell their product. They would rather sell it to a factory that turns it into a Minnesota-branded item.”