Small Is Beautiful: The Green Mountain Spinnery of Putney, Vermont

Yarn detective Selma Moss-Ward loves great yarn for its stories as well as its knitting performance. She tracks down origin stories all the time, as you can see from the pages of Interweave Knits and knitscene. Here she reveals the work ethic of Green Mountain Spinnery. Originally published in knitscene Accessories 2012.


 

green mountain spinnery

Green Mountain Spinnery. Photo by Selma Moss-Ward.

 

“The first thing people ask when they come through the door is ‘Where are the sheep?’” the folks of Green Mountain Spinnery tell me. It’s easy to see why. Inside, there’s a strong scent of lanolin, a wool by-product, so of course there must be a flock pastured out back! But the Spinnery doesn’t raise sheep or other fiber animals. Rather, it lives up to its name: It spins fiber, in the Green Mountain state, into wonderful yarns that readily become beautiful knitting.

A kaleidoscope of skeins—alongside jewel-toned sample garments—is what you face on entering the shop. And if that isn’t enough inspiration, the Spinnery has published two collections, also on display: The Green Mountain Spinnery Knitting Book (The Countryman Press, 2003) and 99 Yarns and Counting (The Countryman Press, 2009). Design wisdom is knitted into every one of the patterns, written by members of the Spinnery cooperative.

Though the shop is the Spinnery’s gateway, most of the building is for yarn production. Tours, regularly offered, allow visitors to understand the process, from raw fleece to neatly wound skeins. The work happens on vintage machinery, including an 1896 water extractor, a 1916 carding machine, and 1940s spinning frames. The benefit, I was emphatically told, is that if machinery breaks, it can actually be repaired by Spinnery workers, whereas modern equipment must have parts serviced or replaced. The reuse of old equipment (much from defunct mills) and space (the building was once a gas station), illustrates the Spinnery’s environmental ethic.

Long before local, organic, and recycling became trendy terms, Green Mountain Spinnery was walking the walk. The fiber in each yarn is entirely domestic, sourced from around the United States; much is Certified Organic. Suppliers are farms that ensure a high-quality product precisely because they are small-scale operations. In these ways and others, the Spinnery was a pioneer in 1981 when, inspired by E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), it began as a worker-owned business seeking to support American farmers, revive local business, and operate in an earth-friendly way.

green mountain spinnery

Yarn being wound into skeins. A 1916 carding machine. Newly dyed skeins dry above the shipping station. All photos by Selma Moss-Ward.

The Legacy of Green Mountain Spinnery

During the past three decades the Spinnery has survived a roller-coaster economy. How? “We’ve been true to ourselves, we’ve been innovative and resilient, and we really know how to make a good yarn,” Margaret Atkinson, a worker-owner, cheerily explains. Atkinson is one of thirteen loyal employees, some of them company founders. The Spinnery’s good business health results from other factors, too—commitment to the community, learning from old-timers who had worked in industrial textile mills, employee motivation. Yet the Spinnery’s success ultimately rests on its products.

“We’re known for having yarn that’s going to be worth the effort,” Margaret observes. What makes the yarns worthwhile isn’t just fiber content or coloration. Each has strong character that’s greater than the sum of its traits. Many knitters love Wonderfully Woolly, a perennial best seller and what Spinnery folks call “a real yarn”—it’s a classic worsted, perfect for heavy sweaters.

As for me, I’m partial to small knitting projects. For garments such as shawls, shrugs, and baby clothes, I adore Simply Fine, a fingering-weight kid mohair–wool blend that’s whisper soft, drapes well, and has a luster ensured by a proprietary Greenspun petroleum-free treatment. The yarn comes in splendid colors, named for what they truly evoke—such as Catkin, Azalea, Melonball, and Ocean.

green mountain spinnery

Green Mountain Spinnery Simply Fine, a fingering-weight mohair blend. Photo by Amy Palmer.

Alpaca Elegance is another Greenspun product ideal for accessories worn close to the skin. A sublimely soft blend of New England alpaca fiber and fine wool, this DK yarn instantly suggests scarves, hats, headbands, and mitts; the combination of fibers guarantees both loft and elasticity, which equal warmth. As a DK yarn it’s great for items requiring substance without heaviness. Colors such as Cappucino (browns), Dragonwell (greens), and Hibiscus (pinks) convey a heather effect that gives depth and intensity to knitted fabric.

green mountain spinnery

Sock Art and Alpaca Elegance ready for sale. Photo by Selma Moss-Ward.

Also a DK weight, Cotton Comfort—80% fine wool and 20% organic cotton—offers a different hand and look. It’s cushy, warm, and allows excellent stitch definition. Most colors are subtle with a pastel edge—Storm, Pink Lilac, Maize. Cotton Comfort is superb for children’s clothing, but actually it’s great for just about anything requiring a medium-weight yarn—scarves, cowls, hiking socks.

If there’s a quintessential yarn produced by Green Mountain Spinnery, it might just be Local Color, a two-ply DK of Certified Organic wool. Produced in small lots with Earthues natural dyes, Local Color offers a gorgeous palette, from ruby Amaranth to lemony Sunflower to hazy gray Smoke. It’s a yarn that’s both beautiful and extremely principled.

“The people who work here really like yarn” is what I heard repeatedly during my visit. After my tour, I’d have to say that Spinnery folks really love it. There’s a special purity of intention and process imbuing every one of the Green Mountain Spinnery yarns.

green mountain spinnery

Selma Moss-Ward is a knitter and writer in New England. Find her online at www.knittingnewengland.blogspot.com.


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