Local wool and regional processing used to create NDSU tartan blankets | TSLN.com

Local wool and regional processing used to create NDSU tartan blankets

Tristen Polensky
TSLN Designer and Journalist
From greasy wool to dyed yarn to the final stage of weaving pictured here, every process was done regionally for the NDSU tartan blankets. Photo courtesy Fairbault Woolen Mills

Nearly 3 years in the making, a special NDSU project is about to launch just in time for fall, football season, and cooler weather. A wool tartan blanket, with those iconic NDSU colors, made of North Dakota wool and completely processed within the region, will be up for sale soon.

Around 300 blankets have been created, using 1,800 pounds of wool from the NDSU Hettinger Research Extension Center. They collaborated with the NDSU Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Interior Design and Hospitality Management on this project, using the green and gold tartan pattern that was designed and registered by a student in 2011.

Dr. Christopher Schauer, Animal Scientist, Adjunct Professor, and Director of the NDSU Hettinger Research Extension Center since 2006, was the first to suggest a sole-sourced blanket. Both the University of Wyoming and South Dakota State University had done similar, albeit smaller-scale projects. He thought it would be the perfect platform base for the NDSU project, and pitched the idea to the textile department. Using 100 percent NDSU wool and the tartan pattern, and all proceeds going to scholarships, the idea was bound to be a success.

The NDSU Hettinger Research Extension Center has been operating since 1909, and running sheep since 1944. They offer a sheep shearing and wool classing school, and under Dr. Schauer conduct research concerning nutritional management, reproductive efficiency, and grazing strategies of both sheep and cattle. The center runs various sheep breeds, but the wool used for the blankets specifically are from 175 Rambouillets.

“The wool was tested to be 22.5 microns,” said Schauer. “Wool of this quality provides a blanket that is both strong and warm – a perfect combination for outdoor use at football games or as a blanket for a picnic. The wool in these blankets is the result of 76 years of breeding and selection for sheep that provide meat and wool while serving the research needs of agriculture producers in North Dakota.” The wool was sheared this year, which began the blanket-making process.

Their biggest challenge was finding a mill large enough to process that amount of wool, but small enough to guarantee it was only the NDSU wool being made into the yarn.

“There’s really only one place in the country that’s able, and that’s Buffalo, Wyoming (Mountain Meadow Wool Mill). They were a very willing partner to take this greasy wool and make it into yarn,” Schauer said. Greasy wool is also known as raw wool, still containing high levels of lanolin, and can contain pieces of vegetation and matting.

Mountain Meadow Wool Mill opened in 2007, with the purpose of preserving the historic lifestyle and premium prices of wool from Wyoming ranches. Eighty-five percent of their stock wool comes from Wyoming to create their own line of yarns and apparel.

Ben Hostetler, Operations Manager for the Buffalo, Wyoming mill, said NDSU’s custom blanket project was right up their alley. “We do a lot of custom work and specialize in small batch production. That way we can ensure everything is 100 percent traceable to the ranch that it comes from.”

Hostetler explained their mid-size regional processing facility works through about 2,000-3,000 pounds of wool each month, so the NDSU project took about a month to turn from the raw, greasy wool into dyed yarn ready to be weaved.

The wool-to-yarn process at Mountain Meadow Wool Mill is similar to that of other mills, but with an extra touch of quality because of their size. They received the wool from Hettinger on June 10 of this year, and began their handiwork. After the bales of wool are opened and started down the wash line, Hostetler and his crew go through the wool to pick out any paint wool, deep mattes or small vegetation. The wool went through an opener, five washbowls, biodegradable detergent, drying, carding, gilling, combing, and spinning to transform the wool into the yarn structure. An in-house artist hand-dyed the yarn to create variations in the colors, so each blanket will have its own individual shading.

Mountain Meadow Wool does knitting, but not weaving, so the next challenge was to find a mill to weave the tartan pattern after the yarn was dyed. The larger the woolen mill, the less interest they have in making 250-300 blankets, as opposed to 3,000, Schauer explained. Fairbault Woolen Mills in Minnesota was willing to take the dyed yarn and weave the tartan pattern to complete the blankets.

The blankets will be 50 inches wide by 72 inches in length, with a 2-inch fringe. They also will have a distinctive tag that marks them as first-run, “Premiere Edition” blankets. They are expected to be less than $300.

Proceeds from the blankets will be used for scholarships for the Department of Animal Sciences and the Department of Apparel, Merchandising, interior Design and Hospitality Management.

Sara Sunderlin is the senior lecturer of the department. “NDSU has created this project using NDSU employees as the product managers, and it allows the maximum amount of money from the sale of each blanket to be used for student scholarships.”

“I’m extremely proud of this particular product because it is the result of all things NDSU. It is created by a team of NDSU people, and all aspects are 100 percent American made. It is a special product that will be loved for many years by NDSU alumni and fans,” Sunderlin said. “NDSU alumni and friends can display Bison pride in their homes and pass this heirloom quality blanket on to future generations of NDSU alumni,” she said. “The people who purchase these blankets also will know that they are directly supporting NDSU students.”

The blankets are supporting both NDSU students, and the regional wool industry. Schauer explained how keeping raw commodities like wool close to home is beneficial.

“This isn’t just American made, but made in the region you live and supporting those businesses. That’s the farm-to-plate mentality, the raw wool fiber to the finished product all within the 3-state region of Wyoming, North Dakota and Minnesota. This isn’t a custom meats story, but it’s similar to having a branded product in the grocery store that was locally grown. This is the same thing, but the commodity is wool, not meat. Supporting those jobs, and having a branded product that tells a story and tying the production agriculture to the actual product for the consumer and I think that’s a unique story to tell.”