Jani Estell and her husband, Grant, have lived for 26 years on a high ridge in Monroe with a hundred-mile view. Grant felled the trees and sawed the wood to build their home. Vegetable gardens and stone walls surround the 108-acre homestead. The couple raises rabbits and turkeys and old varieties of apples on a handful of twisted trees. It’s idyllic.
“When I was a little girl, I wanted to live in ‘The Little House on The Prairie’ and spin wool all day,” Jani Estell said, with a quick smile, acknowledging her passion for fibers and an obsession with knitting and spinning.
The couple are now in their second year of running Starcroft Fiber Mill. Working in the barn-sized building, the two process fibers such as wool into roving, batts and yarn used by hand-spinners, knitters and felters. The business that started as a hobby has become a full-time occupation for Jani Estell and a side job for Grant that provides a service for hundreds of craftspeople and marketers throughout Maine and the rest of New England.
Customers bring their own wool or special fibers to the mill to be custom-processed.
“The large mills, such as Bartlett Yarns in Harmony, require orders of 50 to 100 pounds, and in some cases you don’t even get your own wool back,” said Jani. She explained that the larger mills, for instance, might accept 50 pounds of wool, but will return 50 pounds of processed material that may not necessarily be from the same customer’s sheep.
“We serve those people with small flocks, up to 50 or 60 sheep” and guarantee that the wool brought to the mill is what is processed and returned to the customer, Jani said.
Many of the mill’s customers bring in fleeces with the name of the sheep that produced it attached. “I keep that name attached to the wool as it is processed,” she said, pointing to bags of roving labeled “Eve” and “Sophie.”
In some cases, the couple serves people with no flocks. Fleece can be bought from a shepherd and brought to the mill for processing. The Estells also have made roving and yarn from a variety of other fibers, including dog hair, alpaca, wool, cotton, cashmere and angora rabbit.
“It all depends on what the use is and personal preference,” said Jani.
Grant Estell explained that many of Starcroft’s customers are hand spinners having yarn processed for their personal use, and a good number of clients raise their own sheep to have the wool processed, and then sell the yarn.
Tina Bernier of Pittsfield recently picked up six bags of roving, ranging from all wool to wool and cotton combinations. Using fleece she had purchased at fiber fairs and the Common Ground Country Fair, Bernier, a hand knitter and weaver, said she plans to spin the roving herself. “Isn’t this beautiful?” she asked, looking at pillowlike bags full of ropes of processed wool. “I like that I can have the control over the finished product by choosing the original, raw fleece,” she said.Inside the mill, a retail store will be completed by midsummer and the couple are on the verge of creating their own line of yarn, using fleece they buy from Maine farms.
Using $100,000 worth of specialty equipment from Prince Edward Island, the Estells turn fleece into roving – a slender tube of cleaned, brushed wool that hand spinners use to create yarn. By putting the roving through other machines, the strands can be processed into yarn – creamy or brown or black skeins that hang in thick bundles around the mill rooms.
Still another machine processes roving into batts, thick pads that are used to make felt that will become rugs, insoles or wall hangings.
Spun yarn can cost $22 to $24 per pound, and requests for spinning of blends and special fibers are encouraged. Wool roving can cost up to $5.50 per pound. The couple did not reveal how many pounds of yarn or roving they produce, but Grant Estell said he recently created 3 miles of roving in one week, working by himself.
Although there are five other fiber mills that serve small orders in New England, the Estells see no signs that their agricultural-based business is slowing down. “We are three to six months behind in orders,” said Grant, “or ahead of orders, depending on how you look at it, and we’ve never advertised.”
Jani said she began the mill – also built by Grant on their property – as a way to counteract empty nest syndrome. “My youngest is 13 and he’ll be leaving soon,” she said. With Grant gone part of the day to his teaching post in the forestry department at Unity College, Jani opened the mill to return to that “Little House On the Prairie” dream.
She admitted that some of the enjoyment is lost with the use of machines, but she still does a lot of touching and feeling. “I can tell a lot about what is going on with the wool and the roving by feel,” she said. She also can use her artistic sense and creativity when designing the felt pieces.
As a member of the New England Hand Spinners Association, Jani said she is constantly struck by the amount of fiber business going on in Maine. “We have far more here than in the rest of New England,” she said. “We haven’t had a down time yet.”