Thursday, July 8, 2010

Belfast Mini Mills (aka Heaven)

Ok, so in my last post, I alluded to the visit I paid this past weekend to one of my very favourite places.  It goes by the name of "Belfast Mini Mills" and I wish I could live there:

Why, you ask?  Well, they have animals ('cause it's actually a farm, in addition to being Heaven-on-Earth):

 this totally attention hog (get it?), who kept trying to shove his way into the photo...

...and this beautiful cow that my husband immediately developed a rapport with, on this trip.

They also have llamas (or alpacas?  I can never remember how to tell the difference...), goats, sheep, chickens, geese, and a plethora of other critters.  They had angora rabbits for a while, but I think their care was getting to be a big responsibility, so they were sold.  There is an orchard, a couple of farm houses and - this is the best part - a tea shop.  Where they sell all homemade (!) food: soup, meat pie, sandwiches with fresh smoked ham and roast turkey, cookies, cheesecake, salads, you name it!  They also sell tea, of course.  And I'm sure they could rustle up a cup of coffee, under duress.

But I lied.  That's not the best part.  The best part is the real reason for being of this awesome place.  Yarn.

Come with me.  I'll show you.

Hazel (one of the Belfast girls) is going to show us around.

But first, let's just take a peek at what Linda (Hazel's twin sister) is working on.  The ladies are both artists and Linda is a pro needle-felter (it's her 25th hobby, after weaving, spinning, story-writing, drawing, and just about everything else under the sun).  She's putting together a banner for a local farmer's market:

She has needle-felted a bunch of fruits and vegetables, cut up some pieces of coloured felt and laid them all out on a super-thick piece of wool batting, on top of  the felting table.  Yes, they have a felting table.  The lid swings down, presses it all tightly into a wool/felt sandwich and the table top and bottom shimmy back and forth (steam is also piped in) to make felt:

I know, it's awesome.  I got to feel some angora felt, one day last year.  Angora.  Felt.  Need I say more?

So.  Moving on.  This is a really neat-o washing machine for the raw fiber that arrives to the farm from all over the world (they specialize in processing/spinning small batches of specialty fiber, like yak, muskox, alpaca, camel, cashmere, silk, bamboo, and even dog hair).  The washing machine has divisions, which saves on water, as you can wash several small batches of different fibers at once.  There is even a water recovery system which captures the spent water, filters it and reuses it.  Perfect for use in places like Australia, where water is in short supply (we lucky Canadians take water for granted - shame on us).

These two photos show the blower-thingy (what?  I was busy setting up the shot, trying not to step on the unconscious dog sleeping in the middle of the walkway and I didn't hear her explanation - sue me!).  It takes the clean fiber, adds a conditioner to it and blows it into a room, loosening it up and making it process-able.  It's the adult knitter's equivalent to the ball room at Ikea.  Don't you just want to jump in and roll around?

Here, we're getting a little demonstration of the different lengths of fiber found in muskox fur.  Ever go over and pet a muskox?  Me neither, so it's kind of a novel experience.  There are long, wiry strands mixed in with the downy undercoat, so they use this de-hairing machine (HER name, not mine) to separate the wheat from the chaff, if you will:

Then, it gets put into the carder, which brushes everything so that the fibers are all lined up in the same direction.  Then, it gets transformed into roving:

And sometimes gets another pass in a second machine (I may have the order of the machines a little mixed up, here... don't blame me - the yarn addles my brain):

Here, Hazel is explaining how they can ensure that there is very little waste in the process, because they have sensors that measure out all the yarn they are creating.  If you send them 10 lbs of cashmere, you will receive 10 lbs of cashmere yarn (minus any impurities that hitch-hiked in with the fiber), not 9 lbs of spun yarn and a 1 lb bag of leftover roving.  Her explanation got all math-y and everything.  I'll spare you that part.

The roving is spun into singles (those spindles at the bottom of the machine receive the singles):

The singles are placed on this thingamajig (don't know if it even has a name), which winds them onto a cone (the thing she's holding in her hand):

Then, the singles (on cones) are put through this steaming machine and wound onto the swifts:

The steam "sets" the twist and makes the singles easier to work with.  It also cleans the yarn of any conditioner they added in the blow-y room.  Then, the skeins are left to dry and put back onto spindles, which are then plied into 2-, 3- or 4-ply yarn:

THOSE spindles get "coned", steamed and skeined, the skeins get hung up to dry and that's it!  Yarn!

And what do they do when one strand runs out or breaks?  Do they tie a knot in it?  No.  They use this nifty gadget:

It's Italian, it costs a small fortune and it's a little loud (it's pneumatic), but it's magic!

It trims the edges of yarn you place in its little teeth and, at the same time, blasts the yarn with a burst of air which unravels it a bit and makes it spin on itself, fusing the ends together.  No need for those pesky knots.  So, who wants one?

We didn't really get to talk about the dying process or visit the drying racks, where the dyed fiber waits its turn for processing.  I think Linda's work area was blocking part of the space and we didn't want to disturb her.  But, they do dye their own fiber for use in felt, roving and yarn.  I even got to help them out with some colour combinations last year and was very delighted to see them in the store!  You know that tunic Wood knitted up for Juniper?  The yarn she used came from Belfast Mini Mills.  Hazel and Linda made that yarn.

So, that brings us to the store.  Right.  Um, so I'm really really really sorry about this, but I don't have any photos of the store.  While I was gorging myself on yarn and reveling in the company of like-minded fiber nuts, my husband was hightailing it out to the yard,  photographing the animals, the results of which you see above.  I have no photos of the most perfect knitting bag I have ever seen which I am definitely buying the next time I go (you couldn't make it for that price!).  I have no photos of the colourful skeins of yarn, the (locally!) handmade wooden knitting needles, the pre-fab socks they machine-knit on-site, the sheep skins, the pre-knit hats (oh my god, I found the most beautiful tuque - a soft white chunky merino with a dark cherry-coloured angora band in a beeeeeyootiful cable pattern - it's been haunting my dreams, but I need another winter hat like I need another hole in the head) or white camel hand-woven scarves, or the $275 handknit silk shawl they have on display.  No photos of any of those things.  WHAT?  I'M SORRY, OK?  Blame it on my husband, the shutter-happy enabler who handed over his debit card and said "Have at 'er, just remember - we have to eat."  Or the yarn.  Just don't blame it on me.  I don't have the emotional strength for it.

{Lori - their supply of Island Blend is low, but they did have some more of the yellow and there was a really nice dark blue that I bought out for a new sweater.  They've started testing out some handpainted yarns, and had a huge skein of this really nice autumn-y colour combo which called my name (I ignored its siren song, for the time being).  There is also a lot of nice sock yarn, but I haven't had much luck with it, so I'm going to wait on that.  Sorry for not taking photos, dude.  Forgive me?  Also, the tea room doesn't carry ice cream anymore, but their menu is much more extensive (they're stashing a loaf of gluten-free bread in the freezer!).}

But, you guys?  You know what the best part of this place is?  All that machinery I just showed you?  That's the reason this place exists.  Their main goal is to sell that equipment to small mills all over the world (like Afghanistan, for example).  That equipment was researched, developed and built by this family - Sheila (the mum, who is a little elfin woman with a beautiful British accent and an adorable giggle) works in the store, her daughters (Hazel and Linda) work in the workshop and store, and her son works on the development and maintenance of the equipment.  No, the technology isn't new, but they've figured out a way to make it work for small facilities and single-person operations.

Pretty flippin' cool, if you ask me.

PS: I have gleaned most of this information from numerous (I won't tell you HOW numerous, it would be embarrassing) trips I've made to BMM and from eavesdropping on many of Hazel and Linda's tours and gossiping with Sheila.  I have likely gotten some details wrong and for that, I apologize.  If you want additional information or clarification, please don't hesitate to contact the Belfast Mini Mills.  I don't know much about it, I'm just their unofficial ambassador (who gets the odd free gift for bringing so many people over to spend their paycheques in the shop).


  1. That banner is AY-MAY-ZING. What a fabulous thing to have for any farmers' market. Or, indeed, for oneself. Because clearly, you could stuff that into a pocket when passing, right? And it wouldn't be AT ALL noticeable... And then you could post it to me.


  2. Greetings and Salutations, Earthenwitch! I will definitely do your bidding, post haste! However, I feel it important to point out that this kleptomania seems to have your family well within its grip and I wonder if it is wise to feed the habit. One recalls a certain recent incident involving tabasco sauce...

    Anyway, if you've decided that its worth the risk, I will be happy to oblige. Simply advise me when you have sold your left kidney to pay for the overseas shipping and I'll run right over there (in the cover of darkness, of course) to do the deed.

    *wink wink*


  3. thanks for the virtual visit danielle! i'm interested in this dark blue island blend... sounds lovely.

    i'll be taking my mother-in-law up there when she come in a couple weeks. she's going to die! maybe we can co-ordinate a lunch date?


  4. Loving your blog. PEI is the only province I haven't visited and I think I just found my reason to go.

  5. This is an amazing place! As a tour operator I love taking people here. The people are so nice, the place is far more interesting than most people anticipate, and the food in the tearoom is just absolutely fabulous! Thank you Hazel and Linda, Melissa and the rest!. The dogs can't believe how great their sleep has become since they got their new beds from Belfast MiniMills. Who'd athunk it?