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The missing piece: co-op's new processing machine will help strengthen natural fibers industry.

With the domestic textile industry in decline, the 1980s was a rough period for the U.S. natural fibers industry. It was made worse when virtually all dehairing machines in the country were purchased by European companies and shipped overseas. That added greatly to the time and expense needed to prep U.S. natural fibers for processing into the luxury yarns used in the fashion industry.

This void in the domestic market has now been filled, thanks to the purchase of a technically advanced dehairing machine from Italy by the Natural Fiber Producers (NFP) cooperative. The co-op is owned by 318 producers of all types of animal fibers, primarily alpaca, llama, and sheep. In recent years, they have broadened their horizon to include bison, yak, cashmere, angora and musk ox, among others.

The machine, made by Italian manufacturer Cormatex, was described by an industry trade journal as "one of the most powerful, sophisticated dehairing machines available in the world today." Occupying 500-square-feet of floor space, the machine can process from 20 to 65 pounds of fiber per hour, depending on the type of fiber.

It is one of only four such machines operating in the world, according to the co-op. "We believe there is only one other dehairing machine (a much older model) in the entire country. However, it is not generally available to most in the industry," says co-op spokesperson Diane Johnson.

The co-op's purchase was made possible by two Business & Industry Guaranteed Loans, worth a combined $420,000, issued by the Rural Business Cooperative Service of USDA Rural Development.

NFP headquarters is in Homedale, Idaho, but the new machine has been installed in Springfield, Ky., in a 12,000-square-foot building owned by U.S. Natural Fibers. The machine will operate in the same building as that company's "scouring train," machinery that washes and cleans the fiber before it moves on for dehairing.

A grand opening and ribbon-cutting for the new machine was held Sept. 17-18 at the plant in Springfield.

Bringing industry back home

Lack of access in the United States to dehairing during the past 30-35 years has caused many luxury fiber producers, as well as U.S. textile manufacturers, to outsource their production to overseas processors, Johnson says. "Now,

Natural Fiber Producers has become the provider of the missing piece of the textile puzzle in the United States."

The first big order for the co-op's dehairing service was placed before the machine was even in operation. The Buffalo Wool Co., Kennedale, Texas, and Buffalo Gold Premium Fibers, Goodnight, Texas, shipped over 4,000 pounds of raw buffalo fiber to the Kentucky plant, where it is being processed into soft, usable fiber.

While individual co-op producers continue to make improvements in their animals' fiber quality and consistency through herd management and breeding programs, Johnson says many fibers are greatly improved with dehairing, a crucial step in the production of luxury textiles.

"Having this machine in the U.S. provides that opportunity and reinforces the growth of 'Made in America' and 'Buy Local' campaigns," says NFP President Brian Willsey. It will also mean more textile industry jobs across the United States, he adds.

"The initial plan was to house the machine at Mountain Meadow Wool in Buffalo, Wyoming," Willsey says, noting that Mountain Meadow was instrumental in helping the co-op identify the specifications needed in a dehairing machine. But the need for an automatic feeder increased the machine's overall length beyond the available space in the Wyoming facility.

U.S. Natural Fibers was then in the process of building its new facility in Kentucky, and it was soon identified as a "a natural fit for the two organizations," which agreed to a collaborative effort, Willsey says.

Co-op members invested to make the downpayment for the machine, with the purchase financed through Springfield State Bank and the Kentucky Agricultural Finance Corporation, with backing by USDA.

Separating the coats

Most of the animals raised by co-op members are single or dual-coated. The outer coat is usually heavy, coarse hair that protects the animal against harsh weather conditions. The under coat is the soft, downy fiber needed for luxury fabrics. Some animal breeds--such as Angora and Mohair goats, as well as some types of sheep--produce two "crops" of fiber per year.

Dehairing separates the outer and under coats, leaving the more skin-friendly downy under coat to be "carded" for processing into yarn. In the dehairing process, the thick outer coat and "guard hairs," often called "waste" in the industry, Johnson notes, are collected in a waste bin. In some cases, a customer will request that this "waste" be returned for further use.

The co-op also has plans to use this fiber for more industrial-type uses, still in product development.

Any fiber producer may arrange for product to be scoured and dehaired, although there is a minimum batch size of 100 pounds per color. For nonmembers, the fiber can then be shipped wherever the owner wishes for further processing (the co-op can make recommendations regarding appropriate textile mills).

The co-op sets stringent sorting and grading standards for members, because fiber consistency is critical to quality control in the yarns and finished goods. The co-op's business model allows members to have their products returned to their farms or to keep their fiber in the co-op's wholesale pool. Products in the wholesale pool are marketed to members and retailers at wholesale cost, with those profits being returned to the members. Through production of value-added products, wholesale and retail profit margins increase by $14-$61 per pound, Johnson says.

Hybrid fiber key to success

When the co-op started in 2006, it was primarily for alpaca producers. But to make the fiber more suitable for a broader array of fashion items, it needs to be blended with other types of fiber. "Alpaca fiber has little, or no, memory," Johnson says, explaining that it will not hold its shape in clothing, such as sweaters, that is stretched during use. Hence, when blended with other fiber, such as sheep wool, angora or mohair, the garment will hold its shape better. Blending with silk will provide additional softness, drape and luxury.

In 2012, the co-op opened its membership to include all natural fiber producers, including, but not limited to, llama, sheep, angora, mohair, cashmere, yak, buffalo and qiviut (or musk ox wool) producers.

Depending on the growth of the new commercial dehairing services in the next year, the co-op will consider the purchase of a second dehairing unit, Johnson says.

For more information about the co-op, visit: http://natural To learn more about the co-op's dehairing services, e-mail: dehair@natural
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Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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