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Weaving wealth: Timiskaming farmer revives age-old craft creating new industry and jobs.

Dave Wight is not quite certain where he fits into in the realm of the business domain, but he is far from being sheepish about his product, which nabbed the attention of southern Ontarians and Americans alike.

Travelling the dusty side roads north of New Liskeard, thousands of tourists stumble across his place of business annually, Belle Vallee Wools, curious to catch a glimpse of one of Canada's only wool mills that takes the process straight from breeding the sheep to the manufacturing of colourful tartan blankets. And for historians, Wight's mill provides a step back in time to the industrial revolution era.

In the early morning hours of the summer, Wight begins his day by delegating jobs in the mill, mapping out the course of action for the coming week, organizing the manufacturing process and handling book keeping matters, before venturing outdoors to bale hay. By late afternoon he finds himself back in the mill, spooling the yarn for weaving, tying 710 knots over a course of five hours before the looming process even begins. Modern day technology wraps up the spooling process in 10 minutes, but Wight's mill is anything but modern. Much of his technology dates back to the early 1900s. And while new technology can be a lot more productive, Wight says he has no doubt the environmentally conscious would give him two thumbs up for eliminating chemicals like sulphuric acid and carbonic acid from the manufacturing equation.

A self-taught manufacturer of tartan blankets, Wight started up a sheep farm in Timiskaming in 1983 with 400 sheep. The value of wool as a commodity had spiralled since the 1960s, and by that time was worth very little in Ontario, he says.

With plans to expand his business, and delve into the manufacturing of yarn, in 1988 he purchased 1920s machinery to card wool, an investment he discovered would allow him to card the wool without the use of chemicals to remove vegetable matter. By 1992 he had his factory up and running.

"Manufacturers (of machines) all thought I was crazy because they said it can't be done," Wight says. "But by using the 1920s process, the wool is able to be processed without chemicals."

Modern technology requires the use of carbonic acid to remove the vegetable matter, and the investment in capital extends-well into millions of dollars, he says.

Wight has also discovered, through trial and error, other methods of dying the wool, using salt and vinegar to fix the colour of the wool, while state-of-the-art mills utilize pressure dye with sulphuric acid.

The omission of chemicals has allowed him to develop a niche product that acts as a drawing card for his business.

"This is how we evolved as well," Wight says. "When we first started, we were using the chemicals to card the wool and people reacted to it. So there was a need to remove the chemicals from the process."

Wight admits his operation is one that does not quite fit the textile market. Most mills will either concentrate on spinning the wool, or looming, and a typical manufacturer of blankets will have 100 looms in operation; Wight has one loom. And while manufacturing tartan blankets was not part of his initial plan, his intent was to make plaid coats, following a few attempts at dying colours he realized he had developed skills that would enable him to make tartans in family colours.

"The thing that was the genesis of this is my mother did a lot of hand-weaving and dying, so it was always of interest to me. I learned all the skills I have today by trial and error," says Wight, who confesses he dropped out of highschool and went straight into the workforce.

"You always have to be looking for niche markets because you can't compete price wise."

Although not a sideline business, Wight's establishment has evolved into a tourist site, which has gained popularity by word of mouth, he says. About 4,000 tourists visit the mill annually.

"It surprises me all of the time," Wight says. "We see four to five car loads of people come out to see the mill on any given day.

"One summer we had so many people in the mill we couldn't do any of our work."

Attending trade shows in the U.S. provides an opportunity for Wight to scout for potential markets to export his product.

"A lot of my work goes to the northern States," Wight says. "And almost all of the customers I have have evolved from the shows."

Today, Wight manufactures about 1,000 blankets annually.

"My goal is to double that figure and prospect the United States markets," Wight says.

Belle Vallee Wools produces about 3,000 pounds of wool annually, and also purchases wool from Ontario farmers, which brings the total amount of wool spun at the mill to 100,000 pounds per year. Nationally, Canada consumes about 75 million pounds of woolen goods annually.

Wight has scaled back his breeding operation to about 100 sheep, but the establishment of a local mill in the small town of Belle Vallee has revitalized sheep farming in the area.

"There were no sheep in this township when I started this farm," Wight says. "Now there are about 2,500. (The mill) seems to be an anchor that's starting up a real sheep industry in the region."

Wight employs six people in the mill, and has 12 contract workers doing a number of tasks ranging from fixing blankets to knitting socks, which he sells to consignment stores in Northern Ontario.
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Title Annotation:Dave Wight
Author:Huhtala, Sari
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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