For years, Islanders have known where they can get locally produced knitting yarn and felting wool in eastern PEI: Belfast Mini Mills, a family business run by the Nobles family.
But as of mid-October that is no longer the case.
“Working in a mill, you’re on your feet all day and I’m not a chicken, so it’s a good time to change direction,” said Linda Nobles, who with her twin sister Hazel had run the mill at the facility. and she turned wool clips from sheep and other animals into yarn for almost 30 years.
They also sold hats, scarves and blankets, and taught countless people how to weave wool to create complex designs.
Now it’s time for the business to pass on to the next generation, consisting of Linda’s sons, Evan and Matthew Nobles, and her cousin Tyler Spencer.
With that change comes a renewed focus on the company’s core business: selling miniature mill operations to wool processors around the world.
“We have a really good team now and we haven’t slowed down during COVID,” Evan Nobles said. “If anything, we’ve increased.”
“We are a world leader in small equipment,” Linda Nobles said of the production line at her facility in the Garfield area of Belfast, eastern PEI.
Speaking of his customers over the decades, he added: “They can see the benefits of a small factory because people start raising more animals because they can recover their own fiber and that stimulates more business.”
2 year waiting list
In recent years, demand for mini-mills has been steadily increasing, to the point that the Belfast company now has a two-year waiting list.
Some factories shipped locally and within Atlantic Canada, including one that went to Fleece and Harmony, just down the street in Eldon. But they have also shipped all over the world, to countries such as Norway, South Africa, Kuwait and Tajikistan, and now have more than 325 factories in 50 countries.
“When you work globally, you have to deal with politics, erupting volcanoes, poisonous snakes and spiders in Australia, stormy northern seas,” said Linda Nobles, describing some of the conditions the two traveling technicians of the company frequently encounter.
Investing in a mini-mill costs between $150,000 and $250,000, in contrast to the millions of dollars that would be charged for a full-size factory. One of the Nobles’ machines fits in a two-car garage and can be operated by one or two people. In fact, a small team can handle more than one at a time, Nobles said.
“I can run eight machines. It sounds impressive, but it’s really not a big deal,” he said.
There was no plan on how to reduce the size of large industrial machinery when Belfast Mini Mills began. The Nobles got into the business because large traditional mills combined the fiber they had brought in for processing with wool from other people’s animals.
“We think there is no point in having expensive breeds of sheep if we don’t get [our] own fiber,” Nobles said. “Then we saw the need for small equipment and that was the beginning of Mini Mills.”
Most of the machinery was developed by his father, brother and husband. As the technology evolved over the years, so did the equipment to handle all types of fiber “from cat to camel,” in the words of Evan Nobles.
“As I was running the factory, I was like, ‘You know what, guys? If you could add this to this machine, my life would be easier,'” his mother said.
Manufacturing in Murray River
Most of the metal fabrication for the machinery is done in Murray River, in Tyler Spencer’s shop.
“They make all the frames, all the parts, and then they come here. We sand them, powder coat them, assemble them in the shop and ship them,” Evan Nobles said.
If it weren’t for the long waiting list, each order could be delivered in about five weeks. The company now has about 15 employees, including family members, and expects to produce about 11 machines a year, or almost one mill a month.
Evan Nobles said improvements in technology have made it easier to help repair machinery from afar. What previously required a visit from a technician can now be solved with a simple video call.
A woolly industry
Anna Hunter bought a mini-mill about five years ago. She owns and operates Long Way Homestead, a Shetland sheep farm and wool processing factory in Ste. Genevieve, Man. She also founded canadianwool.org, a website that raises awareness about the importance of Canadian wool.
“The goal was to put Canadian wool in the hands of Canadian artisans, artists and consumers,” Hunter said.
He would like to see more wool shorn from Canadian sheep raised for meat turned into usable yarn and wool products such as carpets, bedding and insulation.
“Much of Canadian wool is simply being composted, stored in barns or disposed of in landfills, or even burned by some,” Hunter said. “So right now it’s really a crisis point for Canadian wool.”
There is not enough infrastructure to meet the demand of the Canadian wool sector.—Anna Hunter, mini-mill owner from Belfast, PEI
To process that wool, he said, Canada needs more mills, whether mini machines like those produced in Belfast or full-size mills like MacAusland’s Woolen Mills in Bloomfield, P.E.I.
Right now, he said, the entire country has only three large factories and about 40 mini-mills.
“There is not enough infrastructure to meet the demand for Canadian wool,” Hunter said.
continuing the thread
Meanwhile, back in Belfast, Linda Nobles is transforming the former wool store into a larger retail store for her other passion: fossils. She has been operating a shop called Broken Rock Fossil Shop for a while now, around the corner from the Mini Mills premises.
“The last 11 years I’ve gone excavating dinosaurs in South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. So I’ve always had an interest in that and crystals,” he explained.
He has many young clients who share his fascination and is not at all sad about his semi-retirement from the wool industry.
“It’s like anything, once you’ve done it for so long, you lose a little bit of passion for it. And that space will now be used by the guys to have more setup space, so nothing stays the same around here.” .
She will miss the customers who frequented the yarn store, many of whom were disappointed to learn of its closure this fall.
“It’s been a lot of good years inviting people over for tea, having them in the back kitchen, dyeing them…just a very personal relationship with people. And that’s been a really nice part,” he said.
Serving the world is not an easy job. But they’re young, they’re smart… I think they’ll do well.– Linda Nobles
“I think the situation is going to get bigger and bigger, which worries me for the boys, because serving the world is not an easy job. But they are young, they are intelligent… I think they will do well.”
Evan Nobles said he’s not sad about losing his mother as a colleague, but he’s a little nervous about what the future holds.
“I know we’re getting busier,” he said. “We’re going to turn the factory into another assembly area, so we’re going to have all that space to be more efficient, expand more, and be busier. So I’m excited about everything. Nervous, but excited.”