Technology gap could be solved by woolWritten by Christy Hemken
“We’re trying to find nontraditional uses for wool,” says Mountain Meadow Wool’s Valerie Spanos. “Because we’re involved with the Wyoming Small Business Innovative Research grant program, I’m always looking for things that could apply to wool.”
One such use came up a couple months ago when Spanos was searching through solicitations coming from the U.S. Dept. of Defense. “I saw something I thought would apply,” she says.”
“People have always had suits to put on to be protected under hazardous conditions, but there wasn’t anything for the military working dogs,” she says. “The Dept. of Defense noticed there was a technology gap there and they thought the best solution would be to put them in a kennel or shelter of some sort where they’d be protected.”
“I was looking at this dog shelter and I thought wool would basically have all of the necessary qualities innately,” she says. “Our premise was to make the substrate from wool and then add some of the other things for chemical and biological defense components.”
“We thought wool would be a great product for these because it absorbs moisture and the dogs have to be in the shelter for 72 hours,” she explains. “They’ll be panting, and the best thing we could find that’s available right now was a plastic shelter with a respirator.”
Of their first foray into dealing with the Dept. of Defense, Spanos says it was out of their expertise but their past grant writing experience helped.
“We talked to Bob Stobart of the University of Wyoming and he put us in touch with another technical textile expert in wool who lives in the U.K., a vet toxicologist, a chemical engineer and a mechanical engineer,” says Stobart, noting that this team is ready to come together on the project if Mountain Meadow Wool is awarded the grant.
“We’ll come together to design and implement a model with the premise that wool can be used as the substrate. We can start adding things to it to give it different properties or try weaving it in different ways,” she says. “When we began researching this I was blown away by all the qualities of wool.”
The first stage of the project would be deciding how the shelters would be made, from woven or non-woven to how thick the wool needed to be. “All that has to do with air permeability and thermal regulation. We’re trying to keep certain things out but also allow carbon dioxide to go out and oxygen to come in, if that’s possible,” she says. “We still have a lot of questions to answer and that’s what the feasibility would do. In the second phase we’d actually put some together and sew them up and see if they’ll work.”
Mountain Meadow Wool expects to know in about a month if they’ll be awarded the grant. “It’s kind of a long shot, but at least it’s getting the word out about wool,” she comments. “I don’t think people realize that wool is a viable option for many things that don’t have to be polyester and rayon.”
The mill received their $5,000 Phase 0 award in November 2008 through the Wyoming Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Initiative (WSSI) and the Wyoming Business Council. According to the Business Council, the SBIR Phase 0 Program helps Wyoming companies develop competitive proposals for the federal SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. The WSSI receives funding from the Wyoming Business Council and gives out $120,000 in Phase 0 awards each year.
Spanos says another project the mill is looking at incorporating into their operation is natural pest control. “We’re very committed to being a green company, and because of that we’re going to have some challenges with pest control and fleas and ticks coming in on the wool. We’ve looked at some non-pesticide control methods and one of the things we’ve looked at is lavender oil.”
Mountain Meadow is also looking at making detergent that’s non-petroleum based spinning oil.
“We have this research side of the mill which is really challenging and exciting, but on the other hand we have our regular mill,” she says. She and her business partner, INSERT NAME, hope to have the mill up and running May 1.
In addition to processing wool as a service to customers and buying their own wool and selling it as yarn, the mill has a studio that will offer classes in weaving, spinning and knitting.
“Our big push is in the yarn market,” says Spanos. “Initially we’re doing an undyed line because there’s a big interest right now for people to dye their own in the handcrafted industry.”
She says it’ll be at least a year before the mill adds a dyed line. “Dying is more challenging, but we do have a lady that wants to be our ‘dye master.’” Spanos says leafy spurge makes a really good natural dye that produces a reddish-yellow or orange color in wool.
“We’ve been involved with the Mountain States Lamb Coop and we’d like to do something with their wool because it’s already identified and they have a good back story so people can look them up and see where the sheep came from,” says Spanos.
Although the coop will be their main source, the mill will eventually be buying wool from other sources. Meanwhile, she says anybody’s welcome to bring their own wool in just for processing.