About Elizabeth Davelaar
Elizabeth Davelaar is a Co-Owner of Maker’s Way Fiber Mill in Brandon, SD, which opened in October 2021. The mill is a family-run business, with Elizabeth’s sister, Erin, and her mother, Kari, as other co-owners. Elizabeth began her career in the fashion industry at the University of Minnesota, where she graduated with a BS in Apparel Design from the College of Design. She then went to the University of Delaware, where she graduated with an MS in Fashion and Apparel Studies and a Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Apparel Business.
Elizabeth served as a project manager for a non-profit fashion brand in St. Louis and taught sewing to immigrant women in St. Louis and women in Ethiopia. She then moved to Vi Bella Jewelry in Sioux Center, IA, working her way from Shipping Manager to VP of Operations, Sustainability and Design. She then opened Maker’s Way Fiber Mill in 2021 with her family and has been working with local fiber producers to grow the yarn industry in South Dakota and surrounding areas.
Sheng: What inspired you to start your fiber mill business? What makes it special and exciting?
Elizabeth: The mill was born out of the need to solve a problem. I became interested in natural dye at the University of Delaware under Professor Cobb. Once I moved back to the area where I grew up, COVID hit, and I was able to dive deeper into the natural dye and use local plants as a dye source. This also led to being curious about local natural fibers. South Dakota isn’t a state that grows cotton, and the hemp industry is currently small, but it has an abundance of sheep. According to statistics from the US Department of Agriculture, South Dakota has 235,000 sheep and is home to one of the nation’s largest wool co-ops. However, there are only 2 working fiber mills in the area that provide custom processing, which makes yarn made from local fiber very hard to find.
This led to the opening of Maker’s Way Fiber Mill. We are a full-service, custom fiber mill and make yarn, felt, roving, and home goods products from primarily wool and alpaca fiber. Approximately 90% of our time is spent processing for clients who own the animals and use the yarn themselves or sell it, with the other 10% processing yarn that we sell online via our website and in-person at events. The vast majority of our customers are local (within 4-5 hrs) and sell locally to crafters. We take pride in knowing where the fiber we use comes from, sourcing from local farms or using fiber from vintage or second-hand sources.
Sheng: According to Maker’s Way Fiber Mill’s website, sustainability is a critical feature of your products. Why is that, and how do you make your products sustainable?
Elizabeth: We believe that we are stewards of the earth and should be conscious of how the products we make are grown, created, and then how they can be disposed of. The fashion industry, from creating the product to end life, is a huge polluter. The current market for wool is not great for producers, and there isn’t a good avenue for alpaca producers. We work very hard to ensure that our products are sourced from people that we know and trust or are from vintage or second-hand sources. We also work to ensure our products are made from natural fibers, thus they are biodegradable.
We also work to limit the waste in our mill. Although we try our absolute best to reduce loss in the process, each step produces some loss in fiber. This fiber is swept up and either rewashed and added to our Millie line or added to our bird nest starters. The Millie line is yarn spun up from the scraps, and we end up running about four batches of this a year. Each batch is unique because of the different blends of fiber we run. The bird nest starters use fiber that either falls out of our carder or is swept off the floor. These are then put outside in the spring for birds to use for nesting. The fibers are short enough that the baby birds don’t get tangled in them as they would with yarn and because they are natural animal fibers, the nests will biodegrade, unlike acrylic yarns that are sometimes used.
Sheng: Maker’s Way Fiber Mill’s products are 100% locally made in South Dakota. From your perspective, what are the opportunities and challenges for manufacturing textiles in the US today?
Elizabeth: I see two big challenges in the natural animal fiber side of the U.S. textile industry: Lack of consumer knowledge of where clothing comes from and lack of infrastructure. But both also present big opportunities!
First, we have found with our mill that people don’t have a good understanding of how many steps there are in creating yarn in general, let alone clothing. We have people who question our pricing because they don’t understand what it means to make yarn in the United States. From start to finish, it takes eight different steps to get raw fiber from producers to yarn ready to sell. Our consultations for new clients tend to be very educational because even fiber producers don’t necessarily know all the steps. As we open the mill for tours and talk to people at events, they start to understand and respect how much work is behind the yarn we create, and that is when we see buy-in – when people start to see the whole process, as well as the people.
The second challenge I see is the overall lack of infrastructure. We are one of approximately 200 small-scale / artisan-style mills in the country (this number is approximate – there is not a good database) and do not run near the quantity compared to the larger manufacturers. As of 2018, there aren’t any small-scale fiber mill equipment manufacturers in the US, so all of the equipment available to us is either used or has to be imported from Canada or Italy. Wait time for most small producers to get their fiber made into yarn is approximately 8-12 months at many mills, some run up to 18 months out. Our mill currently runs about 6 months out and we have been open for just over a year.
For producers who want to sell their wool to larger manufacturers and not have it custom processed, as far as our research has shown, there is one large-scale scouring (wool washing) facility in the states and most of the large-scale spinners use fiber from this facility to spin into yarn and then send the fiber off to other finishing companies for knitting. Otherwise, all of the wool is shipped overseas, and producers are earning approximately $1.66/lb of wool (in 2020). We have heard of many producers that have stockpiles of wool because they are waiting for higher wool prices. Coops also won’t accept wool that isn’t white, so all dark colors of wool get thrown away as there isn’t a market for it.
We also see this as an opportunity. We have noticed the “buying local” trend extending past food also to include yarn. People also see value in making their own clothing and being intentional through knitting/crocheting. There is a growing market for it. We have also seen some demand for the addition of another large-scale scouring facility that could meet the needs for wool insulation and other home applications.
Sheng: Like other fashion programs in the US, most of our FASH students take job opportunities from fashion brands and retailers, not necessarily textile mills. How to raise the young generation’s interest in pursuing a career in textile and apparel factories? Do you have any suggestions?
Elizabeth: I definitely never intended to start a fiber mill when I was in school. I only took one textile class and am pretty sure only one of my design projects used wool. UD was really what fed the sustainability bug in me and I started to realize that sustainability starts at the very beginning of the lifecycle of clothing. Whether or not something can be biodegradable, recyclable, or repurposed starts with what fiber makes up the clothing. UD also showed me how global apparel is and how much carbon footprint it makes.
Working in a fiber mill is not an easy job. It is dirty, we tend to put in long days, and we are constantly learning new things. I am a very hands-on person, and I love being able to create things from nothing, so this job is a great fit for me. The part I loved most about being in design school was being able to create things, and my current job is that all day, every day. We split the mill into “zones” and between myself, Erin and our mom, we all specialized in a specific part of the process. I am in charge of skirting and cleaning fleeces, which means cleaning off all of the hay and visibly dirty areas (aka manure) and then washing the fiber in 140-180 degree water to get the dirt and lanolin out of the fleece. I then pick and card the fiber, which opens up and organizes the fiber into a long tube that is then drafted, spun, plied, and put into skeins. While most days tend to include the same things, each day is never the same as the last. Each animal fleece we run acts differently, so we are always learning new and better ways to run the equipment we have. It is challenging but also a labor of love. Because we work directly with producers, we know the names of most of the animals and love knowing that their fleeces are being used instead of being discarded! We also love connecting with local people who love purchasing from local producers and makers.
One of the biggest things I believe fashion programs can do to help open up students to different options in the fashion industry is to expose them to different opportunities and allow them to follow whatever passion they have and emphasize that there isn’t a “right” path in the industry. My classes opened me up to labor issues around the world and that then led me to Delaware. And the opportunities I was given at UD to follow my passions are a huge reason I am doing what I am doing now. One of the things I think UD does right is having many different professors with varying backgrounds in the FASH department and I think other universities would do well to implement that too.
Sheng: Any other key issues or industry trends you will watch in 2023?
Elizabeth: One of the key trends we are watching is the local craft movements and knowing where your clothing comes from. We saw a crafting resurgence happen during COVID and people are still pickup up their knitting needles and crochet hooks to create items to wear and love. We also see some carryover of the local food scene into the local fiber scene. We believe that this will continue to grow!
9 thoughts on “An Inside Look at Textiles “Made in the USA”: FASH455 Exclusive Interview with Elizabeth Davelaar (UD&FASH MS17), Co-owner of Maker’s Way Fiber Mill”
As a UD student, I really enjoyed reading this article and understanding how the fashion program prepared Elizabeth for her future career choice. Last Spring, I worked with Dr. Cobb on research for a natural dye project using food waste utilizing hyperlocal restaurants on Main Street. Elizabeth also mentioned her interactions with Dr. Cobb, and I see the connection Elizabeth made to this work. From what I have gathered, when someone purchases a well-made, more expensive, locally produced garment they attach memories and respect to the item. The garment will be treated with more care and respect and likely have greater longevity. The same can not be said when apparel is sourced overseas. The term ecological shadow means that because consumers and producers are separated by an ocean, consumers cannot see the harm created by their actions. They do not know who makes their clothing, their wages, or how it impacts their environment. When products are made locally, one can see the direct impacts of their production. Elizabeth’s work is very interesting and I wish her much success in the future!
As someone who does not have much experience in the production side of the industry, much less the fiber mills, I found Elizabeth’s business to be very interesting and very much needed. Her dedication to sustainability being a big driver to open this business is great as many textile manufacturers do not think that way. I also thought it was cool how she uses up all of her scraps, even fibers for birds nests, which is something I would not have thought of. As for the opportunities and challenges with textiles today, I found it interesting how many consumers are beginning to focus on buying local yarn and not just for food. It is definitely a niche market to take advantage of, but hopefully it can lead to more success with local sustainable textile mills like Elizabeth’s and also more education on how the everyday consumer can make sustainable choices and be comfortable with them.
Great thought! We always say sustainability is a game changer, and I hope it can also create more “Made in the USA” opportunities. For example, it is interesting to notice that the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), which represents the voice of US textile mills, gradually begins to cover more member activities in the sustainability areas, from textile recycling to reducing the environmental impact of production (see https://www.just-style.com/comment/fashions-environmental-governance-begins-with-nearshoring-and-onshoring/)
From my observation, retailers and fashion brands also attract greater importance to textile raw material sourcing as they try to build a more sustainable supply chain.
I really enjoyed reading this article as well as watching the video. I had not even though about the process of producing textiles on a small scale like this one. Like mentioned, there is very little of this sort of factory in the US. This is what makes the business so unique and interesting to see. I think with the focus on sustainability getting bigger and bigger, plants like these will continue to grow. When most people think of sustainability they are considering the manufacturing of apparel and disregarding the textile industry. This shows the process of sustainably and responsibly producing textiles and all that goes into it. I think more people need to be educated on the process of producing textiles and all the steps that go into it. Hopefully the shift will continue to to support domestically made fibers so that our clothing can be made more sustainably from the very start.
I really enjoyed learning about Elizabeth’s story, especially since she is a UD alumni! I love that Elizabeth saw a need for more sustainable growth within this industry. In almost every class at UD, there is talk about sustainability in the fashion industry so I was happy to hear that Elizabeth became interested in natural dye and sustainable practices from her time at UD and applied that to her career to make an impact. I like how Elizabeth sources locally and knows exactly who her customers are and where they come from. I think this is very important not only in small businesses but big companies too to make sure products are sourced from people that are trusted to make sure things are true like having all natural fibers. I enjoy that Elizabeth is very focused on this and focused on making sure the products are biodegradable, recyclable and is also mindful of the amount of waste. This is something talked about a lot in the fashion industry right now, but it is not always 100% trusted so it is amazing and hopeful to see that Elizabeth is on board with this in her Fiber Mill, especially it being made all in the U.S.
Elizabeth’s career is very inspiring and commendable; she managed projects for a non-profit fashion company and taught sewing to Ethiopian and immigrant women in St. Louis. She is obviously quite charitable, which accounts for why the mill was created in order to address a need. It is incredible how Maker’s Way Fiber Mill can address the scarcity of yarn manufactured from local fiber while making use of the easy availability of wool. I enjoy visiting the local alpaca farms in my neighborhood since they sell their own yarn, clothing, and home products. I adore that fiber mills like this one and Maker’s Way Fiber Mill can take satisfaction in knowing where the fiber they use comes from, whether they source from their own/local farms or use fibers from vintage or second-hand sources. It’s fantastic that Elizabeth also makes an effort to reduce waste at the mill by collecting fiber from sweepings, rewashing it, and either adding it to their Millie line or adding it to their bird nest beginnings since they act as natural animal fibers.
I loved hearing about Elizabeth’s journey of how she was able to build her fiber mill business. I do think that more fiber mill businesses are needed in the US for the fashion industry today because I do think that it would help the productivity of textile manufacturing. It is very important to talk about the process of yarn manufacturing because many people don’t know the steps and processes that go into how yarn is created. Today, more people want to know where their clothing is coming from and how it’s being made. I loved hearing Elizabeth’s career advice in the end of the article about pursuing a career in apparel and textile factories and learning about the importance of using biodegradable materials to help with sustainable fashion
Following my completion of reading this post, I consider Elizabeth’s enterprise to be extremely interesting and desperately needed. I do not have familiarity in the production side of the sector, particularly in the fiber mills and I think what she is doing is great. It’s wonderful that she created this firm with a strong commitment to sustainability because not all textile makers share that viewpoint. Additionally, I found it impressive how looks to recycle all materials to promote sustainable solutions. Regarding the prospects and difficulties in the textile industry today, I thought it was fascinating the number customers who are making the shift to prioritize purchasing local.
I found this to be a very interesting article to read. I have always been very interested in sustainability and hope to end up in a career that allows me to bridge my interest between fashion and sustainability. That being said, I think that it’s amazing that she is so committed to sustainability at her mill, and founded a new business that is outside of the box, while utilizing the materials and resources available to her in the location she was in!