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!