To kick-off my first interview I knew I wanted to highlight all of the great things happening in the south with Nashville being my new home. In learning about Echoview's work in Weaverville, NC, I couldn't have asked for a better first stop.
Echoview began as a farm in 2005 with Julie Jensen leading the way. Leaving Washington D.C. behind she fell in love with a 27-acre farm which now has expanded to 75 acres and has everything from alpacas to honeybees. Years later came a fully functioning fiber facility that is Gold LEED certified which means they are focusing on sustainability from every angle. Nearly 50% of their energy is solar powered! Echoview Fiber Mill works with fibers like wool, alpaca, silk, mohair and organic cotton to clean, spin, knit and design high-quality home goods, accessories, and yarns. During our visit, we heard from both the founder, Julie Jensen and the brand strategist, Grace Gouin to learn more about Echoview’s process.
You grew up on a farm in Iowa when you were a child, did you ever think you would return to that kind of work?
Julie Jensen : I did, it was my mother who never thought I would!
What were your goals when you started Echoview, did anything have to alter as the business evolved?
Grace Gouin : Echoview originally grew out of a love of sustainability, farming, and knitting. Julie saw a business opportunity in a small fiber processing mill as there are many small farmers tucked away in the mountains of Western North Carolina and throughout the South East. With the rise of synthetics, making a living as a fiber farmer was difficult when the mills that process fiber began to have higher and higher minimums to compete in the global marketplace. Julie saw an opportunity to create a space where someone could get their fiber processed to an end product, like yarn or felt, that they could then turn around and sell.
The business has changed and evolved from Echoview processing for others, to Echoview developing product lines, which enable us to buy fiber directly from the farmer and blend into yarn or other products. We have become pretty good at knowing right away what a particular fiber is best suited for, so we can make sure that whatever fiber comes in the door is used to the best of its ability.
What would you say to someone who is concerned about animal welfare?
JJ : I would say, know your farmer.
GG : I love that Julie said this, I couldn't agree more. Whether you're buying eggs or alpaca fleece, you learn a lot by meeting whomever is growing or raising the product you are the consumer of. Animal welfare is serious business for us, and many of the farmers we work with treat their fiber animals like beloved pets – keeping them far beyond the years in which their fiber is considered first quality.
Our culture has become so disconnected from the idea that the meat we eat and leather we wear actually comes from a living breathing creature, so we are huge advocates of getting yourself out to the farmers market and buying something locally raised so that you can have a personal connection with the person who is caring for these creatures. This cultural movement, known broadly as "farm-to-table", has taken root - we are hopeful that the same mentalities will eventuality carry over into the clothes people wear and the crafts folks make. While we wait for that cultural shift, we work hard to lay the supply chain for it within our products so that if someone says, "where does this yarn come from" we can easily say here, here, and here.
What does the process look like from alpaca to finished yarn?
GG : Once we have established a relationship with a farmer, they will either ship us or deliver the fiber to the mill personally. The fiber is inspected and graded for quality, color, cleanliness, and any potential insects that we might need to evict (we've even found snakes in the fiber bags before!). Based on the quality and color (alpaca can be up to 22 different shades of white, brown, and black) we might wash the fiber right away or save it with other similar fibers for a future product. The fiber is then tumbled and washed to remove dirt and vegetable matter.
After that, it has been slightly felted so it is picked apart and put into a machine that fluffs it back to its original fluffy state. It might also be put through a Cloud Dehairer to make it even fluffier and remove any guard hairs. Then the fiber is carded and pin drafted, a process by which the fluffy mass of fibers is lined up into an even cord called roving. During the carding process, we might also blend the fiber with wool, silk, mohair, or any other fiber we want to mix it with for the finished product.
Roving is then put on a spinning frame where it is drawn out and twist is applied to create a single ply of yarn. The speed at which it is drawn and the amount of twist applied is based on what size of yarn we want that particular fiber to become. It is then usually twisted together with a second strand of yarn to make a 2 or 3 ply yarn. Our end product can range from a fat and chunky hand knitting yarn all the way down to a super fine strand of yarn that will be knit on our knitting machine.
Working with natural dyes can be a challenge in reaching consistency and scale, what has worked for you and what has been more of a challenge?
GG : We are still working on getting consistency, and it may never fully happen, so we try to dye larger amounts of yarn at once and embrace the variation as part of the process. Working in larger batches in larger pots has probably helped us the most on the technical side, but embracing the natural variation of the process in the way that we talk to our customers has made the biggest difference.
The mill is such a modern contrast to the farm, how did that come about?
GG : Since the mill was built completely from a concept, the architect had free range to create the most modern building they liked. If you're starting from scratch, why not create something that could serve as a new standard?
We hope that Echoview represents the future of manufacturing in America – a vertically integrated facility that uses local resources to make a world-class product that can reach an end consumer anywhere that has internet access. We also believe that having a bright, clean workspace will keep the quality of life high for everyone who spends time here, as well as letting customers get an in-depth look at how the things they are buying and using are made. We hope this helps them to have a stronger connection to the product so that they will treasure it, and also prompt them to wonder, how are the other things I buy made?
Do you foresee any possibilities of designers being able to partner with your mill and manufacturing capabilities in the future?
GG : We really hope that knitwear designers will use our yarn in their knitting patterns and products. We've started to send out our yarn for designers to develop a product with and then promote the patterns on our end, and it really brings us such joy and helps us reach a larger audience!
We also have the ability to make sweaters on the knitting machine here at the mill, but right now are too small a team to do the type of R&D involved in helping other designers have their products made here. We are, however, friendly with several other organizations that can knit production so we are always available for conversations and resource sharing with any designers who want to talk shop.
What's your take on farm to fashion, do you think we will see the same cross-over as the food or beauty industries?
GG : Ha! Sort of jumped the gun on this one with question 2! We certainly hope to see the cross-over happen within the fashion industry as it really is one of the most unsustainable industries on the planet. It is a harder hill to climb than with food, however, because there are so few versions of a farmers market for fashion – and even if there were, tastes differ SO much.
Culturally, we have grown up in a space and time when we are led to believe that our clothing means something about our worth, and is one of our most culturally visible status symbols. Wearing something "out of style" is uncomfortable, and micro-trends are these easily identifiable trends that come and go so quickly that something is out of style within a few months of being produced. This cycle, known as fast-fashion, is the one that desperately needs to slow down in order for a more holistic apparel supply chain to take root. The beauty of knitting is that two people could buy the same yarn and knit completely different garments, home goods, and accessories that match their taste exactly. The beauty is that you don't just chuck a sweater you knit, or someone knit for you, just because it was made a year ago – you wear it as long as you can!
We've seen even in those industries that price can be a challenge, how do we continue to engage consumers?
GG : Price is a challenge, but also an opportunity to educate. Transparency within the process, production, and supply chain seem to be factors in helping customers understand exactly what they are paying for, and valuing those costs. Another key factor is facilitating a space where customers are not just buying a product, but joining and investing in a community and connecting with others who are there to enjoy their same interests – be it sustainability or crafting.
If you had one wish or goal what would you like to see happen in the industry?
GG : It would be so wonderful to see people have a more long-term relationship with their clothing and home goods! We want to see people caring for their belongings, mending their clothes, making their clothes, and loving their things longer.
If you could use a time machine to go back 15 years what piece of advice would you give yourself?
GG : Develop our own product line sooner! Our original focus was on providing a service for farmers, but we are finding that farmers are happy just to sell their fiber directly to us!
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind?
JJ : A swim in the pool, a glass of kombucha, and knitting.
Stay tuned for Part II to see more photos of the process and factory!