Canada

Rural P.E.I. woollen-mill manufacturer passes business to the next generation

For years, Islanders have known where they can get locally produced knitting yarn and felting wool in eastern P.E.I. — at Belfast Mini Mills, a family business run by the Nobles family.

But as of mid-October, that’s no longer the case.

“Working in a mill, you are standing on your feet all day and and I’m no spring chicken, so it’s a good time to change direction,” said Linda Nobles, who with her twin sister Hazel had run the mill on the premises and turned wool clips from sheep and other animals into yarn for nearly 30 years.

They also sold hats, scarves and blankets, and taught countless people how to felt wool roving into complex designs. 

Now it’s time for the business to be passed along to the next generation, consisting of Linda’s sons Evan and Matthew Nobles and their 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 crew now and we haven’t slowed down during COVID,” said Evan Nobles. “If anything, we’ve increased.”

Linda Nobles says that after 30 years, it’s time for her two sons and nephew to take over the mill manufacturing while she focuses on her other passion: collecting and selling fossils and gemstones. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

“We are a world leader in small equipment,” Linda Nobles said of the production line at their facility in the Garfield area of Belfast in eastern P.E.I.

Speaking of her customers over the decades, she added: “They can see the benefit of a small mill because people start raising more animals because they can get their own fibre back and it stimulates more business.” 

2-year waiting list

In recent years, the demand for mini mills has been steadily increasing, to the point that the Belfast company now has a two-year waiting list.

Some mills were shipped locally and within Atlantic Canada, including one that went to Fleece and Harmony just up the road in Eldon. But they have also shipped worldwide, to countries like Norway, South Africa, Kuwait and Tajikistan — and now have more than 325 of their mills in 50 countries.

“When you’re dealing globally, you have to deal with politics, volcanoes that are erupting, poisonous snakes and spiders in Australia, stormy north seas,” Linda Nobles said, describing some of the conditions the company’s two travelling technicians frequently encounter.

A man holds a machine that sprays a thin layer out of an aerosol can onto a black metal sheet.
An employee at Belfast Mini Mills sprays a plastic coating onto metal sheets that will be used to build a mini mill for a customer. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

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-sized mill. One of the Nobles’ machines will fit into a double-car garage, and can be run by one or two people. In fact, a small crew can run more than one at a time, Nobles said.  

“I can run eight machines. It sounds impressive, but it’s really not that big a deal,” she said. 

Downsizing equipment

There was no blueprint for how to downsize large industrial machinery when Belfast Mini Mills started. The Nobles got into the business because traditional large mills would combine fibre they had brought in to be processed with wool from other people’s animals.

“We thought, there’s no point in us having expensive breeds of sheep if we’re not getting [our] own fibre back,” Nobles said. “So we saw the need for small equipment and that was the beginning of Mini Mills.”

A piece of spun wool comes out of a machine between two wheels.
One mini mill can be run by just two people, while a full-size mill would require several people to operate. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

Most of the machinery was developed by her father, brother and husband. As technology evolved over the years, so did the equipment, to handle every kind of fibre “from cat to camel,” in Evan Nobles’ words.

“Because I was running the mill, I’d say, ‘You know what, guys? If you could add this to this machine, that would make my life easier,'” his mother said. 

Fabrication in Murray River

The majority of the metal fabrication for the machinery is done in Murray River, at Tyler Spencer’s shop. 

“They do all the frames, all the parts, and then they come over here. We sandblast them, powder-coat them and assemble them in shop, and ship them out,” said Evan Nobles.

Three employees each work on putting together parts of a blue metal machine.
Employees assemble the machines in this workshop before shipping them out to customers around the world, some who have waited up to two years for a mini mill because of the high demand. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

If it weren’t for the long waiting list, each order could be fulfilled in about five weeks. The company now has about 15 employees, including family members, and hopes to produce about 11 machines a year — that’s almost a mill per month.

Evan Nobles said improvements in technology have made it easier to help fix machinery from afar. What used to require a visit from a technician can now be solved with a simple video call.

A wooly 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 mill in Ste. Genevieve, Man. She also founded canadianwool.org, a website that raises awareness of the importance of Canadian wool.

A woman in glasses holds skeins of yarn in several different colours.
Anna Hunter holds some of the yarn that her mini mill from P.E.I. has processed in Manitoba. (Submitted by Anna Hunter)

“The whole goal was to get Canadian wool in the hands of Canadian crafters and fibre artists and consumers,” Hunter said.

She’d like to see more of the wool shorn from Canadian sheep raised for their meat being turned into usable yarn and wool products like carpets, bedding and insulation. 

“A lot of Canadian wool is just being composted, or stored in barns or trashed in landfills — or even some are burning it,” Hunter said. “So it’s really a crisis point for Canadian wool right now.”

It’s not nearly enough infrastructure to meet the demand of the Canadian wool clip.— Anna Hunter, owner of a mini mill from Belfast, P.E.I.

To process that wool, she said, Canada needs more mills, whether that be mini machines like the ones Belfast produces or full-size mills like the one at MacAusland’s Woollen Mills in Bloomfield, P.E.I.

Right now, she said, the entire country has only three large mills and about 40 mini mills. 

“It’s not nearly enough infrastructure to meet the demand of the Canadian wool clip,” Hunter said.

Continuing the thread

Meanwhile, back in Belfast, Linda Nobles is turning the old wool shop into a larger retail home for her other passion: fossils. She’s been operating a store called Broken Rock Fossil Shop for a while now, kitty-corner to the Mini Mills premises. 

“The last 11 years I’ve gone on a dinosaur dig out to South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming. So I’ve always had an interest in that and crystals,” she explained.

A woman with red hair points at a curled up fossil embedded in rock.
Linda Nobles has opened a rock and fossil shop on the Belfast Mini Mills property, and has lots of young customers interested in what she sells. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

She has lots of young customers who share her fascination, and isn’t at all sad about her semi-retirement from the wool industry.

“It’s like anything once you’ve done it for so long, you lose a little bit of your passion for it. And that space will be now utilized by the guys for more assembly space, so nothing stays the same around here.”

She will miss the customers who frequented the wool store, many of whom were disappointed to hear of its closure this fall.

“It’s been a lot of good years having people in for tea, having them in the back kitchen, dyeing — just a really personal relationship with people. And that’s been a really nice part of it,” she said.

Servicing the globe is not an easy job. But they’re young, they’re smart… I think they’ll do well.— Linda Nobles

“I think it’s only going to get bigger and bigger — which I worry for the boys, because servicing the globe is not an easy job. But they’re young, they’re smart… I think they’ll do well.”

Evan Nobles said he’s not sad to lose his mother as a colleague, but he is a bit nervous about what the future holds.

“I know we’re only getting busier,” he said. “We’re going to make the mill into another assembly area, so we’re going to have all that space to be more efficient and expand more and get busier. So I’m excited about everything. Nervous, but excited.”

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