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Fiber mill's new felting machine weaves much to be desired

The carder machine takes the raw fiber and separates and combs the material for felting at Dakota Fiber Mill in Kindred. David Samson / Forum News Service1 / 6
A variety of wools in different colors are washed and dried at the Dakota Fiber Mill in Kindred. David Samson / Forum News Service2 / 6
Chris Armbrust displays the combed fibers as they come out of the carder machine at Dakota Fiber Mill in Kindred. David Samson / Forum News Service3 / 6
Chris Armbrust sprays water on the wool as it is pressed into felt at Dakota Fiber Mill in Kindred. David Samson / Forum News Service4 / 6
Some of the felt products, including insoles, a tree ring, alpaca petals, saddle pads and a tote bag, are displayed at Dakota Fiber Mill in Kindred. David Samson / Forum News Service5 / 6
Chris Armbrust visits with her sheep and alpaca at Dakota Fiber Mill in Kindred. David Samson / Forum News Service6 / 6

KINDRED, N.D.—Chris Armbrust and her Dakota Fiber Mill in Kindred have been turning all kinds of wool into yarn since 2010, but this winter the shop added a felting machine that has opened up an entirely new line of products.

Armbrust said the mill's felting capability was made possible with help from several quarters, including four students in the mechanical engineering department of North Dakota State University, who designed and built the felting machine as a senior project.

Grist for the mill, so to speak, comes from a group of wool producers whom Armbrust approached after recognizing they were looking for a way to use fiber that because of inconsistent coloration wasn't up to yarn standards but was perfectly suited for felting.

"They were throwing it away, so I wanted to give them another outlet," said Armbrust, who said her suppliers were delighted when they learned how much she would pay them for their fibers.

The NDSU students had the felting machine ready in December, and since then Armbrust and the three other people who work at the mill have been turning out sheets of felt and products like footwear insoles, saddle pads and tree skirts.

Armbrust said she was happy to provide the funding for the felting machine because commercially-available machines would have been far more expensive.

And she's also satisfied with the felt it makes, which is marbled in appearance.

The felting machine project was a success for the design students, as well, according to Chad Ulven, an associate professor and associate chairman of the mechanical engineering department at NDSU.

"They hit that one out of the park. It was a very good team," Ulven said, adding that in designing the machine the students considered the needs of Ambrust's operation and the amount of product the machine had to handle.

"Nothing's better than a real-world experience for our students rather than us profs just dreaming up something for them to build," Ulven added.

Armbrust said the yarn making side of the mill works something like this:

"Folks from all over the nation ship me their raw alpaca wool, or raw sheep wool, whatever they raise. Then, I make it into yarn and ship it back to them."

A typical batch of raw wool she receives might be 20 or 50 lbs. Occasionally, a shipment may be as large as 200-300 lbs.

The yarn-making process requires a number of steps, Armbrust said, including the following: "You pick it, you card it, you draft it, you spin it, you ply it and you skein it."

In addition to making yarn for others, Armbrust markets a line of yarn she produces from her own animals, including alpacas. The yarns go by the name Dakota Spun, and one place you can buy them is at the Prairie Fiber Arts Center in Moorhead.

The yarns are "very nice," according to Adrienne Larson, who works at Prairie Fiber Arts Center.

"Sometimes we get bison (yarn), which is really cool," Larson said.

Armbrust said she is excited about the possible uses of felt, including development of an alpaca felt insole she said requires baking in a proprietary blend of activated charcoal, baking soda and cornstarch.

"Some folks have tested it for us, and it completely eliminates foot odor. It's awesome," Armbrust said.

Dave Olson
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