Beyond Upcycling: Bobolink Yarns & Darn Tough Vermont
Another customer approaches our yarn booth at the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival last weekend.
“Oh, look at those lovely colors! What kind of yarn is this?”
“Well, this yarn is something special. This festival has other laceweight yarns, of course, but this one is made from upcycled fiber from Darn Tough Socks!”
“Really? How? Why?”
“Well, a company like Darn Tough runs large sock knitting machines. Large knitting machines have a minimum amount of yarn for operation, so they aren’t always able to use small odds and ends of wool. I am using unused Darn Tough wool on a smaller scale to make premium yarns for knitters, crocheters, and other fibercraft applications. If you look over here, you can see the first examples of the scarves we are making from some of the unused material.”
“Wow, what a cool project!”
Upcycling, No Compromise
This conversation transpired again and again. Every crafter we spoke to responded with enthusiasm and curiosity. Often, the conversation turned to the wool supply chain more broadly, and the specialization in our economy that makes it possible for one company to make millions of socks and another to take the small amount of unused wool from that process to move forward making other items.
To me, the coolest aspect of this project is that it sets aside the “compromise” nature of some upcycled products. This isn’t a conversion of some old jeans into a bag or a yogurt container into a flowerpot: This is a primary-use manufacture that puts wool waste from Darn Tough Socks at near-zero.
This project moves beyond upcycling to manufacture scale management. Our partnership represents an insightful and reproducible union that could eliminate other kinds of waste in other industries without making products of secondary quality or compromised design.
The project started in 2020, when a group of graduate students contacted me, asking about creative reuse of unused wool from a local company. I’ve been contacted regarding ideas like this in the past, so I wasn’t feeling attached to any follow-up or outcome. So imagine my surprise a few weeks after talking to the grad students, when an executive from Darn Tough Socks contacted me offering wool and other materials.
The impediment to finding a use for the wool had been finding someone who knows their way around large-scale wool. Fortunately, my background prepared me well for this project.
Giving Vermont Wool a Purpose
I started raising sheep in 2012, growing my flock to fifty ewes in 2017. From those ewes, I built a business making yarn from my own flock.
Soon, other shepherds were asking if I’d be interested in buying their wool. Many shepherds raise sheep primarily for meat and find the yarn market esoteric and time-consuming to penetrate. Much of Vermont’s wool clip sits in bags in barns, awaiting a purpose.
Meanwhile, yarn shops were inquiring about carrying wool from my flock in their stores, as demand for locally-sourced clothing matches consumer taste for local foods.
I couldn’t expand my own flock to meet the fiber demands of stores, so I began connecting unwanted wool from local shepherds with local yarn shops. I called my project Bobolink Yarns, and it demonstrated how possible it is to disrupt a waste stream and create something sustainable from it.
To me, the parallels between efforts to use Vermont’s wool clip for purposes higher than compost and my new adventure repurposing Darn Tough’s unused wool couldn’t be stronger. I am so excited to be part of this imaginative and purposeful project to create a new repurposing economy. I believe that this effort can be scaled and replicated industry-wide, so let's think creatively together about repurposing more unused materials.
“This yarn knits up into a wonderful soft fabric. And the colors are so vibrant!” notes Arianna Soloway at Must Love Yarn in Shelburne, Vermont.
Some of the yarn from Darn Tough is now marketed as Northern Wool. Northern Wool scarves are available on BobolinkYarns.com and Northern Wool Levity, our upcycled 4-ply laceweight yarn, can be found at yarnshops throughout Vermont and at BobolinkYarns.com.
About the Author
Katie Sullivan started Bobolink Yarns in late 2019, just before we all went home and commenced our pandemic knitting projects. Ever since the generous gift of Darn Tough wool, the mission of Bobolink Yarns has become “creative utilization of Vermont’s unused wool and fiber.” Katie works with wool in the untamed puckerbrush of Irasburg, Vermont.