MacAusland's Woollen Mill - a fuzzy gem in western PEI By Rilla Marshall
Located in the western end of Prince Edward Island, sits MacAusland’s Woolen Mill. Originally a sawmill and gristmill started in 1870, the mill was converted into a woollen mill in 1902 by Archibald MacAuland and is currently run operated by the fourth generation of his family. There are many things remarkable about this small, family-run operation, one of the most noteworthy being that it is now the sole producer of woven wool blankets in Atlantic Canada – a region that has a long heritage of fibre production, both domestically and commercially.
When I was first learning hand-weaving at the age of fifteen, my teacher at the time took her three students (including myself) on a field trip to visit this mythical old-fashioned mill that was still operating as it had been for many decades in rural western PEI. What I remember most about that visit was entering a large barn-like room housing endless machines. It seemed like the bare wooden rafters and walls were covered in woollen fluff. There was the loud mechanized clacking of industrial looms weaving blankets, and there were machines for processing raw fleece into yarn – both processes pretty much un-changed since textiles started being made on an industrial scale.
When MacAusland’s was converted into a woollen mill in 1902, its original operation included a carding machine to convert raw fleece into batts which the mill sold by the roll for hand-spinning. In the early 1900s, handspinning was a very commonplace activity in Maritime households. Fleece could be obtained directly from the sheep farm down the road, but buying your fleece batts from the mill removed the laborious step of washing and carding the fleece in preparation for spinning. By 1932, the mill was starting to produce 100% virgin wool yarn from Maritime fleece and had produced its first woven wool blanket, made completely from “scratch” - meaning the wool used to weave the blanket was cleaned, carded and spun into yarn on the premises. Today, blankets have become the staple of the business, and they are still made from scratch using raw wool from the Atlantic provinces.
On looms that are pretty much the same as the ones used a century ago, it takes up to sixteen hundred warp threads to weave a blanket.. In the early 1900s, this industrial loom technology was considered “state of the art”, and though there has been some changes today in terms of electricity and motors, the mechanics of these looms are essentially the same. The mill hasn’t changed drastically over the years, only converting to electric motors from water turbines and diesel in 1973. In 1949, the mill suffered a major fire, and only one piece of mill equipment survived. Even so, the mill isn’t necessary operated with the newest technology and equipment: their current machine use to wash the wool is from 1949 and works much better than the industrial machines they kept having to replace over the past 50 years. One of the most interesting things about the textile industry for me, especially an example such as MacAusland’s Woollen Mill, is how little the machines have actually changed over the years. Sure, the power sources have evolved, but the basic engineering of the equipment is still efficient, useful and functional in today’s manufacturing world.
A few years ago, my brother and I were each given a MacAusland’s blanket for Christmas by our parents. A queen size cocoon of cozy-ness, this blanket has become essential to keeping warm on chilly nights throughout the year. A twill structure helps the wool hold in the warmth, creating a lofty soft hand, further increased by the shrinking and brushing which takes place after the blanket is woven. My blanket is typical of MacAusland blankets: the delicate diagonal stripes of a twill structure with a natural white warp, a heather grey weft, and blanket-stitched hems. The blankets are available in a wide array of colours (from wool dyed at the mill) as well as striped designs, but are always woven in a basic twill. It is a classic wool blanket and will last my whole life. I have also used their two and three ply wool in many of my weaving and knitting projects – a choice made because of the traditional quality of the wool and the knowledge that I am using wool from sheep raised in my region of Canada.