AT THE END OF A LONG, WINDING DRIVEWAY in the farm country outside Waukesha, Wisconsin, just beyond the advancing sprawl of Milwaukee, I step past several chickens, a turkey, and one of the biggest cats I have ever seen and into a gift store that sells mainly woolen goods—slippers, gloves, socks, rugs, and comforters. As the woman who owns the store comes out to greet me, I hear from behind her a noise from the Industrial Revolution.
“Welcome. You’ve come to see our carder,” Sarah Pietenpol says. “Come on in back.” She leads me into the workspace of the Genesee Woolen Mill, a barnlike she done side of which is dominated by a clanking, clattering centuryold iron-and-wood machine six feet high, seven feet wide, and as long as a trailer truck. Its dozens of rollers and belts and wheels chug away as wisps of woolen cloud pass through them. A plate at one end reads, through a coating of downy wool dust, BRAMWELL AUTOMATIC WEIGHER AND CARDER . The plate carries five patent dates; the most recent is June 10, 1879.
“That’s the machine,” Sarah Pietenpol says. “You put washed, picked wool in one end and get finished batts out the other.” As she speaks, her partner, Kay Menning, switches off the carder and in the sudden echoing silence begins to fold a fresh batt that has emerged like a neat layer of lint. It will fill a comforter. “That batt is someone’s grandmother’s wool,” Pietenpol says, “from a worn-out comforter. Wool can go on for generations if you keep rebatting it.”
Probably not for as many generations as the carder itself. It has several sections of different ages, each an elaborate machine of hundreds of moving parts, but they all came together not much after the start of this century. Sarah Pietenpol takes me on a quick tour.
“After the licker-in roller on the top of the feeder gets the wool entering evenly, it passes over the first of those two big iron cylinders.” The cylinders, the central bulk of the carder, are each a good five feet across and more than six feet long. They are made of green-painted cast iron with brass fittings. On top of each cylinder ride a dozen close-packed wooden rollers. “The rollers—the strippers and the workers—are covered with carding, wire or nail surfaces. They basically just comb out the wool finer and finer. A fancy roller pulls the wool off each cylinder and onto a doffer, that medium-size wooden cylinder with its own carding. At the very end is the lapper, the wood-slat conveyor table rolling back and forth on rails. It lays out the carded wool into a batt.
“This is the kind of machine that first replaced hand carding a century and a half ago,” she explains. A hand carder is something like a wire dog brush. Menning, taking a break from her work, adds: “It’s old enough that there are no manuals about it. When it breaks, you just have to figure it out. And like a car, it has problems every time you turn around. But the technology is fascinating, and you couldn’t do our business with a newer machine. The new ones all cost millions of dollars and are so giant they could never handle a mere twenty-dollar batt the way we do. We just do little jobs for individual people.”
“Not that we make much money at it either,” Pietenpol adds. “We’re mothers raising children, and our husbands still support us.” So how, I ask, did they come to own and operate this mammoth piece of ancient machinery?
“It started about ten years ago, when my husband bought me a spinning wheel,” Pietenpol tells me. “I hated it. Among other things, I didn’t have equipment to wash the wool to spin, so I had to take it to a mill in Big Bend. Eventually I found out that the people there wanted to retire, but it wasn’t until about a year and a half later that, after thinking about it some, I decided I’d like to run a mill. My husband said, ‘Well, O.K.’ He likes machines.
“We’ve had the mill about five and a half years now. It was in Big Bend only about ten years; before that it was down in Jefferson, and before that in Minnesota, I think. We don’t have the papers.”
So how do they keep it running? “It has its days,” Pietenpol allows, looking over the huge machine somewhat critically. “It doesn’t like to run on Mondays. We have to shut down sometimes because of humidity in the summer and because of dryness in the winter. We do walk a fine line with it, really. But I have to be fair to it. For its age it is very dependable. As long as it keeps running, we’ll keep running it. Kay and I love antiques, and I imagine we’ll just keep this one running until we’re antiques ourselves.”