When the population of wool textile mills in New England took a plunge in the mid- 2000s, causing the value of wool to drop with it, 19 local sheep farmers of the Rhode Island Sheep Cooperative decided to make the most of an unfortunate situation.
Seeking local use of their raw wool, the co-op approached the RI Resource Conservation and Development Council to investigate their options, soon receiving a grant from the RC&D to steer their project forward. The committee – made up of representatives from the RI Sheep Cooperative, RI Resource Conservation and Development Council, URI, USDA-NRCS, and private citizens – made it their goal to produce wool blankets by the fall of each year to sell during the holiday season.
The blanket-making process starts and ends in the Ocean State, and looks like this: First, wool is collected from co-op producers and farmers and inspected for proper length, any breakage, hay, or wood shavings. The approved, high-quality wool is then separated by darks and lights and is shipped down to South Carolina for cleaning and processing before returning to nearby Massachusetts for spinning and weaving. Once woven, the wool returns to Rhode Island for fulling, napping, cutting, labeling, and packaging. Since its start in 2006, over 2,000 Rhody Warm blankets have been produced with contributions from over 125 wool producers.
Just like its blankets, the co-op has woven itself into the fabric of Rhode Island’s agriculture. Profits from the blankets have brought income to farmers who may not have otherwise seen profit when waste wool was seen as a nuisance. Rhody Warm co-chair Robin Meek shares that the project’s long-term goal has always been “to make wool a valued product because it was undervalued when we started,” adding that so far, they’ve been successful.
No two Rhody Warm blankets are alike, even if they’re composed of the same pattern, like gingham or plaid. They are made in a variety of sizes ranging from a basic lap throw to a king-sized bedspread. Meek recommends ordering online ahead of time before the limited material runs out. And the best part – proceeds help provide funding for local 4-H sheep programs, scholarships, donations to local organizations, and additional co-op programming. Now that’s something that’ll warm both your body and heart.