That first year, 19 Rhode Island sheep producers collected 1,600 pounds of wool to
produce 371 blankets in sizes ranging from crib to king. Since then, says Hopkins, as many
as 65 local producers have contributed wool, and as many as 600 blankets have been produced in a given year. “It goes up and down, depending on how much wool is produced,”
The blanket production sequence that began in 2006, a lengthy and geographically
circuitous one, is still followed. The animals are shorn in late spring, and in June the sheep
producers gather to “skirt” the fleece, that is, remove matted sections and sort it by color.
White, nonwhite, gray, and black fleece are bagged separately and shipped to a wool scouring facility in South Carolina (no such facility remains in New England). “The wool comes
back clean and fluffy,” says Hopkins. At this point, the blanket design is discussed. “Only
after we see the wool washed and carded do we know what percentage of light and dark we
have, and then we can plan the design,” says Heather Minto, who is not only a sheep producer but a textile designer as well.
A small windowpane pattern with a natural background and oxford grey panes was
chosen for the 2010 blanket (past patterns include buffalo plaid and herringbone). After the
pattern is committed to paper, the washed wool is shipped to a mill in Massachusetts, where
it is spun into yarn. Another textile mill in Massachusetts weaves the yarn into cloth, which
is shipped to a Rhode Island mill where it is cut into various sizes, the edges are finished,
and the Rhody Warm label is added. The final products range in size from lap throw ($80)
to king size ($225), and this year, shawls and dog coats are also being offered.
“We like to get the blankets back to the farmers by late October, so they can sell them in
November,” says Hopkins, who says the blankets are a favorite holiday or wedding gift. As for
the sheep, well, they’re still grazing, and that’s the way it should be in Rhode Island.
Long before “locally grown,”
“sustainable,” and “neutral palette”
were part of the consumer vocabulary,
New Englanders used simple blankets
in whites, grays, and browns to ward
off the chill. They had to — there weren’t
other choices. Today, in addition to
Rhode Island, several other New England
states are again making wool blankets
from their locally raised sheep.
Rhody Warm blanket,
The Connecticut Blanket Project,
Baaay State Blanket Project,
Vermont Fiberworks Blanket,