Burma to Buffalo
Mountain Meadow Wool
Bringing Business Back to America
by Kelsey Hostetler
Over the years big businesses have been leaving American soil and taking up roots in foreign countries where the prices are cheaper and labor is more affordable. Fewer business in the USA means fewer jobs, less resources available to US citizens, and less income feeding back into our economy. Mountain Meadow Wool is one of just a handful of mills currently operating in the United States. For the past few years the mill has lost large clients to mills overseas and has struggled to find other business in the USA with the experience and the resources to make finished products. In an effort to help save the industry and to create quality products within the USA, Mountain Meadow Wool has launched a new project. From the far reaches of South East Asia in Burma, to the tiny mountain town of Buffalo, Wyoming, MMW has imported large knitting machines to reclaim a piece of the textile industry and help bring it back to the US! We interviewed Ben Hostetler, operations manager and the brains behind this endeavor and here is what he had to say….
(left to right: Ben Hostetler, Operations Manager, Karen Hostetler, Owner of Mountain Meadow Wool, John Ng, Knitting Expert and Trainer)
Burma to Buffalo Questions
How did the idea start? What made you want to start your own knitting operation in-house?
The idea actually had its beginning about 8 years ago. At that time yarn production was our only product. While doing a custom yarn run for a client making a wool sweater, we decided making our own heavy weight, high quality hoodie using local wool would be awesome. My Dad funded some of the initial production runs and was our first “salesman” as he wore his hoodie day-in and day-out. He would wear his wool hoodie with him to fight wildfires in the summer. To his amazement, the wool was breathable, wicked moisture, and best of all, the anti-microbial natural qualities of wool meant that even after two weeks of heat, sweat and smoke it didn’t stink!!
Over the years we did additional small batch production runs using a knitting operation in Sacramento, California but in 2016 the knitter moved his operation overseas to take advantage of reduced labor costs. It took us about 9 months to find a new US based knitting operation to take over our hoodie production. Since then, our exploration in new custom blends has lead to yarns that our current knitter doesn’t have the experience to work with and we have a growing need to test and develop new products in-house. Additionally, shipping costs, development costs, long lead times, and higher knitting costs have made us ready to explore new alternatives.
After that it was just a matter of timing. The Sacramento knitter decided to close down overseas production and we began exploring how we could bring the machines from Burma back to our facility in Buffalo, Wyoming.
During the planning phase, what were the biggest hurdles?
I knew very little about machine knitting prior to this endeavor and the fear of the unknown can be almost paralyzing. Expanding into a new manufacturing service especially one in which the US knowledge base is extremely limited was daunting and risky. My mom, Karen Hostetler co-founder of MMW and company President, reminded me that she was a stay-at-home mom who jumped feet first into a risky business endeavor. She then pointed to our current production floor full of machines whirring and feet scurrying saying,
“Sometimes you just have to try it and see what happens.”
A big part of the risk that we needed to mitigate was developing the skills to operate a knitting facility. Bringing machines over is one thing but having the skill to operate them is entirely different. Skilled knitting technicians and skilled linking technicians are very hard to come by. In particular, the linking skillset (linking the seams of the garment together) has been difficult to find. I put advertisements in refugee settlement areas and foreign newspapers but didn’t have any success. The solution came in deciding to bring the former owner of the knitting operation as well as his sister who worked as a linker in Burma to come live in Buffalo for several months to train a local workforce.
What were some problems or issues that came up in getting the machines shipped?
There were lots of them! It has taken almost 12 months of negotiations and planning to get the machines delivered. Getting the machines out of Burma took several months longer than planned. It seemed like numerous phantom “export licenses” became needed from government officials down to security guards at the port. Our own US government shutdown caused delays at ports of entry as well. When the machines arrived on a cold winter day they were on a flat-bed truck and not in the carefully packed shipping container that they left Burma in. Somewhere along the line someone decided to unpack the container and damaged some of the machines in the process.
We fixed the damaged pieces but when hooking up power to the machines we found extensive damage to the wiring systems caused by mice! That machines had been sitting in storage for over a year in Burma and it appears some of the wiring was the choice food source for little critters.
“The limited wiring diagrams we have are in German, our trainer is Burmese, and needless to say we’ve spend quite a bit of time tracing and splicing wires”
It took two weeks to fix the shipping damage and wiring but it felt good when finished!
What benefit will Mountain Meadow Wool have by taking on the knitting operation?
Our ability for customization of garments and knit products will be unparalleled in the industry. We can create a custom knit product that also uses a custom spun yarn and a custom blend of raw fibers all under one roof with short lead times and small minimums.
What hurdles will you face by bringing the Machines from an out-of country operation to a USA operation?
In Burma wages of $3/day are common. Made in America is awesome but it comes at a price. To provide a livable wage to employees here in the US means we quickly become non-competitive in the global market of fast-fashion supply chains.
Can you describe the benefits this has on USA industry and jobs?
There is something extremely rewarding about manufacturing our own apparel and not just being a product brand taking advantage of cheap overseas labor. At the end of the day we can look down and see the work of our hands in front of us and that is pretty neat. In our small town in Wyoming the ability to train the workforce with an entirely new skill set is also exciting. We aren’t a big company and our job creation will be slow but every job we bring in helps another family. There is an inherent dignity to work and you can see that on the face of an employee who has just been hired after looking for work for quite some time.
What will the training process look like?
Training will last through the end of April and possibly into May. During this time we will begin small production runs that John will oversee as well. John Ng is providing the majority of our training. John was born in Burma and has worked in the knitting industry for 40 years. He began working as a teenager in factories and has worked in factories in China and Madagascar as well. He ran his own knitting operation in Sacramento for 13 years prior to moving back to Burma. John’s first real experience with winter was two weeks ago when he arrived in Buffalo, Wyoming to help unload the machines. He had never had to drive on ice before! We’ve had an usually cold February and John often says that,
“It is good you make wool garments here.”
What type of product will Mountain Meadow Wool Mill be able to produce?
We will be expanding our wool hoodie and crew neck lines as well as our wool hats/beanies. In addition, keep an eye out for a woman’s cardigan and shawl, a ¼ zip/button sweater, and a new baby/toddler line of clothing. We will also do custom knitting for other companies/brands.