ST. PETER, Minn. -- Thank goodness for wool, especially if you're a winter-weary Midwesterner.
The St. Peter Woolen Mill, knows exactly what to do with the fiber that is warm, fluffy and ... did we mention warm?
"Wool is just very comforting because it breathes so well," said Pat Johnson, owner of the custom woolen mill for the last 30 years.
The woolen mill has been owned and operated by her family members through four generations since 1912. It was established in 1867, making it 141 years old this year -- just nine years younger than the state of Minnesota itself.
Johnson said wool's breathing ability can keep people warm in winter and cool in summer. The mill's Web site boasts this temperature regulation as one health benefit of wool in addition to its natural resistance to mildew and its ability to lower heart rates. The woolen mill's wool is mostly non-allergenic because no harsh chemicals are used in processing.
People from all over the country seek out the business because it's only one of three custom wool mills in the United States, Johnson said. That means they can return a customer's own wool as a finished or semi-finished product. In Minnesota, it's the only woolen mill that does custom work. They can take someone's wool being used in comforters or other items, wash and re-card it, then give it back to its owner.
Employees have seen wool that's more than 100 years old multiple times as it's passed down from generation to generation.
Customers may also bring new wool to be washed and carded into batting that can be used for wool mattress pads, wool comforters, wool pillows, crafting, needle felting, felting and spinning. Many of this wool comes from people who raise their own sheep.
Or, people who can't find comforters, shams or bed skirts to match their home's decor can send in material to order custom items. Custom wool-filled quilts can be hand tied or made with one of five stitching patterns.
"We can complete it so it's ready to go on their bed," said Johnson.
Quilters may send in their pieced-together tops and the woolen mill will finish the quilt by adding wool batting and a backing, giving these crafters more time to work on their favorite part of quilting projects.
"Piecing is the part that they like the best," said Johnson.
But just because they're handing over their project to be completed, quilters don't have to compromise on their vision of what the final product will be. The woolen mill accommodates custom block applications, including overall meander and outlining.
In 1996, the business began its own wholesale operation, called Nature's Comfort. This collection of wool-filled mattress pads, wool comforters and wool pillows are made with unbleached cotton and filled with 100 percent all-natural wool without plastic resins or dyes.
Nature's Comfort wool is also sold as batting for projects. The collection is sold in 30 retail stores throughout the United States and through the woolen mill's Web site. Their comforters come in different wool weights, from heavy to tropical. All of the wool Johnson buys is from a co-op supplied entirely by Midwestern producers.
There's no spinning, weaving or dying at the woolen mill, but they sell equipment and books to help crafters carry out their projects. Crafters can also turn to the family's yarn shop, Mary Lue's Yarn and Ewe, that was established exactly 100 years after the woolen mill began. The yarn shop is run by Johnson's sister, Peggy Grey, and recently relocated to Mankato.
It offers classes and supplies for knitting, crocheting, felting and needle felting and it carries gifts related to the sheep world.
Johnson said knitting is becoming more popular as movie stars are seen picking up a pair of needles and as the quality and variety of yarn increases.
"The yarns produced nowadays are nothing like our mothers' yarn...it's fantastic," she said.