FARM TO FASHION
Browder's Birds champions wool to create sustainable apparel
by Victoria Caruso
Tucked away on a quiet stretch of land off Soundview Avenue in Mattituck lies Browder's Birds, a serene 16-acre poultry farm where Chris and Holly Browder tend to an assortment of cows, chickens, turkeys, ducks, bees and heritage Cotswold sheep. What began as a self-serve poultry stand over thirteen years ago has grown into a place where farming meets fashion.
Holly Browder is the owner of Browder4050: a small-scale, sustainable apparel collection. Using the wool from her own flock of sheep, she offers a small range of sweaters and other knits that are ethically grown, milled and knitted right here in New York state.
When Holly and her husband Chris initially started their venture in selling poultry products, they never could have imagined that the farm would evolve into a source for wool apparel. In 2011, after exclusively raising hens and broilers for a year, the couple added sheep to the family farm as a means of controlling the grasses growing in the pasture.
"The chickens were fertilizing the grass so well that in the spring and summer it was growing out of control," explained Holly. "We got the sheep only to be herbivores, not even thinking about what the sheep's purpose was on the farm."
They acquired nine lambs which, by chance, were of the heritage Cotswold variety — a rare breed of sheep with lustrous, curly locks known for making durable yarn. When it came time for shearing, a process that is both costly and essential for the well-being of the sheep, Holly and Chris were up to their ears in wool.
PHOTOS BY DAVID BENTHAL
"We had all this gorgeous wool and I was kind of giving it away, not really sure what to do with it," explained Holly. "It was all new to me." By another stroke of luck, Holly came into contact with Carol Edwards, the then-director of The Knit Resource Center and a local expert in the fashion industry. The knitwear development company, based in the heart of Manhattan's Garment District, was responsible for designing the patterns for high-end designers like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Michael Kors.Edwards assisted Holly in developing the designs and refining production details for her knits.
"She held my hand and explained everything to me. We’d get vintage sweaters and we’d look at them trying to figure out what we were going to make," Holly said. "It's not exactly farming, so that was a little scary getting into a whole new business."
Today, the small self-serve stand at Browder's Birds offers visitors goods like fresh eggs and poultry meat, as well as fiber products like hand-dyed surf beanies, Browder's mill-spun yarn, and raw wool. Other apparel, like the brand's 100% wool whaler sweaters and knitted cardigans, are sold online or in-person at events like the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, which is held every October.
The designs have remained mostly unchanged since the first collection, with only a few variations in color and minor tweaks. Rather than chasing fashion trends, Holly emphasizes the longevity of her clothing.
"When you look at fast fashion, it's only made to be worn for one season," Holly explained.
Crafted from strong fibers, each of the Browder's pieces are built to last. Despite the average cost of one of their wool cardigans being $350, Holly believes that her clothing is worth the investment, as they are timeless pieces that can be worn again year after year.
Holly's knits embody the concept of "slow fashion," a phrase that emerged in the wake of the slow food movement. From poor working conditions and low wages in fast fashion supply chains to the mis- treatment of animals, people are taking stock in knowing where and how their clothes are made.
According to a 2021 Consumer Intel Report, 63% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Small-scale, sustainable collections like Browder4050 can also avoid the struggles of overconsumption and overproduction that are associated with fast fashion, as supplies are available in limited quantities. With shearings occurring only twice a year, Holly says it generally takes about a year for one of her clothing items to be restocked once it's sold out.
Almost 60% of materials used in clothing, including nylon, acrylic and polyester, are plastic. These synthetic fibers, despite being light-weight and cost-effective, release microplastic fibers during each wash cycle and can carry harmful contaminants such as toxic pesticides and industrial chemicals. Made from 100% natural fibers, Browder4050 knitwear is biodegradable, eliminating the need for it to be disposed of in a landfill.
Consumers of the farm's collection are also offered full transparency about the items that they are purchasing. They can visit the farm where Holly and Chris raise the flocks that provide every scrap of wool in their clothing. Twice a year, the Browders use shearings as an opportunity to welcome the community to their farm and educate them on the age-old practice.
"People appreciate seeing the whole process," said Holly. "They love touching the wool and seeing the sheep."
The story of Browder's wool starts with the flock of heritage Cotswold sheep that roam freely across the farm's certified organic pasture. With their long, shiny fleeces growing about an inch per month, the shaggy animals require shearing twice a year. By the time shearing day arrives, they’re weighed down by their thick curls and are in need of a fresh cut. "They can't carry all that wool around," explained Holly. "It's heavy and dirty, and once we take it off them, they feel so much better."
The shearing is always held on a day when the skies are free of rain clouds, as sheep need to be sheared when dry. Tabbethia Haubold, a professional shearer and owner of Long Island Yarn and Farm in Yaphank, visits the farm every fall and spring for the job.
The sheep are corralled in a fenced-in enclosure while they wait their turn for a haircut. One by one, the sheep are guided out of the pen and onto a wooden platform where Haubold is waiting with clippers in hand. After trimming their nails, she begins the shearing process. Haubold uses a set pattern, starting with the belly wool first and then carefully unzipping the rest of the curly coat off the animal. Moving with practiced ease, she turns the wooly creature over, tackling each section until the sheep is bare. Once she's finished, her team swarms in to clear the woolen debris from the platform, sweeping curly piles into a bag. Each sheep walks away about six to eight pounds lighter.
Afterward, the bag of wool is brought to a nearby table to be sorted. One fleece at a time, Holly and volunteers carefully sift through the ringlets of ivory wool, separating out any debris that may have gotten tangled up in the wool. With deft fingers, they pluck out bits of straw and sticks, and locate any sections of material that are too dirty or matted to be of use.
PHOTO CREDIT: VICTORIA CARUSO
Employing her own personal grading system, Holly rolls up the wool like a carpet and stores them in a bag, labeling them by quality so she knows where to send them later.
Holly tries not to let any of the product from the shearing go to waste. Some of it is sold raw, often to fiber artists looking to get their hands on the rare sheep's wool. The sections that are too matted or short to use are left on the ground for nearby birds, who often use it to make nests. The best quality fleeces are taken to Battenkill Fibers, a mill in Upstate New York, to be transformed into yarn.
"I enjoy working with Holly Browder's fiber," said Battenkill Fibers owner Mary Jeanne Packer. "It comes in nice and clean, it's good quality, it's very strong and I love the shine it makes."
There, the fleeces will be hand-sorted and fed into a machine that fluffs them up and prepares them for the scouring process — a mechanical procedure used to extract grease and dirt from the wool. The act of loosening the fibers not only enhances the efficiency of the process, but enables the mill to use less hot water, thereby reducing costs and environmental impact.
During the scouring process, the mill uses a special, low-impact detergent that emulsifies the lanolin and gets the wool clean. Once finished, the wool is air-dried on repurposed baker's racks. At this point, the wool is ready to be dyed, though Holly also often asks to keep some of the wool true to its natural hue. The fleeces meant to be colored are dyed in large stainless steel kettles and then set out to air-dry a second time.
Once the scouring and dyeing process is complete, the material passes through a belt-fed picker that loosens any fibers that may have clumped together during the washing. The next step involves feeding the wool into a 1980s vintage Davis and Furber carder, which converts the material into a broad, cohesive web-like sheet of fibers.
"Browder's Birds’ fiber, which is called Cotswold, is absolutely beautiful in these phases," said Packer.
Following this, the fibers are condensed and coiled into cans. The mill uses Warner & Swasey pindrafters to comb through and align the loose strands of textile fiber before taking them to the spinning frames.
Battenkill Fibers has two Gaudino spinning frames that can be used to make yarn. After creating a single ply yarn on the Gaudino spinners, the mill takes the yarn and twists it together to make two-ply yarn, adding strength to it so that it's ready for machine knitting. After being wound onto cones, the yarn is complete.
Next, the yarn is shipped to Simply Knitting Mills, a small, family-owned knitwear manufacturer in Queens, New York. According to Hattice Szanto, who manages the knitting factory with her husband, the process begins with product development and prototyping.
To bring Holly's vision of a cardigan to life, Szanto's husband utilizes a high-powered flatbed STOLL machine to craft a prototype. Upon receiving the green light, production commences.
The cardigan's individual pieces are created separately, and then assembled using a linking machine. The cardigan is then hand-finished to clean up loose ends. Lastly, it's washed, dried, pressed, labeled and packaged before being ready for pick-up.
Should Holly decide to add a splash of color to her designs, she may enlist the aid of a local fiber artist to naturally dye some of her knits at this step. This is a design choice sometimes used for her surf beanies, which are well-suited for the natural dye look. Otherwise, the apparel embarks on a journey back to Mattituck, where it will be held until it's time to bring warmth and comfort to someone new.
Victoria Caruso is a multimedia journalist with experience telling stories through writing, podcasting and videography. She's a graduate of Brown University and a Long Island native.PHOTOS BY DAVID BENTHAL THE JOURNEY OF BROWDER4050 WOOL PHOTO CREDIT: VICTORIA CARUSO