A former New York State Senator is turning an under-appreciated agricultural product into a local business.
The winter after Cecilia Tkaczyk didn’t win re-election to the New York State Senate was a particularly frigid one. In upstate New York, where she has a small sheep farm, the floors of her old house became so cold that she noticed her dog shivering all the time. Even in his bed, the short-haired coonhound mix had trouble warming up.
So, she ripped out the dog bed’s polyester fill and replaced it with wool. “There was a noticeable difference in my dog’s comfort,” Tkaczyk told me, and the idea for a new company, Cece’s Wool, was born.
The sheep that are raised for meat and milk have shorter wool than breeds that are prized for producing yarn. But even these short haired breeds still get sheared once a year, usually in the spring, not only to help the sheep stay cool through the summer but also to help lambs find their mother’s udder and latch on.
This wool is usually just thrown away, because it’s not really suitable for spinning into yarn. But Tkaczyk became fascinated with finding other uses for it. She soon partnered up with the Kyle Farm, in Avon, New York, which has a flock of some 1,000 sheep to source wool, and Greenfleece Fiber Mill, another New York business, to pick and process the wool into batting.
Pet beds where Tkaczyk’s original inspiration, but soon she was coming up with other uses for this under-used material. “When I saw the quality of the batting, I thought, ‘I’m putting this in pillows!’ ”
She wanted the product to come from local farmers like herself, and to also help support farms that use sustainable practices. The Kyle Farm is part of the Genesee Valley Conservancy, and is careful to ensure good land-use practices. “When I look at a farm were I get wool from, I want to see how they’re taking care of the animals and how they’re taking care of the land,” she said.
Local production is also part of the business model. The products made for Cece’s Wool are assembled and sewn at Herkimer Industries, a company provides jobs to people with developmental disabilities. “It’s great to see people getting involved,” said Tkaczyk. “They also package and store my pillows, and fill my orders.”
Wool fill pillows have many of the same advantages as a wool sweater, particularly when compared to synthetic fill. Tkaczyk said that wool not only keeps your head warm as you sleep, but also breaths and controls humidity. “I find I have a longer sleep, because you’re not going to wake up with your face sweating.” These conditions also mean your pillows won’t be attractive to dust mites.
Currently the pillows and beds are sold online and at farmer’s markets. Tkaczyk hopes that as the company grows, the farms where the wool is produced could also sell the pillows along with their cheese and meat. “They can sell the pillows, or I can sell the pillows,” she said. Each pillow would have a small tag that says the name of the farm where the batting came from. “I think it’s really important to know where the products that we’re using come from.”