An interview with Gail Haines of Green Mountain Spinnery
[Editor's note: In April of 2008, Michael Johnson interviewed Gail Haines, a worker-owner at Green Mountain Spinnery, for the book Building Co-operative Power. 13 years later, the co-op is still going strong in Putney, Vermont. This interview has been edited for length and readability.]
Michael Johnson: So the first thing would be, can we just get some basic stuff about Green Mountain Spinnery as a business?
Gail Haines: Okay. The Green Mountain Spinnery has a couple of different aspects to it. It’s essentially a spinnery meaning it spins yarn and there are two basic types of yarn that it spins. It spins yarn that is sold under the Green Mountain Spinnery label — all the yarn that we sell, we make — and it does custom spinning. So somebody who’s a farmer, who raises animals, can bring their fleeces here and we will spin it for them the way they want, and essentially sell it back to them, since their fiber is back to them in a way that they can use it. Custom spinning also includes a blanket company that dies fleeces from many different places, sends them to us, we spin it for their weaving into blankets for their blanket business.
Michael Johnson: Do you do a lot of wholesale?
Gail Haines: So our line of yarns, the Green Mountain Spinnery yarns that we produce, about six different types of yarn — in terms of the ingredients, everything has to have wool as part of it, because the machines are old machines that were brought here 26 or seven years ago when the spinnery started from mills around New England that had closed down already. So the machines are from 1916 to the mid 1950’s—that kind of era of technology. So we make six or whatever lines of types of yarn — 100% wool, wool mixed with other fibers, all natural fibers, animal and plant. And we sell wholesale to shops around New England. I mean, not only New England — throughout the US, Canada, some overseas — we now have a couple places we sell to in Europe and other places. We sell retail here in our shop, little tiny shop — it’s part of our business. And we sell mail order, in internet venues, and we go to festivals and fairs — sheep and wool festivals or knitting festivals, and so that’s like another place that we sell yarn so we get exposure and that’s retail.
Michael Johnson: Is there any particular reason why you pulled together [the spinning machines] that were from…
Gail Haines: Um, I had connections with people who started the spinnery 27 years ago, but I was not part of the group pulling it together. I’ve only worked here a few years but I happen to know that through other things. Some of it was because some of the people involved were people who loved fiber, had done weaving a lot. Part of it was they’d done sort of a study course looking at the economic situation and social situation through social change movements, thinking about how do we make local economy work. There are sheep here, how do we make that work? So that those people who have sheep can keep having sheep, can keep having farmland, can you know, make a product. The original idea included thinking about trying to go back to having a water-powered mill but that didn’t work out. You know that seemed like that was too many pieces to try and pull together, I think. I’m not sure they even remember that that was an idea. [laughing]
Michael Johnson: This was 27 years ago.
Gail Haines: Right, right. And part of how some of the people had free time to sit around and dream a bit about this idea was that they were all arrested at the Clamshell actions in Sea Brook New Hampshire, around the nuclear power plant. So they were in the armory for a few days, I don’t remember how long since I wasn’t there either. [laughs] I hadn’t quite moved to Vermont yet. But that was one of the places where this sort of idea for this grew and developed. Like oooh, let’s do this. So these, essentially four people, came together and started the spinnery. And their ideal at the time was also to make it a workers’ cooperative, but they really had a strong vision and a strong commitment, and didn’t tend to have enough other employees for a lot of those years that seemed like it was really going to go anywhere, I think. And so, you know, they were trying to make the business work…
Michael Johnson: In other words, the people who would come and work, that wasn’t..
Gail Haines: Well, I don’t know how much it was even talked about. It’s a labor-intensive business; it is not a high pay business. [laughs] We say on our envelope, "From our hands to your hands" — our hands have touched every skein of yarn, essentially ten or twenty times just to get it through all the processes. So it’s not like a business that can make lots of money. [laughing]
But a few years ago, it seemed like there were some dedicated workers who were really staying around and really had an investment in it, an interest in the spinnery as a business. It was down to only three of those original four people by then, and two of those three were in their seventies and thinking that they really couldn’t maintain this, and so it got more focused and serious to how do we do this? And there was a grant, I guess it’s through USDA sort of, I’m not clear, and an employee ownership center or something kind of administered the grant. And so we had a consultant who we got to use for a couple of years — cause it all took longer than anticipated to help us really work together as a group to think about what we needed to put together. A business plan, personnel policy; you know, obviously it had been a going business so it wasn’t like this was starting from scratch, but still it was needing to clarify a bunch of things, help bring everybody else along into understanding how to be an owner.
It’s still very much an ongoing process. We all officially came, the six more of us, joined as owners November 6th I guess, and the two people who — one of whom had sort of already retired in some ways — but they more fully retired, both of them at the end of June of '07. They felt like they set enough things up that they could… They’re still part of the board, but aren't actually working… though both of them have aspects that they do show up for occasionally.
Michael Johnson: So, one of the original four is still here? And active in the business?
Gail Haines: Oh yeah, very much so, he’s the general manager. One of the people who knows, I mean really has that continuity of information and history from the first poorly made skein of yarn on these machines that none of them new anything about how to run. You know, none of them had done anything like this before they came here.
Michael Johnson: So, if, uh — the general manager, what was his name?
Gail Haines: David.
Michael Johnson: If David were to have to quit, how would the spinnery be?
Gail Haines: [Laughing] It would be nice if we had a lot of notice to think about it, and to think about how to… which is certainly one of the things that happened when Clair was leaving was…
Michael Johnson: Clair was one of the originals?
Gail Haines: Mmhmm. And one of the parts that she really worked on was product development stuff. So there’s really a committee that she helped form and train that includes people who actually work here and some other people who are involved — who are resources that the spinnery had used in the past to develop patterns — cause that’s another part of our business is making patterns, developing patterns that use our yarns. So it’s a very different part than actually handling the fleece and creating yarn, but you know, which is a real effort to help people understand what all the steps are that were needed in that process so that she could hand it off.
I think certainly, David’s role as general manager means he doesn’t know everything about everything, but keeps sort of that continuity. And he has also been, one of his particular things he’s been the main person to deal with — custom customers and kind of judge fleece and buy fleece, and things like that so… There are other people here who certainly know something about fleece and how the making of the custom products happens, so could presumably gear up to learn more in that particular part.
Michael Johnson: But if that undesirable event were to happen...just off the top, the first thing that comes to your mind, would the people who are now in the partnership want to continue with it?
Gail Haines: Yeah, I think so.
Michael Johnson: This is something that they value and treasure.
Gail Haines: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think that would be a reason to suddenly say oh, well now David’s gone we’re going to fold up, not at all. You know, and I think he anticipates retiring at some point in his life.
Michael Johnson: Sure.
Gail Haines: [laughing] But not immediately. You know, and certainly there’s an aspect of we’re still working to learn what it means to work cooperatively. It’s a business, like I said, that doesn’t make a lot of money and so… there’s a way that for groups to work well together often takes time and energy to focus on the functioning, and that’s very hard for us to find. We feel very torn when we spend time having meetings and we’re not actually getting the work done that we need to get done. So that’s been one of the challenges. And uh, and we’ve done some work together this spring to try and you know, get that balance a little better.
Michael Johnson: One woman that I interviewed made the point, and she did just so beautiful. She said there’s two things that have to be learned here: there’s one we’ve got to learn the what of the business — what we’re doing — but since we’re a cooperative, everybody also has to learn how we’re doing it, because this is new for everybody — this is not a thing that people are accustomed to doing. We weren’t raised to be worker cooperators; we we’re raised to be employer or an employee. You know it’s a pioneer type of thing.
Gail Haines: Well, I know that the woman who was our consultant also commented on what a complex business it is. Because…
Michael Johnson: I mean, just looking at it…
Gail Haines: I mean, there’s the complexity of the actual machines and stuff and we’re having to do all this stuff and they’re old machines and they break down, and all that part, but also that custom spinning is one business. Producing our own line of yarn is another business. You know there’s different rules and ways to think about it, and how much do we charge and what’s the relationships where people are? And then we make patterns; we need to write those up and get those printed. And then we buy things — you know like buttons and needles that we sell in our shop, so that’s just kind of a traditional retail business that is you know, inventory…
Michael Johnson: So it’s like there are three or four businesses all folded in.
Gail Haines: Right, in one business. So we have a huge inventory of yarn — do we have too much, do we have too little? Different times it looks different, you know what if something isn’t selling that’s our line, our product line. So yeah, I think that’s also a challenge for us just all of us getting a grasp of the immensity of the actual business.
Michael Johnson: So you all are very very much — the six of you —
Gail Haines: The six new people
Michael Johnson: are very much into a learning curve right now?
Gail Haines: Yeah, in certain parts. And then you know there’s other parts — people have been working here for quite a while so they know their jobs, the know-how to do those other pieces, so the learning curve is more around…
Michael Johnson: Being an owner and getting a larger picture and learning different facets they haven’t had before.
Gail Haines: Right, and look at which repairs should we make to this machine, and how much will that cost, and do we have the money right now? Traditionally a cash flow slowing down time, you know, but if this makes it easier to make the yarn… You know, does that all work?
Michael Johnson: Why do you think the people are so committed to the cooperative approach?
Gail Haines: You mean as opposed to just having it as a job here?
Michael Johnson: Yeah.
Gail Haines: Because it looked like that’s how it was going to some extant. It’s not like people came here because it was a cooperative.
Michael Johnson: Right.
Gail Haines: Everybody who is part of that — now there might be people who start working here now that come because it’s a cooperative, but everybody of those six were already working here at the time of the conversion. So, I think some of it is certainly for all of us to survive — to have our jobs and survive you know, living in our community. There’s certainly a lot of pride in the product, that we make a really high quality product and lots of us also love that kind of product. Some people like the machines more [laughing] you know, don’t spend time using the yarn particularly, I mean they think it’s nice but a lot of us also just love handling this beautiful yarn, and you know, making something with pride.
It’s a good question. I think certainly, or hope that that means that there’s a place here for all of our voices and all of our ideas and that we get to be part of building it. That’s certainly, I think a piece of it.
Michael Johnson: Okay. What was your first reaction when the possibility appeared? Were you working here at the time?
Gail Haines: I was. I thought it sounded exciting and challenging. I also personally have some of that same history of the four original people in terms of having been — how I knew them is through the social change movements we were part of together, though I hadn’t been in the study group, I hadn’t moved to Vermont yet then. They had done their work and then really gotten excited about these ideas.
I also, for myself, have a history of when I was in college. I went to a college that had cooperatives for dining and eating and I was involved in that, and it was one of the wonderful things about my college life [laughing]. So that certainly and then, I really grew up in a nuclear family, but I left to go to boarding school at 15, and I have not been back in a nuclear family since. So I’ve spent my whole life… I was in these cooperative dining halls which was like 80 people, then I worked [at a] residential place and then I went and lived in communal houses in Philadelphia, and then I moved up here with my cousins and we all lived and continue to live communally here. And I also worked in a day care center that was cooperatively run at the time I was there. It no longer exists, unfortunately. And, unfortunately, stopped being a cooperative some point in there after I’d left. And I have worked at a cooperative restaurant in Brattleborro when I first moved here.
Michael Johnson: Common Ground?
Gail Haines: Yeah. When I first moved here. So for me it was very much a familiar thing but also a lot to learn about how to be a person within this group where people came from very different backgrounds. You know, and not to have be my trying to impose my ideas of how that should work, or how that should look. I consider that pretty important, but it also needs to develop from the different voices that are here, how this cooperative works, whose cooperative it is.
Michael Johnson: Have you played an important role in facilitating that, given the background experience that you’ve had?
Gail Haines: Mmm, I don’t know. I’m not sure I have. I mean there were a few times maybe. But I think also feeling like I needed to let people kind of learn and figure out, and not get pushed in any direction that wasn’t really coming from themselves. I mean, certainly a little piece, sort of, we had some conflicts happen as we were working on it, and then we were going to meet together without the person. We brought somebody in as an outside person to help us start to think about what to do, and we were going to meet again but without that outside person, and I was clear at another meeting in saying, I think we need somebody to plan and facilitate that, and I think it needs to be two people and… so that, and I was one of those people for the first one, but then we were clear that for the next meeting to have two different people, so that everybody had a turn to think about it. So probably my history helped to make me think, no, no, you don’t throw people together kind of floundering for a meeting. [laughing] You have a little thinking!
Michael Johnson: That’s a big piece of it really.
Gail Haines: It is. It is, yeah. So probably that was a place where some of that helped but I had not worked in a cooperative in a number of years. I was quite shocked, actually, when I went from the day care center to a institutional place and it was like, oh my goodness, I’d forgotten this, [laughs] that there were other things like this.
Michael Johnson: Even though a spinnery is not a place where you’re going to make a lot of money, are people making a good income?
Gail Haines: Mmmm. It doesn’t meet the living wage stuff by and large.
Michael Johnson: Okay.
Gail Haines: Maybe by the time some people have gotten to be here many many years and… [laughing]
Michael Johnson: Health insurance?
Gail Haines: Yes. Um, we have some good health insurance benefits. They’re prorated for people who work less than full time, but it’s still… and vacation, and sick time.
Michael Johnson: Retirement?
Gail Haines: No retirement.
Michael Johnson: Uh, a number of the cooperatives uh, you know, do a practice of contributing 10% back to the community.
Gail Haines: Hum. We have a lot of years we don’t make a profit. [laughing]
Michael Johnson: Okay.
Gail Haines: We do do donations to things, though. You know, some community things, but there’s a balance. And I did make the yarn by mistake one time — I mean the color wasn’t done correctly — and made a decision to donate the profit from that yarn to this a native community in the Southwest. They’re sheepherders, trying to preserve their sheep and their livelihood.
Michael Johnson (2021). A Tight-Knit Worker Co-op: An interview with Gail Haines of Green Mountain Spinnery. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/tight-knit-worker-co-op