New Brunswick

The last wool company in N.B. prepares 100th anniversary

New Brunswick's only wool business is celebrating its 100th anniversary next month at a mill location that is even older. The business in York Mills was founded in 1916 and has survived fires, floods, and a changing industry.

Fires, floods and a changing industry haven't slowed down the company or its fourth generation of owners

John and Michael Little show off a replica sweater of the 2010 closing ceremony sweater made with their yarn that was worn by Canadian athletes during the Vancouver Olympics (Shane Fowler/CBC)

New Brunswick's only wool business is celebrating its 100th anniversary next month at a mill location that is even older. 

Briggs and Little Woolen Mills Ltd., located in York Mills, was founded in 1916 and has survived fires, floods and a changing industry. 

Co-owner John Little has worked at his family's company for nearly 50 years. 

"About 150 years ago there was a wool processing facility probably every 40 or 50 kilometres because it was within a day's travel by horse and wagon," said Little. "There's no other mills in New Brunswick, and there's none in Nova Scotia. There's one in P.E.I." 
During WWII the company released their first coloured alternates to white, grey, and black yarn. Paddy green, royal blue and scarlett red were the three first colours. The company offers between 300 and 400 product options. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Little says he has no idea exactly why his company has remained in the wool business while dozens of others have disappeared. 

"If I could answer that I could probably win the lottery," laughed John Little. 

Little says the company has shipped product all over the world including several Asian markets. 

"We've sent ours to Australia as well, which you wouldn't think of because they have so many sheep and industry already," said Little. "But our product is much different." 

Little says in 2010 the world saw what Briggs and Little yarn could do when every Canadian athlete and coach attended the Vancouver closing ceremony wearing sweaters made with their product. 
John Little says due to industry changes the company only gets enough New Brunswick wool to operate for five weeks of the year. The rest of the wool comes from elsewhere. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"We watched for two weeks, and never saw those sweaters," said Little. "We thought, 'where are they?' And then after two weeks there they were. That was special." 

Briggs and Little Woolen Mills currently has about two dozen employees. Little says staying relatively small has benefited the company and allowed them to ride out the ups and downs over the decades. 

Little says the types of customers and their demands have shifted a lot during the last few years and the advent of online sales has challenged the company, but he thinks yarn will still be in demand for at least another hundred years. 

"So far they haven't found another fiber that will give a human comfort under as many diverse conditions as wool will," said Little. "It can be wet and it will still keep you warm. It can actually be frozen on the outside and still keep you warm. So it has properties that haven't been able to be duplicated." 

Always changing 

Little says the company is used to changes throughout its hundred-year history. 

"In 1945 we introduced colours," said Little. "Paddy Green, Scarlet Red and Royal Blue. Now we have 300 to 400 choices of product." 

The company is now under the ownership of a fourth generation of Littles. John Little's son Michael became an owner of the company a year and a half ago. 

"It's very rewarding, I'm proud of it," said Michael Little, who has been working with the company in some fashion since he was a teenager. "I'm scared to death, if I'm perfectly honest. And I just feel this is where I'm supposed to be and this is where I want to be." 
John Little shows some of the colours the company now offers its wool products in. Originally only white, grey, and black was offered, but in 1945 blue, green and red dyes were added. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Michael Little may have reason to worry in a historical sense. Every generation of owner has watched the mill burn to the ground as the result of devastating fires, the latest of which took place in 1994.

"But they always built it back," said Michael Little. "But our employees, and our workers here, they're incredible. And we'll more than likely carry on past my generation." 

Despite dedicating much of their adult lives to handling wool and producing yarn, John and Michael Little say neither of them has ever actually had to shear a sheep. 

"Not yet anyway," said John Little. 

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.