Gerard and Beatrice reopened a wool mill and helped save a town

Gerard and Beatrice BarrasGerard Barras scribbles as he talks. On yellow sticky notes, he draws an organizational chart outlining the tasks the 47 workers at his wool cooperative, Ardelaine, carry out in the mountainous countryside two hours south of Lyon, France.

He jots numbers – 70 tons of wool last year, sheared from 50,000 sheep, raised by 260 regional breeders paid higher than open-market prices in exchange for their promise to use high-quality feed and no chemicals on the sheep’s wool.

He sketches the mill, writing the numerals 1, 2, and 3 to demonstrate each employee’s multiple roles.

“It’s complex,” Mr. Barras says.

On a given day a worker might give visitors a tour or work in the boutique or take on a production task at the mill, which produces organic wool-stuffed mattresses, pillows, hats, scarves, and clothing.

Gerard’s constant sketching makes sense. Before he became the first employee and eventually president of this cooperative, he studied architecture. Harder to fathom, a half century after cheaper global products crushed the once-thriving wool industry here, is how Ardelaine – which reopened its doors in 1982 – has not merely survived but prospered.

It is a story of passion and grit, an oft-told tale of how Gerard; his wife, Beatrice; and three friends were so deeply drawn four decades ago to the patrimoine, or heritage, of the wool mills here that one by one they abandoned other career paths and committed themselves to bringing the mill back to life. They shared, too, a commitment to an egalitarian means of shared ownership.

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