The California Wool Project: Pioneer
Posted by Kristine Vejar on April 02, 2013 23 Comments
Ever since we naturally dyed that first batch of yarn, six years ago, I have dreamt of our own line of yarn made from California wool.
Little did I know the journey I would take in order to create a yarn made of California wool. This time has been one of great discovery for me, stretching my imagination, at times my patience too, a practice in surrendering to that which will; from gathering the spirit and the energy of many people acting together to the expanse of time it takes to learn. I learned to spin, and through that practice came to know breeds of sheep, and the characteristics their wool lent to yarn. Then to roam the countryside and fiber festivals, discovering what kind of sheep we have in California and in the US, and to meet those dedicated to raising sheep. Taking time to learn about our customers and what yarn they desire to use and how they desire to use it.
We've dyed thousands of pounds of yarn with plants such as indigo and madder, and worked to perfect our practice so that we have a wider range of naturally dyed colors and so we use as little water and electricity possible. And people bought this yarn! And they made things, beautiful things.
Verb has given us the chance to meet hundreds of people who have been inspiring, encouraging, thought provoking, and hard working. I believe deeply that by working with one's hands, we gain connection to the present. That making is part of the human experience. A part that can't be denied. And shouldn't. And these people, students, teachers, customers, and those that love them, are all in support of using one's hands to build skills, to create happiness, and to connect with others who feel the same.
And then there was the act of surrenders to that which is necessary. In order to build the shop and dye studio, things like building code and meeting such fine public figures as the fire marshal and inspectors of all shapes and sizes. Working on the foundation of the business so it is financially stable and sustainable, we've met tax accountants and Quickbooks specialists. Definitely not my favorite part of my job, but I am willing to do it for my love of wool.
Three years ago, friends with a variety of skills gathered, I received the opportunity to open a shop large enough to carry products created by companies which celebrated many of the same intentions and ethics as I hold dear; independently run small businesses, with great care towards the sourcing of materials, the presentation of those materials, and who are all around good people. Seeing this care has continued to support and motivate the discovery of our California wool yarn line.
Hoping to create a shop and studio which has a solid foundation and which we can utilize to live a creative life of making. And a space to connect people with skills and textiles. We are firmly committed to spreading the obsession, uh, I mean love!
The Sheep and their Growers
So you might wonder at this point - ok, so you wanted a California wool yarn line. Well why didn't you just start it already?
California is in a peculiar situation. California is the 3rd largest state in the nation, with the greatest population. We have one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the nation. We have huge cities and equally sized tracts of land and forest. Yet, we have few products and yarn made of California wool, and those that are made of California wool are often overlooked. We have only one mill that spins wool fleece into yarn.
We have a tall order. I'm looking for wool that is strong, stable, ideally a range of natural colors, and soft. Yep, I said it, soft. The S word. Wool that feels soft to the greatest number of people usually has a high lanolin content. Such breeds include Merino, Targhee, Polwarth, and Cormo. Lanolin, also known as grease, can make up to 50% in the weight of a fleece. If you are going to ship fleeces to be processed, that means you are going to pay for the shipping of grease. Once the fleece is washed, carded, and spun into yarn, you will receive in weight half of what you shipped. So the best case scenario is to find fleece that has as little lanolin content in it.
Though fleece with less lanolin tends to feel scratchy to some. The majority of sheep growers cringe when I say this. It can be much easier to raise sheep with a medium coarseness of wool, say Romney. People who live within 80 miles of the coast, find it hard to raise fine wool sheep such as Merino and Cormo, due to the fog. The sheep will actually grow mold. Hard-core sheep and wool lovers will exclaim their love for toothy wool. Go to bat for it. Knit with it like it is a shield and proof of their devotion. Recognize the many positive characteristics of it (lack of pilling, durability, support of rare, less known breeds), and they are right! Though if there is one thing for certain I can tell you right now. People like soft yarn. People who are intelligent, conscious, loving - like soft yarn.
For the past 6 years, I have traveled to farms. I have put the word out that I am looking. There are sheep. I see them. You could say I stalk them. They are used as lawnmowers in wine country. Sue Reuser has some of the most gorgeous Cormo fleeces you will ever lay your eyes upon. So here's the deal. Most of the wool I have come across that is affordable is wool that is extremely scratchy and dirty. Or wool that is so beautiful and divine that it sells easily for $20-30 / lb unwashed. We can not make a yarn from this which will be affordable.
We've been looking for the middle ground. Ideally, we would work with a rancher who would be willing to work with us and to improve his sheep's fleece. Where we could contribute to someone's ranch who was already in the business and who is looking to diversify their revenue stream. To help ranchers as much as possible. I contacted ranchers. Perhaps I am a poor salesperson or I couldn't covey my dream accurately. I could not get them to take the project seriously.
Two years ago, I came across the work of Rebecca Burgess. At that time, she was working on trying to clothe herself with textiles made within 100 miles of her home in Marin County (located just north of us). Through her project, and the limited number of resources available to make the cloth for her clothing, the realization quickly came to pass that though we have a wealth of interest, energy, motivation, makers, and growers, we lack infrastructure. This past November, Rebecca, as part of her organization Fibershed, hosted the first Fine Wool Fiber Symposium. One of Rebecca's great strengths is that she has the ability to pull people together. She expresses her vision with crisp clarity. Her vision includes utilizing our local natural resources, such as wool, organic cotton, and dye plants, and transforming them into yarn and fabric, and then into clothing, accessories, and bedding, in the most ecologically sound way possible. Materials would be grown in a matter and would travel as little as possible, creating the lowest carbon footprint. Rebecca works hard to add as little as possible to global warming.
In one panel discussion, there were at least 9 or 10 sheep herders. For the first time ever, the herders in the region came together as a panel, to talk about raising sheep for the intention of producing fiber, and about the products they make from this fiber. Next, 3 shearers took the stage, to explain the current conditions of wool in California. John Sanchez, a shearer on the panel, reported that only 10-15% of his clients actually keep their fleece instead of disposing of it. In 2012, he collected all the wool no one wanted. He had nearly 8000 pounds of wool! John described the situation as a cycle, one where the wool isn't worth anything, so the rancher doesn't see the use in making it any better. Right now, any wool that is saved is sent mainly to a wool pool located in Roswell, New Mexico. It is said that most of this wool is exported to China for manufacturing. The grower is not paid for the wool until it sells. The wool is auctioned, by the consent of the auction house, so it is difficult for the grower to accurately estimate how much they will receive for the wool or to even know why they received the amount they did. So in many ways, the idea of selling wool, or making better wool, seems, well, a bit arbitrary. [lead into the ideal] John said that even creating a cleaner space, free of hay and dirt, for the shearing, in many cases, would help the condition of the fleece. He also said that there are many nice flocks of sheep. All of the shearers said they come across many fleeces which with a little help from the grower could make great yarn for wearable garments.
Another shearer on the panel named Matt Gilbert is incredible. He is open, engaged, travels hundreds of miles to shear, and really knows his clients. Since meeting Matt, we have been discussing flocks which would make good yarn and managed by people who are willing to take a few extra steps to help the sheep create better fleeces. Matt is helping to create a middle ground between wool best used for compost, and wool best used by the handspinner. With Matt's help we have been able to find flocks of sheep whose fleece fit within our idea of the middle ground: soft-to-medium hand, clean, strong. Buy purchasing fleece from these flocks, the rancher has direct contact with the buyer, has a distinct idea how their wool is contributing to the marketplace, and can make more money off of the wool due to the fact that there isn't a middle man (the auction house). So far, as we have worked with Matt, we've heard from ranchers that they are interested in working with us to make better wool!
Great! So ranchers, within a 200 mile radius of Verb, are coming forth with wool. Now comes the stage where we look to send the fleece off to be processed into yarn. And it goes away - all the way to Vermont.
One of my favorite things about California is how many small businesses, we're talking mom and pop, are in existence. The diversity of the shop-owners, socioeconomically, race, and nationality, is outstanding. As well as the diversity of shops; cheese mongers, the local five and dime, bee-keeping shops, a Japanese tool shop, even a shop that focuses solely on mushrooms. There are also a great number of people here, including Verb, who partake in some form of manufacturing. And right outside the city, you have a wide array of farms, small to large, organic to other.
This diversity in the marketplace, not only allows lively dinner party conversations, but also allows for many different types of employment for a wide range of people. Everyone from those who have had little access to education to those who have a doctorate, and everything in between. Those that enjoy freelancing to those that like a steady, routine job. Ok, fine, so beyond lively dinner conversations, it is important to have diversity in industry and in employment because it is important to have a wide range of wisdom and experience and for the appreciation of all creatures great and small. Participating, and having a breadth of ways to participate is part of the human experience. It keeps us curious, happy, engaged.
We can't have locally owned business without an engaged population of shoppers. Fortunately, a good percentage of shoppers value the experience of shopping locally and contributing to the fabric of diversity in the marketplace. Food has come to be one area where people have come to look at the fine details of how and where their groceries are grown. This trend is expanding to include makers of all kinds; jewelers, potters, clothing and accessory designers who are manufacturing their wares locally.
One of the greatest things I see happening, is that local clothing designers are reaching beyond just sewing their clothing locally, more of them are dyeing their own fabrics, some with natural dyes like indigo. Some are interested in and using raw materials sourced from Northern California. Customers are becoming increasingly interested in the details and process of how their clothing is made - and how the fabric is made, and learning about the materials used to make the fabric. Buying a shirt is transitioning from simply buying a shirt, to where the wearer is part of the process. Process and product are merging.
We have what looks like the perfect environment for a thriving fiber market. By utilizing more of our woolly resources, and by building a better infrastructure to handle the raw materials, like another mill, we could create more jobs which follow our trend for diversity in employment. And don't forget that growing customer base who are interested in textiles and process.
Remember Matt, the shearer? He has thrown his hat in the ring. He is willing and wanting to create a mill which would do all of these things. He is in the midst of writing, and re-writing his business plan. He is seeking the advice of consultants. We need a mill that can process more wool at once, one that can work with a variety of fleeces from fine merino to coarse navajo-churro. One that can create a wide variety of yarn, from light to heavy weight. I'll let you know what happens here. There might be some kind of crowd-sourcing fundraiser.
With all of the makers, the designers, those who are in love with California and would like to see more products made here, add-in the sheer number of knitters in this state alone, I can only hope and imagine that we can engage the California wool market. And while I adore Vermont, and Green Mountain Spinnery, where our yarn was processed, and am thrilled that this yarn was made there. I do hope that we will create a mill in California that can practice the same principles as Green Mountain Spinnery and share in its legacy.
The California Wool Project
Typically sheep are shorn once a year. A sheep's fleece is made of many tufts of wool. An individual tuft is known as a lock. The length of a lock is a staple length. A lock tells the story of the sheep's year. To examine the lock, or in other words learn about the sheep's year and bill of health, you can snap the lock between 2 fingers, and hold the lock to the light. If there is a break in the lock or a brittle portion, this means that the sheep either became sick, lacked nutrients, or even had a shift in their diet, at some point in the year. Even with great care, sheep can become ill. At which point, the fleece loses value. The best case scenario is that the lock does not have any breaks, is not brittle, and that the fleece is uniform in length and softness, as these characteristics will make the best yarn.
There are many variables which could affect our ability to get the same wool from year to year. As sheep age and their fleece changes texture from soft to coarse, a flock could get sick, a rancher could decide that raising sheep is no longer economically viable. Government subsidies shift towards different types of agriculture making it impossible for the herder to continue raising sheep. The public can't support the cost of the product, the need for a less expensive wool arises, causing us to switch to a new farm with different types of fleece. Or, on the brighter side, we want to add a farm, and highlight their work. We like that sheep change and this project mirrors what is alive today.
And then there is the question of the mill. There are not many to choose from across the US. They fill up fast. Each mill has its own print upon the yarn. Their own style of carding, combing, spinning, and plying. Split a fleece in half, send it to two different mills, you will have two different yarns.
So I have the idea to look at the yarn similar to wine. Each type of yarn has its own vintage. Each year, we get to look forward to learning what we can source.
Pattern support is dire for the success of our yarn. And the relationship and collaboration with designers is one of my favorite aspects of Verb. That said, it is also costly and a ton of effort goes into designing the pattern, photographing it, writing it, and then publishing it. As you can imagine, I am quite attached to the patterns designers have made to go with our yarn. I would hate to lose those patterns in a transition. Faced with the question of how I was going to create a yarn with endurance, I came up with the following solution.
My idea is to create a yarn, year after year, that yields 5 stitches per inch. That way, if a flock changes, or we make a change, the yarn can follow the patterns. Plus, 5 stitches per inch yields a yarn perfect for sweaters to wear in our temperate climate. Now, it's just a matter of crossing our fingers, given the varying amount of crimp (or bounce) in each fleece, will co-operate with the mill, and give us just that, 5 sts per inch. Um. give or take.
We're calling this attempt The California Wool Project!
And we have made our first yarn! Pioneer! Vintage 2013.
I think of Sally Fox as a pioneer. She uses curiosity, determination, and courage to cultivate a material and farm she believes in. When you live in this area, and you unfold the workings of the fiber world even just a little bit, you learn quickly of Sally Fox. She is a local hero.
Sally has always lived close to the land. She learned to spin as a child, went to school to be an entomologist, and traveled to Africa through the Peace Corp to help fight pests and diseases which target peanuts and rice. There, she began to witness the devastating effects pesticides have on people, insects, animals, and the land. This strengthened her resolve to support the use of naturally pest-resistant plants and to farm organically. While working as a pollinator for a cotton grower, Sally came across seed for naturally colored brown cotton. This type of cotton has been around for eons, though had been bred out of our farms, due to the fact that, just like wool, major manufactures prefer white, so it can be dyed, and because the staple length on naturally colored cotton tends to be too short to spin effectively. Sally set out to create a naturally colored cotton that had a longer staple length, and did just that. Unfortunately, the farmers around her, were not very pleased with the fact that her brown cotton could contaminate their white cotton. The mills did not want to spin her cotton as it would be difficult to transition from brown to white cotton, batch to batch. She moved her farm from California's central valley, than to Arizona, and finally brought it to the Capay Valley, 90 miles from Oakland. In this region, it was hot and dry enough to grow cotton, and was also home to many organic farmers, instead of large scale cotton farms. When settling into her Capay Valley farm, she started raising sheep as they are excellent weeders, and all around lovely companions. The above photo was taken by Sally of her sheep in April 2013.
At the Fine Wool Symposium, back in November, I expressed my interest to the growers that I desired a line of yarn made from California wool but was having trouble finding affordable fleece that would make great yarn, that was also soft. Sally told me that she had organic Merino wool in a variety of colors that she was willing to sell. I nearly fell over. Not only did she have the wool that I could possibly be looking for, but that we could support her land management practices and honor her long history of dedication to cultivating sustainably grown cotton in California...I was stunned.
I have to admit. I didn't call her back right away. Do you ever feel like something is unfolding in front of you, and it is exactly that thing you've wanted, so you feel like someone has punched you in the gut? It's a funny feeling to see the path right there in front of you. Most of the obstacles have been removed, and now it is up to you to carry the plan forth. No more blaming this or that as to why it can't happen. It is here. It can happen. Now it's about allowing it to happen and embracing what is to come. And this is when I rely heavily on my co-workers at Verb and their support. I told them what was happening and waited for their response. Without a doubt, everyone was on board!
So I wrote to Sally and off the wool went to Green Mountain Spinnery. That just happened. Right after Stitches West, at the end of February. Since turning the corner of deciding to do this, everything has happened really fast. When first estimating how long it would take Green Mountain to spin this order, the time frame was 6 months. Though somehow, something shifted, and they were able to proceed faster than expected. We just received our entire shipment on Monday!
Green Mountain Spinnery has been a dream to work with. They have a long legacy of quality work and are cooperatively owned. Above are photos of our yarn being made. David, who runs the mill, completely geeked out with me over thickness, grist, twist, and plies. He entertained all of my crazy questions. And he is a significant contributor to our beautiful new yarn, Pioneer at 4-5 sts per inch.
Pioneer will be available for purchase on May 1st both online and in person. Available are a range of natural colors and naturally dyed colors.
To celebrate, we are hosting a day long party (11am-7pm) on May 1st! I hope you will come! We will have drinks and treats, and hopefully a couple new patterns to go with our new yarn!
We are in the process of interviewing some of the companies whose products we carry that contribute to the movement of using US sourced wool and US mills. We will post them soon for you to read.
Hopefully, if all goes well, we can create more yarn lines based upon California wool and help others to do the same.
I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has supported Verb, Sally, and Green Mountain Spinnery. Without your support, in all the various forms you give, we could not have started this project and could not have created this yarn. Thank You!