Raw Material: Working Wool in the West

Raw Material: Working Wool in the West is a new book by Stephany Wilkes. Stephany is a certified sheep shearer, wool classer, and author. She had another life before this one and you can read about her transition to her sheep-y career in the book. She lives in San Francisco.

I love this book. I had not heard about it before receiving a copy for Christmas from my resident sociologist and I read the entire thing in a few days. The story starts with Stephany’s experience in shearing school, a journey she undertook on something of a lark because she wanted to figure out why her local California yarn store had no California-made yarn. California is the second largest wool-producing state in the US after Texas and it didn’t make sense that there was no local yarn in the shop. California produces a lot of wool, but almost none of it is processed within the state or even the USA.

Right at the beginning of the book, Stephany references Clara Parkes. You may know her as the author of Knitlandia and The Knitter’s Book of Wool. I heard Clara’s keynote address several years ago when I was teaching at Interweave’s YarnFest. That may have been the first time I really thought about small-scale wool processing in the US. And Clara was clear, the US wool production industry is in trouble. Some of the links in the processing chain are extremely tenuous. As a dedicated wool-user for my work as a tapestry artist and as a recreational knitter, this news is disturbing!*

Stephany Wilkes’ story about California’s wool industry, told through her experience becoming a shearer and her support of a new wool mill in Ukiah, Mendocino Wool & Fiber, supports the story I heard from Clara Parkes.

Shearing is one of the links in the processing chain that is in trouble. It is a very labor-intensive job and it can be difficult to find shearers especially for smaller flocks. And of course, the wool has to come off. It is very unhealthy for the animal if they aren’t sheared regularly. Stephany went to shearing school to see if she could help. I’ll let her tell you her experience in both her first and second rounds of shearing school. It is a fascinating read!

When talking about her realization she was actually going to jump straight into shearing on their first morning at shearing school, she says,

This discomfort hints at why I ought to stick around. I am deeply dissatisfied with the extent to which modern American culture seems more comfortable “knowing that” (or not even, when the act of Googling stands in for knowing) rather than “knowing how.” In haste and shortsightedness, we exported not just manufacturing jobs but craft skills and traditions of making, traded shop class and home economics for credit-powered consumption, planned obsolescence, and disposability, The table saws and sewing machines from high school classrooms sold for a song. Poet Edwin Muir wrote “men are made of what is made,” and, in the United States, we make less than ever. When people see me knit in public, their first reaction is almost always, “wow, I could never do that!” followed by “my mom did that” or “my grandma did that.” Our default expectation is that making is exceptional rather than normal, even though we know it wasn’t always this way. But had I, too, become accustomed to this culture, more comfortable with buying yarn than doing something difficult?
— Stephany Wilkes, Raw Material

As tapestry weavers, users of wool, and straddlers of the craft/art (artificial) divide, I think we can not only understand this statement but use our love of fiber to support this important industry right where we live. I am talking about the US wool industry because I live in the USA. If you live somewhere else, look into local fiber use there.

Here is one more quote which rang true for me because I think tapestry weaving has also been thought of in the last century as an esoteric practice. She is talking about her class of students at shearing school.

Each of us is curious about why other people are here. Who else is crazy enough to spend an entire week learning a dirty, old-fashioned skill in a struggling industry? Who else wants to share a world with other dying, esoteric practices like book binding and thatched roof construction? Even our instructors can’t explain why they’ve continued to shear, offering only vague remarks like “It gets under your skin” or “Shearing gets in your blood. We call it wooly worms.”
— Stephany Wilkes, Raw Material

I understand this. Why on earth would I want to continue the slow process of tapestry weaving when I could paint or do printmaking and produce art in a fraction of the time it takes to weave a tapestry? There are lots of reasons I could cite like the rich texture of fiber, the feel of the wool in my fingers, the place my brain goes when I’m focused on the weaving, or the exciting micro-happenings that occur around every turn as I put pass after pass into the warp.

Making things by hand is important. Making beautiful and useful things demands beautiful raw materials. The variety of sheep’s wool alone in this world is astounding.** Imagine how much better getting a fleece from your local shepherd and having a local mill process it into roving or yarn or even a blanket could be? Mendocino Wool & Fiber can now do that due to the support of Stephany and a lot of other local people. She tells the story of this mill starting up and I’m happy to say that it looks like they are now carding and pin drafting wool and they hope to be spinning soon. The sheer stamina it took this young family to get to that point is astounding (the story is in the book!).

This book increased my already fervent interest in sheep breeds and the amazing results in both yarn and fabric from this varied and versatile animal fiber. Sheep can make fiber that can be worn right next to your skin and fiber that can make outer garments that shed the toughest weather and everything in between. These animals make fiber that can keep you warm and dry in the rainiest or coldest of climates and fiber that has the most gorgeous color or sheen you’ve ever seen. Oh, just read the book. It definitely makes my shelf of favorite books of all time. It is a big shelf, but most books I read don’t make it at all.

*Clara Parkes often has Instagram posts about goings-on in the yarn world (she is great at stories, so click that link and look for the line of circles at the top of her page—those are the saved stories. The “LL Wool Rant” story is there). For example, right now there is some hullabaloo about clothing brands and PETA targeting wool as something to be avoided. WHAT?!! Clara picks up on things like the misinformation spread by clothing manufacturers. Things like implying that it is cruel to shear sheep when in fact, it is far more cruel NOT to shear sheep. As Stephany quotes someone saying somewhere in her book, polyester fleece is just a bucket of oil. Both Duluth Trading Post and L.L. Bean have recently been called out and they have both changed their marketing strategies. Watch Clara’s feed for all the latest in the world of wool, wool processing, and wool used in the garment industry.

**If you don’t believe me, get a copy of Clara Parkes’ The Knitter’s Book of Wool or Deb Robson’s Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. Then go to a wool festival and actually look at and feel the raw fleeces. You’ll be amazed at their beauty and variety.