Sheep to Shawl
Jan./Feb. 2008 California Country magazine
By Kate Campbell
At the Warner Mountain Weavers workshop and showroom in Cedarville, industrious craftswomen are taking wool from local flocks and turning it into items of the highest quality and beauty.
High desert ranchers and weavers turn wool into wearable art
Icelandic sheep are one of the world's oldest and purest breeds of sheep. Brought to the tiny island country by the Vikings about 1,100 years ago, the breed has been carefully managed to produce hardy animals that supply meat, milk and an astonishingly rich fiber that is usually undyed and spun into yarn. The breed does well in California's high deserts, where winters can be very harsh.
Below the Warner Mountains, where Modoc County spreads majestically across Surprise Valley and the Nevada desert beyond, sheep graze among the sage and women gather wool to spin and weave. It's a time-honored partnership between sheep farmers and artisans that dates back more than 10,000 years.
But at the Warner Mountain Weavers workshop and showroom in Cedarville, industrious craftswomen are putting a very modern spin on a traditional agricultural activity--taking wool from local flocks and turning it into items of the highest quality and beauty.
Sheep rancher Sophie Sheppard is a relative newcomer to Surprise Valley. Although she has lived there for more than 25 years, she says old-timers are those who've lived in the close-knit, high desert farming and ranching area for 50 years or more.
Montague sheep rancher Devon Strong carefully shears Sheppard's flock to achieve a perfect first cut.
A noted painter, Sheppard (who laughs good naturedly at the aptness of her own name) tends a flock of Icelandic sheep, an ancient breed prized for milk and meat, but especially for wool.
"I wanted Icelandic sheep because they're beautiful and I'm visually oriented," said Sheppard. "They're also hardy and known for giving birth to twins and triplets, which means a flock can quickly increase in size and they do well in our desert environment.
"But more than that, I've come to love raising sheep," Sheppard said. "I love everything about it. But, what really drew me to Icelandic sheep was handling the fiber."
Sophie Sheppard says her Icelandic sheep are carefully managed for maximum wool yield and are sheared twice a year.
Sheppard has been spinning yarn for about 25 years and says having her own flock is a dream come true. Wool from her sheep is spun into natural-color yarns that she uses for her own projects, with the rest sold as "Sophie's Yarn" at the Warner Mountain Weavers showroom.
Due to the fiber length, openness of the wool, variety of natural colors and versatility of the yarn, Icelandic fleeces are highly sought by hand spinners, but the fleece usually can be found only through specialty outlets. Experienced weavers say the undercoat or "thel" is down-like, lustrous and soft. The longer "tog" overcoat is similar to mohair--wavy or corkscrewed rather than crimped--and is prized for tight, worsted spinning.
"My husband likes sweaters with colors that match the natural landscape," Sheppard said. "I knit about four or five sweaters a year, some for him, others for family members."
In addition to raising sheep, Sheppard and her husband, Lynn Nardella, are grass farmers. They develop pasture that they lease for cattle grazing. For many years Nardella worked as an archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. As a second career, the couple says running their own ranch offers great satisfaction.
"We call all of northwest Nevada our front yard," she said. "It spreads out from our ranch into the emptiest place in the country, but it's also a very magical place."
To discourage predators and enjoy the summer nights, Sheppard says she and her husband often sleep outdoors in a gazebo built near their sheep pasture. When it's hot, Sheppard says she hates to confine her flock in the barn given how heavily they're wooled.
"Summers are hard on Icelandic sheep," Sheppard said. "Unlike other sheep they have to be shorn twice a year. And they're harder to shear because they aren't as docile as other breeds."
She works with Devon Strong, who owns Four Eagles Farm in Montague and runs his own sheep. She says his experience allows him to handle each of her sheep carefully to ensure the least stress and a perfect first cut. A second pass with the shears chops the wool into short pieces, she said, that aren't suitable for spinning.
Surprise Valley was first settled in 1863 as a result of drought in the Sacramento Valley. But the valley, long the home of the Northern Paiutes, became familiar to those traveling the emigrant trail to California and Oregon. Historians estimate that more than 300,000 settlers used this route through the valley to reach the far West.
Today, about 1,500 residents call Surprise Valley home, many fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of the early settlers. Agriculture continues to be the mainstay of the area's economy. Towns like Cedarville, Lake City and Fort Bidwell retain much of their Old West charm, with cattle drives still taking place on the open desert and pickup trucks with horse trailers jamming the few spaces in front of the post offices.
"The mission of Warner Mountain Weavers is to support local artists and sheep ranchers alike," explained Bonnie Chase, who owns the workshop. "We provide a market for both fleeces and wool products, including hand-loomed rugs and saddle blankets.
"My hope is that those who are making a life and a living in the sheep business will remain a vital part of our landscape and California's economy," Chase said.
In addition to those important goals, she says Warner Mountain Weavers provides a gathering place for craftswomen on snowy afternoons or in the blazing heat of summer. She offers classes on weaving and knitting, as well as workshops on cleaning, dying and spinning wool.
Formerly a member of the Black Mountain Weavers cooperative in Pt. Reyes Station in Marin County, Chase also was a sheep rancher for many years in Washington state. About eight years ago, she began conversion of the old Deep Creek Schoolhouse, which was built in 1874 in Cedarville.
Surrounded by beautiful textures and lavish colors, the weavers send shuttles across the webs of yarn set in the studio's floor looms. They build fabric strand by strand, drinking tea and sharing recipes and child-rearing advice. All the while their fingers move faster than they can talk.
After the wool is cleaned, weavers Bonnie Chase, left, Melissa Harris and Sophie Shappard begin the process of spinning it into yarn.
But, Chase is quick to point out that Warner Mountain Weavers is not a social club, it's a business--one that attracts customers from all over the country, as well as visitors from Europe, who've heard about the workshop and studio through word-of-mouth.
In addition to a selection of natural and hand-dyed yarns from local sheep, the studio carries a wide selection of commercially produced high-end yarns. But, Deep Creek Yarns is Chase's personal brand. It's spun on a turn-of-the-century "spinning mule" and hand dyed using the wool of Surprise Valley Navajo Churro sheep.
Deep Creek Yarns are sold at the Cedarville studio, as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chase has built up a following for her yarns that feature dyes created from native plants like sage; rabbit brush, which creates a bright yellow; black-eyed Susans, that turn wool shades of olive green; and dock, a local weed that imparts a rusty brown.
Warner Mountain Weavers also offers an apprenticeship program for weavers. One of the apprentices is long-time Surprise Valley cattle rancher Bettie Parman. The 84-year-old said she got involved at the workshop after her husband died.
Apprentice weaver Betty Parmna looms a new rug.
"I'd always done a lot of hand work and came down to look at the shop when it opened," Parman said. "When I came in Bonnie was alone and after we'd talked for a while, she said, 'You wouldn't be interested in a job, would you?' I told her I didn't know anything about weaving, but she said she'd show me."
Chase says that these days Parman's rugs and fancy saddle blankets, with their distinctive color combinations and original patterns, are highly sought. Customers come in asking if Bettie has completed anything new and wait for her latest creations.
Parman says bigger rugs take about 50 to 60 hours on the loom and cost anywhere from $350 to $800. She calls the saddle blankets she creates "fancy" and says, "You wouldn't want to use them for everyday, just when you want to dress up.
"I've been here five years now," Parman said. "I've made rugs and saddle blankets, and baby things, too. Right now, I'm making shawls, because we sell a lot of them, especially during the winter."
Parman says modestly that she thinks her creations are so popular because everyone knows her.
"I've lived here for 57 years, but I'm an import," Parman said. "I was born in Fresno and raised in Sacramento. My dad was a state inspector for feed and grain.
"When my brother got out of the service after World War II, he married a girl from this country," she explained. "Well, I came up to visit and just feel in love with it. Then I had to find a rancher to marry me so I could stay."
She was married to Lake City rancher Joe Parman for 57 years. These days her daughter and son-in-law run the ranch, while she lives and works in town as a weaver. (Lake City has a population of 60 people and 40 dogs.)
"An 84-year-old woman like me doesn't have any place riding a horse and running a ranch," Parman said. "These days I'm a spinner, a weaver, a crocheter, a knitter. We get a lot of snow up here in the winter and I like to handle the wool. I've still got lots to do."
Information on Warner Mountain Weavers, specialty yarns and classes is available online at www.warnermtnweavers.com.
In a word
Spinning and weaving have a unique language that has been passed down through the centuries. Here are some common terms used in America today:
Twist and ply
The direction in which the yarn is spun. Ply is the number of spun yarns twisted together to form a thicker yarn.
A tightly spun wool yarn with no air.
Hand spun from a rolag, with looser fibers, making softer yarn.
Created by first carding the wool, using handcards, then gently rolling it off the cards. Properly prepared, a rolag will be uniform in width, distributing the fibers evenly and making it easier to spin.
Wool fibers compressed, not spun, that can be used as flat cloth or formed into sculptural shapes, such as hats.
In American Colonial times spinning was usually done by young, unmarried women. Before the American Revolution, boycotts of British goods increased the necessity to manufacture woven cloth at home and raised the art of spinning from necessity to an act of political protest.
Vertically aligned threads on a loom.
Horizontal threads on a loom.
An expandable cage around a center rod that holds a skein of yarn.
A board at least as long as the length of the warp with evenly spaced pegs.
Shaped somewhat like a boat, the shuttle carries a bobbin that rotates as the shuttle is thrown.
Sleying the reed
Placing warp threads through dents in the reed.
A steel comb with teeth that space the warp.
The national Spinning and Weaving Association Web site has links to numerous businesses and organizations that support home spinning and weaving. There are nearly two dozen weavers' guilds listed in California. Online information is available at www.spinweave.org. Interweave Press offers an extensive selection of books and materials related to spinning and weaving online at www.interweave.com.
Outlook for California wool
California's sheep ranchers produce about 3.5 million pounds of wool a year from some 500,000 head of sheep, ranking the state second after Texas in U.S. wool production.
But, American wool production today is about 4.85 million pounds, only half of what it was 10 years. The United States is far behind big producers like Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.
"When our association was created in 1860, wool production actually was our main purpose," said Lesa Eidman, executive director of the California Wool Growers Association. "Today wool is a byproduct of lamb production and growers are lucky to break even on their wool once labor costs for shearing are factored in."
Icelandic sheep number about 500,000 head in Iceland and are responsible for a quarter of that nation's total agricultural output. But, the breed's numbers in the United States and elsewhere are not readily available.
"There's a niche market for specialty wools, like Icelandic, that supply the artisanal yarn side," Eidman said. "Those wools can go for $10 to $20 a pound. But on the commercial side, our wool growers get about 70 cents a pound."
She said good numbers also aren't kept on the artisanal wool sector because it is done on such a small scale, "but anecdotally, I will say the specialty niche seems to be increasing. We see more locally produced wool products, like at farmers markets and through subscription agriculture programs with small farms.
"There seems to be more focus on locally produced wool as people become more interested in knowing where their food and fiber comes from," Eidman said. "Businesses like Warner Mountain Weavers and Yolo Wool Mills, as well as other small producers and outlets, are reporting increased success."
Information on wool production is available online from the California Wool Growers Association at www.woolgrowers.org.
The California Wool and Fiber Festival, held each fall at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds, includes one of the country's oldest and largest wool shows. For online information go to www.fiberfestival.com.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.