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The Feel of Farm Fresh Wool

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Valley Ford Mercantile and Wool Mill is the proud new owner of Big Blue – a 15,000 pound industrial steel needle loom from North Carolina, the only needle loom West of the Rocky Mountains.  Together with a carding machine from Ohio, a few washing machines, and a love of all things wool – our region’s newest wool processing facility is now open for business.

Owners Ariana Strozzi and Casey Mazzucchi, both sheep ranchers in Valley Ford, were inspired at last years’ Fibershed Symposium, where it became abundantly apparent that in order to create a local fibershed, fiber growers and textile producers needed a local place to process local wool.  

Wool is sheered from sheep in the Spring, cleaned and washed, carded, and then either spun to create a knitted product or run through a needle loom to create a felted product. Ariana and Casey use wool from their sheep as well as wool from folks like Ernie Munice who raises sheep for 4H and FFA kids to show at fairs.  Ernie and other growers are happy to see something useful created with their wool – an often overlooked but highly valuable product. 

Wool can also be seen as a sustainable fiber.  Wool is locally produced as a by-product of the production of sheep’s milk and lamb.  Wool production is part of a diversified ranch system.  Utilizing sheep and other grazing animals also reduces fire fuel loads and can even reduce the spread of invasive plants.  Sheep ranching is a perfect fit for the pasture and grasslands of Marin and Sonoma.

Different breeds of sheep create different types of wool. Dorset produces a wool that is best suited for blankets and carpets whereas merino wool is of the softest wool and is best used for clothing.  The trick is to use the right type of wool for the right type of product, creating more consumers who aren’t afraid of “itchy” sweaters.  Wool, as a fiber, is also naturally fire retardant and antimicrobial, so it doesn’t mold or mildew or attract dust mites.  It is a perfect material for bedding.  As a natural insulator, it retains heat when it is cold outside, and is a breathable fabric that can keep you cool in the summer.  

Wool production is not new to West Marin and Sonoma sheep ranchers, but the expense of shipping their wool to be washed and carded has been a deterrent for many.  Locals like Joe Pozzi, and many others, have taken the difficult steps in making it happen and have created beautiful and locally grown wool products like those at Pozzi Wool and PureGrow Wool.

Ariana and Casey are not only passionate about wool products, they are also passionate about education – both their own and that of those around them.  From the minute they decided to open the store, everything seemed to fall into place. Deborah Walton of Canvas Ranch and Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed have been very generous and open with information and support.  Part of the dream of the Mercantile and Mill is to host events and workshops.  They are planting a dye plant garden for behind the shop and are excited about farm stays as well, which will allow people to connect to the source of their products and the land where they come from.  

They are learning from the local spinners like Linda Gamble about how to wash the wool specifically for those who spin it into yarn.  Since the Mill does not have a spinning machine, these relationships are invaluable.  The Mercantile and Mill cleans the wool and cards it to make roving* and then they refer folks to local spinners to turn it into yarn – supporting the local community.  The Mercantile and Mill is also reinvigorating local artisans.  Hat makers and felters have a new outlet for their products.  Local craftspeople are trying out new designs and products, and bringing them into the store. “It is a great business, and I'm so elated to see farm fresh wool for our community coming from a locally owned and operated mill,” said Rebecca Burgess.

One of Ariana’s favorite things is to watch people come into the store, touch one of their wool pillows and, perhaps unconsciously, pick it up and hug it as they continue to shop throughout the store.  There is something very comforting and warming about wool, it is an amazing product.  It seems they have made the perfect investment – one that brings community together, supports local ranchers and artists, and is healthy for our bodies and our environment.  

Besides stopping by the Valley Ford Mercantile and Wool Mill (valleyfordwoolmill.com) to see Big Blue, another way to learn more about local wool and local fiber is to attend this year’s Fibershed Symposium on November 16th from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station.  Word has it that the Mercantile will be hosting a BBQ after the Symposium for folks who would to take like a tour and to share a meal.  We hope to see you there!  www.fibershed.com/event/wool-symposium-2013

*Wool Terms:

  • Carding: a mechanical process that disentangles, cleans and intermixes fibers to produce a continuous web or sliver suitable for subsequent processing
  • Roving: after carding, the wool fibers lie roughly parallel in smooth bundles. These are drawn out, by hand or machine, and slightly twisted to form lengths suitable for spinning. These unspun strands of fiber are the rovings
  • Spinning: the twisting together of drawn out strands of fibers to form yarn
  • Batting: a layer of insulation used in quilting between a top layer of patchwork and a bottom layer of backing material
  • Felt: a non-woven textile that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibers together
  • Fibershed: a geographical landscape that defines and gives boundaries to a natural textile resource base
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