The Art of Fiber Ranching

As you glance down at what you are wearing– ask yourself, ‘can I put a name or face to these clothes?’  It’s a rarity for a majority of us to have any sense of who or what is responsible for our garments.  Name-brands, and style are the lures that draw us in, making it all to easy to overlook the reality of how materials are sourced and manufactured.

Finding wool for the Fibershed project has brought our team face to face with the humans, animals, and pasturelands that generate the raw materials of the wardrobe.

The documentary team has been led to some of the most beautiful tucked away landscapes imaginable.  Our first visit to Mary Pettis-Sarley’s ranch caused my jaw to literally drop.. with the thought– how does one create a life like this?  The answer to that question is as magical as the land itself.

feeding time for the herd

Pettis-Sarley received her MA in Visual Design from UC Berkeley from 1976-79; and during this time began running a dark room in the Napa Valley.  Over the hill from the darkroom was an abandoned cottage,‘no one had lived there in eight years,’ said Pettis-Sarley. ‘I thought it would be so nice to walk to work,’ The cottage became her home for the next 15 years.  ‘It was a care-taking position, I learned how to run cattle, and all sorts of good practical skills.’

Each of her 100 cows is lovingly named

As her intimacy with the land deepened, her life as an artist began to merge with her newly emerging role as a rancher.  ‘I was at a ceramics class one day, and was asked what I wanted more of in my life.. my response, “more magic.” Two weeks later my friends in Point Reyes offered me a horse… as I loaded him into the trailer, I asked his name–they said, “oh, he’s Magic”. Pettis-Sarley’s life just has a knack for that kind of serendipity, ‘its always been this way, the right things just always seem to happen.’

When the woman who owned Pettis-Sarley’s ranch and cottage past-on, Mary’s future became uncertain, drawing her, on many occasions to take long walks in her beloved valley… during one of these sojourns she questioned whether it might be the last time–as she approached her favorite oak tree, ‘I remember asking, if I’m meant to stay here, please let me know.

Soon after this experience, she was approached by a land-agent who represented the new owners of the 2,000 acre adjoining property, ‘He asked if I was interested in caretaking…it didn’t take me long to answer that question!‘  Since that time twelve year ago, Pettis-Sarley has settled into her new yet familiar home with her husband Chris–they collectively manage and care for 150 mother cows, around 40 head of sheep– which becomes about 100 when it’s lambing season, 20 mohair goats, a pig or two, a pack of sheepherding dogs, chickens, horses, and a few household friends–some beautiful exotic birds and at least one cat.

Pettis-Sarley’s has been (in all of her free time!), teaching me the art of screen-printing—the image she chose as an instructive sample, depicts a wild looking clown riding a pig backwards, ‘this image just says it all,’ she said, smiling and ruminating on her busy, and yet totally enjoyable life, ‘every day, and every moment is such a great ride.’

Mary wears a felted hat that she made from her herd’s wool

The creative yet efficient pacing, and freedom that Pettis-Sarley brings through, is most evident in her art.  She is a well-versed two dimensional artist, who taught textile design (focusing on screen-printing and the integration of photography) for years, and yet, she has leapt into three-dimensional work rather recently; characteristic of someone who’d been doing it their whole career.

wood-fire busts returning from a show at the Pence Gallery

While Pettis-Sarley doesn’t limit her material base– she is ultimately interested in the expression of fundamental human issues.., ‘if we aren’t talking about life, death, or beauty… really… what else is there to talk about?’ Her life brings her into constant connection with these subjects; for Pettis-Sarley, this sentiment is a complete, and unexaggerated description of her day to day existence.

The last time I visited the ranch, goats and sheep were giving birth… sweet and beautiful babies were prancing around the paddocks, while others were still so young they had the remnants of birth still on their fur.  Prior to that visit, I came at a time when a mother cow had eaten a toadstool (or some other poisonous edible), and was found dead, the conversation went immediately to her calf, ‘we’ll have to find her immediately and help her find a mother who will feed her,’ Pettis- Sarley said with a gentle concern yet matter of fact tone.

The relationship with the herds, flocks, and the land that they all share has developed over the years.  The sheepherding began in 1994,  ‘ There used to be a little sheep that continually veered away from the neighbors property where she belonged.  For weeks I would see her on the side of the road– no one seem interested in helping her integrate.  I would feed her, and try to take her home, but she kept ending up on the side of the road.  After a month of this, I said “OK”, and I cut her tail, and put a tag on her ear.  She was our first, and her name was Lambie.’

Bags of washed wool ready for the mill

The sheep are a direct link between Pettis-Sarley’s artistry and ranching talents.  It is with their fiber that all manner of beautiful creations have emerged.  ‘I am interested in breeding not just for quality of fiber, but for color.‘  Many of Pettis-Sarley’s fibers are a blend of karakul, CMV, and romeldale.  Her rovings and batts, spin and felt like a dream.  She is currently the only rancher to date, (that we know of) that takes so many steps to ensure the quality of her product.  After returning from the mill, every skein is washed and hung with a weight to set the spin.  Every skein is then neatly wound into a ball.  ‘It’s about passing along the perfect creation to the next in line, the knitters can just begin their work with pleasure this way.

first creation using Mary’s wool: legwarmers knit by Allison Reilly

The legwarmers are heavenly, and worn almost daily during this cold and wet winter season.  To add to our collaboration with Pettis-Sarley, we are in process of felting a skirt, and having a sweater knit with these same fibers for the experimental wardrobe.

If you are interested in Pettis-Sarley’s new line of native plant dyed yarns– you can expect to see them very soon in a well reknown San Francisco location… (yet to be disclosed)… but we’ll keep you posted as soon as they’re ready.

Mary and Chris sit with their sheep and sheepherding dogs, as well as Peanut the carmel colored friend in the foreground

Mary has taught and shared so much with us in both the intracacies and broader realities of what it is to live and love the land.  ‘I drink the spring water, I eat the vegetables, and on rare occasions– the meat.. they say you are what you eat… so I guess I am this land,’ she says while pausing in her darkroom. From a careful study of the minutia of her tissues, and organs, it could likely be proven without much ado… that the minerals that run through the soils are the same minerals running through her blood stream.  So, yes… the land runs through her veins.

I am so appreciative for her existence and role-modeling, of a how a deeply connected life looks and functions, and how it can be lived with such intention and artistry.

Thank you Mary….