photos by Paige Green
For Ariana Strozzi and Casey Mazzucchi, partners in both business and life, ranching has been a lifelong pursuit. Ariana grew up on the Marin coast, and has been working on ranches since she was seven. Casey was born and raised on a sheep ranch in Valley Ford, property that has been in his family for four generations. Though they lived within the same coastal watershed for over two decades, it was less than two years ago that Ariana and Casey met, and from their partnership a new community resource has emerged. Their Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill is now operating in downtown Valley Ford (population 126), within the beautiful countryside of the Estero Americano watershed on the border of Marin and Sonoma Counties.
Fibershed visited Ariana at the Wool Mill recently, and woven through the conversation was her passion for connecting people with nature and land, and her desire to awaken people to healthier, more sustainable ways of living. Initially this was manifest through Ariana’s innovative work with horses, which she developed into Equine Guided Education (EGE), a form of interacting with horses as a means of “getting back in touch with our curious, imaginative self, connecting to what has heart and meaning, and creating new perspectives for living our life on purpose.”
Skyhorse Ranch, the home of Ariana’s EGE programs, was established twenty-five years ago, but it wasn’t until around 2002 that she began raising sheep. At the time Ariana didn’t know what to do with the wool, but she soon discovered the health benefits of wool products when she purchased a wool bed from Shepherd’s Dream. Ariana was so impressed with the wool bed that she decided to use her own wool to make products such as comforters, mattress pads and pillows. And the more Ariana learned about the qualities of wool (naturally fire-retardant and antimicrobial, so it doesn’t mold or mildew or attract dust mites), as well as the problems of waste and chemicals being used in the bedding industry at present, the more she felt an urgency to create healthy products.
Because the few wool mills in Northern California had a long lead time on orders, and not wanting to increase the wool’s carbon footprint by shipping it great distances for processing, Ariana took a big leap of faith and purchased a spacious old building in Valley Ford—just down the road from Skyhorse Ranch—with the intention of starting a wool mill with Casey, who shares the same interests and values. In 2013, Ariana and Casey were ready to get the mill up and running, and with the assistance of textile engineer Keith Wild, they found the equipment they needed to get started.
Last July, a carding machine from Ohio and a 15,000-pound needle-felting loom from North Carolina—dubbed Big Blue—arrived on the scene, and the Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill was born! Wool products that are made in the Mill and sold at the Mercantile (with the assistance of two employees) include bedding products filled with healthy wool batting from the sheep at Skyhorse Ranch, as well as mattresses on custom order, and a variety of felt goods, from clothing to rugs to felt yardage that designers are snapping up for their creations. A notable example of a garment made with felt yardage from the Mill is the “Wool Warrior in Love” by Hiroko Kurihara and Sabrina Fair, featured in last December’s Fibershed Fashion Gala.
In addition to processing the wool from their own flock—comprised of Dorset, Navajo-Churro, and Shetland sheep—Ariana and Casey receive wool from producers throughout the area, which they wash and card, and sometimes needle felt, depending on the needs of the customer. They are providing much-needed services for local wool growers, and soon the mill will be bringing in spinning equipment so that they can also create worsted yarn, from sport weight to bulky.
Although large machinery plays an important role at the Mill, handwork is also very much in evidence. Ariana has been a seamstress since youth and is also a visual artist, so she is delighted to combine her abilities in the creation of wool garments and decorative wall hangings and rugs that look just as top-quality as those from places such as bazaar velvet. In addition, Ariana has begun to knit with yarn that she and Casey hand spin, and a natural dye garden is in the plans to augment the beautiful natural colors of their wool. Ariana’s creations are for sale in the Mercantile, along with the work of about 20 other fiber artists, as well as raw and processed fiber from other local farms and ranches.
Continually increasing their knowledge and skill base, Ariana, Casey, and Ariana’s son, Jack, have enrolled in the Wool Classing School taking place this month in Hopland. And Jack, who helps with the animals on the ranch and has plans to study Ag business when he starts college this fall, will be attending Sheep Shearing School as well.
The feeling of community is evident at Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill, and on May 17-18 the community will be coming together for the mill’s First Annual Wool Festival. In addition to educational demonstrations—from shearing and wool classing to spinning and weaving—local wool producers and artisans will be selling their wares. There will even be a Fleece Marketplace, run by the mill staff, selling wool and yarn on consignment. (If you are an artisan or wool producer, interesting in having a booth or selling on consignment, please contact Ariana@valleyfordwoolmill.com.) Fibershed plans to join in the celebration, and we hope to see you there!
Thank you, Ariana and Casey, for all that you bring to the community!