Surfing Serendipity with Mary Pettis-Sarley

Story by Caroline Spurgin, photos by Paige Green

Mary Pettis-Sarley with newly sheared wool

Mary Pettis-Sarley is primarily concerned with knitting herself into the fabric of her world, and her world is anything but ordinary. She is sage and earthy, philosophical and pragmatic; she seems to exist on two planes, one highly metaphysical, the other profoundly terrestrial—neither involves the mundane. Yet, true to her roots in fiber arts and textile design, she seamlessly wreaths the transcendental and the telluric into a quirky manifestation of a life well-lived and well-loved.

Mary and some of her farm animals

After thirty-five years spent in the rarely converging worlds of academia and agriculture, Mary’s understanding of fiber is robust. She studied textile design at UC Davis, where she learned to hand-spin and employ natural dyes and mordants. She later earned a second degree in textile design from UC Berkeley and eventually taught textile design and photography at both universities.

scenes from Mary's yarn business

In ’79 Mary took a ranching job in Napa, spending eight hours a day on horseback “living a life from another century.” The 4,300 acre ranch was owned by two brothers and populated by the family and a large herd of beef cattle. For a year she also commuted from Napa to run a darkroom in Berkeley—where she had access to some of her bare necessities: croissants and recycling facilities—and at the same time developed her deep connection with the land.

Some of the buildings on the land where Mary ranches

In 1997 one of the brothers passed away the property was divided into parcels and sold. Some of the new owners put their portions to vineyard, while the owner of the largest parcel invited Mary move into the main buildings and caretake his land. Thirty-six years later she has 50 goats, 200 sheep, 200 alpaca, 9 llamas, 150 pairs of cattle and 10 guardian dogs. Mary observes these responsibilities in a beautiful expression of ecological awareness: “I don’t own the land,” she says. “I don’t own the animals, they own me! How could I own them?” Rather than mastering the land and animals—as civilization is wont to endeavor—she simply tries to fit herself into the play of the land as deeply and smoothly as possible. Most of her animals range at liberty on the land, a rare practice in this trade. The more vulnerable animals are protected by the less, and all return whenever supplemental feed is required.

Alpacas on the land

sheep on the land

Mary, like her animals, is a free agent. Despite (or perhaps in spite of) apparent irony, her practiced ability to let go and be taken up by the whim of the universe has allowed her to have an incredible degree of control over her life. Mary, who creates no boundaries and closes no doors, has become the master of her own happiness in a way that I have never before seen. Her modus operandi, self-proclaimed, is to “surf serendipity.”

some of the gardens on Mary's ranch

And indeed, the tides of fortune have brought her into relations with said acres of Napa paradise and nearly 800 head menagerie, most of which are rescues, adopted and paid for with the promise of happiness. Mary’s successful yarn line, Twirl, is a product of such “surfing.”Twirl began when Mary adopted one homeless sheep circa 1995. The sheep, “Lamby,” wandered down the road one day and though Mary kept her near the road for a month hoping her owners would collect her, no one ever came to retrieve her. At this point, Mary took this odd little runaway in and ran with it. Since then her herd has grown prodigiously as more and more animals find there way onto Mary’s slice of Napa paradise.

some of Mary's animals

One of Mary’s favorite metaphors (which finds an astonishing amount of action in her life) is that of the floodgate. “Open it a crack and life just comes flooding in!” Mary and her husband are decidedly in the midst of an Alpaca flood. Four years ago she adopted three males: Chip, Harry and Sass. Next, her husband happened across four inexpensive female alpaca on craigslist and “It just snowballed from there.” Since then, they have adopted and bred and, of their current flock of 200, only those first four females were gained by way of the dollar. “I think we’re really magnets,” is Mary’s explanation. Mary’s knack for surrendering with vim to the whim of the universe has translated itself into an incredible line of yarn. In a literal twist of non-irony, Mary’s downy relationship with her animals has manifested itself in a series of yarns—each named for the animal who produced it—that is marvelously, magically soft.

some of Mary's yarns

Mary’s constant experiments within Twirl have recently led to indigo farming and fermenting, a new mill and possibly a new wool blend. She has 2,300 indigo plants and two indigo vats, so Twirl spinners, knitters, crocheters and the like can look forward to more beautiful, California-grown cool shades! Mary has also started using a new mill, Mystic Pines Fiber Processing in Williams, Arizona—in addition to the Yolo County Wool Mill—in order to introduce a new two-ply fingering skein which will fall on the softer side of the Twirl texture spectrum. And finally, Mary—always a student of discovery—is exploring new breeds, such as the Clun Forest/ Bluefaced Leicester mixes from Colorado, to introduce to her fiber flock for new wool blends.

one of the barns

Aside from the physical bounty produced by her outlook, her life methodology has brought her great happiness, great wisdom and great frame of mind. Perhaps if we spent more time surfing and less time pushing and pulling we could all be a bit happier and a bit wiser. After all, as Mary illustrates in word and act, “life is a surprise party, you just have to be ready for it.”

Chris Sarley
Mary’s husband, Chris Sarley, is an artist as well as an active participant in the running of the ranch.
one of Mary's gardens
Eric, one of the ranch staff, working in the garden

You can meet Mary and see/shop her beautiful line of yarn at Fibershed’s upcoming Grow Your Jeans event on October 3, 2015, in Bolinas. A few tickets are still available here.

And you can learn more about Mary and Twirl on her website. She gives workshops on her ranch in Napa from time to time as well, so keep your eye on the Fibershed calendar.

For more pearls of wisdom borne from the oyster of Mary’s brain, we offer her Rules I live by, below.


Rules I live by:

Be an experiential philanthropist
We only have experience to offer one another. Make it good
Do it as often as you can, and be generous.

Make more than lemonade from lemons!
I keep a lemon cookbook nearby, just to help me remember

If you are going the general direction, follow where it leads you
Make the most of your adventure

The fastest way to get somewhere is slowly
It is also the fullest way

Details are nothing and everything
They make it wonderful, or not

There is nothing more permanent than something that is temporary
A quick fix often sticks, for better or worse

When you have livestock, you also have dead stock
When I think I have control of my breeding, there is a bigger force reminding me I am not.

You are only responsible for your own happiness
Be happy

Don’t let someone else put out your light
Only you should diminish your light. Travel clear, light and efficiently

If you want to drive your own boat, don’t hand the steering wheel over to someone else
Your dream is not someone else’s dream, nor their dream yours

Whatever you are, be a good one

When the door opens a crack, fling it open and venture forth,
you can always go back to your door and start over, but knowing 100% more
Be fearless

one of Mary's sheep