From Soil to Skein with Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc.

Written by Stephanie Wilkes and Rebecca Burgess, Photographed by Paige Green

If anything can be said to be normal for Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc., it is that normal doesn’t exist. After years of permitting delays, construction, fundraising, and equipment that flat-out didn’t work, the business is stable and growing in Ukiah, California. Since 2018, the mill has made ribbons of fluffy, carded wool (called sliver), then a year later, began producing smoother streams of pin-drafted roving, and over this past year, has spun a variety of yarns for their house label and customers. They made their first foray into natural dyeing in summer 2019, in limited small-batch selections.

Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc. currently has four employees. Paula works the wool scouring line, a critical point in the flow of mill operations. Wool must be properly scoured before moving on to become other products, so preventing scouring bottlenecks is key. Mack, a certified sheep shearer, runs the carding machine and dyes yarns, while Susie makes pindrafted roving, and Kat keeps the yarn coming on the spinning machine.

All mill employees support myriad aspects of the business and generally keep mill operations running smoothly. The mill recently expanded into a front office on-premises, creating a dedicated order pick-up area for customers that doubles as a small yarn shop, hoping to become a retail space in the future. This physical space division keeps visitors out of a manufacturing area and helps keep mill employees safe during the pandemic.

No business exists apart from its context in a particular place, time, and culture. The context in which Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc. is situated is one where local materials, sourcing, and manufacturing — and the deep skills and labor these require — is new. “Nothing is ever harder than it is the first time you do it,” points out Sarah Gilbert, co-founder, and owner. The mill and its customers find themselves doing a lot of things for the first time, as they try to do the right thing.

Sarah and Matthew Gilbert are not just running a mill. They are part and parcel of the creation of a new regional supply network. A piece of the cultural transition from brutally efficient, often exploitative global supply chains to local, smaller operations that focus on processing locally grown materials provide fair wages and contend with higher operating costs. This means the Gilberts are asked to bring the totality of their years of experience and fiber skills to bear. Matthew’s shearing background provides knowledge of seasonal conditions, animal health considerations, and deep knowledge of which plants grow, when, in what regions, and can contaminate fleeces. Sarah’s wool evaluation and classing lend an understanding of the strength, length, crimp, fineness, and suitability of raw material for its end product; raw fleece skirting and preparation improves efficiency throughout the milling process; and extensive technical skill in yarn design creates a high-quality product.

What exactly does this look like in practice, as a regional community builds this new world from the ground up? Since March 2020, for example, the Gilberts have been deeply involved in a new project to develop a 100% local blanket for a client. This requires extensive product design and development, expanding beyond the typical manufacturing offerings for a mill their size.

To better appreciate this, let’s take a look at what would normally happen and what Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc. is doing, by way of contrast. Typically, a designer, small business, or farm store would decide to make a wool blanket to sell and contact a wool mill. Most mills sell yarn as their primary product and typically source high-quality wool for their yarn based on their knowledge of the equipment they have and the style of yarn they plan to make.

In this type of model, Sarah explains, “the mill would have already sourced and purchased wool that it knew to be suitable… meaning long, strong and clean enough for its scouring line and equipment.” For Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc., the fiber they purchase must be low in the vegetable matter (VM) because the mill is not equipped to remove all types of VM using ecological methods. When the wool goes through the carding machine, bits of polypropylene or metal or cockleburs can bend the metal teeth, therefore damaging the equipment. When sourcing wool for a high-quality yarn, mills also look for a relatively consistent micron count, a measurement of the fineness of the fiber.

Upon receiving an inquiry about blankets, a mill would tell the customer which yarns it makes that are suitable for this end product. The mill would then receive a purchase order for yarn of a blanket-appropriate type and ship the yarn to the blanket weaver or manufacturer, whomever the designer or farm store had hired to weave its blankets.

But a different approach is emerging, one where folks care deeply about sourcing and are eager to use local materials, even wool from a known flock, which is called a clip. This approach begins all at the soil level, and at the raw wool stage, with a connection to sheep that are doing important fuel load reduction work and grazing that builds soil health. This is a new way of thinking about our materials, one that asks a mill to be light on their feet and adaptable to be able to work with these farm-level sourcing approaches.

Fortunately, Matthew is a highly experienced shearer, and both Sarah and Matthew are wool classers certified by the American Sheep Industry Association. They were familiar with the wool clip that they were asked to work with based on prior years of shearing and classing. This doesn’t always mean much because fineness, coarseness, flock mix, feed, stress, weather, and a million other factors, change a clip from one year to the next, but it was something. In addition, Sarah has been spinning and designing yarn for the better part of her life. She knows what sort of wool should (and should not) become certain products and, most importantly, what is required to make it so.

Sarah brought two bales, about 900 pounds total, of the 2020 Kaos Sheep Outfit clip to the mill for an initial assessment and to test yarn development. She knew that the fleeces all came from white-faced ewe lambs, probably Corriedale and Targhee. She skirted them heavily and classed every fleece, assessing multiple samples from different areas of each fleece for fineness, strength, and any breaks or weak areas caused by stress, poor nutrition, or other factors.

Both bales had next-to-skin-soft quality wool. Where wool is involved, fineness and coarseness come up a lot, but there is much more to it. For example, factors that matter a great deal for blankets include strength and longevity in wear, the fabric’s ability to hold its shape and size, and washability. There can be a trade-off with wool quality: softness at the cost of those fine fibers pilling and wearing thin more quickly. This meant the heavy lifting would come in the yarn design phase: making fine wool into a form in which it could function well as a blanket, to ensure the yarn would not break, pill, and would have a long life.

Sarah deftly guided the decision-making: “The question I had was, ‘What is the finest, strongest yarn we can make out of this material? That will be our ultimate blend.’” Sarah continues, “I knew that the degree of twist in the yarn would matter a lot. The yarn had to stand up to the weaving. It had to be able to take the abrasion from the tension of being woven on a loom that ran at high speeds. We made the finest, strongest yarn that we could and sent it to Sandy Fisher, of Chico Flax, to weave samples and put it through its paces.”

Developing a new local supply chain isn’t the only context in which the mill operates. Amidst the backdrop of the blanket project, the Mendocino Wool and Fiber processing many orders that come from within the community. Matthew also works as a shearer during the shearing season, and the family homeschools their four children, now ages 13, 11, 9, and 5 years old.

Many days this spring, Sarah was in the mill by 4 or 5 am so she could put in a half-day of work before breakfast and then get school rolling around 8 or 9 am. Moving back and forth between processing wool and parenting responsibilities, her days often stretched as late as 10 pm during this time.

And there’s one more piece: the Gilberts also runs a forestry business to support the family and subsidize the mill as its margins improve and it slowly steps toward profitability. Matthew is a Registered Professional Forester (RPF), and Sarah works wildfires doing quality control on vegetation management. Wildfires impact the mill because the Gilberts must spend more time outside of the mill when wildfires occur. Fires also damage wool clips because they stress sheep out, evidenced in wool breaks, and deposit soot and smoke smell in the fleece.

It was a busy winter to keep each enterprise afloat, and then the first COVID-19 cases appeared in California. A global pandemic soon turned the textile industry on its head, with retailers going bankrupt, closing factories, unemployment skyrocketing, and consumer spending plummeting. Operating the Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc. mill was often at odds with public health orders because it wasn’t considered an essential business. “It has been a tumultuous year and often difficult to keep up with public health orders and keep everyone safe,” Matthew says.

All of this should give us pause when we consider not only the true cost of our goods but also the truth in the challenges faced by businesses emerging in an economic landscape that has not supported their existence. A growing number of people recognize the injustices of global supply chains, yet there is more work to do to unpack the culture of devaluing material goods and manufacturing labor. Sarah notes that “ironically, I was asked to cut my prices twice during Slow Fashion Week, even though we were already at break-even. A business can’t go lower than that.”

The systemic failures brought to light by the pandemic have created an uptick of interest in the same local supply chains Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc. is helping to build. The world — at least a portion of it — seems to be learning along with the Gilberts. They have been modeling a transition to more values-based, regional, community-driven systems throughout their whole lives, from homeschooling to gardening, to having many necessary and varied skills with which to pay the bills. Their dedication to Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc. deepens their work of appreciating and making the most of the natural materials and landscapes nearby.

And their yarn is, in a word, fabulous. To learn more about Mendocino Wool and Fiber, Inc., please visit their website.