Bespoke Sebastopol blankets make the bed
From a small factory tucked into The Barlow a group of women and one loom they affectionately named Luna, are meticulously crafting what they hope are “the most beautiful blankets in the world.”
Far more than mere bedding, these bespoke blankets and pillows are “ethically sourced” and finespun from the soft wool of select breeds of sheep, some rare and endangered and a few raised and shorn on farms not far away in west Sonoma County.
Jessica Switzer Green is a self-described blanket girl and wool “nerd,” who recently launched JG Switzer with the simple goal of creating slow bedding - woolen blankets so luxurious and finely made that they will last not only a lifetime, but are worth handing down to a next generation.
The designs are what she calls “rustic modern,” incorporating several types of wool into a single blanket or throw, some naturally dyed, others as Mother Nature created. Each is elegantly edged in 100 percent silk charmeuse, which is woven for exceptional luster and shine, and sewn onto the blanket with precision mitered corners. Look closely. The patterns in the silk fabric, designed by Green, line up at the edges like the finest of garments.
Green maintains that a good blanket is a practical purchase. She said she still uses the blue blanket that her grandmother gave her when she went off to college. She wanted to pay the tradition forward when her own daughter left the nest for school.
“I was looking for a really wonderful blanket and I couldn’t find one. Everything was polyester,” she said. “There was one online by a well-known blanket maker. But it was white. That’s it?”
But that experience planted a seed. Green had been heading up her own sustainability marketing firm called “Blue Practice” in Sausalito. But on her bucket list was the desire to someday launch a product, and blankets, a household staple that had been prized by multiple women in her family, captured her imagination. She enlisted the expert help of her stepmother, Melanie Martin, who for 15 years had her own high end women’s sportswear company based in Marin.
“The wool blanket is the unsung hero in history. It served people well in the military. The Army blanket, made for warmth, kept people alive. And they’re indestructible,” she said. “My husband’s sister-in-law just found an old Hudson Bay blanket from his grandparents in the attic and just gave it to us. I had it dry cleaned. It is a find. It’s a family heirloom. And that’s what I set out to do with JG Switzer. It’s about recreating and bringing excitement and a modern twist on an old classic - which is an heirloom blanket,” said Green.
The qualities of a proper blanket to Green are twofold: it must be made of wool and it must have silk borders, silk being, like wool, a natural fiber.
Wool does have a reputation for being hot and scratchy. Green however, said wool actually is better at helping regulate the natural body temperature in hot weather. Bedouins in the desert would wear wool to protect themselves from the heat, she said.
Not all sheep’s wool is alike. Different breeds produce distinctively different fleece. Green seeks out breeds with softer fleece. Most people are familiar with Merino wool, farmed widely in New Zealand and Australia and known for its softness. She also uses Merino as well as a lambswool and cashmere blend in her luxury Legends series of blankets.
But she also has a Heritage Sheep Collection, drawing from heirloom breeds, at least one of which is listed as in danger by the Livestock Conservancy, a national organization aimed at protecting rare breeds from extinction. These threatened Blue Faced Leicesters, known for their curly, fine and lustrous wool, are tall, with a “Roman nose.” She also uses Shetlands, a smaller sheep known for its fine wool and now “recovering” on the Conservancy list. Her “shop sheep” is the Wensleydales, which are not as rare but still a more unique heritage breed with long, fast-growing fleece that must be cut twice a year.
“I’m really going for small flock animals at risk,” she said. “I’m choosing them for the quality of the wool and the softness. And the color is really important, because I’m an oil painter and I think of it as painting in wool.”
In an effort to find locally sourced wool Green has been working with Fibershed, an association of producers and artisans, who raise or work with natural fibers or dyes. Launched in 2011 by Rebecca Burgess, who set out to source a wardrobe within 150 miles of her doorstep in Marin County, it now encompasses Northern California from San Luis Obispo to the Oregon border, and has spawned a whole movement, with similar fibersheds cropping up around the country and as far away as Australia.