Wool industry warming up in Sonoma County

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The used machine from North Carolina weighs 15,000 pounds and required two days to change just half its 10,000 needles.

It now sits in an old barn attached to a store on the main highway in Valley Ford, where its owners take raw wool and make wide strips of felt for artisan clothing and other uses.

"There really isn't a textile industry in California," said Ariana Strozzi, who with her partner Casey Mazzucchi last fall opened the Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill.

The couple had to go out of state to buy the old needle loom and to purchase a wool carding machine that came from Ohio. The two pieces of equipment together cost about $85,000, Strozzi said.

Mazzucchi and Strozzi are part of fledgling efforts to make more goods locally from the wool of North Coast sheep. The participants include local ranchers and advocates who maintain that consumers should shift to natural fibers and away from more environmentally harmful synthetic fabrics.

Even as Americans are largely ignorant about modern food production, "they don't know where their clothing comes from," said Dustin Kahn, the administrative director of Fibershed, a Marin County nonprofit.

The group maintains that seemingly inexpensive clothes from overseas come with huge hidden costs, including water pollution, the exploitation of garment workers and reliance on petrochemicals for fabrics, dyes and long-distance shipping.

Last month, Fibershed released a feasibility study that proposed a $26 million wool mill for California. The facility, complete with solar power and an extensive water recycling system, would be able to weave almost 5 million pounds of wool a year into fabrics for a range of garments.

Just as Sonoma County farmers have sought out niche markets for such foods as artisan cheeses and organic vegetables, some sheep ranchers are trying to figure out ways to get more money for their wool than is available on the commodity market.

The new efforts in wool come as lamb production appears to be rising in Sonoma County after decades of decline. Lamb provides more than 95 percent of the income from sheep operations, and ranchers increasingly are trying to sell their meat as a niche product that commands a higher price.

Crop report estimates are considered a rough gauge, but they show lamb production steadily rising between 2008 and 2012.

Even though wool currently brings in a small amount of money on the ranches, some sheep producers are trying to figure out ways to earn more for it.

"As a rancher, you have to make money on the lamb. You have to make money on the wool," said Lake County sheep rancher Jaime Irwin. For her operation, Irwin and her husband, Robert, also receive income for grazing their sheep on wineries and other lands.

In an effort to receive more for their wool, the Irwins are adding to their flocks more Corriedale sheep. That breed is valued not only for its meat but also for a higher quality of wool for socks, shirts and sweaters. In contrast, most North Coast farmers use other breeds, including Suffolks and Hampshires, that produce a coarser, lower-value wool better suited for bedding and blankets.

"The sheep actually fit with what we're doing in the vineyards," Robert Irwin said of Corriedales. The couple plan to take a class on grading sheep fleece this spring as part of their efforts to boost the value of their wool.

A century ago, the country's sheep ranchers made more income off wool than lamb.

And for a time, the wool was processed locally. The Fibershed study noted that Petaluma and Santa Rosa were among 10 California cities that had wool mills operating in the latter part of the 19th century, though the operations ultimately couldn't compete with cheaper fabrics coming from the South.

In that era, Americans' wardrobes were made from natural fabrics.

"Wool was king as far as garments go," said Judd Redden, a Sonoma sheep rancher and past president of the the North Bay Wool Growers Association. "I always say the washing machine was what did away with the wool industry."

In the 1940s, the U.S. had roughly 56 million sheep, he said. Today, that figure has declined to slightly more than 5 million.

A similar decline occurred in Sonoma County. Sheep and lamb production today ranks ninth among county crops at $5.2 million. But the 29,000 sheep and lambs processed in 2012 is less than a quarter of the 124,000 slaughtered annually a half century earlier.

Over the decades, sheep ranchers switched to breeds prized more for their meat than their wool. As the market for wool declined, so did income to ranchers. In some years, the money for the fleeces didn't cover the cost of shearing the sheep.

In response, some ranchers like Redden have moved to raising dorpers, a breed of sheep with hair and fleece that sheds naturally and doesn't need to be sheared.

Others have tried to seek new markets for their wool.

Among the latter is west county sheep rancher Joe Pozzi. Two decades ago, he started buying wool and finding buyers who want to use it for such items as mattresses, pillows and comforters.

Pozzi is now the largest local buyer for wool, acquiring about 80,000 pounds of wool a year from West Coast ranches that raise 14,000 sheep. He ships the wool for washing in Texas and carding in Southern California. He even sends some to Pendleton mills in the Pacific Northwest for weaving into fabric for such items as infant crib "puddle pads."

"As time has gone on, people have realized the huge benefits of wool," Pozzi said. "I think people are gravitating back to wool like our ancestors used."

Pozzi's partner, Amy Chesnut, last summer began Sonoma Wool Co., a maker of products from Pozzi's wool.

Chesnut said she watched all the wool leaving the region and concluded, "It would be really great to figure out how to keep it local."

Already she is selling wool dog toys, dish drying mats and dryer balls. The latter, a set of four balls selling for $29,95, can bounce in the dryer for years, shortening drying time by absorbing moisture. The balls also naturally soften clothes, reducing the need for softening sheets.

Future products include ironing board pads and possibly blankets.

Just as local meat producers have found that they need a slaughterhouse to process their animals, local sheep ranchers have found they need machinery to turn their wool into a usable product.

Mazzucchi, a fourth-generation sheep rancher, and Strozzi started making wool bedding for sale at local craft fairs. But at times they had to wait a year or more to get their wool processed at a mill in the Central Valley.

"We weren't able to grow our business on something that was going to take more than a year," Strozzi said. In response, they decided to open their own mill.

They selected a barn and storefront on Highway 1 that has been used as a gas station, furniture shop and deli. In the storefront, they sell handmade wool bedding and clothes, plus other goods.

Strozzi explained that their needle loom works based on a key characteristic of wool: It wants to stick together. The 10,000 needles and their nearly invisible barbs keep pushing the fibers together as bats of wool pass through the machine, until the compressed felt emerges.

Even with their two machines, much work is still done by hand, including washing and drying the wool. Last week, Mazzucchi was using a hand-operated "picker" to break down locks and debris before the wool went through the carding machine, where it was turned into wide bats with the fibers going more or less in the same direction.

The couple are negotiating for a spinning machine to produce skeins of yarn. They also are getting ready to host a May 17 wool festival and preparing for an influx of raw product this spring.

For the mill, Mazzucchi said, "this is going to be our first shearing season."

Fibershed hopes to one day greatly increase production of wool and other items that would be valued by those who want high-quality clothes made from locally source natural materials.

The group's study suggested there is plenty of global competition. It noted that U.S. wool typically receives less than 75 percent of the price given for wool from Australia, which produces half the global supply. And China and India are major textile makers, together buying up 80 percent of U.S. raw wool exports.

The Fibershed study concluded that a large mill isn't yet feasible in California. Experts have cautioned that investors won't step forward until enough demand can be demonstrated. As such, Kahn said, Fibershed is considering trying to start such a facility in stages, perhaps first establishing a plant to wash, or scour, the wool.

But California, a top wool-producing state, now mills less than 1 percent of its annual wool crop, the study found. Changing that could add more income for sheep ranchers, as well as create jobs in textiles, garment making and fashion design.

Said Kahn, "Let's create an economy around the wool, if possible."

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.)

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