Wool industry warming up in Sonoma County
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.