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Bespoke Sebastopol blankets make the bed

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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.

Green hasn’t been able to go completely local but she gets as much as she can nearby. She was excited to find that Sue Gustafson raises Bluefaced Leicesters on an 8-acre farm in Sebastopol. The retired nurse is one of only a handful of people in California raising them, and her flock numbers only 19 sheep. She started in 2002 with a breeding pair. Back then they were hard to find. She had to go to Oregon to find one and Montana to get a second.

“Its fiber grows in ringlets and they come white and they come in brown,” Gustafson said. “It’s a nice fiber to use for clothing or any other project because it’s not scratchy. You can wear it next to your skin.”

All of her Wensleydale fleece comes from JoAnn Slissman’s Wyammy Ranch in Occidental.

Fabric for the Heritage Sheep blankets and pillows are made with a 7½-ton needle loom that Green found through Fibershed and promptly christened Luna the Loom.

Marie Hoff, who coordinates the producer program for the local 170-member Fibershed, said Switzer is making an important contribution to supporting heritage breeds and local farmers.

“It’s enormously helpful to have somebody who is really invested in the business of the craft of wool near here, and in an area where there are also people who are raising all these different heritage breeds. There are as many breeds of sheep as there are breeds of dog. She’s bringing them into the greater marketplace and bringing it into the global awareness.”

Green is hoping eventually to source more wool locally and to find a mill in the United States for her Legends blankets. The two major woolen mills in the U.S. turned her down because she didn’t produce enough to make it worth their while. Meanwhile, she sources wool from one of the oldest mills in England, which also provides for the queen at Windsor Castle.

Green in her career has always been motivated by sustainability. She was the first vice president for marketing for Tesla Motors, a job she was drawn to because of her belief in promoting electric cars and her respect for the then-CEO and founder Martin Eberhard. But she had a run-in with Chairman of the Board Elon Musk. When she suggested Musk not insert himself into so many interviews and instead defer to Eberhard, Musk fired her, she said. That was more than a decade ago. Now she’s contributing to sustainable living through blankets, and is thoroughly excited about her products, which also include a luxurious “Unforbidden Fur” line of blankets and pillows upcycled from scraps salvaged from an Italian glove factory, putting to use something that would otherwise go to waste, without contributing to any animal deaths.

JG Switzer bedding is not for the budget conscious. Rustic wool blanket runners and throws start at $425. A queen-sized bed blanket starts at $759 for merino wool milled in England

“The price is high but it will come down,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time. It’s high because we import the highest-quality woolens for the Legends blankets.”

She’s applying the same principle to wool blankets as she did to electric cars.

“The early adopters that come in are willing to pay for it and the market opportunities can follow. I just thought, let’s throw out these beautiful blankets and if people like them, then more people will want wool blankets and there will be more of a market for wool and blankets. We’ll see what happens.”

Details: Switzer’s factory is open to visitors from the trade only by appointment but all products can be purchased online at jgswitzer.com. They’re also carried in a few retail outlets, including Summer House in Mill Valley and Saint Dizier showroom in Healdsburg.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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