This is the second in a two-part series of interviews and visits to Northern California Fibershed producer members Shepherd’s Dream and the Woolgatherer Carding Mill. While intertwined, these individual businesses highlight the role of regional manufacturing using natural fibers. Both companies operate within the strategic geography of the Northern California Fibershed, which spans from San Luis Obispo to the Oregon border, and Shepherd’s Dream also has a showroom in Ashland, Oregon, where part of the interview takes place. Read the first part here: Dreams of Sheep at Shepherd’s Dream.
Written by Heather Fordham & Photographed by Paige Green
To follow wool on its journey through a 1912 carding mill is a sensory experience. The steam that maintains humidity cools your skin, while the thunder of 30,000 pounds of antique machinery – of cogs turning and of the click and clack of wooden rollers – provides a deafening soundtrack. Atop it all, there is the sight of billowing, lofty wool landing like slices of morning fog.
In the small, Northern California town of Montague, the Woolgather Carding Mill is a cozy reprieve from the cool mountain air of Siskiyou County. The owner, Hank Kearns, and Operations Manager, Eric Smith, gave us a tour of the seventeen-acre property. As we explore, we follow the wool’s journey from bale to bedding.
Wool comes directly from farms in Northern California and Southern Oregon and is cleaned in Texas (the nearest trusted cleaning facility that can handle this amount of wool). The wool arrives back to the Montague property in bales. The bales, still containing some of the naturally moisturizing lanolin, first run through the picker.
The picker breaks up the bales and aerates the wool, transforming it from a compact bale into floating fluff. Once the wool has run through the picker, it makes its way to one of two machines to be made into batting.
The garneting mill uses metal teeth (rather than carding hooks) to further break up the wool. This process is faster than the carding mill and thus creates a product that is less refined, but more affordable, and better suited to batting fill that is used by quilters. This wool is rolled, bagged and stored in 50-pound bags ready for distribution.
The other half of the wool runs through the 1912 carding mill, a three-breaker carding system that brushes the wool in three separate sections of the mill, producing premium wool that is free of debris. The mill runs almost every day. Hank explains that while it is not a high-output machine and can be labor intensive, there are many advantages to using this antique mill. “It produces an extremely clean and very lofty, resilient batting in large part because it was designed for yarn… the level of refinement is kind of unheard of for the bedding and furniture industries that we supply to.” Older equipment can be more straightforward and easily modified, but also requires extra care and sometimes more frequent repairs. The mill can be calibrated to produce thick or thin layers of batting, and it is possible to create many customized products.
Woolgatherer Carding Mill produces well over 200,000 pounds of batting per year, and the wool that runs through the carding mill will be purchased by bedding and furniture makers and made into household products. About 20% of this carded wool will be used by Shepherd’s Dream bedding company (also owned by Hank Kearns.) Hank’s staff show us the next chapters of their wool’s story in their workspace that is housed in Montague’s old flour mill. Here, a small team stitches tufts into mattress toppers, demonstrates wool’s natural water resistance, fills pillows, and stuffs mattresses by hand (and foot).
Forty-five pounds of wool fill go into a mattress. Because of the strength and exertion that come with wrestling that much batting into its organic cotton encasement, it takes two days for a mattress to made by a skilled craftsman.
Akin to the farm-to-table movement, this sheep-to-sleep process is slow, labor intensive, and focused on treating the people and products with a great deal of care and thoughtfulness.
Hank Kearns moved from the Bay Area and took over ownership of both the Woolgatherer Carding Mill and Shepherd’s Dream last year. He brings a skill set from his construction management career to the team. Hank is committed to the principles and goals on which the Mill was founded: supporting regional farms who treat their animals with respect, and a commitment to creating the finest quality batting and bedding in a sustainable model for the land and people (farmers, staff, and customers).
Today, Hank employs a staff of 26, and many have been involved with the mill since its early days. Tony Lemos, the production manager, operates the carding mill and because he helped set up the mill when it arrived in Montague, he is one of the few people who can repair and modify it. Eric Smith started cleaning the mill after class when he was in high school. Today, he is the Operations Manager and lives nearby with his young family.
The business has a long history of supporting its workers and their families. Founder Patrick Holland started the mill and teamed up with Eliana Jantz, who together with her daughter Sarah, founded Shepherd’s Dream. Nathon Thill took over the Mill after Patrick passed away and married Sarah. When Hank bought the mill, he was seeking a more intentional and family-based life for his wife and two young children. Family is woven through the fabric of the company, as shown by how some staff brings their children to work.
Woolgatherer Carding Mill takes many steps to ensure their products are as clean and safe as possible. Their wool is tested by UC Davis’ toxicology lab every six months and is also certified Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX, an independent product label for all types of textiles that tests for harmful substances. Woolgatherer’s own Premium Eco Wool certification ensures that the wool certified is from local farmers who treat their flocks well, do not overgraze their land, and use good practices to ensure the wool as clean as possible before being sent to scour. It also allows the company to further lean into sustainable practices. Woolgatherer provides an outlet for regional growers to sell their wool directly at an 8-12% premium over market prices, at a time when demand for quality wool fiber is coming back in a big way.
Entranced by the movement of wool through the 1912 mill, it is easy to see all that this engine represents. The Woolgatherer Carding Mill is a business with a 30-year history of utilizing older, slower, and more sustainable methods of production, supporting a future that is less wasteful, less toxic and more lasting. Wool bedding is naturally fire-retardant, does not use chemicals, can last for decades, and is naturally-sourced and made by local people. A high quality, mission-driven product may take a little more time to make, but allows us to wrap ourselves in old-world, earth-centered values.