Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill
Where each sheep fleece smells unique and knots are easier to untangle than you think.
by Anne Peterson
I believe there is no substitute for learning through experience. Putting various wools through different machines to produce yarn has made me realize how many nuances there are when you do something repeatedly with subtle changes of inputs and factors. Making yarn is no simple matter when you get into the details: the production of clothing and other textiles from raw fiber involves many steps, unseen to the end user. Many people nowadays are used to getting things fast, whether that is ordering an item or learning a skill. The reality is that in some cases, with both items as well as skills, lots of work and time go into their formation.
Human basic needs consist of food, water, and shelter. One could argue that clothing is an extension of shelter. Now, many of the materials and items for these daily needs are synthetic and not produced where they are used. Not only is this ecologically impractical in the long run (creating monocultures, increasing transport costs, etc.), but it decreases diversity in types of work within communities. Natural fibers also have the additional benefits of regulating one’s body temperature better and stinking less when sweated in! In the last century, the increased number of larger farms and ranches, coupled with much of the textile industry moving overseas, has resulted in few wool mills that serve small flocks. However, Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill is one rare such business. Located in Northern California, this mill takes raw, unwashed fleeces, and processes them into batting, roving, and yarn. Importantly, wool mills such as Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill serve to bridge the gap between farmer and sheep, and crafter, textile, and wearer.
Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill started in 2017, though it has a much deeper history. Mill owner Marcail McWilliams had completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in textiles from California College of the Arts in 2008 to hear of a work opportunity at Yolo Wool Mill located just south of the town she grew up in. During the seven years that Marcail worked there for owner Jane Deamer, she began thinking about how to start her own mill. Marcail worked briefly at another mill in Arizona (Mystic Pines Fiber Processing) before learning that Yolo Wool Products was closing and selling the property due to Jane’s declining health. Marcail was able to buy much of the equipment and even lease two of the former mill’s buildings to start her own business, Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill.
I came to know Marcail in early 2020 as her first employee. As a kid, I had actually visited Yolo Wool Mill on a couple of occasions through school and Girl Scout field trips, and have been a hand spinner for years. Having subsequently gone on to be a farmer and complete shearing school it has been incredibly interesting to learn about wool processing. I have come to realize that, just as how most people know little about the origins of their food, this is likewise the case with clothing. Therefore, without further ado, here is how a raw fleece is transformed into batting, roving, or yarn at the Mill:
1. Scouring: Fleeces are first skirted. This is where matted and particularly dirty parts are removed. The fleece is then washed several times in very hot water with soap and soda ash followed by a vinegar rinse. This removes dirt, and most importantly, the lanolin grease. If the wool is not scoured sufficiently (generally due to not hot enough water) the residual grease causes problems later when the wool goes though the machines. Each fleece smells differently when scouring, presumably due to the individual animal, farm vegetation, soil, and feed. We have been amused to find that the smells are just about as complex as the flavors in wines. Some have fruity notes, while others have a pine or smoky odor. Mohair (Angora goat fiber) smells unsurprisingly like goat milk (often laced with strawberry jam!). After thorough rinsing, the fiber is then dried on racks.
2. Tumbling and/or Picking: If there is much “VM” (vegetable matter) of weeds, hay, leaves, etc. or sand in the wool, we put it in the tumbler to shake out as much as possible. The tumbler is a large, hand-cranked, wire-covered box. If the wool is matted, we put it through a small machine called a picker, which pulls apart the fibers. At this stage, the fibers are not ordered parallel to one another in a single direction: they are loose and cloud-like, and can be used for stuffing (for instance, one of the Mill’s customers uses picked wool to stuff dog beds).
3. Carding: The card is the largest machine at the mill. It brushes out the fibers with multiple rollers, making the fibers organized, aside one another. The card can be set up to lay the fibers in sheets, by rolling onto a drum to make batting (used to fill quilts, for stuffing, or for felting), or in “snake” form into a can coiler as “sliver”. Sliver can then be spun into yarn by hand, or pin-drafted and spun at the Mill.
4. Pin-drafting: Most sliver produced with the card then goes through the pin-drafter, a machine that further refines how ordered (parallel) the fibers are in the roving. This makes the final yarn more even in its diameter, and makes a semi-worsted yarn (“worsted” refers to the preparation and resulting texture of the yarn and differs from “woolen” in that the fibers are more parallel, producing a tighter (less fluffy) yarn, with a greater yarn weight).
5. Spinning: Roving is turned into yarn on the spinning frame, where it is twisted once into single-ply yarn. The draft distance can be adjusted to affect the yarn thickness and accommodate different fibers’ staple lengths (“staple” refers to the average length of the individual wool fibers in a fleece). Most yarns are given a second twist to add strength.
6. Plying: If the yarn is to be plied (where multiple single strands are twisted together) they are spun in the opposite direction. The Mill can make single, two-, and three-ply yarns. The three-ply in comparison to the two-ply is rounder and stronger. Usually the same color of yarn is plied together, though different colors can also be plied to make “barber pole” yarns.
7. Skein and Cone winding: Lastly, the yarn (whether single, two- or three-ply) is taken off the bobbins at a machine called a skein winder and wound most often into two-hundred-yard lengths, unless the customer specifies otherwise. Yarn in skein form is ready to be dyed by customers unless they choose to leave it natural. If the yarn is wound onto a cone it is typically returned to the customer in 1-2 lbs per cone. Yarn in cone form is preferred by weavers since this makes it easy to wind warps.
About half of Marcail’s customers re-sell the products made from their fleeces, while the others use them for their own crafting. Putting so many different sheeps’ fibers through these processes makes one appreciate the great range in variety of fibers, even within breeds. Marcail particularly likes processing Romney cross wools. She also frequently works with Shetland, Jacob, Corriedale (as long as it is not too fine), Navajo Churro, Wensleydale, and California Red. The Mill can process mohair (from Angora goats), alpaca, and llama by blending them with 30% wool (which can be provided either by the customer or the Mill). This is due to these fibers being very silky and lacking crimp: added wool provides texture for the fibers to hold together in the machines. Even certain types of slippery wools such as Wensleydale, Gotland, and Cotswold often need more textured wools blended to help them hold together. It is also important that these Longwool breed’s fibers do not exceed 5.5” staple length, otherwise they wrap around the rolls of the mill’s card. At this time Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill’s machines cannot fully process 100% fine wools (such as Merino) or “Babydoll” Southdown, though some customers send these fibers to another mill (Morro Fleece Works) to have roving made, before sending it to Marcail to be spun into yarn.
Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill also sells some products directly, including yarn dyed with natural dyes, such as pokeberry and pomegranate, and yarn and roving from rare sheep breeds, such as Perendale. Marcail periodically offers mill tours and has booths at fiber fairs such as the Lambtown Festival, in nearby Dixon, California, as well as at the Blacksheep Gathering in Albany, Oregon, and the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival in Canby. For more information about the Mill, visit www.ValleyOakWoolMill.com
The Mill’s Machinery
Most of Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill’s machines were made in the United States in the mid-1900s. They have a great deal of character but can be difficult to repair due to lack of availability of parts and knowledgeable mechanics. All of the machines have their quirks and act differently (and require adjustments) when the temperature and humidity levels change. A peeve of Marcail’s is when people ask her whether she has “Googled” or tried “looking on YouTube” for how to fix a machine that is acting up: it is shocking how little one comes up with when trying to find information online about these machines. However, two of the Mill’s machines were made by Whitin Machine Works, a once large Massachusetts company of which some interesting history is documented and available:
Whitin Machine Works, established in 1831, initially made cotton milling equipment. It had evolved out of a cotton mill built by Paul Whitin in 1809, which had itself grown out of an earlier hoe and scythe manufacturing company. Whitin Machine Works became one of the world’s largest textile machine makers through the mid-1900s, ultimately giving rise to the village of Whitinville, Massachusetts and employing around five thousand workers. Digitized copies of The Whitin Spindle, the community’s monthly periodical from the 1910s through the 1960s, are available at http://spindle.trajnet.com/. They offer an interesting view into this industry and a taste of what life was like in the town: everything from statistics of injuries treated over the course of a year at Whitinsville’s hospital, to articles on particular worker’s hobbies (oil painting, salt water fishing, chess, and making dolls out of pipe cleaners and walnut shells), to miscellaneous fun facts about famous people, baseball, raw materials that were used in finished Whitin products (such as wood and copper), and comics and cartoons. No doubt, some of the individuals featured in the issues from the 1940s and ‘50s, helped build Valley Oak Wool Mill’s specific spinning and roving frames.