Stephany Wilkes started out searching for "local yarn" and ended up learning how to shear sheep. Eventually, she found herself at the center of a growing community of hardworking Americans trying to bring eco-friendly wool to market. Her book, Raw Material: Working Wool in the West (OSU Press) explains this fascinating industry and introduces the people involved.
Raw Material would make a great gift for the knitter on your list, as well as anyone interested in sustainable fashion, shopping locally, and life in the West. It is a really interesting book!
Stephany recently talked with Rose City Reader about her book Raw Material and the whole idea of "regenerative" fashion:
What is “local yarn”?
For me, my working, ideal definition is yarn made from natural fibers (sheep, cotton, hemp, alpaca, etc.) grown within 120 miles of my house, and processed within my home state of California, ideally at either one of my two nearest mills: Mendocino Wool Fiber or Valley Oak Wool Mill. It might also be wool I sheared (which may or may not be near my primary physical address, but was local to me at the time) and had processed at a California mill.
Why did you decide to learn how to shear sheep?
The long answer is in my book, of course, but the short answer is that I learned there was a lack of qualified sheep shearers, especially those willing to shear small flocks (two to less than 100 sheep). This created a bottleneck in the local yarn supply chain and I, chock full of urban hubris and curiosity, thought I might try to clear that bottleneck. I was helped along by deep misery created by my day job, and had been grasping about wildly for job ideas that didn’t mainly involve my sitting in front of a screen.
How did you come to write Raw Material?
Pretty accidentally. When I got home from particularly funny, harrowing, or otherwise embarrassing early shearing jobs, I would post stories about them on Facebook, and people said “You should write a book about this, it’s so unbelievable.” So I did.
What is your background and how did it prepare you to write a book about wool?
I’m not sure anything can prepare you for writing a book, which is a painful struggle and personal saga. I have a B.A. in English, but my program wasn’t a writing one. I guess the best answer is working. Writing is just one more kind of work, and I am (and have always been) a working person. I have had so many jobs – house cleaner, bartender, nanny, consultant, prep cook, many dozens -- sometimes two or three of these jobs at the same time. I always gravitated to writers who wrote about working, because I found it strange and distracting that so many writers (published ones, anyway) wrote stories in which no one seemed to be working. How were any of these characters making a living?! Maybe I had to bone to pick about that, so I wrote about working, and the work farmers, ranchers, grazers, and mill owners are doing.
What will readers learn from your book?
That agriculture and fashion, two of the biggest contributors to global warming, are also two of the biggest solutions to that same problem, especially when fashion shifts to using regeneratively grown, natural fibers, and when we shift to buying less clothing and wearing the clothing we do have, longer.
In addition to writing about local and eco-friendly wool production, you advocate for natural fibers in general. Can you give us a thumbnail explanation?
Synthetic fibers and dyes are fundamentally extractive (mined out of the earth), nonrenewable, neither compostable nor biodegradable, and often not recyclable. A fleece jacket made of recycled plastic sounds appealing, but those plastics (also known as microplastics or microfibers) just get smaller and smaller, and – with every load of laundry we do -- enter our waterways, wildlife, drinking water supply, and even our air. The recently released book, Secondhand, has a great section on synthetic fibers and why they’re problematic. Natural fibers can, when grown using regenerative methods, actually draw down and sequester carbon in soil, where it belongs, and then be composted at the end of their lives.
Can you recommend other resources for people interested in finding local wool or supporting a sustainable textile industry?
There is a wealth of information available on what a more sustainable textile industry might look like, including several captivating new books like Vanishing Fleece by Clara Parkes; Fibershed by Rebecca Burgess; The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth Cline; and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter. The website Fibershed.com (like a watershed, but for fiber) has a map of Fibershed affiliates all over the world, so there’s a good chance there’s an affiliate nearby with wool from producers in your region.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
How grueling it is to wrench a story out of your body. I am amazed anyone writes a second book. Who knew writing could be more painful than sheep shearing?!
You have a terrific website and blog, and are also active on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. From an author's perspective, how important is social media to connect with your readers and promote your book?
I am no expert here, but Instagram, at least, helped me engage with the folks most likely to be interested in my book: knitters, hand spinners, fellow sheep shearers, and so on, primarily through the use of hashtags.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book or local wool efforts?
Not in the terribly near future, as I’ve had a solid year of events and am trying to take December off before shearing season gears up again in January. In April 2020, I am speaking at PLY Away in Kansas City, Missouri; and in May I have two events, the Kira K Designs retreat in Petaluma, California; and the Flag Wool & Fiber Festival in Flagstaff, Arizona. I really limit my flying and airline emissions these days, so I love to combine book-related events with shearing jobs, family visits, and the like. Make each trip count!
What are you working on now?
Too much, always too much. Let’s see… A book proposal for a nonfiction book about regenerative fabric, months overdue to a lovely publisher who asked for it, because I am terrible and working too much; a novel; a memoir about my life with my grandmother, who has dementia and whom I moved to California with me via cross-country Winnebago; and various short stories and essays. I also sent a bunch of wool (from myself and other sheep shearers) to my local wool mill this year, as I got the fool notion to try to make and sell some yarn rather than throw that wool away, but I don’t know what I’m doing and just feel low-grade panic when I think about it, so we’ll see! I’m also including a new service line related to sheep shearing in 2020, which is teaching small groups of people how to handle their sheep more easily, and shear their own sheep better.
RAW MATERIAL IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT.