Spinning a yarn at Valley Oak Wool and Fiber Mill

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Coming out in the wash McWilliams starts the process in her scouring room. The raw wool she gets from local sheep or alpaca farmers is arranged in a converted American Cascade washing machine — the kind that would be used to wash carpets — with water, soda ash and a surfactant, a substance that breaks up the surface tension of the water.

She noted that people always assume her hands will be so soft from the lanolin in the wool. But there’s also the sweat and urine that is part of the fleece, she said; hence, the thorough washing. Holding up a kitchen-sized garbage bag of ram’s wool — about 7 pounds per bag, generally one animal’s worth — she explained, “People bring me bags and bags of unwashed fleece.” She’s processing May orders now that she promised would be done by Christmas. She gives herself eight months to get the finished product back to its owner. After the wool has gone through the industrial washer, McWilliams spins it dry in a regular washing machine before placing it on drying racks — basically metal shelving like you would buy at a home improvement store. When dry, it’s sent through a picker to open it up and take out the clumps, before finally being ready for the mill. ‘Why are you still there?’ But before McWilliams shows off the behemoth machines in the next room, she shared a bit about her path to owning such a place. She grew up in Woodland, and attended California College of the Arts in the Bay Area. Majoring in textiles, which was a fine arts major, didn’t teach her what she’s learned on the job, although it probably made her more inclined to gravitate toward a wool mill. After college, McWilliams said, “I moved back home and needed a job. A friend had a card for the Yolo Wool Mill (and even though they weren’t advertising for a job), I met Jane and she had a job available.” Seven years with Deamer taught McWilliams everything she knows about running a mill. She admitted that while working at Yolo Wool Mill, friends would ask her, somewhat rudely, “Why are you still there? I thought you went to college to not have to work at a place like this.” But McWilliams saw the endeavor as a viable career path, merging many of her interests. When asked how she sees Valley Oak developing, McWilliams says, “I’m a service to local growers,” which is her primary concern. However, she admitted she has some inefficiencies in her process, which became more glaring after a field trip to the Pendelton Mill in Oregon. She toured the gigantic mill to see how it operates. First and foremost, Pendelton runs 24 hours per day and processes the same type of wool all day. This is valuable, McWilliams said, “Since there’s so much variety from breed to breed … That’s why (Pendelton) has high minimums” for how much they will process. Adjusting the machines over and over is tedious. McWilliams never intends to be as big as a place like Pendelton — “It’s lost some of the character to me,” she said — but she also eyed a mill in Wyoming. “Between me and Pendelton is Mountain Meadows,” she explained, “which takes something like 100-pound orders.” As she plots a path to more efficiency for Valley Oak — she is essentially a one-woman operation as of now — her mom, Marjorie McWilliams, helps out at the mill. Carding, pin-drafting and roving Heading into the mill itself, one is able to imagine the early days of automation. McWilliams showed off her Davis & Furber card machine, which opens the fibers and brushes them into the product called “sliver,” which is like a thick rope of wool without any twist. “Wool fibers are not organized to be parallel with one another,” she explained. The pindrafter, a series of sharp combs, then combs the fibers to increase their alignment, and the resulting product is called roving. “I use this machine to determine the thickness of yarn that the customer asks for,” McWilliams said. The pin-drafted roving moves to her Whitin roving frame, and is transformed into a single-ply yarn. And from the roving frame, the yarn moves to a Whitin spinning frame. “Typically everybody wants two-ply yarn,” she said. And finally, McWilliams loads the yarn onto her skein winder, which takes yarn off of giant bobbins and winds it up into as many as 15 organized skeins at once. While McWilliams doesn’t have a storefront, she does offer tours to groups of five or more. The tours are $10 per person and can be arranged by emailing her at valleyoakwoolmill@gmail.com. For more information about her services, visit https://www.valleyoakwoolmill.com. — Reach Tanya Perez at tperez@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8082. Follow her on Twitter at @enterprisetanya]]>

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