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Wool Artist Supports Fiber Farmers

By Abbey Smith

Lani Estill at the Warner Mountain Weavers shop in Cedarville, California.

Lani Estill met me at her shop in downtown Cedarville, California, and showed me pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We sat in the store, surrounded by brilliantly colored yarn, soft and earthy colored scarves, hats and rugs, and Estill shuddered as we scrolled through picture after picture of the pile of plastic the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean.

“The sixth-graders wrote essays about it today,” said Estill. As is common in rural communities, she wears many hats. In addition to being a fiber artist and rancher, she is also a substitute teacher at Surprise Valley Joint Unified School District, where her son attends school.

“Some companies boast that they make products out of recycled plastic. But it is still plastic. It still goes into our rivers, oceans, land and our bodies,” she said.

This is why Estill uses natural dyes and sells combed top wool, yarn and fabric products to artisans, who turn them into beautiful (and warm) garments. Her business, Lani’s Lana (“lana” is Spanish for wool), is located inside Warner Mountain Weavers, and her online store also includes garments such as hats and scarves produced from her wool.

“It is the right thing to do,” she said. “Once you’ve woken up, you have to something about it.”

Estill grew up in Cedarville — population 514 — and is proud to operate her fiber artist business on Main Street. Besides her dedication to reviving rural communities, Estill has practical reasons for setting up shop in this tiny town.

“It is less expensive to operate and to live here,” she said. “I can run an online store, have a retail presence and still do everything else I want to do.” Everything else includes substitute teaching at her youngest son’s school, serving on the Surprise Valley Education Foundation board and devoting herself to environmental causes as president of the Vya Conservation District. She is also a founding member of the Northern California Fibershed Cooperative.

As a mother of four children, a grandmother of one and a person deeply involved in her community, she still finds time to hike (usually to collect natural dye materials), ski and knit.

“Lani’s Lana is very important to small rural communities like Surprise Valley because it reminds us to believe in our dreams,” said fellow Surprise Valley Education Foundation board member and Surprise Valley resident, Sarah Diven.

The Estill family farm, Bare Ranch, is home to the flock of Rambouillet sheep that produce the wool featured in Lani’s Lana products.

Hands at work.

As a member of Fibershed, a California-based organization that supports regenerative fiber systems, Lani’s Lana products never leave the United States for production.

“Why would we send our wool to China when we can put people to work here?” said Estill. In addition to focusing on regionalized production, Fibershed supported Estill in creating a Carbon Farm Plan for Bare Ranch. It is estimated that the implementation of this plan sequesters 4,068 metric tons of CO2 annually. This means that the wool produced by Lani’s Lana is climate beneficial.

“I could not do what I do without Fibershed,” said Estill. They provide business support, graphic design and other services for producers in their network.

Scaling Up

The Estill family purchased Bare Ranch in 2003 to raise cattle. In 2007 they expanded their sheep enterprise. Fiber arts started as a hobby. Her interest piqued while working on an Ag in the Classroom project as a member of the local Cattlewomen’s Association.

Bonnie Chase, Estill’s mentor and friend, and the owner of Warner Mountain Weavers, taught her to weave and spin. “She said there is never a good time to learn — you just have to start,” Estill recalls. So she did. And she loved it.

Fibershed helped her turn her hobby into a business. She started milling with 30 pounds of wool at a small mill. Then she milled 600 pounds. Then 1,000 pounds were sent off to Mountain Meadows, in Buffalo, Wyoming. Today she produces more than 20,000 pounds and sells to well-known brands such as North Face, Pendleton Woolen Mills and Brooklyn Tweed.

“We can help any scale producer find their niche,” Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess said. “We focus on healing the relationship between the producer and end user. It has become so opaque. We help create transparency for the end user.”

Burgess explained further that, “There are amazing products, such as grass-fed beef, ending up in dog food. Developing direct markets is a challenge, but Lani has so much to work with. There is a real opportunity to make a difference.”

Estill said that diversified product offerings are key to her success. Larger companies purchase combed top, but professional and hobby fiber artists purchase yarn and fabric.

Wool From Sheep to Scarf

Lani’s Lana products start as protective coats for thousands of Rambouillet sheep that roam in bands across Bare Ranch — which covers areas of northeastern California and northwestern Nevada. Sheep shearing is an annual event in May on sheep operations such as Estill’s.

After the sheep are relieved of their winter coats they head out into the spring meadows and their fleeces are sent to Chargeurs Wool in South Carolina where they are turned into clean, fluffy, soft combed top.

Chargeurs Wool is the last commercially sized American combed top maker.

The combed top comes back to be sold by Lani’s Lana. Other wool continues along the production chain to be turned into yarn or fabric. Jagger Spun in Springvale, Maine, makes the yarn. Skeins are made at Maine Dye and Textiles in Saco, Maine. Fabric-fated wool goes on from Jagger Spun to Houston Textile Company in Rancho Cordova, California. Fabric and yarn then return to Cedarville, where Estill adds labels and, for some, small batch natural dyeing.

Adding Color with Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are mostly plant-based, Estill explained, although some do come from insects. Estill’s fiber products are dyed with materials gathered in Surprise Valley. These include wild sunflower, wolf moss lichen and madder root, which is grown by Surprise Valley gardeners. A small planter box of it grows outside the Warner Mountain Weavers shop.

Lani’s yarn is dyed using natural products such as indigo leaves, madder root and wolf moss lichen.

“Madder is my favorite,” said Surprise Valley gardener Kay Antunez de Mayolo, who grows madder root for Lani’s Lana products. “The scarlet red to orange dye comes from the mature roots of several related madder species found in different parts of the world. It takes several years for the roots to mature. My crop is now on year six and producing a few pounds of dyestuff. Madder is a direct dye, meaning that by carefully simmering the soaked roots, the dye is released and can be transferred to fiber.”

Some materials can be gathered from kitchen scraps such as onion skins and avocado pits and skins. Some dyes are imported, such as the cochineal beetle from Mexico and Peru. Lac is another beetle, and Brazilwood dye is made from the bark of the Brazilwood tree.

Burgess grows indigo plants, which are used to turn white wool into a beautiful deep blue color. Most commercially produced indigo is a powder made from tropical plants.

There is a temperate climate species, though, which Burgess discovered. It is grown in Japan where the same processing methods have been in practice since the 1600s. She worked with Japanese farmers to learn and “gently modernize” the ancient process, even inviting them to her California farm to collaborate with her.

“We needed to break from tradition just enough to get it out to more people,” said Burgess. She learned that a good crop is about a half acre of indigo. This will produce 300 to 400 pounds of dried indigo leaves. Twenty-five pounds of Burgess’ dried indigo leaves and flowers were fermented, using a Japanese process and sent to Estill. Bacteria eat the cellulose in the leaves, Burgess explained, leaving the blue pigment behind.

In the quiet back room of Warner Mountain Weavers sits a vat of indigo dye. It took 12 days to make. First, Estill explained, hardwood ash water was created. The water was siphoned off and added to the sukumo. Wheat bran and pickling lime were then added to the mixture.

All the products in the process are accessible, said Burgess. It does not require any synthetic compounds. The mixture was created in November 2017 and was used for small batch dyes through March 2018.

Before leaving the cozy shop, I asked Estill why she scaled up. Why was it not enough to have a fiber arts hobby? Like Estill herself, the answer was both practical and visionary.

“As I dabbled at the hobby level, I realized that I could make it a business. It became what I really wanted to do. I realized it could be profitable and fun. I wasn’t always this ‘environmental,’ but we cannot stay on the course we are on. There are things we can do to make a difference in the health of our communities, our environment, our soils. We just have to do it. We have to make natural fibers available to people in our region.”

Learn more about natural dyes and Lani’s Lana products. To see and feel Estill’s soft, warm fiber products, plan a trip to far Northeastern California. The shop is located at 459 South Main Street, Cedarville, California.

Bonnie Chase and Lani Estill offer classes at the historic Warner Mountain Weavers shop. A Wool Gathering is planned for September 7, 8 and 9. There are also classes on spinning, natural dyes and knitting.

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Abbey Smith is a leader of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada. She is proud to call Lani Estill her friend and neighbor in rural Surprise Valley. Their children attend the same elementary school and they both serve on the Surprise Valley Education Foundation board.