San Diego Spinners want to make sweater from sheep in eight hours

Last year it took more than eleven hours

Kelly Friedlen believes every home should have three alpacas in its backyard.

She’s so adamant that, in the two days we’ve known each other, she’s said it three times. The last time she’s moved to repeat the sentence, we’re about to enter a fenced-in lot next to the two-acre pasture where she keeps her sheep, horses, ponies, and alpacas of various colors, who bear names like Holly, Miranda, Stormy, Noir, and Tina.

Having never met an alpaca before, I’m surprised to hear them called by such…domestic…names. But when Friedlen opens the gate to introduce me to her “babies,” the alpacas immediately distinguish themselves from other animals.

The sheep stay curled on the ground in fluffy balls by the far fence, and the horses and ponies keep to themselves, grazing here and there in shady spots, but the alpacas respond to the metallic sound of the gate latch by running toward us, stumbling over each other like puppies.

It takes a moment for them to realize it isn’t just “mommy” entering the lot; when they do, the front line stops suddenly, about 25 yards away, causing those in the back to bump them from behind.

“It’s because they don’t know you,” Friedlen says. She reaches a hand toward them and lightly snaps her fingers. “Come here, Miranda. It’s okay. Come on, Holly.”

It’s Holly, a cream-colored fuzz ball, who first ventures forward. Within a minute and a half, we’re surrounded by big-eyed, big-toothed (they only have bottom teeth) wooly creatures with long necks. Friedlen assures me we’re safe just as Holly takes a bite of my notebook paper.

“Oh, look, Holly likes you.” She rubs her hand in the animal’s wool. “I’m telling you, everyone should have three alpaca in the backyard. I don’t care if you live in the city or in the country.”

Friedlen, a pediatric-nurse-turned-shepherdess, is a talker, and when she’s on a roll, it’s hard to get a word in, but when she pauses to pull out a bit of hay hanging from Miranda’s mouth, I ask her to expound on her fondness for this species of domesticated South American camelid.

“Oh, absolutely,” she says. “When I bought my first alpaca, one of the kids [from the alpaca ranch] came to me with a little Ziploc bag full of alpaca poop, and she said, ‘Wherever you want them to [defecate], put this little pile of poop, and they will all go there.’ I thought, Oh, my God, these people are crazy. But when I went home, I did just that. And guess what? They still poop in the same spot.”

That was three years ago.

“They will stand in line at the poop pile,” she continues. “And you can put a bale of hay out for alpacas. Anything else I know of will gorge themselves, but the alpaca don’t overeat. They’re just really easy. They’re idiot-proof. They’re so kind and so loving.”

Friedlen loves her sheep, too. The previous day, at one point during our phone conversation, she went out to the pasture and began calling the sheep to round them up and pen them before she left the house. “Come here, Violet! Rocket! Now!” she’d shouted. And then, to me, she’d laughed and said, “They look like Fabio, running across the yard with their hair flowing in the wind.”

We pass the big alpaca-poop pile while heading toward the far fence where the sheep lounge. Holly remains at my side, nudging me every few moments, but it’s Tina, the knock-kneed ten-month-old alpaca who has stolen my heart.

Friedlen holds out a hand and calls the sheep by name: Louise, Rocket, Ella, and so on. Kate stands up heavily and ambles over. Her legs are skinny, and she looks like she might topple over from the weight of her wool. They all do. It’s six months’ worth of growth. The shearer will be here at the end of the month.

Although Friedlen won’t disclose exactly how many animals she has, she explains that the majority of her sheep are Bluefaced Leicester, Wensleydale, Lincoln, and Gotland; her alpacas are Huacaya; her goats are Angora.

Kelly Freidlen

Kelly Freidlen

“Pets with benefits,” she calls them.

“This is a spinning flock,” she says, meaning that she raises the animals for their wool. “From Ramona to Norco, you can assemble an absolutely top-notch spinning flock, including sheep, goats, and alpaca that have originated from all over the world. That’s important for people to know. Put a star by that.”

You have to choose

In 2012, Friedlen joined seven other women to compete in the International Back to Back Wool Challenge, a competition in which teams of eight race to shear a sheep, spin the wool, and knit a sweater — in one sitting. They called themselves the San Diego County Spinners, and Friedlen was the designated shearer. As the only U.S. team to compete, they came in 10th out of 11, with a total time of 11 hours, 39 minutes, and 15 seconds. The winning team, out of Netherlands/Germany, did it in 6 hours, 3 minutes, and 28 seconds. The record of 4 hours, 51 minutes, and 14 seconds, set in 2004, belongs to a team out of Australia.

“That team was together for ten years,” Beryl Warnes, Friedlen’s teammate and designated right-sleeve knitter, tells me of the record-setters. “They actually bred the sheep so that the wool would spin faster.”

“I make a decent living with my custom weaving,” says Beryl Warnes, owner of Julian Weaving Works.

“I make a decent living with my custom weaving,” says Beryl Warnes, owner of Julian Weaving Works.

We’re standing in Julian Weaving Works, Warnes’s studio and store on Highway 78, in Santa Ysabel. The shelves are piled with spools and skeins of yarn in every color, some machine-made, some handmade. Shawls, scarves, and rugs hang on racks around the room’s edges, and two six-foot-tall stand-up looms take up half the 600 square feet of floor space. Friedlen, an amateur weaver, apprenticed here in 2011, and according to Warnes, she never left. She makes the 15-mile trek up from Ramona once a week, helping dress looms, weave scarves, or wind bobbin — whatever Warnes needs.

“The shearer starts shearing the sheep,” Warnes continues, “and he hands the wool to one of the spinners, and then to another spinner. [The competition] starts off with about six of the eight women spinning.”

A large truck bearing bales of hay rumbles past on the highway, right outside the door, requiring her to pause.

“They hope to have the knitters knitting within ten minutes,” she says when it’s quiet again. “It has to be plied first, which is two spun yarns wrapped together, and then they’ll hand that to the knitter. They do this all day long. And I mean this wool is greasy. It came straight off the sheep. ”

This year, the team’s goal is to complete the sweater in eight hours. A week before the competition, they’ll do a practice run at the Fiber Arts and Belly Dance Festival that Warnes holds annually in the grassy parking lot behind her shop.

Along with belly dancing, the festival includes all aspects of the sheep-to-shawl process. During the event, Warnes sets up the back lot with pens for live alpacas, sheep, and goats; looms and spinning wheels for demonstrations of weaving and yarn-making; and an area for booths, where Friedlen and other vendors will sell fleeces, yarn, and woven or knitted fabrics and clothing.

Friedlen has high hopes for the sheep-to-shawl movement. She wants to see it take off the way the farm-to-table and buy-local movements have. And she sees the work Warnes does as pivotal.

“The driving force is if we can get people interested in weaving,” she says. “The only way this can work is if we take it all the way to the end.”

Warnes, too, wants to revive the art of weaving, and the apprenticeships she offers to anyone interested help her do that.

Skylar Warnes weaves a saddle blanket on a loom that weighs an estimated 300 pounds.

Skylar Warnes weaves a saddle blanket on a loom that weighs an estimated 300 pounds.

“I make a decent living with my custom weaving,” she says, “but I want to teach people, and people want to learn.”

Warnes proclaims herself a “bohemian.” Going by dress alone, the shoe seems to fit. Today, she’s wearing a blue knit shirt with extra-long sleeves and holes for her thumbs and a skirt she made from layers of woven fabric of various lengths. The layers (blues, black, greens, and purples) hang at offset angles, the way a shirt does when tied around the waist. It’s oddly appealing, and I find myself eyeing a similar green-and-leopard-print number for sale on a rack by the western wall.

Then there’s her eye for eclectic combinations, such as, say, weaving and belly dancing, and her frequent use of the word “soulful.” (“Boy, do they go together really well because of the soulful rhythm of both of them.”)

As far as ideals go, sheep-to-shawl is near the top of Warnes’s list, which also includes live-from-the-land, buy American, and buy local. But in her 58 years, she’s learned that the ideal is not always the most practical. While she loves the idea of raising her own animals, shearing them, spinning the yarn, and then weaving the fabrics, she would not be able to make a living as a weaver. And weaving is the part she loves most.

“It takes seven spinners to keep a weaver weaving,” she says, “so if I’m going to spin my own yarn, it’s going to take me seven days, and then I can weave for one day. So, then you’re a spinner, not a weaver. I had to make a choice. If you’re going to grow your own sheep and then spin the wool, it’s that much more time.”

They have to look handmade

Outside, at the front of the store, a mannequin stands dressed in one of Warnes’s scarves and hats. Woven rugs and skeins of yarn have been carefully draped to advertise the shop’s presence. Here, too, a redheaded woman named Michaelin Marie sits at a spinning wheel, making yarn.

Michaelin Marie spins her yarns only at night, after she completes her day job at the Julian Post Office.

Michaelin Marie spins her yarns only at night, after she completes her day job at the Julian Post Office.

Another of Warnes’s former apprentices, Marie has a dramatic streak. On her website bio, she writes of her childhood: “Being a girl, sequins, sparkle, and marabou boas made me happy.” And later: “In the late 2000s, I was captured by a mad weaver and apprenticed for several months, learning production techniques.”

Like Warnes, who chooses weaving, and Friedlen, who chooses the animals, Marie, too, has chosen a niche within the sheep-to-shawl movement: spinning. She also knits and weaves but is partial to the creation of yarns. Her yarns are a big seller at craft fairs, on her website, and on Etsy. They run $20–$100 per skein, but she neither sells nor makes enough to earn a living as a spinner.

“I always wanted to have a business featuring my fiber arts,” she writes on her website. “I made many attempts, but always looked at it from a practical viewpoint. The labor was just too intensive to make products ‘affordable.’”

That’s okay with her. She sees spinning as an art, not merely a craft. The pieces that sell on Etsy are the ones that look the most artistic, the most handmade — it’s not enough that they are handmade, they have to look handmade, too.

Marie likes the idea of Warnes getting more people involved in weaving and other fiber arts, but, she says, “SoCal is just not a fiber-arts hotspot.” So, for now, she spins only at night, after completing her day at the Julian Post Office. She does have a plan in the works to rent a storefront two doors down from Julian Weaving Works, but that’s where she intends to sell handmade soaps; spinning will still be her side job.

Saddle blankets pay the bills

Back inside, Friedlen spins bobbins for Warnes. Her feet press the treadles on the bobbin winder Warnes made from a redesigned treadle sewing machine, causing the spindle to spin and the machine to whir.

A robust man in a blue flannel shirt and a dark-blond goatee comes through the back door, bows slightly, and offers me a handshake. He introduces himself as Warnes’s son, Skylar. Then he nods and backs away.

Warnes tells me the story of how she became one of the few people she knows who makes a living as a fiber artist. A passion for weaving began at age 21, when she took a two-week course not far from her home in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.

“There was a woman who taught weaving in her barn,” she says. “You signed up, and you could camp on her property. It was the ’70s, late-hippie days. I was a little young for that scene, but I took her class, and when I sat down at the loom for the first time, I didn’t speak for the whole day. I was in my zone.”

While she tells her story, Skylar slips off his moccasins and steps up onto the treadles of one of the large looms that fills the back half of the room. After a few moments of preparation and adjustment, he begins to weave. It sounds more like someone chopping wood in the distance than a sewing machine. More surprising is how his presence on the (estimated) 300-pound loom makes weaving look less like women’s work.

After that first two-week class was up, Warnes continues, she took the $700 she’d been saving for a car and bought a loom instead. The weaver’s husband made the loom for her, and she had to wait a year before it was ready. By that time, she had just had her first child.

“While Skylar was napping, I was studying and learning constantly,” she says. “I sold a few pieces [table runners, blankets, wall-hangings]. My grandmother commissioned me to make fabric for her. She took the fabric to a tailor and had coats made.”

Warnes spent the next four years practicing her weaving in Canada, the following six in Encinitas, and then she moved to Julian, where she lives on just under four acres on Deerlake Park Road, among the manzanita, fir, and native oak trees. From September 1974, when she first sat at a loom, it was another 15 years of working odd jobs as a daycare provider, a liquor-store clerk, a seamstress, and a carpet-cleaner before she was able to make a living weaving full time.

Dave and Barbara Davies run the A Simpler Time alpaca ranch and mill in Crest.

Dave and Barbara Davies run the A Simpler Time alpaca ranch and mill in Crest.

Today, although the rent on the shop is the same $200 a month she paid 20 years ago, she pays approximately $2000 in mortgage and monthly expenses for her house in Julian and buys $3000 worth of yarn each month. She’s able to make it all work because of a relationship made more than two decades ago.

When Warnes first arrived in Julian, she’d been weaving for ten years and believed she had enough time and experience to teach. So, on weekends during the tourist season, she set up a loom on the stage at the Julian Town Hall, to demonstrate her craft and garner the interest of potential students. Although some people were interested in learning, more were interested in purchasing the lap throws, scarves, and other goods she made. Warnes began to bring not only her loom, but the shawls and scarves she’d made and wanted to sell.

In the late 1980s, she attracted the attention of a woman named Babe Woods, who ran a shop out of Vista called Woods’ Western with her husband Dan. The couple sold “show clothing” for horse breeders.

“[Babe] came up and asked me if I would do custom saddle blankets,” Warnes says. “She showed me the process, and I said, ‘I’ve done that process before, but I can’t afford to [spend the time to] learn it, because there’s so much yarn in it.’ Each saddle blanket has six pounds of yarn, and I couldn’t afford that kind of yarn at that time. Babe commissioned me to do two saddle blankets, and I did those. She said, ‘We will buy every saddle blanket you make from here on forward.’”

Warnes walks me over to one of the large looms at the back of the shop. It’s taller than I am, “dressed” with a yarn much thicker and heavier than the yarn on the smaller looms.

“They financed my looms,” Warnes says. “These big looms were $2400. They’re $5000 now, but 20 years ago, they were $2400. They’re solid maple; they take a beating. You have to be able to tension the warp tight to be able to weave that product, and most looms can’t handle that. And you need to stand and put your weight on the treadles, to make the shed open so you can throw the shuttle through.”

In the moment, I don’t quite catch all this vocabulary, but I do understand when she points out a row of thin, evenly spaced grooves at the back of one of the large looms, the result of 20 years of weaving saddle blankets.

“Skylar and I, between the two of us, we do about 200 [saddle blankets] a year,” she says. “I agreed with [Babe Woods] that I would only make them for her, and she wouldn’t buy saddle blankets from anywhere else.”

The six pounds of yarn in each saddle blanket costs Warnes about $100. Each blanket takes approximately four hours to weave, not counting the edge-turning (finishing the edges), and the ordering and maintenance of yarn inventory. Warnes receives $250 apiece, and Woods’ Westerns sells them for between $450 and $500 each.

“Because of [Babe], I’m able to weave for a living,” Warnes says. “My clothing does really well, and clothing is my passion, but this pays the bills.”

We do it all

Kelly Friedlen is serious about everyone needing three alpacas in their backyard, and although I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear that I’m not alpaca-raising material, she sends me to the A Simpler Time alpaca ranch and mill to meet the owners — who sold her Noir, her first alpaca. I agree to go, but only because I’m curious. Not because I want an alpaca of my own.


Tour of A Simpler Time alpaca ranch and mill

A Simpler Time stands east of El Cajon on a hillside that overlooks a large canyon. The drive to the four-acre property on Alta Place includes a short pass through the town of Crest and a right-hand turn on a road that, today, is marked with a sign that reads “Alpaca Event” in red lettering. From there, it gets a little hairy on a narrow road that winds steeply down from the top of a hill, each hairpin turn hiding whatever or whoever might be coming up from below. Mill owners Dave and Barbara Davies assure me later on that the road can fit two cement trucks side by side, but I’m not buying it.

I meet the couple on a Saturday afternoon during one of their monthly open-house events, where they invite the public to come see the alpacas, have a tour of the mill, and shop in their store, normally open by appointment only.

Because their website features a few photos of women in printed, sacklike dresses, I don’t expect to find Barbara dressed as she is in jeans and mascara. And Dave’s bushy, red-fading-to-gray goatee reads more motorcycle man than Mennonite. Within the first five minutes of our meeting, they debunk Warnes’s theory that, in order to make a living in the fiber-arts industry, one must focus on a single step in the sheep-to-shawl process. A Simpler Time is a one-stop shop for all things alpaca.

“We make money on the animals. We actually breed them and sell them,” Dave says while Barbara goes off to talk to another visitor. “We make money processing fiber and turning it into yarn for people. And then we also make finished goods. So, the combination of all those things is how we make our living.”

In defense of Warnes’s theory, however, the Davies family is a team of 11; their 9 children work at both the mill and the ranch.

The couple bought the land for $35,000 in 1985, when it was a steep hillside overgrown with dense brush. Six years later, they moved into a trailer on the property while they bulldozed and landscaped the hillside, a necessary step before they could get the permits to build a house. They lived in the trailer for about a year and a half before they were able to move into the manufactured home they’d purchased.

These days, the property, strewn here and there with rusty horse trailers and tractor-like vehicles, looks very much lived in. The house and barn are painted a happy sky-blue that feels slightly incongruous to the ominous only-one-road-in-or-out-of-this-bunker setting. This afternoon, a pair of teenagers snuggles up together on a bench on the house’s wraparound porch.

During the family’s early days of living on the ranch, Dave worked at Qualcomm as a distribution manager. When he was laid off in 2003, he requested that he be allowed to stay on until a project was finished, so he could get the last of his stock options. The company agreed.

“I took that last set of stock options and purchased my business,” he says. “I bought all the equipment I needed to get this business going.”

Dave and his family already had a small herd of 10 or 11 alpacas. His work history gave him an edge when it came to knowing what it would take to get the mill up and running.

“It’s manufacturing, and that’s what I’d been doing for 20 years,” he says. “It’s just different equipment. I knew manufacturing processes, manufacturing techniques, what you do in lot-tracking, inventory control, management, all of that stuff. So it wasn’t totally foreign for me. It was just different.”

When they first started the business, the Davies family made most of their money breeding and selling the animals. In the past ten years, however, where they make the bulk of their income has shifted.

“Originally, because of the prices of alpacas, you could definitely make a lot more money just selling the animals,” Dave says. “But our retail sales are going up every year, as more people find out that alpaca is a really nice fiber to work with. So this end of the business has gone way up from when we first started. And then we still have a pretty steady business [where] other ranches from across the United States send us their fiber. We process it for them, and then they turn around and [sell the yarn and/or felt sheets] on their ranches.”

A Simpler Time has over $200,000 worth of machines that do the bulk of the work.

Dave points to a machine with eight sets of spinning contraptions. “These are eight people sitting in a row,” he says.

We’re a few hundred yards downhill from the family’s 3800-square-foot house, standing in the barn that houses the mill. The shop, where they sell skeins of yarn, knitted and felted items, looms, spinning wheels, cookbooks, and bread-makers, occupies a small front corner of the barn. The rest of the 1300 square feet is dedicated to the mill’s machinery.

“If [when] you’re talking about a farm-to-table routine,” Dave says, “[you mean] picking the vegetables and going to the table, you’re fine. But there’s a ton of America that don’t realize that if I say farm-to-table, and I’m talking about an animal, somebody had to do some processing for you to get it to the table.”

Translated into sheep-to-shawl terms, he explains, that’s where the mill comes in. Dave points to cardboard boxes on shelves hanging from the ceiling above the machinery.

“All of these orders are people who have sent in fiber. They’ve shorn the animal, and then we start the process. We’ll tumble it.” He points to a large, wheel-like contraption made of wood and wire that stands outside the barn’s back door. “My dad built that tumbling machine. We start by getting rid of some of the dirt, some of the vegetation.”

The next step is to wash the fiber. Dave now points to a 30-gallon washer, which can wash approximately 12 pounds of fiber at a time. From there, the wool goes to a drying rack in front of a window. The rack looks like the kind of cart you might find in an industrial bakery, where trays of pastries would be placed to cool off. But this rack has a clear plastic door that, when closed, traps the sun’s heat coming in from the window.

“I use God’s method,” Dave says. “God created the sun for us, warms [the rack] up for us, and we dry out the fiber.”

After the wool is dried out, it goes to the picker, a machine that drags it through spikes and combs it out.

“Alpacas love to roll, so the hair gets matted,” Dave says, “so that opens it up.”

Next, the two fiber separators and dehairers — each costs about $40,000 — get rid of the vegetation and course fiber to prepare the finer wool for the carder. The carder aligns the fiber so it’s all in a row, thus producing the roving.

“The hand-spinner will take that and put it on a spinning wheel and make yarn,” Dave says.

The draw frames stretch and pull the fiber. This creates a consistent thickness, so the spinning machines can spin the uniform yarn that Michaelin told me won’t sell on Etsy, where her clients like a more handmade look.

After pointing out the spinner, the plier (which creates a two-ply yarn), the steamer (which sets the twist created by the plier), the cone-winder, and the skein-winder, Dave pulls a large plastic bag from a shelf. It’s stuffed with skeins of yarn. The outside of the bag is marked with the name “Maggie” and other details.

“We pack it up for the customer so it’s all ready to go,” he says. “If they tell us what animal, it [becomes] a great marketing tool for them, because people can sell their animals by saying, ‘This is what Maggie produces.’”

Davies won’t give actual numbers about how much the family business makes per year, but he does say that, since they opened the mill in 2003, “every year, [our income] has grown. I would say by, percentage-wise, at least 10–15 percent.”

Barbara, who has rejoined us during a lull in the afternoon’s onslaught of open-house visitors, says, “Let’s just say it’s what most people can’t live on because they have too much debt.”

Who’s that?

Back at Friedlen’s Ramona ranch on a Sunday afternoon, she regales me on this second visit with stories of lamb births and knitting groups. She walks me through her pasture again and through her 3000-square-foot house fruitily scented with air fresheners. I’d never guess she has seven cats, if they weren’t all underfoot and scurrying past. She shows me the just-washed wool on the picnic table on her back deck and her storage room stacked with clear plastic boxes full of fleeces.

Her husband, Rich, watches as she grabs a plastic bag set near the sliding-glass door in the kitchen, to show me a recently washed black-and-silver fleece.

“Who’s that?” he asks, referring not to me, but to the wool in the bag.

“Fish,” she says, referring to one of the Lincoln sheep out in the yard.

I smile and nod, as if I remember.

A moment later, when I ask to go back out to the yard to see little Tina one last time before I leave, Friedlen gets a gleam in her eye and opens her mouth to speak. I head her off before she can get a word out.

“I know, everyone should have three alpacas in their backyard,” I say. “But I live in a condo.”

She narrows her eyes at me, sighs, and says, “Okay then, you’re off the hook.”

For more, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory

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