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.
“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.
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.
For more, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory