“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.
Image by Howie Rosen
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.