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.
For more, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory