Ep2: Exploring Valley Oak Wool Mill & Weaving with Danielle Garber

Dedicated To The Ones We Love

This episode is dedicated to the ancestors who never claimed the identity artist but who lived their creative truth. The role models who continue to inspire us each day.

Fun fact: the grandfather who makes a candid appearance towards the end of the episode would have been 100 years old today! Happy Birthday Grandpa Derr!

The Material

There is a lot to learn about the world of fiber, from process and sourcing to hundreds and hundreds of years of history and place-based making. We just barely scratched the surface! Some great podcasts to listen to if you are interested in learning more:

Reverberate, a podcast by A Verb For Keeping Warm, that very same weaving shop whose front window Danielle pressed her face against all those years ago! “Reverberate is a podcast exploring our wide world of textiles and the people who grow, design, make and wear them. Produced by A Verb for Keeping Warm in Oakland, California. Hosted by Adrienne Rodriguez.”

Fiber Nation, a podcast by Interweave, one of the nation’s foremost art and craft media companies with businesses in magazine and book publishing, interactive and social media, television and video programming, online education, live events, and online shopping. “Fiber Nation is a knitting podcast presenting tales of textiles, craft, and culture. From family farms in the American heartland to a woman’s cooperative in Afghanistan, each episode explores what connects us as knitters and makers. Join host Allison Korleski as she talks with people from all corners of the yarniverse: designers and dyers, shepherds and spinners, publishers and pathfinders.”

Craft In America, an incredible series by PBS. Specifically the Visionaries episode:

Every Thread Handwoven

Follow Danielle on Instagram and check out Every Thread Handwoven for more information about upcoming workshops, her shop and coaching! “Every Thread Handwoven was created by Danielle with so much intention and dedication to process. Yes, the fabrics she creates are in fact handwoven, every single thread held, placed, threaded and woven. But every thread handwoven is about how every thread of our lives, too, are handwoven. That each part, each choice, each experience is woven together to create the fabric of our lives. As we become more aware, more intentional, we become the hand that is creating that fabric, more refined, more intricate fabrics and patterns can emerge and materialize. Through our relationship with ourselves we can affect change outside of ourselves.”

Valley Oak Wool Mill

Learn more about Valley Oak Wool Mill and see the machines in action here:

Original Music by Lizdelise

As always, we close out each episode with a song created by my collaborator Liz de Lise. They take inspiration from the material, the feels, or both. Listen to the song on its own here.

how can i map where i am where i've been
and where i'm going to
I see my future clear as daylight
tripping into my room

carry you with me
all of the time
whether or not I mean to
so tell me what you’d have me do

what can i do
when my memories of you
are all but threadbare and worn
speaking in tongues I don’t understand

you are the weaver I am your hand

tangled in your web
i don't ever want to come back out again
I don't ever want to come back out again

how can I hold you
how can I hold the fabric of your skin
how can I unravel to begin

Episode Transcript

Welcome to Material Feels, a monthly podcast where we listen in on the intimate conversations between artists and their materials.

Each episode focuses on a material. What it is, how people work with it. We spend some time with an artist, art educator, manufacturer… someone who connects with that material every day. We visit studios, workshops and sometimes… supply closets.

This time, we are going to dive into a whole new world. For me at least.

It’s completely different than last episode when I was talking about my first love, clay, which I pretty much inside and out.

But first, some housekeeping…

Material Feels is written and produced by your host, me, Catherine Monahon.

Each episode is accompanied by an original piece of music created just for the show by my collaborator, Liz de Lise.

So make sure to listen all the way to the end… skip the outro if you are really that pressed for time. Stick around to listen to that song Liz has composed, inspired by this episode and the stories we explore.

You can subscribe to Material Feels with whatever podcast app you use on your phone. The show is on Spotify, iTunes or Google Play.

Follow the show on Instagram, @MaterialFeels, for extra treats.

And, for the show notes (which are full of links, resources and extra information for each episode), check out www.MaterialFeelsPodcast.com. Also. I’ve been getting some feedback from Episode 1. A few people have mentioned that it kind of made them want to try clay for the first time. Which made me… really excited.

If you tried clay after listening to my conversation with Matthew Duke of Kids ‘N’ Clay please, please, please get in touch with me. Email me at Catherine@materialfeelspodcast.com or message the podcast on Instagram. I would love to hear what your first experiences will clay were like.

Okay. Let’s catch the feels for our next material…    

I’m in Woodland, California with my friend Danielle, who I’ve just reconnected with in hopes of featuring her for, some of you guessed it from the hint last episode: fiber. Specifically wool. Hence the sheep.

Danielle: I’m Danielle Garber and I’m a weaver and a coach and a teacher. I teach weaving workshops in Oakland, and I am moving into… doing more coaching. I do small batch production of hand-woven goods.

Danielle teaches weaving workshops at Every Thread Handwoven, her weaving business at The Moon in downtown Oakland. She’s a weaver, and she also has a background in wood-working. When we met up to talk about the podcast, she mentioned she was going to a wool mill in just a few days later. Wide eyed, I immediately invited myself. She didn’t seem to mind.

So what is the deal with fiber, specifically wool? I’ve never worked with it, but I do have some blankets passed down from family members. My closest friend growing up, Max, also had sheep in his backyard who would mysteriously lose their jackets every spring.

Other than that, I’m a complete stranger to this material.

CXM: Does fiber you work with have a personality?

Danielle: Every material I work with has a personality. It’s like.. every wool is different. Some wools I work with have a lot more elasticity, and if I wash them after weaving with them, they’ll fluff up, you know, they’ll fill in the space and the fibers will actually grab onto each other. I remember when I was in weaving school working with linen, which is something that I never worked with before. I remember that the temperature in the farmhouse and outside… it was a very hot day and I remember that we had… so depending on what the temperature was, we were using starch or a dehumidifier because… threads were breaking. it was very fine, fine, fine linen.

So in addition to wool, which comes from sheep, natural fibers are derived from other sources too, like llamas, bunnies, goats, camels, silk worms, hemp, flax (which makes linen) or cotton.

CXM: What material do you work with, typically? Or right now?

Danielle: I work with all different kinds of fiber, I’m most drawn to wool, I just love it… (laughs), I mostly work with wool, specifically I’m really drawn to more fibrous, kind of scratchy wool, I want to work with the more soft wool but I’m drawn to the more fibrous wool. But I also work with cotton and linen, a little bit of cotillon, a mixture of the two, both of them are spun together…

*When I ask Danielle what she likes about the fibrous wool, her eyes go kind of… dreamy.*

Danielle: It feels so structural and so tightly woven, but I always just run my hand across the weaving, you can just feel the fibers, <sound of hand across a woolen blanket> there’s a softness to it, a contrast to me… and I just love to feel that. I’ve always been really drawn to very, like the raw, raw materials, so I’ve worked with wood and weaving are the two things I’ve been so drawn to. I like the rawness of it.

I love moving through the world letting the land and the people and the things you interact with…kinda guide you.

*This connection to the animal, the people who work with the material and the land is so intense in the fiber community. I understood it as a concept, but I really felt it when Danielle and I went on our excursion together to the Valley Oak Wool Mill. On our way there I had no idea what to expect. So we turn onto a bumpy dirt road, past a house, following signs with the acronym VOWM (Valley Oak Wool Mill). One is shaped like a sheep, so, double confirmation. We’re on the right track.*

<The sounds of birds, footsteps and people greeting one another, a woman’s voice say, “Oh great, you’re here”>

*That’s Marcail. She’s with six other people who are touring the mill today. They are knitters, weavers, a felter and a gentleman who we learn is in the carpet industry. I’m the only one with no fiber knowledge. But my microphone makes me look important, so people probably just assume I’m a part of the club.

The wool mill consists of two structures out in the middle of a large plot of land that’s teeming with birds. One structure houses the various machinery that one needs to card and spin the fleece into yarn. The other is where Marcail scours, or cleans, incoming fleeces.

These machines are HUGE! They are powerful and complicated looking. In the back corner Marcail has stacked various spare parts: gears and nuts and bolts and various tools for when the machines falter. Bobbins of yarn are suspended from the ceiling; but amidst all the machinery and plastic bags full of fleece and yarn, for a second, I think there are spider webs everywhere. But when I look closer, I realize… no, it was the fiber! Leftover hairs clinging to surfaces, some repurposed by clever spiders. The ceiling beams. The Christmas lights strung in the entryway. The machines themselves. Like a bloom of lichen, everything had a dusting of little curly fibers from years of wool coming through the mill. And just like people, other living things had found use in it: hybrid webs and woolen bird nests.

We aren’t even at the weaving this episode yet: just the way that wool is processed, from fleece to yarn. But this was super fascinating and because so few people actually see this process, let me break it down for you.

<drums come in>

Different animals produce different sheens, colors, lusters and fiber lengths. The people who care for the animals bring in the fleece with instructions and then the team at the mill (aka, Marcail, the one woman wonder) washes the fleece, dries it out, picks out any large veg-matter, runs it though a gigantic carding machine that is about the size of a train car. This is the machine that that gets all the poofy fibers going in one direction. Then another machine <the hum of an engine> turns the carded wool into something called roving (basically airy, poofy cords of pre-yarn). The roving frame, another machine, <the spin of the roving machine> then spins those cords into 1 ply yarn. Then, if a customer wants 2ply, another machine twists the yarn together for double thickness.

It became clear to me that there was also an intimate relationship between Marcail and the machines throughout the mill. A kind of hyper-awareness. Someone else actually pointed out this connection. A gentleman from the carpeting industry in Georgia, shared a story.

“When it breaks, they’ll see a fiber, just kinda sittin there, they will come back down the line and reset it… She’s workin’ on one, and just intuitively, she goes like this, and fixes this one, she can hear it, everyone’s wearing ear plugs.. you can hear that from from a mile a way, when they are running, HUMMMM, it’s just this one sound.. I don’t know how she hears the one, somewhere in the vibration sound, she just knows!”

Each material has its own culture that comes along with it, there are norms, and special brands of humor. For instance, here when Marcail was explaining how she washes the fleeces initially.

Marcial: It’s in the tub, soaking, more of it gets stretched out, it is much better for things to actually get out of the wool if it has more space to go wide instead of deep. That’s what I would guess…

Carpet Guy: It’s like when you’re laying in the tub and your hair just gets to open up.

Marcail: As opposed to trying to wash it in a five gallon bucket, yeah.

Felter: You guys understand that I’m sure!

Carpet Guy: Oh yeah, when this gets wet, watch out!

Marcail: Like a sponge it just grows…

Danielle: Like a mermaid…

<Group laughs: the two guys are bald>

Marcail brought us full circle back to the front of the mill, where there were a bunch of twisted skeins of finished yarn in various shades of gray, tan and white. The group perked up immediately.

Marcail: This is a marino aplaca blend!

<Group oos and ahhs>

Danielle: It’s so delicious!

*This is when it happens. The first person to get the skein touches it ever so gingerly, tenderly, oohs and ahs. She touched it, gently stroked it and then put it on her face. Then she passed it to the person next to her.

Almost everyone did this. Buried their face in the yarn and then pass it along. No one thought this was strange.

Well, I did a little, but I was also kind of moved. It reminded me of how people are around babies, and smelling its newborn head for that fresh baby smell, cooing, enthralled, not self-conscious at all.

I looked at the fiber around me.

I could tell that there was this mystical connections between the people who work with the material and the material, the animal, the Earth and the people, the machines and the people. I felt like a tourist who hadn’t even tried to learn simple phrases like, “Where is the bathroom?”

So when they passed the yarn to me, I smiled and touched the skein reverently, but I couldn’t bring myself to put it on my face. It would have felt like I was mimicking them. I would have felt hollow. Maybe I’ll get there. In that moment, I was still an observer. *

Danielle: There’s also something about it being… just more connected. I think about the things we wear, and we don’t know where they come from. How there is just such a disconnect from the things we interact with on the day to day. When I found weaving, it was on this bigger adventure of me really trying to connect more with my life, the way that I lived and so, when I was trying to figure out what to name my business, what I do in my studio… Every Thread Handwoven… it asks the question, or acknowledges the answer to the question, that every thread was handwoven. That every single thread… like… you can’t weave a piece of fabric without touching every single thread….  Weaving is such a beautiful metaphor for how we engage with our lives. We weave the fabric of our lives…

*Back in Danielle’s studio, I get acquainted with the weaving aspect of working with wool. This means meeting all seven of her Swedish looms.The looms look like majestic boats, with pulleys and wooden parts. They are set up with threads of yarn stretched across them, tense, ready for someone to sit down and begin weaving. The threads that are already on the loom are called the warp. What you weave into it, the horizontal threads, that is the weft.

Danielle points out all the parts of the loom… and if you thought we were learning a new language at the mill, that was just the beginning.*

Danielle: Shuttle quill bobbin beater reed shafts harness counterbalance pulley horses bra <music stops, we laugh> shaft holder tie on bar warp roller beam lambs heddles lease sticks ratchet treadles shaft pins hanging beater jack loom!

*Yeah, it’s a lot to learn all at once. But there is no quiz at the end of this show! The most important thing is that once you understand the basic system of how the loom works, the most important thing is to feel the material. So I obviously had to TRY weaving! I’m not gonna talk the talk without throwing the shuttle, so to speak.*

Danielle: The threads are interacting with each other. They need space. As the weft is going through the warp threads, the weft needs to have a little extra give to compensate from that under over under over. Some have a little bit more elasticity, or they are more slippery, thicker or thinner. The pulling on the thread and how it is placed is different depending on what I am weaving.

*Okay, this makes little to no sense if you haven’t sat in front of a loom before. But let’s try. Imagine you are sitting on a bench in front of a hundred or so strands of yarn, pulled taught, in a few different colors. This is the warp. Picture your favorite colors laid out in a pattern you’ve designed: reds, soft yellows, white and blue. Your shoes are off and your bare feet are on the treadles, which are sort of like organ pedals. When you press on different pedals, some of the strands are lifted up. Some aren’t. Each pedal controls a different set of strands. And when you press the pedal, you push the shuttle, which carries the yarn through.

Danielle is teaching me to thread the bobbin.*

<sounds of Catherine learning on the loom, trying to weave with Danielle instructing>

*Okay, I’m not going to lie to you guys. Sitting in front of the loom was kind of nerve-racking at first. I felt this anxiety that somehow was going to do something wrong and the whole thing would fall apart. I also began to have flash backs to second grade, when I still hadn’t learned how to tie my shoes. Danielle assured me many times that there are no knots in weaving. But thread can get tangled and tangles become knots and boom, I’m having to untie a very complicated shoe. At least that’s my worst nightmare of what would happen. Loom explodes, tying shoes.

It was hard to focus on the task at hand with all this going on in my brain. Apparently I’m not the only one though…*

Danielle: The biggest challenge is the first half of the day. Getting used to… how to create that specific fabric. It’s awkward. How do I beat this down? It takes time to learn that fiber and how it interacts. While I’m teaching it’s not just about the weaving, it’s about how people are engaging with their creativity. It’s about our relationship with what we are learning. It’s allowing ourselves to actually get in relationship with our creativity and allowing ourselves to create. There is something about becoming comfortable with the process.

Sometimes, somebody is working… every class is a different kind of material, the process is similar, but it’s not necessarily the same. You might not beat it down as hard, maybe you create a different tension or whatever it is. Some people naturally come in, and they feel the fabric. They feel the material. When I first started weaving, I could feel each thread going under and over the warp thread. I naturally felt, don’t pull it tighter.

There is always this beautiful moment in every class… every creative class that I’ve ever taught, where things get silent… because… it’s almost like.. biting your tongue, really concentrating. There is this moment where stories start to happen. Storytelling starts to happen. And it’s because people have gotten into the flow here they  are not overthinking it, they are feeling it.

CXM: Then they can start talking?

Danielle: They start sharing. They aren’t SO focused. It’s almost like driving your car, you’re not necessarily paying attention, but you are very aware of what you are doing, but you’re kind of on autopilot, but I think it’s because there is a feeling to it, there is a comfort that happens.

*I didn’t weave for very long, but I was surprised I looked back and how much I had added to the pattern. If I got more comfortable and took more time, could I actually make a blanket of my own? I ran my hands over the surface of the fibers. If I kept going, I might experience one of Danielle’s favorite moments with her students.

Danielle: Pulling a fabric off of the loom, because it rolls onto this beam… you don’t really see it, you are weaving it… I cut it, it’s done and you loosen the tension, every single time, people are like, are you sure? I’m supposed to cut it here? And when people pull it off… for me it reminds me of when I was doing photography, I was younger and I used to work in the darkroom and I would be there for hours and hours and hours. A photograph would just… expose.  It’s like a magic moment where you pull out a fabric that you created, it didn’t exist, before! The joy on people’s faces, in their bodies, and they touch it, and they hold it…

*I imagine Marcail, or someone like her, scouring and spinning that wool into yarn. The person who sheared the sheep, looking after them, calling them by their name. The animals, roaming the land, grazing, living their lives. After shearing day, the weight of their wool lifted for another season of growth.

On a minuscule scale, I had my “wool to the face moment.” Instead of a far off, dreamy look in Danielle’s eye, a wistfulness in her voice, I now have a sense of that dream, and it’s not so far off.

Looking around at the looms now, I don’t see complicated boats or pianos silently waiting for the right chords to be struck. Now the looms in Danielle’s studio remind me of altars. Sacred spaces where people can come sit and spin prayers, stories, memories, thread by thread, handwoven.

There is a popular narrative around people who dedicate their lives to a particular creative endeavor: this idea that they have a natural-born talent (they were always good at it), or that they “always knew they would be a ____” blank: artist, creative, maker, whatever. Sometimes that is true, but sometimes it is as simple as a chance encounter… and being open to what that chance encounter inspires within you. *

CXM: What brought you to weaving? When did your journey begin?

Danielle: Weaving was something that I found by accident or not by accident, depending on how you look at it… I had moved down to Argentina…I had moved down there seemingly to build uh, a house, and to start to farm and connect with the land, but it ended up being that I was actually stepping out of what my life was…exploring new ways to live. When I was down in Argentina, I ended up walking into the weaving shop. I didn’t know anything about it and it was really cool because this weaving studio…it was a shop space where they had their goods and they had looms in the space and it was just fascinating…I think because it was wood, it was the wooden looms I was really drawn to the looms.

And I was just touching the fibers and I didn’t really speak Spanish and they didn’t really speak English, but we were just so happy to being each other’s space. I was drawn to the fiber. And when I came back to the Bay I was telling my friend about the weaving studio I had come to. She said, ‘Oh my god there is this adorable weaving studio that I’ve driven by for years in Berkeley.’ So she drove me by it, and I was just like fingers and nose pressed against the window, I was like, can I come in now? It was closed, I contacted the woman and I ended up in that weaving studio the next day and started weaving.

*What I’ve learned from these conversations is that in addition to chance encounters and an open mind, there is another key variable that makes us more likely to act on the creative impulses all of us have: when we witness adults who are living their creative truth so hard, they make an instant impression. Hence the Mr. Rabetz’s and Matthew Dukes of the world.These role models are crucial points of inspiration.*

Matthew Duke was our first guest on the show, he’s in the episode about clay; Mr. Rabetz was my ceramics teacher in high school. Episode 1 was dedicated to him.”

Danielle: I witnessed my dad.. he’s such a creative person but I wouldn’t say he’s an artist, he’s a designer, a maker. I don’t know if it was an inspiration from him or not, but it was inadvertently, just working in process, and building things. He was always constructing things.

CXM: What kinds of things did he build?

Danielle: He was really obsessed with electronics, and electricity. He would… make like entire computers and machines from scratch. He would work with metal, he would work with wood, he would make tube amplifiers from nothing…

CXM: And would he make them with an invention in mind of was it more how does this connect to that and what’s the…

Danielle: Well I think when he was younger  it started with how does this connect to that and now it’s… there’s always a reason. He’s always creating something very specific. Last time I went back home he’s like, I made this CNC router… from scratch, he had created the circuitry for it, handmade all of the metal pieces from it, pulled pieces from other things… I think I was inspired by that. I didn’t work with him much when I was a kid, I was just kind of an observer from afar, from the distance… and… yeah I think I was always really inspired by that. I did not see myself as a creative and it’s actually been a challenging thing to step into the creative world, for me… you know.. it’s been a process… I still do not consider myself as an artist, I see myself as an artist, I see myself as a craftsperson more than an artist, I don’t know why I don’t relate to the word artist, but I like to construct things.

*Danielle talking about her father reminded me of my grandfathers, who were both creative people in very different ways. Grandpa Monahon fits the typical definition of artist. He was a designer for IBM: he retired early to draw, paint and write in the piney wilderness of Maine, with my grandmother to keep him company. He made lots of paintings and sculptures. He always signed and dated them. This makes him easier to label as an artist, though he never showed his work or sold it, another expectation that is sometimes put upon the artist identity.

My other grandfather, Grandpa Derr, worked in an office. No artistic background or training. But the second 5pm hit, he was off the clock and in his own version of a studio. He built tables, fixed toasters, invented a golden retriever proof door knob and special bottle holder for getting the very last drop of sauce out. He even built a miniature house for his children, a playhouse complete with running water, a record player and a sloping roof to make it look old.

Non-artist artist types are really important to remember and honor and name. So many people I know grapple with this term artist. That and the word creativity. What are the labels for people who make things? Why are we comfortable with some but not others? This isn’t uncommon in various creative communities. Regardless of skill, medium, passion or poise, various people shy away from the term artists. Maybe it’s because we want more specific language to describe what we do (is it art or craft? Are we makers or artists? Designers or doodlers?). Maybe it’s because the term artist has been put on a pedestal ever since the Enlightenment, and we feel bashful about putting ourselves in the same camp as Michelangelo. Maybe it’s because being an artist means different things to different people

In addition to some folks not identifying with the term artist, there is also a kind of mystique around the word. If you do call yourself an artist, specifically a working artist with that as your livelihood, when someone asks, what do you do? And you answer, “I’m an artist,” the response might ranges: it might be disbelief, surprise, confusion or overly saturated admiration: this reaction that really makes the creative work seem wild and crazy, unattainable for everyday people.

I would call my tinkering grandfather an artist. He made things. Artfully. He constructed something out of nothing. He made ideas come to life. I wanna call Danielle’s father an artist. I wanna call Danielle an artist!

Constructing things and creative thinking is just part of who we are as humans. But if I introduced the podcast as “honoring the intimate relationship between humans and the stuff they love” no one would have any idea what the shows is about. Yes, there all kinds of words to describe people who make things. And while we grapple with which word for who, who benefits when we distance ourselves from the reality that we are naturally creative and resourceful? What systems profit when we are separated from the culture, history and language that comes from getting to know the materials that make up this world? Maybe there aren’t answers to these questions, but I think they are worth sitting with.

Okay we are just about ready to close out! As you know, each episode comes with a song by the incredible Liz de Lise which I will play shortly. But first, the dedication. This episode is dedicated to the ancestors who never claimed the identity artist, but who made things with their hands. Who modeled resourcefulness and creativity and the sheer joy of making. The great aunts, who made yarn dolls for all the kids. The weavers, basket-makers, toaster-fixers, DIY CNC router builders. I guarantee you, you won’t have to go too far back in your family tree to discover the people in your family who were a material feelers.  Consider taking time to ask your family members, record those stories, honor those ancestors and dip a toe in their materials… you might be surprised.

Thank you to:

Marcail for letting me record the tour of your mill, and for being such a wonderful host.

Danielle for sharing your love of weaving and fiber with me. Follow Danielle at EveryThreadHandwoven on Instagram and if you are local to the Bay Area, sign up for a workshop at her studio!

Liz, the best creative partner I could ask for. And my sister Kelly, for being my “First Listener” and giving me honest, detailed feedback. Nothing like having a seasoned, sound-sensitive choreographer who has known me my entire life as my head editor!

Next month we’ll be exploring a material that is all around us, alive, shifting in the wind, changing with the seasons. Maybe you’ve climbed it before. Hugged it. Burned it on a Friday night. You might be sitting with it right now, or sleeping alongside it.

<clip of Grandpa Derr plays: say a message! Message! No Grandpa, a message to the world. I love you! Aw Thank you Grandpa :)>

<Liz’s song starts.>

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