On a stereotypically sunny late summer weekend in Mendocino, we moseyed our way over to Potter Valley to meet with Marie Hoff, the wonderfully humble and engaging spirit behind Full Circle Wool, a project dedicated to showcasing the many uses of Climate Beneficial wool, including our favorite wool sponges.
Surrounded by vineyards and with the Coastal Range to the east, Marie and her husband have settled themselves in a cozy little nook of California indeed.
Pulling onto the surprisingly expansive 2-acre property, it is difficult not to notice the abundance of wool scattered about. Piles of it wander throughout a garden bed, pieces that look like they've been reserved for the dogs to play with lie on the ground here and there, and little bits can be found stuck in the branches of some of the smaller fruit trees. We are in the presence of sheep.
From the moment we're out of the car, we find ourselves accompanied by her two adorable (not to mention, massive) Anatolian shepherds who guard the sheep and property through the night. They excitedly escort us to the door, stealing as many pets as possible before we enter the house.
Her kitchen, the first room in the house, feels like a kind of country magic; stone flooring, a table covered in drying pennyroyal collected wild off the property, plates of chamomile and calendula and boughs of sage, cast iron cookware and quilt covered dining chairs. There's a warmth to the space that's very comforting. Oh, and there's also no air conditioning (though there is through the rest of the house).
Once we'd settled ourselves a bit, getting the obligatory cheese and kombucha in the fridge and the sourdough loaf out on the counter, we sat down in the much cooler living room, again surrounded by wool (this time in the forms of hides, yarn, and woven works), and began chatting.
What is your current living situation like, and what is your relationship to your home?
Honestly, this could be the subject of a book, but let's just say that I feel very, very lucky to own a small home and 2.3 acres in the county of Mendocino with my husband Christian. Prior to this, I bounced around between sublets and housesitting constantly, and got quite burned out on nomadism, though 6 years ago when I started down that path in West Sonoma I did find it fun. Now I am much more interested in developing roots, which I'm growing both physically with plants and emotionally with labor here where I live.
What is home to you?
I don't think that I can answer this quite yet, but it has something to do with living in harmony with nature.
How has your relationship to your living space and working within it changed over time?
Now that I'm in my thirties, I find myself a lot more interested in nesting than I was in my twenties or teens or childhood. When I was younger, I wanted to explore and not be bound by responsibilities, but as I came around to my late twenties I felt uncomfortable in not having enough responsibility to ground me. I like raising sheep because I like having a relationship with other creatures who need me. And I find that I need them. I used to think it was simpler to just take care of yourself. But in fact, I now find it better to take care of others and have others help take care of me. It's less isolating that way. Relationships are critical to health.
Because you've got land and animals to tend to, do you find you spend more time inside or out? How much time do you spend away from home?
It depends on the time of year. I love getting to have that response, by the way. It makes me sound really connected to nature. But it's true, during summer I spend much more time at home and indoors because it's so hot out, and in this area we are in danger of being evacuated for fire. So I don't like to be too far away in case I have to evacuate animals. The most time I spend outside during summer tends to be from 5:00 to 8:00 in the morning, and then it's too hot. The rest of the year though, I spend most of the day outside, and because I contract the sheep to graze different properties end up being away from home more often.
Your sheep are so much a part of your life. How did you decide that Ouessants were the breed that made the most sense for you?
I didn't really. Leslie Adkins, from Heartfelt Fiber Farm, convinced me to take some when she was planning to bring them from Massachusetts to California. She reasoned that because they were small and docile that they would be good for the vineyard work I was looking to do. Ever since then I have been observing and evaluating, figuring out their best use, whether it be fire fuel load reduction or weed abatement or cover crop mowing. It's more like I have them and I am making sense of them, rather than having a clear goal to start with and getting them to fulfill that goal.
That's a beautiful way of putting it. Speaking of sheep in relation to land management practices, could you tell us a bit about your relationship with Fibershed?
So, I first heard about Fibershed in 2012, from my friend Katharine Jolda, who was an original participant. She told me about it at a dinner party just a week after the first Wool Symposium, and because I was becoming interested in working in agriculture and looking at the disconnect between local farming and clothing, it seemed perfectly on point for me. But I had just missed it. Then I developed the idea of starting a farmers' market booth selling local fiber to help bridge that gap, and Katharine introduced me to Rebecca Burgess over email.
Fibershed was a burgeoning organization at the time, with only about 30 producer members (it's nearly 200 today!). I started my own side business for Fibershed members as a way of promoting and supporting their work (as Fibershed is a nonprofit and couldn't make sales), starting out at the Temescal Farmers' Market in Oakland with a variety of Fibershed members' goods. And then in the fall of 2013, I got my own sheep and became a producer member myself through Full Circle Wool. A few years later I became Producer Program Coordinator, which I did until this past spring. Now I work for them more sporadically as an independent contractor, doing special projects like research and educational development, leading producer meet-ups, and writing – the most recent piece of which was the series I did on sheep shearing.
I started sourcing coarse wool (from Dorset, Suffolk, and Columbia sheep mainly) and making things to sell from it because there was supply that was coming from land being managed with a Carbon Farm Plan, and I felt we needed to both develop demand and outlets for local coarse wool as well as support ranchers who were putting in the effort of implementing carbon farming – a practice which benefits us all in terms of both climate change amelioration and producing food and fiber to support our human material needs.
I started with Stemple Creek Ranch and their neighbor Jensen Ranch, both of which are run by dedicated ranchers who have been improving and stewarding land, implementing CFPs, and at the time didn't have much of a market for their wool (in this case, a byproduct of raising sheep for meat). The price they were getting sometimes worked out to be less than it cost them to shear and ship it, not to mention the cost of raising the sheep themselves. There was no demand because no one had access or knowledge of the supply, and the supply was going to waste because there was no demand. Someone needed to step in and make that connection between the farmer and the maker, and so I decided I would do it.
I lucked out and found one old-school felting machine that can produce the quantity I need, and it just so happens to be operated locally in Sebastopol by folks that are willing to do the custom work.
My hope is that I will then inspire others who will use Climate Beneficial coarse wool on a larger scale than I myself want to operate on. Some companies like Coyuchi, Frankenmuth Woolen Mill, and Woolgatherer Carding Mill have begun to do just that.
I've actually never thought about it like that. I don't think of myself as a DIY-type person per se (when I think DIY, I think crafts, and I don't think of myself as primarily a crafter), though I do definitely have a tendency to look to others' DIY talents. When I make things for myself, I think of it more in like an MFK Fisher's How To Cook a Wolf sort of necessity, rather than the Put a Bird on It aesthetic.
I made wool sponges because there were literally no good sponges on the market, and I didn't want to use sponges made of synthetic materials. I was running the Fibershed farmers' market booth, and one of the goods in stock were wool felt coasters, so I looked at a coaster and thought, "That could work as a sponge." I tried it out, using it to wash dishes, and it basically worked, though it shrank down too much and became too small. So, I got a larger piece of felt and experimented with shapes until I pretty consistently got the piece of felt to tighten up to about the size of a regular dish sponge.
But once I realized there were people around me who did sewing, knitting, woodworking, and welding, it opened up doors for me. I could grow wool and hire other people to spin and design and knit it into a garment I could wear. By doing this and things like it, we could subvert such complete dependence on corporate business models so many of us feel bound to, and the more I do this, the more I realize that it can be done, and the more ideas and encouragement for the future it gives me.
So funny that you think of DIY as having such a particular aesthetic. That story is so DIY. For items that you do purchase, what are some personal requirements you have?
More than anything, I have to know that I will really use them.
Are there any tools in your home you have a hard time imagining living without?
I'd have a very hard time living without a wool sponge.
Nope. I still dislike laundry, and as an adult I have convinced my husband Christian to do all of our laundry. I was sort of a romantic child and liked imagining myself as a sort of Cinderella in relation to cleaning. For a lot of the chores I do take care of, I don't so much find satisfaction in the doing of them as I do in them being done.
Fair enough. There's something to be said for that, as well, though.
You work in the world of fiber primarily, but food is clearly important to you. Your kitchen's practically overflowing with organic produce at the moment. Where do you source most of your food?
I'm a member of two local CSAs, one very old-school one and one very new-school one, both of which have today as their pickup day, so you get to see the summer abundance. I get most everything from them and the Ukiah Natural Foods Co-Op.
I think diversity is an important concept for our society to embrace, in all respects.
The more I learn about the science of soil, the more it illuminates for me how important to overall health diverse communities are, in our society, in our nutrition via our microbiome and otherwise, in our political and economic systems, for art, and in medicine. I am always questioning, experimenting, exploring, researching.
To me, a holistic approach means constantly reevaluating my framework for making decisions. That might sound tiring, but really it just means I am open to addressing my concerns and questions, rather than suppressing them. When I am faced with a challenge in life, I consider how a diverse community approach could address it. Embracing diversity as a concept is how I troubleshoot through life. It's a holistic approach as opposed to searching for a silver bullet.
Makes perfect sense to us! Our bodies aren't simple, the earth isn't simple – why should we try and simplify things rather than aim for an understanding of their complexities?
What would you say your goals are for the near future in terms of improving quality of life at home, indoors and out?
I mean, if I really had my way, I would probably rip out all the house's wiring, remove all technological gadgets, and just use kerosene lamps. And replace the walls with straw bale.
In all seriousness though, indoors I'd just like to have more of our things organized and to have more bookshelves up. Outdoors though, so many plans.
In the more immediate future are plans from our Healthy Soils grant, through the state program. Over the course of the next three years we will apply compost, do range planting (directly planting starts of native grasses, both warm season and cool season, into the pasture), establish a hedgerow of native plants and an orchard of fruit trees in what's known as a silvopasture. Next May, I hope to get it together to also run chickens and possibly some geese for vegetation management and pest control. The birds will eat and trample the dry grasses down after the sheep have eaten what they will, preventing fire danger and thatch, as well as adding manure. We have a lot of grasses growing that the ewes are somewhat picky about when grazing in the spring and nursing their newborn lambs, so they aren't as efficient with it as they would be otherwise, and tend to leave a lot of it to grow taller and drier than I'd prefer. So, having birds would take care of that, plus leave a layer of manure that nourishes the soil and helps combat pests that are in the sheep manure. It's good to rotate different types of animals through pastures for pest management – if you graze the same type of animals year after year, that's when you can start to see problems with worms or other pests. When I rotate other animals through the pasture, the bacteria balance each other out and I don't have to use a synthetic de-wormer for the sheep, which I prefer to avoid both for the sheep's health (the worms can develop resistance to the de-wormer) and for the soil health, as the synthetic de-wormer can kill beneficial bacteria and fungi. If I can get it all done, it's a win-win all around.
You don't currently compost, per se, but instead have a hügelkultur system going (*not pictured). How did you decide to go that route in lieu of a more traditional compost pile, and could you explain how it works?
My friend Gowan Batist, from Fortunate Farm, taught me about hügelkultur systems. When she described their purpose and how they worked, I instantly knew that they were exactly what we needed. It's a simple, elegant, and effective way to compost tree and plant matter, of which we have a lot, without machinery or skill or training, and this way I would be able to grow in raised beds without having to buy any materials or construct anything.
It's literally a process of creating a raised bed by piling detritus, like tree branches, leaves, kitchen waste, wool, anything that will biodegrade, then pouring topsoil over it and immediately directly planting into that. No measuring the temperature of compost, no turning the compost, no power tools to build a raised bed, no wood chipper to manage the tree branches. Just pile it all on, and begin planting. The detritus underneath slowly composts on its own while fresh new plants grow on top. It's so easy.
Yeah! Some of that is indigo and coreopsis and Hopi Red Dye amaranth I plan on experimenting with.
See? So DIY.
Do you have any domestic magic tricks you'd like to share with folks?
Yes! My homemade glue recipe:
~ 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
~ 1 tablespoon gelatin
1) Heat the vinegar.
2) Stir in the gelatin until dissolved.
3) That’s it! Paint it onto the surface you wish to glue using a repurposed toothbrush. For a lasting seal, stick it on immediately. For a temporary seal, wait for it to dry, then stick it on once the glue is dry.
4) Refrigerate for future use, reheat in order to use. Shelf life in the refrigerator: unknown. Many months?
We could go on picking Marie's treasure trove of a brain for hours, with her diverse knowledge of farming, food, fiber, animals, and the economics that dictate their place in our world - all filtered through the mind of an artist. We'll just have to content ourselves with keeping a steady supply of her fabulous wool sponges in stock, supporting the truly beyond sustainable initiatives that are her bread and butter.
Marie is pictured throughout the article wearing a hat and vest, both made locally using FoxFibre colorgrown cotton & dyed by her with walnuts grown on her land, and then her organic hemp work jeans. The hat was made by Carol Frechette, and the vest was designed and sewn by Dan DiSanto using fabric woven by Huston Textile Company.