Vita Cochran "Stocking Rug" (detail)

SDA Book Club: “Raw Material” reviewed by Faith Hagenhofer

This month’s addition to the SDA Book Club is Raw Material: Working Wool in the West by Stephany Wilkes. We’re excited to have our recurring author, Faith Hagenhofer, back to review this lovely book!

Raw Material: Working Wool in the West

Full disclosure: For as long as I’ve been an artist member of Surface Design Association I have been a wool grower, shepherd to a small flock of mixed Gotland and BFL x Gotland sheep. The farms described by student, and then professional shearer Stephany Wilkes in her wonderful book Raw Material, resemble mine in all but location. She and I share the belief in wool, a basic historical textile material, as one piece of an environmentally healthy fiber-rich future.

As a knitter in the present moment of foregrounding local food Wilkes attempts to find local yarn in her newly adopted home of San Francisco. She is undaunted in her inability to readily find it; her search leads her into the world of sheep-shearing. Presented as a memoir, it follows the making of a professional sheep shearer. Not just any sheep shearer—of which there are fewer and fewer—but through temerity, grit, and persistent hard physical labor she becomes one, transforming from a worker in the tech industry, where long hours are confabulated with hard work, into first a greenhorn and then a devotee of wool, accomplished shearer and researcher into the industry as it presently exists. Throughout the details of her own development and exposition of the current situation of California wool, Wilkes encounters and documents many small innovative projects through contact with the farmers and other woolly-minded people behind them, which she repeatedly posits in terms of their scalability into environmentally sound fiber practices. Her statistics and examples are Californian, though they are, as the title suggest, applicable to the larger western US, where in fact there are still very large wool growers and their flocks. It is within this that Wilkes’ the myths of grazing-as-eco-destructive with detailed information on Carbon Farming. After carefully outlining her pro argument Wilkes quotes Lani Estil of Bare Ranch “Agriculture is the only (climate change ) solution big enough” to lower world Greenhouse Gas emissions enough to keep temperatures in check. But it’s not all on the wool production side that changes in fibers and textiles need to occur. I fully appreciate that Wilkes recognizes the breadth of fiber related investment and consumer-side changes required for any positive environmental influence to be impactful.

This is an engrossing read, comparable to many of the subject specific non-fiction best sellers from recent times: Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and Dava Sobel’s Longitude come to mind–those books that offer an expertly focused material lens by which to perhaps see the rest of the world. Even if sheep are not what you live and breathe, and I can’t frankly see how that could be, you will none the less enjoy being on Stephany Wilkes’ journey.

Faith Hagenhoferis a fiber artist, shepherd, retired librarian, and has been involved with Surface Design Association for more than a dozen years. She serves as the South Puget Sound (Washington, US) SDA contact.

  • Publisher: Oregon State University Press (buy it here)
  • Date: October 2018
  • ISBN: 9780870719516

If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!

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