This is the first in a two-part series of interviews and visits to Northern California Fibershed producer members Shepherd’s Dream and the Woolgatherer Carding Mill. While intertwined, these individual businesses highlight the role of regional manufacturing using natural fibers. Both companies operate within the strategic geography of the Northern California Fibershed, which spans from San Luis Obispo to the Oregon border, and Shepherd’s Dream also has a showroom in Ashland, Oregon, where part of the following interview takes place.
Written by Heather Fordham & Photographed by Paige Green
If I close my eyes much longer, I am sure I’ll fall asleep. It takes a surprising amount of self-discipline to get out of a Shepherd’s Dream bed, even when trying it out at their storefront in Ashland, Oregon. A few miles south and across the California border, I had just seen raw, local wool being carded and made into batting at Woolgatherer Carding Mill, then stuffed and hand sewn into mattresses, toppers and pillows to be sold by Shepherd’s Dream.
Renee Carr, store manager, explains why I am so comfortable. Wool mattresses provide a number of health benefits for the people sleeping on them. This is especially relevant when you consider that we spend a third of our lives on a mattress. Wool is thermo-regulating so it helps keep people cool as well as warm. There are studies that report sleeping on wool slows the heart rate so one can get into deeper stages of REM sleep. Wool has been reported to soothe arthritis. Because wool is naturally fire resistant, repels dust mites, and when properly cared for, resists mold and mildew, so there is no need for chemical additives. With such a toxin-free product comes peace of mind that also allows the body to rest.
Renee has been with Shepherd’s Dream for three years and explains that she was looking for a company she could stand behind. She loves that the company is small and family oriented. Shepherd’s Dream was founded by a mother and daughter and is now owned by a husband and wife. Many staff members bring their kids to work when they need to. Her nine-month-old son is learning to walk at the store and her husband also works for the company. “That compassion and care goes into the products we are making and offering to our customers.” She explains that there is an interest in helping customers find the products they need, whether they buy them or not. The larger mission of reducing the environmental impact of mattresses furthers her passion for the company.
“Did you know that 50,000 mattresses go into landfills every day in America?” Renee asks me. I ask her to repeat this information so I can attempt to process the scale of this number.
On our journey for this interview, I was reflecting on the recent momentum in shifting away from plastic straws, and the environmental gains of this change. Now my mind is trying to calculate the sheer size of a hole that would fit 50,000 mattresses, let alone the environmental impacts of burying this volume of synthetic materials and chemicals—every single day.
Alternatively, there are wool mattresses, such as the type made by Shepherd’s Dream, that are 100% biodegradable, as well as being crafted from the purest, chemical-free materials sourced from local, sustainable farms. With proper care a wool mattress can last for decades. Renee states, “Shepherd’s Dream is certainly not making products with planned obsolescence in mind.”
Founded in 1984, by Eliana Jantz and her daughter Sarah, and in partnership with the then owner of the Woolgatherer Carding Mill, both companies initially set out to provide high quality wool products while supporting farmers who are committed to growing and harvesting wool with care. Today this mission is forwarded by Hank Kearns, owner of both Shepherd’s Dream and the Woolgatherer Carding Mill. Hank maintains these 30-year long relationships with some of the same farmers and continues to vet new farms to confirm that their practices are value-aligned.
The premium Eco Wool label was developed by the previous owner of Woolgatherer Carding Mill in collaboration with Eliana and Shepherd’s Dream and all products in this line are made with domestic wool, largely sourced from California and Oregon. The wool is brought to the mill after being shorn without harming the animals, there are no chemicals or pesticides used preparing the fleece, and as the wool moves from the farm to the mill, it is scoured with biodegradable soap so there are no added chemicals to the process.
In addition to their mattress collection, Shepherd’s Dream offers a range of related products that share this soil-to-snuggle environmental sensibility. They carry bed toppers made with organic cotton encasements and wool batting fill, wool blankets, pillows, water resistant mattress protectors, bedding, and clothing. In addition to their own lines, they sell products by Coyuchi and even wool clothing. With further commitment to customers needs, local makers and the environment, they sell bed frames made by local woodworkers who use sustainable Douglas fir timber with no VOCs or toxins on the finishes.
Sometimes customers purchase Shepherd’s Dream’s wool in bulk to make their own bedding, pillows, insulation and art. Makers who are seeking good, clean wool that‘s been scoured and carded have options to buy wool batting or craft wool in 1- and 5-lb. bags. The storefront features fiber art made by founder Eliana Jantz and fiber artist Liza Hamilton (who also goes by Wooliza).
Shepherd’s Dream sells online and in their showroom in Ashland. They also have a dozen or so wholesale accounts that sell their products and are hoping to expand that offering in 2019 so customers can experience their products before investing in them.
After touring the value chain from mill to mattress, I leave inspired by this business that weaves together several bottom lines to measure success. Shepherd’s Dream starts small with the comfort of a good night’s sleep. They create a work environment that is supportive of employees and their families. They sustain a 30-year practice of upholding direct relationships with wool producers in their community. And they are transforming a product line toward a better impact on the planet.