Mary Pettis-Sarley

In high school, I visited a woman doing screen printing on fabric. I was mesmerized by it. In 1971, I went to UC Davis as a Marine Biology major, and after calculus, I realized that if I were going to commit to a career, I wanted it to be one that I loved. The following quarter, I changed my major to Textile Design.

For four years I was immersed in surface design, and textiles in every way. I learned to screen print, spin, dye with synthetic and natural dyes, and weave. I already knew how to knit and sew … and I was hooked … line and sinker. I worked in the high Utah desert in summers and took my spinning wheel, carding combs, and dyed with plants in the desert. Back at school, I screen and block printed with mordants and dyed with commercial natural dyes. The experience was very rich, and satisfying.

Following that, in 1976, I began my master’s degree at UC Berkeley with Ed Rossbach, in Textile Design. At that time Berkeley was the center of the universe for all things fiber. It was rich with opportunities to explore fibers of all sorts and dyes. I taught textile design and photography part time at UC Davis and Berkeley in the Design departments.

Then, in 1978, I started working for a photographer, Bill Garnett, running his darkroom. He did aerial photography and his images were stunning. It was a true gift to be able to work with him. It was during that time that I made the move from Berkeley up to Napa, where he lived. I rented a small cottage on a cattle ranch just over the hill from his house. Paradise. Slowly, I began working on the ranch too, part time. I realized that I loved being outside more than in the darkroom all day. And gradually made the change to full time ranch work.  Wonderful mentors, a generous boss, as well as the most outstanding horse taught me well in the ways of the cattle world. 

In 1994, our neighbors had sold their cattle, and their ranch was leased out to a sheep endeavor. Three semi’s brought in sheep a couple of miles down the road. Soon after, a yearling lamb (Lambie) made her spot beside the road that led into our hospital. Each morning we would walk up to the grain, and I would feed her breakfast, but made her spend her days and nights beside the road, so she could be taken back with the other sheep. After a month of this ritual, I decided no one was going to come and get her. I put in an ear tag, docked her tail, and she became mine. I got her three other friends, and there began my sheep and wool adventure that continues today. 

Jane Deamer, of Yolo Wool Mill, generously allowed me to work in the mill and scouring co-op for several years to learn even more about fiber and the process of making yarns. I continued to hand spin, and develop a flock of naturally colored sheep. Seven years ago, Jane started making wonderful yarns for me, and with my mill experience, I  was experimenting with breeding to make soft fibers that would work well in Jane’s mill.

In 2010, I was introduced to Rebecca Burgess, who sparked a new fire and rekindled my earlier desires to work with natural dyes and see the potential of  dyes here on the property.
I have lived for over thirty years now on this same ranch. I run cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas and all sorts of dogs to help me with my flocks. I have had a long time to observe the natural plants on this property, and had already come to appreciate the floral diversity here. And, now, it seems it is providing an unlimited palette. I started looking at the invasive weeds first. If no one can eat it…. Then what color does it offer?  I had a lemonade stand on every turn of the road!  In the gardens around our home, is yet another wonderland of color. All the neighbors want to offer plant prunings and fruits they have to be part of this project. I feel like I am living in the middle of a huge and wonderful science project.

And, so it follows, if we are what we eat … then since the fiber producers here eat of this grass land, and the colors are also coming from this place … Then the yarn is also this wonderful place. I feel eternally lucky to be here in this paradise and able to be part of this time and space.