Story By Gail Greenwood Ayres Photos by Kyle Mittan
Counting sheep has been connected to sleep for centuries, with insomniacs encouraged to enumerate fluffy white lambs jumping over a fence in an effort to lull themselves into slumber.
Some scientific studies have now shown that counting sheep isn’t a particularly effective way to induce sleep. However, recent studies have shown that there is something about shorn sheep that can make a difference to a good night’s rest.
It’s all about the wool.
At Holy Lamb Organics, the benefits of wool are celebrated and sewn into all sorts of bedding from infant comforters and blankets to king size mattress toppers, pillows, comforters and much more.
“There are two recent studies that show that your heart rate actually decreases when sleeping under a wool comforter,” said Willow Whitton, 39, founder and owner of the Oakville company. “When you sleep on or under wool, you actually have a more restful sleep.”
“Part of the reason is that wool is so wonderful at regulating body temperature,” she explained. “It keeps you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter as it effectively wicks away moisture from your skin.”
Many customers with various sensitivities and allergies also appreciate Holy Lamb Organics products made from Premium Eco-Wool™ and organic cotton fabrics because they contain no chemicals or scents, she said. (The business is a strict no-chemical, no-scent zone for employees and visitors.) Even the mattresses they sell – latex foam wrapped in layers of wool – don’t have chemical fire retardants as other mattresses do. The Holy Lamb mattresses pass the fire safety test with flying colors – turns out the wool is a natural fire retardant.
“Also, dust mites can’t live in wool,” Willow said. “Many people are allergic to dust mites, which live in bedding and make tiny burrows in it. But, the way wool is created, it sticks to itself and provides an inhospitable environment for dust mites.”
Both loyal and new customers think Willow is on to something, as they keep the orders coming faster than she and her 22 employees can fill them. And there’s nothing like nippy weather or holiday gift shopping to rev up business. More than 50 retail stores throughout the nation carry their products and individuals can order online. The products are not inexpensive. A queen size natural wool comforter is listed on the website at $359 and a Happy Lamb Fleece Topper retails at $480.
The young company has already gotten a lot of publicity. The Holy Lamb Organics comforter has been celebrated as one of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine’s “favorite things” and the company was featured in a “Made in America” story by Diane Sawyer of ABC World News. In fact, Brooke Shields, Julia Roberts and the nationally known health expert Andrew Weil are among the celebrities who have purchased products from this little manufacturing company in a 1902 former general store along Highway 12 in downtown Oakville.
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the company was conceived of during a camping trip.
After graduating from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Willow was working three jobs and barely making ends meet. Taking a break from the grind, she and a friend decided to go on a week-long camping trip in the California Redwoods. In a sporting goods store before the trip, Willow noticed a camping pillow.
“I was struck with how poorly made and how expensive it was. And it was made outside of the U.S. with synthetic materials. I thought, ‘Gosh, I could make something way better than that,’ ” she said.
During the next seven days backpacking, she dreamed up the business. When she returned to Olympia, Whitton began making camping and travel pillows, which she sold at the Olympia Food Co-op.
For the first five years of the business, production was inside an old school bus in Olympia that had electricity and water. The next stop was a 10-by-12-foot room, then to a two-car garage.
During the time she was considering yet another move, she happened to visit a friend who lived at Wild Thyme Farm, a retreat center, sustainable forest and business on 150 gorgeous acres in Oakville.
“A voice in my head told me, ‘You have to be near this farm!’ ” she recalled.
The impression was so strong that Whitton talked to a real estate agent, asking for properties near Oakville. There were only eight possibilities.
“But, when I saw a thumbnail picture of this old store, I said, ‘This is my building!’ There was even a sewing machine in the window! While this building had operated for some 85 years as a general store, it had last been used by a leather worker.”
Then she looked inside the building. “The layout was like I had drawn out.”
It certainly seemed like it was meant to be.
So, with quite a bit of work, the foundation was shored up, customized shelving and tables built and a new coat of red paint applied, complete with the historic general store’s old name, “Little Bit.” Within a few months the business had moved into the 3,000 square feet of the Little Bit. Now her husband, Roy Mackey, a builder, takes care of all the repairs, renovation and maintenance for the facility.
When visiting the small showroom, which is at the front of the building – open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday – it’s clear that the building and business are a perfect match. Every inch of the tall shelving and cupboards, is used for storing supplies and pillows, blankets, comforters and toppers. The long wooden counter is still in place and the tip bins that once held produce now contain pieces of wool.
That’s something else Willow is proud of: Her business is nearly 100 percent waste free. Literally. Once every two weeks the entire manufacturing process and all the employees produce one small garbage can of waste. “And frankly, it is mostly filled with remains of people’s lunches,” noted Sarah Horton, production manager.
All the little scraps of wool and cotton are used in a variety of smaller products. On a recent day, Zowie Aleshire presented three new handmade prototypes to Willow – a yoga bolster, circular hassock and decorative pillows, all designed in the Little Bit to use up the little bits. Anything that is too small to be usable is composted behind the building in the company’s organic garden.
On most work days, Zowie, along with Greg Voelker and other employees, can be found shoeless, literally clambering onto tables and disappearing inside the comforters or toppers, carefully smoothing the wool into each corner of the cotton cover, before they hand tuft the items.
Nearby, longtime seamstress Rhona Brown sits at her 1940s-era Singer sewing machine at a work station she helped design. And Sarah can often be found in the showroom helping customers consider the best options for their mattress or other bedding.
“Our mattresses are an investment and so we like to give people the opportunity to lie down on them, to try different combinations of firmness,” she said. The mattresses, as well as sheets and towels, are not made in Oakville, but are crafted by a trusted business partner in California.
Across the street another 3,000-square-foot building houses the customer service employees and a warehouse full of raw materials. Rolls of wool come carded and ready to use from a Northern California woollen mill, which purchases wool from small sheep farmers along the West Coast who practice sustainable farming methods.
Despite the general easy-going feel of the manufacturing at Holy Lamb Organics, each employee’s hands stay busy. Meticulously they track just how much time it takes to make each item. After all, you can’t sell something for less money than it takes to make.
As she looks ahead at her burgeoning business, Willow says her current challenges center on finding more employees and accommodating the growth. “We are growing so fast I find myself building a system, but by the time it’s in place, we’ve outgrown it. I hired a full-time IT person this year and am currently looking for middle management,” she said with a smile.
Quality natural ingredients, well-taken care of animals, zero waste, allergy-friendly, handmade in the U.S., what else can be said about Holy Lamb Organics products?
“My favorite part is just how comfortable it is,” Sarah said. “I hate leaving my bed. I have the sheets, pillows, comforter and mattress from here, and I will probably never use anything else.”
“We often say, ‘What was Willow thinking, giving us all bedding so comfortable and expecting us to be at work?!’ ” Sarah joked.
Commitment to Integrity Practices
Leaving a smaller eco footprint has been a priority since the beginning of Holy Lamb Organics. 100% zero waste of manufacturing byproducts, chemical and scent free facility, plastic free packaging, pledge to use only local, natural materials, and green building practices are just some of the the ways Willow makes that happen.
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