Why Heather Wolf makes $1,000 sheets while shunning the slave trade.
Photos Steven Krause
Story David Bolling
It would be a movie full of metaphors, of course, but modern metaphors this time, and Gaston would be a human trafficker in India, forcing girls and young women to sit at looms for hours on end without pay, making fabrics to be dyed by indentured servants, and sewn into garments by more indentured servants.
The Beast would be noble but enslaved, trapped by an unpayable debt in a dye factory, absorbing toxic chemicals through the pores of his hands.
Beauty would be an interior designer driven to make the finest clothes or sheets or towels or drapes in the world, while fighting her way through a culture built on male chauvinism, sexual abuse or worse. Heather Wolf could probably play the part. She’s lived it, and she looks somewhat like Belle.
Where does this story start?
“I’m a licensed interior designer, with an undergraduate degree in construction management and a master’s in interior design. The linens grew out of not being able to find beautifully made bed linens for my single male clients or just couples that didn’t want something super girly. That problem develops because designers tend to buy fabrics that aren’t made for bed linens and they don’t perform correctly. They can’t be laundered or they’re too heavy, they don’t breathe.”
In a nutshell, Wolf had the education and training and experience to design people’s homes, even to tear them down to the foundation and redesign them from the ground up. But when it came to finding linens that matched the quality and the color and the feel of the interior she wanted to create, she quickly ran out of options.
Then, she says, a friend said to her, “Well hey, you design everything for everybody’s houses. You design the rugs and their cabinets and their furniture and their tile and their fabrics. You’re designing it all, why don’t you come up with a product and see where there’s a gap in the market?”
Wolf instantly knew her friend was right. Without pause she said, “Beautifully made bed linens for men. That’s the gap. I already know the gap.”
So she went for it. It was, she says, “an insane plan in retrospect. A woman in her 20s, by herself, going to Italy with a map and a rental car, driving around asking people where to find the perfect sheets she needs. I got on the plane from San Francisco to Frankfurt, and the woman next to me said, ‘So what are you going to Europe for?’ I said, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to Milan.’ I told this whole story and she said, ‘I have the cell phone number for the woman who owns the mill that made the sheets.” Literally, I’d just taken off from San Francisco. By the time I landed in Frankfurt, I called the mill and I was picked up in Milan by the factory. I never had to drive around in a big mystery.
“It was fabulous. I ended up with a mill rep who helped me (and ended up being not such an ethical person), but it at least got me off the ground. I learned a lot very quickly of how to do business in Italy, which isn’t always what it appears.”
The company Wolf founded is called Kearsley, a family name that links to a 450-year-old British weaving mill. And just like that, she became “fully devoted to linens, with the focus of making linens for the type of client that had been my interior design clients for all those years that really wanted the best product.”
Her standards were high and the company’s mission was exalted, if not easy to achieve. “Kearsley is an ethical company that strives to use only sustainably grown textiles that are produced with fair labor and that honor the environment, her website declares. “Globally we are partnered with nonprofits that promote fair labor practices, are concerned with the health of our land and oceans and improve the lives of those with whom we share this planet.”
Probe the depths of that pledge and you learn more than you ever imagined about how and where and why and when truly great textiles are made, fabrics that end up as Kearsley sheets costing $1,000 apiece or more.
And you also learn about the dark underside of the textile industry, which, Keasley declares, is responsible for fully 83 percent of human trafficking.
The challenge, she says, “is to know every single grower. So you’re going to the growers, and asking, How are the people growing your cotton treated? How are the people processing your cotton treated? How are people sewing treated? How are the people packaging it treated and paid? Are they paid?”
She offers a marketplace example. “Let’s say you’ve got a $100 sheet set, and let’s be generous and say they’ve marked it up triple, so it’s like $35. Well, it’s got to get here, so let’s say you’ve got 12 percent duty, and you’ve probably got at least another 10 percent in shipping. Shake that down you’ve, got like $20 left. And let’s just say that the factory’s weaving and sewing for you and they’re only making a 20 percent margin. Then you’re at $15 for your sheets, and there’s still so many people under there that have to get paid. The sheets to get cut, get ironed, get processed, dyed, the cotton has to be picked, the cotton and processed and transported. When we Americans get excited that we found a $40 set of sheets, multiple people in that line are not getting paid.”
Wolf, who often talks at breakneck speed, stops for a deep breath. “We often talk about sex trafficking, and regardless how heinous it is, it’s still a small percentage of the slavery that’s out there. It’s been mortifying to me when I actually hear people say, ‘Why do I care if something was made with slave labor? At least they have a job.’ No. That is not a job. That’s not OK. They would rather be free.”
The worst offender in the textile industry, Wolf says, is the Indian sari industry. “That’s the most slavery-ridden business there is. If you think about it, super poor people are buying those from people who are barely making any money. Somebody’s making them for free. There’s so many injustices and it’s back-breaking work, cotton picking, it always has been. The dyeing process, especially, when you get into the really big industrial producer, they’re super toxic. I have a friend who owned mills in Bangladesh, and his finger and this thumb were just mutilated from touching the dyes they were using in Bangladesh.”
That’s why, Wolf says, “I make sure all our things are fair made. You have to ask a lot of questions. And the other thing is, we started DNA testing our fibers to make sure that they were actually what they were supposed to be. There are certainly limitations I have as a woman; I can’t get super far down into the processes. I do go to our places and watch our stuff be cut and sewn, and it’s great. They’re treated well, they’re happy, they’re set up in little unique pods that do certain parts of the bed linen sewing better. There’s typically 22 to 24 people per space and they’re family run. In one of our workrooms we have a mother and son and his wife now.”
Wolf’s production standards are not, of course, the model. Chinese companies, she says, set up shops in Italy to be able to say their products are made there, while the workrooms remain “slave workhouses.” We have them here too, in the Bay Area and L.A.
People never get outside. They’re kidnapped, they bring them in there, they’re sewing, and they never see the light of day.”
Wolf finds the bargain mentality infusing modern shopping habits “really frustrating because we’ve become such a disposable society where everything’s 50 percent off. Well, those stores are still open, they still have just as much square footage and just as expensive a building so if you’re getting something at 50 percent off they’re still making the same margin. I really wish people would think through the process of buying things on a longer term investment so that it’s less destruction to our planet, kinder to the other people on earth, better for you; the higher quality the better the product’s going to be and the fewer chemicals involved.”
Which brings her back to Kearsley. “That’s really one of the things about our linens: Yes, the initial investment is larger than most other linens, but when you sleep on a set of sheets for 10, 15, 20 years, that are amazing as they just keep getting softer, then that, wear for wear, is an incredibly good deal. It’s a whole lot cheaper than a $400 set of sheets that last you 16 to 18 months.”
It would be a good movie. For Gaston, think a much younger Jack Nicholson. For the Beast, how about Chris Hemsworth. And for Belle—why not Heather Wolf?