Inside the wood-paneled walls of the old Masonic Lodge building in Dubois, Wyoming, Anita Thatcher operates Wyoming Wool Works. Here, she takes wool from Wyoming sheep and transforms them into a variety of useful items: seat cushions, dryer balls, cat toys, and more. Her most popular item, though, and the item that got her started in this world of wool, is the wool saddle pad.
In a place like Fremont County, Wyoming, where riding horseback remains an important part of daily life, the saddle pad is an important and functional item. Placed between the horse’s back and the bottom of the saddle, the primary purpose of a wool saddle pad is to protect the horse and to absorb shock. Thatcher’s wool saddle pads are all woven by hand, utilizing the latch-weaving technique, in which the wool, in roving form, is passed through a mesh grid to create soft loops of wool on both sides of the pad.
Over the last year, Thatcher has been working to pass her knowledge of this traditional art form to the next generation. Through a Folk Art Mentoring grant from the Wyoming Arts Council, she taught her skills to two women: Annalissa Purdum and Soleiana Abernathy, both of Lander, on the other end of Fremont County. The grant pays for Thatcher’s expertise, to dedicate time over the course of a year to pass her knowledge to Purdum and Abernathy, and helps cover the cost of materials. Thatcher has been eager to pass along the knowledge that she has accrued over her lifetime.
Thatcher first connected with the Wyoming sheep industry in the summer of 1988, when—while on vacation from her home in New York City—she came to Fremont County to visit the T-Cross dude ranch. One day, the ranch cook fell ill. Thatcher worked as a caterer back in New York, so she took over cooking duties for the day. It went so well that she was invited back for a full season the next summer as a cook. Thatcher accepted the offer and never left Wyoming, eventually marrying a local rancher in Crowheart and starting a new catering business.
Because she was cooking lamb for her catering business so often, she became interested in the sheep industry and eventually began raising sheep herself.
“I lambed, I fell in love with the sheep, and I loved the fact that you got the meat and you got the wool,” she recalls. “So, it was an animal that produced two products. Raising the sheep was all fine and dandy—I knew what to do with the meat, but I didn’t know what to do with the wool!”
She soon got connected with a neighbor, Kathy Mecum, who had begun making wool saddle pads as a sideline to the saddle-making business of her husband, Steve Mecum. Mecum showed Thatcher one of the saddle pads she had made and taught her how to make them herself using the wool from her sheep.
These days, it is possible to purchase saddle pads made from synthetic materials, but Thatcher feels they do not allow the horse to sweat properly and can lead to issues such as overheating. This is why many folks in the area prefer handmade wool saddle pads despite the extra effort and expense. Thatcher says her wool pads breathe. “You can ride hard, and they absorb sweat. The horse’s back stays dry. Whereas with the synthetic pads, you ride and it just foams. The sweat underneath, it has nowhere to go.”
Thatcher’s apprentices, Purdum and Abernathy, represent the next generation of women who weave their own saddle pads from Wyoming wool. The two have been close friends since high school, and Purdum credits Abernathy with her love for horses, as well as for motivation to learn the art of wool saddle pad weaving. Being horsewomen, they became motivated to learn this art form not primarily from an artistic impulse, but for the benefit it will bring to their everyday lives, while working the ranch or riding horses.
“I had fallen in love with functional art—everyday art that we use in our everyday life,” Purdum explains. “Things that are made by hand and things that are absolutely beautiful, and with amazing craftsmanship. And yet, we interact with it every single day and it is part of our functioning life.”
Purdum first met Thatcher when she was in her early twenties and looking to learn more about functional art. She visited the Fremont Fiber Art Guild, where they connected.
“Anita truly adopted me into her life,” Purdum says. “If you see how many people stream through her shop every day just to see her, and she knows everything about their life. She just kind of adopts people and cares about people, and she did that for me.”
When she and Abernathy became interested in learning to make their own saddle pads, Purdum knew Thatcher would make an ideal mentor. The three women met several times over the course of the year at Thatcher’s workshop. Purdum and Abernathy had to make the hour-long drive to Dubois, where they received hands-on instruction and guidance. Both apprentices learned to weave a saddle pad from start to finish.
They even participated in a sheep shearing at the historic Spear S Ranch in Red Canyon, south of Lander, run by Nan Slingerland and Karen Mott. The reward was wool from the Navajo Churro sheep raised on the ranch.
“To be able to make something functional and beautiful and learn it from a woman like Anita is a dream,” Purdum says. “And to be able to source this wool locally—and get to meet the amazing women who work with that herd of sheep specifically—has also been a dream come true.”
With this new knowledge in hand, Abernathy and Purdum plan to continue making saddle pads at home as their own needs and their family’s needs for them arise.
Although Thatcher sells her saddle pads to customers across the world, Wyoming Wool Works remains a community-oriented operation. She no longer raises her own sheep, but she continues to use only Wyoming-raised wool. Over the course of the morning I recently spent with Thatcher inside her shop, there was a constant flow of neighbors and community members stepping inside to visit with her. Several of them have studied wool saddle-pad making under Thatcher in the past or were making plans to learn from her in the future.
Thatcher gushed over the success of Abernathy and Purdum in making their first saddle pads, and she looks forward to teaching others in the future.
“It was absolutely wonderful. You can tell from the pictures of their first saddle pads that it is a work of love, and they did a beautiful job. And they’re going to make more. I love it. I’m apprenticing with other people as well! I don’t want it to become a lost art.”
Josh Chrysler is the Wyoming state folklorist, based at the Wyoming Arts Council in Cheyenne.