Archive for February, 2007

From Sheep to Yarn, continued

February 23, 2007

Okay, for some reason, I can’t get the cursor to appear below the yarn photo so we do it this way.  The yarn in the posting is the stuff I’ve been working on this week: a combination of one ply of Daisy, my shaela shetland ewe, and one ply of some blue face leicester, dyed, I bought at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair, in Cummington, Mass., last Memorial Day Weekend. (A yearly event, by the way, and well worth a visit!)

But how, some wonder, does the fleece on the sheep, end up as sweaters and socks and hats?  Well, it’s a long process.  First, you have it shorn off the sheep, then you pick out the bits of hay in it, and pull off the edges which are often stained with poop and urine.  And you pull out any sections that are “britchy”, that is sort of coarse and hairy, often the case with primitive breeds, especially, around the back hips/upper legs.  Then, the fleece is washed, a pound at a time, by immersing it in hot, hot water, with either shampoo or (in my case) organic dishwashing liquid.  You let it soak for a half hour, then rinse it with water the same temperature that the wash water is when you spill it off (into a bucket, and take to the woods, don’t put it down the drain: lots of cloggy lanolin and dirt!)  It usually needs to be rinsed several times, each time spilling it into a large collander, and toting the water out to the woods.  Then, the fleece is put in pillowcases and tied, and put in the washer on spin cycle only, to remove a lot of the water in it, and layed out on screens to dry.  After it is dry, you have to pick each curl apart, fluffing it up. Then you put it through a carder, or hand card it, or use wool combs to comb it.  This puts all the fibers in the same direction and smooths them out.  THEN, you spin it, on average taking 2-4 hours for spinning four ounces of wool.  Then, it gets plied back upon itself in the opposite direction to make two ply yarn.  This is a very labor intensive process, but very satisfying and relaxing.

Sometimes, to save time, I pay to have a processing plant wash and pick and card it, and it comes back to me as rovings, a long thin “snake” of carded fiber.  Sometimes, I do the whole process myself.  A lot depends on what I’m going to do with the yarn, once it’s finished, and how much time I have.

It is very satisfying to make a sweater with yarn you’ve spun yourself, and which came from a sheep you can identify, you have fed, maybe even witnessed the birth of.  It connects my clothing to the land.

Now that the “Daisy” yarn is completed, it will go to my friend, Sue’s, store, Hodgepodge Yarns and Fibers, and will be available for sale through the store, or through me, directly.  It will be priced at about $4/oz., which seems expensive until you realize that nowadays, commercial yarn is often that expensive or more, and handspun tends to be more interesting, softer (Handspun yarn is made from the fleece of sheep kept specifically for their fleece; much commercial yarn is the byproduct of meat sheep production.), less allergic (Many people who claim to be allergic to wool are really allergic to the residues of the chemicals that commercial yarn producers use to clean the fleece.) and you know where your yarn was grown and that the animals were respected and treated with love.  Often, you can visit the farm where your yarn came from and meet the sheep who gave the wool…or at least come away with the name of the sheep and a photo of her/him.

And, I will begin to spin the last fleece of “Lightning”, a romney wether who was owned by my friend, Carolyn, until he died several years ago.  I got the fleece from a friend who bought it then, and never got to use it.   The fleece is a light brownish grey color, soft, and really nice.  I may have to keep this yarn and make a sweater out of it for me, for I knew Lightning and was fond of him, a big ol’ bear of a sheep.


From sheep to yarn

February 23, 2007


Early morning spinning

February 23, 2007

It’s still dark outside, but I finished sleeping, so I got up, ate breakfast, and am now at the computer.  Maddie died Friday afternoon on her own, peacefully, Kat, I’m happy to say. I resisted calling the neighbor, since she really didn’t appear to be in pain, and allowed her to die in her own time.  Had she looked pained, or had other complications, I would have called him, but given the choice, I like the idea of a natural, painfree, attended death. (Read “Dying Well” by Dr. Ira Byock!)  So, I sat with her a lot that day, in between other chores, and talked to her and scratched her ears and petted her and thanked her for all the lambs and fleeces she’s given me over the years.  And finally, she stopped breathing, and drifted away.  She is now in the process of becoming one with the earth, courtesy of the compost pile.  It was tough: always is with death, I think.  But it felt good and right and somehow, holy.   She enriched my life in many ways, as do all the animals and plants on this farm, and I am grateful.  They seem to give me so much more than I give them.

Today, a woman whose husband bought my extra spinning wheel for her a year ago as a surprise, is coming with her two homeschooled daughters, 9 and 11, for an afternoon of spinning and talking.  I am looking forward to spending time with them.

And I continue spinning, trying to spin a spindle of yarn a day, which takes a couple of hours at the least.  So far, I’m keeping up, but mostly, I think, because I’ve been listening to the Janet Evanovitch books on tape.  The murders have started getting a little too gruesome, however, so I think it’s time to switch to Harry Potter, my all time favorite tapes.  I never tire of them.

Jacob Sheep

February 20, 2007

Jacob Sheep

I saw my first jacob sheep when I went to visit a woman who raised them, back in 1994, before I moved up here to Vermont. I had seen her and photos of her sheep at the Monadnock Area Wool Arts Tour, and she had invited me to visit her. As I drove up her road, which had pastures on both sides, these very strange, harlequin-looking sheep, all lined up at the fence, and watched me with looks on their faces which said, “Who are you and WHAT are you doing on OUR farm?” I fell instantly in love. These sheep had attitude! They were not the docile, sweet, and often fearful sheep I had seen and read about.

I later found out that primitive breeds of sheep are somewhat different from standardized breeds: they are smaller, eat less, are more self-sufficient. And these jacobs were, for me, the best choice. They have marvelous personalities, all different. Each one is marked differently: they are like snowflakes: no two alike…and when it is hard for you to tell one sheep from another, this is a plus. Standardized breeds of sheep, of course, also show differences among the members of the flocks, but they are more subtle. Look at the sheep in the photo above, and see the different markings on each one: different spotting patterns, different horn patterns, different facial markings…I love them!

Jacobs and other primitives as well, to some extent, are smart, extremely hardy, thrifty (two pounds of hay per day per sheep, plus, if you wish, a little bit of grain–I use l/4 cup organic whole grain when they are more than 2 months pregnant, and actually might increase it to l/2 c. per lactating ewe, once the lambs are born, for two months, before reducing it to nothing but grass by late June.), wonderful, attentive mothers (though, just as with humans, some hold their progeny close, some are more permissive and laid back about them), easy lambers. This past year, with Maddie, I lost my first lambs in 9 years. And in eleven years, I’ve HAD to assist in maybe 5 cases, though I’ve stretched out a leg here and there, to ease the lambing. (Not, strictly speaking, necessary, but doesn’t hurt, and may make the labor and delivery easier for the mother). This, of course, is in situations where the ewe would allow me to assist her. At other times, a ewe will look at me and in no uncertain terms, tell me to mind my own business. (I love this attitude thing!) Lambs are born here during the last week of March, first two weeks of April. When that happens, you can be sure there will be postings of lambs! It is a happy time, and an intense time around the farm.

Shearing happens March 15th, this year, two weeks before lambing, so the ewes are clean, meaning I can see contractions more easily, and the lambs don’t suck on poopy “tags” (locks of fleece which may be stained with urine or feces). Shearing day is lots of fun, with stories passed back and forth among shearer, me and helpers. (A group of women I know, myself included, go from one of our farms to the next, at shearings, to help: the fleece comes off, is put on a skirting table, the tags pulled off, coarser wool removed, bits of hay picked out, the fleece rolled up, bagged and labeled.) Visitors are welcome, so long as they call first. After shearing, which takes the morning, we all have lunch, the shearer moves on to his afternoon appointment, everyone leaves, and I sit and pore over this year’s fleeces, weighing them, evaluating them, pricing them, and carrying them to the basement.

Then, I wait for the lambs, making sure all the supplies I’ll need are there, digging out old bedding, preparing lambing jugs, spending time with the ewes, who, about two weeks before lambing, all seem to get more loving and attentive to me. (I guess they think I look like I need mothering!)

Once the lambs come, customers come and tentatively pick out the lambs they want to buy (though final decisions always wait til the horns come in, to make sure they are acceptably growing horns). If you are considering having sheep, email me or call me and come pick my brain at a mutually convenient time.

For more information about Jacob Sheep, see the Jacob Sheep Breeders’ Association website,

Margaret and me

February 19, 2007


Okay, here’s Margaret and me.  I didn’t really mean for it to be so big, but I’m still learning here. I was hoping the photo of the farm was larger, but I messed that up.  So, now you get a photo of me, large…if it works.

Maple Hill Farm in winter

February 19, 2007


Here’s one of my favorite photos of the farm, taken a couple of winters ago, one snowy day.  Today it isn’t snowing.  It is zero out, with a wicked wind, and Maddie is dying.  I didn’t call my neighbor over the weekend, no idea why, putting off the inevitable…don’t like guns, no idea.  Anyway, this morning when I went out to feed the critters, she was “down” and breathing very shallowly.  She doesn’t appear to be in pain.  I sat with her for about 30 minutes, she seems at peace…maybe I’m just rationalizing.  But then, I got cold, and the other critters were hungry, so I fed them and then came in.  I’ll go out again in an hour and see how she’s doing.  But I fear that today we will be dragging more bedding to the compost heap to cover this beloved sheep whose time is up.

I’ve been perusing Walter Jeffries’ blog at  It’s full of really great stuff about pigs (I’m getting two from him in the Spring) and chickens (great wire hoop house plan) and life in general.  I loved the article on “Wife Swapping” which is really about a tv program and reality vs. reality tv, which is not reality.  Great job, Walter!

Okay, now I need to go get the other photo, one of me and Margaret, in our living room, again, a couple of years ago.

wheels, wheels, wheels

February 18, 2007

dsc00009.jpg    Here are some of the spinning wheels at Sue’s store.  I have a Majacraft, my fourth Majacraft, actually.  I’ve had a Louet, which I learned to spin on many years ago.  And I’ve had a Kromski, which was beautiful, but a little finicky and I had no place for it in my house, which is pretty small.  Love those Majacrafts, though…  Now, I’ve got my eye on a really nice looking wheel made in the midwest somewhere that isn’t in the photo, but I’m pondering buying..It’s either that one or one of David What’s his name’s Canadian reproduction production wheels…They’re kind of nice, too.

Margaret and Spot (less)

February 18, 2007

dsc00015.jpg    Margaret is not all that thrilled with this strange looking spotless little jacob…this is what happens if you linebreed jacobs too much…they become one big white spot.  This little guy was born at the farm of a friend who’s hot into line breeding; he was rejected by his mother, so Shari took him and is spoiling him rotten.

More yarn arriving in boxes, still unpacked…

February 18, 2007

dsc00011.jpg It seems like every day there is more and more yarn coming into the store, ready to be unpacked.  Wherever Sue finds room for it is a mystery…but she does.

Here is Sue at Hodgepodge

February 18, 2007

dsc00007.jpg     I did it, I think…not sure why this is underlined, but this is Sue’s store, which I talked about yesterday…I’m going to try for a couple more photos now.