Ollies Visit to Papa

I though my followers would enjoy this piece about the Shetland homeland….where our sheep came from.

Oliver recently spent the day clipping sheep on Papa, an island off the west side of Scalloway. Papa Isle is owned by the Smith family, the founders of Jamieson & Smith, he headed there with my…

Source: Ollies Visit to Papa

Book Review

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District https://g.co/kgs/s1L44

My review….

This book come to me at a time when my loneliness has set in and I question my calling as a shepherd.  I raise a small flock of Shetlands in Central Virginia.. on my own with little help.. and feel overwhelmed sometimes.  This book is a gift in that it brings to the forefront the tradition of shepherding in the Lake District of Northern England.  There is a rich tradition of shepherding that goes back centuries and those ancient traditions are practiced and revered today.  This book details this vibrant culture that has often been ignored by the tourists on holiday hiking in the
region,  having themselves been divorced from the land for generations.  The author sits you down in his living room and tells you the way of it.  That it is the culture,  working the land that shapes and becomes part of the landscape.. a sacred union that is so missed in most society.  I for one am drawn to the land and love feeling and experiencing the seasons as I work outdoors.   It is hard at times,  yet glorious at others.  I share this with the author.  I am not part of a traditional,  I seek to start it again.  This book shares the proof it still exists.. that man has not lost his way entirely. I have always taught my kids,  that your environment shapes you,  molds you,  is always part of your identity,  and this book sings to that notion.  I laughed,  cried,  nodded in the shared experiences and took note of the new things I learned.  This is a rich tapestry of images,  emotions and yearnings we all can identify with as each of us tries to make sense of why our souls chose to live life in human form on this earth.  It is full of wisdom…I was sad when I finished.    The narrator was superb. 

I listened to this book which I purchased from audible.  I did so while knitting socks from yarn gleaned from the backs of my sheep.  And while drum carding fluffy batts for the fiber festival coming up in Powhatan.  It linked my hands,  immersed in wool… To my head as images of the story came to life.  It was not really  a story,  but a memoir. And I felt honored to get to know this shepherd.  And I felt really ignorant, because I realized how little I know,  and frightened at the thought of it because I have so many lives in my hands. 

So I will get back to work… To the never ending chores,  with at least better perspective. 



“I keep sheep and my sheep keep me. ”

As one wanders through life making choices one hopes is in line with their purpose… sometimes you stumble on an ah-ha  moment.  I have been struggling with the notion that perhaps farming is not for me after all.  It has been tough this last year especially as I singularly work at the daily chores, feeding all the hungry mouths. 


There is just so much,  not to mention household stuff that goes undone (Why can’t there be maid service at home and not just at hotels!) And to pay the bills,  I have gone back to doing corporate travel.  And fortunately I work out of the house,  but it does take up some 25 hours weekly.

Well back to the subject at hand.  One of my goals with the farm is to manufacture an end product derived from the Shetland wool.  I have produced yarn and roving and other supplies for spinners and knitters…but in the back of my mind,  I wanted it to be clothing. So I had this notion,  why not try to obtain one of the antique sock machines used at the turn of the century?  Well that journey alone had a few dead ends as I learned more about these machines and to evaluate them.  But finally I made a wise purchase.  I then went about the business of learning how to use it.  I had lots of sock yarn I have dyed,  so last Christmas,  all of my family received socks and I have posted some for sale in my farm shop on Etsy. 

The other part of the equation was getting usable yarn from the wool fleeces I have been collecting. I was working with a mill close by for a few years in the hopes of achieving a sock yarn.  But her experience with her equipment and the unusual qualities of Shetland fleeces did not lead us to that goal.  And by now… I had a very good fix in my mind what the yarn needed to be.  No more than fingering weight,  smooth with no slubs,  two ply and a little nylon mixed in. 

So last fall,  while vending at the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, I stumbled upon a booth for Gurdy Run Fiber Mill.  I looked at all the sock yarn she had on display and asked a few questions.  She specialized in sock yarn.  Music to my ears of course.  So I decided to give her a try.  She let me wash my fleeces so the incoming weight would be less and my costs less too. And another piece of luck… She was in Halifax PA,  on the way to my youngest son’s college and I could drop off fleeces instead of adding the cost of shipping.  So we dropped off 9 fleeces and crossed our fingers. 

Nearly five months later… The yarn came.  Cost was not too bad.. a rare thing from a mill.  And the eighteen pounds of Moorit and Shaela colored yarn… was what I had been seeking for the last five years. 


I was eager to try it on my machine.  I tweaked the tension… And made two pairs of socks, a Shaela pair in my husband’s size and a Moorit pair in mine.


They were strong and had the unique silky feel of Shetland.  And there it was… a realization I had achieved a major farm goal that few are doing…growing the fiber and manufacturing a piece of clothing on the farm. It is done with vegetables,  soap,  and meat.  But not with clothing.  Local sourcing clothing has happened little since mass production,  especially since it has gone overseas.  But there is a movement afoot (yes,  pun intended)  to grow the fiber arts.  And with it,  a quest for locally sourced clothing.  A farm is a business and the numbers have to work,  but also the work has to have meaning. If the heart is happy,  the body might not mind the sacrifice and work.  We will see if this part is true,  stay tuned. 

Oh and visit the farm shop for your own 1910 Shepherd’s Socks.  They will be posted soon along side the colorful hand dyed socks I mentioned. 

Where Ya Been?…ahhh..farming…

I am at a place where the farm kind of runs me. If I am not taking care of animals, working on products, getting ready for a festival….I am trying to earn extra money for the farm while working as a virtual corporate travel agent…while sitting in my farm house. Yes, I have found the perfect job for a farmer…an off the farm job, but I do not have to leave it to do the work. Technology allows me to talk to my clients from virtually all over the world and I still have view of my sheep while doing it. For instance, I spoke with a gentleman in China, coming to Newark from Shanghai. The company I work for books travel for many corporations and businesses. They route calls to me via the computer and I use the company’s software to access the traveler’s profile and book flights, cars, hotels and such. But also we use an airline system to go into a reservation and perform exchanges as well. It helped that I learned the formats and codes needed to work in that system while a travel agent for American Express some 20 years ago. Anyway..still there was a learning curve and now that I have been with the company a year..feel I have good grasp of the job now.

As you can see, life is busy. My focus of late has shifted a bit regarding my processing. I love the results I have been getting from the mill…but creativity in creating roving and yarn is limited…and the cost of any mill processing is not  in line with a farmer trying then to sell the yarn produced. The  numbers simply do not work. The only entity making any money is the mill…because once a farmer works in the cost of that processing as well as growing the wool itself, he or she would have to price yarn and roving far above what the market could bare to make any money. One day perhaps, mills will realize this…but now..for me…I am processing the fleeces myself, the ones that spinners have not purchased. And to be honest, while it is slow work, I love it..and have been able to experiment with blends and dyeing in the fleece. And what I am able to produce is one of a kind artisan type work. I have blended batts with silk and angora and mohair…and some lovely hand spun yarn.




Oh…big news..a new acquisition…are you ready?  Ok then…it is an antique sock machine. I have been seeking and studying and researching like crazy for three years…and finally was able to get one. They are pricey…but managed to sock away (haha…you see what I did there?) a bit of money. So now I just received it from Quebec. And the sock machine and I are bonding. I have learned to do cuffs and am now working on heels. I hope to get good and produce Sweet Tree Hill Farm socks in the near future




Some other news…I follow Shetland News…and Shetland Wool Week will be in September…some day I will attend…another thing I am saving for. In the mean time, I share with you the information and perhaps you can go in my place. There will be lots of neat classes and a tour of the islands….oh I so want to go…sigh.

James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life.

James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life

Sometimes I find it hard to put into words why I do what I do. For me is that I yearn to be around wool and sheep and somehow trying to put a business together to justify it. But when the day is finished, I am giving an evening meal to my sheep, after hours of working with their wool, readying batts and yarn for an upcoming festival…I stop, look around…and know I am doing what makes my heart sing.

Sheepy Hollow Farm

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Finding My Religion…


Ever wish you can have a life “refresh” button?  I am creating one for myself as I refocus on what is important to me, resetting what my priorities are and putting aside things that aren’t…listening to that inner compass we are all born with.

A little bit about what has been going on….after 10 years of working on a wholesale line of hand dyed yarns and patterns…of trying to compete and market…attending the trade shows, as I went more and more into debt playing by the rules of the commercial yarn industry…I finally had to cry UNCLE!  And in the meantime, I start my farm…my heart, my dream…and finding some success as I grow that business. Fiber is in my soul…but the debt needed to be dealt with and I needed a reliable way to pay my bills. Like countless others in this lousy economy, I was trying to find a job, an off the farm job that could help me get out of the hole that was growing deeper. Last Fall, I finely got signed onto substitute teach at the local county schools. But sometimes a week or 2 would go by without any calls to teach. So as the lean holiday passed, and countless applications, praying and job search engines…Aflac expressed an interest in me. I researched and found mixed reviews, but a bird in the hand and all that lead me to make the decision to try. So I went through the interview process and was hired as an independent agent. I just needed to get my license…no small task as I had no experience in insurance. I was desperate and so put in tons of time…learning, cold calling, lots and lots of driving. I had to get some professional clothes, hair and so on. And through all this, with some help from family and a great friend, kept my farm going. But not very well. I lost animals, my Etsy site suffered and I was going backwards in the farm business. And I was not making much money in Aflac. Worse yet, some of the people at the regional office were less than honest, and  just folks I did not want to spend my time with. There were bright spots in that my immediate supervisor is turning out to be a nice new friend. And the BIG lesson…gave me a perspective as to what is important to me as I approach old age.

Now…job search still continued and I found and applied for a work from home operation called Working Solutions. And I think that is what it is turning out to be. To hedge my bets, I applied and was accepted in their training program as a travel consultant. In a prior life, I was a corporate travel agent for American Express and this experience worked for me in landing this opportunity…that and my computer experience. So I started the 4 week 4 hour each night of training. But Working Solutions paid me for this training. They offered lots of support and after 3 weeks now on the phone working as a virtual call center agent, in a schedule of my choosing, without any makeup or new clothes required. No commute, except to my new PC (as the software did not work on my mac.) After that 2 year search…finally a job I can live with and work the farm too.

So I find myself, after a much needed break, resetting on the life of my choosing. I even took some wonderful yoga classes while at the beach to revisit the thing that will help with the balance I crave. I am now on the path to get the farm production in high gear as I approach two fall festivals. I am tying up some loose ends with Aflac, revamping my yoga practice, and working hard at excelling as travel agent. Lots of work ahead, but not out of desperation, but out of purpose.

I invite any of you to share your challenges in following the fiber path while making the personal economics work. I think we all can benefit from the mutual support and hints and lessons learned. 

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Festival Prep Mode

Though the current weather suggests we are in the throws of a deep winter, here on the farm…in between cracking ice and schlepping hay through the snow…are preparing for the coming Spring and that means getting ready for Powhatan´s Festival of Fiber.


Sweet Tree Hill Farm festival booth

So what does that mean? We have taken washed and assorted Shetland Wool fiber to the mill for yarn, roving and felt. And we are hard at work felting dyed wool for purses, cuffs, hats and jewelry.


One of our Shetland Felt Hats!

I am hitting the dye studio and dyeing silk noil and silk ribbon. The silk ribbon will be used to embroider our felt hats, jewelry and purses.


Hand dyed silk ribbon


Embroidered Felt Cuff featuring our dyed ribbon.

The silk noil is being hand carded with our naturally colored angora bunny fiber for spinners. Some of it will be handspun into yarn so that knitters have this unique yarn to create our Edwardian Stole pattern or projects of their own choosing. I don’t believe any farm is producing anything similar.


Carding angora and dyed silk noil.


Edwardian Stole - pattern available in our farm store.

This is a lot of work, but so much fun to do, and an outlet for that is creativity. I am a believer we all need that outlet to feel fulfilled as a human being…but that is just me.
As I look out my window at another four inches of snow and 25° temps, my mind has moved onto spring as I work with brightly colored silk and soft fuzzy angora. See you at the festival that will take place in Powhatan on the last Saturday in April. Google it for more info.

Feeling My Age during Artic Blast

I chose a career change to shepherd in my middle age, and I really haven’t addressed those unique physical challenges. I actually enjoy the physical part of the job and take pride of the fact I can hoist 50 pound feed sacks and hay bales. I took a sheep shearing class and can shear my sheep the traditional New Zealand way and did so until a couple of years ago when my numbers increased to require a professional. But I can shear when the need arises such as illness or before a sale. And I can woman handle a ram or large buck (in the case of goats,) and I can work a day long sheep catching day when we load up the barn with sheep before the shearer arrives. So as we were visited by record cold temps that simply would not leave for about a couple of weeks, I began to feel my age down to my bones.

The super cold air meant one small word, but huge problem: ICE!


Ice was cracked with a broken hoe that could lift chunks of ice.

We had to come up with a strategy to first keep the water flowing and then deal with keeping the water liquid for the rabbits, sheep, goats and chickens and our few ducks. This added to our…ok my chores and for the length of time I needed to be outside. On some days, the temps did not get out of the teens, some days lower. I would be outside for about 2-3 hours. I pulled into service old coffee cans for the rabbits as their steel tipped waterers froze immediacy and would not work, period. The two sets of coffee cans were changed out daily as one set could be melting while indoors.


Maizy bunny drinks from her coffee can.

Chickens water had to be replace two to three times daily


Chickens eager for their fresh liquid water.

and the sheep and goats water had to have ice cracked to expose the liquid underneath. But it was cold for so long, solid blocks result and water had to be replaced via buckets as hoses were useless.


Sheep wake up to another frigid day.

The ducks were my comic relief as I would create a puddle under the water hydrant and the ducks bathed, drank and played as their pond froze over. Not only did their pond freeze, but the big farm pond froze too resulting in the wild geese standing on it rather than swimming in it.


Ducks take joy from a mud puddle before it froze too.


Our frozen farm pond.

Each day, I dressed head to foot in fleece and wool and headed out to solve the days problems. Each day I felt more tired and my joints ached. Some days I just could not get warm and would soak in a hot tub to try and bring my body back to normal. My idle thoughts were wandering to doubts about my career decision. I mean, this is my passion, and I love creating products out of this wonderful wool and I love my relationship with the animals. I did come to one conclusion, I could not have made it through these days without my wool socks. My feet were always warm.  And I resolved to soldier on to produce such a useful, natural and beautiful fiber that has not failed us for thousands of years. No synthetic has ever been created that surpasses wool for qualities of warmth, renewability, strength, breathability and so many more. I just need to step up my conditioning to deal with this “global warming thang” and I intend to.

And news alert….on the front burner is a mission to produce a strong stretchy sock yarn using the Shetland Wool. And even Sweet Tree Hill Farm signature socks. So more on this later. Stay tuned!

Sheep to Vest

One of the challenges, or actually one of the fun parts, of developing yarn from our flock is coming up with ideas regarding how to use that yarn. Our yarn might be the most beautiful wool in the world (and many think it is), but it has to have a use. So as the we jump into the new year, I am working on some fun patterns for our Hilltop Shetland. Currently on my needles is the “Berry & Lace Vest”. After playing around with stitch swatches, testing out the possibilities, I finalized the rough draft of the pattern with gauge measurements from the swatches. And I casted on some of our Hilltop Shetland in natural white.


Back of the vest, and my notes.

I have no secret process in writing patterns. Mostly I do the swatches to make sure the math works, then I dive in. As I knit, I often make corrections or add to the design as ideas occur. I like to write with the knitter in mind. Is the pattern fun to do? And will I be happy with the results? Will I or the recipient of the garment actually wear it? All these things are on my mind.


Vest as the border is being knit.

So now I am on the home stretch of the pattern. I am knitting the border of the vest is a slipped moss stitch incorporating two colors of our hand dyed Hilltop Shetland. I can’t resist to add color to the textural interest of this vest. As I am finishing, I note that the berry and lace stitch was easy to memorize and fun to do. The slipped moss stitch is interesting in that it holds my attention as the colors and textures emerge. And I am always happy if I can avoid shaping and still have the garment look good. That remains to be seen and I bind off. So visit back to see the results!

Once the wool was on the back of a sheep, now on the back of a person. So cool!!!



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ella gordon

textile maker

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