Monthly Archives: November 2013

Have you followed a dream?

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Me on a cold day at the farm.

During the colder days, the weather forces one to head indoors and drink warm drinks and take a measure of the work accomplished this year. We are nearing the end of our first official year as a real wool farm. Our first fiber festival was in April. Our flock had grown enough wool to produce a bit if yarn, roving, both natural and dyed. I discovered felt. Mary at the mill suggested we make felt sheets with leftover wool and I began making hats, purses, jewelry that inspired me to break out my embroidery thread and discover silk ribbon which I also dyed. And poof! Value added products from our Shetland Wool.

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Hat made with Shetland felt in Natural Black.

And the sheep. I have learned so much from them. I am working with our pastures and have been studying up on nutrition and last Spring my seven ewes blessed me with fifteen lambs! And due some logistics issues, one more ewe gave me one more lamb in August. I have learned that there is a vulnerability during weening and I need to make sure every lamb gets additional supplements. These lessons were learned the hard way as I lost a lamb while I was out of town. I learned I need to supplement my rams just a bit more as they are a bit lean.

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Rams in the bachelor's quarters

We had more festivals in the fall, but found out I could not get into the Fall Fiber Festival at Montpelier. So in less than a week after the festival, I sent my application in for 2014. Hell or high water, I will be at that festival!!! And I learned to stick to fiber festivals, leaving the gift type festival for others after the fiasco at the Appalachian Harvest Festival.

But the realization that I was doing at least a little bit right was after the shearing. My ewes were in good condition. They and the rams had produced the best batch of clean, lustrous fleeces I have ever seen. Twenty seven of them. I can’t bring myself to put them away as I process them. I want to look at them. I want to smell them. I want their sheared ends to tickle my palm as I walk by. Deciding to take the chance to let wool get into my blood has lead me here. Knitting was not enough. Spinning was not enough. Something inside has allowed God to lead me on this crazy journey of raising fiber animals, to this broken down 100 year old diamond in the rough farm in these gorgeous Virginia hills. To try and make a business out of this love affair with wool. I do struggle with how scary the financial part is as I am lousy with money, and I don’t know how I can make all my bills. Lots of juggling and lots of sleepless nights and lots of praying, but God somehow gives me a sale, or an opportunity and an idea or an angel that lends a hand and I am still here.

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One of the Shetland Fleeces on shearing day

What sees me through is the work. I love feeding and visiting with the animals. I love even cleaning stalls, hutches, repairing a fence, a barn. Moving animals keeps me in shape. And I love the tedious job of grading the fleeces as I get to touch the wool. I can’t get enough of being outside, even in the cold. I can’t imagine doing anything else. If I won the lottery, I would be here. Perhaps I would have a new roof and siding on the house or a new barn, more fencing, but I would be here. Dreams get you moving, dreams take you on a journey. The trip can be and often is filled with heartbreak, filled with challenges that force you to rise and better yourself to meet those challenges. It is often humbling when God loves your dream enough to send you the help, the angels, the skills that you had inside that you never knew about.

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So as Thanksgiving approaches, I take stock of my blessings. And I give thanks to God for giving me the courage to take this dream journey and for accompanying me as my partner. Non of my family shares in my passion, yet they are with me too. I hope my example provides the blueprint for my kids to follow their dreams. When I started, I had no idea of what I would experience. But each lesson, each challenge is a blessing. But the rewards are priceless.

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Autumn view at Sweet Tree Hill Farm

My plan for the new year is to bring other fiber farmers together so we can help each other deal with our challenges and inspire and work together to ensure our success. More to come on that later.

October, Month or Travel, Month of Shepherd School

The last six to eight weeks or so are a blur. For six weeks in a row, I had to travel to some where…I have been to just about every corner of Virginia; to Berryville for the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, to Orange for the Fall Fiber Festival, to Blacksburg for the Appalachian Harvest Festival and to Harrisonburg to get a lesson on a cranking sock machine that I am in the process of purchasing. And the last to Charles City for a sad errand.

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Sweet Tree Hill Farm's booth at SVFF

In building this farm business, I go because of the wool, the wool drives me. I go to process the wool, go to sell the wool, go to learn about creating products with the wool, go to solve a problem guarding the animals that grow the wool. Also go to enjoy the company of like minded people of wool.

The passion is there to do what it takes, it is just sometimes I
am not sure what it takes. In the end I need to make money in order to justify the animals, the fencing, all the hay and grain purchases. I love developing wool products, the challenge is that I need to develop a beautiful Shetland yarn and roving that inspires wool crafters. This is a trial and error process and involves working closely with a mill that shares your vision and will work as hard as you do. I have enjoyed working with Mary at Central Virginia Fiber Mill. We have started first with soft lofty worsted yarns, some heavy worsted. I have learned that Shetland is light and soft, yet expands. The garments are comfortable because the yarn is light weight, even the heavy worsted yarns. I am working on a vest soon to be made into a pattern. The yarn is lovely in its squishyness. My flock is growing many natural colors and coupled with the dyed colors, makes my imagination spin with the finished garment possibilities. So more patterns to come.

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Hilltop Shetland Worsted in Natural Black

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Hilltop Shetland Bulky in Natural White

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Hilltop Shetland Worsted in Autumn Walk

(And don’t forget the roving, we have tons in both natural and dyed ready to be spun up. I just love touching it. Would love for you to try and get your thoughts on it. )

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Shetland Roving in Purple Moutain

Next we will be focusing on a fingering to sport weight yarn. I am acquiring and learning to use a circular sock knitting machine and will soon be producing not only Shetland Sock yarn, but also producing socks to sell. In the end, this might be what I focus my production on because no one has a similar product and it is what sells that will dictate what type of yarn we produce.

Well back to all the events. We were vendors at two of the events mentioned and tried to get into the third, but the Fall Fiber Festival has limited space for new blood. However, I sent in my application less than a week after the 2013 event for 2014. Hopefully a space will open up, because I am only an hour away and it would be a shame I can’t vend in my own back yard. Anyway, we learned a few things. Angora yarn and products sell well. The yarn is all finely handspun, I have developed kits for small beaded projects and a nice stole pattern for an Angora blend yarn. Again, there are folks that sell the fiber, but few are producing a yarn.

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Fingerless Beaded glove kit

Regarding the Shetland, natural colors are selling a bit better than dyed. And I have had requests for yarn to use for fair isle.

So here I sit, contemplating and planning as to what to do with the next crop of 30 or so fleeces about to be shorn off next week. And along with that, how to pay for a barn full of winter hay and feed and the processing costs at the mill. A lot relies on whether I can learn enough from this last October to make financially sound decisions. I have much riding on this. Can I read the minds of would be customers? And I wonder how to spread the word that reaches these customers effectively. All these things describes the real risks involved in being a yarn farmer. My love of wool drives me to take these risks. I take responsibility for the outcome by learning learning learning….how to grow and grade wool, how to evaluate yarn, roving quality, honing my dye and spinning skills, how to raise quality sheep and rabbits….And how to market.

My request, visit the farm shop, look around, maybe give some roving or yarn a try. But most important of all, I invite your feedback, honest feedback. And then you arm me with additional information to improve what I will produce for you. So the most important partnership of all, is crafter with shepherd-farmer. Exchanging ideas will result in desirable, beautiful locally grown wool products for you and your family’s needs and pleasure.

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