Category Archives: Fiber Fun!

What do we do with the wool we raise?

A Step Back in Time… 

Anyone who knows me,  knows I am mad about the Outlander series,  first the books and now the television series.  And not just because of a hunky Scott… Oh shame on you for thinking it… No,  it is mostly because I love history,  especially Scottish history.  I love reading and discovering what everyday life was like,  especially for women and especially regarding textile production.  It is not by accident I chose the Shetland breed of sheep to raise, or love to listen to Celtic music.  I even took up the fiddle at age ten. And choosing to live in a 100 year old house has a special charm to me as I sometimes speak to the ghosts within its walls to ask advise or just enjoy the companionship. 

This fascination with fiber began back when I took a weaving class in highschool, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.  My teacher,  Betty Johnson has no idea what treasure she brought to me, what world she opened up.  It began a quest of self study,  that has become my life’s work. 

Now to the phenomenon of Outlander… The cool thing about it is that the central character does what I have been trying to do for decades,  experience another time, smell the smells,  see life through other eyes in another time.   That is what learning how to knit and spin,  animal husbandry,  weaving, embroidery is all about for me,  experience the fiber past,  but in my own time.

 During the colonial period,  since England refused to allow colonists to purchase yard goods from any country except England,  it became expensive.  So many households went into production for themselves and their neighbors, growing flax,  raising sheep,  and processing the fiber,  then creating clothing,  bedding, curtains and most of the everyday needs of the household.  We don’t know a lot of the details because these tasks were mostly left to the  women and children and recording their tasks, how and what they did to contribute was not considered important history.  Of course we know it is important.  Often the economy of a village was based on bartering of these home produced goods.  An excellent book  was discovered then formatted with additional information called “A Tale of a Midwife” . One of my favorite books.  This diary was discovered in a Maine archive and it chronicled a midwife named Martha in her daily chores of attending to the doctoring of her town and her fiber business she ran with her daughters during the late 1700’s. It was mostly in the form of record keeping,  but what a wealth of information!  I stumbled upon this book over ten years ago in a little Charlottesville book store during one of my little anniversary weekends with my husband. 

So at times,  I feel a kindred spirit in Martha.  I juggle two careers as well… Instead of midwifery,  I am a travel agent, and I own and operate a little fiber business… For my family and community, growing,  processing and manufacturing clothing – mostly socks for the family and general public,  and baby things for all the new additions my family is experiencing. 

 And I am like Claire in Outlander,  living in a different time, but not needing to fall through stones to do it.  And I get to learn and experience a little taste of what so many women before me had done… Keeping their families warm with their skill and their ingenuity and hard, yet satisfying work.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hand dyed silk ribbon

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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.

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Carding angora and dyed silk noil.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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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Dye Studio Day, Shetland Roving in the Pot

Sharing my little dye secrets as I go about applying color to some Shetland roving I grew and had produced at the Virginia Fiber Mill.
I start off by winding the roving around my forearm. I place the ring of roving in the pot (steel or enameled) so I can distribute the dye through out the roving.

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I add water until it just covers the roving. I don’t want it swimming around.

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Then I set the pot onto a portable burner and set the heat to 180°. I let it come up to temperature, takes about 20 minutes. This allows the fiber to become saturated too.

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Now to formulate the plan of action. I draw a circle and make a map of how I will pour the dye.

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The Landscapes dye I use is an acid dye that contains all the additives. So no mordant required. It is in powder form.
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I use old plastic tumblers to mix in.
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I add the appropriate amount of dye, and mix with hot tap water. Once the temperature of the heating fiber is at 180°, it is time to pour.

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I pour across the the rows of roving according to my map. I let the simmering continue for another 20-30 minutes. Then I let cool, usually over night.

Then when cool, I drain off the water which should be near clear. I rinse the roving in my work sink, being careful not to agitate.

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I hang to drain the water and let dry…And there you are.

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I bag up to sell in my etsy farm shop or at one of the fiber festivals I attend. It is fun to work with wool I grow in my own pasture. It is lovely stuff, great to spin, to felt with. The sale  of our hand dyed roving helps to support our farm and allows us to continue providing wonderful fiber for you.

What the Fluff!

Chocolate Chip and his litter mates.

Chocolate Chip and his litter mates.

On a farm, being cute is not enough. Each creature needs to earn their keep and that includes the cute bunnies. My youngest buns are finding this out this week. We have enjoyed our latest babies, watching them grow from little tiny hairless newborns to bouncing balls of fluff, each with distinctive personalities. Now it is harvest time. In other words, time for their first haircut. They have grown long angora locks. Along the way, I have been getting the little ones used to grooming by periodically combing them, keeping matts and tangles at bay. I love handling them, getting to know each one.

Steely Dan. Yes he does have eyes.

Steely Dan. Yes he does have eyes.

Steely Dan is a beautiful blue guy and has as pleasing calm personality. He is curious and explores everything. And he enjoys affection. His fiber is incredible, long and luscious with perfect amount of guard hair. Chocolate Chip is our, yes you guessed it, a chocolate guy. He is my shy one. While he does enjoy a scratch on the head, he is not the first to the door of his hutch to get one. At the moment he is overshadowed by hutch mate Steely Dan, but he is often seen grooming his buddy and smuggling up with him. He is our littlest guy, but makes up for it by growing lots of  fluff in such a nice taupe color with a shimmer of reddish guard hair. Finally, Mr Sebastian. He is a lilac guy with the most adorable face. He is quite full of himself and eager for attention. And loves to explore. Although part of that exploring is tasting. He is known to nibble my shirt during grooming sessions. His fiber is a pinky grey, one of my faves.

Mr Sebastian before his haircut.

Mr Sebastian before his haircut.

I started with Sebastian. I comb him out removing a few tangles and loosening up his fiber. I want to start with gentle plucking, lifting out loose fiber. Many babies don’t like plucking at first. And Sebastian really didn’t. That is ok. In time I like to pluck most of the Fiber, as that is the best quality. But today, using scissors is fine. At first Sebastian was a bit wiggly. Once I knew plucking was not an option, I began clipping away during moments of stillness. I use an elbow to hug the bunny close and to try and settle the guy. I remove little matts behind the ears and around the hind quarters. I save the prime stuff along the back, dropping locks into a grocery bag hanging nearby. Well Sebastian had some nice moments of calm, only interrupted by clear attempts to take flying leaps off of the platform. None of my other bunnies have tried outright escape. And with such deceptiveness. He did not seem uncomfortable. But then all of a sudden, just leap. I had to be ready for these little explosions of bunny springs. Not easy with pointy scissors. I managed to complete my task anyway and had a nice bag of fluff as reward. And the little guy will be much cooler for the summer weeks remaining.

Sebastian post haircut.

Sebastian post haircut.

And what happens to the fluff? I am in the process of handspinning yarn for kits. I love 100% angora yarn when spun properly with quality fiber. Unlike most commercial angora yarn where short fibers are mixed in resulting in shedding, I use long fibers and firm spinning to produce a nicer yarn that has the traditional halo without the shedding. I like to design little projects for my Etsy farm shop.

Beaded Victorian knitted collar kit with handspun angora yarn and beads

Beaded Victorian knitted collar kit with handspun angora yarn and beads

Beaded Lace Fingerless gloves.

Beaded Lace Fingerless gloves.

I have a beaded Victorian collar pattern and have just finished designing a little lace fingerless glove pattern with beads. So I am in the process of spinning yarn for this kit. And Sebastian’ s fluff will be part of the yarn.

Spinning some Sebastian fluff

Spinning some Sebastian fluff

The kit will be in the shop soon. So Sebastian and the other bunnies do their part in providing their fluff for the most wonderful yarn, and not to mention for blending with other fiber for batts for spinning. I love raising these guys and their fluff make lots of spinners and knitters happy.

Bunny Biz

Everything on a farm, if you want a farm that actually functions as a farm, needs to earn their keep, provide a service or a product. I am reminded of this as I gather my receipts and prepare my taxes. I evaluate what and why I raise things. Of course the sheep are the central piece. They provide wool for yarn, felting and roving. And the animals themselves can be sold. They also reduce the need to mow. Goats also provide fluff and they are great for clearing new pastures. Even the chickens, though I don’t raise enough of them for selling eggs, do provide my breakfast, they keep the insect population down, they eat kitchen scraps and provide entertainment. But what about the bunnies?

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When I bought my first angora rabbit, my intention was to have a small animal that would provide fiber for my own spinning. And every three months, I would harvest quite a bit from the one rabbit. But as I began to grow my farm, rabbits became a key ingredient. I began raising a variety of natural colors, the different grays were my favorite. Also, I began breeding a French/English combo for the ideal fluff to guard hair ratio for lovely spinning. The fiber is used to blend with wool in some of my batts. But my recent discovery is to blend the fiber with dyed silk noil to produce a textured natural colored yarn with pops of color and texture. I sell the yarn, but also the blended fiber in the form of rolags for spinners.

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Angora & silk noil yarn won a blue ribbon at the Fall Fiber Fest.

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Rolags of silk noil and fawn angora.

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Gray angora fiber being blended with silk noil using hand cards.

At the moment though, I am spinning some the of angora/silk noil combo yarn for kits to create a lovely lace shawl. (Look for the kits at the Powhatan Fiber fest at the end of this month and soon on my Etsy site.)

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View of the Lace Shawl you can create with the kits soon to come.

Now one added benefit from raising a few rabbits on a farm, and that is the poop. The poop is collected from under the hutches and composted. It is then spread in my vegetable and flower gardens. Last year, in a small plot, I produced more tomatoes than ever. I had lots for salads, pasta and canning my famous stewed tomatoes and peppers. Last week I even traded the poop for help with cleaning the barn.

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Nutmeg and Saphire, parents of our new babies.

This year we decided to breed an English fawn buck to a French/English blue doe. We had our challenges, but we are enjoying watching our 4 surviving little babies. Each is a different color, we have a black, chocolate, lilac and blue. They are four weeks old and are starting to eat solid food in the form of hay and rabbit pellets. We might sell the black as I have three already. I handle them daily to get them used to human touch as angoras need frequent grooming. When I visit the babies, they reward me with lots of little kisses as they explore my fingers. I love the daily doses of cuteness. Wish I could bottle that commodity!

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Great Grandma’s Afghan

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Lots of people over the years have asked me who had taught me to knit or spin. How did I get into the fiber business? Who was my inspiration?

Well, growing up, while my mom was a bit crafty and she knew how to knit, I never saw her with needles in her hand. Although there was the brief crochet phase in the 70’s when made  a  poncho.  The less said about that the better. But I had a great grandmother who defied logic and produced many  of these beautiful quilts by hand sewing. And she also crocheted. One year, she announced that she would crochet each of my sister’s and my brother an afghan for our birthdays. No small task as I am one of six kids. She asked that we tell her our favorite colors. I chose blue. And sure enough, on my 16th birthday, a package arrived. I opened it and the lovely blue and white granny square afghan was inside. Never mind that it did not match my bedroom. I loved it. It has been with me ever since.

It covered me while I studied for finals at LSU. I snuggled under it with my new born son during chilly midnight feedings. I wrapped it around me the night I found out my Dad dyed of a sudden heart attack at 49. It has followed me on all my moves, from New Orleans, to Baton Rouge, to Richmond, and small towns like Powhatan, VA and now here on my farm in Cumberland, VA. And you know, for the first time since receiving this wonderful gift, I have that blue and white bedroom. And the joy a hand crocheted gift inspired me to seek the opportunity to share that with others. So while my Great Grandma did not teach me stitches as she lived far from me in Pennsylvania. She did teach me the value of the love shared when some one takes yarn and pulls loops through loops to create something that can hug someone even far away.

So I taught myself to knit from a Woman’s Day Magazine. I learned all I know from books and later taking a class or two. My Art major at LSU has helped me learn about color-a great asset in dyeing yarn. And my Dad’s love of animals has spilled over to me as I tend sheep and goats, train dogs and raise rabbits and chickens. And every evening, I get under that afghan and knit.

Thoughts on the Fiber Path

All of us are on some path of some sort. Some are methodical about setting goals, resolutions and such, especially at this time of year. January is not only the first month of the year, but there is often not much happening. Nature has provided enough nasty weather to keep us inside and today is no exception as I am staring at a cool rainy grey day. So I thought I would do my bit and give some thoughts to tackle the notion as to plans, hopes and dreams I might have for the coming year…or should I say the year we already have dipped our toe into.

I am happy to be taking this time to evaluate the stage my farm is in and where I see it heading. Also my personal journey in the Fiber world I have created for myself. And maybe a dash of the spiritual too. Sweet Tree Hill Farm is starting to take shape. We have 14 registered Shetland Sheep, with 4 quality rams, 9 ewes-6 of which are being bred for late April babies.

One of our pastures has really good fencing in place. We (my husband and I) have plans to fence in another this spring. Right now, we have 3 of the rams along with 6 cashmere goats in temporary fencing the we move every couple of weeks or so. We have a functional barn with attached pole barn that is in need of repair. Not sure when that will take place. We also have a couple of small coops with some bantam chickens, enough to provide eggs for the family. And add 8 Angora rabbits, a farm/guardian dog along with a free roaming 17 year old goat and you get the gist of my set up along with my live stock.

My focus this year is to develop products. A farm….a real farm, needs to generate an income in order for it to be sustained. My hay bill during the winter months is $80 per month, feed bill is about $80 per month all year long, not to mention fencing, shearing, and so on and you get the picture. We have started by creating an Etsy Store and posting yarn and hand blended roving from the sheep and rabbits. We have added multicolored dyed roving from my wholesale business, Scarlet Fleece…some knitting kits with hand spun Angora. And more recently, I have utilized some felting skills I have picked up from classes and have created felted soaps and felted and embroidered jewelry, purses and ornaments.

Sales are slowly getting more regular. And this April, we are signed up for a Fiber Festival in Powhatan County. I have many fleeces at a local mill and by the festival, we will have yarn in several natural colors, roving and felt.

I am enjoying creating the products. I am trying to be true to myself and create some different things no one else is doing. The exploration is very gratifying. For instance, no one produces felted soap with Angora. It is more difficult to felt with Angora, but I have developed a process that works for me, and I add extras like blending in silk noil, or needle felting some rabbits or sheep onto the soap. I am most proud of my felted purses and jewelry. The first fiber skill I was taught was embroidery when I was six years old. It is fun to use that skill and create one of a kind products like the pendants, coin purses and cuffs. I use my hand dyed roving, along with different forms of silk to create the felt. So these products are not like anything else out there. It is fun developing the process for creating these items.

The other part of all of this is marketing. This is a challenge and one I need to look at this year. My goal is to develop a website along with the blog and Facebook page and continue to work the Etsy system…which isn’t bad once you dig into it. But I need to increase sales to actually make money.

Taking care of animals falls mostly to me, but a chore I love most of the time. Those exceptions might be during very inclement weather, like today. I like developing relationships with each animal. This is actually quite helpful when it comes to catching an escaped animal, or moving them to a different location. Not to mention working on them, like vaccinating, trimming hooves, working and shearing. It goes a long way if they are familiar with you. And mine are, I feel honored about it actually.

And feeding falls into the category of routine. I think there is balance and a feeling of calmness and security when you stick to a routine. When I feed each rabbit, I pet each one and talk to it. They often reach up to receive these little affections and it is good for them if we monitor them closely. If one is familiar with the behavior of your animals, you can catch things early. And it is a part of my day I look forward to…they are my coworkers and they keep me grounded.

Now don’t think all is a Beatrix Potter story, there is much hard work with deadlines. I have to meet the needs of my Farm but also the needs of my wholesale yarn dying business, needs of my family, like laundry, gardening, house cleaning and so on. So another aspect of my fiber path is balance. Last year, I lacked that balance. I felt like when I was working on the farm, I needed to be working on Scarlet Fleece.

And visa versa. Not to mention trying to do things with my family. I also was not taking care of myself, not exercising, or getting enough rest. So last week, I put together a weight lifting, aerobic, yoga routine and added meditation to check in with my spirit guides, along with a daily tarot card reading. This helps me to make decisions that I find difficult sometimes. It is also my idea of prayer. I also walk with my big guardian dog around the perimeter of the pasture and down to the lake to do a little meditation and she is also a good listener.

Finally there is my fiber exploration. I always like to learn about working with different fibers and work on personal projects. And as stated in prior postings, I am exploring the qualities of specific sheep, namely sheep with North European origin. So while working on a traditional Icelandic shawl, I am also spinning Gotland for a sweater and later I will be jumping into my own Shetland.

So this is my state of things now at my little corner of the world. I have much to work on and explore along the Fiber path this year. And maybe, I might find a better me along with a better farm and fiber business at the end of this year.

The Icelandic Shawl

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This is the time of year I can work on some personal projects, and this year I have chosen to focus on a theme or area of study. I have long been interested in gaining some understanding and appreciation of the different qualities of different breeds of sheep. And along with that, the traditions of knitting and weaving that developed along with the breed.

So after reading about Clara Parke’ s trip to Iceland, coupled with my reading about Norse Mythology, I thought I would contact the wool dyer she mentioned in her piece. And as luck would have it, she has an Etsy site. Hespa Yarn is the name of the site if you want to check it out. She dyes Icelandic single ply yarn with natural materials.

I chose a kit of sorts with the three colors pictured. However, I chose a different pattern than one that was provided. Traditional Icelandic shawls are not difficult. In fact they are very simple in their construction. They begin at the neck with a few stitches with eyelet increases in the middle along with plain increases at the beginning and end of rows. The pattern I chose adds some eyelet rows and towards the bottom, a feather and fan stitch. The pattern is in the Folk Shawls Book called Feather and Fan Triangle Shawl. The difference  I am applying is to change colors at random.

I am about a third of the way through and have a couple of observations. The Icelandic yarn is a single ply loosely spun yarn with a rustic feel. At first, was a bit concerned it was a little rough. But I have come  to like it as the fabric is lively and seems to not be that rough at all. And I love the subtle tonal changes in that it is actually a light grey and was dyed over. And for those this matters to…no knots in any of the skeins so far.

As I knit I am using my new yarn bowl that I won at the Fall Fiber Festival last October in Orange, VA. I won a blue ribbon for blended hand spun yarn in the skein and garment competition. Very cool as I have always wanted one.

Next post will be about the progress on my Gotland Fleece. I am starting to spin the yarn. Now off to get some coffee.

Birth of a sweater

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A Gotland fleece from Nova Scotia

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Carding the wool on my Fricke drum carder

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Carded wool ready for spinning.

This year, I am determined to do some research spinning. That is to explore different breeds of sheep and create some lovely knitwear. There is this great book by Sue Blacker called Pure Wool. In there is this lovely study of Gotland wool and this comfy sweater pattern. I yearn for that sweater and I happen to have a Gotland Fleece. I ordered it a year ago to experiment with and the time is now. I had my doubts about it but after looking at it again, I realize I have a real find. When the frosty black locks a tee teases open, they are lovely and so soft. So I am off and running. Stay tuned for progress. And I have several more fleeces in the wings. It will be a fun year!

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