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.
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.
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!!!
I sit here contemplating this new year and I am looking at my schedule of events, to do’s and so on. I am scheduled to pick up Roz this Saturday. She is our new Anatolian guardian dog for the flock and farm in general. She is a well seasoned five year old and my hope is that she will be ready to provide a much needed service.
Many of you might know that for the last two and a half years, I had been training another Anatolian from a puppy, Nisa. She and I built a solid working relationship, but also a friendship. Nisa loved walking the pastures with me, prancing back to me for a quick lean into my leg and my pats on the head. I treasured these moments with her. And she loved playing fetch and rolling on her back for tummy rubs.
As time went on, however, we found she was too obsessive in her thinking. She would clean lambs to the point of injury. And she would want to control the movements of the flock, regardless of countless corrections I would do. Finally I realized, it was not working out. A sad fact that became very apparent when my husband found her with a ram lamb and one of his horns was chewed off. Sycamore survived, but I had to face that Nisa could not be trusted with the flock. I had to make a tough phone call to the breeder to discuss the situation. Harriet was both counselor and responsible breeder. She was concerned for my flock, the dog and me as I held back tears describing what was going on. I was feeling that somehow I had gone wrong in the training and failed Nisa, not providing her the tools to perform her job. Harriet assured me that was not the case. There was something off with how Nisa’s brain was working. She was somewhat obsessive compulsive. This would be tough to train out of her. And based on how responsive she was with people, a better fit for her might be as a pet instead of a worker.
I did consider keeping her as a pet. That would be the emotional decision, not a business one. I had invested quite a bit of time and money into a guardian and the farm was in desperate need of a guardian. I was speaking to the pig farmer next door and he was telling me of all the coyote sightings recently in our area. And he has suffered piglet losses himself. Any one who has a flock must take seriously the predator threats and partnering with a guardian dog is how I am combating this threat to my investment in my flock, rabbits and chickens. So, Harriet came up with a solution. She took back Nisa a few weeks ago. Driving to Charles City with Nisa’ s head resting on my shoulder was difficult as I blinked away tears so I could focus on the road. She is now being worked with so she can be placed as a pet with a carefully chosen family. And we are getting Roz. She has worked with lambs, chickens and was looking for a guardian gig. The fact she is available is a true blessing. Another blessing is a breeder who takes care of her dogs, even after they are sold.
So Saturday, we meet the newest staff member of Sweet Tree Hill Farm. And I have high hopes she will be a match for our farm. And protect my livestock like a pro. I am in awe of working dogs and I look forward to my new partner.
One of the challenges these days in being a shepherd and creating a business out of a fiber farm is the necessity of using technology in marketing, bookkeeping, bill paying, and networking. Yesterday, I faced the very real cost of data usage and staying connected out here in the sticks, as my kids call it. We have no cable connection, no fiber optics, or anything like that. I have used a little 3G mifi hotspot for my computer and tablet for five years. And my kids have done their YouTube viewing and played their Wii games because the mifi can provide internet service to up to five devices. The beauty of this set up was that it was for unlimited data. And now I am finding the companies are regretting offering this service and are trying to rein it in. The world of technology is changing as data is getting more and more expensive. Even a shepherd needs to be mindful of data usage.
You see, my little mifi was getting painfully slow. I thought my device was failing. I called tech support, but they could not help me, sent me to a repair/retail center. I knew what this meant, they wanted me to get a new device, hence a new a plan….a plan that would require me to pay for data. Yikes!!! As I looked up our last month of data usage and we sucked up 19 gigs! Well, fortunately I found out that it was the battery. I could not get a battery at the retail center anymore however. I went to a cool store called Battery and Bulbs. They stock all these obscure batteries and lightbulbs and bingo! They had my battery. I can still keep my plan of unlimited data for only $60 per month a bit longer!! I learned one more thing. Sprint and Verizon and other companies are throttling the data hogs such as my household. They were slowing our data usage on purpose. That also accounted for the slow downs. So a little talk was necessary with my teenagers in their data usage.
This lesson in technology and how much we use it, even on a farm, brings to mind how thankful I am that I am in a line of work that is not virtual. I still feel the cold and the heat of the world. My hands get dirty, I get hay down my bra when I feed my sheep and goats. I smell the earth as the ground warms in the Spring.
I can walk a pasture and know that no one can collect the data of my foot prints. I build relationships with my animals that does not involve office politics. I get to work with real wool, smell the lanolin, wash it, comb it, spin it, knit and weave it. All real tasks that connects me to the planet and to being human on it. Computers have become a necessity of doing business, even a fiber business. But it does not have to encapsulate us from the real world. I love tech, I am good at it. But I would not feel real if I allowed it to swallow me. I need to use it to market the very real world of fiber and bring it to people so they too can smell the lanolin, the wool, the earth.
As we dive straight into December and busy ourselves getting ready for the coming holiday, it serves me well to take notice of my friends in the pasture. These days are short on sunshine, but when it is out, the animals are too; napping, exploring, nibbling or just hanging out. All seem content, and not the least bit stressed. I for one am looking at the time left and trying to figure how I am going to get all the knitting, embroidery and crafting done to complete the gifts I am planning to make. But these fuzzy critters are not frazzled.
Hickory is enjoying his stay in the “honeymoon suite”. He is assigned to be dad of the spring lambs because of his soft moorit brown fleece and all around good looks and sweet personality. I would really like more brown lambs to have more brown yarn and roving on hand. He is enjoying the company of four ewes, Pansy, Dahlia, Gwyneth, and Motto.
The duck trio are our newest residents. They were rescue ducks from Wildlife Rehabilitation. They usually rescue and doctor injured wild animals. But these three were domestic ducks that were neglected and one was attacked by a dog. All were in sad shape. But they were recovered and needed a forever home. We were chosen because of our ponds. But they actually prefer bathing and swimming in their tub. They take turns jumping in and splash around as only one can fit at one time. I have nicknamed them the bucket ducks. They have settled into their routine. They head back to the barn at night to be go to bed protected in one of the stalls. So they are there by dusk without me having to herd them back. And I am excited to report that Estelle is now laying eggs for the first time.
The bantam chickens are just about full grown now. And I have to say, they are so delightful in how they all get along and play together. I wish I were so care free. I am eagerly waiting eggs, but in the meantime, I am enjoying their antics.
The growing lambs are getting used to their new haircuts. We sheared a couple of weeks ago and I understand that lambs should go through a growth spurt after shearing. They look so sweet as they go about looking for food, take naps in the sun and even spar with each other. I am amused as I see baby ewes butt heads like rams. And they take their sparring seriously. Yet are friends after the battle.
So I am refreshed after visiting and feeding everyone this morning. Now back to speed knitting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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. )
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.
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.
The end of August, beginning of September is a time of readying for Fall Festivals and cold temps. The season has shifted. Summer birds like the Phoebe and the Swallows have left the pond and pastures. No longer do the Barn Swallows swoop over my head in defense of their youngsters. I am beginning to see Monarchs along with the Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies as they gather nectar for their long trip to South America. The bullfrogs are not as vocal along the pond’ s edge. And this year, cooler evenings have come early. So my activities now reflect the season’s transition.
Tomorrow, I will be gathering our five ram lambs into the barn paddock. They are weaned now. I will evaluate whether I will wether. It only makes sense to keep boys in tact if they have some great genetics to share. I know one or two definitely have good sire potential, namely Quince and Lokie. Quince has an excellent head and he is a very light fawn. The best attribute is that he has a very kindly fleece. Tiny crimp with a low micron count. Lokie has strong black genes, sweet temperament and lofty fine fleece. He also has a sturdy body type. These are some of the things I look for. Color and quality of fleece, nice face with good horns, strong large body. They will be in the paddock until our back field fence is completed.
Other decisions to made; which ewes to which rams. I know I will be using Hickory for his moorit fleece. And maybe Pecan for his outstanding body, head and horns. He is a light fawn. I want to choose about five ewes this year.
A project my friend Hannah and I are working on, building additions to five of the bunny hutches so they have interior space for the winter. We have three built. Hannah has great carpentry skills and I am painting and helping with the planning. I am painting them to match the color of my studio barn, only because I have so much of the paint left over. Painting will help them last longer. Moisture from weather and bunny can cause wood to rot. In the past I would place wood panels around the hutches during the colder days. Now all the bunnies will have a place to go to get out of the cold.
There are many fall and craft festivals taking place relatively close by. I have chosen two, the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival at the end of this month, and the Appalachian Harvest Festival at Mountain Lake Lodge, (used to be Smith Mountain Lake where Dirty Dancing was filmed.) I tried to get into the Fall Fiber Festival in Orange, but they have limited space available. Glad their rules are changing for next year so everyone will have a fair shot. Anyway…I am spinning, dyeing, embroidering, sewing, skeining, to get items ready.
Mary at Central Virginia Fiber Mill will have more Hilltop Shetland Yarn ready, including a new sock yarn. And I will have little angora yarn kits ready. A new one will be the French Parasol fingerless glove with beads. I have just finished the new pattern. And of course lots of dyed roving and I just got in a huge lot of Landscapes Dye that I will be bringing to the Shenandoah.
So much happening at Sweet Tree Hill as we look towards Fall. I love Fall. Snuggle weather is on the horizon.
I feel no farm is complete without some chickens. They are so valuable in so many ways. They help keep small bugs at bay, aerate the yard, oxygenate the compost pile and the garden. And most important, they provide lots of entertainment and breakfast too! I am a fan of the bantams…little sized chickens. They don’t dig to China and don’t need as much space.
Well, I was down to six Dutch bantams, five hens and one rooster that did not seem to be able to produce chicks. And these have decided to roost in the high rafters of the barn and not in either of our two coops. It works for them, they have not been taken by predators and I just feed them at the barn. But I wanted some chickens that use the coops, focus on the compost pile and are not flighty. I settled for cochins and a few silkies for decoration. Cochins are round fluffy birds with feathered feet, gentle personalities and aren’t flyers. Silkies are the poodles of the chicken world. Equally gentle but they keep fluffy downy feathers and have top knots. I could not find a source locally, so looked online for a mail order site. I found two companies, one out of Missouri and one out of Wisconsin. I ordered 15 mixed colored batch of cochins from one and 10 cochins and five silkies from another. I must confess that I was a bit nervous having live day old chicks going through the mail, but took the plunge.
I readied my brooder. I had not used it in at least a couple of years. I dug it out of the barn and put it under the pole barn and went to cleaning it out. The less said about the mummified mouse stuck half way through the mesh screen the better. I also cleaned out and around the two coops and will be adding a chicken fence to create a yard shortly. I nice source for a green chicken fence is Premier1. I am so excited to get the chickens going again.
So today they arrived! I received a call from the post office and both orders came at once! Yea! I went out to fill the feeder and both waterers. In one I put a solution of electrolytes. And got in the van to go get our new chicks, nervous, hoping all made it safely. When I got to the post office, a very small rural one, which I love because they know me and treat everyone warmly. Debbie asked if I was here for the chicks. I could hear them from the back, which was a relief, sort of like hearing your baby cry in the delivery room. She said they sound like they really want to get out of their boxes. She scanned their labels and handed me two chirping brown boxes with lots of holes. I looked through the holes…they seemed ok.
So home and took the boxes to the barn, and gently opened box one. All okay! I lift 15 tiny chicks into the brooder. And tiny they are, as bantams are miniature. Then box two. Yes! All alive! I lift them into the brooder too. With coffee in hand I settle back to watch everyone get used to their new digs. Several find the water quickly. Some sample the feed. Some huddle together looking a bit shell shocked. Then some start racing in circles, little laps around the feeder. Then I hear this loud chirp, over the chirps of the rest, from a different area. One of the boxes! One chick was pressed into the corner of the second box. Poor baby. I retrieved it and reunited him/her with his buddies.
And this brings up another point. I am not sure of how many hens or roosters I have. It is expensive to have the farm sex the chicks, and it is never 100% a sure thing. I do want a few roosters, but mostly hens. We will have to wait and see.
After enjoying my coffee, taking a few pics and a video, I come inside to blog and then get back to fiber work.
I’ll update more soon. I will enjoy the the bliss of having chicks on the farm again. All is right with the world. God hit home run when He came up with the chick.