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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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The Occupation of Yarn Farmer

As we slide into another Labor Day weekend, I find myself assessing the job I have chosen for myself, and that is growing, harvesting, spinning, coloring wonderful string lovingly called yarn. I feel it is more than a job, it is a lifestyle and a calling. It holds such an attraction, that I am convinced I am meant to do this. Not that it has been easy. Doing meaningful work is rarely effortless, in fact it is beyond challenging. Problems abound, they confront me at every turn. I treat each one as a lesson that I am meant to learn and an opportunity to achieve. The fact that the universe is throwing me road blocks is a test to see if I am worthy and really committed to this work. And I can say I am even though my kids think I am nuts and though he does not say, my husband probably does too. Another sign I am doing what I am meant to do.

Many people tell me that I am living their dream, that if they did not have other responsibilities and financial constraints, they would love to raise fiber animals. I tell them that I am no different in those constraints. The difference is that I am changing a dream into reality. The reality is not soft and fuzzy, but is muddy boots, building and repairing fences, moving stubborn rams, nursing sick and injured animals, mucking barns, hutches, and paddocks, loading 50 pound bags of feed, stacking 50 pound hay bales. But I have learned to doctor my animals, I have built relationships with them. It is a partnership. They grow the fiber on their backs for me, I care for them. We are coworkers. We both take joy in new births and a beautiful sunny day we can spend together. Many love a scratch along their necks and I am happy to extend the favor. I provide large green pastures for them to feast on, and play on. And I get to watch them with satisfaction at the end of a long day.

The sheep, goats and bunnies give me the gift of their fiber. Then I switch hats from shepherd to artisan as I convert the fiber into roving, yarn and products to sell. I have some help from my friend Mary Kearney who owns a mill in Ruckersville. We co-design the roving, yarn and felt. I will hand process some of the Fiber, especially the angora. I blend, dye and spin. I sew, embroider and knit. My dye stained hands with often dirty fingernails are my hallmarks. As I move along on the Fiber path, I take pleasure in learning more and more skills from generous fiber artisans. Most fiber folks are like that, willing to share and I try to do the same.

One of the hardest parts is making it all work into a viable business. I make it a priority to learn that side of things too. There is money management, my greatest weakness…marketing, product design, festivals to get ready for, computer expertise as in software, social networking and so on. In order to continue, I need to attract lovely customers who are excited about the unique qualities of Shetland yarn, expertly hand dyed roving, hand spun yarn, original knitting patterns and recognize the work and value of these products. And I do have wonderful generous customers who I am grateful for beyond measure.

I end this with a picture of one of my days last week. 6am rising, dashing off to deliver a child to school. Checking in with baby chicks and my 11 rabbits to make sure all have water. Sheep and goats had water topped off the evening before. I spin angora yarn while drinking my morning coffee. Next out to check on rabbits. A dear friend is apprenticing with me and is grooming one of the bunnies. Off to the studio to continue an order for dyed yarn, including steaming, rinsing, skeining, labeling and boxing up. Also I am still typesetting a pattern to include in a little knitting kit that will contain the hand spun angora. After lunch, I notice that rams and goats are milling around the barn. How did they get out? I head out to trick as many as possible into the paddock by the barn. The rams are the hardest. I manage to get hands on two and drag them into a stall. Pecan is the hardest. He goes uncaught. But where is Hickory? He is the 4th ram. I head upstairs in the studio, the best vantage point. I see the answer to both mysteries….how these guys got out and where was Hickory. He has tangled himself in the electric fence….again! I head for the house, my boots and my keys. I jump in the van, the fastest way to get to the back pasture. I bump along in the van and push open the door and hit a full run over to the solar box with the battery to turn off the power. Hickory is still and panting from the effort of his struggle. In my head I am wondering why he would let himself get into this trouble again. I sit on his legs so he will not kick and break a leg and so I can methodically untangle the fencing from around his curling horns. I manage to free him and pull him to his feet, grabbing his brown fleece. He can stand. I lead him to the water, soon he is drinking. He will be ok. I put the fence stakes back in place. I call the hubby to say we have a chore to do putting animals back this evening. I go back to the shop and put in three more hours.

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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.

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!

historical textiles

By two textile nerds

North American Sea Glass Association official website

NASGA is a non-profit organization positively supporting sea glass collectors and the sea glass community with festivals, information, educational opportunities, commercial membership and more. The primary goal of NASGA is to establish a community of informed collectors and sellers of sea glass that are educated on the characteristics and significance of genuine sea glass.

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