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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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!