I chose a career change to shepherd in my middle age, and I really haven’t addressed those unique physical challenges. I actually enjoy the physical part of the job and take pride of the fact I can hoist 50 pound feed sacks and hay bales. I took a sheep shearing class and can shear my sheep the traditional New Zealand way and did so until a couple of years ago when my numbers increased to require a professional. But I can shear when the need arises such as illness or before a sale. And I can woman handle a ram or large buck (in the case of goats,) and I can work a day long sheep catching day when we load up the barn with sheep before the shearer arrives. So as we were visited by record cold temps that simply would not leave for about a couple of weeks, I began to feel my age down to my bones.
The super cold air meant one small word, but huge problem: ICE!
We had to come up with a strategy to first keep the water flowing and then deal with keeping the water liquid for the rabbits, sheep, goats and chickens and our few ducks. This added to our…ok my chores and for the length of time I needed to be outside. On some days, the temps did not get out of the teens, some days lower. I would be outside for about 2-3 hours. I pulled into service old coffee cans for the rabbits as their steel tipped waterers froze immediacy and would not work, period. The two sets of coffee cans were changed out daily as one set could be melting while indoors.
Chickens water had to be replace two to three times daily
and the sheep and goats water had to have ice cracked to expose the liquid underneath. But it was cold for so long, solid blocks result and water had to be replaced via buckets as hoses were useless.
The ducks were my comic relief as I would create a puddle under the water hydrant and the ducks bathed, drank and played as their pond froze over. Not only did their pond freeze, but the big farm pond froze too resulting in the wild geese standing on it rather than swimming in it.
Each day, I dressed head to foot in fleece and wool and headed out to solve the days problems. Each day I felt more tired and my joints ached. Some days I just could not get warm and would soak in a hot tub to try and bring my body back to normal. My idle thoughts were wandering to doubts about my career decision. I mean, this is my passion, and I love creating products out of this wonderful wool and I love my relationship with the animals. I did come to one conclusion, I could not have made it through these days without my wool socks. My feet were always warm. And I resolved to soldier on to produce such a useful, natural and beautiful fiber that has not failed us for thousands of years. No synthetic has ever been created that surpasses wool for qualities of warmth, renewability, strength, breathability and so many more. I just need to step up my conditioning to deal with this “global warming thang” and I intend to.
And news alert….on the front burner is a mission to produce a strong stretchy sock yarn using the Shetland Wool. And even Sweet Tree Hill Farm signature socks. So more on this later. Stay tuned!
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.
As I sit here all dirty with lanolin, and crud that sticks to lanolin, I reflect on a crazy busy 2 days. Shearing time demands all hands on deck. My two teenaged son’s would rather be cruising You Tube, but with the daunting task of catching 16 sheep and their 15 lambs, their grudging help is required. Now complaining allowed.
We start by attracting the flock into a corral area with the promise of grain. The easy part. As they much away, we strategize our plan of action. The idea is to get them into one corner of the corral and slowly ease them along the back fence line and into a dead end area where we can block the opening with a section of picket fence. Sheep naturally follow fence lines, as long as they stay in their flock and not spooked. We get most in the first try and work methodically to move them, one by one up to the barn. An arduous task and the barn is not as close as I would like it. Sheep don’t lead well. Note to self….would be nice to have a four wheeler for easier transport.
So doing this, and getting the boys took about four hours. We got bucked, kicked, dragged and yes, the sons did complain. And so did the husband. I of course am not allowed to because all of this sheep business is my idea. But we did it and it is satisfying that this biannual task is once again done.
Today was the shearing. I am blessed with an awesome shearer- in talent and demeanor. Emily and her sweet redheaded daughter came mid day. My friend Hannah and her two redheaded kiddies came too. Quite fun watching little ones with flaming hair running around as the big folks get down to business.
Emily pulls out each sheep and my older son manages the barn door. As Emily briskly starts shearing, I ready the vaccines, Hanna’ s other daughter Morgan, fills out cards with each sheep’s name and readies a bag. After the sheep is sheared, Emily trims hooves. I gather the fleece put it in the waiting bag, I then administer the vaccine. Back in the stall for the sheep and Emily pulls out the next sheep. The process moved along without complications.
When all are sheared, Emily and daughter Lydia head out to the next county for another farm with waiting sheep. But I am not done. Hannah and I get back to the barn and start working on the 15 babies. The lambs will not be sheared for the first time until the Fall. Today the all need vaccines and need to be tagged. My flock is getting large enough, that I can’t keep everyone straight. Since I have a registered flock, it is important that I keep track of parentage. So Hannah stayed on to help me.
We closed ourselves in the stall and got to work. We caught lambs who I knew for sure. While Hannah held the little one, I gave the vaccination in the hip. Then I loaded the tag into the applicator, Morgan recorded the number with the name of the lamb and I pierced the ear between the two main veins and attached the tag. It is a quick process and we did not have anyone even call out or cry. Such brave little lambs.
The last part is to get the flock back to the pasture, not one at a time, but all at once. I gathered some grain, opened the stall, and called “Sheep, sheep!” All at once, they follow me baaing and bleating into the gate. Such a noise. So now they are contentedly grazing. I sit here covered from head to foot in barn dirt. A whirl pool tub is calling my name. I have a closet full of fleeces that will soon head to the mill to become yarn and roving sold at festivals and my Farm store on etsy. Now for that bath.
Ok…this is a boo hoo I think this weather sucks post. As someone who has a bunch of outside chores, and am tired of muddy boots…and who actually likes a challenge, is actually a bit tired of the 4th day in a row of wet weather. This is the thing that separate the can-do folks from the fair weather “farmers”. So I have to remind me that I can take it…I can take my sheep shelter flooded out…I can take cold fingers, wet wool hats, hay that sticks to wet pants and a permanently red nose with chapped lips. I can get my sheep, rabbits, goats and chickens fed. And I can still get dyeing done and wool washed. Just not sure how long stuff will take to dry.
But I will git her done. And I will sip hot tea, and keep an eye to the sky….because the worst is yet to come. We have 5-8 inches of snow coming tonight. And I will be moving goats and rams to the barn before 2pm. Thank you mother nature for your wisdom. You say jump and I will say, “how high?”
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.
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!