Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Leaving the sheep

Whenever we leave the sheep alone, it is with a certain amount of trepidation. Bad things can happen. In 25 years of raising sheep, we’ve had dogs get into the barnyard and chase the sheep; we’ve had lambs try to jump feeders and tangle their legs and break them; we’ve had old ewes lie down and not be able to get back up to their feet. But these things rarely happen.

During most of the year we can leave the sheep for a weekend and feel pretty confident that as long as we’ve left them food and water, they’ll be fine. In the summer, we need to estimate how fast they will eat all the grass in a pasture so we will leave them in a big enough field, and we need to make sure that their waterer is working well. Lack of water can kill a sheep rapidly in the heat of summer.

In the winter, we have snow as backup if the waterer freezes, so we only have to make sure that the sheep have access to enough food. During October, November and December, we gradually increase their feed from four bales of hay a day to five, six, and finally seven. The nice thing about feeding hay is that we can set out enough bales for more than one day and the sheep will get to it, even if they have to dig through 8” of snow like they did this week.

By the first week in January, the pregnant ewes need more calories than they can get eating hay, so we supplement their feed with corn. The corn has to be fed daily or they’ll overeat and make themselves sick. So, beginning in January and continuing until the pastures are green in May, we can’t leave the farm unless we have someone to feed the sheep daily.

This week, at the cold end of 2009, we can set out 22 bales of hay and then slip away for three days with almost clear consciences. The sheep are young and healthy; they have enough food and water; and with Kalie the alpaca to guard them, they can take care of themselves.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Warm and cold are relative

When the cold really hit this month, I was ready. I put on my silk long underwear (black because if you have to wear long underwear you should at least attempt to be sexy or feminine under there.) I shifted from my short winter jacket to my long down coat, I replaced wool gloves with thick wool mittens, cotton socks with hand-knit wool socks, and I put on a hat.

That first cold was very cold - 12˚ below zero. The sheep had frost on their muzzles, the trees had frost on their branches, and ice crystals filled the air. Sun dog rainbows circled the sun.

Our dog, Carly, isn’t a sun dog. She is a wood stove dog. As the days get colder, she gets closer to the wood stove, soaking up the heat. We all spend more time in the living room, gathered around the stove. Our bedroom, upstairs, is cold, but a down comforter keeps us warm and snuggly – only our noses get cold, and fortunately, both Dave and I like sleeping with cold noses. On the other hand, I can’t snuggle beneath a comforter in my study, so I wear a fleece vest, fleece jacket and pants, fingerless wool gloves, and that black long underwear to work.

And then it warmed up. Overnight, the temperature rose above zero and I took off my mittens and down coat to go for a run. Warm and cold are relative. Once we’ve had the subzero cold to begin a winter, the average days seem really quite nice. When the temperature gets up into the twenties where it has been recently, I run with only a couple of layers and my windbreaker is usually unzipped. Just a little more snow and we’ll be able to ski across our fields and into the state land, the water fowl production area behind our house and we won’t even notice the cold.

When the weather first turns cold, I think how lovely it would be to visit Arizona or Texas, common destinations of snowbirds from around here. But then my body adjusts to winter and I feel invigorated every time I walk out the door. And if I don’t walk out the door as often as I do at other times during the year, well that’s part of winter too, a time to settle in, write, skirt fleeces, dye wool, card wool and knit. With the outdoor chores done, winter is a time for us to relax a little, to rest up for lambing, just two months ahead. And lambing, why that’s the first sign of spring. So, on the first day of winter, I can see the first day of spring.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Two worlds

thin line of deer tracks
two by two by two
across snow swept fields

deer in the headlights
cross the road to new fields
caught between two worlds

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Small apples hanging

small apples hanging
from gnarled, skeletal branches
red against the snow.

Monday, December 7, 2009


We’ve had a lot of gray days this fall. They’re hard emotionally, but elegant coat of frost on everything in the morning somehow makes up for the grayness. The prairie grasses are limned with white. The barbs on the barbed wire fences end in tiny ice crystals. Even the sheep’s coats have a glaze of frost.

And now we have snow. I love snow on the ground. The fresh white surface hides the yellowed grass of the lawn, the garbage left by careless passers by, the half done projects, the manure in the barnyard.

The new snow reveals as much as it hides. Today I saw mouse tracks cross the driveway, a small, sinuous trail of footprints. A hotdog bun at the edge of the road had attracted a bird of some kind. The snow was disturbed, but no trail of tell tale prints led to or from the feast. Two deer had also passed along the road, their hoof prints clean and sharp in the fresh snow. Sheep prints are harder to isolate. There are many more sheep in our home pasture than there are deer in our woods, so their tracks cross and re-cross each other until the snow is churned into the dirt. But every once in awhile, a sheep ventures out on her own, wanders over to the fence line, climbs a manure pile, and leaves behind a record of her adventure.

I love to find sheep tracks. The small crisp lines are simple and beautiful. It amazes me that humans need big, broad, soft feet to support our bodies and keep us moving while my ewes make do with sharp edged hooves, even the largest of which is still smaller than one fourth of one of my feet. And yet, my sheep walk and run and jump with no problem at all. They eat standing up; they drink standing up. They only lay down to doze and sleep. No wonder there are so many tracks in the pasture.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Today I finished weaving the seventh of two blankets. I cheered! I have been proofing a pattern which will appear in my next book and it has taken me seven tries to get the patterns for the two blankets correct.

I am an indifferent weaver. I know how to weave. I have woven several sets of placemats, fabric for a shirt, half a dozen pillow covers and several tapestries, but I don’t weave easily. The lace pattern in my From Sheep to Shawl book (due to be out this winter – keep your eyes open) has tried my patience and my brain.

The solutions to the problems I ran into were varied. First, I had to accommodate for the way I warp the loom. Because I’m short, when I warp, I lay the warp threads in from the front of the loom to the back, the opposite of what my two weaving reference books and most other weavers suggest. When I warped the loom my way, the treadling diagram made no sense, and the weft made no pattern in the woven fabric. I had to reverse the treadling diagram to begin to see the pattern I knew should be there.

The second problem was in my weaving technique. I have most recently been weaving weft faced fabrics. That means that I beat the weft threads tightly against each other so that none of the warp threads show. When I used the beater in my typical heavy handed way on the lace pattern I was trying to weave, the pattern that appeared in my fabric was only about one third the height of the sample pattern. I had to learn to be much more gentle as I wove.

The third problem was easily solved on my fifth sample weaving when I read the pattern carefully and realized that I wasn’t following the repeats written into the pattern.

The fourth problem was a misprint in the pattern I was proofing. By now, three months into an in depth analysis of the two sample pieces of woven fabric that I was trying to copy, of the written pattern with an accompanying graphed pattern draft, and of my attempted copies, I realized that there was a misprint in the pattern draft. When I corrected the misprint, the pattern appeared in my weaving, plain as day.

I listened to a lot of books on tape as I wove. I learned or relearned a lot about weaving as I worked. And I was forced to really stretch my brain, a painful, but ultimately exhilarating process.