Monday, February 28, 2011


Saturday afternoon I stepped into the barn to find three ewes clustered around two little black babies. One of the ewes I recognized from past lambings as the “spotted black baby thief.” She had been interested in every baby born for many years, and had never had a lamb herself. Although she was the only black ewe there, she probably wasn’t the mother. Of the remaining two, number 56 had an amniotic sack trailing down her legs. The other ewe had a clean, dry vulva. When I picked up the babies and started moving them down the barn toward a jug, only Prima, number 56, followed me.

I dried the lambs and turned on the heat lamp. Then I ran back to the house to find a bottle of iodine for their umbilical cords, and Dave. New lambs just need to be shared.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Dave went off for his last work stretch before lambing and the next morning I went out to feed the sheep. The prolapse was back!

‘I’m sure I’ve handled one of these by myself,’ I thought. ‘Dave did two weeks ago. I don’t have to call the vet just because Dave isn’t home.’ I set the hog panels up in the barn to funnel the sheep into one end and then herded the flock around the barn and in the door. They moved beautifully. Then I closed a gate on them and tried to decide what to do next. The prolapse was dark red and huge; it had been out for awhile. I was going to have to catch the ewe, take her down on her side, sit on her, wash her vagina and the push it back inside before tightening the twines that were supposed to be keeping the prolapse in.

I went to the house for a bucket of warm antiseptic water. But as I was filling the bucket I realized that the chances of me catching the ewe and taking her down anywhere near the bucket were slim and the chances of having the bucket remain upright and full of clean water during the process were infinitesimal. I poured some of the hot water into Dave’s coffee thermos and stuffed it inside my coveralls. I was actually able to walk up to my sheep, but as I grabbed her harness, she darted away, dragging me behind her. My chest was pressed up against her hind end and I cringed at the thought of the damage I could be doing to her exposed vagina. Finally, she darted into a corner, I grabbed at the hog panel netting with my free hand, and we stopped moving forward. I moved carefully until I was sitting astride her body, facing back. I pulled the thermos out of my coverall, popped open the top and began pouring water over the exposed tissue. I brushed it gently with my hand, but didn’t feel straw or manure or anything nasty sticking to it. I slipped my engagement ring with its solitaire aquamarine off my finger and onto my silver bracelet and zipped them both in a pocket. I have learned from experience that those items don’t belong in sheep’s vaginas or uterus’.

I spread my left hand across the prolapsed tissue and pushed slowly. I could get about half the grapefruit sized mass back in, but from my position near her waist, there was no way I would have the leverage to do any better. Suddenly, I felt relieved. I was perfectly justified in calling the vet even if it would be an expensive visit that I probably wouldn’t have had to request if I had help. This was more than a job for me, alone.

Several hours later when Dr Weckwerth completed his clinic visits, he drove into the barnyard. he filled a bucket of lukewarm water and antiseptic – didn’t need a thermos with two of us working, grabbed his bag and a calf halter and we approached the flock. She let me walk right up to her and grab the twine. Then Doctor Weckwerth slid the harness over her head and she dragged us to a spot in a corner against the wall. I held her head and told Dr. Weckwerth the whole story beginning several weeks ago and including all my worries about cause and effect of prolapses this early before lambing – she was at the very least a week away still.. While I talked, he slid a slender needle into the the space between two vertebrae just above her tail and injected lidocaine, an epidural so that her body wouldn’t fight against the return of her vagina to the proper place. I can’t image sliding a needle into the backbone of a standing sheep and not only finding the correct spot, but injecting enough of the drug before she jrerked the needle out of place. It was a masterful job.

Soon, he slid her vagina in easily and he tucked her cervix back where it should be. As soon as he removed his hand, she prolapsed again. “Have you had any luck with prolapse retainers?” I asked. He shook his head. “Anecdotally, nobody seems to think they work.”

He pushed the prolapse back in again. “We could sew her vagina shut,” he suggested.

I hadn’t hear good stories about that. “I’ve read that the stitches tend to tear out,” I said, a chill running up my spine at the thought.

“There is that,” He agreed. “We could use a purse string suture.” Dr Weckwerth described how the stitches would encircle her vulva, closing the opening radially, leaving no places for the tissue to rip under pressure.

“I have no experience with this,” I said. “The twine harness has always worked for us in the past, but it isn’t working at all this time. We’ll go with whatever you think is best.” He threaded a huge needle with quarter inch wide umbilical tape and carefully sewed the opening to her vagina closed, leaving only a thumb sized opening. “You’ll have to cut the suture when she is ready to lamb,” he explained. “Hopefully, one leg and the lamb’s head will engage and slide right through the vagina. The down side would be if the leg and head push the vagina in front of them.”

That would be very bad. If a foot and head came out first, we could snip the tape when we felt the foot at her vaginal opening. Otherwise we’d have to have the vet out again to do a caesarian section. “Why do you think she prolapsed?” I asked as he packed away his supplies.

“In cattle it has a genetic component,” he said. That meant that I would not be keeping this ewe as part of my breeding flock. I’d been feeling bad that she had lost her number and as a vanilla white ewe with no distinguishing characteristics beside the prolapse, I had no idea who she was. But it would be easier to send a sheep with no name to the butcher to be made into sausage than one of my special friend, And working with a sheep over a number of weeks frequently makes them friends – so does naming them..

As we walked back to his truck, I felt that sense I always have during lambing of something about to happen. Even with a ewe who was probably going to require a caesarean, most likely in the middle of the night (because that’s when they happen inevitably), that feeling was positive, calm, expectant. Perhaps that’s why pregnant women are said to be expecting.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


The midwinter weeks leading up to lambing are usually pretty relaxed. We feed the sheep. They eat and gestate. We go snowshoeing, skirt fleeces, catch up on projects, and enjoy the calm before the storm. They eat and gestate.

It was an unpleasant feeling to watch a ewe rush past with a pink grapefruit sized mass of tissue protruding from her vagina. Actually, it was her vagina, prolapsed. It isn’t a common condition, but old sheep, fat sheep, and sheep with lots of fetuses are all susceptible to prolapse. Old sheep have weak muscles around their pelvic floor. Fat sheep are carrying extra weight and that puts more pressure on the pelvic floor. And sheep with multiple lambs also have more internal pressure. As their pregnancy progresses and their fetuses grow, there is less and less room. For some ewes, the only space available is where there vagina should be. At a certain point, the vagina just pops right out of the body.

As horrendous as that sounds, a vaginal prolapse is usually repairable. All the shepherd has to do is to push the vagina back inside where it belongs and then prevent the ewe from pushing it back out again. If the prolapse is new, it just needs gentle pressure to return it to the proper place. But if the vagina has been out for awhile, it may need to be cleaned. If it has been out so long that it has swollen, it will need to be shrunk. The longer the prolapse continues the harder it is to fix.

Once the prolapse is back in place, we have to find a way to keep it there. The best technique we’ve found involves four pieces of baling twine and some fancy knot work. First, we restrain the ewe, to keep her from wandering off. Then we tie the baling twine pieces together, center them on her shoulders at the back of her neck, cross them across her breastbone, run the two ends under her armpits, cross them again over her back, run the ends under her hind leg pits, along side her tail, and along her spine to tie tightly to the original twine across her shoulders. The twine needs to be tight enough to keep her back slightly arched so that she can’t use her abdominal muscles to push. Then we tie short pieces of twine above and below her vaginal opening to keep the prolapse in place.

Amazingly, ewes with prolapses generally lamb just fine, producing healthy babies. The ewe who prolapsed last week is young, slender, and probably only has a single fetus. Why does she have a prolapse? And why three weeks before she could possibly lamb?

When he found her, Dave reinserted her vagina and trussed her up with twine. When we sheared, we removed the twine and she immediately prolapsed again. We replaced the prolapse and trussed her up again. Four days later, she prolapsed through her harness. We reinserted the prolapse and tightened the twine pieces. She seems to be doing well, but in a small back corner of my mind that looks after troublesome problems that I really can’t do anything about, the questions remain – why is she does she have a prolapse and why now?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spinning a new tale

There once was a young goatherd named Galya who lived with her six goats on the steppes of the Ural Mountains in Russia where the air was so thin and the winters so long that Galya had a hard time finding enough food to feed her goats, not to mention enough food for her family. Galya’s goats produced the only income for that family. Every April, the goats each had a baby that Galya nurtured and protected from wolves and eagles until they were old enough to sell for meat. Also, in April, Galya combed her goats and collected the ultrafine down under fiber that kept her goats warm in the deep winter. Then she spun that goat fiber into the finest yarn imaginable and knit it into huge shawls with patterns as intricate as a spider’s web. It took an entire month for her to spin two ounces of goat down and knit it into a shawl. After each shawl was finished, Galya pulled it through her mother’s wedding ring to test it for fineness.

By the end of the year, after she had finished six shawls, she traveled to Ekaterinburg to sell her work. There she met Jim, a handsome and rich American who was preparing to take a sled dog trip along a river valley. “Privyet,” he said, surprising her with his Russian even though his accent was terrible. “Kak dyela?”

Now Galya had been raised in the mountains, but she had gone to school and had learned three languages, Russian, French and English. “I’m fine,” she said. “Welcome to Ekaterinburg. Would you like to buy a shawl?”

Not very many young American men appreciate finely spun and knit shawls, and this young man was no different. But he was interested in people so he followed Galya through the town as she moved from shop to shop trying to find the best price for her work. All the shop owners shook their heads when Galya spread out her work. “It is very beautiful,” they said, but the buyers were here last month. I have no need of your shawls now. Come back next fall.”

“Why did they come so early?” asked Galya.

“In America,” Jim told her, “they start putting out Christmas decorations in October. The biggest buying day of the year is in late November. No one waits until December to buy precious gifts anymore.”

“I can’t wait until next October to sell my shawls,” Galya said. “I need the money for my family now. We will not get through the winter very well without flour and sugar, raisins and almonds."

Jim reached into his pocket. “What you need,” he said, “is a cell phone. With a cell phone, you can look on the internet and find the best price for shawls. You can lock in that price and ship the shawls. You can even take photographs.” He spread one of Galya’s shawls across her shoulders and demonstrated, “and your shawls will sell for even more, because they really are quite beautiful.” Jim typed away at his phone and in a few minutes looked up at Galya. “How much do you want to sell your shawls for? What is the most money you can imagine?”

Galya thought for a moment and then spoke. Jim typed. “Okay,” he said, a big grin on his face. “I sold five. I’ll trade you the last one for my cell phone and help you figure out how to get more minutes and keep it charged. But first we need to get you an Etsy account so you can do this on your own next year.”

When Galya returned to the steppes, she took fine silk thread to ply with her goat down yarns, she took Jim’s cell phone and a charger, as well as the numbers to her bank account in Ekaterinburg, where the money for five shawls had been deposited. Already, she had plans in her head to talk to the other goatherds. It was a whole new world out there and with her cell phone she could sell them minutes and they could all be a part of it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Spinning old tales

The old folk tales do not do well by spinners. I mean, there’s Sleeping Beauty, who first time she encounters a spinning wheel manages to prick her finger on the spindle (which has a point about the size of a Magic Marker tip) and falls asleep for one hundred years. I know, I know, it was a magic spindle or a poisoned spindle, but the story still doesn’t leave one with a good feeling about spinning wheels.
And then there is Rumpelstiltskin, a spinner who was a disgrace to the profession. So what if he could spin straw into gold, silk makes a much more beautiful yarn, and it’s hard to spin. Spinning straw into silk would be a much more useful skill. But then he turns out to be a real creepy person. Of course the miller’s daughter makes some really bad life choices, and her father lies, but you come away from that story remembering spinning as a really bad deal.
And finally there is the tale of the three ugly spinsters, one with an elongated lip from licking the yarn ends, one with an elongated thumb from spreading the fibers and one with an elongated foot from treadling. Now even if their respective deformities were genetic rather than workplace related, you are once again left with the idea that spinning is a bad deal.
The only half way decent image of spinners comes from Greek or Cretan mythology, the story of the Fates, women who walked the country lanes at night, spinning the moon out of the sky on their drop spindles, making the night safe for the little nocturnal animals, and then gradually washing the moon back up into the sky as they washed their wool in a pond (story courtesy of The Moon Spinners by Mary Stewart.)
I think it is time for some new spinning tales. I want a spinner saves the day story. Homespun wool yarn can be incredibly strong and unbelievably fine – spinners compete to spin a thread fine enough to knit or crochet into a 5 to 6 foot diameter shawl that is so fine it can be passed through a wedding ring. Now that is something to tell stories about.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Designing a yarn

As a hand spinner, I design yarns every time I sit down at my spinning wheel. First decision is what fiber will I spin – wool, mohair, alpaca, angora, linen, cotton, dog or synthetic? Next I determine how many plies my yarn will have – how many individual strands of yarn will be twisted together to make the final yarn. Then I need to decide how thick each ply will be. Finally, I ask myself how much twist my yarn will have, meaning how many times will I push the treadle on my wheel per foot of yarn spun. Will it be only slightly twisted or very, very twisted?
When I spun my first skein of yarn, I didn’t think beyond the question of color. The yarn I spun showed my lack of planning, but also my lack of experience. It was a lumpy, uneven skein of variegated gray yarn that was so over twisted that it looped over and over itself. The mittens I knit from that yarn were more chain mail than mitten.
My spinning has improved with practice. I now spin fat yarns and thin yarns, highly twisted and under twisted yarns, single ply and two ply yarns. I love to vary the fiber used in a yarn. One ply of wool and one of mohair dyes beautifully because the two fibers absorb the dyes differently. One ply of wool and one of angora or one of alpaca makes a wonderfully soft yarn that still has the strength and elasticity of wool.
I love to spin, but I am not a fast spinner; I probably only produce an ounce an hour. That means that a handspun, hand knit sweater takes me a long time. Spinning all fifty of our fleeces every year would be impossible. I don’t expect to spin 50 fleeces. During shearing, I pick out my favorite fleece and spin that one. The rest of those beautiful fleeces are washed and carded into roving or washed, carded and spun into yarn at commercial woolen mills. I have to design that yarn before I send the wool to the mill. Will it be all wool or a blend of different fibers? The mills require 100 pounds of unwashed fiber to spin a batch of yarn. So I have to combine between 20 and 30 fleeces. I don’t have that many sheep with the same color fleece. The heathered color of my yarns depends on how many light gray fleeces, or dark gray fleeces or brown or white fleeces I include in a batch. I have stockpiled all the brown fleeces from 2009 and 2010. After we shear in February, I’ll have enough brown wool set aside to create a soft brown yarn with one light brown ply and one dark brown ply. I can see the yarn in my head and I know when three big boxes appear on my doorstep that the subtle light to dark twists of the yarn inside those boxes will be even more beautiful than I can imagine.