Monday, November 24, 2014

Creating a yarn

When we bought our first four sheep 30 years ago, I imagined that I would spin all their fleeces, knit all that yarn into sweaters and clothe my family. Caring for the sheep took up some of my spinning time and caring for my children replaced more.

I can knit anywhere - chatting with friends, riding in the car, watching television or, if it's a simple pattern, while reading. I can only spin while talking or watching TV. I soon realized that I couldn't spin fast enough to keep up with my knitting. As our flock grew from 4 ewes to 35 ewes, I also realized that I couldn't spin all their fleeces.

Now I sell fleeces to other spinners, have fleeces carded into roving and batts for spinners or felters, and have some fleeces spun into yarn. For years, I used the left over fleeces from the year before, combined them and sent them off for yarn. Our flock has about the same number of white, light  and dark fleeces every year, so our yarns come out about the same shades of light browny gray and dark browny gray each time.

I love having a supply of natural colored yarns in the house. If I need a skein of teal blue yarn, I pull out a big, black, dye pot, fill it with water , add a capful of dye powder and a skein of white yarn. Half an hour later, I have a skein of teal yarn. Unfortunately, the really beautiful, interesting yarns often contain more than one color. Sometimes the yarn is spun with bits of colored wool to produce a fiber with lots of short spaces of color. Other times, the yarn is actually made up of several strands of different colored yarns.

Last year, I asked Chris Armbrust from Dakota Fiber Mill to spin a three ply sock yarn for me. One third of the wool was a natural gray brown fleece. One third was a combination of 10% mohair and 90% wool, naturally dyed a warm brown color with walnut hulls, and the final third was dyed teal. Chris spun each color separately and then plied the three yarns together.

The yarn is soft (thanks to my Ramboulet sheep), strong, (thanks to the mohair and the three plies) and elastic (thanks to the amount of twist Chris spun into the yarn.) I'll be able to knit socks for everyone I know as well as sell a very beautiful sock yarn in my online shop and at Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids, thus solving two problems- having yarn with which to knit and decreasing the number of fleeces in my wool shed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Friendly blue dots

We manhandle the sheep several times a year. It can be an exhausting job.  Over the years we have modified our technique many times. 

We began thirty years ago by penning the sheep and then grabbing each one by the hind leg, and then being dragged around the barn by the sheep until we subdued it or it escaped. Next one of us would lie on the sheep to control it while the other gave a shot or trimmed hooves or tried on a coat.

Our friend Glen used a shepherd’s crook to pull the sheep in to himself. Glen is a very gentle, calm man and his sheep never seemed to run around the barn dragging him. 

When Dave worked full time away from home, I asked clueless volunteers for help (following the Tom Sawyer method). I don’t have the strength or the sports training to grab a sheep by the hind leg and wrestle it to the ground. So I developed another control technique. Several summers ago, Hillis, our summer worker, and I became very good at rushing a sheep together from the side and pinning her (the ewe, not Hillis) against the barn wall or pen fence. One of us held the ewe in place while the other gave the shot. By evening, Hillis and I were on our knees, but we had successfully vaccinated half the flock.

When we were young and not so clever, we kept track of which animals had been vaccinated by lifting them over the fence when we were done, separating them physically from the unvaccinated animals. Being older and more experienced, we now mark the forehead of each vaccinated ewe with a squirt of stock paint – no lifting involved. 

This year, Dave and I were not rushed for time when we vaccinated and coated the ewes. We penned the sheep, then Dave walked casually up to a ewe standing next to the fence and pressed her body against the fence. He held her in place with his weight and his grip on the fence wires. I vaccinated her and then slid a sheep coat over her head.  The sheep was still calm enough that I could hold her head still as Dave released her and then maneuvered her hind legs through the straps on her coat. I talked to most of the ewes as Dave worked, thanked them for their cooperation, told them that lambing would come soon.  

The entire day felt different. Dave and I never lost our tempers. Even the skitzy lambs that had never been coated before didn’t ruffle the calm much. Our new technique worked well, but I really think that it was the friendly blue dots on the forehead of every animal that colored the whole experience.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dressing the sheep

When we were kids, my brother, sister and I dressed our German Shepherd, Haidi, in my brother’s underpants and t-shirt. We thought it was hilarious. Haidi endured.

Now, Dave and I dress our sheep in polyester coats.  We do it to keep their fleeces clean during the winter when they eat hay. My youngest grandson’s bib keeps his front clean. The sheep coats keep sheep backs clean. When sheep eat they chew with their mouths open and hang their heads over their neighbors backs. Fragments of hay dribble out of their mouths and settle in their neighbors fleeces. Thus the need for coats. 

A fleece with veggie bits in it is lousy for spinning and for felting. Big woolen mills treat their fleeces with acid to destroy the veggies. That acid also changes the wool fibers. Dave and I use coats instead of acid to produce clean wool. 

Coating sheep is not easy. The sheep don’t help at all. They don’t remember what size they wear from year to year (Dave and I don’t seem to remember either). They don’t like to put their heads in the neck hole and they fight us when we put their hind legs through the leg holes. As often as not, we look at a sheep after she’s coated and decide that the coat is too big or too small. We undress her and begin again. We’ve never had a sheep learn to dress herself, so Dave and I keep at it year after year.

Haidi, our German Shepherd, was embarrassed to be wearing clothes. The sheep don’t show embarrassment. Once they realize that they can’t rub their coats off on the barn door or a gate, they relax and, hopefully, enjoy their new windbreakers.