Shearing Day

Shearing Day
I love shearing day. It’s like harvest time but I don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting! My Shetlands are prodigious fleece growers, and since winters are short and relatively mild here, I’ve been shearing everyone twice a year. Timing is always tricky for fall shearing. In a perfect shepherding world, the sheep would have a full coat when it’s just cool enough to kill off the flies and ticks, but not really cold for another week or two. It would rain two days before the shearing, followed by 2 dry days, so that the sheep are washed but dry for the shearer. And of course, all those factors would coordinate with your schedule and the shearer’s. It would certainly be nice if everything fell into place so neatly, but let’s be honest. Sometimes, shearing just happens when shearing happens.

Finding a shearer is not unlike finding the right stylist to cut your own hair, I suppose. You look for someone who shares your approach of gentle handling, doesn’t cost too much, and is quick and efficient. I’m on my 3rd shearer (the first was very experienced but a little brusque, and the second was wonderful but recently quit the profession). This one was the shearing demonstrator at the Garden State Sheep & Fiber Festival, and although I didn’t see him in action, people said nice things about him. He charged $22/sheep, which is on the high side, but he didn’t charge a separate travel fee.

Well before the shearer arrives, I put all the sheep in the small enclosure. I grew up reading those James Herriot books, and if nothing else, I learned to always wrangle my sheep before the shearer/vet/buyer comes. It’s not just good manners--it’s more that I really don’t want to put on a show chasing after my sheep in front of an audience! And as always when I’m expecting someone who’s been around other sheep, I set up my boot-washing station: scrub brush, bleach spray, and the hose next to a chair. Where he’ll be shearing, I hook up the extension cord and gather the dewormer, tarp, broom, and plastic bags.
The shearer arrived with a crew: his younger sister and her friend. Both girls were active in the local 4H sheep club, and were interested in learning how to shear. Being relatively new to the farm life myself, it always surprises me when children are conversant in topics such as split nipples or deworming schedules; it’s like visiting a foreign country and hearing kids chat away in a language that took me 8 years to learn.

I warned the shearer that my sheep, on top of being fiesty Shetlands, were *spoiled* feisty Shetlands, and not shy about expressing their strong opinions. I explained that while I would like to have a cleanly sheared fleece with minimal second cuts, my first priority was for him to not cut my sheep. I never want cuts on my sheep, but particularly now when there are still lots of flies. I would much rather deal with second cuts than open wounds that are just invitations for flystrike.

We nabbed Roobie first purely because she is the worst. She’s the wiliest, and not the sheep you want to do last when you’re tired and the blades are dull. She struggled and flopped around like the drama queen that she is, but to the shearer’s credit, he never lost patience with her, and even gave her time to settle down. It was a very tense wrestling match, and there were moments when I wondered if opposable thumbs and an electric razor were truly a match for four sharp hooves and one rock-hard sheep skull. Eventually she was sheared, had her hooves trimmed, and got her squirt of dewormer.
After each sheep was sheared, I let her into the lower field, which they haven’t been in since the spring. They still squabble horribly after they’ve been sheared, because each one is convinced that all her old friends have been replaced by totally new sheep. Being in a new field is a little bit of a distraction, and since the lower field is overgrown with scrubby brush, it’s harder for them to do their head-butting. They resume their cordial relations in a day or two, but it’s always hard to watch.

I’ll be the first to admit (and I’m sure the mill will readily second) that I am not the most meticulous skirter. My fleeces tend to be in shreds, instead of a neatly rolled package, because my sheep flail about during shearing. My fleeces are sorted by color, so each color run will have parts of different fleeces. What I do skirt is the poopy bits, short bits, second cuts, and obvious veggie matter. When I have the fleece on the skirting table, I pull off a manageable chunk, shake off some second cuts and hay bits, and lay it down cut-end up. This lets more hay bits fall through the skirting table and I can remove the second cuts. Then I flip it over, and remove the burrs and stalks of hay from the tips. Judging by the quality of yarn the mill spins with my fleeces, I’d say that my method is reasonably effective.
Middle Brook Fiberworks Shetland fleece
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Thinking of Raising Sheep...?

Thinking of Raising Sheep...?

Lots of people tell me it's their dream to have sheep one day. And the funny thing is, it was never something I hoped to do, until I was doing it. I’ve never been a real animal person; I love animals in a universal, do-no-harm kind of way, but in general, I've always preferred plants and babies to critters. I find caring for animals to be stressful because I’m never quite sure if they’re trying to tell me something important. Is it distress? Or simply gas? Or are they expressing affection?* And I was sure that my wimpy low tolerance for gore and muck disqualified me from farm life.

So how did I get into raising sheep? It was a neighbor, who keeps sheep for training her border collies, who made me think it would be possible for me. She confessed that putting in ear tags gave her the willies, and that she was terrified of mice. Well. I guess not all farmers have to be tough and imperturbable. But there was still the question of making such a big commitment. Sheep live for up to 12 years, and they need care, if not every day, most days. Also, I’m not a morning person, and so averse to early mornings that it was a serious argument for me to not have sheep. But my husband is a chirpy early bird, and the real animal lover in the family, so he agreed to take on the morning chores. With him willing do the morning chores, and even the evening chores when I wasn’t home, I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t get sheep. 

I started researching by reading sheep books. I read and researched and read (and researched) until the new sources started repeating the old sources. I sought out other people who raise sheep, to get a first-hand account of the responsibilities and commitment involved. And this was tricky, because it’s hard to unearth sheep raisers. My local sheep breeders organization, the Garden State Sheep Breeders, was a terrific resource for finding some sheep people, but I knew there were a lot of people with sheep in my area who weren’t in any directory. It was low-tech, but I just asked everyone I knew if they knew people with sheep. I wanted to find people in my immediate area because I wanted to ask about vets, the soil, zoning requirements, and where to buy hay.

Everyone I talked to taught me something new, and everyone had their own opinion on just about every topic. Ask 2 sheep raisers a question, and you’ll get 5 different answers (and learn 3 new ways for sheep to die). Daily routines varied wildly from person to person. One person told me that all he did for his sheep was give them hay and water every other day, and that he spent more time and energy caring for his chickens than his sheep. But that same person also told me that he scooped all the sheep poop every day from his 2-acre field, so I can’t imagine what he did for his chickens. Someone else I know washes her sheep weekly, and blow dries them. It was a broad enough spectrum that I felt like I should be able to carve out a workable model for me and my sheep somewhere within that range.

Every breed has a national association, and their website lists registered breeders by state. Starting with Deb Robson’s The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, I made a short list of breeds I was interested in, and then looked for breeders in my area. Visiting with breed-specific sheep raisers was the most informative (and fun) part of research. Sure, sheep are sheep, but the three breeds I looked at: CVM, Babydoll Southdown, and Shetland, were distinct in their temperaments and care requirements. Many issues are specific to certain breeds, and in an emergency, I wanted to be able to call the breeder, not hunt for information online. The breeders I met with had knowledge that couldn’t be found in a book or a website, and they were familiar with their lines (i.e., each of their sheep’s lineage).

CVM sheep shopping at Marushka Farms, Danville, PA

Visiting the sheep--especially at lambing time--is a joy, but poking around someone’s barn setup was just as fun. As someone who's always been ambivalent about houses, I was surprised to find myself fascinated by barn and gate setups. Some folks are handy with tools, and those were the farms where I really paid attention. I took pictures of particularly creative uses for cattle panels, baling twine, PVC pipes, and even repurposed furniture. There’s no real standard practice when it comes to housing a small flock of sheep. It seems to me that that small-scale sheep raising exists in a grey area, somewhere between commercial sheep ranching and keeping chickens in a backyard. Each person did things their way, and this was heartening, because if there’s one thing I can do, it’s do things my way.

Babydoll Southdown sheep shopping, 7th Heaven Farm, Tabernacle, NJ
If you’re still interested in raising sheep after all your research, I’ll describe my setup, routine, and expenses.

Fencing: My fencing is woven wire, with metal posts, and wood posts at the gates. I don’t have electric fencing because I’m intimidated by them, and because they require maintenance (the hardware itself, and you have to keep the wires free of fleece). You also have to train your sheep to respect the fence. I have about half of my property fenced, divided into 3 fields. The fields are open and visible, but the next field I put in will be in the woods, so I probably should have electric fencing for that field. I’m happy with where the fences are, but one issue is that since all the gates are only 10’, I can’t have a large mower or dump truck come into the fields. I rotate my sheep between the two larger fields in the spring/summer/fall, and reserve the small front field as a sacrifice field in the winter. It gets mucky and eaten down to the ground, but they’re getting plenty of hay in the winter.

Shelter/storage: Sheep aren’t horses, who like to be bedded down nice and snug in their own stalls. My sheep don’t like to be inside at all, except when it’s pouring rain or snow, or when there’s no other shade. I think that my sheep would be happiest with lots of shade trees (preferably with branches low enough for them to eat the leaves), and a lean-to kind of shelter at the top of a hill where they could look out in all directions. But since I don’t have electric fencing, I wanted a secure place for them at night.

Where the 3 fields abut, I put in a 8’x12 run-in shed that’s open on one side. At the open side of the shed, there’s a 10’ x 12’ corral area, built with three 10’ gates, each one opening to a different field. That way, the corral and shed are accessible from whichever field the sheep are in at the moment. It’s where I gather them on shearing day, and it’s where I have them when the vet comes. This is also where I put them at night. My thinking is that even though the shed is open, the corral area is too small for a coyote or dog to be able jump into. Don’t quote me on this--it isn’t something I read anywhere or heard about; it's just my own rationale. In the picture below, I'd just shut them away for the night and all the gates are closed.

shed and corral area between fields

The location is perfect as a switching station between the fields, but I learned it was also a huge mistake because it’s at the bottom of a little hill. It flooded the first spring, turning the flooring inside the shed and the corral area into a mud pit. The wood of the shed even started to deteriorate, from sitting in mud. I put stall mats, which are thick plastic mats, in the floor of the shed, but I still haven’t figured out how to fix the mud pit in the corral. Someone recently suggested putting in a dump truck’s worth of stone dust. And once I figure out how to get a dump truck into the field (remember, my gates are too narrow), I’ll have to decide whether or not I want to spend that kind of money on the mud pit. The shed itself, I was able to have it raised and set on top of 8” x 8 ” railroad ties.

When I knew I wanted to breed, I bought a 12’ x 18’ barn with two sets of barn doors. One set of doors opens to a small fenced yard. The run-in shed is open, so I don't have to worry about ventilation. Because sheep sleep with their heads on the ground, it's important to have ventilation near the floor, so they're not breathing in harmful ammonia gas. I had the barn set on top of 8" x 8" railroad ties so that it wouldn't be sitting in the wet ground (lesson learned from the shed), and the gaps between the ties work as ground-level windows.  I opted against stalls, because sheep are unhappy when they’re shut away alone. But when lambing, it’s best to have small, individual spaces for the mom and baby for the first few days. The small space makes it easier for the lambs to nurse, and for me to do checks on the mom and baby. One of my friends employs a farm manager who has decades of experience with sheep and has terrific carpentry skills. He designed modular stall panels for their farm, and I had him build panels for my barn. They partition the barn into 5 individual stalls, and a creep feeding area for lambs. I use one of the stalls for storing a few bales of hay, and other miscellaneous barn things like gear ties (for holding the panels together), extra feeders, and buckets. 

modular panels for lambing jubs

A gate that swings open/closed is problematic because of hay buildup and the small space, so the top slats are removable, letting me climb over.** The creep feeder (pictured below) is particularly inventive, because the PVC pipes around the wood bars keep the too-big sheep from getting stuck. This is where I've been putting Roobie and her lambs at night lately, and you can see the dog gate that I use to cover the wide bars.

creep feeder

I have a large renovated barn that’s close to both the run-in shed and sheep barn. It has an attached storage area, and that’s where the bulk of my winter hay is stored. It’s not ideal because one side is clear plastic, and the sun bleaches the outside of the bales. But it keeps the hay dry and relatively free of mice.*** My dye studio is in the barn, and that’s where I store the grain and minerals. When I first got the sheep, I kept the grain in a stall in the run-in shed. But the sheep broke into the stall and ate all the grain. It could have been a tragic disaster, but I was really lucky that it was the bag that the breeder had sent with the sheep and there wasn’t very much in the bag. After that, I kept the grain in the greenhouse that’s attached to the barn. The grain got so hot it grew moldy, so now I keep it in the studio. It’s not the most convenient spot, but it works. All the extra buckets, feeders, scoops, etc., are piled into the greenhouse.

Neither the shed nor the barn have electricity, but the shed is close enough to the renovated barn to run an extension cord to the corral area in front of the shed. It’s where the shearer plugs in her shears, and where I plug in the wireless camera. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to check on the sheep in the middle of the night when I hear coyotes, dogs, or a really bad storm. The barn is in the middle of the back field, so I use solar lights and a solar wireless camera.

Equipment: Both the run-in shed and barn are near the water pump, where I keep a scrub brush for cleaning the buckets. I can use small buckets because I have a small flock, and I prefer them to the big rubber tubs. The small buckets are easier to clean, and because they’re smaller, I’m forced to clean and refill them with fresh water more frequently. I also hate having to deal with hoses, so I'd rather carry the buckets to the pump to clean and fill them. That means in the summer, I’m cleaning and filling several small buckets, but at least I don’t have to wrestle with leaking, knotted, heavy hoses. Besides, my sheep never drink as much water as the books say they should. Only on the hottest days do they even seem thirsty, so the small buckets work for me. Oh and since my sheep enjoy playing a game that seems to always end with getting poop into the bucket, it’s not a bad thing to have several buckets.

How to feed hay is a conundrum that every fiber farmer has to work out for themselves. Most hay feeders have the hay elevated with a tray below, which means that as some sheep are pulling the hay out of the rack, some are eating the hay on the tray, and getting showered with hay bits. In the past, I used to feed the hay in plastic bins set on the ground in an effort to keep their fleeces as free of hay as possible. But my sheep just dug it all out and scattered the hay everywhere. And every sheep will tell you that once hay hits the ground, it’s not fit for them to eat. They’re also convinced that whatever the other sheep are eating, it’s definitely better than what they have, even if they’re eating from the same bin. You can see in the picture below they like to take a giant mouthful of hay, and look over one another’s shoulders as they chew, sprinkling hay bits into one another’s fleeces. That tube of headless sheep is just Beatrice showing off her favorite hobby, hay-spelunking. They also played their poop-in-the-water bucket game with the hay bins, with extra points for peeing into the bins. I recently invested in 4 small but sturdy hay racks designed to hook over fences. But since I wanted the hay racks under cover, I drilled holes into a ledge in the shed for the hooks.**** This seems like a winner for me. The racks are just high enough that they reach up for the hay, but low enough that unless one is determined to get under the rack, they don’t get showered with hay bits. 

sheep eating hay as if they were raised in a barn or something
What I’ve learned about grain feeders is that they have to be at shoulder-height; otherwise, my sheep choke. After getting through lambing, Moon nearly choked to death eating grain. I was cleaning out her stall and since I didn’t have a fence to hook the feeder on, I set it on the ground. She literally inhaled the grain, and choked violently for over a minute, before finally vomiting and clearing out her windpipe.***** I use a long goat mineral feeder with partitions that prevent the sheep from eating too quickly, and make it a little harder for them to ram each other. For Roobie and Phoebe, my slower eaters, I feed them in a separate area behind the gate. These feeders hook over the fence gates, and I store them in the greenhouse so they don’t fill with rainwater. I can’t leave the grain feeders attached to a wall in the shed because the sheep will bash one another against it and, invariably, poop in it. The sheep always need free access to loose minerals, so I did screw mineral feeders into the walls. Yes, they get pooped into, but it’s easy enough to scoop out.

Feeding: The pasture is probably the most important consideration when it comes to raising healthy sheep, even more than shelter. It’s something that I’m working on learning more about. Conducting a soil test is perennially on my to-do list. It means walking around the fields and digging 12 holes for dirt samples, mixing up the samples in a sterile container, and mailing it to my extension service. The results will tell me what minerals I’m lacking, and how to amend it. The sheep have grass and forage like wild roses, birdsfoot trefoil, clover, and yarrow, and I give seasonal treats: pine tree, apple tree, and maple tree branches, and pumpkins.


The amount of grain that people tell me they feed their sheep varies from none at all to 1 lb/day. I give the weaned lambs about a cup each, and it goes down to ½ cup when they’re a year old. I’ll give a little more just after they’re sheared, and lure them with a handful of grain when people come to visit. What makes it difficult to decide what and how much to feed my sheep is the lack of clinical data. All of the research on sheep nutrition I’ve come across focuses on how to fatten them as quickly and cheaply as possible for the meat market. Any information I have on nutrition as it affects a sheep’s long-term health is gleaned from talking to other farmers. So I check their condition regularly: feel for their hip bones and ribs, and make sure they’re not too fat and not too bony.

My sheep get loose minerals, which I buy from a farm vet in PA, or from my local feed store. I also give them kelp minerals, but even I think it might be unnecessary. The Shetland sheep on the Shetland Islands give all indication of enjoying the seaweed on those picturesque windswept shores, but I think it could be that there’s precious little else TO eat. On the other hand, kelp does have wonderful phytonutrients and minerals, so why not? The seasonal treats that my sheep get are said to have natural anthelmintic properties: the tannins from the leaves and bark of tree branches, and pumpkin seeds. I don’t rely on these treats as my only dewormer; I dose with chemical dewormers as necessary.

Routine: My routine changes with the seasons, and lambing threw not a wrench, but more of a chainsaw, into my routine. Before lambing, my morning routine was especially easy, since my husband took care of it. At 7 a.m., his morning duties comprised refreshing their water buckets, giving them more hay, and letting them out into whichever field they were using at the time.

Sometime during the day, I check on everyone, especially on very hot days, in case the water buckets have been kicked over/pooped in, and do a quick scan to make sure everyone looks happy. I do my evening chores just before sunset. I scrub and refill water buckets, check the mineral feeders, take out more hay, and feed a little grain. I make sure everyone looks okay, is eating and burping happily, and securely where they should be. And that’s all I do on a daily basis.

Every week, I check the inner membrane of their eyes to see if their fecal egg count is high. I don’t have to check so frequently, but I do it so that the sheep are used to me pulling at the skin around their eyes. I don’t scoop their poop daily, but when I see some soft poop, I will scoop that. I try to scoop up deer poop when I see it, because deer carry a parasite that can cause paralysis in sheep. It’s not my favorite chore, but it’s an easy way to reduce the wormload in the pasture. Spending time scooping poop gives me a chance to watch the sheep, figure out who has the soft poop, and make sure that it gets better after I dose with dewormer. I posted a link below of the scooper I use because it was actually difficult to find one with the tines close enough together to pick up my sheep’s poop (not to get too detailed, but it only worked after the sheep reached 8 months or so and their poop became big enough to not fall through the tines).

Throughout the spring and summer, I walk the field periodically, noting what sort of forage is growing. I try to pull up the poisonous plants I see, like milkweed and bittersweet nightshade. I also pull up prickly plants like thistles and cypress seedlings, because they can cause abscesses in the sheep’s mouths. In the summer, I apply a chemical bug repellent on the backs of their necks, and an all-natural repellent cream on their legs, ears, and tails. To cut down on flies, and therefore the risk of flystrike, I buy fly predators, which are stingless wasps that lay eggs in fly larvae. They apparently only live for a month, so they come in monthly shipments.

The shed is mucked out in the spring and only occasionally through the summer and fall. When I do it, it takes me a week because I can only do a little bit each day. My husband can do it in a weekend, and a contractor did it once in 2 hours. The old hay is pitchforked into my garden cart and dumped in the woods nearby. In the spring and summer, I sprinkle the bedding (hay that falls out of the racks) and even the mucky corral area with Sweet PDZ to neutralize the ammonia. I also sprinkle diatomaceous earth in the bedding, and my reasoning is pretty much the same as my reasoning for giving kelp minerals: there’s no evidence because there’s no research, but it could be beneficial and definitely doesn’t hurt.

My sheep are sheared twice a year, and she vaccinates them, gives them a dose of dewormer, and trims their hooves. I can deworm on my own, but I struggle with vaccinating and trimming hooves. I haven’t spent enough time working on halter-training my sheep, or getting them used to being handled for care. They’re perfectly happy to be scratched and burped, but they have strong opinions about being flipped onto their butts or restrained for me to trim their hooves. But lambing was as gory and mucky as I feared, and I seem to have gotten through it. I think I'm ready to take on some hooves this summer. 

Shetland lamb
Expenses: When it comes to expenses, there really is no upper limit to what you can spend. I visited one farm with a barn that wouldn't be out of place at the Waldorf-Astoria, with grounds that looked like a botanical garden. But all the money in the world can't guarantee healthy sheep...the farm manager told me they had lost most of their lambs that year.

After the buildings and fencing, vet bills are my biggest expense. Right now, I see the vet visits as continuing education for me. I hope to be able to do some of the medical care myself one day, saving the vet for true emergencies. The problem so far has been not knowing what was an emergency and what wasn't. 

Here’s a list of my my expenses, at least the items that come to mind. I seem to spend about $160 at Tractor Supply every other month on various tools and supplies (hardware cloth and gear ties are new discoveries, and I use them everywhere). I left out all the additional lambing expenses like the barn, portable stall panels, and other supplies.

Fencing & gates (materials and labor): $4000
Run-in shed: $2500
Stall mats: $45 (x2)
Nest wifi camera: $250
Hay racks: $60 (x 4)
Water buckets, grain feeders, mineral feeders
Poop scoop: $15
Sweet PDZ Stall Freshener, 25 lbs: $10
D.E., 4 lbs: $10
Minerals, 25 lbs: $40
Kelp minerals, 50 lbs: $80
Sweet grain, 25 lbs: $25
Hay: $7/bale, delivered and stacked (I figure on 2 bales/week for 6 sheep, for 30 weeks)
Dewormer: $15 (x4)
C.D/T vaccinations: $10 (x2)
Fly predators: $130 (for 4 months)
Shearing: $20/sheep (x2)
Vet visits: $300/visit

Keep in mind that I've only had my sheep for 2 years. When I started, I really thought that with enough research, and if I bought the right things, I could be prepared for everything. What I've learned is that raising sheep is actually the only way to learn how to raise sheep. 

Have further questions? Ask me below, and I'll point you to a resource. If you already have sheep, I'm sure you have lots of opinions on everything I wrote! Please don't hesitate to let me know if you see something egregiously wrong. 

*In the case of my sheep, I’ve come to learn that grimacing, stretching their heads up like they’re in pain, and then burping is, actually, how they express their affection for me. They burp up their cud and chew it at the leisure when they feel relaxed, secure, and comfortable.

**Ok, it’s probably the snake that surely lives in the hay storage that keeps it mouse-free, but I try not to dwell on that.

***Not being particularly long-legged, me climbing over the panels is exactly the circus act you're imagining. 

****I know I say that casually, but it was a real accomplishment for me, and it involved a lot of Google searches along the lines of, “how to drill a hole where you actually made the pencil mark,” and “how to adjust holes that are ⅛” too far apart.”

*****See? There’s your requisite “another way a sheep can possibly die” tidbit for the day.

The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, Deb Robson
The Sheep Book, Ron Parker
The Sheep Raiser's Manual, William Kruesi
Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep, Paula Simmons

Maryland Small Ruminant Page
Sheep 101
Sheep FAQ, Maple Ridge Sheep Farm
Flock Health, Canadian Sheep Raising Federation
Parasites, Canadian Sheep Raising Federation

Equipment & Supplies:
Premier 1
Maryland Sheepman

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Lambing 101, continued

Lambing 101, continued

Poppy’s ram lamb died today. After responding to the B complex injections on the first day, his condition declined day by day. I continued to give him his injections around the clock and kept thinking that I saw a spark now and then that meant that he was getting better. But by yesterday evening, he was panting, drooling, and trembling. After wrestling with myself today about how much intervention I was going to seek for him, I called my vet to let her know I was going to bring him to her. And then at the last minute, I changed my mind and decided to take him to another fiber farmer, who has 15 years of experience raising animals, plus veterinary training.

He rode in my lap during the hour-long ride, and he was desperately agitated until I was almost there, and then he gave up struggling and flopped onto his side. My friend did what she could, but he started having seizures until his heart stopped. I think the stress of the car ride was too much for him.

I could drown in my self-recrimination and regrets. I think his twin sister will miss him, but it seemed as if Poppy had known that he wasn’t going to make it. She never looked for him, or made sure that he followed her.

Being with a fellow shepherd, especially someone who is as compassionate as she is knowledgeable, was a great comfort. She reminded me that raising animals means losing animals, and that’s how you become experienced and learn what to do and what not to do. And then she sat me down and showed me exactly how to place a feeding tube, and made me practice giving injections properly.

Scarlet, my friend’s 5-week old, bottle-baby angora kid, was my poor test subject. She was due for her evening bottle, so my friend taught me how to insert a tube to give her the formula. Not much fazed Scarlet, and she was even a great sport about letting me turn her into a pincushion as I practiced my subcutaneous injections.

My friend was going out of town for the week, so I jokingly offered to babysit Scarlet while she was gone. Turns out she was looking for someone to take her for the week, so she was more than happy to take me up on my offer. Sure, it was impulsive, but I have to admit that it felt wonderful to hold such a vibrantly alive critter in my arms. And she was terrific company on the ride home, distracting me from the fact that my ram lamb wasn’t coming home with me. I have to embrace the fact that life goes on, and tomorrow, I’ll actually be able to enjoy watching my 3 healthy ewe lambs frolic and play. Not to mention the novelty of having a visiting baby goat in the barn.

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Lambing 101

Lambing 101

For the past month, I interrogated every shepherd I came across for their lambing stories. There’s only so much I can learn from books, particularly about lambing for the small-scale fiber farmer. I was lucky to be able to visit two shepherds when their ewes were in labor, and saw first-hand what happens with the ewe and the lamb. But even more educational was watching these experienced shepherds, who seemed to work in partnership with the ewes.

When it was my turn, I lost my first lamb, and I’ll always be haunted by the worry that it was because of my lack of experience. 


On the very first day of Active Lamb Watch, Quin was listless, refusing to get up, not eating, grinding her teeth, and hiding in the shed. She was even pawing at the bedding, which is a sign that the baby is on the way, but she was acting more like a sick sheep than a sheep in labor. Quin’s pregnancy was unusual from the beginning; until last week, I hadn’t even thought she was pregnant. The others had been developing their udders for several weeks and were showing signs of a growing baby. Quin only last week started to develop a small udder, but she also started to feel bonier, even with the extra grain that she’d been getting with the others. I’ve never had such a lethargic sheep, and she seemed to be getting worse and worse. I called the vet, and when she came, Quin perked right up. She ran away from the vet and ate grass like she was starving. When the vet palpitated her, she said Quin was much farther along her pregnancy than she appeared, and she pumped Quin full of sub-Q fluids and gave her some shots of vitamins. Pregnancy toxemia is serious business, with the ewe’s health declining rapidly.

I watched her for the next couple of hours, and finally, when she nickered to her stomach, I realized that she really had been in early labor all this time. I got my lambing kit and towels, and waited. Her water broke, and within a few minutes, she slipped out a lamb. She jumped away from from it, and I did my best to clear out its nose and mouth, while toweling it dry. There were no signs of life, and it was like every scenario I’d dreaded. Even though it was after midnight, I called the vet and she told me that in all likelihood, the lamb hadn’t developed properly and Quin had miscarried.


The next morning passed in a fog of giving Quin her vitamins and setting up the barn for the others to lamb. Mid-affternoon, Poppy, who had spent the day in barn by herself and gazing blankly at the wall, started to pace. I called another local shepherd I know through the Garden State Sheep Breeders to let her know what happened with Quin, and that I was nervous about the second time. She had just taken a red-eye from CA that morning, and she left work early to come over. Poppy’s labor lasted much longer than Quin’s, and she was struggling mightily to get the baby out. Sue came just as I was starting to panic that the lamb was stuck. Poppy managed to push out the feet, head and shoulders, and Sue grabbed the front legs and pulled the lamb all the way out. She went to work clearing the mouth and nose, then held the baby by the hips and swung the lamb around. I remembered seeing a picture of this in one of my sheep manuals, and never thought that I’d see it in real life. Poppy got a whiff of her baby and was entranced. It was a little ram lamb, with tiny horn buds on his head. Poppy was still a little hunched over and her sides weren’t completely deflated, so Sue suspected that there might be another baby. She put on the shoulder-length surgical gloves she’d brought over, lubed up, and dived in for a feel. She said she could feel another baby, so she had me glove up, lube, and reach in. When my hand was inside, she guided me through what I was feeling: two soft hooves and a hard head, right there. I extricated myself and it didn’t take long for Poppy to deliver the twin. I cleared the nose and mouth, and this time, I felt the lamb come to life as I started to towel it dry. It was a ewe lamb, and she was so frisky that there was no need to swing her around at all.

I was giddy with relief and gratitude that Sue had been there. So when Roobie, who had spent the afternoon in a corner of the barn gazing at the wall, started grinding her teeth just around 10 that night, I didn’t panic that I couldn’t call anyone because it wasn’t a time of night I could call people. Roobie has always been one to look for the easy way out, and she was having a hard time with the realization that there was only one way to cross this bridge. It was suspenseful waiting for the hooves to appear, because that's how you know the baby is positioned properly. It took a long for the hooves to show (pointing down, the way they should be), but she was really straining to pass the head. When she started screaming while trying to push out the head, I called the vet. It was getting to be our regular midnight call. She walked me through pulling the lamb’s legs out one at a time, and when the head still didn’t come out, she had me push the legs back in while I worked to tilt the head lower. Roobie was still screaming but she let me ease my fingers in and try to maneuver that slippery, hard lamb head. As I stretched her skin around the baby’s forehead, she heaved the head out and the rest of the lamb slid out. I toweled away the mucus from the mouth and nose, and yes, I grabbed her by the hips and swung her like a pendulum. I didn’t have the courage to swing her over my head, but I didn’t need to. I could already feel the lamb wriggling in indignation. I laid her down by Roobie’s nose, and watched Roobie become fascinated by her baby. As she licked the lamb’s face, I toweled off the body. There was a “splat” and oh hey, it was the second ewe lamb. Smaller, but so lively I almost had to chase her to clean out her mouth and nose.

Three lambings in 24 hours. I stayed in the barn for a few hours to help Poppy’s lambs, who were still having a hard time latching on to nurse, and to make sure that Moon wasn’t going to do anything exciting overnight.


In the morning, Roobie’s girls were nursing like champs and already hopping and climbing over Roobie. Poppy’s lambs were bouncy, but the ram lamb still hadn’t gotten the hang of nursing. I filled a plastic syringe with Poppy’s milk, and squirted it into the ram’s mouth. I did this throughout the day, and even got him to latch on occasionally. I felt confident that everything was stable enough for me to go to a GSSB meeting in the evening. It was the first time I’d left the house in a week, and it was a comfort to know that everyone in that room had experienced losing a lamb. And they were very understanding when I left early, because I was worried about the ram lamb and about Moon going into labor. I watched her for a while when I got home, but she was still focused as ever on her dinner and chewed her cud as if babies were the farthest things from her mind.


Poppy’s ram lamb was behaving oddly when I looked in on him in the morning: he walked and hopped in a straight line until he bumped into the wall, ricocheted, and then did the same thing off another wall. I was expecting Judi, the shepherd from whom I’d bought my flock, for a visit that morning. By the time she got here, the ram lamb had become increasingly lethargic. She noticed the blindness, and she also noticed that he was wheezing. I called the vet, and she said that it sounded like I had squirted milk into his lungs by using a syringe instead of a bottle. She was concerned about pneumonia, but she was even more concerned about the possible blindness. After her visit for Quin, I really couldn’t afford to have her come out again. I asked what she would recommend, and she suggested injecting him with B complex vitamins and penicillin, which were available at Tractor Supply. His temperature wasn’t elevated, so she thought that the pneumonia hadn’t taken over yet.

I had another friend visiting in the afternoon, and she offered to pick up the medicine and needles. We read through the sheep manuals I had in the barn on how to give injections to a lamb, and I held him while she gave him the shots. One of the GSSB members I talked to said that the lamb’s symptoms sounded like polio, but she’d never seen it in a newborn. When I looked up polioencephalomalacia, the symptoms matched my ram lamb’s behaviors. The survival rate wasn’t promising: he would probably die within 48 hours, with a slim chance that he might make it if we got the B-complex into him soon enough. After his injections, the lamb started to perk up. Hour by hour, he became more energetic. He went back to hopping and ricocheting off the walls, and even though he was still a little wheezy, his temperature didn’t go up. Best of all, he started nursing on his own. I’m trying to not get my hopes up. I told the vet that I’ll just try to keep him going from one set of shots to the next.

It’s now 11:30 p.m. and quiet again in the barn. Moon still doesn’t seem inclined to have her babies, and I would certainly appreciate it if she could hold on until daylight. I’ll stay in the barn until I have to give the lamb his shots at 2 a.m., and in the meantime, I’ll enjoy these moments of listening to the mamas chewing their cud and the babies snoring against them. I’ll never take having healthy sheep for granted again.

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I Wash Fleece So You Don't Have To

Some days--like today, when I have so many things on my to-do list that I can't decide where to start--fleece washing is just the mental vacation I need. Sure, it's messy and requires some heavy lifting, but at least I don't have to make decisions. My neighbor had her sheep sheared yesterday, and I was eager to see what her new Gotland x Border Leicester lambs had going on for themselves. Just look how sparkly and shiny she is!

Gotland x Border Leicester Lamb

Washing a fleece successfully (and enjoying the process) really comes down to having a workable setup. In my dreams, we all have a fleece-washing rig like this one at Battenkill Fiber Mill, in Greenwich, NY. Endless hot water, drains, roomy crab baskets, and oh yes, an electric basket lifter

Battenkill Fiber Mill

But in reality, all we really need to wash fleeces is hot water and somewhere to dump the dirty water. Can you wash fleeces in a top-load washing machine, or in the bathtub? Well, I have friends who do, and I've never heard of anyone having a problem. I've heard warnings against it, but I haven't seen conclusive data. What I do know is that lanolin hardens to a sticky wax, and I also know that if my pipes become clogged because of my indoor fleece-washing activities, I would have to become way more familiar with my septic system than I ever want to be. So I choose hauling water and dumping outside, over tangling with my septic system.

When I washed fleeces in the barn, I had to carry the dirty water through the studio, and walk through the greenhouse and garden to dump the dirty water in the driveway. Having the hot water and dumping area within a few steps of one another is a new luxury for me. We put in this new door in the kitchen, and since it's right between the faucet and stove, it makes a perfect "work triangle" for washing fleeces. My washtub, soap, and fleece are set up on the deck just outside the door.

The first step is skirting the raw fleece, to remove the short second cuts, poopy bits, and as much of the veg matter as possible. When it comes to veg matter, everyone has their own personal threshold. I don't mind big things like hay, sticks, or seedheads. As long as you pull on the stem, the seedheads come right out without shattering.

Seedhead in fleece

But the dealkiller for me is what I call "veg shrapnel."

Veg matter shrapnel

In my experience, little veg bits like these seem to come out only to get stuck in the clean fleece. When it's all washed, you can tease some of it out, but whatever you don't get out will just get carded and then spun into your yarn. And then eventually knit into your sweater. Some veg matter in minimally-processed yarn is to be expected; the alternative is to dissolve every speck of veg matter with sulfuric acid, as is done in commercial mills.

Poopy bits, believe it or not, are easier to deal with. Toss the poop, and toss the really mucky locks, especially if they're short or matted, like the clump to the right.

Poopy fleece

The clump in the center will wash out, but know that it might be the cause for needing to do that third (or fourth) hot wash. 

Hopefully the majority of your fleece will look like this:

Clean raw fleece

 Once the fleece is skirted, I put it in a mesh laundry bag and soak it in cold water.The soak can last between a few hours to overnight. It won't do anything for the lanolin, but it'll start softening some of the poop and mud. 

Cold soak

When it's time to really wash the fleece, I fill my big stockpot and heat it on the stove until it's about to start simmering. I dump that into the washtub, then fill the pot again with hot water from the faucet. The water from my faucet doesn't get hot enough to melt lanolin (there's a range of recommended washing temperatures; I've learned the hard way that my tap water alone isn't hot enough). Besides, it cools as I'm filling the pot the second time. 

For soap, I've used dish detergent, Orvus paste, and I'm currently using Unicorn Power Scour. I found dish detergent to be too sudsy, Orvus paste melted the skin off my hands (I have a sensitivity to sodium lauryl sulfate), and so far, I have no complaints about Power Scour. I even like the way it smells: not perfumy--it just smells like a clean sheep. 

I stuck a pump nozzle into my bottle, and it works ok. Maybe one day, I'll even trim the straw so that I can actually screw it closed. I use 2 squirts for my washtub, and swirl gently so I don't get bubbles. 

Hot Soapy Wash

The absolute hardest part of washing a fleece? NOT agitating it. It's like trying to resist the urge to scratch a poison ivy rash. We all know that the way to get anything really clean is to scrub, right? Yeah, no. Not fleece. It's best to walk away...although I've never been able to resist sneaking in a few plunges (pushing straight down is not agitating, I swear!). 

It's important to not let this water cool. I set a timer for 20 minutes so I don't forget. If the water cools, the lanolin that melted off the fleece will become redeposited and nothing on god's green earth will be able to dislodge it again.*

While it's soaking, I refill my stockpot and put it back on the stove. After about 20 minutes, I fish out the laundry bag and drape it over a fence to drip, and squeeze out the water. I rinse out the tub, and do it all over again. And once more from the top. 

To rinse, I fill the tub with warm water, and soak for about 30 minutes. Fish out, drape, squeeze, repeat. By now, all the lanolin has been melted off the fleece, and dumped out. So for the second warm rinse, I let the fleece soak until the water cools. When the water is cool, I rinse in cold water until the water is mostly clear. After the third or fourth cold rinse, I call it a day. Most of the fleece should look very clean, but if the water still looks murky, it'll be because there are a few stubborn dingleberries, and it's not worth rinsing the entire fleece again and again. 

I lay out the fleece on the potting table in the greenhouse, and wait impatiently for it to dry. Tomorrow, I'm going to dye some of these white locks to bring to the Indie Untangled Rhinebeck Trunk Show next month. 


*I once heard a tale about a woman who succeeded in fixing this mistake. She brought a pot of water to boil, and dipped the fleece lock by lock, changing the water every few locks. If anyone feels compelled to try this, please let me know if it works! 

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Garden State Sheep Breeders NJ Sheep & Fiber Festival

Garden State Sheep Breeders NJ Sheep & Fiber Festival

This is my backyard fiber festival, and it is, without a doubt, the festival that I enjoy the most. And that's because it's the one show where I get to be a civilian, with no responsibilities or duties. It was a thrill to be on the other side of the booth and to be the idle browser, but what do I do when I'm let loose at a fiber festival? I divide my time equally between the fleece tent and the sheep pens, of course!

In the fleece tent, I was the scribe for the judging. Other than the cold-sweat inducing moment of panic when the judge pointed to a fleece and asked me, "What's wrong with this fleece?"* it was a great experience. The American Romney Breeders Association held their annual meeting and show this year at the Festival, so it was primarily a Romney fleece show. I learned about the old-school lock formation (loose and fluffy crinkles), vs the new-school (tight crinkle crimps), and the impact a little luster can have on a fleece's overall presentation. I've never entered a fleece in a competition, but my takeaway was that any fleece I enter should be ruthlessly skirted, with locks that have great flow: crusty, mucky, felted tips need not apply.

Ron Andress, Romney breeder

This is Ron Andress, whose natural color Romney fleece won Grand Champion. It was the fleece that I'd secretly decided to buy after the judging was over, so I admit to a little tingle of smug satisfaction, knowing that I'd picked a winner. But that purple rosette was a beacon for prospective buyers, and someone else fell deeply in love with the fleece while I was tallying the scorecards. The buyer was new to spinning and to fiber processing, and I knew that she couldn't have chosen a better fleece to begin her education. Romney roving is what I like to use for teaching spinning, because of its very loose, open structure. It flows so effortlessly that it doesn't just spin itself; it even drafts itself. It's resistant to felting in the too-tight, often sweaty, clutch of a new spinner, and the crinkle crimp twists together easily. I only pouted a little at losing out on the fleece because. as I told the buyer, that sheep is out there eating grass, and growing more fleece right at this moment.

Nelda Davis

Working the fleece sale was a breezy delight this year, thanks to the hard work of the Festival committee organizers. Honestly. With enough carefully laid out Excel spreadsheets, I think I could rule the world. One of the best things about camping out in the fleece tent is that most of the fiber world moseys in, "just to look," haha. One bright moment was meeting Master Spinner Nelda Davis, the paragon of careful, deliberate handspinning. She bought a buttery, fine Mini Cheviot x Shetland fleece, and she must have seen me drooling a little, because she gave me a handful to play with. I had my Ladybug with the bulky flyer kit, but I had plenty of time working the sale, so I thought I'd see just how fine this fine fleece could go. Threadlike is how fine! I spun the handful of locks onto 2 bobbins, plied that together, and then plied the 2 2-plies. And since it was still only a fingering weight, I wound it around my hand and Andean-plied the 4-ply together into an 8-strand cable ply. I showed it to Nelda later that day, and her response? "Wow, I'm impressed." Well. That was a moment that I'd like to preserve in a bottle. Sadly, I was in such a flustered daze after that that I lost my mini skein. 

When I wasn't in the fleece tent, I was nuzzling Shetlands. It was practically a family reunion, with Judi Lehrhaupt, the breeder who sold me my girls, and Jane and Greg Kornhaber, whose flock also came from her. For bio-security reasons, I don't take my sheep anywhere, so when Jane and Greg asked if I wanted to show their lambs, I jumped at the chance. I don't have any experience in showing animals, and I'm not even great about harness training my sheep, so I appreciated the opportunity to learn from experienced shepherds. 

Hermione Shetland ewe lamb

The first event was the Parade of Breeds, which is not judged, so it was the ideal time to make my debut as a handler. I walked Hermione, a ewe lamb, and her brother Loki, a ram lamb, who happen to be my Phoebe's niece and nephew. See? I told you it was a family reunion! 

GSSB Parade of Breeds

The judged events were the following day, and I think Hermione pretty much sums up both of our feelings about strutting our stuff to be judged.

Hermione Shetland ewe lamb

I'm happy to leave the showing to the pros (i.e., those 8-year old 4-H wunderkinds who have the sang-froid of a cowboy and seem to have a psychic bond with their farm animals), and spend my days lolling in the fields with my sheep.

It's Sunday night, and my mind is still abuzz from the excitement of the weekend. Chatting with other shepherds is always so informative, and being with fiber friends invariably leads to ideas for the future. There's a road trip to Vermont in the works, to cruise for a stud (there's really no delicate way to describe this situation). And plans are under way to host a Fiber Farm Day and Fleece Swap. Sound interesting? Drop me a note, and I'll make sure to fill you in on the details.

*My answer: "Dirty, and...uh, short?" Correct answer: "Tips are too tight, and the staple length is uneven."


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How To Tame Your Lamb

How To Tame Your Lamb

Phoebe and Beatrice are such good friends. Just because two sheep are the same age doesn't mean that they'll get along, but these two are a good match. 

Beatrice is outgoing, and has been accepted by the big girls, but she really enjoys hanging out with Phoebe. And without Beatrice, Phoebe would be lost.

For the past few nights, I've been separating the new girls from my old girls at night. My old girls are used to having my undivided attention, and they won't let the new girls get close to me. My evening routine has settled into taking hay and grain to the old shed, letting my old girls push the new girls out, and then closing the gate behind them. Then, the new girls are free to follow me to the new barn, where they get their own hay and grain.

I sat at the barn threshold with the grain trough in my lap. With their noses buried in the trough, I was able to pet Moon and even Beatrice. I didn't try to pet Phoebe the first couple of nights, because I didn't want to interrupt her eating. I just concentrated on keeping Moon from butting her away from the trough.

It helps that Moon isn't shy and will always walk over for pets--the two lambs watch her and it makes them wonder what they're missing. Beatrice had come over a couple of times to snuffle at my fingers, but both lambs seemed afraid of my hands. I can't blame them; I knew the breeder had been travelling this spring, and hadn't been able to cuddle them as much as she would have normally. And the last thing they remembered was being grabbed and hauled away from their mommies to be brought here. 

So for a few nights, I let them eat from the trough and only reached out to Moon and Beatrice. But last night, as I was putting the old girls in the old shed, Moon snuck by and decided to party with the other yearlings.*

Which left me with just the lambs! I got more hay and grain for the lambs, and they followed me to the new barn. Instead of the trough, I brought the grain in a scoop. I sat on the threshold again, which is basically at ground-level, and held the grain in my hand. They just gave me some suspicious side-eye, and wouldn't eat the grain. I sprinkled the grain on the threshold next to me, and Beatrice came over to vacuum it all up. When she started to look for more, I held out a handful of grain again. She'd only had a little grain and wanted more, so this time, she ate out of my hand. In the meantime, Phoebe finally came to the threshold that had been licked clean of grain by Beatrice. With the hand that wasn't feeding Beatrice, I sprinkled another handful on the threshold for Phoebe. As she was eating the grain, I took another handful and held it just above the threshold. And finally, finally, she took the grain from my hand.

When the grain ran out, I reached out slowly and started scratching Beatrice's nose. And then her chest. She froze, and I could see it dawning on her why the older girls would mob me for pets. I scratched her chest and started picking sticks and dried leaves off her fleece as her eyes glazed over and she started burping and chewing her cud.

Phoebe watched for a while, and then sidled up. I held out my hand, and then, I slowly withdrew my hand. I don't know if all sheep are this way, but when I draw my hand away from my sheep, they automatically follow my hand and step closer. Phoebe did exactly that and put her soft little nose in my hand. She had all sorts of leaves, hay, and other um, barnyard detritus stuck in her fleece, and she let me pull everything out. I got the feeling it was the first time she'd felt completely at ease here. She had a full tummy from being able to eat without having to worry about being chased, butted, or trampled by the big girls, and as I scratched her neck and chest, she flopped down and fell asleep immediately.

By this time, Beatrice was so over being shy that she'd bury her head in the hay basket, then come stand in front of me, dripping hay, and butt my hand to pull the hay off her. 

*And they did party, those punks! They pushed open the gate to the front field, and spent the night chomping on fallen apples and stripping the bark off the apple branches. They had so much fun all night that they've been sleeping all morning. Teenagers, honestly.

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Flock Integration: Barnyards And Schoolyards

Flock Integration: Barnyards And Schoolyards

Three new Shetland sheep joined my flock this week: one yearling, and two lambs. Moon, the yearling, is mioget (golden-brown), and the twin of my Poppy. Beatrice is a fawn lamb, and Phoebe is a moorit (dark chocolate brown) lamb.

Shetland sheep lambs

I'd met Moon at Rhinebeck in the breed barn, and had fallen in love with her sweet disposition and her super-fine fleece. When I bought the lambs, I was happy that a yearling they were were familiar with would be coming with them. I was worried about how they would integrate with my 3 yearlings. 

The first day was rough. I had the new girls in a separate field from my old girls, but they could see and sniff one another. When I finally let them together, it was a head-butting frenzy. My Poppy must have recognized Moon on some level, because she didn't go after Moon as violently as Quin and Roobie did. 

The two lambs shadowed Moon, who wasn't particularly interested in being their surrogate mother. She let the lambs be near her, but didn't let them get too close. Beatrice, who is bold as brass, marched up to the hay feeders as if she belonged there. She let the older girls bump her, but didn't let them chase her away. Phoebe, on the other hand, skittered away from any movement. 

As I watched them, I realized that lambs aren't very different from human children. Beatrice rolled with the punches (and head-butts) and was accepted, more or less. She laid down with them, and snuck in mouthfuls of hay and water whenever she could. Phoebe was constantly jumpy, and alternated between running away and trying to snuggle up to, and even nurse from, Moon. My guess is that she hadn't been weaned for very long, and she was used to being able to hide behind her mother. I think Beatrice had been weaned longer, and had gotten used to standing up for herself. By the evening, Phoebe was a target, with all 4 yearlings chasing her and butting her relentlessly. 

I have a party trick when people come to visit. I take them to the field, and as we approach the sheep, the sheep run away. I have my visitors stand still, and I walk away at an angle between the sheep and my visitors. When I'm sure the sheep are just dying of curiosity, I turn my back on them, and start walking toward the visitors. And the sheep feel compelled to follow me. They are, after, sheep. So every time Phoebe ran from the yearlings, the yearlings chased her. Sometimes the yearlings wanted to butt her, but sometimes, they just wanted to sniff her. The less they could sniff her, the more they wanted to chase her, and the more she ran. And 'round and 'round they went.

I decided to let them all sleep together in the barn that first night. It's a big barn, but since sheep like to have eyes and noses on one another, I didn't get individual stalls. I put a basket of hay in each corner, so there wouldn't be any crowding. I stayed with them for a while, to make sure they settled down. I had some sharp words with the yearlings, as they chased after Phoebe. Sheep understand stomping, so I stood in front of Phoebe, faced the yearlings, lowered my head, and stomped my feet. They eventually got the message, and one by one, laid down to burp and chew their cud. I snuggled with the yearlings for a while, so they knew that I still loved them. I might have even sung them a lullaby or two. But since we haven't installed the camera in the new barn yet, no one can prove anything, and my sheep aren't talking.
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A Reason for Yarn

A Reason for Yarn
I've been thinking about yarn lately. Don't laugh; I'm usually focused on the front end of working with fiber, so this is actually a departure. Abby Sarnowski (Folktale Fibers) and I share a booth at Maryland Sheep & Wool, and we like to pass the time by asking each other questions along the lines of, "how could we breed a miniature cormo sheep?" and "what breeds would you cross to spin the ideal sock yarn?" 

On the long drive home, I mulled over what fibers I would blend to produce the ideal shawl or sweater yarn. The Shetland Islands has been a leitmotif in my life this spring, so when I envisioned shawls, I had haps in mind. Unlike the intricate lace wedding shawls that, according to tradition, were fine enough to pass through a wedding ring, hap patterns were written with a simple lace design and knit with a thicker yarn, for everyday wear.  

My yarn, I decided, would be lofty for warmth, durable--no wimpy pilling!, elastic because my hands are getting arthritic, and able to hold a lace pattern like a champ. The yarn would need to make a finished fabric that was lightweight, but have enough substance and body so that it didn't just puddle around my neck. And on top of all that, it needed to be soft enough for my sensitive skin. 

The more I thought about it, the more requirements I kept dreaming up for my yarn. I wanted to be able to hand-pick each fleece from sheep I knew personally (or at least knew the shepherds), and I wanted a range of natural colors. But natural colors with depth and tonal complexity. And the last thing? I wanted heaps and heaps of this wonder yarn, which meant that I'd getting it spun for me. So it needed to be a blend of fibers that could be processed by a small fiber mill, and still retain its homegrown roots. 

When I got home, I started weighing, carding, and blending some fibers together. 

For weeks, I played with percentages and color combinations, and I spun and knit several test samples. I took the yarn with me everywhere, showing it to knitting friends and asking for feedback. It wasn't until I finished my Hansel Hap Shawl by Gudrun Johnston, and blocked it, that I was certain I got it right. 

It was time to go mill shopping. I heard so many glowing recommendations for John and Lydia Piper at Gurdy Run Woolen Mill, and when I spoke with John, I could see why. I've never dropped off fiber to be processed before, and he was very patient about walking me through the process. We talked about the the fibers I'd chosen, and the best way to draft them individually and together. We talked about starting with a combination of combed top, carded roving, and raw fleece to end up with a yarn that had all the qualities I wanted. 

Yesterday, I drove to Gurdy Run with my bags and bags of fibers. I met with Lydia, and we made the final decisions about colors, yarn weights, and put-ups. It was an incredibly educational trip.

The process of mill-spinning is both more high-tech and at the same time, more hands-on than I'd thought. Sure, the machines do the actual carding, drafting, and spinning, but it's not all one run-through. I didn't exactly think that John and Lydia just dumped fibers into a chute, tapped a few buttons on their laptops, and enjoyed iced tea on the porch while they waited for the machine to spit out skeins of yarn. What did I know? Not much, apparently.

The raw fleeces are washed by hand, and the carding, picking, pin-drafting, and spinning are each individual steps, requiring human oversight and adjustment. They handle the fiber between each stage, to weigh and evaluate what went in, and what came out. There's complex math involving weights and measurements, which Lydia explained and I nodded whenever I thought she needed the encouragement to go on.

There are cool gadgets like an air splicer (I want one!), but the skeining and tying are done by hand. I hope to go back for a visit on the day they're working on my yarn, and Lydia said if I'm lucky, she'll put me to work tying up the skeins. I can't wait. 

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