Wool on the [Hog Island] Hoof

A few years back, on the first weekend in May, my then-fiance-now-husband and I were wandering through the barns at the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival. We were looking at all of the breeds and chatting with shepherds and trying to make a list of the sheep we wanted to start with at our new smallholding. As a lifelong farm girl and a long time fiber artist I had plenty of ideas, but my husband was pretty new to livestock. He’d been helping me for the past few years with my llamas and alpacas and chickens, but we were doing this together and I wanted him to come up with his own preferences. We had already agreed that we wanted a smaller heritage breed with versatile wool and good feet (not prone to hoof rot, etc.) that would do well on our grass/browse type pastures.

In the end, it was the Hog Island sheep that really interested both of us. Staff from the Mount Vernon estate, George Washington’s home on the Potomac River, were at the festival with a pair of ewes. We put our names on their email list, I bought a small white Hog Island fleece (of course!) and we continued on our way. I was surprised by how lovely the fleece was while my husband really appreciated how alert but calm and friendly the ewes had been. And those freckled faces were ridiculously cute. We went to work planning our sheep shed and fencing and working out the plans for our small sustainable farm.

Olga, Hog Island ewe in full fleece. Photo by Pete Kasmala.

Well, you know what so often happens to the best laid plans. Our first sheep were not Hog Island. We ended up adopting a pair of Jacob ewes from a local rescue. Jacobs had been #2 on our list and we really fell in love with those girls. Our Hog Island ewes, Olga and Anita, came about a year later. And we immediately fell in love with them as well. Getting them home from Mount Vernon was an adventure and involved me taking the wrong exit, ending up in downtown D.C., and driving alongside the National Mall as tourists pointed out the crazy people with the sheep in the Subaru. But that’s a story for another time.

Hog Island sheep are a small, compact, well balanced breed with sturdy legs and feet. Ewes can be either polled or horned while rams either have horns or small scurs. Most of the Hog Island sheep are white wooled and around 20% are black. This breed seems to have a lot of color in its genes. The lambs are often born spotted but the spots fade as they grow older and turn to white. Black lambs are born black and remain black as adults. Adult sheep can have brown, black, or white faces and legs, with many of them having speckles instead of solid color. Even the white wool has some pigment, being various shades of cream or ivory often with some darker tinted neck wool. The wool itself is quite matte with no visible luster. When dyed, it produces a soft color effect that can be quite lovely. Much more about dying Hog Island wool in a later post.

Anita, Hog Island ewe in full fleece. Photo by Pete Kasmala.

The average staple length of the Hog Island fleece I have worked with is 2.5 inches, though I’ve seen both longer and shorter. My girls each have an average staple of about 3 inches. In the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, Deborah Robson notes that the few samples of Hog Island that she had access to for the book ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 inches in length. I think it’s safe to conclude that Hog Island wool tends to be on the shorter side, similar to what you find with many of the Down breeds. In fact, Hog Island sheep share a lot of characteristics with Southdown sheep, something else I’ll explore in more depth in the coming months.

I currently have 5 Hog Island fleeces in my studio. They’re from 2 wethers, 2 non-breeding ewes, and 1 bred ewe. As I work with each fleece I’ll be making detailed notes, doing lots of research, and writing posts based on the strongest characteristics of HI wool. From past experience I’m expecting these qualities to be fineness, elasticity and moisture management, and resistance to fulling/felting. I am sending samples of each fleece off for micron testing and will be awaiting results. Microns, if you don’t already know, are 1/1,000,000 of a meter, and are currently the measurement of wool fineness recognized by most fiber artists. Most Hog Island wool that has been tested falls in the 20-30 micron range with the smallest numbers being the softest. Of the samples, I expect Anita’s the be the finest, judging by the feel and the naked eye. We shall see. Hog Island wool has an undeserved reputation as a coarse fiber when in reality it falls into the fine/medium range. In my future post about our micron counts and fineness I’ll write a lot more about the way we as fiber artists and consumers choose wool and why we should widen our parameters a bit more. Right now I’m going to concentrate on Hog Island’s wonderful elasticity.

Hog Island locks; Olga, Malvolio, and Pepperdine

Sheep’s wool is the only natural fiber that is elastic. All other fibers with the quality of elasticity are synthetic. And all types of wool possess the qualities of elasticity and resiliency/recovery to some degree. However, all things not being equal, some breeds grow wool that excel at these qualities. Hog Island is one of them. In general, wool is composed of long, flexible molecular chains. The outside of a strand of wool is covered by cuticle cells, more commonly called scales. The scales will vary according to breed group (down, longwool, etc.) and determine how well the wool will felt or full. The interior of the strand, the wool’s cortex, contains a spring-like structure in the very center that gives wool its flexibility, elasticity, and resiliency. The down breeds, some of the fine wool breeds, and a few of the breeds that don’t fit neatly in groups have extra stretchy springs. They are also helped along by fiber density and natural crimp present in their locks. Hog Island wool is quite dense – each staple containing hundreds of strands of wool – and has a fairly disorganized crimp. This causes the fibers to move away from each other into an airy jumble instead of lying against each other in even ripples. The result is a warn and lofty woolen yarn with plenty of bounce and spring.

What’s so important about elasticity in fiber? Elastic fiber creates elastic garments. It means that your clothes won’t stretch out and remain that way. Without elasticity your knitted hats and gloves would not spring back into shape, and your socks would grow loose, fall down, and stay that way. Knitted fabric is intended to be body hugging while woven fabric is drapey. There are exceptions, but in general these rules stand. Yarn made from Hog Island wool – and several other breeds on the Livestock Conservancy’s conservation list – has plenty of stretch and resiliency. Elasticity also ties in to textile strength in general. Wool can stretch an average of 25-30% of its length before breaking under the strain. Adding twist to wool by spinning adds even more tensile strength.

There’s another quality that goes hand in hand with elasticity, and that is moisture management. Wool is excellent at repelling moisture and also absorbing it. The cuticle scales on each wool shaft have a waxy covering that helps them repel water while still allowing the absorption of water vapor. The cortical cells that surround the small flexible spring contain sulfur proteins that attract and absorb water molecules. According to Clara Parkes on page 20 of The Knitter’s Book of Socks, “Even when the wool fiber is pulled taut, its molecules still have room to stretch out further – which is what gives wool its exceptional elasticity. Such an arrangement tends to allow more moisture to penetrate and reside within the fiber without our feeling it.”

Wool has the ability to absorb 30% of its own weight in moisture before we begin to feel any wetness. This means wearing wool helps wick away sweat as well as keeping you dry from light rain or fog. That’s a great quality for socks and outerwear garments. I’m going to put this to the test in real life. I’m currently spinning a 3 ply sock yarn from my Olga’s fiber. I plan to knit myself a pair of socks and wear them as I’m working around the farm. I’m hard on socks so this experiment will answer a lot of questions!

Hog Island sock yarn, courtesy of Olga. Very stretchy!

I’m curious to know if the people who lived on Hog Island made garments out of the Hog Island sheep’s wool. This is part of my ongoing research into the lives of people and sheep on Hog Island. Did the island’s residents spin the wool in the grease for even more moisture control? Many of the island folk were watermen and I can see the value of wearing a sweater spun in the grease while you’re fishing or harvesting oysters. One side of Hog Island borders the Atlantic Ocean and the island gets plenty of rain storms and sea spray. And Hog Island wool is quite heavy in lanolin. I may experiment with spinning some of it in the grease and knitting some kind of useful garment with the yarn. If I do, I’ll write about it here. I could really use a moisture repelling winter hat to wear around the farm when it snows.

More in October, when I write about knitting and felting with Hog Island wool. Thanks for reading!

Bibliography

Amos, Alden. The Big Book of Handspinning. Loveland: Interweave Press, 2001

Robson, Deborah and Ekarius, Carol. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2011.

Parkes, Clara. The Knitters Book of Wool. New York: Potter Craft, 2007

Parkes, Clara. The Knitters Book of Socks. New York: Potter Craft, 2011

Smith, Beth. The Spinners Book of Fleece. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2004

SPEAKMAN, J. The Perfect Elasticity of Wool. Nature 124, 948 (1929). https://doi.org/10.1038/124948b

The Woolmark Company. https://www.learnaboutwool.com/globalassets/law/resources/factsheets/secondary/gd0317-secondary-fact-sheet_j1_v4.pdf

By Milton Harris. Louis R. Mizell. and Lyman Fourt. ELASTICITY OF WOOL AS RELATED TO ITS CHEMICAL STRUCTURE. RESEARCH PAPER RP1486. Part of Journal of Research of the N.ational Bureau of Standards, Volume 29, July 1942 https://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/jres/29/jresv29n1p73_A1b.pdf

Talking about Hog Island Sheep

Wow, its’ been about two years since I’ve written anything on this blog. I like to write and I had the best of intentions when I started this blog. But I think I fell victim to a combination of not having enough time and having nothing significant to say. Now, 5 months into COVID 19 lockdown, I still don’t have enough time, but I do have some things to say. I want to talk about Hog Island sheep and their wool. I’m a registered fiber supplier with the Livestock Conservancy’s Shave ’em to Save ’em program and I’ve noticed lots of questions about Hog Island wool on the SE2SE’s various social media groups.

I’m going to skip the essay on the history of HI sheep for now. The Livestock Conservancy and Deborah Robson’s Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook cover that topic pretty well. We know that Hog Island sheep are one of the few American breeds of sheep, that they’re critically endangered, and that they’re considered a feral breed. These facts got me interested in HI sheep to begin with, and I came to like them so much that last year my husband and I purchased a pair of non-breeding ewes from Mount Vernon estate to add to our little hand spinner’s flock. Their registered names are [Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association] MVLA Olga and MVLA Anita. I’ll be talking about them a lot.

Olga

Anyway, the purpose of these posts will be to explore what we do with this charming historical breed and their wool going forward. What is the future of Hog Island sheep and how can we use their wool in our every day lives? In which of the fiber arts applications does this wool really shine? Well, it’s a bit matte so won’t actually shine at all, but you know what I mean. How does it take dye, can you felt with it, weave with it, knit sweaters with it? What’s best way to prepare it for spinning and what are the best ways to spin it? Worsted, woolen, 2 ply, 3 ply, etc. If things go well I may even post a few videos of me working with Hog Island and demonstrating ways you can deal with the short staple length that so many HI sheep seem to have.

I’m going to spend most of the next post exploring the wool itself. I currently have five Hog Island fleeces in my studio and I’m going to pull locks from each of them to find how many characteristics they share and how they all differ. I will note that while HI wool has a reputation for being non next-to-skin soft, I’ve found plenty that is delightfully fine. I’ve also found plenty that is of a moderate softness and would be great for hats and mittens or even a sturdy shawl or wrap. I already have several projects planned for the future but I’m open to suggestions if there are things you’d really like to see covered. You can leave me a comment here, DM me on Instagram @baltimorewoolcompany, or send me an email at baltimorewoolcompany@gmail.com.

I’m off to spin more Olga wool. Look for my next post in early September!

Pair of Pears

pairofpears

For the last week or so I’ve been experimenting with framing some of my textile art. I don’t like it in every case, but am quite happy with the results for 100% needle felted pieces. This pair of pears above didn’t look half as nice without the frames. They’ve been donated to a charity silent auction being held this Spring. I made these two about a year and a half ago and seeing them framed has renewed my interest in needle felted still life work.

Needle Felting with Yarn

 

yarndaphne

Yarn was my entry into the world of fiber art. Before I learned to weave or knit, I learned how to spin yarn. It gave me an deep connection with the animals who produce my wool, and it allowed me to make the kind of yarn I wanted (but couldn’t find) for my projects.

Over the years I have produced a lot of yarn. I’ve knitted with it, woven cloth and tapestries with it, used it to accent my mixed media textile art, given it to friends, and I’ve sold the vast majority of it. So, I thought I had a handle on all of the novel ways you could use yarn, especially in art.

Last month I was prepping to teach my usual monthly program, Fast and Easy Fiber Arts, at the Hereford Library. I’d decided that my January program would be “yarn painting.’ I was loosely basing this on the amazing yarn art produced by the Huichol people of Mexico. They use very fine yarn and beeswax to produce images. But my program is an hour and a half so there was no way we could try the authentic way to do this. After experimenting with glue and MDF board, I had the sudden inspiration (Thank you, Barbara!) to try needle felting the yarn onto a linen fabric. It worked!

Most of my programs are based on based on needle felting. My participants just love it, and I love the effects you can produce with just a needle and a bit of wool. As I mentioned, I do use yarn accents in my mixed media art, but it’s almost always a single ply. The 2-4 ply yarns I used in the piece above add texture and movement and I can see a lot of possibilities for use in future art work. The piece above is based on a photo of Daphne, one of my Jacob ewes, and made entirely from commercial yarn. I’ve already started sketching for another, larger piece that will be created entirely from my handspun yarn. Yes, it will probably be another of my critters. 🙂

I’ll post some WIP pics once I’ve made some progress.

 

Jacob Sheep

Penny and Pearl have arrived on the farm!

Sheepgirls

I have wanted to add sheep to my fiber herd for years, but I always came up with a reason to put it off. Until this Spring that is, when various changes steamrolled my usual no-sheep-yet excuses. I talked to my partner and started doing more research on breeds that would work best for us. We spent a delightful day at the MD Sheep and Wool festival talking to shepherds, visiting sheep, collecting business cards, and buying fleece from our top 3 breeds.

We had narrowed down our choices and to my surprise I found that my #1 breed, Jacob sheep, had been replaced with the Hog Island sheep from Virginia. To further my research, I washed and spun the Hog Island fleece I’d purchased and loved the tweedy yarn it made. We visited Mt. Vernon, purchased a black fleece, and talked about buying a few wethers. P and I were busy planning fencing and sheep shelter. And that’s when I threw a wrench into the whole thing.

Thinking back to when I first started with llamas and alpacas, all of whom were rescues, I started wondering how often sheep show up in rescues. So, I pulled up the websites and poked around on the pages of the rescues in our area. Finding no sheep, I decided to check the Petfinder website for sheep in MD and PA. And there they were, two little Jacob sheep ewes at a rescue in PA. They were within a 2 hour drive, and Jacobs were #2 on my breed list. Uh oh.

When I sent the rescue’s link (http://oneliferescue.org/) to P, I expected to be reminded of our decision to start with Hog Island sheep. But, no. His question was “when are you getting those ewes?” He knows me well and is just as dedicated to animal welfare. I filled out the adoption application, emailed the rescue, and waited while they checked my references. We didn’t have to wait too long for our approval. Penny and Pearl would be coming home with us! We made arrangements to pick up the girls that Sunday afternoon, and got to work on the fence and sheep shed.

Today marks Penny and Pearl’s first full week with us. They are still quite young, and the folks at the rescue did a wonderful job with them. The girls are curious, friendly, and surprisingly affectionate.  I’m looking forward to getting my hands on some of the beautiful Jacob fleece. Hog Island sheep are still on our list, but right now I’m going to concentrate on these two girls, and learn as much as I can about shepherding before we begin growing our flock.

 

 

Coming Soon – Sheep!

Despite the best of intentions, I have not kept up with this blog. So, once again, I am going to make a concerted effort to produce more posts on a somewhat regular basis. In the Fall I’ll be returning to fiber art in a more dedicated way. I’ll be washing wool, spinning, dyeing, weaving, and teaching. I’ll also be writing about our newest additions to the Athlone Farm/Baltimore Wool Company.

This afternoon we’ll be picking up and bringing home our first sheep! Our current population will be 5 llamas, 4 alpaca, 2 sheep, and 13 chickens. The sheep are a pair of adorable Jacob ewes that we’re adopting from a local rescue. We also plan to add a couple of Hog Island sheep  sometime in the near future.

sheepshed

Yesterday was dedicated to the construction of a summer house for the girls. While I’ve had llamas and alpacas for the last 15 years, sheep do have some different needs. The sheep girls will have their cozy new shed (fitted with a fan for summer,) as well as good hay, minerals, a water bucket and some nice pasture. I’ll be posting more once we have them settled in their new home. And in a year, all of that beautiful marbled fleece will be ready to shear.

 

Rooster in the Hen House

Spring is a busy time on most farms. It’s crazy busy on mine. Shearing the llamas and alpacas, trying to get the garden in order and planted, and getting the barn ready for hot weather take a lot of time. Every year I say I’ll simplify or get a head start and every year things are still crazy.

This year I managed to add another layer of crazy. I decided to get a few chicks to make my flock a little bigger. I thoroughly enjoy my chickens, I wanted more eggs, and more hens keep my rooster busier. So I picked up five chicks from our local feed store; 1 auracana, and 4 black jersey giants. Somewhere around 3 or 4 weeks I noticed that one of the JG hens had a bigger comb than the others. It was also much taller than the others. Two weeks later I saw wattles growing in. I couldn’t ignore it or pretend any more. She was a he.

Which one is the rooster? Easy to see!

This little rooster, now known as Ricardo Montalban, cannot live with my Swedish Flowers hens and rooster. For a whole variety of reasons, he and the 3 JG hens will have their own yarn and coop. And that’s where more of the crazy business comes in. After extensive searching for another well made chicken coop and finding only very expensive or rather poorly made coops, I decided to build one myself.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to learn how to build. It’s easy to come up with reasons why I couldn’t build a coop but I was determined to ignore all of those reasons and give this a try. I looked at lots of on-line coop plans and couldn’t find any that I wanted to attempt. I finally settled on an easy design I found in a book, Reinventing the Chicken Coop, that I’d checked out of the library. I copied the plans for the A-Frame Coop and bought my supplies. Last weekend I finished cutting and assembling the frame.

I’ve had to go back a fix a few mistakes, and this is a slow process, but I’m making progress. It’s great fun to learn new skills and I am very proud of what I’ve created so far. Today will be dedicated to cutting, fitting, and attaching the sides, doors, and windows. More later…

 

 

Extremely Slow Fashion

The slow fashion movement has interested me for years. The philosophy behind it, understanding the origins and process behind your clothing and choosing those pieces least harmful to people, animals, and the planet, falls right into my own mission. It was this philosophy that, as a novice knitter, led me to learn how to spin fleece into yarn and eventually wind up with my own fiber-producing herd of llamas and alpacas.

These days knitting and crochet have become very popular and there are countless independent brands producing yarns from ethically sourced fleece and fiber. Thanks to sites like Etsy you can buy raw wool or carded/combed fleece directly from farms and other small companies. (Including my own!) The growth of DIY fiber arts and crafts has been another reflection of the slow fashion movement. What is slower and more worthwhile than spinning your own yarn and knitting a lovely sweater to your own specifications?

But, my journey through slow fashion has hit a major snag. And that is my current obsession with sewing. The way that we, as a global industry, produce fabric is the absolute opposite of earth friendly. For example, if you go to the average fabric store in any American city, you find lots of lovely fabric, and usually a sticker or note that says “made in America” or “made in China” but absolutely no information about the source of the fiber and where it was processed.

For example, you may find a nice cotton that says it was made in America. Great. But you don’t get the whole story. That cotton may have been grown in Texas, sent to China for processing, India for spinning, sent to Spain for dyeing, then sent back to the US for sale. That is most certainly not a small carbon footprint! If the fabric is to be used in the commercial garment trade it would have even more of a journey as it would probably end up someplace like Indonesia for cutting and sewing. For more about that, you can read this BBC article that was published 2 days ago.

If you were able to obtain the supply chain involved in the creation of your fabric, there are still big pieces missing. How was the fiber farmed? Was there heavy pesticide use, were the sheep treated well, were the workers paid a fair wage and treated decently? This kind of transparency is not only lacking, it is most likely completely impractical in our current global system of cloth production.

I’ve been researching this topic for months now and I’m no closer to finding a good solution. I could do what I did way back when I couldn’t find the yarn that I wanted. I learned to make it myself. I am a weaver, though I haven’t touched my loom in several years. And I do have plenty of fleece from the llamas and alpacas (and local sheep!) that would make lovely fabric. Doing it all myself would most definitely be slow! I’ll be exploring more options in the coming months and will record my ideas, experiments, and analysis here.

Most of them, anyway.

My Current Obsession: Sewing

I’ve fallen in love with my sewing machine. It’s a Singer Simple model that one of my sisters gave me for Christmas several years ago. I don’t use it often enough. It comes out every now and again to hem things or sew up simple projects. Curtains, kid’s dress up costumes, and small uncomplicated stuffed animals have been the usual fare.

A couple of weeks ago, after reading a haunting article about a sea creature suffering because of plastic bags in the ocean, I decided to stop using plastic bag as much as possible. I remembered reading in various places that you can easily make old polypropylene feed bags into totes. And I have plenty of feed bags! I rarely throw them away because I feel so guilty about that much plastic going into the landfill. So, I fired up the googles and looked up a few tutorials, taking the best bits of each one and coming up with a plan.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning, cutting, and sewing a tote bag made from a chicken feed bag. It was easier than I expected and lots of fun. The finished bag has been in almost constant use and holds up beautifully despite the fact that I used regular white polyester thread.

chickenbag

In the next few days I made 2 more bags and I’m sure there will be more in the future. And I did buy heavy duty thread. I’ve also started working on clothing. The last time I tried to sew clothes was with my grandmother when I was 8 years old or so. Like the bags, the whole process is great fun. I’m currently working on a couple of shirts. More on those later…

Happy New Year!

And to go along with the new year, I have several pounds of newly boxed fleece, ready to be shipped out to the mill.  No matter how many times I do this, it gives me a fun little feeling of excitement and anticipation.

In the box is the gorgeous fleece of my two youngest alpacas, Nate and Kwame. It always makes me laugh to see the difference in volume between these two. 5 pounds of Kwame’s suri fleece looks quite small compared to 3 pounds of Nate’s huacaya fluff.

rawfleece

This batch will be carded into beautiful roving and will be returned in approximately 3  months. As soon as I have it back it will be available for purchase on my Etsy store.

Well, minus the few ounces that I may steal for my own spinning and/or felting. It will be very hard to resist all of that pretty, shiny softness.