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.

 

 

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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.

Silent Feather

Yesterday we had to say goodbye to a very special llama. Silent came to Athlone Farm in 2007 as part of a rescue. She was well into her teens then and had the beginnings of arthritis. She was a lovely gray color, even prettier after I’d shorn two or three years worth of matted hair off of her.

As she and her companions began to feel safe, Silent revealed her feisty, no-nonsense personality and became herd leader. She was very good at her job. Her favorite things were a good roll in the dust patch, followed by a long sunbath. And the occasional alfalfa treat in winter time.

Silent was with us for nine years.  I am thankful to have had the chance to care for her. She always had her companions, including her sister and her daughter, around her. She always had a warm barn to sleep in, plenty of grass and nutritious food, and good vet care. We love her and miss her already.  RIP, my beautiful girl.

 

It’s Shearing Time Again

It’s Shearing Time Again!

Each Spring when I shear my llamas and alpacas I end up with around 20-25 pounds of suri alpaca fiber. There are 5 suris in my herd and every year I am amazed by their beautiful fleece.

nateandkwam - Copy

 Nate, on the left, is a huacaya alpaca. Kwame, on the right, is a suri. The suri fiber hangs down in long, straight locks. 

Suri is a very heavy, silky fiber. It makes wonderfully light and warm fabric when very finely spun into super thin yarns. But in my experience, 100% suri yarns any heavier than lace weight are not ideal. There are exceptions, of course, but because I sell most of my yarn I prefer to create the most versatile yarns possible by blending my suri fiber.

As little as 20% fine wool blended with suri fiber lightens a skein enough that it is a pleasure to knit, crochet, or weave with. The yarn still shows off suri’s drape, luster, and softness but the wool adds a bit of bounce. The more wool you add, the lighter in weight the skeins become.

Because elasticity and softness are the major characteristics I’m looking for, I choose wool from sheep breeds known to exhibit softness and elasticity in their wool. My current favorites are CVM/Romeldale and Rambouillet. Both are soft and springy and come in lots of beautiful colors.

It’s important to me to choose my fleece from local (to me) sheep farms where I can actually see the sheep. I’ve been lucky enough to find a handful of excellent farmers to buy from here in Maryland. One of my favorites is Pheasant Field Farm in Chestertown, MD. The sheep are happy and well loved and they grow gorgeous wool! Most of the flock are CVM, Romeldale, and Romney x.

And that brings me back to shearing. Ebay, my smallest alpaca, is a very dark brown suri. His fiber is super heavy and slick and really benefits from blending. It’s hard to match that dark chocolate color as well as the fineness of Ebay’s fleece…but this year I can do it thanks to Pheasant Field Farm! Gabriel, a Romeldale yearling, has the perfect wool.

Ebay’s fiber on the left.  Ebay and Gabriel’s fleeces side by side.

I’m excited about this blend and can’t wait to get started. The next sunny day we have I’ll be scouring and putting fleece out on screens to dry. I’ll take more photos of the blending process, the carded batts, and the finished yarn. If it turns out as well as I hope I’ll have it for sale at the farmer’s market next month. See you there!