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Two Old Women

I’ve been sharing a series of pictures of ewes in the flock to help show people the individuals in the web of stories in the flock.  I am enjoying sharing these images – I want people to know how we see our ewes as singular beings with their own personalities.

We have two ewes who are a little extra-special, though.

Their names are K and J.  They are twin sisters, 10 years old, and just as darling as they surely were as lambs.  They are smaller in size than their herdmates.  I am not sure why – they do fight for their fair share of food and they aren’t underweight.  They’re just smaller of frame.   Both are down a few teeth here and there – this will be an issue down the line.

J has a serious look.  She’s all business and doesn’t really want to be friends.  She trundles right into the middle of the largest Border ewes intent on her share of feed.

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J, right between two of my largest Border ewes.

K has a gentler face.  She is less competitive, more tired, with a broken ear that no longer shows the BFL perkiness it once did.


Sweet and gentle K

In 2020, I will need to make a tough decision.  As K and J slow down, I need to consider their place here.  Can I give them a safe and sequestered place if they become uncompetitive?  Each only raised one lamb last year, leaving us to raise an orphan from each.    My heart wants to keep them forever, but functionally, we can’t afford to.  The other temptation is to give them to a pet home where they could live out their days.  Sadly, I have too often seen other people with older animals who fail to recognize when it is time to let a sheep go.  I sympathize – it’s hard to recognize a discrete point in a slow decline when it is time to let an animal go.  But my responsibility is to the welfare of the sheep, fundamentally, and I must adhere to that.  With luck, they’ll keep chugging along and I can keep them here a little longer.

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Fleece Finding Mission

Bobolink Yarns moved along towards realization today.

I had checked with my neighbor Maria Schumann about wool recently.  Maria and her husband Josh Karp own Cate Hill Orchard.  There, they raise sheep for meat and dairy, cultivate apples, and run a wide variety of small enterprises.  I am continuously amazed by their ingenuity and creativity developing new products.  Maria’s family founded Bread and Puppet Theater, a famous Vermont puppetry theater.  To me, she’s local royalty.

As much as Maria loves beautiful fiber, the effort to mill and market their wool has gotten away from them.  Two year’s worth of wool awaited me in Maria’s old, charming barn.  Walking through the barn, I saw old mirrors, toys, spare wood, cob webs, and every other spare tidbit and old tool that old barns contain.  Sometimes I wish our tube and canvas barn had some spare corners where old wonders might accumulate.

The wool is truly beautiful – clean and long-stapled.  Since East Friesian dairy sheep are typically selected for their milking ability and not their fleece quality, the fleeces do vary between individuals more than you’ll find with other breeds.  I don’t think that variety is going to hurt, though.  The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook suggests that variation in fibers ranges from 26 to 37 microns, meaning that the fiber can range from near-skin soft to outerwear-only.  By comparison, my BFL sheep probably only range from 23-28 microns flockwide.

So now, we just need to decide exactly what to spin from it.

Images from my trip- these are Maria’s lovely sheep and her wool coming home, all piled up in the back of the truck.  Looks like perhaps 150 lbs.

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Review: “Fibershed” by Rebecca Burgess

I just finished reading Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists and Makers for a New Fiber Economy.  Reading this book was like reading a book I wish I had written – I am completely on board with the author’s concerns about our current clothing system and vision for a new one.  I hope this book increases awareness of the value of local fibercraft.


Burgess begins the book by outlining the environmental and ethical morass that is current Fast Fashion.  She outlines all of the pain and environmental destruction inherent in petroleum-derived fashion, including pollution from manufacture, dyeing and weaving/sewing of clothes.  She also notes emerging evidence showing the polluting properties of microfibers.  She tackles the environmental and ethical concerns about conventional cotton production and sheep production, including non-point pollution of fresh water as well as land use concerns.  I had not considered just how large the environmental footprint of clothing really is because I am not an active shopper, but she rightly points out that clothing manufacture is a huge sector of the global economy. No person or environment is untouched by the effects of our economic choices.

Her solution to the issues of our current wasteful and destructive clothing habit is simple enough to envision, but a challenge to implement.  She believes, and I agree, that we should go “localvore” with clothing as we should with food.  De-globalizing clothing economies and changing our habits around clothing would drastically slow the consumption of resources currently deployed to making flimsy garments meant only to last for a month or two.  It would also provide revitalizing economic opportunity in rural areas.

Her critique of the increasing rate of “planned obsolescence” in clothing really hit home for me.  I have struggled with this myself – I want to buy sturdy, comfortable jeans to work in, but in women’s clothing, jeans have become so flimsy that it’s hard to find a pair that will last me a year.  Men’s clothing is a little sturdier, but it doesn’t fit me at all and I feel like I shouldn’t have to compromise on fit to get properly dressed.  It’s even more of a struggle for me lately because since my surgeries, I can no longer tolerate a tight waistband across my tender pelvis and stomach.  That rules out a lot of brands of work pants.

The segment of the book that spoke to me most was (of course!) the segment on the potential for a California wool renaissance that would create a market for local raw wool, mills to spin and weave or knit it, and manufacturers to create top-quality finished garments.  I am totally on board with this vision.  Frustratingly, the only way this would really work would be if the environmental costs of globalized manufacture weren’t hidden from consumers or charged to third-world countries for clean up of environmental damage.   If the lifecycle price of carbon better matched the price at the pump, local clothing would be instantly competitive.

I am furthermore grateful for all of the groundbreaking lifecycle analysis that Burgess has done looking at local fiber’s carbon sequestration potential.  We should all wear wool with pride, knowing that every stitch of wool that replaces something made of petrochemicals is a little gift to our climate.   I only hope that we will rectify the artificial cheapness of imported fashion and imported food before it’s too late – I can safely assume that Burgess wishes very much for the same.  We furthermore agree that lab meat and lab fibers are a false hope which only serve to further centralize production while still hiding their carbon and ethical costs.

My critique of the book is twofold.  While the author’s citation of statistics and examples is commendable and thorough, so many are cited that it sometimes detracts from the narrative of the book.  The many credits she gives to people she visited and talked to while exploring her fibershed causes a similar narrative issue.  I appreciate that she wants to give producers their due, but I admit I found it distracting.  Also distracting was the organization of the book, which I would describe as distinctly “Californian-informal”.  Perhaps because I tend to favor textbooks, I struggled to follow the occasionally-meandering threads in this book.  I also wish she had more thoroughly examined the impacts of natural dyes.  It is my understanding that when mordant is added, many natural dyes are as polluting as synthetics or are worse.

Nevertheless, I feel that this is an important book for anyone who wants to explore the implications of their clothing choices.  She has groundbreaking information about new techniques for growing clothing crops more sustainably and with fewer labor rights infractions.  The book is full of striking illustrations and inspiring side-notations about farms and operations she has visited.  I would recommend it as the fiber-world equivalent to Omnivore’s Dilemma and other groundbreaking works endeavoring to spark change in our systems.

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A New Project


BobolinkWait, WHAT?

Recently, yarn shops have been asking for more of our yarn to buy wholesale.  We had inquiries at both Vermont Sheep and Wool and at Rhinebeck.  Because our retail efforts are going well, we don’t have enough yarn for more extensive wholesale marketing than the two local yarn shops we currently work with.  It’s hard to let purchasers down knowing that they need locally-grown stock to distinguish their shops in a crowded and competitive marketplace.

At the same time, other sheep farmers all around us have piles of wool going unused because they don’t have the knowledge, skill, or interest in doing so, not to mention the capital to have thousands of dollars in yarn sequestered at the mill for a while.  So much wool going to compost or the base wholesale market that doesn’t even offer a dollar a pound.

The third problem is one that Matt and I have acknowledged for Fiscal Year 3 of our farm at this scale.  Our enterprises make money, but it’s looking like they won’t supply enough profit to pay all of the bills without some additional enterprises.  We have too much work on the farm to fit in off-farm jobs.  How can we fill the gaps?

What if we could address all three issues with one effort?  We could buy raw wool from other sustainable sheep enterprises for much more than the base-level wholesale price, get it spun into excellent yarn, and then offer it to local yarn shops to help them curate a fuller local fiber section.  Since our yarn enterprise is generally doing very well, we can run this parallel enterprise similarly.

I have selected three farms to start with.  All three have interesting breeds, amazing fleece and so much potential.  All three are happy to see their fleece going into a worthy product.  I also think that knitters, crocheters and other fibercrafters are ready to move on from superwash merino into other, more adventurous waters.  Remember when sweaters didn’t pill?  It was because they were made from medium wools which stand up much better to daily use.  Not everyone will think this yarn is neck-soft – save your merino for that project and make your snowball-throwin’ mittens out of our yarn.

If you want to support this project, the most helpful thing you can do is purchase some yarn or lamb from the shop.  I don’t want to take long-wait preorders (fiber takes MONTHS at the mill – really!) but I promise I will let you all know when the new yarn is available.  In the meantime, your purchases will go towards purchases of wool, mill costs and other detail-stuff like yarn labels.  Your support means a lot to me, and I hope you find this project as exciting as I do.

Meanwhile, I do have a sheep farm to run, so nothing will change on the Cloverworks end.  A long winter followed by lambs awaits us!

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Winter Came

It’s a good thing that Matt and I completed of tidy-up chores yesterday, because today suddenly became Winter.  A little snow had fallen previously, but a serious amount of snow glazed the roads today.  The weather report suggested that cold temperatures will stick around, preventing us from moving the electronet.  Time to call it a year!

Cat on a deck with snow on her back
Weather-cat Louise predicts more snow to come.

The ewes had been grazing in several groups, each with a different ram of their own breed. We’ll keep track of pedigrees when the lambs come based on these groupings. It is important to keep the rams well-apart. Even the gentlest ram will fight another if ewes are at stake!  Everyone has been in pasture in this format for six weeks now.

Even though the Halloween Storm that hit our region of Vermont last week damaged our barn, the ewes needed to come in, nevertheless. I started by dividing up the outdoor loafing area so that we could open the gate to one area without letting loose the ewes already in the barn. This would also be our chance to pull the rams out before they start making trouble.

Border Leicester ewes and ram at Cloverworks Farm
Can we come in now? Nothing to eat here!

We had a simple enough time pulling the two Border Leicester rams out. Bain, the larger Bluefaced Leicester, gave us a little sass. The rams are settled in their own area now, scuffling a bit but generally ready to settle in for a long winter.

I picked up all of the fencing from where the ewes were eating grass just yesterday. As the sheep year transitions, I am grateful for all of the nourishing grass that fed my sheep and delighted their hearts as fresh pasture awaited them.

I picked up all of the fencing from where the ewes were eating grass just yesterday. As the sheep year transitions, I am grateful for all of the nourishing grass that fed my sheep and delighted their hearts as fresh pasture awaited them.