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Shearing 2020

Shearing!

We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.

Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.

Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.

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Our BFL Yarn is Here

I am so happy with the BFL yarn that came back from Battenkill Fibers this year.

In past years, our BFL clip has been too small for me to send it to a mill.  Bluefaced Leicesters are bred to have light fleeces.  In the UK, this was done with the idea of reducing the fleecy bulk of Cheviots and Scottish Blackface ewes.  The ewes from these crossbreedings are known as mules, and they are famous for having better wool and more lambs than their mountain dams, but more fleece and ruggedness than their BFL sires.

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We just love our BFL sheep!  Here, Sally gets all of the petting she wants from farmer Matt.

In the US, where BFLs are not used as much for creating mule ewes, the small fiber clip is a bit of an issue for mill processing, which requires minimum amounts.  This year, with 17 adult ewes contributing, we finally have plenty of lovely yarn to sell.

The yarn itself is something else.  I have never had yarn so smooth, shimmery and soft, while not being ropey or hard at all.  I love how it shows off the dye efforts I’ve made.  It’s easy to envision this yarn as a luxury shawl or treasured scarf.  Slouchy hats would also be a great use for it.  I’m not saying that your BFL socks won’t stay up, but I am saying that this yarn deserves to be used doing what it does best, which is draping beautifully without pilling.  I chose colors that I thought would lend life and interest to single-color projects, though the colors complement each other well, too.

Our BFL yarn is fingering weight, 200 yards per skein.  

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Cloverworks Farm Greensboro Bend Yarn

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The Yarn is Here

Most years, I have sent my wool to the mill with the expectation that my yarn might come back just a few weeks before the festivals I regularly attend.  Usually, that was just enough time to count it and dye it while Mom might knit a sample or two.

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This year is different.  Our mill, Battenkill Fiber, has a different reservation system that allows me to place my wool earlier in the queue by making an earlier deposit.  This saves me a lot of stress and hassle in the fall; a time of year when I am busy with lambs and farmer’s markets as well as yarn.

Our yarn came out wonderfully, once again.  The Border Leicester wool we sent in became our Derby Line Sport-Weight yarn.   We also sent our BFL to the mill and got back stunning, drapey, glossy fingering-weight yarn.  It’s all dyed up, but I haven’t gotten it into the online store yet.  Ditto for some hat kits we will be offering- there’s lots to look forward to!

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As you read about in The Reality of Yarn,  getting the yarn off of the cones and into skeins took a lot of time and patience.  Choosing colors and dyeing the yarn relies a bit more on some of my experience.  I took careful note of which colors appealed to people and which ones just sat.  I really like orange, but I’ve eased-up on orange a bit this year in the Derby Line.  I have also made more solid shades and fewer semi-solid.   I did choose to make semi-solids and multicolor yarn with the BFL.  It was BORN to be an art-shawl, cowl or scarf, so having an art yarn is more appropriate.    Overall, I am pleased with the palette I’ve made and eager to see how customers receive it!

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The BFL yarn – freshly dyed and now drying out.

I admit that I am a bit selfish about dyeing the yarn.   Even though it would be a potentially fun group activity, I hoard it for myself.  Dyeing is the one place where I can do a bit of artwork in a profession that is otherwise mostly physical, so I make an afternoon of it with the radio on, a glass of wine, and a drawerful of powerful dyes and my dedicated pots.  I hope that my creative outlet will be your crafting inspiration!

 

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The Reality of Yarn

Don’t get me wrong.  Playing with yarn gives me great joy.  I love the texture, the sheepy scent, the slight dust of it.  I love the whole sensory experience and I am always happy to have more yarn.

This year, instead of having our yarn made into pre-measured skeins at the mill, we elected to have it delivered on huge cones to be made into skeins at home.  Matt built a skein winder that automatically spins and measures each skein.  Such a winder would normally cost $350-400.  He made ours out of spare parts and some pvc pipe for about $150.

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But please understand that this is Day 12 of winding skeins.  I have rewatched the entirety of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” (11 hours and 30 minutes, for those counting at home) while winding skeins, and that just covered winding the white BFL and 1/3 of the white Border Leicester.  I watched Ken Burns “The Roosevelts” as well.  I also watched the whole “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series (23 hours 20 minutes!) while making the natural color Border Leicester skeins and white mini-skeins needed for new patterns that will be released soon.

Each skein comes off the line frequently enough to make tasks more complex than television impossible.  Likewise, my hands need to stay clean, precluding anything like cooking or dyeing other yarn.  Watching something informative makes me feel like my brain is engaged with something meaningful.  I know I’m letting my nerd flag fly by admitting to my preference for documentaries and straightforward storytelling.  The current selection of human-failure-intensive prestige dramas don’t appeal: to me, the world has enough genuine sorrow and pain.  I cannot enjoy watching people suffer for entertainment.  I left human services forever in 2010 for a reason.

I am happy to report that I am winding skeins from the final cone of natural-color Border, and I am really, really happy to be so nearly done.  Stay tuned for 2019 yarn!20190521_092711

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We Went to Rhinebeck

This post should have been part of a series of posts where we prepare for Rhinebeck, talk about our journey getting our stock together, and then go.

I didn’t get that done.  Picture me weighing and packaging just-finished roving from the flock the night before I left, because that’s about the pace things were taking.

We had already been invited to display our Bluefaced Leicester sheep in the breed barn, so we were committed to bringing sheep to the venue.  Then, we found out we would have a substitute vending space – awesome!  Except that we didn’t really have enough yarn to fill out a booth, so we would have to try to do some in-fill.   Fortunately, Kingdom Fleece and Fiberworks had some space in their processing calendar, so we had the lambs shorn and sent their soft, beautiful fleeces to Elizabeth.

So I left Vermont at 5am on Friday with 17 lbs of roving and 25 lbs of yarn in the truck cab, my display for both my booth and the BFL breed display in the bed of the truck, and two lambs for the breed display in the trailer.  I picked up some Icelandics in need of a ride down in Duxbury, and arrived at Rhinebeck right at 1pm.  I wish that Google Maps had a setting for navigation with a trailer.  I wasn’t keen to pay Thruway tolls for trailering, and I also had to keep de-selecting routes that used the Taconic Parkway (trailers not permitted there).  Did you get that, Google?  Good.

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Packed to the gills.  And yes, yes I do use a little booster to see in my F150.

Setting up went quickly once Mom arrived, and before we knew it Saturday morning arrived.  I thought that the attendees might come in at a jogging pace, but we weren’t near any of the “hot” vendors so we were just casually populated with shoppers until our booth felt full.  Kind helpers from Ravelry joined us to help answer questions and guide customers.  I owe a big thank you to Liz, Nance and Betsy for getting us food and water, and to Alisa and Alison for answering key Rhinebeck questions and being ready with a good phone charger.

We observed some interesting outcomes in our booth.  We sold more kep patterns with our Northern Borders yarn than we did mitten patterns with our Derby Line yarn.  Colors seem to be hit or miss with different crowds, but I will be planning on making more solid colors next year, even though variegated yarn is FUN!  We will have notecards for sale on the site soon.  Mom enjoyed interacting with fellow Kep-makers from her Facebook based Kep group and just chatting about the sheep and knitting.  Mom really makes the booth possible, since she is the real fiber expert on staff.

Sunday was a bit of a letdown, mainly because I will freely admit that our booth looked picked-over after Saturday and we were quite low on yarn.  We didn’t have all of the colors and kits that people wanted to buy available.  Good information for next year, when I anticipate having twice as much yarn made for a nice, lush booth.

It is a real credit to the organizational skills of Rhinebeck managers that the show ended at 4 pm but it only took an hour and change to pack Mom up with all of the booth contents and fixtures, and then 45 minutes more for me to pick up the sheep and take them home.  This will be my last year bringing sheep to Rhinebeck, so next year will be much more straightforward.

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Next year, I will have a banner instead of two aluminum signs.

 

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A Big Opportunity

A while ago, I had thought to put in my application for a booth at Rhinebeck (formally, the New York State Sheep and Wool Gathering) because I had heard that it could take a decade to get a booth.  So I figured I’d just send applications their way for a few years while I put together a schedule of fiber festivals where I can sell my yarn.

So imagine my surprise when an email arrives on Monday from the Rhinebeck organizers saying that they have a need for some substitute vendors, and would I like to sell yarn at the festival?  YES!

So I am going to be a Rhinebeck vendor this year, provided the State of New York processes my application for a Tax ID.  But I will assume that that will happen and I’ll be on my way to put some sheep in the breed barn and then we will set up our booth in a location TBD.

Wish me luck!

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Going to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival

It is that time of year again!   We are headed to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, where we have 350 skeins of Border Leicester yarn to sell along with many other fiber goodies.

For starters, both my Northern Borders and Derby Line yarns have been selling well.  Even though the Montpelier Farmer’s Market isn’t an ideal venue for selling an item specific to the small part of the population that knits, the yarn colors and the tactile joy of touching yarn draw visitors in.  In fact, I have sold enough yarn that I need to consider dyeing additional yarn to round out my color availability.  My concern is not having the right amounts of the colors people want most.  Sales at the farmer’s market have depleted some of my colors!

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Another significant offering this year is hats.  Specifically, this Kep design that my mother has developed.  Keps are a traditional slouchy Fair Isle hat that features our Northern Borders yarn nicely.  Mom has cranked out six hats, while I am still working on hat number one.  She is really a knitting powerhouse.

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I also have gobs of BFL wool that wants dyeing and final touches.  Good thing Great British Bakeoff is available again!

The to-do list for the sheep is no shorter.  Ten lambs ship on 9/27, breeding groups need to be arranged next week, and everyone gets a Selenium shot because our soils are very deficient.  That is a whole lot of work!

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Lessons from the Farmers Market

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My friend Mike helped get the setup done.

I had my goods for sale at Montpelier for the first time yesterday.  I still have a lot to learn about effectively selling my goods.

  • Don’t forget your tent!   The market was on Saturday morning.  On Friday evening that I realized that my pop-up tent was 150 miles away in Keene, NH with my parents.  Oops.  I didn’t get a sunburn but I did have to model my rather dweeby hat that I wear while doing fieldwork.  I always wear a hat because sunscreen just melts off me in a river of sweat while I work.
  • I still have a “Meat and Yarn Don’t Mix” issue.  My booth had a lot of yarn-based visual appeal, which attracted yarn lovers.  But the Venn Diagram of Yarn Lovers and Sausage Lovers doesn’t have a big enough overlap space, so I wasn’t able to get yarnies to try or to buy the sausage.  At the same time, I am worried that the huge yarn display was actually discouraging the sausage-seeking folks from coming over.  Or maybe they didn’t see the signs.  Bigger signs are a must for next time!
  • Speaking of sausage:  You would think that sampling out sausage would be easy!  Cook a link, cut it up, feed people.  But it isn’t.  Law requires that hot food be served hot, but I had long pauses between visitors where cut-up samples would have cooled.  So I pre-cooked and pre-chopped my sample sausage for reheating on a little butane stove.  Regrettably, the stove caused samples to crisp up and dry out, and one woman even complained (very politely and informatively) that I wasn’t doing the sausage justice with the dry samples.  I wish I knew of a way to better offer samples of our juicy sausage- I don’t expect people to stay to have a sample whipped up for them personally.
  • Continuing my sausage thought-process: In an ideal world, I would be able to sell them as a cooked snack sandwich, but being a food vendor is really different from being an agricultural product vendor and we would need to invest time and money in regulatory compliance.  I would also need another person at the farmer’s market to handle that.  I should look for a vendor who might like to sell my sausage on commission.
  • I noticed that of the two varieties of yarn that I now have for sale, everyone touched both kinds but all of the buyers bought my newer yarn because of the soft, fluffy texture.  I will add the new yarn to the store soon.
  • I am proud to say that I remembered almost everything I would need for a day at the market- markers, tape, cashbox, etc.  I remembered everything except a plate to put the tongs on and my coffee.  Realizing I had forgotten my coffee was disappointing, to say the least.

 

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The Scary Part

There is a point in starting your small business where you realize that you are all-in.  You have a bunch of money all tied up with processors like butchers and yarn mills, and you wait for your product to come back.

This is a tale of three products.

On the bright side – The first batch of yarn is in, and it is magnificent.   Border Leicester will never be mistaken for Merino, but the spinning work done by this mill brings out all of the best drapey, light attributes of the fiber.  I’ve been developing my dyeing skills and I am pleased with the colors I achieved as well.

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On the otherhand, the sausage isn’t quite what I had hoped.

Most importantly, it TASTES FANTASTIC.  It’s juicy and yummy with great lamb flavor.  But the packaging is not what I had expected, and it was mislabeled at the plant and cannot be re-labeled easily.  Instead of 9 oz packages, each package is a pound, which makes for a pricey product when I calculate the value of the meat plus the very high production costs.  I wish I had other sausage-production options, but only one meat processor in the state routinely makes sausage with pork fat mixed in, which is necessary for good lamb sausage.

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Finally, the 75 meat chickens were almost an unmitigated disaster.  We lost 20 total to the raccoon, one or two a night for two weeks such that we didn’t really notice (it doesn’t help that chickens do not hold still for counting, and that the geese leave feathers all over the yard, disguising evidence of theft and dining).  We took the chickens to be processed today, and the carcasses are TINY!  Every chicken was a Cornish Game Hen in disguise!  I had wanted to avoid the Cornish Cross, so we choose the Slow White broiler instead.  Slow must be the operative word.  So we are going to just break even on the chickens on a cash basis, meaning all of the labor of raising them will be unpaid.   On the bright side, there is a strip of highly-fertilized grass in our pasture now where the chickens left generous deposits of nitrogen.

I have $1450 worth of sausage in the freezer and $850 worth of yarn in the storeroom.  The chickens are largely for our own consumption as well as for friends and family.  It was time to “throw open the shop doors” in effect.  Would customers come?  Will I be able to recoup my money and add a bit of profits besides?   In past years, having a full time job lowered the stakes of this moment, but right now I feel the full effects of worrying that my efforts have been in vain.  I like sausage, but we are well beyond what we could possibly consume ourselves.  It feels like this is the time where my publicity and marketing efforts succeed or fail.

But no sooner did I offer the sausage and the yarn than some requests and orders came in for each.  We are grateful whenever someone gives us the opportunity to provide sustainable, regenerative yarn and food – it’s the bit of good we can offer the world.

If you are interested in sausage or yarn, find them both at our store!.  I am delivering sausage for free in Northern Vermont as long as you are willing to wait for a time when I am headed to Burlington, Montpelier, etc, for other errands.  No more than a week’s wait, typically.

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Wool Culture

I am a frequenter of Ravelry, a knitters’ and crocheters’ forum with 7 million users worldwide.  I have a favorite group with a mostly social focus that I like to participate in, but I also read other discussions to keep tabs on what people want from their wool products.  I want to make sure I am providing the wool people want.

Recently, a poster asked a question about the modern wool market.  She noted that when she was a child, knitting was a functional skill more like being able to cook and drive than a fancy craft for leisure time.  Certainly, it was a space for self-expression in color and pattern, but knitting was undertaken for the simple fact that hats and sweaters and socks were not easily obtained in other ways!

Like my previous post about the globalization of meat, fabric and textile changed massively in the age of petroleum and globalization.  Synthetic fabrics have replaced wool in many applications, even though wool often performs better and is more sustainable.  The effort of properly caring for wool has turned many people away while others have been scared away from wool by misinformation about sheep and agriculture in general in our culture of increased fearmongering.

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At the same time that people were using free time in different ways or having less free time to knit, cheap, imported, mass-produced wool and non-wool items began to appear in stores.  It soon became equally or more expensive to knit a wool sweater than to buy one.  How is this possible?  Economies of scale, lack of environmental regulations where the clothing is made, cheap labor, mechanization, and commodity bulk wool.   When the time wool subsidies ended in the 1980s, growers of mid-grade work-wear type wool from Down breeds and Medium breeds couldn’t find as many outlets to sell to.   Farmers that used to raise Down breeds have turned to hair breeds, as the cost of removing the wool from the sheep is greater than the value of the wool on the bulk market.  More than half of the US wool clip is finewool today, where once there was a greater diversity of breed types.   Sheepraising on the whole, for wool and for meat, has declined precipitously since WWII, effectively pushed out in the modern era of industrial farming.   Sheep simply don’t industrialize well.  They need to graze on extensive lands and are susceptible to disease in confinement.  Even though there are confinement lamb finishing operations in the US, these operations are declining and struggling to compete with cheaper grass-fed lamb from New Zealand and Australia.  Only the direct-to-consumer and direct-to-store markets in the South and Northeast are growing for lamb in the US.

With respect to yarn: as the generation that knit for need disappears, knitting is much more of a leisure craft activity that consumes extra money and is fed by some degree of nostalgia, plus the satisfactory feelings of accomplishment when a garment is created.  As a wool seller, I know that the stories I share on this blog become part of the wool I sell and the crafts and garments you create from it.

This is the finale of what I wrote responding to the question:

The hard truth is that even though we’ve chosen to join this community of makers here on Ravelry, the number of people who cook, sew, knit or quilt by necessity has shrunk significantly in the last 50 years. All of the people who didn’t enjoy those activities but needed to do them to save money have been bailed out by fast food, by cheap clothing, by synthetic fabrics, by cheap bedding. The people who are left often will spend more money for quality, hence the “boutique-ification” of the yarn, fabric and food markets.

The hard thing for me to acknowledge as a farmer is how much I depend on the small number of people who care more about how their food and clothing was produced than about the price at the register.  Small producers are waging an uphill battle against globalized pork, corn subsidies that secondarily subsidize factory-farmed chicken and pork, petroleum clothing and the petroleum that brought that clothing across the ocean to our stores, and the devaluation of the art of making.

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Some handiwork – find more in our store!

What are your thoughts about current trends in knitting, spinning, crocheting, cooking and making?