Monday, December 2, 2019

Working With Karakul Wool

Letty Klein has been raising Karakul sheep for almost 40 years and offers her advice on working with this rare wool. 

Karakul fiber comes in many colors; it is a coarse strong double-coated rug wool that felts in the blink of an eye! In fact I think this fast-felting trait is half the problem people have when washing a raw Karakul fleece.

It is not next-to-skin soft and it’s not meant for use in a blanket, unless a saddle blanket. Karakul is rug wool from perhaps the oldest breed of sheep -- think Persian Carpets. They have worn well for hundreds of years.

Braiding a rug from the roving is the best use of the fiber.

To spin from roving just draft a bit, treadle slowly, don’t over-spin, and in fact practice your long-draw!

So many possibilities to cherish, work with the color variations, don’t hide them. The yarn on the left has orange noils carded into the roving; this was used as the weft in an award-winning woven rug.

To spin-in-the-grease, which is my favorite, tease the raw locks apart with your fingers. Just fluff it, and let the wheel pull the fibers in as they come.

If you are spinning a lamb fleece, just leave the little birth-curls on the ends of the locks to stick out adding a unique texture and color variation to the yarn. If the wool seems a little sticky, a few seconds in the microwave will soften the grease, a tip told me by the late Glen Eidman.

Washing a raw fleece

Be careful! No agitation and no water temperature changes! For a small amount just lay the locks in a salad spinner or strainer, immerse in hot soapy water for a few minutes, then spin out the soapy water and move the basket to rinse water of the same temperature, spin again and dump onto a towel to dry.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Selecting a Raw Fleece

By Kathy Kravits

Fiber is available in different forms from raw wool to roving and yarn. There are times when fiber artists may choose a particular fiber and fiber preparation for a specific project, and there are times when the fiber alone drives the choice. This article will address the fundamentals of selecting a quality wool fleece suitable for producing yarn that can be used to create textiles.

Selecting a Fleece

Most of us have had the experience of falling in love with the appearance of a fleece and the feel of it against our hands. While these are important signs of the potential of a fleece to make a wonderful product, they are only the first indicators of the suitability of the fleece for the project planned by the fiber artist.

The characteristics that should be assessed in order to determine whether a particular fleece has the potential to produce a yarn that can be successfully used to create a particular textile product. These characteristics include:

  1. Health and Hand
  2. Staple
  3. Character
  4. Contaminates

Health and Hand

A healthy animal is more likely to produce a quality fleece. When selecting a fleece, it is important to understand that many things can affect the wool, such as the breed, age (the younger the animal the more likely the fleece is to have desirable characteristics), gender, breeding activity including recent pregnancy, nutrition, coated or not, and environmental factors such as weather extremes, over-crowding, etc. The smell of the fleece should be considered as a healthy sheep will produce a fleece that smells pleasantly “woolly”. A sharp off-putting scent would suggest that the fleece may not have been stored properly or that the animal was not healthy.

Hand is a subjective experience of softness and fineness that is pleasing to the fiber artist. It is an important characteristic because it prompts the artist to consider the feel of the fiber and whether or not it is right for the intended project. It also can indicate that the fleece is healthy. A fleece with an unpleasant hand (e.g. the fibers feel dry, coarse, etc.) may not be suitable for the planned project.


The staple is the length of the fiber from the cut end to the tip of the lock.


The length of the staple is influenced by breed, age of the animal, time between shearing, nutrition, and other environmental stressors. Most hand spinners find that a 3-5 inch staple length is suitable for home preparation and hand spinning. Longer staple lengths may be successfully prepared at home and by the hand spinner with some modifications in cleansing strategies. Shorter staple lengths may also be prepared by hand spinners with careful attention to the method of carding/combing used.


The fiber must be strong in order to produce a yarn that will be sturdy and capable of being used in a variety of different projects. Staple strength may vary across the fleece. For example, along the top of the back the fiber is exposed to direct sunlight which may dry it out and weaken it. There is a reasonably simple technique for testing staple strength. After politely requesting to see the entire fleece rolled out, ask permission to select fibers for testing from the blanket (one sample from each side of the blanket), one from the neck, and one from near the belly. Never open a fleece or remove fiber without asking permission.

Hold the fibers with one hand at the cut end and one at the tip. Place your hands together and then pull them apart sharply. The fiber should feel strong and resilient and make a sound that is clear and resonant. Should the fibers from the body of the fleece break, then it should not be selected. Breakage at the tips does not necessarily mean the fleece cannot be used, but will require thoughtful preparation.


Breaks in the fiber occur for several reasons. They can reflect poor health of the sheep, nutritional deficiencies, and environmental stressors such as prolonged heat, overcrowding, and competition for grazing. Breeding and pregnancy can affect the fleece of both males and females.

A fleece with breaks in the staple distributed throughout will continue to break during processing and will not make a strong yarn. Breaks limited to certain areas of the fleece such as along the back and at the tips may be considered, but will require aggressive skirting and sorting in order to result in strong usable fiber.



Crimp is a configuration of the individual fibers of the fleece. The fibers with crimp form waves that can be tightly or loosely organized. Crimp is measured by the number of waves per inch with the increased number of crimp being associated with increased fineness. It is desirable to have a well-organized, consistent crimp throughout the individual staples and fleece.

Crimp is associated with the elasticity of the fibers. Elasticity is a special quality of wool fiber that allows the fibers to be stretched and then to return to their previous length. From a project point of view, this allows garments made from wool to tolerate and recover from all forms of stretch and use.


Luster is the ability of the fiber to reflect light. Luster is associated with the breed, less crimp in the fiber and a larger diameter of the individual fibers.


Color is associated with breed. White ranges from creamy to bright white. All colored fleeces should be consistent with the breed standard. Many sheep have a variation in color throughout their fleece. It is the artist's decision how to respond to this circumstance. By combining all the variations in color, a richly variegated yarn can be produced. The artist who has a specific project in mind may elect to sort the different colors into separate groupings in order to accommodate the design goals of the project. It is important to approach the preparation of colored fleeces with design goals in mind.


Fleeces that are contaminated with large amounts of vegetable matter, insects, or other contaminants should be carefully considered before being selected for a project.

Key Points

• Choose a fleece you love.

• Consider the requirements of the product to be created when choosing a fleece.

• Objectively assess for health and hand, staple, character, and contaminates across the entire fleece.

About the author

Kathy Kravits has been involved in fiber arts since teaching herself to knit at nine years old. She has developed a love for all aspects of fiber arts including spinning, weaving, and knitting. Spinning is particularly fascinating to her because it allows her to create unique yarns for specific projects. Kathy has taught basic spinning courses and tapestry weaving.


Austin, P. (2018). Sheep Fleece: Nature’s Best. Hand Spinning: Essential Technical and Creative Skills. Pp. 49-67.

Fournier, N. and Fournier, J. (1995). About Wool. In Sheep’s Clothing: A Hand Spinner’s Guide to Wool. Pp. 15-21.

Larson, K. (2015). The Fine Art of Selection. The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Wool. Pp.10-16.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Shepherd Profile: Steve and Sonja Pyne

Steve and Sonja Pyne of Queen Creek, AZ, began raising Tunis sheep about ten years ago on The Farm at the End of the Road, and today they are fiber providers for other shepherds as well. Their flock name is Woolhalla.

Why did you decide to raise Tunis?
They had all the qualities we wanted – dual-purpose, striking good looks, polled, good mothering ability, and docile. What tipped the balance in our choice of breed was that Tunis are a Livestock Conservancy Watch List breed.

But the fleece and wool project grew beyond our own sheep as we began networking with folks in Arizona and other Four Corners states and realized how many of them kept, for various reasons, between 1 and 10 sheep of assorted breeds. Many considered the fiber to be a liability, feeling that a single fleece or two is more trouble than it’s worth, and so ended up discarding the fleeces, or even shearing the sheep only every other year. As I learned more about their flocks and was certain the sheep were not crosses but single breed sheep (if not registered or perhaps LC Priority listed), I offered to pay for the shearing and occasional other expenses for the health of the animal and take the fleece in payment, developing access to a wide variety of fleeces and fibers, far greater than what we could grow ourselves – it’s the ultimate spinner’s flock! Where we have permission from the shepherd, our packaging always reflects the name of the farm, as well as the name and photo of the sheep.
How many adults in your flock?
We have 13 ewes, a ram, and a wether.
What state are you in?
We are located in Queen Creek, Arizona between the Superstition and San Tan Mountains.

Why should a breeder sell their wool?
From a producer’s perspective, selling the wool allows the farmer to realize a bit more income and helps balance the scales for what it costs to raise that animal. From an environmental perspective, harvesting and actually using that resource means that it doesn’t go into a landfill. From an artistic perspective, single breed wool allows fiber artists to accentuate various qualities in their crafts, and a properly chosen breed of wool will highlight all the qualities the artist is looking for.
Why have you chosen to sell your wool in the form you do?
In the Southwest US, fiber mills and shearers are at a premium. Generally speaking, roving can be returned from a mill to a grower much faster than yarn can. In addition, unless you are independently wealthy (which we certainly are not!) there is a tremendous amount of money tied up in yarn at any given time, and choosing what kind of yarn to have made is always a scatter shot. At various times I have tried lace, fingering, sport, DK, worsted, bulky, all in both 2-ply and 3-ply and it didn’t matter which grist or ply I had chosen, it was the “wrong” one. I still have some beautiful yarn that I had made 5 or 6 years ago, and that represents money spent that cannot be used for some other farm and animal related project. I can’t out-guess what yarn will be most appealing, and roving fits just about all spinners.

What is one important thing you have learned about sheep management as it relates to selling their wool?
Clean well-kept wool from well cared for animals sells product. Period.
Why do you or do you not coat your sheep?
We do not coat our sheep. Temperatures here can reach 118 degrees during the summer months. Sheep don’t need another layer of anything on them, and they certainly don’t need the stress of having coats managed and changed during hot weather.
What is one surprising thing you learned about having sheep that are not coated?
We have discovered that through good husbandry and careful management, it is possible to work around the perceived need for coats on sheep. We feed about 50% grass and 50% alfalfa in the summer. The sheep are fed at specific times in specific ways, and my husband specifically designed feeders that minimizes the possibility of the sheep spreading veg on themselves or each other, and maximizes the efficient use of the hay which ends up saving us money, as well.
What is one important thing you learned about selling your wool?
I have to give you two important things! First, we compare ourselves to an indie bookstore – there is no possible way to complete with the Big Box stores and discounters, but we will offer you the best and most personalized customer service there is. The second thing, however, is that the support and commitment of fiber artists means everything. Of course I acknowledge the financial support in the form of buying product, but perhaps even more important is the social and emotional support we feel from artists who are invested in the farm and the sheep and honestly value what we do, as we value what they do.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fiber Artist Profile: Candace Tresnak

What fiber art(s) do you participate in and for how long have you done each one?
I started my journey into fiber arts about 4 years ago. I wanted to learn how to weave because I was really into babywearing my youngest daughter. I wanted to learn how all these threads became cloth. Then, I bought some fiber that wasn't plied and I bought a spinning wheel, because "it needed to be plied". That was in August of 2016. Then, I needed something to do with all the yarn I was (sort of) making. So, I learned how to crochet in the summer of 2017. Then I realized I didn't want to "waste" my yarn by using it for crochet, so I learned to knit in December odf 2018. I have tried a little felting here and there as well.

When did you start working with fiber from rare breeds of sheep?
I bought quite a few fleeces before I went back to work - so in the summer of 2017. I purchased some Black Welsh Mountain, Jacob, Romedale (I have a number of entire fleeces from that breed), Shetland, as well as some Clun Forest. The first raw fleece I ever purchased was a Lincoln x. So, not eligible, but I think it retained much of the Lincoln traits.

What was your biggest surprise when you purchased your first rare breed wool?
Nothing really. I have probably over 100 pounds of wool sitting around waiting for me to process it, so I think it would take a lot to surprise me.

Have you had any challenges purchasing wool directly from shepherds?
Yes. I have had some difficulty locating certain breeds - the hair ones for sure. And Lincoln at the moment! The rest I have already purchased and it's washed or in progress.

What do you love most about working with rare breeds?
Learning about new and different wools!

What is your favorite wool from sheep on the Conservation Priority List and why?
I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying Karakul. I washed it, and when I went to comb it, things didn't go well. My go-to is combing, so I had to ask for tips. I ended up flicking the ends, running it through my picker, and I am going to card it.

What bit of advice would you give another fiber artists who is just starting to explore the world of rare breed wools?
Be flexible! Understand that fleece is going to be different from one shepherd to the next. If possible, try to get two sources and see how much different they are! Also, sheep are dirty. You're probably not going to get coated fleece (and if you are - it's going to cost a lot more). Enjoy and embrace the process!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Shepherd's Profile: Kim Day

Kim and Dave Day of Red Rope Farm in Douglassville, PA has been raising Tunis since 2006. Their son added Jacob sheep to their flock in 2017.
Tunis and Jacob grazing in the pastures

Why should a breeder sell their wool?

Any shepherd who raises wool sheep should definitely sell their wool crop. Wool is a renewable source and sheep produce it yearly, as long as they live. Wool is a wonderful fiber that insulates and wicks moisture. With so many breeds of sheep there is a type of wool fiber for every project, from rugs and tapestries to baby sweaters and lace shawls to felted baskets and purses. By increasing our use of wool fibers we may lessen our dependence on synthetics, and therefore, help our environment as a result.

Tunis raw wool

Why have you chosen to sell your wool in the form you do (raw, roving, yarn, etc)?

We sell our wool as raw fleeces,roving and yarn. By giving different choices we hope to appeal to a wider group of people. Some like to process their wool from beginning to finished product, while others prefer to spin or work with yarn that's been spun for them.

Tunis roving

What is one important thing you have learned about sheep management as it relates to selling their wool?

In order to sell wool (in any form) to fiber artists, you need to keep the fleeces clean and care for each sheep's health. You need to be watchful about pasture health so that thistles and burrs don't invade fields and find their way into fleeces. Hay needs to be fed in a manner so that the sheep don't get covered in it, which sometimes means building your own hay mangers. Illness or parasite load can affect the structural integrity of a fleece, so you need to look your sheep over each day. When the sheep's body is under stress, it funnels energy and nutrition to fight that stressor rather that to grow their fleece, leaving a weak area in the wool staple.

What is one surprising thing you learned about coating your sheep -- or having sheep that are not coated?

We coated our sheep for a few years but dealt with several fleeces felting under the coats. We decided it worked best for us to leave our sheep uncoated and focus on keeping their environment clean.

Tunis yarn

What is one important thing you learned about selling your wool?

You can't lump all wool into one category. Different breeds have different wool qualities and work best in a variety of projects.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Shepherd Profile: Deb Potter

This is part of a series on shepherds who raise sheep on the Conservation Priority List. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Livestock Conservancy.

You can find Deb Potter of Merciful Hearts Farm on Facebook and Instagram.

What breed do you have and how long have you had them? 

We have a handful of breeds that are on the list and have been raising sheep for 20 years here in Upstate South Carolina. We started with Tunis and have often leaned toward the breeds on your list. We currently have Jacob (5 adults), Hog Island (5 adults), Shetland (3 adults), Lincoln (2 adults), Cotswold (1 adult). We were also blessed to raise a Navajo Churro orphan several years ago and still have some of his fleeces. My husband is a part time shearer (only about 75 farms) and shears for farms that have Clun Forest, Gulf Coast Native & Southdown. When others reach out to us asking for guidance in establishing their own flocks, we usually recommend they strongly consider breeds on the Conservancy list.

Why should a breeder sell their wool?

Although the obvious answer would be that it brings in a little more money to offset farm costs, it goes a lot deeper. As fiber artists/makers/crafters explore wool it is nice to give them a choice beyond the few commercially popular choices. Most fiber artists love texture and it is easy to see an amazing array of textures, color variations and other aspects of rare wool to incorporate into their work. I've always been a storyteller so find that most of my customers love to follow my Instagram as well as hear my stories of the sheep and their backgrounds and history. It is also a good way for the community to support those of us trying to continue the legacy of these precious sheep. The movement to support local and smaller farms has also worked in our favor. We like to have products from our wool available for those reaching out to support local farmers.

Why have you chosen to sell your wool in the form you do (raw, roving, yarn, etc)?

We sell raw fleece but I will also be selling my handspun as time allows. As it is, most of the people I directly encounter want the "complete experience" from fleece to finished project. I recently reached out to a local yarn shop that hosts a spinners group. I brought in fiber samples (raw & just washed up) from our various breeds and also spread a tarp out on the floor and dumped a freshly shorn and skirted Jacob fleece on it. We had a great time talking fiber characteristics and it also gave me an opportunity to explain the ups and downs of sheep farming. I do a very well attended weekly farmer market in downtown Greenville, SC so also use that time to educate visitors. That is where I will sell the bulk of my handspun. Not only do I have a local following for my yarns and other value added wool products, Greenville gets an amazing number of visitors literally from around the world. They are often looking for something easy to pack to take home from their trip. And they especially love something with a local connection or story.

What is one important thing you have learned about sheep management as it relates to selling their wool?

As well as we manage the sheep in terms of diet, pasture, feeding process, etc. it is still in our very best interest to skirt fleeces dramatically and be very straightforward with the condition of fleeces and amount of VM. In the long run, it makes a lot more sense to sell a smaller amount of good quality clean fleece and have happy customers than to offload a bunch of fleece until your reputation and customer dissatisfaction catches up with you.

Why do you not coat your sheep?

It is a lot of extra work and with our humidity and other issues we would be hard pressed to keep up with it all. Good on those who do - we just prefer not to.

What is one surprising thing you learned about having sheep that are not coated?

Again, never wanting to compare our practices to others, we are able to produce enough quality fleece on healthy sheep that we are content. And I love to look across my pastures and see woolly sheep ;-)

What is one important thing you learned about selling your wool?

A good fleece from an honest seller will give many returns in repeat business and new customer referrals. It is good to keep up with social media and understand that many fiber artists want to know "who" their fleece is. I try to provide a picture with every fleece and also a name and story. I am also quite straightforward about the challenges of shepherding as well as the joys! Much of what we do is relationship based - our relationships are with our sheep, others in our farm community, our customers and all that we may impact in person and online. Selling the wool is important; promoting sheep and wool in general is also something that we thoroughly enjoy!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Shepherd Profile: Jason Seelow

This is part of a series of Q&As with shepherds who raise sheep on the Conservation Priority List for wool. The opinions expressed by the shepherds do not necessarily reflect those of The Livestock Conservancy.

Jason Seelow is a fourth generation sheep farmer. He was raised in central Illinois on a grain and sheep farm. He moved to Iowa and now raises sheep with his wife and two children. They started raising Lincoln Longwools after 35 years of raising Rambouillets. The Lincolns are on the Conservancy's list in the "Threatened" category. They have nine ewes and a ram named Phil.

"Our Lincoln flock is a new adventure that we purchased for our girls to show and raise," says Jason. "We like the Lincoln Breed because they are rare and need to be cared for. Also they are great mothers and gain well. The lambs are very hardy. The wool they produce is a nice long lustrous super strong tensile strength for carpet wool."

Why should a breeder sell their wool? 

We get a satisfaction when someone can take our product and make something from it.

Why have you chosen to sell wool in the form you do? 

We mainly sell raw wool, but we have a fiber mill close by that we work with that will process Roving, Combed top etc so a person can buy a fleece from me and I will hand deliver for free to the mill. They work with the mill to process into their choice of product.

Most important thing for management when selling wool is... 

Clean wool sells better and can get more money for it.

Why do you coat your sheep? 

We coat our sheep for 6-9 months of the year when we are feeding alfalfa hay. Hay chaff is one of the handspinners nemesis and so we do our best to prevent the contamination as good as we can.

What have you learned about coating sheep?

It can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. They do take a lot of management to maintain. Sewing up tears, washing, etc are important to maintain the coats. Also if the coat gets too tight as the wool grows it can make a fine wool felt as the coat rubs against the wool. The sheep will destroy the coat if there are sharp objects for them to catch on, so you need to go around the barn yard and fix any fence or problem areas. My first year using coats on our Rambouillets I didn’t take the coat off when the ewe had a lamb and the baby was caught in the coat strap and got strangled by mom. It was heartbreaking but we now remove the coat the first 2-3 days until the lamb gets more familiar with the environment.

What have you learned about selling wool? 

Clean wool sells better and you can ask a premium for it. Every wool type has a purpose and it’s important to understand the limitations and exploit its benefits. Set your goals up and work with them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Fiber artist profile: Rebecca Kleinschmidt

This is part of our series on fiber artists who are participating in Shave 'Em to Save 'Em.

What fiber art(s) do you participate in and for how long have you done each one?
Knitting and crocheting for over 40 years. Some weaving and felting for a very short time years ago.

When did you start working with fiber from rare breeds of sheep?
This is my first time. I started spinning about 2 months ago and simply loving this initiative.

What was your biggest surprise when you purchased your first rare breed wool?
How different it was versus commercial roving. The commercial wool I purchase seems more compact and needs to be divided to get a more consistent spin; it feels commercialized. Roving directly from the shepherds is lighter and feels softer. I am a very new spinner, so the wool that I purchased directly from the farmer is easier because I can see the individual staples better and the roving/combed top is processed in such that it does not need much separating. I just get it started and it almost spins itself!

Have you had any challenges purchasing wool directly from shepherds?
Most shepherds are very responsive but the Hog Island roving I purchased was really dirty. It left a pile of dust on my lap and each inch had VM. 🙁

What do you love most about working with rare breeds? 
The variance in the different breeds. Learning what fiber/breed type is best for which project. Some of the wool is much lighter or softer than others. Examples: yarn spun from CVM/Romeldale is much lighter and ’spongey’ compared to yarn spun from Shetland. The CVM would be better suited for next to skin wear versus Shetland geared more towards outerwear or winter accessories such as mittens or hats.

What is your favorite wool from sheep on the Conservation Priority List and why?
Although I like most of them, Tunis and Cotswold are my favorites so far. They are easy to spin for a newbie like myself.

What bit of advice would you give another fiber artists who is just starting to explore the world of rare breed wools?
Give it a try! Even spinners that have been working with fiber for many years are experiencing something new.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Fiber artist profile: Ginger Briggs

What fiber art(s) do you participate in and for how long have you done each one?
I have been crocheting off and on for 45 years. I started at 7 and like most of us was taught by my grandmother and a neighbor. I still have all my grandmother's hooks and needles. I started loom knitting about 3 years ago. I started weaving just 2 months ago. Because of Shave 'Em to Save 'Em, I have started working with a small loom, am learning how to spin and plan on learning how to make braided rugs.

When did you start working with fiber from rare breeds of sheep?
About 5 years ago, Kelli Carruth Miller of A Sheep Like Faith (she is a Se2Se provider), a friend from high school, introduced me to GCN. She started her flock in Louisiana. I loved the history, never knew Louisiana even had a sheep history but there were a lot of shepherds here providing GCN wool during world wars 1 and 2 for blankets. GCN was the first non-commercial wool I ever used.

What was your biggest surprise when you purchased your first rare breed wool?
The beautiful natural color

Have you had any challenges purchasing wool directly from shepherds?
No, but I am noticing a lot of shepherds selling raw fleece or roving. I hope more yarn will be available this year.

What do you love most about working with rare breeds? 
The different textures and colors

What is your favorite wool from sheep on the Conservation Priority List and why? 
Gulf Coast Native because it was the first wool I used and it was from Louisiana. I have also fallen in love with Leicester Longwool and Jacob.

What bit of advice would you give another fiber artists who is just starting to explore the world of rare breed wools?
Jump right in! I have really enjoyed working with the different wools and have met some wonderful people. The Facebook group is great. I am actually recognizing the different breeds of sheep by the photos the shepherds are posting!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Shepherd Profile: Emily Hartman

Leicester Longwool
This is the fourth in a series of Q&As with shepherds who raise sheep on the Conservation Priority List for wool. The opinions expressed by the shepherds do not necessarily reflect those of The Livestock Conservancy. 

Emily Hartman raises Leicester Longwool sheep on her farm, Mrs. Hartman's Farmhouse Market. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram @mrs.hartmansfarmhousemarket.

Why should a breeder sell the wool from their sheep? 
The real question, is why wouldn't you? Here we have an amazing creature that provides us with not only meat and in many cases, milk... but also a useable, wearable, craftable of some sort, fleece. In my opinion, sheep are the triple threat of livestock and you can win no matter what!

Is it challenging to raise sheep with an eye towards selling their wool? Why or why not? 
Yes it can be. There are so many factors that play into the quality, that when people ARE interested in being put on a waiting list, it's hard to really know how much to expect. Unexpected illnesses can ruin a fleece in an animal that may have had an excellent fleece the year before. Sometimes they get into stuff. For example, my beautiful pure black ewe lamb decided to roll in a bunch of "stickers" on the way down the hill to get shorn. Her fleece was fairly clean up until that point. Also, in the case of Longwools you always ask yourself, should I shear once, or twice a year, because the end product is so different and generally used differently (long locks vs a more "avgerage" staple length). You have to be extremely vigilant to keep the creepy crawls such as lice and mites at bay. Especially when growing out those fleeces for a year. If you don't keep up, it's difficult to treat a sheep in full fleece.

Why have you chosen to sell your wool as raw fleece, roving, yarn, etc rather than in a different form? Or why have you chosen to do all of the above? 
Sort of piggybacking from the previous answer, I am doing my best to offer as wide a range of product as I can. I am attempting to hold a few sheep back from shearing to offer locks, washed and unwashed. I try to offer the unwashed first, and then offer washed and dyed as I get around to it. I think locks offer the largest amount of artistic freedom as there are so many things you can do with them. The great thing about Leicester Longwools is that the lambs fleeces can be next-to-skin soft, while the adults make beautiful lustrous wool perfect for outerwear. I am able to shear 2x a year, so I am trying to even it out so that winter/spring shear gets sent to the mill and summer shear left raw (any leftover summer fleeces get sent in to mill after the next shearing) My mill I send to requires a minimum amount for millspun yarn, but not for roving, and since at this point, I don't have much for lamb wool, that dictates that it gets separated out into roving, while the adult fleeces get combined into millspun. Summer fleeces, as I said, I sell raw. I bring them with me to the farmers markets, and it generates a lot of conversation.

What is one important thing you learned about sheep management as it relates to selling their wool? 
Sheep health is key. Nutrition, pest management, the whole works. A few sheep may require a little extra attention. If you don't have healthy sheep, you can't expect good wool.

Emily shears her own sheep so she can keep a closer watch on their health.

What is one surprising thing you learned about coating your sheep -- or having sheep that are not coated?
Mine are not coated. And although I don't think I'd attempt an uncoated sheep of fine wool breeds, the Leicester Longwools (and I'm sure other longwool breeds) tend to actually stay fairly clean. You can shake them out a bit and you're in business. I think this also depends on the way you feed them as well, since overhead feeders will leave your sheep a mess. Mine are fed on the ground, and in their natural grazing position, they keep fairly clean. They're even cleaner in the summer when they can roam the pasture. If the pen was smaller, and not well maintained, they would be a mess in no time, no doubt.

What is one important thing you learned about selling your wool?
People love to get to know your animals as you do. They love the story that goes with them. Since I don't have a brick and mortar store, it is important to put yourself out there. Since I don't have a store to present to people, my boxes arrive at their doorstep to represent me, so I always make sure my packaging is nicely presented. I think every little detail helps. When I'm at farmers markets, even if I don't sell the wool that day, people love to generate conversation about it and the sheep. Overall it's a LOT of work and also A LOT of fun.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Fiber Artist Profile: Fran Stafford

This is the first in a series of posts profiling fiber artists who are participating in Shave 'Em to Save 'Em. Fran Stafford is one of only two people who have already spun at least 15 of the wools on the Conservation Priority List. You can find her online at her blog.

What fiber art(s) do you participate in and for how long have you done each one?
Crochet, started about 57 years ago and now only use it rarely.
Knitting, started about 58 years ago, made one sweater poorly, quit until 15 years ago and took it up again, knitting mill spun yarn.
Spinning with a drop spindle about 10 years ago, added a wheel, then more wheels beginning about 6 years ago. My preferred fiber art.
Weaving on a small rigid heddle loom about 3 years ago, did not like it and sold it, but started Revolutionary War reenactment and built and weave on a box/tape loom, got a 5' tri-loom for Christmas and have made two shawls.

Fran spinning at her village's
centennial celebration of its
covered bridge
When did you start working with fiber from rare breeds of sheep?
Without knowing they were rare breeds, I have been using Jacob, Shetland, and Leicester Longwool since I started spinning.

What was your biggest surprise when you purchased your first rare breed wool? 
No real surprises until I started SE2SE and realized how different the micron count, staple length, and softness or lack of there was.

Have you had any challenges purchasing wool directly from shepherds? 
Most have been prompt and very courteous about responding to either let me know how to order from them directly or where their online shop was, but there have been a couple that were private messaged on FB and never received a response.

What do you love most about working with rare breeds?
The difference in texture requiring me to up my spinning skills to accommodate.

Hap shawl in progress using the 15 breeds already spun

What is your favorite wool from sheep on the Conservation Priority List and why?
I really, really love Jacob for its color variation on each fleece and it's crisp texture spinning and knitting, but Shetland is a close second.

What bit of advice would you give another fiber artists who is just starting to explore the world of rare breed wools?
Don't feel like you have to do an entire raw fleece from each breed, try a few ounces from a couple of breeders as they will be different. Use undyed wool, it feels entirely different than dyed wools. This is an experiment to try different ones. A blanket or large shawl will allow you to use the single skeins you purchase or spin. I am indebted to my friend and shepherd, Gail Groot who told me about this challenge last summer and let me know when it was about to actually start.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Strengthening the farm-to-fashion supply chain

What is the Hudson Valley Textile Project?

Lilly Marsh, HVTP board member: The Hudson Valley Textile Project is a 501 C 3 non-profit consortium of fiber producers, processors, artisans and consumers focusing on strengthening a farm-to-fashion supply chain here along the 250 mile Hudson River watershed. Our region has a growing farm-rural tourism industry primarily organized around food, but we are working to educate consumers (and producers) that fiber products can be seen as the same fusion between agriculture and creativity. Like the local food movement, local cloth touches on a range of consumer concerns including environmental concerns around sustainable land use and carbon sequestration, responsible animal welfare management, the support of small production and regional manufacturing jobs and capacity, a growing value among artisan fiber artists for local materials and processing, and a corresponding growth in consumer value for ‘slow fashion’ over disposable fast fashion models.

We are a young organization as yet, but are currently offering a number of benefits to our members designed to assist them in connecting to retailers and consumers, including promotion on social media platforms, maintenance of a regional resource list, product hangtags identifying local production, a curated photo library for member use in their own promotional work, and organizational representation at selected craft and trade shows. We are currently exploring the idea of a sellers’ cooperative that would further knit local raw material production with processors and end users.

Our third annual meeting, March 20th at SUNY New Paltz, offered members an opportunity to network and show off their products, as well as bring themselves up to date on regional topics and collaborations. Our keynote speaker this year was Stephany Wilkes, sheep shearer and author of Raw Material: Working Wool in the West, and president of the Northern California Fibershed Cooperative.

How do you work with shepherds?

The HVTP organization offers the shepherd connections to those artisans and retailers interested in working with local wool and alpaca. Through those connections, a shepherd can begin to understand the needs and preferences of the fiber community. This can be a simple as offering a shepherd promotional space on our social media platforms, or a far deeper collaboration between members of the organization.

One example of the deeper collaborations has been between Blue Pepper Farm, a high peaks area sheep dairy operation in Jay NY, and myself, the weaver at Lilly Marsh Studios. I became interested in developing a Hudson Valley studio yarn and had met Shannon Eaton, Blue Pepper’s shepherd, through the HVTP. I worked with her one afternoon 2017 on skirting her fleeces and helping her understand the aspects of her wool that would concern a fiber artist. That year, Shannon commissioned me to weave about 10 yards of fabric for her use. I was quite impressed with her wool and I purchased her entire 2018 clip. Her work in keeping the fleeces clean and in thoroughly skirting the 2018 clip was a strong supporting factor in that purchase. Her East Friesian dairy wool, blended with Little Creek Alpaca fiber (80/20 blend), and spun in a semi-worsted process, is making up into some stunning blankets and yardage for sewing, and I’ll be marketing them this summer and fall. They will also be featured in the fall issue of Ply Magazine, a handspinner’s publication. I am planning on purchasing her entire 2019 clip at this point.

Collaborations of this kind develop over time and can grow out of the most informal of connections. As one of the weavers for the Battenkill Fiber Mill in Greenwich NY, I make myself available to shepherds who want to understand the milling and weaving process, and how to best present their wool into that process. Due to the conversations that Shannon and I had over the skirting table in 2017, Shannon’s work to keep contamination at a minimum throughout the year, and her excellent skirting in 2018, paid off. Her 2018 clip gave me an amazing 80% yield from raw weight to finished yarn on her fleeces, and made the $3 per pound price on the 32 fleeces well worth the investment.

Does a shepherd need to have a flock of a certain size before you will work with them?

No. We are fortunate in our region to have a processor who is happy to work with very small batches (even a single fleece). Battenkill Fiber Mill acts as a central hub in our work as its commitment to the small producer allows for small flocks to foster their own yarns for sale at local markets and yarn shops. Mary Jeanne Packer, the mill owner, is very experienced in working with a wide variety of breeds, and in leveraging the entire production process to the end goal of the yarn.

Is there a profile of an ideal shepherd who works with you?

Our shepherds are all very interested in marketing and selling their wool, and are often heavily involved in local farmers markets or their own on-farm shops for a variety of farm products. They are often either strongly connected to fiber arts themselves, or are at least quite knowledgeable about the field.

Are there any common misconceptions that you hear from shepherds?

Shepherds who are not themselves fiber artists are often strikingly unknowledgeable about their wool and with unrealistic expectations of the milling process to transform it into vegetable matter free soft yarn. Vegetable matter and plastic threads are very difficult to remove from the wool once they are present. As the process moves on towards yarn and an end product, it becomes increasingly difficult to remove. As a weaver, I inspect my final cloth with tweezers, picking out visible pieces, but hours spent at that task greatly increase the cost of the final product. And I have refused to work with wool that is too contaminated as such yarn can damage my power loom, causing jams and misfires.

To some shepherds, all yarn is the same, and they recognize little differentiation between a strong high twist sock yarn, a soft 3-ply baby yarn, or a woolen spun 2 ply for sweaters, or a fine worsted singles for weaving yardage. Wool is not interchangeable in suitability for specific purposes. If a shepherd has the chance to work with a fiber artist through your Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em program, it is an excellent opportunity for the farmer to understand far more about their own wool’s properties for various end uses.

You can connect with Lilly on Instagram @lillymarsh or on her Facebook page.