Tuesday, March 20, 2018

She was more than just a cat. She was my friend.

RIP Megs
It is with great sadness I enter spring this year with the loss of Megs the Merciless, my feline companion for over twenty years. Yeah, I know, that’s old for a cat. And some people will say, “It’s just a cat,” but spend that much time with something/someone sharing your bed, hogging the pillow, stealing the covers, being there each night when you go to bed and greeting you first thing in the morning…you get a little attached.

Megs came to me as a tiny kitten while I was working in the IT department at Elixir Technologies. She was so tiny with her barely perceptible squeak I said she was only a megabyte and the name stuck.

At the time I was living in a funky 1950’s era mobile home smack dab in a citrus and avocado orchard. Critters were everywhere, especially rats, mice and opossums. My two-legged house mate had issued a NO CATS edict, but the vermin were outmaneuvering the traps and poisons, coming into the bathroom through the spaces between the floor and the pipes, raiding my Tampax box for bedding they shredded in the walls at night while we were trying to sleep. It was a losing battle with us on the wrong side.

Shopping at a neighbor’s yard sale one day we spied a rat-sized live trap. “Why are you selling this?” asked my anti-feline companion.

“We got a cat,” was there reply so the cat ban was lifted.

The next day at work came an office wide email—Free Kittens. It was meant to be. The next day I arrived at my desk to find a mewing tabby in a cat carrier next to my CPU. She went home with me and has remained my faithful companion until today.

From the very beginning, Megs was a hunter. Even though the orchard rats were bigger than she, lizards under the carport were her first quarry. She didn’t even kill them, just grab them by the tail which popped off as a natural escape mechanism. When she finally grew into her glory, she would bring several offerings a day to the front door—rats, mice, bunnies, snakes and once a raccoon kit. She avoided hawks, owls and coyotes. 

For two years her best friend was Rosa, a black Lab puppy we were raising for the National Disaster Foundation. Rosa would run with a blanket upon which Megs would cling for dear life as her pal would leap off and on to the porch, the blanket flying with kitten in tow. Rosa would carry Megs around by the leg and be scolded for doing so, but them Megs would rub against the puppy’s mouth teasing her to take up their game again. During long walks through the orchard in the morning and evenings with the dogs, Megs would follow along racing up trees and ambushing the dogs. When Rosa left for her professional training, Megs was visibly depressed for several days over the loss of her friend.

When the time came to move across the country from California to Pennsylvania Megs won the award for the worst traveler. The horse had a trailer, the dogs had a futon in the back of the truck and Megs had a large dog crate with a cardboard box for a litter pan. She was none too happy and “sang” the song of her people for three thousand miles. 

Half way through the trip we stopped for a few days in Texas at my companion’s mother’s home. She was a dyed-in-the-wool cat hater capturing wayward neighborhood kitties in a live trap, tormenting them with hose and them calling animal control to dispose of them. Once, she clipped the whiskers off her next-door neighbor’s pet cat with a pair of garden shears out of spite while it was being held by the owner. I had made arrangements to board her with my horse at the local veterinarian’s clinic, but when I arrived she was turned away due to an outbreak of contagious cat disease. She had to go with us. Imagine my surprise when I woke the next day to find our host with Megs on her lap, a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “I thought you didn’t like cats?” I asked hesitantly.

“I don’t,” she replied in her clipped German accent adding, “but this cat is not going to shit in my garden.” Megs sat there purring. Was it because she was out of her crate or because she had won over the cat-hater?

After ten days we arrived at the farm which was right on the road. I had visions of finding her splattered on the asphalt, but in all the years there she managed to avoid tragedy while numerous barn cats did not. She opted for the opposite direction, hunting down in the pines where there were plenty of bunny nests. Bush-hogging days were her favorites when she would pounce on moles, voles, mice and of course, baby bunnies exposed in the mowed grasses. She nabbed chipmunks, squirrels, baby groundhogs and once, a fledgling owl. Much to the horror of our bird-watching neighbors, she raided the bird nests in their ornamental trees grabbing one at a time, bringing it home to eat and then going back for another until the nest was empty.

Her modus operandi also got her into trouble with the farming activities when she chewed the heads off a few dozen turkey poults one year. While the initial loss was around a hundred bucks, had those turkeys grown up for Thanksgiving dinners they would have brought in well over a thousand dollars. It wouldn’t be the first time someone who slept in my bed caused thousands in damages. From then on during poult brooding Megs was unhappily confined to the house. Angered by this, she tore through a second-story window and escaped for another pre-Thanksgiving feast. We learned to Megs-proof the brooders.

Like our walks in the orchard, Megs
would tag along with walks around the farm with the dogs, the bottle baby goats, the calves and the horses.

A year into the farm in Pennsylvania I brought home a friend for her, Bugs. Megs was having none of it. They were mortal enemies for many years until a visiting dog grabbed Bugs by the neck violently shaking her. She lay on my bed for two days unable to get her bearings. I was afraid she was going to die. It was at the height of market season when I had three market days in a row over the weekend and not the funds, let alone time, for a trip to the emergency vet clinic. I came home to find Megs in bed next to Bugs with her tail draped over her once hated housemate in a gesture of comfort. Bugs recovered and the outright fighting between the two ceased.

Although a new feline friend was not to her liking, the first Great Pyrenees puppy—Sherman was love at first sight. They play racetrack around the house for hours at a time, bounding on to the furniture before falling together in a fit of exhaustion. Despite his enormous size, she was the one to play rough always going for his lips causing him to freeze while she retracted her needle-like claws. He would hold her down in his massive paws and lick her while she yowled, but she never physically protested. 

When Sherman was hit on the road in front of the barn one morning, Megs entered another depression like that of when Rosa left. She never became attached to any of the puppies to enter her life again and was equally indifferent to a tuxedo kitten rife with lice, ear mites and eye infection that was dumped in the driveway at four am one July morning. She tolerated Lucky, but neither played or fought with him.

One summer I thought I had lost Megs for good when she disappeared for nearly two months. An owl, a hawk, the road, a leg trap…who knows, she was gone. As suddenly as she had disappeared, she reappeared seeming none worse for wear, fat and clean, however, she seemed to stick close to the house. It wasn’t until the Amish family a few doors over were walking by one days when they noticed her sunning herself on the bench in front of my house. 

“Oh, there’s our kitty,” the woman said as her little girl rushed to grab Megs who eluded the child’s attempt. I explained that Megs was mine and had traveled from California with me several years earlier. She would not be going home with them. The woman was incensed I would do something so mean as to take away a child’s pet. I didn’t give a shit what she said, Megs was my cat. 

When a tame orphaned deer was left at my farm, Megs befriended Buttercup who would lick Megs' ears. Whenever the doe would see Megs, she would rush over to lick the kitty slick. I was fortunate to catch one of their sessions on video. 
Megs had a wicked sense of humor. She knew when someone wasn’t a cat or animal person, making it a point to win over their hearts or harass the daylights out of them until they left the property. Once, she shed a huge gravid tick the size of a lima bean on a friend with a tick phobia. She didn’t run when he tossed her off his lap shrieking at the top of his lungs. Each time he would visit, she would make a bee line for him, but for pet people, she could care less.

When I gathered up all the critters to move to a different farm four years ago, Megs only had twenty minutes to sing. She, along with Bugs and Lucky, were forced to share my bedroom and the master bath for a week until I opened to door to their new home.

The road was a quarter mile away. The house sat in the middle of a hay field. There were three porches on which to laze in the sun—one for each cat which suited them all just fine.

About a year into her third farm it became apparent Megs was aging. She could still catch and wolf down baby bunnies. She knew there was a mouse trap on the counter and would jump up when it snapped, stealing the entire trap to go and eat the mouse out of the bale wire. I found a stash of traps under my bed recently. But she wasn’t grooming herself. Tufts of excess fur were matting on her haunches. She was staring to shrink from her sleek, yet muscular self. I bought a pet brush and we learned to deal with it.

Another year went by and while her body continued to shrink Megs continued to hunt, to eat, to jump up and down on the bed. Her one eye grew cloudy with what else… a cataract! She was old. When the weight really began dropping off her I splurged on wet cat food, the nice stuff which she gobbled two cans each day. She could still hear because she would dance in excitement each time the mouse trap snapped, waiting for me to drop it in front of her to promptly gobble down. Even when she quit eating the fancy wet cat food, only licking the gravy off the chunks, she could still devour an entire mouse and not barf it up. I tried to entice her with raw chicken livers, another favorite, and she turned up her nose. 

This past summer Megs developed an ulcerated tumor on her side. The vet said she could sew it closed but it would require anesthetizing Megs and wouldn’t guarantee it would not open right back up. I didn’t want to take the chance and instead kept the open sore clean and medicated. It didn’t start to expand until about a month ago. Then it began to smell. I considered having her euthanized, but each time she would jump up on my lap showing no pain with a relatively clean sore. Then it began to ooze. The fur fell out around it. She quit eating altogether, but anytime I sat down she climbed up on my lap and purred. I knew the end was near. I would not terrify her by loading her into a strange carrier and taking her somewhere to be put down out of convenience for me. She was not in pain. She was not suffering. She was going to die on her own terms.

For the last few weeks she mostly slept, ate little and spent her time awake when I was around. Each morning when I would wake up, she’d be waiting outside of my door as I had to quit letting her sleep in bed with me when she refused to get out of the way when I rolled over. She tried to get as close as possible and I was afraid of squishing her. To be honest, the oozing sore was also something I did not want in my bed.

Last week, Megs had her celebrity fan moment when my neighbor’s brother gave me a ride to the mechanic to pick up my van after I had some maintenance done. He is none other than Dale Midkiff who played Doctor Louis Creed in the Stephen King thriller, Pet Cemetery. We had been joking about Megs smelling like Church, the cat-returned-from-the-dead. 

“Would you do me a favor, Dale? Hold Megs and let me take your picture,” I asked. He obliged, adding to hurry up because she smelled like death and he was going to puke.  I swore she smiled having played the part to a T. I placated Dale by letting him cuddle the house lamb which smelled like a wool sweater for a few minutes.

This morning when I woke up, Megs did not greet me at the bedroom door as usual. She was laying on the floor in the living room with Bugs at her side. They hadn’t laid like that since Bugs’ encounter with the nasty dog. Megs couldn't stand up. Her eyes weren’t focusing and the pads on her paws were ice cold. I wrapped her in a towel and a blanket and laid her on my bed. As I went about my work today, checking in on her regularly, I could see she was gradually shutting down, fading just as I had seen with my grandmother as her breathing grew irregular in her final hours of life, an occasional large inhale, a small squeak when I squeezed her paw or stroked her fur.  As a farmer, I know death isn’t pretty. 

In the early afternoon as her breathing grew shallow and irregular, I got a telephone call from an acquaintance who suggested I bang her on the head with a shovel or shoot her and get it over with.  I hung up, blocked their number on my iPhone and went back to ensure that Megs faded quietlyacross the rainbow bridge. 

Megs passed peacefully wrapped in her favorite blanket on my bed on the first day of Spring despite a snow storm. 

She likes to leave kitty tongue marks on butter left out and in the pan when grease congealed. Salmon skin was her favorite thing next to whole mice and she would be underfoot singing each time I opened a package of salmon. The vacuum cleaner didn't frighten her, but helium balloons were on par with evil clowns for her.  

On an impulse last Sunday, I purchased several dinner plate dahlia bulbs, something I’ve never grown. Megs will be buried in my flower garden next to the porch on which she loved to sun herself, the dahlias marking the spot. I’m certain they will be gorgeous and make me smile just as Megs did.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Pests Patrol

No, I don't have bugs in the wool...well, kind of. Not bugs, but cats and this season's house lamb, appropriately named Purl. Since my spinning lesson last month in which I finally got the hang of spinning, I've tried to sit down at and spin a few minutes every day. Audio books, not so good, but Ottmar Leibert , UsefulTree or Ray LaMontagne--absolutely.

There's something meditative about settling in at the wheel, focusing on the mantra of pinch, draft slide and letting the mind go to become lost in the feel of the fiber as it passes through my fingers. I try to evoke images of the end product, a pair of thick socks that rise a few inches above the ankle, thick enough to pad my winter boots, especially the ones that snap into the bindings of my cross country skis, which sadly, I've only been able to use once this year.

I finished the gray roving and successfully spun it off the bobbin on the spindle to a storage bobbin. That new Milwaukee drill came in handy for more than just hanging gates. With trepidation, I pulled out one of the bats I carded from the Tunis ram's wool last summer and sat down in front of the wheel with an empty bobbin. Just like that, I was one step closer to my socks as the bat transformed into a full bobbin over the course of several days.
Since I did not scour the wool, using only a mild detergent, not all of the lanolin was washed out of the fiber. When I spin my own carded bats from the ram's fleece my fingers become soft as the traces of "grease" permeate my skin.

At the same time, I've been practicing knitting. I frogged it (rip it, rip it) at least a dozen times before mastering the German twist cast-on to prevent the gap when knitting in the round. I'm about done with a hat now in the final stages as I attempt to switch from connected needles to double pointed for the final few rows. Megs insists on helping making it all but impossible to proceed.

But tonight as I sat down to spin, the critters decided that it would be more fun to chase each other through the wheel as I treadled, to grab at the roving and to bat at the hook. Purl took it a step further, punching me on the legs with her nose as if to say, "Play with me! Give me a bottle!" Finally, she sat at my feet for a few precious moments as I realized the wool I was spinning was her grandfather's and some day in the not too distant future I will shear her wool, too, eventually spinning it into yarn and making something for myself or those I love. And that is the ultimate satisfaction of this journey. Onward to the next step...plying.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pinch. Draft. Slide.

Those three words made months of frustration disappear as the white practice roving--nothing special--twirled into ropey sausages each time I sat down to spin. I felt I would never get the hang of spinning and my quest for sheep to socks would end in failure. Determined to give it another try with coaching from a friend who had first inspired me to take on this project, I invited my fiber friend over for a day. She brought her own wheel, a lovely Lendrum double treadle wheel

Once again she quickly diagnosed I was working with non-functioning equipment--a broken spindle on the Ashford and a loose footman on the Clemes & Clemes. Despite a dab of glue and an overall tightening of nuts and screws on my two borrowed wheels, she set me in front of her wheel, beginning an in-depth instruction as to how each part of the wheel affected take-up, the size of the spun fiber and the types of wheels.  I practiced treadling to understand the motion of just getting the wheel to spin consistently in one direction. With roving in hand under her watchful eye, she began drilling me--pinch, draft, slide. 

Pinch the fiber so the twist happens in front of my fingers and not on the entire string of fiber from which I was to pull the fibers held in the opposite hand--the drafting.  Working in the "triangle" as it was described, after the draft, my pinching fingers were to slide down the fiber releasing the twisted portion to be drawn on to the spindle. Pinch. Draft. Slide. Pedal. And like learning to ride a bike, suddenly the roving was spinning into yarn that actually looked like yarn. 

Once the glue dried on the broken bobbin, the Ashford was back up and functioning properly. I sat down in front of the wheel and over the course of a few hours spun an entire bobbin. Now I was back on the road toward my goal with a new enthusiasm. 

Next up after spinning will be plying, which is twisting two strands of yarn together in the direction opposite in which they were spun. This will involve yet another piece of equipment called a "Lazy Kate" however, I've been told that a shoe box and chopsticks work just as well. 

In the mean time, more woolmakers are being born.....

Friday, November 3, 2017

Felting Fun

Patience is not one of my virtues, but I'm learning. After cleaning the Ashford wheel and playing around with it for a few days my frustration was mounting. I needed a win with all this wool or I was in danger of chucking it in the bin and admitting defeat. I'll raise them, shear them, pick, wash and card the wool, but after that I'd need to outsource anything that took hand-eye coordination and patience. But after a gracious offer from one of my fiber arts mentors to sit and spin with me earlier this week I found out my frustrations weren't as much my utter lack of talent, but yet another equipment malfunction. Not only was the Ashford's flyer broken, the tensioning band for the spindle was worn out. A quick fix with some fishing line and a hair band had the wheel up and running and me actually spinning. For continued work it will take another trip to the hardware store for wood glue and something a bit more substantial than four-pound test.  
Still, I was itching for fun fiber project that would only require hours...not months, so I signed up for a Felted Scarf Class at the Chambersburg Council for the Arts. The first night we made scarves using a technique called nuno felting which uses silk material as a base for the raw fibers. The process included bubble wrap, soapy water, a pool noodle and manual labor. Oh yeah, towels....lots of towels.  
The following week we made scarves using only wool roving in a process called "spidering" which was easier than the nuno felting with similar results. With two new felted scarves, I was feeling satisfied about making a little progress, but it was still a far cry from a pair of socks. The socks are still the goal, but I'm going to give felting a pair of slippers a try since LL Bean has discontinued making hand-stitched fleece-lined moccasins for women and my last pair are almost worn. . 
Continuing with the theme of helpful generosity on this journey, when I mentioned my new hobby to my chicken processor's mother she offered me two bags of fiber that she'd had squirreled away in a cedar chest for many years. "I'm never going to use it and I want the space," she said as she handed over a garbage bag of gorgeous roving and a box of cream colored raw locks.Using them, I embarked on my first home solo project--a set of wrist warmers. Not too shabby. Now if winter would ever show up. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Equipment Malfunction

"I've spun thousands of skeins of wool on that workhorse," is what Annie had told me when she lent me her spinning wheel. Despite the complete dismantling, refinishing, replacing visibly broken pieces and reassembling, the pitman crapped out just as I was starting to get my mojo working on the wheel.

You ask, "WTF is a pitman?"

It is the rod connecting the wheel (the big round piece) to the treadle (the thing you peddle) that is the driving piece of hardware. As the wheel goes around, the drive band attached is wound over the flyer pulley and the bobbin pulley...kind of like a serpentine belt on a diesel engine. The bobbin inserts into the flyer which spins around the bobbin as the fiber is drawn in through a metal tip with a T hole configuration that is inserted into a piece of leather attached to vertical piece of wood inserted in the top cross piece.

And the worst part---it's totally my fault.

When I refurbished the wheel I couldn't find a bolt with a smooth collar so I bought one with threads the whole way to the hex. Those grooves chewed right through the end of the pitman. A telephone call to the manufacturer who is still in business, a credit card number and a delivery from UPS a week later and I was back in action. 

However, during that lull a friend stopped by to drop off a spinning wheel that needed some TLC. "Fix it up and use it, would you," she said setting a very dusty Ashford Traditional spinning wheel in my living room. Unlike that damn diesel runabout I've been working my way through the electrical system in order to get it to run, the wheel's manufacturer had the schematic and operation manual freely down-loadable from the web site. 

An evening with an old t-shirt, a bottle of Murphy's Oil Soap and a few drops of 3-in-1 oil the old Ashford was back in business even with my poor spinning skills. Gradually with practice I'm getting the hang of it, but to get a better grip on my roving am considering taking a spinning class. 

In the mean time, I'm going to also start playing with felting. Tomorrow night at the Chambersburg Council for the Arts I'm taking a  Nuno Felted Scarf class and a Felted Hat class next month. 

This afternoon I have plans to shear a very dark wooled cull ewe with a long staple fleece (and a very bad attitude) for a felted rug prior to her ride on the Sausage Wagon. Actually, she'll be the Guest of Honor at one of Jose Andres' award-winning restaurants, Zaytinya, in Washington, D.C. so no humble sausage for her.  
Nothing goes to waste. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tinkering Comes First

I love to fix things. Tear them down, clean all the parts, replace worn or broken pieces, refinish and then reassemble. The process gives me a better understanding of structure, function and a good dopamine rush when everything works as it should, especially when there are no leftover parts after everything is back together.

Slowly I've been tackling the spinning wheel. Once all the wood parts had been sanded it was the weather that put the breaks on the polyurethane coating. That's not something done in the living room unless one wants to do an Oracle of Delphi imitation. It seemed like each time my schedule allowed me to work on the wheel, it was raining, cold and humid--not conducive to refinishing wood. 

During the weeks, incremental steps forward were inserted into weekly errands. At trip to the hardware store yielded new screws. The piece of leather that attached the pitman to the treadle (I'm getting hip to the lingo) was the trickiest part. Old halters and reins scavenged from the barn proved too thin for the slot. The harness shop in my old neighborhood was no longer in business. I remembered there was an Amish harness repair shop at a farm where I once purchased guinea keets. It was near my poultry processor so popped over one week.

There was a woman hanging clothes on the line and I asked her if the shop was still in business. She said it was and then proceeded to tell me that she didn't think she should sell me a piece of leather without first asking her husband and he wasn't home. It took ever molecule of self-control not to scream, "Are you f%#king kidding me?" Instead, I pulled out the piece of leather and explained what it was for. I appealed to the farm women sisterhood of self-sufficiency. She buckled and we walked over to the shop. The miracle, a small piece of scrap on the floor the exact thickness I needed a bit larger in size of the wheel's piece. I wasn't going to press my luck by asking if I could use his tools to shape the leather and punch holes at either end as she had a look of fear simply by being in the domain of males according to her culture. I thanked her, offered to pay her, but she declined. After all, it was a scrap on the floor.

The weather finally cooperated and the wood was bathed in a few generous coats of Minwax on the front porch, curing on a warm sunny day. Unfortunately, that darn piece of leather was still giving me trouble. I didn't have the proper tools to shape the piece or to punch the holes. Sure, I could have bungled it with a nail, hammer and woodblock for one hole, but the other was more an oval, larger in diameter for the play of the treadle.

Mom was having one of her quilt retreats at her house and that tidbit of information jogged my memory that her sewing machine dealer/repairman had also once had a harness shop. When I stopped at his sewing machine shop he informed me he had not kept any of his leather tools when he sold the business. I showed him the pieces of leather and he smiled. "This I can do," he said as he fished in his tool box for the appropriate tools.

All the pieces sat on my living room floor waiting. But there were tomatoes to turn into sauce, peppers picked and ready to be sliced along with carrots for canning, market day, butcher day, a dead-in-the-water diesel runabout that needed the alternator removed to be fixed or replaced...

Finally, I sat down with my tools and schematic. It went back together easily and when I went to place the drive band, a piece of cotton string, on the wheel, I realized it had been chewed in a few places by one of my four-legged furry monsters. Not to be defeated, I pulled a strand of bright red yarn from my stash and fashioned a figure-8 drive band for the wheel. It was working.

This project has humbled me time and time again with the patience and practice required to do something as basic as turning fiber into yarn, something we, as a modern society takes for granted each time we put on a piece of clothing. It's not as simple as it looks so the next step is practicing with commercial yarn to get the feel of drawing it on to the spindle.
Meanwhile, there are four bags of roving awaiting spinning, five more fleeces needing to be skirted, washed, dried and carded, six more bags of alpaca wool in my second cousin's barn needing to be picked up and processed and several more pasture maggots to shear.

My Sheep2Socks journey continues...

Friday, August 18, 2017


It's been a long time since I've posted as I gave up blogging over the last few years for several reasons, the foremost being I've been farming my heart out and prefer the long end of a pitchfork to the short end of a keyboard. I  have also been focusing my time on several more writing projects. Since there are only so many hours in a day, the blog seemed a bit frivolous considering  how many of my blog posts were showing up, sometimes word for word, in other people's content and books with little or no citation. Yeah, that kind of sucked.....

But I've started a new chapter and wanted a place to document my progress; proof an old bitch can learn new tricks.

Anyone who knows me has watched as I've pulled about every penny from livestock--goats rented out for brush clearing or for camp, that end up in the curry pot, their livers as dog treats, their hides as djembe drums, their bones as artwork and garden markers. But now I have entered a world in which I swore I would never venture...SHEEP! I found myself looking after several wooly pasture maggots in need of shearing and could not resist the temptation calling from my grandmother's chintz picnic basket full of her knitting needles and notions.

Each morning when the big Tunis ram greets me at the gate to nose in my pockets for treats I sink my fingers to the knuckles in his thick wool amazed by its elasticity and heft. He stands unfazed each winter, snow gathering with ragged cracks like the mud flats of Death Valley.

A bag of his wool from three years ago sits in the barn collecting rat turds. Last year the shearer kept his fleece. This year I was determined to make myself a pair of socks from start to finish. And so I began my journey in June when the shearer showed up.

Granted, I know how to shear, but I'm not very good at it and the ram outweighs me--two factors that led me to to hand it over to a pro. However, when culling a few wild ones later in the summer, I swiped their fleeces and sent them to the butcher naked, clipping them both by hand using a pair of hand shears. Years ago when I was first learning to shear I watched a video of an elderly Navajo couple in their mid 80's meticulously clipping the sheep from which the yarns in their intricately hand-woven rugs were made. It was actually quite relaxing once I got the ewe's feet tied together and she quit trying to kick the snot out of me. I queued up an old Eagles playlist and began my task. Both sheep took less than an hour to shear with both fleeces coming off in a single piece.

Despite the lunatic behavior during lambing season that earned them a sausage wagon candidacy, one of the ewes laid her head on my thigh and calmly gazed as if in meditation while I relieved her of three pounds of thick wool while sweat poured down my back. There's an irony to working with wool on the hottest days of the year in order to be warm on the coldest days of the year. Just as most people are far removed from how their food is produced, we are equally ignorant of the textiles from which clothes are made, be it cotton, silk, wool, leather and even synthetics.

Being new to all this even with the cadre of fiber livestock friends I've amassed over the years, the Internet was my bible. Mistakes and failures would be a given so I took on the responsibility of finding them myself.

The first step was to skirt the fleece which means to clean all the detritus from the wool. Not having a skirting table, I opted for the foot stool of my porch chair and began picking away. I used to make fun of those little slinkies and canvas coats the show people used to keep their animals clean. No more. Picking shit, grass and seeds out of raw wool is a tedious task that never seems to be completed. Each pass regurgitates more bits when you swore that section was clean. Neil Gaiman read Coraline in its entirety while I picked both fleeces.


Next step: to wash the wool. Here is where the plus side of having many extra water tubs came in handy. The bonus: the tubs got scrubbed clean. I went for the method that I found the easiest--setting the water baths of Dawn Dish Soap out in the hot sun for a few days. I rinsed by setting up an equal tank of clean water next to the bath water so the temperature would be the same when the fleeces were transfered to the rinse water as several sites said that if the water temperatures were different I would end  up with a giant ball of felt. The fleeces were washed and rinsed over a period of a week and set out to dry in bulb crates on the front porch. Hopefully, the cats would not be assholes and pee in them.


Sharing my new adventures on social media has been for the win. My fiber-loving friends squeed in excitement at my endeavors. "How are you going to card your wool?" asked one friend. When I admitted to have yet obtained the hand carders I was planning to use she graciously offered me the use of her drum carder. Once again my ignorance showed as I offered to bring my wool over to her house to card one afternoon. "You can take it home with you. I won't need it until the end of August," was her reply. It's a gorgeous piece of equipment and once I got it home I understood her offer to lend it to me. Carding is a time-consuming process. In an effort to gauge how much time I invested in this step, I began listening to Roberto Bolano's epic novel 2666 as an audio book as I worked turning the raw washed wool into roving, which is what you call wool that has been combed so all the fibers go in the same direction. The novel is 38 hours long. The wool from the two sheep was completed at hour 36.

When I took my roving, to market with me the following Sunday to show Annie, the yarn vendor, she asked if the drum carder had a motor. "That's ok, you've only got a few fleeces to do, but a motorized one makes it soooo much easier." Her next question was how I was going to spin the roving into yarn. "I have a pair of drop spindles," I told her. Without missing so much as a heartbeat she offered to lend me one of her unused wheels. SCORE!

A few weeks later I drove down to  her farm studio to pick up the wheel. Stepping into her old farm house with several rooms of yarn, fiber, knitted pieces, hand-made soaps, patterns and assorted equipment all displayed in antique farm items like nest boxes and Hoosiers, I could feel myself being sucked into a vortex similar to my mother's quilting where one could never have enough fabric or gadgets. There was a felted cape dripping ringlets of raw pearlescent Border Leicester wool that sent me to eBay to purchase felting tools as soon as I got home. I was in absolute awe of the scope of Annie's talent. And then she opened to door to her work room....  There were multiple gadgets that spun like contraptions straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There was the dying shed with pots full of dark liquid awaiting the boxes of white and gray skeins stacked everywhere. "I should be dying all this week, but this weather!" exclaimed Annie who said that she had to hang freshly dyed yarn throughout her house to get it to dry. Into another shed we went, full of feed bags stacked neatly at attention with the tops open like gaping baby birds. "This is all my wool I have yet to send to the mill," she said. There must have been a hundred bags.

We went to yet another barn--the Bull Barn--that had a pipe cage as if to contain Lucifer himself. Given that a few weeks ago my USDA processor slaughtered a Black Angus bull about the size of a VW van, the cinder block barn seemed appropriate. There in the corner past all the holiday displays in storage were a pair of spinning wheels. The first she grabbed was the quintessential spinning wheel complete with fancy lathed pieces supporting a wheel with more lathed spokes. "Oh no, I don't think this one is all here," she said as she reached for another wheel, much different than anything I had ever seen. It had a solid wheel set between what I could only describe as a cross between Old Adobe Mission and the Danica House furniture store in Santa Barbara. "This one is all  here," she said handing the the flyer and bobbin (two new words from the fiber lexicon) my way.

We made our way back to her front porch where she sat up her own wheel after putting together the what I found out was a Clemes & Clemes Modern made in Pinole, California just north of San Fransisco. They've been making wheels since 1970 and this one was probably one of their first. Next, I was schooled on the components, how it fits together, is adjusted and works overall. Similar to my mentality of carding, I thought it would be something I just sat down and did. How humbled I soon became. "Just practice treadling," Annie advised, "It takes some practice to get the rhythm." I just wanted to make the wheel go in the same direction without vacillating in the other. "When you get the wheel cleaned up and oiled, it will work smoother." So she sent me on my way with a wheel, practice roving, a skein of purple Star Night, a set of needles for knitting in the round and a pattern for a Mighty Manly Hat, basically a stocking hat with ribbing--very basic which was something I could handle.

When I arrived home I began to clean the wheel. There were places where the veneer was peeling off which could not be sanded down so I removed the wheel to strip off the veneer and sand the underlying wood which was quite beautiful. From there it was a slippery slope and soon the entire machine had been broken down into its most basic parts. New leather was needed for the piece that attached the treadle to the pitman. (I only know the names of the parts thanks to the online manual and schematic) I could sacrifice an unused pair of reins for that. Wood cleaner, sandpaper, steel wool, 3 in 1 oil, and lots of elbow grease. Half of the pieces are cleaned, the rusty parts in a bag for my next trip to the hardware store for brass replacements. That's where I am at this point.

What I have learned from several of my friends who sell on a commercial level is they utilize small, professional mills which have sprung up in the wake of small flock fiber production over the last twenty years. When I first texted a picture of a soaking fleece to one of my fellow livestock gal pals, she responded with "Send it to a mill! I don't do any of that shit anymore."  I know she shears all of her own animals--sheep, goats, alpaca, llama--and she dyes and knits, but it is the tedious hand labor of skirting, washing, carding and spinning she outsources. I look at it like livestock for meat. It's great to birth, raise, slaughter, butcher and cook my own animals, but after a while even I get to a point where I offload some of the work on to someone equally if not better equipped to do the job. But the first time, I have to be able to say I've personally completed each and every step it takes to get from sheep to socks.

So here I go......