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......