Raising sheep in the north country is hard work! by Donna Wilson
Felted hat Frog Hollow Artisan Donna Wilson tells of her life and craft...
When my husband and I decided to settle on an old Vermont hill farm 37 years ago, I picked sheep to raise because they were a versatile farm animal, and of a size that I felt I could manage. I had always liked animals and as a young girl fantasized about running a rescue house for stray dogs. As I got older, I trained to be a teacher, but I realized that what I wanted to do more was raise plants and animals. While I was running a small preschool, a friend gave us a Montadale sheep and an Angora goat. The goat was old, and we did not have her bred. Although I now use mohair (the "wool" from angora goats) iin the wool blend yarn for my hats, I buy the mohair, locally, if I can find it. At the beginning, we kept the ewe lambs from each year's lambing and built up our flock, eventually to about sixty ewes, although now we have cut back to about twenty.
Raising sheep in the north country is hard work. They seem to lamb on the coldest midwinter nights, and you have to be there to help, no matter how tired you are. We raise hay for our own use and for sale, cut our own wood for fuel and lumber, make our own vinegar, and grow as much food in our gardens as weather will permit. Every season has its demands, work to be done and harvest to be gathered. Along the way, we also raised our four children who are now responsible and creative adults.
The sheep we have now are Corriedales. They have beautiful fine wool fleeces and a calm disposition; that and being good mothers would be my focus in choosing a breed of sheep. Their wool is shorn once a year in early spring, then carefully sorted. We used to do the shearing ourselves, but now do it all in one day by using a professional shearer. Shearing Day is a big deal. We invite friends to help. They carry fleeces, assist in selecting cleanest, finest wool for processing into yarn, help with moving sheep, and help prepare a big noon meal. Our younger children would help pack the tall wool bags by climbing the rack ladder and bouncing up and down on the bagged fleeces, kind of like a shepherd's trampoline. It's a hardwork day for everyone, but fun and rewarding.
When we first started with sheep, we had an elderly friend, Connie Stryker, who presented demonstrations at fairs of her spinning, knitting and weaving. She had her own flock and was a great mentor in things involving sheep care and wool crafts.She got me knitting again. I had knitted as a teenager. My mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all skilled knitters, and I had learned young. But I had become frustrated with it and hadn't knitted for ten years. Starting again, I found I enjoyed knitting alot. It was relaxing for me, time out from the strenuous physical aspects of our farming. It made good economic sense to combine knitting with the wool yarn we were producing. At first I made sweaters and sold them in a shop in Waitsfield that specialized in handmade wool products, but that outlet closed when the owner retired. I was unable to find another good outlet for the sweaters, so I stared making stylish wool hats and now retail them in a dozen shops across New England.
We send our sheeps wool and mohair to the Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, Vermont to get our own blended yarn. In the past, I used natural plant dyes, but found they were not color-fast enough. So now I buy commercial dyes so that I can dye my own yarn into colors that won't fade when washed. I knit wherever I go, so anywhere I go can be my studio. After knitting overlarge, the hats are machine washed in my kitchen, multiple washings in both hot and cold water to shrink and "shock" the wool fibers into felt. Felting occurs when the scale-like surfaces of the wool fibers open and close, locking them tightly together. When the felted hats are wet, I can mold them, almost like clay, into a pleasing shape, which they hold when dry.
I find it very satisfying to begin with raw wool from sheep I've raised, work it with my own hands, and finish with a beautiful, useful and salable product. And I feel very blessed to be doing something I enjoy so much.
Best regards, Donna Wilson