Foraging in the Forrest

Renewing my interest in natural dyeing, I came across some techniques using lichens and mushrooms that look promising. For one thing, lichens don’t require mordanting the yarn first, eliminating a step in the process. And with patience and the right knowledge lichens can yield many interesting colors, from yellows to pinks and purples. Alissa Allen has written extensively on the subject.

Lichens grow very very slowly. It’s recommended not to harvest them in their growing state due to the risk of depopulating an entire area of this important ecological organism. But around here, it’s been very windy and rainy as the ground thaws, knocking down branches and old bark. Lichens on fallen limbs will eventually die and decompose so they are generally considered fair game.

So, this afternoon Leo-the-well-behaved dog and I headed out in the wind and cold for a gather. The snow has nearly melted but the ground is still somewhat frozen, good footing for lichen hunting. You can see all the branches on the ground.

We found trees and rocks covered with lichen, fallen bark, and a small grove of ground lichen.




I decided that the best fallen specimens were OK to keep. Since the ground lichen was abundant, I picked about 2% of it to keep as well and will wait several years before harvesting any more (this stuff spreads every year on the hill just behind our house so I’m not too concerned about over-harvesting).

Next, to sort and identify.

Identifying lichens is tricky for a novice like me. The internet is a great but also contradictory resource. For example, searching Google Images yields photos of at least three different types of lichens that are all labeled as “staghorn lichen”. Many lichens of different species look quite similar to the untrained eye. If you are good at this please chime in in the comments and help me out!

To my untrained eye I gathered 4 types of lichens today. From the upper left, clockwise, I think they are:

1. A large mass of Cladonia Rangiferina, known as caribou or reindeer lichen (also inaccurately referred to as reindeer “moss”). This one is the least well-documented as a dye source (though apparently it’s used medicinally in some cultures). So I’m unsure of the color potential but apparently it does contain acidic compounds, which are what you’re after in any lichen-derived dye. I’ll have to test some small samples and see if it will yield any color. I did find one site that hinted at oranges and browns perhaps.

2. A small quantity of (I hope!) staghorn lichen, Evernia Prunastri. This has the most promising dye potential, and is known for releasing a violet color if processed with ammonia. The fermentation period is ideally several months, so I’m looking forward to working with this over the summer.

3. In the lower right and center of the picture are a few specimens of what I believe to be common green shield lichen, Flavoparmelia Caperata, which (if that’s what it is) may not yield any dyestuff at all, or only a very faint color. Still worth investigating if only to know to avoid gathering it in future.

4. Finally, a mixed lot of what I think are one or more varieties of other shield lichens, possibly Parmelia Sulcata. While these don’t give a strong color they are supposed to yield a clear yellow (not tinged with green as is common with flower-derived yellows). The method for this one is simple – cook in warm water for a couple hours to extract the dye, then add your wool to the pot and simmer until the color uptakes.

So it’s time for more research and some testing to see what I can get once the weather warms up. For the time being I’ll be drying and storing these lichens for use in a few months.

Swatching: Not just for size

A few days ago my friend and I went to WEBS, the mecca for knitters and weavers in these parts, to stock up on supplies for upcoming projects. Jennifer weaves and knits designer garments, and I have recently volunteered to knit a few things for family members, so taking advantage of the annual sale was a good opportunity.

While at the store I decided to purchase a little treat for myself – 100% lace-weight alpaca at a ridiculously low sale price. This isn’t the type of yarn I’d usually purchase, but the thought of a light, elegant shawl in super-soft yarn really appealed to me. Jennifer decided she wanted a new, easy-knitting project for herself, so she bought a set of 3 colors in the same yarn to make one also (her swatching experience is here).

I’ll admit something: I don’t often swatch before starting a project. I find that I can generally read a pattern, look at the yarn and needles it calls for, and know if I’m going to get the designer’s gauge or not. Even for something larger that has to fit, like a sweater, I’ll often just start with a sleeve and use that as my gauge swatch. For a hat I can get a good sense just knitting the brim. Or mitten cuffs – you get the idea.

But for this project (the Color Affection shawl by Veera Välimäki), even though I’ve made one before, I wanted to check my gauge because the yarn is so radically different than what I usually knit with, and I wanted to test the look of the colors in the stripes. I also discovered that I didn’t have the size needle the designer called for in the lace-weight version, and I wanted to check my fabric before diving in.

Test swatch for the Color Affection shawl
Test swatch for the Color Affection shawl

So, I did a little swatch.

From the bottom, we have:
#3 needles, yarn held single section. I don’t like this at all. There’s no consistent rhythm to the stitches. Looks like it was woven by one of those LSD test spiders.

#3, yarn held double section – dense, consistent, and smooshy and soft.

Then I went down to #2 needles, with yarn held single for some color/stripe testing. The fabric is more consistent than the #3 section but still has a Swiss Cheese texture. And, by the time I finished the swatch I wanted to throw it across the room. The thinness of the yarn and the #2 needles made this un-fun to knit (I think it’s the first time I’ve knit with a fine lace-weight yarn, which may not be my gig).

So clearly, the yarn-held-double-on-Size-3-needles option is the winner here. Of course that means ordering another skein of each color, but fortunately the sale is still going and the yarn is cheap. And it really is worthwhile to spend a little extra time and money rather than struggling with and despising a project that’s supposed to be a fun treat resulting in a lux garment.

Unfortunately some of the yarn I need is now on backorder so it will be a couple of weeks until I can get started on this project. I should be able to get a jump on some gift knitting in the meantime.

Substituting Colors in Colorwork

You found it – that perfect color work pattern. But the colors shown in the sample garment aren’t exactly your favorites, or the intended recipient likes orange but the original doesn’t have any orange in it. What to do?

There’s a lot of debate about color and design, not just in knitting but in all the visual arts, so there are any number of approaches that one can take. (I was recently inspired by Ysolda’s post on using color combinations found in nature!) However, not being a color expert, I have found the following two rules of thumb useful for substituting colors in a pattern:  1. Select yarns with a similar color relationship as in the pattern, and 2. Choose yarns with the same contrast as the original garment.

For example, a sweater I knitted over the winter is a modern Lopapeysa called Asymptote. I likeAsymptote sweater - greensd the colors of the original but wanted more blue.

If we look at a color wheel we can see that the original sweater pallet ranges from yellow-green, to green, to blue-green, which are all adjacent colors. If I want my sweater to have a similar feel, I need to make similar choices for a tone-on-tone effect. So, I decided to choose from the blue-green and blue color families, which are also congruent.

Color Wheel

Next, and possibly even more important, is contrast (also referred to a color’s “tone” or “value”). The human eye has more rods, or light receptors, than cones, or color receptors. That means that when looking at colors together, we notice the contrast between the colors most. Asymptote sweater - color

So when choosing yarns, it’s the contrast, or black and white information, that will help us see the pattern. But seeing contrast in yarn can be difficult when you are accustomed to looking at the color of the yarn. The solution is to convert the colors to their black and white values, and the simplest way to do that is to take a picture.

In the sample sweater, you can see that there are several different shades. But it’s even easier to look at a black and white version of the same image. To convert the image, I used a photo editor to transform from color to greyscale. Some programs might have this feature under a “filter” setting, and some smartphones have a built-in black-and-white option.Asymptote green - grey

In the black and white version you can focus on the contrast or values of the different colors. We can clearly see that the grey body of the sweater and the lightest green have a similar value, the mossy green is a shade darker, and the bottle green is the darkest shade. So to substitute, we need 4 colors with 3 different values.

To choose yarn, it would be easiest to shop in a store so we can evaluate the colors with our own eyes, in natural light. But Iceland is a bit far for me to travel just to pick out yarn. Instead, I can shop online and “take pictures” using the screen shot function on my computer, then convert the images to greyscale as I did before.

There are several online stores that sell the Icelandic yarn I want, but the one with the clearest images that I found was The Wool Sweaters. First, I put the light grey (#56) called for in the pattern in my basket. Then, I know I have to have a very light shade of blue, so I choose the Glacier Blue – the lightest shade they make. Since I’m sticking with blue and blue/green shades, I can use the original dark shade from the pattern, Bottle Green Heather, because it’s a dark teal and looks good with the Glacier.

Now to choose the medium blue for the “background” section of the yoke. At first, I’m thinking about a dusty blue to substitute for the dusty green of the Celery Green in the original. But they don’t really have a slate blue that compliments the Glacier color – some of the medium blues have a purple tone, and that doesn’t work with my color wheel choices of staying with blue and blue-green. So, sticking with the teal theme, I decided on Lagoon Heather, which is a medium shade similar to the Celery Green.

To see these together and evaluate, I go to my basket and take a screenshot of all the colors together. The hues look pretty good I think – complimentary in the tone-on-tone I was going for.

Yarn colors with light grey main color

Next, convert the image to greyscale to evaluate the contrast. Will the pattern show with these choices?

 

Yarn colors with light grey

Look at that!  The light blue and light grey are about the same shade, with the Lagoon in a medium value and the Bottle Green a distinct darker value. The pattern will show nicely with this combination.

Finally, one last complication: I would prefer a darker shade of grey for the main part of the sweater. But how will that affect the pattern? Will it work?

Yarn colors with medium greyYarnColors_medgrey_bw

 

 

Interesting. There’s a shift here – instead of the lightest shade being equivalent to the sweater body, now the medium shade of blue is equivalent. This means that the bands on the bottom of the sweater body and sleeves will pop out more (higher contrast between Glacier and the medium grey), while the background of the yoke and the main part of the sweater will blend together a bit more. Is that good or bad? It’s really up to the knitter. I’m comfortable having the yoke background and sweater body blend a bit, knowing that the main part of the design – the elongated asymptote pattern – will stand out.

One other note about knitting stranded colorwork: There is a dominance in this type of knitting that can greatly affect the way that different colors interact in a pattern. Others have written on this in more detail. Check out this post at Paper Tiger for a how-to and another great example from Beth BrownReinsel. I appreciate that the designer of the Asymptote sweater, Lars Rains, has taken this into account and designates which colors should be held dominant at each stage of the charts – it really makes a huge difference in the final outcome.

Speaking of which, here’s my finished sweater!

Asymptote_colorAsymptote Sweater - Black & White

I’d call this a resounding success – the colors are much more to my taste and the pattern still stands out well.

Tattoo You Two – SMaSH Beer

One of the most interesting projects The Club decided to do this brew calendar is a SMaSH beer, with participants brewing the same recipe. One of the members developed the recipe and we are all charged with following it. The idea is that the differences will be with water and each brewer’s method — and to some extent the freshness of the hops used — and we will see just how different each beer will still taste when we convene on April 16 to compare.

There will be other slight differences; for example, I got a late start and decided I will keg my SMaSH and bring a few growlers. Others may be bottling their beers.

So far — we just racked to the secondary — this beer tastes and smells great. It is super light yellow and clear; however, I missed my target OG. I hope to learn from this experience: How does one determine the efficiency of their set up so that they better hit their targets? The short answer is maths, but my take-away is that I need to do some research on my mash efficiency.

If you are wondering about the name of this brew, it is because Sarah and I each got tattoos the morning before we brewed. My tattoo is an elaborate sleeve of hops, a flower, and two bees. Sarah’s is a bee that matches one of mine.

Surprisingly, this was the first time Sarah has joined to help with the brew day. She has always helped with racking, bottling, etc. I enjoyed her company and her assistance was greatly appreciated!

To view the recipe, continue reading.
Continue reading “Tattoo You Two – SMaSH Beer”

CoCo Porter

I like brewing beer, for sure, but I love brewing beer with friends even more. Too many cooks may spoil a stew, but they add something when it comes to beer. When our dear English friend Chris Mear said he would be visiting and bringing his fiancé who makes wine with him, I suggested we have a brew day whilst they were here. I decided to brew something dark as I had promised Sarah, and settled on an interesting recipe I found on Brewer’s Friend by someone who goes by Jeremydgreat. I chose this recipe not just because I promised a dark winter beer for my wife, but also because I had cocoa nibs that had been in my supply kit for at least a year. Plus, if you haven’t already, check out the name of Chris’ website. When it came time to brew we had a rainy Autumn day on our hands, which was just perfect. Chris and Amelia were great helpers, and my only disappointment is that I wasn’t able to share the final product with them. The name of the beer is a reference to brewing with company, and stands for Company Cocoa Porter.

I am sure I made some slight modifications to this recipe but not enough to change it. I rounded the grains to quarters, and used half the amount of cocoa nibs as the recipe originally suggested, which the recipe’s author also did with future batches. Rounding up a bit meant I was right at the capacity of my mash tun and had to run off some of the wort immediately to add all the grains. This may be the last batch I brewed with a 5-gallon mash tun as I tire of doing that!

Fermentables

  • 12lbs American – Pale 2-Row
  • 1.75lbs American – Wheat
  • 0.75lb American – Caramel / Crystal 90L
  • 0.75lb American – Chocolate
  • 0.75lb United Kingdom – Chocolate
  • 0.75lb American – Carapils (Dextrine Malt)
  • 16.75lbs Total

Hops (pelletised)

  • 0.5oz Nugget (60 mins)
  • 0.25oz Cascade (30 mins)
  • 0.25oz Tettnanger (5 mins)

Other Ingredients

  • 4oz Cocoa Nibs (Secondary)

Yeast

  • White Labs – English Ale Yeast WLP002

The strike was at approximately 156ºF with a 60-minute boil time. We sparged using the fly method and water at 170ºF for approximately 45 minutes. The beer spent 1 week in the primary, and 4 weeks in the secondary as I got busy. I then racked it to my keg system. I met most of the same targets that Jeremydgreat did, and the resulting brew was not too chocolatey and absolutely delicious!

2015: The Year in Fiber

Elinya Shawl
Elinya Shawl

It doesn’t usually occur to me to look back on the year and summarize, but as I was updating my Ravelry project list I started scrolling to see what I’d completed and how that compared with 2014. Given that this was a crazy year (UK travel for training; Rick’s broken foot, surgery, and recovery; starting the new business), I was surprised by the output I’d managed.

By the end of the year I will have completed 17 projects, comprising:

  • 3 hats and 3 scarves (2 of each were sets)
  • 2 baby blankets
  • 2 baby sweaters
  • 2 cowls
  • 2 shawls
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 set “doll” accessories
  • 1 adult sweater (started 2013)
Striped Hat & Scarf Set
Striped Hat & Scarf Set

Not a bad haul, especially since the previous year saw 19 projects, most of which were small items. Clearly, knitting provides not just a creative outlet, but an avenue for stress relief and distraction during periods of intensity.

Another interesting comparison between 2014 and 2015 is my development in the craft of knitting itself. Last year there was a lot of experimentation going on. I developed 3 new patterns, tried a whole bunch of techniques for sock heels (some successful; some not). I tried my first set of mitered mittens; first sweater from a translated pattern; first (and possibly last) hat pattern from a drawing/cartoon. Many of these experiments turned out really well. A few projects I would go back and re-knit if I could, based on what I learned.

In 2015 there were a few new garment types (my first shawls!), but the sum looks mostly like comfort knitting: garter stitch or knit-purl patterns that were easy to power through in waiting rooms, in front of the TV with a glass of homebrew, or on planes and trains. Stripes were my new addiction, providing interest without a lot of complication. I also seem to have taken my knitting skill up a notch.

Striped Child's Sweater
Striped Child’s Sweater

My gauge looks more even and there is no mismatched symmetry between sets of sleeves or socks. Having knit a couple of pairs of badly mismatched socks, this is an area I’ve been trying to improve. Marking beginnings and endings of sections (the start of the decrease section on a sleeve; the end of the heel on a sock) helps a lot and is something I need to continue to do, and not abandon cavalierly when I think I know better.

Handspun blue yarn
Handspun blue yarn

And of course, there was the addition of the spinning wheel in the fall, and the resulting first skeins of yarn. I look forward to more home-made yarn (and a sweater knit from it!) in 2016.

Spinning: a new obsession

Some time ago, my mother took up spinning. She researched, practiced, took workshops, and tried to entangle me into her hobby too, by buying lovely hand-crafted spindles and eventually, my own spinning wheel. I tried spinning, off and on, for a couple of years, but it never really got hold of me, and eventually the wheel ended up in the back of the upstairs closet, along with a few bobbins of lumpily spun “beginner’s singles”.

Turns out, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy spinning, it’s that I had started with the wrong fiber (rough, slightly matted mill ends still coated with spinning oil) and, for me, the wrong wheel. Now, don’t get me wrong – the wheel I had was a top-of-the-line model and had many nice features. But it never felt right for me. Even as I’d practice and get more consistent at controlling my treadle speed and drafting technique, I always felt like I was fighting the wheel, teetering on the edge of calamity. It just wasn’t very enjoyable.

Then, my mother took a workshop with the esteemed and very experienced Maggie Casey (Maggie’s website), and got to try her new travel wheel, the Schacht Sidekick. Mom liked it so much, she decided to sell her old travel wheel and buy one. And then, one day at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, while we were demonstrating fiber crafts at the sheep barn, I asked the fateful question: “Hey Mom, can I try your new wheel?”

The effect was instant and powerful. Suddenly, I could spin easily, meditatively, calmly, and fairly consistently. Spinning was FUN! So, with mother’s generous approval, I sold my old wheel and bought a similar model, the Shacht Ladybug. It has made all the difference in my enjoyment of this new-to-me craft.

The main difference between the Schacht wheels and the Majacraft Little Gem that I started with, is that, because the Little Gem relies on a tiny drive wheel to turn the main wheel, you have to treadle very fast, even when using a larger ratio on the whorl. It was like trying to learn to ride a bike that wasn’t fitted properly, or that only had one high-speed gear. For me, the Schacht wheels just fit better, but it’s all a matter of personal experience. I tell friends and visitors at craft shows who are interested in spinning: the best thing to do is to try a lot of different wheels. The process is sort of like buying a car (spinning wheels are machines after all). You have to pick one that feels right, that’s comfortable to drive. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or fancy model, it just has to work for you.

Ladybug spinning wheel, blue yarn and a sheepskin
Ladybug spinning wheel, blue yarn and a sheepskin

Anyway, I’m happy to report that after only a few hours on my new wheel, I was able to finish spinning singles that I’d started on my mom’s Sidekick, and then to successfully ply my first yarn. I must say that watching instructional videos by Judith MacKinzey and Maggie Casey was also tremendously helpful. Judith especially has a bit of a rambling style as an instructor, but the amount of information that she packs into those videos is well worth the price, and a repeat viewing (or four).

So, incorporating these two crafts (spinning and knitting) together, my first goal is to finish spinning this lovely blue roving (Potluck Roving – going out of production, unfortunately) and knit it into some kind of set (probably a hat and cowl, depending on yardage). Then, for the ambitious beginner, I plan to spin two bags of natural brown Shetland roving that I got from a friend a few years ago. The goal is to spin a similar weight to Shelter, which the pattern calls for (but, you know, soft) and knit this wonderful, semi-reversible (or styleable?) sweater by Veronik Avery. It’s going to take a while, but the journey should be fun.

Meanwhile, I was looking up tools for winding and storing handspun yarn (Judith says one should amass 40 bobbins so that you can spin lots of singles and then mix and match them up before plying, for a more even yarn). This is not financially possible for me, at $20-$40 per bobbin from the company that made my wheel, but then I found the Bobbins Up!, a plastic storage bobbin that attaches to an electric drill (of which we already own several) for winding [video review & demo]. It even has a whorl on one side, for use on a tensioned kate. Spinning may be one of the oldest crafts in the world, but modern technology rocks!

Scully Summer SunSessionAle!

This beer was brewed for our annual summer party. It was designed to be easy to brew, and at 4%, easy to drink over a long day.

  • 5 lbs. Marris Otter (UK) 2-row malt
  • 2.5 lbs Organic (CAN) 2-row malt

Ideally I would have preferred to use all of one malt rather than mixing the UK and the North American, but the guru was on holiday and so there wasn’t as much in stock — and I really needed to brew today in order to have the beer ready for the party on 16 August.

A low-temperature mash of 149° or so used to create a thin mash using 1.2 quarts per pound of grain (10.8 qts = 2.7 gallons) for 75 minutes maximum to ensure a light color.

Sparged with 15 quarts (3.37 gallons) of water based on 2 quarts per pound of grain.

Boil was 60 minute boil exactly to avoid darkening the beer. 1 oz. of Bramling Cross (all 7.8% AAU) hops were added at the beginning of the boil, 1 oz of Bramling Cross was added at 30 mins from completetion of the boil, 1 oz of Bramling Cross was added at 15 mins from end, and 1 oz of Bramling Cross was added as the pot was removed from the stove. I said it was an easy recipe, didn’t I?

I used the SO-5 dry yeast for a more neutral yeast profile. The beer was left in the primary for 1 week and then racked to a keg.

Adventures in Farming & Crafting: Take 2

Spring Lambs
Spring Lambs
Brewing Beer
Brewing Beer
Shet-Blend Scarf Project
Shet-Blend Yarn Scarf Project

Welcome to our new venture, Gage Hill Crafts. Many of you already know us and know what we do: a little sheep farming, brewing great beer, selling yarn at fiber festivals, and sharing tales of our travels.

So why the name change from Terrapin Gardens? We’re making some changes at the farm, and wanted a name that was easier to remember (and pronounce, and spell) and that would reflect our new focus. We are reducing our flock size to concentrate on our retail business, and we will introduce new items as well, like knitting and brewing tools. The term “Craft” more fully encompass all of our interests: the crafts of farming, brewing, cooking, photographing, writing, knitting, and other creative and productive activities.

We hope you’ll visit us at the farm, or stop by one of the craft shows this summer and fall. We have new products for sale now and will be adding more throughout the year. We also want to hear from you about your practice of craft. What are you growing, building, brewing, creating?  If you’ve used our yarns or wool in a recent project, please send us a photo so we can feature your work in the Customer Gallery.

We invite you to explore our new site, which includes our food and brewing recipes and travel journal.  We’ll also post information on hand dyeing wool, one of several new crafts that we’re exploring.

Happy Crafting!

~ Sarah, Rick, and Nancy

Fall Update

Terrapin Gardens Booth
Our booth at the Christmas in October Shoppe

It’s been a busy fall season here at Terrapin Gardens Farm. After taking most of the summer “off” (due to our decision not to breed last fall) we have been to a slew of fiber shows. The Tunbridge World’s Fair was a great success despite the impact of Hurricane Irene. We had more sheep entries than ever and a full barn for the first time since I’ve been the Superintendent. Our new goat judge was a hit with both exhibitors and spectators, and we also launched a new fiber and fleece competition in partnership with the Crafts department in Floral Hall. I’m hoping this competition will continue to grow in the next few years, and also inspire more entries in the hand-spun yarn category.

We sheared the flock on September 30, then packed off to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival for two days in the cold wind and rain. The weather was miserable and attendance was down, but we still managed to make enough sales and contacts to have a worthwhile event. I have a few ideas for advertising the Festival next year that I think would help draw both Vermonters and out-of-state visitors. The great thing about the show being held at the Tunbridge fairgrounds is that it’s close to us and also a more intimate venue that is easier for visitors to navigate.

Two weeks later we put in an appearance at a new event that is in its second year. The Christmas in October Shoppe is sponsored by the Tunbridge Women’s Group, and aims to raise money to support the restoration of historic buildings in Tunbridge. This year, a portion of the proceeds also went to flood relief for victims of Irene, so we were happy to participate as a new vendor. We saw a lot of our friends and neighbors but didn’t experience much traffic from tourists, although the event took place during peak foliage season. Hopefully with a little more advertising the Shoppe will become a fixture on the area’s fall calendar of must-see events.

Our fourth and final fiber event will be the Green Mountain Fiber Festival, hosted by White River Yarns at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. If you haven’t had a chance to see us at one of the previous shows, please come by on the weekend of November 19-20. We’ll have new products this year including knit kits for some fun felted items that make great holiday gifts.

Navajo-Churro ram
Welcome, Tunbridge!

As if all of these events weren’t enough to keep us busy, we also had the challenge of locating and bringing in a new breeding ram. Because Navajo-Churro sheep are relatively rare in our area, many of the small farms share bloodlines between their flocks. After a great deal of searching we happened upon a ram owned by Betty Hauger at Log Cabin Lamb & Wool in Winterport, Maine. The one-day road trip to pick him up was exhausting, but we’re thrilled to welcome Tunbridge as the new flock sire. His deep brown color and large horns were exactly what we were looking for this year, as we try to introduce new color patterns into the flock and maintain a number of horned ewes. Lambs will be due in mid-March of 2012.

While we’re waiting for the lambs to come, I’ll be experimenting with dyeing and hand-spinning various fibers. We’re also expecting a fresh batch of roving from Hampton Fiber Mill in Richmond in the next month or so. And if you are interested in grease fleece now is the time to contact us – we have many different colors to choose from.

Winter into Spring

With pouring rain outside on a spring day it’s time for another infrequent farm update. After the fall shows and shearing were completed the farm settled in for winter. We had already decided not to breed this year, given the economy and a lack of interest in breeding stock, so there was no ram to bring in, no breeding program to manage. While we missed the excitement of breeding season, in fact this turned out to be a good decision for us for a number of reasons. The price of hay increased this year, and the extreme cold temperatures we had in December and January meant that the flock was eating more than usual to burn calories and keep warm. In addition, the two lambs that we decided to keep for our own breeding program will have a full year to mature before their first pregnancy. And, not having to purchase and manage a ram also meant we could focus on selling a few lambs of our own.

Chaleco ram lamb
Manta’s boy, Chaleco

Fortunately we have been able to sell a few lambs from 2010. First, we were contacted by a family who has been showing sheep in the state, and wanted to try Navajo-Churros. They purchased Riker, our first sheep born on the farm and our largest ewe lamb. I’m hoping to see them and Riker’s lamb at the Tunbridge Fair this year.

Next we were contacted by some established Churro breeders near St. Johnsbury, who were looking for a lighter-colored ram to introduce some new genetics into their flock. They bought Chaleco, the reverse badger ram from Manta. I’m looking forward to seeing photos of their lambs, which should be due in the next few weeks. Then in January we were contacted by a woman in Maine, also in search of a ram lamb. Fortunately we still had Louis, a fine black ram lamb with great fleece and amazing horns, just like his sire. It’s great to see some of our first lambs going to good homes.

Louis
Louis, Nina’s ram lamb

Meanwhile, we had to turn our attention to the remaining ewe lambs and make some decisions. We knew when we decided to breed that there was no guarantee all of the lambs would be of breeding-stock grade, and we would have to either sell these to non-breeding farms or use them for meat. We also knew that the latter choice would not be easy, but such decisions are part of raising livestock. In order to promote the breed, we have to make sound decisions for good genetics, and this means culling animals that do not have desirable traits. This could vary from horn deformities, poor fleece quality, too much wool on the face and legs, and even a nasty temperament – any of these undesirable traits can be passed down to offspring.

Fortunately, we got a recommendation on a slaughterhouse from a friend of ours who raises pigs: Brault’s Market in Troy, Vermont. It’s about a 2-hour drive from our house, but the peace of mind that comes when working with a reputable, ethical, and family-owned operation are more than worth the extra travel time. I called them back in October expecting to have to wait a couple of months for an appointment, but was surprised that they were already booked into February. So we took the first available date and marked it on our calendar.

sheepskin
Sheepskins make great chair covers, cushions, and lap blankets.

I must admit that when the time came, it was easier for me to cope with our decision than I thought it would be. I felt sympathy for the lambs we were culling, but also felt a sense of pride in being able to raise our own meat. Not many people can say that they’ve done this; most meat eaters consume anonymous cuts that are hermetically sealed in the grocery cooler, or dressed up and served at a restaurant. Our lambs were raised with care, allowed to remain with their mothers and run free on pasture, and when the end came they were treated with compassion and respect.

Even after death we have tried to honor their gift of life by using as much as we can. We’ll eat the organ meats rather than throw them out. And as it turns out, waiting the extra time for an appointment was beneficial. It allowed the lambs to grow a little larger, and since the butcher charges a flat rate per head this meant more meat for our money. It also meant that the lambs had more time to re-grow their wool after October shearing, and since we elected to save the hides for tanning, this will make for a much more luxurious sheepskin with a nice thick coat of wool. The hides are in the barn, salted and drying out before I send them to the tannery, and our freezer is full of delicious, healthy meat.

This winter has been an interesting chapter, providing important learning experiences for us. Spring is time for another shearing, and warmer weather means I can get back outside to skirt fleeces and dye some yarn. I just hope we can make it through mud season without another huge snowstorm.

Shearing Day 101

Our shearer at work
Our shearer at work
Shearing is an exciting and busy event on the farm.  We get to harvest beautiful fiber, and it is an ideal time to check each animal closely and administer health treatments such as vaccines and hoof trimming.  This is an also opportunity to take photos for the breed registry and for our own records.  Here are some tips to make the day easier and more efficient. The first few times you shear, we strongly recommend that you hire a professional shearer.  While doing so will cost money, it will save you time and stress.

Caramel escort
Caramel is taken to the shearing station
Plus, a professional shearer will deliver a well-shorn fleece with minimal second clip.  Most shearers will also trim hooves for a nominal additional fee.  And whether they use hand shears or electric blades, the shearer is experienced with their tool so that the can work quickly without causing injury to the sheep. Finding a shearer can be difficult depending on your location.  Contact other shepherds in your area and ask who shears their sheep, and how long they have been working with the person.  When you have identified a shearer, contact them ahead of time (at least two months in advance of your preferred date), and let them know how many sheep you have.

Hoof trim
Hooves are trimmed
If possible, coordinate with other shepherds in your area so that the shearer can do several farm visits in one day (especially if each location has just a few sheep). Before shearing day there are a few additional details to address:

  • Order any supplies you may need, such as fleece bags, vaccines, and syringes.
  • Lock the sheep in their holding pen inside the shelter or barn so they stay dry.  Depending on the forecast, this may mean putting the sheep inside the day before shearing to make sure they have time to dry off if the weather has been wet.
Carmel Belly Wool
Belly wool is discarded
  • Select a comfortable space for the shearer to work, and be sure to clean it thoroughly.  Make sure it is close to the holding pen, secure, well lit, dry, and has easy access to electricity if your shearer uses electric shears.
  • Have help available – at least one person to catch sheep and bring each one to the shearer, one person to gather the fleeces, and one floater to open and close gates, take photos, and sweep up between each animal.

Shearing Notes and Etiquette:

Shearing Begins
Shearing begins
Offer food and drink to your helpers and the shearer. Organize your flock and ask the shearer if they have a preference of the order for rams and ewes. If you need to take photos, let your shearer know this so that you can coordinate your movements for an easy work flow. Work with the shearer at their pace.  Don’t hover, but do be ready to take the sheep as soon as it has been shorn.  (It only takes 3-4 minutes to shear a sheep with electric blades.) Also be ready to help out if a sheep is thrashing or if they slip away before shearing is complete.

Rick gives an injection
Rick gives an injection
The shearer will first discard the matted, dirty belly wool.  Wait until the shearer has completed the entire clip before stepping in to gather the fleece (pulling on the fleece while it is still attached can cause the sheep’s skin to stretch and risks cuts to both the sheep and the shearer). The shearer can hold the sheep in an immobilized position after the clip for easy vaccinations. Have the fleece bag ready, and know which sheep you will catch next.

Caramel in the Pen
Caramel in the pen
To make the sheep more comfortable, we return each one to the holding pen after it is shorn.  This works particularly well with a small flock.  For larger numbers of sheep, it may be more practical to turn the sheep out as they are shorn, though keep in mind that the last sheep left in the holding pen may be quite nervous while it is left alone. Finally, thank your shearer and tip them, especially if they have driven some distance to come to your farm, or if they have come over for just a few animals.

Dyeing it for myself

Dyed yarns dry in the sun
Dyed yarns dry in the sun

With no lambs on the ground and a serious case of spring fever in the air, yesterday I took off to Boulder Meadow Farm for a dyeing workshop.  Our host, Lisa, very kindly opened her house to a dozen fiber artists.  The day began with instruction from Melissa Johnson of Green Mountain Spinnery.  After our teacher demonstrated a few different techniques, we were off and running: soaking fibers, mixing colors, and microwaving our way to a rainbow of creative results.

I was intrigued after Melissa demonstrated making a “painted” skein of yarn with many different colors, but for my first experience in dyeing I decided to mess around with a couple of colors to see how I did with consistency.  Melissa had cautioned me that Navajo-Churro wool could be a little hesitant to absorb color.  After my first attempt at “grass green” turned out a little muted, she suggested adding more than the usual teaspoon of citric acid to the mix, to help the dye bond with the fiber.  Her suggestion worked and my second green skein came out more saturated and even.  I then moved on to creating a burnt orange color, which ended up a bit more variegated than my green yarn, but in a very pleasing way.  I didn’t make enough of either color to sell them, but these will make great samples at our booth for events coming up later in the year.  Now instead of just talking about over-dyeing gray yarn, I can show what the results look like, and I can also incorporate accents of color into a few knitted items that I want to make for display.

Though I couldn’t attend the second day of Lisa’s first “fiber weekend” I learned a lot and enjoyed meeting fellow shepherds and fiber enthusiasts, several of whom I hope to see again at this year’s Vermont Sheep & Wool Festival.  Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my eye out for a free microwave that I can use exclusively for dyeing.

Spring Shearing 2010

sheep shearing
Caramel gets a haircut

With lambing around the corner, we had our shearer out last weekend.  Spring is the most common time to shear, for several reasons. The sheep are less likely to suffer from overheating in summer, and for pregnant ewes its convenient to shear them before birth to keep the fleece clean.

As a long-wool breed, Navajo-Churro sheep grow their wool about one inch per month. With this rapid rate, we shear twice per year so that the fiber can be commercially processed into roving and yarn.  A 6-inch staple length is about the maximum that most carding and spinning machines can handle, and its a length that also works for hand spinners.

Many visitors to the farm ask what we do with the wool.  Last year, we took our clip and combined it with wool from a neighbor who also raises Navajo-Churros.  We sent off two batches to Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, VT to be processed into beautiful yarns for weaving and knitting.  This year we decided to send the fall and spring clips to Boulder Meadow Farm to be processed into roving (washed and carded fiber ready for spinning or felting).  We expect to have this fiber available for sale sometime in May.  Meanwhile, check out more photos of spring shearing.

2009: A Year In Farming

It’s been far too long since our last post. In the intervening year we’ve gotten our little farming business off the ground. In the spring we fenced a second pasture to give the sheep more room to graze. We sent our first batch of wool to Green Mountain Spinnery in August, and sold yarn at the Tunbridge World’s Fair and the Vermont Sheep & Wool Festival. Our yarn is available for sale, and in the next few weeks we should also have some washed and carded fleeces available for hand-spinners. If you are interested in grease fleece or roving please contact us for colors and prices.

The big news is that we’ve bred the ewes and are expecting our first crop of lambs in late March. We’ll be posting pictures of all the lambs as they are born, and accepting deposits for breeding stock in April and May. We may also have locker lambs for sale. Please contact us with any questions about our products, sheep for sale, or for more information about raising Navajo-Churros.

Where do we grow from here? …

unripe berriesWith logging, stumping, and grading complete, it’s time to consider how we want to lay out our planting areas for next year. For now, we’ll adjust the soil pH and put down a cover crop to preserve the rich topsoil we have, and consider what we want to grow. Of course, we’ve already done a lot of daydreaming about the types of plants we’d like to put in: more ornamental shrubs and flowers around the house, lots of interesting and tasty vegetables of all types, some berries, and perhaps some saplings that would replace some of the trees we removed and also give us something to eat, either maple syrup or walnuts.

That type of daydreaming is useful and fun, but the next step is a little more difficult: where do we put what? Some of the decisions are already made for us. We didn’t stump the area to the left of the driveway (as you look out from our front porch), so that will remain a wild meadow. We’ll throw down grass and let that compete with the ferns and other naturally occurring plants while keeping an eye out for saplings that might threaten to crowd the driveway again. I’ve dubbed this the “hippie garden,” a place where we can experiment with whimsical features like a gazing ball, yard art, or even a small pond. We might also use it for an area to put our chicken house, if or when we get to that stage.

To the right of the driveway is the much larger expanse of land that runs from the house to the cabin, with a second “field” further off to the right of the house. This second field was an unexpected but welcome outcome from having the area stumped and graded by our contractor, Bob, who really is “an artist with a bulldozer”, as our forester dubbed him. Bob opened up level, firm, rich soil in an area that I, for one, assumed would be too sloping and rocky to be usable. Turns out it was just a big pile of dirt waiting to be smoothed flat. We might use part of this space for a greenhouse or two, but there will be more room for planting as well.

Still a third area that we need to address is the steep slope directly in front of the house. Currently there are some wild blackberries growing there, along with some sumac and various other native…well, weeds. At first, I was trying to convince Rick that we should dig up the weeds and keep the berries, but after getting snagged in their sharp thorns while harvesting the small, somewhat bitter fruits I think it would be better to tear out all the plants and start fresh, either with a variety of cultivated berry with a better taste, or with an low-growing ornamental evergreen like juniper that wouldn’t get out of hand and crowd our amazing view.

Needless to say, we have some ideas but we’re not quite sure how to proceed. Where do we plant the various crops? How large of a vegetable patch should we carve out the first year? Where will the berries go? Do we have a good spot to grow our own hops? (We both have a keen interest in home-brewing.) Luckily, between Rick’s contacts that he’s developed through the Vermont Master Gardeners, our neighbors who have been gardening on a large scale here for over twenty years, and the knowledge we already have from other gardens, we have some good resources to tap into. It just may take a while before we really learn the quirks of our land and this new growing climate.