Caroline Walshe on Processing Wool
We have received such a rich array of articles from amazing people producing yarn that we felt that during the Processing Wool phase of WOVEMBER, we should dedicate a day just to them. Therefore this morning in place of WOVEMBER WORDS we are delighted to share this piece by Caroline Walshe who writes about keeping a small flock; growing the flock while raising a young family; and getting her flock’s fleeces spun into yarn. WOVEMBER also recommends Caroline’s excellent piece about Yarn miles and traceability for further reading! If you are inspired by this story you can follow the journey on her beautiful blog, Maker Magpie.
The story of a yarn
Our sheep-keeping journey began three years ago when we bartered three Shetland-Jacob cross ewes and a wether (a castrated ram lamb) with our awesome neighbours at Harmony Farm. I’d been spinning yarn for a few years and ever since we’d moved to our patch of land in North Roscommon in 2011 we’d wanted to keep sheep – both for meat and wool.
The wether was a hand raised lamb with a beautiful fleece that my neighbours couldn’t bring themselves to eat and they convinced us (extremely easily I might add) to keep him as a pet purely for his wool. I wrote a story about spinning the wool from which to knit a shawl in Wovember 2013.
The three ewes were for breeding. As they are a small breed we waited until their second year so they could grow a bit in the first year.
We started from those four sheep and year by year have grown the flock to nine at last count. Jake unfortunately didn’t stay a pet – being raised by humans made him believe he basically was one, or else that we were sheep, and as head of the flock he felt we needed the occasional butting. He grew to be a formidable size and, with small kids about, this became unfeasible. We need to have animals we can completely trust around the kids so Jake made his way to the great freezer in the sky and provided us with many delicious mutton meals and a beautiful sheepskin rug on which to sit in front of the fire.
The story of these sheep is also the story of our family expanding. Our brilliant fencer came before the sheep arrived, when my son was just a few months old, to put sheep fencing in. We were clambering around the fields with a tiny baby strapped to us to show him where to put the sheep fences. And that’s pretty much been the story since. Looking back through the photos there is not much we haven’t done without a small baby strapped to one of us – most memorable are a comical and unsuccessful sheep catching escapade in the side field with me pregnant and carrying a small boy, and preparing Jake’s skin for tanning under a red oak in autumn while my daughter slept on my husband’s back. It might sound romantic but in reality we were busy scraping flesh and fat off and filling a bucket with it – not exactly something you want to do around a three month old baby.
My son watched the sheep shearing two years in a row, once in his playpen parked out on the driveway and once in a buggy.
This year we managed to get my mum to mind both kids while myself and my husband went off to the sheep shearers – we realised in the middle of it that it was the first time we had been without the kids since my daughter was born nine months before. A sheep shearing date. Romantic.
It has been difficult to start our journey into shepherding and parenting at the same time and there have been times when I’ve regretted the timing and really resented the workload. In particular while I was pregnant and had to stay away from the lambing ewes. And the next year at 3 o’clock in the morning with my hand stuck up one of the ewes trying to figure out what the problem with her lambing was and whether the lambs were dead yet, with two baby monitors hanging in a plastic bag from a tree outside the barn. (Thankfully the lambs survived and the children stayed asleep.)
The sheep and my family have developed alongside each other and the story of this yarn is part of that. I have no time to wash, prepare and spin fibre so I’ve been carefully packing up fleeces for the last two seasons, hoping for a life where someday I might have the time to spin it, while toying with the idea of getting it spun up into yarn by someone else.
That idea of getting the fleece spun was planted in my mind several years back when a friend from our knitting group (thanks Christine!) had her sheeps’ fleeces spun by the Natural Fibre company in Cornwall. The problem with sending fleece there is that it takes a long time for someone like me who has a very small flock to save up 20kg (their minimum quantity). It is also a big financial outlay to have so much done in one go. Our sheep are small and a large fleece might be 1kg. Also the lambs are not shorn in their first year, and the wool from the ewes is not of such amazing quality as the lambs – it takes a lot out of them having babbies and their wool is the first thing to show the signs of stress. (It’s a bit like how many bad hair days you have after having kids.) The first shearing from a lamb (at over a year old) is the best as all they’ve had to do is hang out and eat. So you are likely to get a good fleece from last year’s lambs, but not necessarily from the ewes. As a result 20kg would take a long time to save up with a small flock.
This year I found that someone in Ireland was providing the service of spinning yarn for small farmers. Diarmuid of S Twist Wool is now taking fleece from local farmers, washing it in a fermentation bath in Tipperary, and sending it off to be carded and spun into yarn. Unfortunately the wool has to be sent to mainland Europe for spinning (there is no facility in Ireland for this) but at least some of the process is done here, and Diarmuid will process small batches. The fact that we could try a small batch meant that this would be a smaller investment for us and it made the prospect feasible.
Even with the smaller size of the batches, we knew we’d struggle to have enough wool for producing yarn in more than one colour. So we combined forces with Judit in Harmony Farm. Judit’s Shetlands are the mammies of our ladies so they all have quite similar fleeces and we have similar coloured sheep. We selected the best of our fleeces. It is amazing how much variation there is amongst even such a small, related flock – there are huge differences in crimp, staple length and softness between the different sheep. It made me wonder how small producers deal with this issue – one batch of yarn could end up significantly different from another from the same flock, between changes in the health of the sheep and how that affected their fleece, and changes in the flock from year to year. Uniformity must be pretty impossible for a small farmer making yarn!
But that is what we are celebrating in our yarn – the terroir of our yarn – the condition of the fleece being affected by that year’s weather, by the sheep’s health, by a ram turning out not to have such great genetics as we’d hoped, by what plants the sheep managed to get tangled up in… This year’s wool clip was completely unique in that respect. And we took the very best of it, and spun it into what we hope will be a very special yarn. We know each sheep who donated their wool, we know which parts of the spotted sheeps’ fleeces went into each bag. There is so much character in there. There won’t be a huge quantity of spun yarn, and we only managed to cobble together enough to spin a white yarn and a grey yarn… but there is always next year – for a different yarn, with a different terroir. Hopefully though, this year’s yarn will turn out to be a fine vintage!
Much as it has been difficult to raise sheep and small children at the same time, I don’t think I would have taken this decision to spin our fleeces without being in that situation. So I have my kids to thank for the fact that we will soon have spun yarn. There are so many experiences and stories in farming – from daily tasks to lambing to shearing – and so much goes on behind one shorn fleece; so much that we have gone through with each other and with our kids. Their story is spun into this yarn, too.
All words and photos © Caroline Walshe of Maker Magpie and used here with kind permission – thank you so much, Caro! We are so excited to see your finished yarn!