Spring is for Farm Visits

by Sarah Lake Upton in


I spend much of my winter in Central America (very warm, when my New England raised self should be cold) and much of my summer in Southeast Alaska (requiring long underwear and wool hats in July) and every six weeks I get to go home and experience the seasons in the order I expect them to be in, before six weeks later I head back to the opposite climate.  The effect is a disorienting strobe light of seasons.   I leave home when the leaves have fallen and the first snows are nigh, spend six weeks with near constant sun, ninety per cent humidity, and an oppressive heat, then return home to find feet of snow.  Later I will leave home just as the leaves are spreading new green in the first breath of summer, only to work in a place where my knitwear will find heavy use, and return to find the leaves exhausted in the heat of high summer.   I never realized how much I was conscious of the turning of the seasons until I stopped being subject to them.  My major seasons are not longer “fall, winter, spring, summer” but “Columbia River, Central America, Baja, Alaska”.  The Maine farm calendar acts as counter point to the rhythm of my new style of year, at least as it pertains to sheep and wool.  Spring and early summer is the time for shearing, and therefore the time farm visits and wool buying.  

Because of my boat schedule I often miss the actual shearing day, but as soon thereafter as I can manage I appear on the farm, shipping boxes in hand.  ‘

This most recent rotation home I visited two farms.  Next rotation home I will visit two, or possibly three, more (and maybe even more than that, depending on how ambitious I feel and how much money I have left in the fleece buying/yarn processing account after the second two visits). 

First up, mere days after I arrived home, were the luminous Coopworth fleeces of Buckwheat Blossom farm.  In a very real way I owe the existence of Upton Yarns to Amy and her fleeces.  Years ago, when I was just settling back onto land (for the first time, or possibly the second depending on how one counts these things) and proudly joined the Buckwheat Blossom Farm Winter CSA (because that is the kind of thing people who live on land get to do) I came across a skein of Amy’s two ply Aran weight Coopworth yarn, in natural gray, sitting on the CSA pick-up table between jars of her home made kim chi and jars of whole milk yogurt from a nearby small dairy herd.  The yarn had a texture and color unlike anything I had ever seen, luminous and silky, with a strength in the hand. It was so unlike anything that I had ever seen before that I couldn’t even immediately identify it as wool.  Eventually I bought enough to knit myself an aran which has only improved with age and wear (original photos on Ravelry, where I go by “puffling”).  Her yarn inspired me to throw myself into researching breed specific yarns, which led quite naturally to natural dyes, which led to a crankiness as the dearth of local yarn (much easier to find now - I think a lot of us in Mid-Coast Maine were feeling a similar frustration at the time, and reacted in similar ways) which led me to experiment a bit, and then buy a couple of fleeces from Amy and start Upton Yarns.   

So it is with a sense of gratitude and pride that I return every year to buy her fleeces, which I then send off to Stonehedge Fiber Mill to be spun into gransey yarn, and occasionally a 3 Ply DK weight.  Every year I find her flock a little larger, and her fleeces even more beautiful.   

 
Each of these bundles contains an individual, magical, fleece. Amy usually includes the name of the sheep that grew the fleece somewhere in the bundle as well, but most of the time Amy doesn't have to look at the name tag to recognize the former wearer. 

Each of these bundles contains an individual, magical, fleece. Amy usually includes the name of the sheep that grew the fleece somewhere in the bundle as well, but most of the time Amy doesn't have to look at the name tag to recognize the former wearer. 

 

I went to the farm intending to photograph the whole fleece choosing process, but I was quickly overwhelmed by fiber enthusiasm and completely failed to be a proper photographer.  I arrived to find that Amy had already set out a selection of fleeces she thought might interest me, which of course they did.  

I managed one photo for Instagram purposes, which I also then sent to a friend of mine (Sarah of FiberTrek) to see if she wanted to share a fleece for handspinning, which we almost did before both of us remembered the size of our respective stashes.  (I added the fleece to the darker brown gansey yarn pile).  

Once the fleece had all been weighed and boxed up I went to meet her flock, who were clearly enjoying their summer hair cuts.

Amy still makes her own incredible aran weight yarn, which she sells at the winter farmers market in Brunswick.

photo credit - Sam Upton   Willy of Two Sisters Farm (on the right) and myself with a stack of boxes soon to be filled with fleece (on the left). 

photo credit - Sam Upton  Willy of Two Sisters Farm (on the right) and myself with a stack of boxes soon to be filled with fleece (on the left). 

Wise to my own failings as a photographer when fleece is involved, I brought Sam with me on my visit to Two Sisters Farm.   Willy keeps a large (by small farm standards) mixed flock of BFL, Northern Cheviot, and Scottish Blackface on one of the most quintessentially beautiful Maine farms I have ever had the pleasure of exploring.  I learned about her Scottish Blackface through the Maine Fiber grapevine, and initially approached her last year hoping to make use (somehow) of such interesting fleece.   I still haven’t quite figured out the best use for her Scottish Blackface (I’m working on a second experiment this year) but while I was looking at the Scottish Blackface I fell in love with her BFL, which makes a really lovely 3-ply DK weight.  

photo credit - Sam Upton

photo credit - Sam Upton

photo credit - Sam Upton

photo credit - Sam Upton

photo credit - Sam Upton -  Not all the fleece makes it to the wool boxes - sometimes the sheep can't wait until shearing day to start getting rid of their winter coats. 

photo credit - Sam Upton - Not all the fleece makes it to the wool boxes - sometimes the sheep can't wait until shearing day to start getting rid of their winter coats. 

Kate Davie’s Epistrophy, knit with the BFL DK weight yarn spun from 2015 fleece,  in Aspen (lighter green) and Tongas (at the yoke). Buttons from Fringe Supply Company

Kate Davie’s Epistrophy, knit with the BFL DK weight yarn spun from 2015 fleece,  in Aspen (lighter green) and Tongas (at the yoke). Buttons from Fringe Supply Company

I'm looking forward to my next most favorite time of the year, when all the fleece that I mailed out to Deb at the mill comes back to me as yarn.  I'm already dreaming of the colors I will get to play with. 

edited because I am "puffling" on Revelry, not "puffing" as autocorrect would have it. 


Shearing.

by upton in


It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that I am terrible at writing up event in a reasonable time frame.

Several Fridays ago (more Fridays than I am comfortable admitting- or even able to name without resorting to the weekly planner that now rules my life) the weather and the schedules of all concerned parties converged, and the sheep of Buckwheat Blossom Farm were shorn of their winter growth.

While Jeff sheared Amy, Amy's friend Jackie, and I skirted fleeces and plotted which would be bought by whom and turned into what. My workroom is now filled with gorgeous fleece and in between stints away working on assorted ferries (I have spent more of April working on the Vinalhaven, Islesboro and Swans Island ferries than I have at home) I find myself losing hours pondering which will be combined with which and spun how, and then, content that I have worked it all out and will send the fleeces out for spinning after my next hitch, return to find that I have changed my mind. The potential represented by those lovely, lovely fleeces is a bit overwhelming and I am terrible at making decisions. I am planning to have some of it spun up as gansey yarn, and some as sanquhar yarn (also suitable for socks) and a bit done up as a three ply sport weight. The question is which fleeces will work best as what, and, as they are colored fleeces, which are best grouped together. I go up to my work space for an entirely unrelated reason and find myself instead moving individual fleeces around the room grouping them together in different ways, patting them and studying individual locks, all the while muttering to myself. I suspect that I sound a bit too much like Gollum for comfort in these instances (no my precious, I shall not put you with that fleece, I shall put you with this fleece and make gansey yarn of you my precious...). I need to send them out to be spun, if only to get a bit of my sanity back.

 

On a related note, Sam and I had our own opportunity to shear last weekend during a class in beginning sheep shearing held through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Program at North Star Farm. Lessons learned: Jeff makes shearing sheep look easy, but it really really isn't.

After a bit of instruction about the shears themselves, we divided into smaller groups to work more closely with individual shearers. Jeff happened to be one of the instructors and so Sam and I found ourselves naturally in his group as he sheared a sheep very slowly, talking us through the bits we needed to be extra careful with and showing us the shearing pattern. And then it was our turn. Somehow, and I'm still not sure how this happened as generally I ascribe to the stand-at-the-back-until-enough-people-have-tried-something-that-the-novelty-has-worn-off-and-the-group-is-no-longer-paying-attention school of thought regarding activities that involve and audience, I ended up going first. North Star Farm raises Hampshires, which, from some brief googling should apparently weigh 200 pounds (the rams should weigh 275 pounds).  On the one hand, they were great beginning shearing sheep as their fleece is not particularly valuable, so if a bunch of utter novices butchered the shearing (which we did) we were not causing any real harm. On the other hand, shearing is awkward enough without also having to wrestle what Sam described as "the biggest g*d d*** sheep I ever saw".

The theory of shearing makes perfect sense: shear in a specific order, keeping the tips of the shears against the skin of the sheep, following the sheep's contours and doing your best not to cut a few very anatomically important bits. I went into the stall, grabbed the closest sheep, brought it to the cutting floor ( a large piece of plywood) wrestled it down so that it was sitting on its haunches on my feet, and then realized that the rest was far more complicated than I had suspected.

 

Confronted with an actual sheep with four inches of fleece I realized that I couldn't remember any part of the shearing pattern and I couldn't find its skin, let alone follow the contour of its body. I am generally very comfortable using a wide variety of hand and power tools, but the clippers were enormous and awkward in my hand (much like an angle grinder in terms of size and ease of handling) and the sheep was not entirely on board with the proceedings. Also, Jeff is very very tall (6'4"? 6'5'?) and I am not (5'5" when I am remembering to maintain good posture) so there were many instances in which Jeff comfortably straddled the sheep to cut a specific area and I found myself riding the sheep when trying to do the same. But in the end (much, much, later) I prevailed, and even managed to get a feel for when the clippers were following the curve of the sheep's body and when they were haring off too far into the fleece. While Jeff encouraged the sheep to stand and return to the stall, I stood up straight and focused on breathing, with what I suspect was a very dazed expression on my face. As the day progressed it became easy to tell who had sheared, and who was still waiting for a turn by the slightly loopy glazed look of those who had sheared, a mix of shock and exhaustion and triumph.

A bit later it was Sam's turn, and I managed to get photos.