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A Flock of Your Own Icelandic Sheep
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Dreaming Vermont: Relocating and Living in Vermont

Robert Frost spent his autumn harvesting leaves. “Next to nothing for weight and since they grew duller, from contact with earth, next to nothing for color, but a crop is a crop, and who is to say when the harvest shall stop?” he asked himself, as he rustled away at his task.

We spent our first autumn weekend, as the leaves commence to turn around us, and in 80 degree heat, wrestling with sheep. You’d think a sheep would be grateful to stand cooperatively while being relieved of a summer’s growth of heavy wool when temperatures hover near 90 and the air is so humid wash won’t dry on the line.

You would be sadly mistaken. There is nothing romantic about harvesting wool. A good deal of your time is spent bent over an animal who is determinedly squirming, kicking, and (if horned) making a credible attempt at puncturing your ribs. The noun “fleeced,” to deprive of money or belongings by fraud, probably originated with the feints, dodges, and downright subterfuge employed by shepherds trying to catch their uncooperative charges.

So, on the hottest weekend of what has been a pleasantly cool summer, we’re shearing sheep. On the open market an Icelandic fleece can bring a dollar a pound. We pull about 7 pounds of wool off a good sized ewe, give or take. Seen in raw numbers the bruises hardly seem worthwhile. And after you’ve struggled the fleece off the sheep, the fleece needs to be cleaned, the organic matter (hay and dirt) shaken from it, matted areas removed. Then washed, combed into roving, spun into a useable yarn, which is then, of course, used to manufacture something. Cloth, sweaters, mittens, socks. Your something will be smaller than you’d think: 7 pounds of raw wool will yield about 3.5 pounds of finished goods.

At fairs teams still compete in Sheep to Shawl contests. Points are given for the cleanest shearing, the finest thread, and, ultimately, the first shawl off the loom. Once, in times of war, speed in these domestic arts was essential. Women would find themselves hastily relieving a lamb of its fleece and producing, from start to finish, a new suit of clothes for a young man headed off to battle. Unlike some breeds, with their heavy lanolin content, the Icelandic is well suited to high speed processing. The fleece can be spun unwashed, or “in the grease,” fairly easily.

Nevertheless, I’d be hard pressed to produce a useable amount of thread, let alone dress a loom and weave a length of cloth sufficient for a man’s suit of clothes in anything under a month. Never mind cutting and assembling the outfit. These women did it in 24 hours.

Interweave Press produces magazines tailored to the hand spinner and hand weaver. These are lavish, and expensive, magazines, and well they should be. A high quality good sized loom equipped with the necessary tools can run upwards of several thousand dollars. The fibers weavers use, which range from cotton flake to fine linen, wool and alpaca to mohair and chenille, are generally sold by the ounce. This is not a sport for the faint of heart or the thin of purse.

And yet there is a robust interest in the art of hand weaving. Interweave comes out with new books on an annual basis. Older, out of print volumes, are avidly sought after. Ebay has a vigorous marketplace filled with looms large and small, from table top looms to looms so large they require two people working in tandem to produce a piece of cloth. And… they sell. People buy and use these things. To appreciate how truly insane that is, consider this:

To make the linen pillowcase which might have found its way into your great great great grandmother’s hope chest requires the measuring of 896 individual lengths of linen thread. These threads must be collected without twisting or tangling, then drawn through a “reed” or series of thin metal slots, and then through “hettles” which will be used to create the pattern of the fabric by being drawn up by a foot pedal mechanism. To make an inch of fabric you’ll need to send a shuttle through this warp 32 times. Or roughly 1500 times to make one pillowcase. And since linen, when dry, is fragile, the warp must be misted regularly to keep it damp.

Absolute madness, when you can buy pillowcases at WalMart for a few dollars. Madness… challenging, rewarding, creative, intellectual and mindless at the same time. The textile arts survive because they offer a means of artistic expression, tactile sensation, and satisfaction. There is always a new challenge, a new fiber, a pattern to be conquered.

The 16th Annual Vermont Sheep and Goat festival is being held at the Champlain Valley Fairground on October 2nd and 3rd of this year. With workshops on weaving, felting, and knitting, and vendors selling wools, alpacas, mohairs, and blends, produced here in Vermont and New England.

The best part? You don’t have to wrestle with the sheep. But you do need to sign up in advance for the workshops: www.VermontSheep.org

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Stories From a Vermont Life:

Camilla Blue
Frozen Gifts
Making Wreaths
Shearing
Hobblewood
Flush
The Fourth of July
VISIT A VERMONT SHEEP FARM | LIFE WITH ICELANDIC SHEEP | WEAVING STUDIO FIBER SALE | ABOUT US | NEW ENGLAND ICELANDIC SHEEP BREEDERS ASSOCIATION
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The Farm at Morrison Corner raises Icelandic Sheep on the last hill farm in Mansfield, VT.  Learn about Raising Icelandic Sheep, Raising Chickens, Moving to Vermont and Living in Vermont on this and our other sites.

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