The Black Sheep Gathering in Eugene is like all Eugene events: carefully planned to achieve a loosely coordinated feel, with lots to learn in classes and demonstrations, tons of vendors from all over the country, barns full of fiber animals, and very marginal food and amenities. People come from all over. There are tent campers who take their chances with the Oregon weather, lots and lots of RVs and trailers, many day trippers and a few who actually stay in a hotel for the event.
The wool show is amazing; an entire exhibit hall full of fleeces from every kind of fleece-producing animal. All are judged over two days, and finally, when the judging ends, after a break, you are allowed to go in and feel them, smell them, and decide which ones you want to buy. Of course if you actually expect to get the fleeces you want, you will need to be first in line. The line begins to form early in the day, so that finally, about an hour after the judging ends, the sale can begin. Pandemonium ensues when the doors are finally opened. I wonder how many times people have nearly come to blows when someone snatched ‘their’ fleece before they could grab it. It’s a lot like black Friday! I can’t stand it, and don’t need fleeces anyway. But the fiber junkies of the West are out in force at the Black Sheep Gathering.
This year the fiber arts show had a lot of weaving along with felting, knitting and spinning projects.
We were excited about Dianne’s champion ribbon, because she carefully spun wool from our sheep [Roberta] to make the warp for the project. We were amazed that the natural colored Romney was going to be the warp since it would not be seen. But Dianne believed it was the perfect fiber for her warp and she found a way to keep some warp visible by having the lovely silver-gray fringe.
Roberta the sheep lives on through this piece.
Summer is a great time for washing and dyeing wool. Our technique evolves every year as the fleeces change, the weather changes, and learning occurs.
Before washing, there is skirting and picking the fleece. If we were careful at shearing when we put the fleece into a bag, we can toss it out onto the big wire “table” for this process, and it will hang together more or less. The outside edges of the fleece will have the belly wool, the lower legs, the neck and the hind end. Ideally, one simply removes the outer edges of the fleece because all of these parts are undesirable. Of course it doesn’t always work out–some of our Romney fleeces are so open that they don’t stay together. Sometimes, we just grab handfuls of wool and stuff them in the bag, only to regret it later. Once the undesirable wool is removed, then it’s a matter of pulling out all the straw and hay and burrs and twigs that have attached themselves to the wool. Skirting and picking can take minutes to hours, depending on the sheep, shearing conditions, and the mental and physical condition of the shearers at the time of shearing.
The current washing strategy involves soaking the fleece for 2-7 days in cold water. We have two 15-gallon animal water tubs for the purpose. Half a fleece will swirl around nicely in each of these. I push the wool into the water, cover it with some plastic, and leave it until I have time to wash it. I use my “Laundry Bot” (Costco hand washer for college students) to spin out the soak water, then fill the tubs with hot water and the scouring detergent. My favorite is an Aussie product called Kookaburra Scour, but when that runs out I can use good old blue Dawn dish-washing detergent. Push wool into hot water, don’t agitate, let it sit for an hour, and then lift the wool out, spin the detergent out with my Bot, then a hot rinse for half an hour, and successive warm rinses until I am satisfied or sick of it, whichever comes first.
This weekend I washed Clarissa’s lovely bright white fleece and Raven’s beautiful silver fleece.Then I dyed three one-pound batches of Robert’s fleece from 2013. Dyeing fleece is a little different from dyeing yarn, because of the quantity you are dealing with and the desirability of having variation in color rather than the uniform color one needs when working with yarn. To start with, the wool must be wet, requiring at least 30 minutes in a bucket of cool water. Meanwhile the huge dye-pot is filled with water and slowly heated on the stove. The dye granules are weighed out (packaging says use a 1:10 ratio of dye to fiber, but we find half that is better). Once weighed, the dye is mixed thoroughly in boiling water, and added to the dye pot. The wool goes in when the water is 120-140 degrees, then the kettle is heated to simmering and held at the simmer for half an hour or more. Ideally, you let it cool naturally overnight before pouring the water out. I rarely have time for that. Once out of the dye-pot the wool needs several rinses at a temperature that is within 15 degrees of its current temperature. The dyes we use are easy, no additives required. No matter what, it seems whenever I do a dyeing project, I am still working on it at 11:00 pm. But the results are always exciting.
John has been working to prepare the garden for several weeks, tilling whenever the weather was dry, planting early peas [no luck] and shaping the raised beds. Marilyn started seeds indoors early in March so that we have lots of baby tomatoes, cabbage and its relatives, onions, peppers, basil, and cosmos.
After a sunny week and a dry Saturday, almost everything is planted and the soaker hoses are in place for irrigation. The beans are up, onions are perky, tomatoes and broccoli are peeking out over their plant protectors. Now it is time to do battle with the slugs, moles/voles, and morning glory so that the garden can thrive.
John attends yoga classes each week at the Hillsboro Yoga studio. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the studio, owner Brandt invited all the yoga students to share their talents one Saturday afternoon. There would be a gallery upstairs for the visual arts, and a performance space downstairs for singers and musicians. We heard wonderful bagpipes, intriguing medieval musicians, and a young violinist. Upstairs among the photographers and painters, we set up a display about John’s weaving–which started with the farm, the sheep, the shearing, the spinning, the dyeing, and finally the weaving itself. Many people stopped to admire the weaving and ask questions.
We had a week of dry weather in April and jumped at the chance to shear the sheep. Their wool was very long and they had not yet been released out to the lush grass. We know that the wool can get very messy once they begin to eat that fresh grass. 13 sheep to shear, no big deal for those Aussie shearers that can take the wool off 200 sheep in a day. By contrast, we decided to take it slow and easy, hoping that shearer Beth and assistants John and Marilyn — as well as all the sheep — would escape injury and there would be 13 bags full at the end of the afternoon. We achieved that objective. Each adult sheep received a worming shot, had its feet trimmed, and was relieved of a heavy fleece.
The yearling mothers had very young lambs, just a week or two old. So we decided to “mother up” the young moms and their babies after shearing. Here John is holding the lamb so that we can reunite mother and baby as soon as she is shorn.
For a few weeks, the sheep will look like scrawny goats. But soon they will begin to grow the next lovely fleece.
As of this morning, five of the six yearling ewes have given birth. Each had a single lamb, 3 girls and 2 boys, ranging in weight from 7 lb 4 oz to 9 lb. The births have been easy enough, but the drama increases exponentially when you have first time mothers.
Number 14 was the most challenging. He arrived in the wee hours Saturday morning, discovered by John when he went out to feed at 8:00. He was standing in the midst of a swarm of sheep rushing for their breakfast–including his mother. He was dry, implying he had been born at least 5 hours earlier. It wasn’t too hard to get mother and son into the lambing pen. He weighed 7 lb 4 oz–dinky but oh so cute. Since he was up and dry, we assumed that he had been fed, and off we went to do our chores and errands. A few hours later I looked in. The lamb was sleeping in the exact place where I last saw him. UH oh. A weak lamb just sleeps and sleeps, and if you don’t help them, they starve.
We decided to trim mama’s copious wool “curtain” that hung over the access to her udder. During this trimming process [John holding the ewe, Marilyn wielding the shears], we got the lamb and tried to persuade him to feed off the exposed teats. It was not going to happen. Even prying his mouth open and literally stuffing the teat into it did not result in an eager sucking response.
Worried now, we decided to milk the mother by hand and try to feed the lamb using a bottle. There was plenty of yellow colostrum. Little mister 14 adapted to the artificial nipple in seconds, latched on and sucked with great enthusiasm till every drop was in his belly. But when we tried to encourage him to reach in under his mama, nothing happened. He’s sleepy, having just been fed, let’s try later.
Later came with the same result. We milked mother by hand and fed it to the lamb by bottle twice more before retiring for the night. Next morning, lying in bed, Marilyn can’t sleep in. She is thinking: ‘it is Sunday. I have this one day to get this lamb functioning independently. Otherwise we will lose him. Damn. We have had such a good lambing year. Gotta try–I’ll get our daughters to help.’ Once we were up we tried unsuccessfully to get the little fellow to connect the dots. We milked mama and fed baby about 1/3 cup of milk. He was very eager and friendly toward our legs, having learned that our legs are the source of his food.
The family was planning to come for lunch. Marilyn asked Susan and Tracy to bring farm clothes so they could help with the latest lamb. Suz, on her knees in the soggy straw of the lambing pen, tried in vain to connect lamb and mother. Half and hour later, with three of us in the stall, Suz held the mother, Marilyn squirted milk out of the teat, and Tracy got the lamb to suck on her finger and then quickly slipped finger out and teat in and suddenly it was happening! He fed for a full minute! So now we have a lamb who has fed from his mother, but only while she was sitting in the most unseemly position, on her behind with legs splayed out and the lamb between them. This is not the way things are done in nature. But the full belly made him sleepy again, so off we went to have lunch, feeling ‘sort of’ good about our success.
After lunch, another session. After half an hour of patient instruction, we finally got him to latch on in the “normal” way–tucking his head under his mother’s belly and reaching up for the teat. But once he released the teat, he seemed to have no idea how to get back there. Just wandered around near his mama’s nose. Before Tracy left we decided to give him his selenium injection, because he was quivering even while he slept, which could be related to weak muscles that are caused by the lack of selenium in our soil.
At 9 pm, Marilyn gave him a little nudge so that he was standing right next to his mother, facing the rear. In this position, mama turned around and pushed his little behind and bingo! Under he went. Now there was hope that it would not take a lot of fiddling around to get him to feed, just a little prod. At 11, John and Marilyn stepped into the barn for one last check and just as John arrived to watch, little Mister 14, all by himself, latched on for a feed.
Another fine success for the Harrison/Nelsen lactation team! Next time, we will not make assumptions about whether a lamb is feeding. We will verify, by gosh.
Update as of April 10: he and his mother are out on the pasture and doing fine. Here he is:
After tying and cutting the fringe, washing and rinsing [carefully so as not to felt it stiff as a board] and pressing, here it is. Nice length, thick, soft and warm. One weaving mistake that glares at me but will go unnoticed by the casual observer.
Now it’s off to the spinning wheel to make yarn for the next project!
The first project on the Macomber is off the loom! Before we know how it turned out, the fringes must be tied and trimmed and the entire shawl washed, dried and pressed. The intent was to become familiar with the loom, and I enjoyed that. I learned a few things:
- how to use the brake when advancing the warp
- how to wind yarn on a paper quill while the electric winder flies at breakneck speed
- to go ahead and re-wind the quills if they aren’t quite right, or you will spend hours trying to untangle yarn when it doesn’t feed freely out of the shuttle
- how to use that extra warp thread on the edge for alignment
- to appreciate the loveliness of twill [diagonal] fabric
- and, of course, there is so much more to learn!
While Mar has been learning to work with the new floor loom, John has been working on his next weaving, which is Zapotec inspired like the last one, but much longer and with a very energetic design with three complete motifs instead of a single central one.
As time goes on and the design grows up the warp, the inevitable challenges arise. The motifs are growing too fast; there won’t be room for the entire design. Adjustments must be made.
While the weaver struggles with these issues, the rest of us just look on in amazement at the beautiful image emerging from yarns interlaced.
Last night after dinner John said, “I have to go check the barn, the sheep sound different”. Bud had just gone out a few minutes before, barking madly at the yips and screams of coyotes in the valley. This always makes us nervous.
A minute later he returned: it’s a lamb! Uh oh, my theory that Romney sheep are slow to mature and don’t get pregnant in the first year has been blown. And we have SIX of these adolescent ewes, all born last year in February and March. We could end up with a lot more lambs….
So a little ewe lamb, 71/2 pounds soaking wet, was born to ewe number 1313 [the thirteenth lamb born in 2013]. The birth happened right outside the lambing pen, which was good, but in a very muddy spot, which was not so good. Mama was attentive to all the cleaning required, which is extensive when your only rag is your tongue. However she was not going to tolerate the lamb going under her to find the teat. Perhaps it was because the afterbirth had not been delivered, perhaps the mother’s udder was tender as it filled. With experienced mothers, it is best to just leave them to it and trust that the lamb’s instinct will win out. But not so much with first-time moms. We had not trimmed away the belly wool from our yearlings since we didn’t think they were pregnant. So John rolled mom over and I got the shears and cut away lots of wool, and we plugged the lamb in. She eagerly took the colostrum. Went back an hour later and restrained mom so baby could eat some more. At this point it was 11:15 and we went to bed.
This morning, mother and baby seem fine. The baby’s little stomach looks full and John saw her feeding, though mother is still a bit skittish. Now the daily lamb watch resumes.
It is always thrilling when the coast range elk herd appears in the neighborhood. Silent and numerous [more than 30], they graze on the neighbor’s hill, then hop the fence to eat the bottom land grasses, then move on up the valley past our pastures. We theorize that they don’t come into our land because the grass is more plentiful where sheep haven’t grazed. [There have been exceptions, of course, and fence repairs to prove it]. In this picture, one of the elk is grazing right next to a huge cutout of an eagle, placed there by the farmer who is trying to get a crop from this hill. Good luck….