More Than Just Yarn
Let me preface this by saying that this in no way is a judgment on other yarn producers or what your preferences as a yarn consumer are. It's merely an explanation of the thought process that goes into our yarn.
As our flock has grown, so have my ideas and ways of thinking about their wool has grown. At first, there's just the pure excitement of the first shearing, the first skirting, the first "what shall this be turned into," the first drop off to the mill, the first pick up from the mill, and the first opening of the bags and holding what you have been caring for over the past year in your hands and taking that first proud whiff of sheepy goodness. I will never forget that first batch of yarn that we got back! It still brings a lump to my throat. And it's not so much that I am proud of what we accomplished through that first batch, but that I could truly see the amazing gift that these sweet beings provide for us, all of us.
So let me take you back to the beginning of our yarn producing journey. From the very start, we made the decision that we wanted to keep our colors of yarn natural. We wanted to keep fleeces individual. And we wanted our yarn to be pure breed. And over the past couple of years, there has been some experimentation trying to figure out which fleeces like to be which weights of yarns. An enormous piece of this experimentation has been finding a mill that best suits our needs personally and who is willing to work with us in how we want our yarn. This is HUGE! Without that great relationship and communication with the mill, the yarn will suffer. Everything you have worked for will suffer.
So to better organize my thoughts, I'm going to section this off into four ideas: Natural colored, Pure breed, Small batch, and The Mill.
Now that we have been producing yarn for a little over two years now, it still amazes me when customers are surprised that we have sheep that are the colors of yarn that they are holding in their hands! You would be surprised how many people think that sheep only come in two colors, black or white. But this is also a great opportunity to educate a potential customer about the array of colors that can be found in the natural color rainbow. And this always brings a smile to their faces!
The decision to keep the majority of our yarn natural colored was an easy one to make. I couldn't bare the thought of masking their colors, that were unique to each of them, with dye. Addie's soft sandy buff color is all her. Lacie's silver, charcoal grey, and black could never be copied because it is unique to her DNA. Natural colors have tried to be recreated through dyes, but to me, they always look artificial. And by no means do I have issues with dyed yarns! Not in the least! But for me as a producer of sheep and wool, I want my customers to have a small piece of what I get to see and touch and live every single day. I want them to hold a skein of Hazel or of Bruce and know this is what they truly look like, aren't they beautiful?!
That being said, being mostly natural colored comes with its challenges and fair amount of education to the buyer. My "colorways" can never be repeated. They are truly OOAK (one of a kind). Many factors go into the changing of wool colors from shearing to shearing. We don't coat our sheep, so the sun plays a part in the "dyeing" or lightening of their wool. Age can play a factor in it, as well. Some of our sheep get lighter with age, some get darker depending on the breed. Some may just have a genetic disposition that their wool changes color. Nutrition can also play a part. But to me, this is part of the charm of what we are striving to do. I think it helps create an awareness to the buyer that this is really special stuff! One's garment will truly be the only one out there, even if one buys yarn from the same sheep a year later because quite possibly, it could have changed.
Our next criteria of our yarn is that it is "pure breed" only. I'm sure you're thinking, "How snobby!" By pure breed, I don't necessarily mean that the yarn has to come from a pedigreed animal, which a lot of times it does. But rather, I mean that the yarn will not be blended with any other breeds, fibers, or synthetic materials. So Lincoln Longwool yarn will always be just that, 100% Lincoln Longwool. It is the same for the Romney and for the Romeldale/CVM. I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Wait a second! I have purchased yarn or know that you have have Romlinc or CVM x Romney yarn." And this is totally true. However, these yarns are not a blend of Romney and Lincoln or CVM and Romney. They are the genetic crosses of two pure bred sheep to create a crossbred offspring creating their own "pure breed" wool/yarn.
To me, this criteria is the most important, as silly or trivial as it may seem. And here is why. I want customers to experience the true wool/yarn qualities from each our breeds. I don't want them to be "enhanced" or "softened" or changed in anyway. I want each breed's wool to shine in all of its wooly glory and for people to realize that every type of wool out there has its own purpose and usefulness, and shouldn't be considered second rate or of lesser quality because it's not from a certain "popular" breed. Maybe I'm doing myself a disservice to my business because of this. Sure, if I were to blend everything to make it super soft, maybe I would sell more yarn. Maybe I wouldn't have to educate and explain uses for each breed (which I totally love doing, by the way). Maybe. I have to ask myself, why then am I raising specific breeds to just change their specific wool characteristics?
And here's where I go into a bit of a rant...fair warning! It really frosts my cookies when someone touches a skein of our yarn (i.e. the Lincoln) and automatically says, "Too scratchy!" I really try to use this as an educational opportunity to explain that yes, this type of wool is not necessarily a next to skin wool. However, because of its wool properties it will be perfect for a drapey shawl, cardigan or sweater. It will make wonderful mitts or socks. It is hard wearing, will need little maintenance, and will be able to be passed from generation to generation and still look stunning. I feel our wooly world has been too conditioned to the super soft and over processed, and we are missing out, like seriously missing out on so many other great wools out there.
And let me just say this, by no means am I judging anyone who produces, buys, or uses blended fibers! There are some beautiful blends out there that are just spectacular. But for me, as a breeder of three very distinctive wool types, I feel like I owe it to the breed, to my flock, and even down to each individual sheep to keep their yarn pure. Maybe I have become crazy sheep lady (I know I have), but I truly do love my sheep. I appreciate them more than I can explain. And so I feel like I would be doing them a huge injustice if I produced a final product from them in any other way.
Are you still with me on my crazy way of thinking?! If you have been following us, you know that our yarn is named after the individual sheep that it comes from. Not a totally new concept, but still unique. How many producers can say they know exactly what sheep produced which yarn? Not many, I would assume. This small batch idea all started out because at the time, we only had ten sheep at our first shearing. I could have easily blended all of the Romney wool together and ended up with a decent amount of grey worsted yarn. But I wanted to be able to provide not only different weights of yarn, but also different colors. And the great thing about raising long wool breeds is that they grow massive fleeces. So I was able to separate out each individual sheep with a weight that I thought would best suit their wool.
Once again, I feel like I owe it to each sheep to do their wool justice. Just recently I started blending same breed fleeces together. But, I only do this when fleeces are very similar in color and texture and so far, it has never been more than three fleeces blended. I have done a couple of unique yarns, a marled and a variegated, just to try something new. Those yarns were still breed specific and had very similar texture.
So because of this, I will never have huge batches of grey worsted weight yarn. At the most, I will get a handful of sweater quantities worth, possibly more, depending on the weight of the yarn. I may not be able to work with many designers because of this. I most likely won't be able to sell to stores, unless my flock suddenly grows to a size of 100. But for now, I am more than ok with how I do it. I truly want you, the customer, to take a piece of our flock home with you. I want you to be able to say to someone who asks you what yarn did you use for your sweater and you can without a doubt say, "This is from Chloe, isn't she gorgeous?!" I want you to be able to pick out the sheep that you used in pictures that I post. I want it to be just as personal and special for you, as it is for me.
So even though I have all of these awesome ideas and ways of how I want our yarn to be made, I have to find a mill who is willing enough to put up with my thought process. Otherwise, I would have bags and bags of wool sitting around! It has taken trying a couple of mills to be able to find that best fit for us. First importance is finding a mill that will be able to spin our long staple length. Mini mills have a hard time spinning anything over 6 inches in length. Our staple length can be anywhere from 5 - 11 inches in length depending on breed and shearing frequency. The next order of importance is finding a mill who is also willing to do small batch runs. Honestly, it's got to be a pain in the ass for them! Keeping fleeces separate has got to be annoying. But I really try to keep things straight for them. I always label the bags inside and out with what I'm wanting to do with each fleece. And finding a mill who is just as organized is critical. We also need a mill who is able to give us a quick turn around. I haven't been able to use some mills because they quote me a year's turn around time. Unfortunately, I can't put my business on hold for a year and I don't have enough sheep to where I can send wool periodically.
But above all of this, the relationship between the mill owner(s) and us has to be great! It has to be one based on trust, good communication, realistic expectations, and honesty. Thankfully, we have found that in Heather and Jason Sweitzer of Sweitzer's Fiber Mill. Every time I drop off wool, Heather and Jason will sit down with me and weigh each bag of wool, fill out a sheet of specifications for that wool, will consult with me on what they think will be best for that wool, and will let me know when it should be ready by. In a couple days time, I will receive an invoice that will give me an estimate of total cost, as well as all the information we discussed previously. If I need something by a specific time, they always come through. They are hard working people, running this mill on their own. And as if that were not enough to manage, they have a family of three children, run their own flock of wool sheep (some that have come from us!), run their own herd of beef cattle, as well as maintain their farm. Whew! Part of this good relationship comes from the understanding that we are both coming from similar life situations and similar backgrounds. So we get each other...a true blessing!
So friends, I hope you don't think I'm totally nuts! I hope that this provides some insight into why we do the things that we do concerning our wool products. I encourage you to be adventurous and try new wools out there, even if it is just one skein. Ask questions of the producers, don't bypass something based on initial feel, visit farms when you can, do research on different breeds, and remember that a very wooly friend selflessly provided for you.
Wishing you all the best!