The Hand Spinner’s Responsibility

Have you ever noticed how most American hand spinners are not outspoken advocates of the American sheep industry?

We love working with wool but we don’t support the wool industry in our own country.

Many American flockmasters are struggling to keep their sheep, especially since last summer’s drought.  The special care required to keep a spinning flock producing top quality fleece can add up in dollars, sometimes costing more to care for the sheep than the price of the fleece.  Since summer, the cost of feed has fluctuated, making it difficult for flockmasters to project their spending.  As a result, some farmers have had to sell their sheep as market lambs, their fine fleeces of little value when times are tough.

With the Internet, it’s easy to buy wool from overseas, but great wool is being produced right here at affordable prices.  We don’t have to send away to Canada or Australia to discover the world of sheep.

Many American flockmasters are working to preserve rare breeds or different breeds, a treat for any hand spinner who knows sheep and wants to work with great fiber.  These fibers are not hard to come by: you can find them at festivals around the country or over the Internet.  I buy my fleeces direct from sheep farmers because I value what they do and I don’t want a middleman to get money that could go directly back to the farm. Wary of buying a fleece you haven’t seen or inspected yourself?  Most producers are happy to send a sample.

I’ve spun Coopworth, Romney, Corriedale, Jacob and East Fresian-Polypay Cross.  Each fleece taught me more about spinning long wools.  And I’ll tell you this: once you connect directly with the flockmaster who cared for the sheep you’re spinning, you learn so much about your place in the production chain and how much we owe the people who tend these animals.

As I happily spin up my fleeces, I’m reminded that I’m lucky to have them at all this year.  Whenever I see cheap lamb for sale from Australia or a hand spinner who’s willing to get a Merino fleece from New Zealand, I think of all the struggling American flockmasters I’ve met.  There’s not a one who wanted  to sell a sheep due to hard times.  It’s tough out there and American hand spinners have a duty to support the industry that supports them.

If you want to learn more about the American sheep industry, read Sheep!.

Why I Will Never Own Sheep

three lambs

If you really get into hand spinning–if it becomes more than a means to an end (cheap yarn!), if you find yourself at summer parties wishing you had brought your wheel instead of potato salad–if this is you, then at some point you’ve probably fantasized about owning sheep.  I sure did.

The desire to own sheep is something I’ve heard a lot lately, even among people who admire spinning but don’t actually spin themselves.  Some of them don’t even knit or crochet or weave.  They just want sheep.

I understand. Once I spun my first fleece, I started thinking about how nice it would be to have a small spinning flock of one or two breeds, maybe even rare breeds.  Sure, we lived in a condo, but I saw this as a surmountable problem.  We wouldn’t always be living in the city.  Someday, we would move to the country.  We would buy land, maybe a small hobby farm where I could live out my dream of raising sheep, spinning, and knitting and–apparently–living off my husband’s job, whatever that was going to be in this new rural landscape.

Yes, I would raise sheep.  I knew it was a big job, that you couldn’t just leave for days on the spur of the moment, that you needed to give yourself over to hard, physical work.  Inside, I knew I was tough; I could do it.  In anticipation of this future move, I decided to study up.  I devoured Sheep! magazine.   I learned what I could from books, the basics of feeding, fencing, sheering, even birthing and predator control.  I learned about breed characteristics and talked to breeders about the breeds that grew wool I liked to spin.  I knew I’d need a lot of  hands-on training before I could handle a flock of my own.  And then I learned the biggie: sheep die.

It’s true.  They die from all sorts of things and once they die what you have is a big dead sheep.  I was ready to run out in the middle of a cold spring morning to help a ewe give birth.  I knew about parasites and scrapie and bluetongue and foot rot.  Actually, there’s a host of horrible sheep diseases that I won’t mention here, but I figured I could deal with them with the help of a good vet and vigilance.

What I’m saying is this: of course I knew all along that sheep die.  What I realized was that I really wanted a flock of pet sheep that lived in my barn.  Flockmasters who are close to their sheep talk about how hard it is to lose them.  No one wants to lose an animal.  You can tell how much it matters when you get a fleece from the bloodline of one they really loved.  They want you to make something wonderful from the wool because it contains the legacy of a special animal.  If you ask, they offer you fond memories, and I treasure these fleeces because I’ve been made a steward of the legacy they carry.Pheefers the Cat

As great as it would be to have a spinning flock, I know I just couldn’t do it.  Listen, I’m still haunted by the death of my cat Pheefers and she died three years ago.  She got the best possible veterinary care and she still died too young.  She endured like a little saint.  Every night, my husband and I light a candle in her memory and for all the pets our friends have lost.  Can you image what I’d be like at the death of my first sheep?  Better to leave the shepherding to others.  I don’t know how they do it.  But they can do it, and I know I can’t.

Not long ago, I was at a llama 4H event with my cousin.   Llamas are stately, elegant, beautiful and the spinning is fine.  Unlike me, my cousin lives in a rural area and could probably have farm animals.  She had never seen a llama up close.  “Wow,” she said, “wouldn’t it be great. . . ?”  She trailed off.   I knew what she was thinking.  “Yep,” I agreed.  “It sure would.”  Except for one thing.