Thursday, December 24, 2020

A 1906 Sleighride: Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

As I look out the front windows, a soft snow is fluttering and the temperature is dropping rapidly. Snuggle up, Kentucky, and all safety and health these holidays, wherever you are.

Video from Glamourdaze: such a fun channel

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Impossibly Precious Mitts, A Story of Sheep and Hands

From Lana and Nina's fleece to mitts

My goodness, it is gray outside. So gray that, unusually for me, I am sitting facing away from the windows, view trained on the warm light of the lamps nearby. Saint Lucia's Day is just past. Winter has settled in here in the Kentucky Bluegrass, and the thick veils and clots of clouds that bring rain and snow that feed the numberless streams and creeks and ponds and the Kentucky River snaking deep beneath its palisades -- or the more realistically foreboding name, gorge -- are here for the next months. Gloriously bright days will be relatively few and valuable.

As valuable as the knitted mitts from my sheep that sit unfinished here beside me. A moment ago I cut a length of yarn to sew up the sides of the rectangle that will make a mitt, and quite suddenly was viscerally aware of the impossibly high value of that yarn.

--- Green, green grass on a Bluegrass farm
--- Sheep grazing
--- A year's daily shepherding, morning and night
--- Shearing
--- Fleece skirting
--- Picking vegetable matter
--- Scouring
--- Drying
--- More picking
--- Separating outer coat from inner coat
--- Carding
--- Winding into nests
--- Spinning 
--- Plying 
--- Skeining
--- Washing and blocking
--- Yarn.

And, other than the mower that trims the grass if needed, every single bit accomplished by pairs of hands and the most ancient of tools: 

--- fingers
--- shears
--- soap and water and tub
--- air
--- wood and wire hand-carders or hand-cranked drum carder (quite an old tool)
--- foot-powered spinning wheel
--- time
--- patience
--- persistence.

Hours and days, days and hours and hours. Months. Years.

Lana and Nina grew the fleece on their backs three summers and winters ago, munching on the grass of my friend Sarah's farm not far away.

Nina, Liam the English gentleman, Neo the honorary Shetland, and skittish Lana
October 2020.

Every day, Sarah cares for the sheep, whether it's muddy or parched, icy or foggy, or finger-cramping or beautiful enough to cry and thank God for the peace of it and the sweetness and interest of the sheep. She is patient and loving and the sheep thrive and she knows each one and its character and society. I am lucky to have her as a friend.

Liam at the hay rack. Lana is nearby. November 30, 2020.
Read about the drama just past in "Disruptions Due to Snow" on Sarah's blog.

On a nippy morning the next early spring, around about 8:00 a.m. when our breath streams in clouds around us when the rest of the flock leaves the barn for a day in their fields, Sarah and I have the task of separating out ever-fey Lana from her boyfriend Liam and daughter Nina in their stall, and she leaps and evades until by main persuasion with torsos and arms and legs we halter her, so that she could be sheared. The only time each year that she wears anything but her own self. In a month or so her fleece, her skin a hand's width deep under her blond-tipped locks, would start to separate and slowly, imperfectly shed. She needs shearing before that happens, and before the heat of a Kentucky summer makes life far too hot for her under such a blanket.

So the two of us, each with a pair of hand shears, lean or kneel the either side of Lana, haltered to a fence outside and in sight of her flockmates to calm her and begin to shear. She kicks and trembles and we work as softly as we can so as not to nick her so-tender skin. She calls out to her grown baby and pees so that you move quickly to avoid the piercingly nose-wrinkling liquid. We trade places frequently as muscles cramp, and Sarah's mother Peggy talks quietly to Lana and strokes her. Occasionally one of us runs to gulp a bit of tea from our Thermoses. Some of the wool is spoiled by dung and urine, other parts so full of VM (vegetable matter) that I cannot efficiently clean it. That lot goes to the hedgerow for birds and rodents to carry off for their springtime nests. We smell of lanolin and dung and trampled grass.

Sheared, Lana's halter is gently removed and she kicks and wriggles and runs to her family. A good part of the time the flock is non-plussed by the fleeceless stranger, and will butt and carry on until they are convinced and assured that she belongs with them. That can take a while because sheep are so visual, and seems to us humans grossly unfair, unless we should think of the day we wore an unpopular outfit to school and were laughed at and occasionally pushed by the more thoughtless of our classmates, until they tired of the game. In the last years, however, the flock is kinder and Liam and Nina welcome her with raised heads and low bleats and she resumes her life just a few yards from Liam, her life's love and companion, while her daughter pretends she's not Shetland, but Soay, and leaps and climbs and talks with her flockmates until returning to her mama, as an offspring usually will. A flock is made of clans and it is a complex society.

Clover climbs the hoop house one morning...and finds himself in a quandary.

I gather the mounds of yielding, springy brown and blond fleece and stuff it into an old pillowcase. It scents the Tahoe. We go and shed our outer things outdoors, and wash up thoroughly, and lunch together next to the kitchen, watching the flock from a bank of windows that look to the West.

The first bag of Lana's wool I ever sheared.

On other mornings it will be one or two more sheep, Nina and Liam, and sometimes one of the other Shetlands. Soay sheep are less likely to be sheared. Some roo, that is, the slowly shedding bits are pulled off lock by lock -- this is what humans did before shears were common.

Liam, just sheared, 2020.
I wasn't there to help due to COVID.

After that? The fleece is packed into a tightly closed plastic bag and goes into my deep freezer to evade the clothes moths that would entirely spoil it.

Then, when I have energy and time, the oddly pleasant pastime of picking. In springtime Kentucky can be a breezy, windy place. Just outside the back doors at home I sit on a step with the open bag of fleece, scented with lanolin and straw and a bit of dung. Picking up a lock or two in my fingers -- sheep grow their fleece in sets of hairs that tend to stick and curl together  -- I pull at the lock, holding it in front of me so that the airs can toss the hairs and release bits of straw and grass and seeds and the occasional dead bug or tad of dung; they fall in a random rain to my lap and the ground and some makes its way, airborne, into the tall trees that rim our little property. Usually it's necessary to pick out individual bits, fingers pinching and pulling. The lock, a bit cleaner now, goes into another bag, ready for scouring, which is a gentle washing, not the rubbing and scrubbing that the word generally implies.

Hundreds of locks later, washing. Drying in limp bunches, like hairy Spanish moss or the wrack of a mummy's wrappings, in the basement. A little disturbing if you come upon it unexpectedly.

Packed again in an airtight bag until there is time to do what most fleece does not need. My dual-coated Shetlands are a crofter's dream, for they offer downy undercoat for airy yarn and long outer hairs good for socks and rugs, all on one small and delightful animal. Yet the undercoat grows in among the outer coat and the two must be pulled apart. This is slow, my friends, and after a time the hands and wrists and arms tire of pulling on the resisting locks of fleece as the tightly integrated parts release their hold on each other. Of course, some down is lost into the hairs and the other way around. A few fiber mills who take small wool batches have specialty equipment for handling this sort of uncommon wool, but the process is expensive and the only mill, a state away, that I could afford closed. This year I sent fleece to another mill, because I simply cannot hand-process it all and the freezer was full to bursting, but it will not be separated. It has been nearly a year, and the roving isn't ready. I fear it's lost.

The sorted wool is bagged again, and again waits for time to hand-card it, or to run it slowly through my hand-cranked carder, a largely wooden machine with two drums lined on their outer surfaces with closely set wires, which arrange the locks into a fluffy batt.

I pull and elongate the carded wool into a fluffy strips, roving, and wind them into nests. Back they go into a bag.

Later, months and months later, as fancy strikes I pull out the newer spinning wheel, a Kromski Minstrel from Poland, a beautiful and versatile machine, and spin the roving, unwound from its nests, into a thinnish yarn. Good for weaving as a "singles" yarn.

Spinning on the Minstrel, early 2020, not long before lockdown.

Again later, I pull out the wooden bobbins of yarn, and ply some of it into two-ply, Aran-size yarn. It's not always that consistent of course, because I am no very accomplished spinner, but it's still pretty wearable stuff.

The yarn rests a bit after plying and then it's out with the homemade yarn swift or skeiner, and the bobbin is unwound from the distance of half a room as I turn the yard-circumference tool to allow the twist to even out, and wind it into a skein. The turns are counted so I know and mark down the yardage.

Then goes the skein, which twists of itself into a braid, into a bag, until I am ready to swish it in some warm water with a tiny bit of soft soap, and to hang it to dry so that the yarn relaxes a little, and sets into a useful state.

And then, and only then, is it ready for knitting.

And so I knit the Pluviose mitts in garter stitch, the yarn now, from a moorit (warm brown) fleece with bleached tips, to a rich German chocolate color. 

Pluviose mitts are simply garter stitch, and thus
nice and stretchy over the hand.

Let's not knit just now, but nap instead, says Nutmeg. She loves wool and
seeks it out to rest upon.

Just now the mitts sit beside me, ready to be sewn with more yarn into their final shape, the leather button ready to be added to each wristband. Then they will be, after a three-year journey, complete and ready to be wrapped in tissue paper to go under my mother's Christmas tree. She will open the parcel Christmas morning, and wear the mitts, I hope, that started as grass a few miles away, to keep out the chill of a Kentucky winter. While Lana and Nina wear their fleece again this year, warm and toasty under it even in the sere fields lined with leafless trees, the damp and chilling -- or bracing, take your pick -- breeze soughing through the branches.

The cycle does not end, the sheeps' lives and the hands' work, so long as we remember to practice the skills that keep the sheep healthy and the yarns ready to envelop and warm us.

If you are interested, there is more about sheep and their lives and the process of preparing yarn on this blog. One or two non-related posts have snuck in, but you will find all of the related ones, full to overflowing with pictures and even a video or two.

Whatever your beliefs, and wherever you are, may you live in Thanksgiving, Patience, and Hope into the new year and the spring, or the harvest, that isn't so very far away.

Note: because of COVID, most of the images of the sheep are from Sarah's blog. We haven't been able to visit one another, which has felt very strange.