Nothing compares with loving and caring for a flock of sheep through the year on your farm, only to be rewarded on shearing day with their generous gifts of bags filled with warm, hefty, beautifully scented fleeces. Owning your own flock of sheep for wool is very gratifying. I feel a deep connection to a ewe after washing, handcarding, spinning, and then knitting her wool. I view each ewe as special. I appreciate her unique fiber characteristics, whether it be the striking color, silky handle, manageable length, or lively crimp, and I look forward each year to the opportunity to work with her fleece.
It is a dream life to be the steward of a handspinner’s flock. However, there is a lot of work and planning before you get to that state of nirvana. Many considerations need to be thought through before you are the proud caretaker of a handspinner’s flock of sheep.
Rich and I obtained our flock in 2001, when we purchased four ewes and one ram. Rich was raised on a horse farm, and he wanted our children to have that same experience of raising livestock on a family farm. I was a knitter and also was raised on a farm, and I had always dreamed of spinning yarn from wool from my own animals. We selected Shetlands because we liked their small size and unimproved qualities such as thrift (the ability to convert minimal feed to good body mass), good health, and vigor. We were also attracted to the eleven coat colors and thirty patterns and all the possibilities for interesting yarns that provided.
I started selling our wool at fiber festivals, but I became discouraged when people handled my wool and reacted negatively to the prickliness. I heard comments such as, “Shetland comes in such pretty colors, but it is too scratchy for me.” We grudgingly acknowledged that our beloved flock was found wanting when held to the standard of the “softest wool of all the UK breeds,” a claim that is part of the Shetland breed standard. With that feedback, we swiftly shifted our breeding emphasis from conformation, patterns, and colors to a laser focus on wool quality.
Some of the qualities that are important to us with this shift are fineness (micron count in the low 20s), consistency from neck to breech, fine crimp, deep luster, and the ability to produce garments exhibiting next-to-skin softness. We now raise a more specific type of Shetland called fine fleece Shetlands. The reaction I see from visitors to my fiber festival booth now is, “Wait, this is Shetland? It is so soft! So springy! And that crimp!” We have forty ewes and nine rams, all Shetlands, bred for good health and exceptionally soft fiber.
We raise and breed Shetland sheep, but the considerations below can be applied to any type and variety of handspinners’ flocks of sheep.
Do you want an assortment, or would you prefer to focus on a particular breed? If you go with an assortment, you might want to make sure there isn’t a dramatic size difference between adults. I think sheep prefer to be with their own breed, but I have seen farms where a variety coexist nicely. Sheep do not thrive as solo animals. Some breeds are more vulnerable to certain types of worms or health conditions, so make sure you research well and don’t combine breeds that may not complement each other’s health vulnerabilities.
Avoid 4-H fairs if your objective is to research wool on the hoof. Most of the breeds at 4-H fairs are bred for meat and are clipped quite close to the skin to show off their muscle tone. You need to go to fiber festival sheep shows to see and feel full fleeces. You could also plan a tour of local or distant fiber farms to get a good feel for the breed you are interested in and to identify similarities and differences between breeders and their processes.
Are you a spinner, felter, hooker, weaver? Do you like to dye the wool, or do you prefer natural colors? The breed of sheep you select will vary based on these options. My preference, of course, is soft Shetland wool for the handle, beautiful natural color, and fine crimp, which makes drafting a breeze. You might want to buy a variety of fleeces from different breeds to get a sense for what you like. There are very good sourcebooks available that outline the different breeds and the intended use for their wool.
One last thing about breed selection to keep in mind is that sheep breeders are . . . let’s say “colorful people.” We breeders have a totally distorted and passionate bias toward our own breeds. We try not to, but on occasion we may denigrate other breeds without intending to offend. So don’t mind us if we criticize the other breed you are considering as an option to ours. Even within a breed, there are factions that disagree on certain breed characteristics with a passion that should probably be saved for truly important arguments (such as “Is knitting cooler than crocheting?” or “Can you really knit a wearable garment with spun singles?”). We also have massive egos about our flocks, so just be careful if you see a flawed animal and feel inclined to point out its negative traits. It might be a good idea to keep any negative observations about a particular sheep to yourself in order to maintain your welcome during a farm visit.
Talk to a few breeders of a specific breed in order to separate opinion from fact. Visiting a large sample of farms will give you an idea of best practices and standards. Some breeders will insist that you can’t breed yearlings, while others claim they do every year with no negative impact. Some say lambing in late winter is best, but others wait until summer.
If you pick a rare or unusual breed, make sure you talk with the local small-animal vet to understand the level of support and knowledge of the breed you can expect. You could also pick a breed that is common in your area, or at least a breed the vet is comfortable with. If breeders are nearby, they may be able to help with care and emergencies.
Some sheep are climbers and some like to jump, although most are pretty sedentary. We had a lamb that liked to jump up onto the side of a horizontal 2-inch-wide board that was nailed to the barn door about 3 feet off the ground. She would stand up there all night, sound asleep. We’ve never seen anything like it before or since. It probably kept her out of altercations with her larger aunts, sisters, and cousins.
With all that jumping and climbing, make sure you eliminate hazards that can cause injury or death. Make sure you have safe fencing and sturdy barn walls to prevent escape, and avoid places where heads can get caught in grids or panels between pens. We pay very close attention to the environment, surveying the barn regularly for potential hazards, especially after moving panels or setting up lambing pens.
We have an extremely low tolerance for flock shrinkage. In other words, we don’t like it when sheep die prematurely, so we take a lot of care to ensure they are safe, have very clean water, and live in a well-ventilated barn with escape-proof fencing and enclosures. This seems like a gloomy subject for such a joyful journey, but believe me, it feels terrible to know you were the cause of an animal’s hardship. Take serious precautions right up front, and don’t learn the hard way.
I highly recommend investing in coats to keep the wool clean. We coat sheep in the fall, once the pastures lose their nutrition and we start supplementing their feed with hay. On shearing day, sometime in April, the coats come off and the fleeces are simply a lovely sight to behold. We didn’t coat for a very long time, thinking that we loved seeing the sheep looking natural and unfettered all year, but with the coats, the cleanliness difference is significant. The amount of time I spend flicking debris from the wool has reduced by at least half since we started coating, and even after flicking, there was still a lot of vegetable matter in my yarn. I now have more time to enjoy the spinning and knitting, and the yarns are totally devoid of debris.
Find a great shearer and make sure you verify that the individual has sheared for spinners. Some people claim they shear, but their main goal is just to get the wool off the sheep. If you choose a shearer who is fast but careless, you could end up with a lot of second cuts and a badly cut-up fleece. You could learn how to do it yourself or get a breed that roos (naturally sheds its coat). If you have a small flock, it might be difficult to get great shearers to come to your farm, but many will make accommodations. Ask if you can transport your flock to their farm, to a fiber festival they may be demonstrating at, or to another larger fiber farm nearby where they may be already scheduled. I used to call all the sheep owners in a 30-mile radius and try to convince them all to shear on the same day so that the better shearer was willing to come out. Now that we have a good-sized flock, it is worthwhile for my amazing shearer (who lives in Massachusetts) to come to our farm in western New York.
Research the amount of feed your chosen breed typically eats and plan your feed budget based on the number of sheep you want to acquire. We picked Shetlands due to their thrifty nature and small size; they consume about ten bales of hay per year per sheep, but the tradeoff is less wool per sheep. Be sure to check the availability of good hay in your area. Many farmers will deliver if you aren’t equipped with a wagon, so just ask. Make sure you have a dry space to store the hay. You can buy as you need throughout the year, but we find that buying hay during hay season ensures that we get the best-quality, fresh-cut hay that meets our nutrition requirements for the most economical price. We have been known to spend a balmy Saturday afternoon in August driving around the county scoping out second-cutting hay fields. If we liked the looks of a field, we might have occasionally interrupted a farmer who was in the process of baling to inquire if he sells the hay he is baling or will have any from another field of similar quality. We know whose fields are whose, and if we see that a farmer left his hay out in the rain, we avoid purchasing from him that year. Wet hay may get moldy and the sheep won’t eat it, or worse, they’ll eat it and get sick.
We don’t use guard animals; we lock our sheep in the barn at night and rely on our fencing to protect them during the day. We don’t have much experience with guard animals, but it is something to spend time considering and investigating. Llamas make sense for a spinner’s flock—one more fiber animal, unlike a donkey or dog (although you can spin dog hair quite nicely, too). Make sure you have the space in height as well as square footage and that your barn is designed to contain them.
You don’t have to do fiber testing, but for mathy-sciency people, it is really interesting and enjoyable to have AFD (average fiber diameter) data on your flock. We collect fiber samples at least twice per year on the entire flock and send them to Texas A&M University for AFD testing; we get gobs of data, and fortunately Rich has a knack for statistics. We use the data to make breeding decisions for specific traits such as wool fineness, crimp, and length. There are some fun experiments you can try: Test over the years to watch the changes as a ewe ages. Record weather, nutrition, and other conditions and see if you can observe an impact on the test results year over year. Take samples from many places on the body to get a technical data point on fiber consistency.
If you like (or need) to travel, make sure you have someone reliable and trustworthy to look after your flock in your absence. It’s best if they develop a love for your flock before your trip so they are sure to take very good care. We write specific instructions for our farmsitters and obviously give them our cell phone numbers and emergency contacts.
Barn cameras are really fun; consider them even if you aren’t lambing or monitoring a sick animal. Many a night during lambing, we install the barn cameras and watch our favorite show. We call it Barn.
Owning a spinner’s flock is very rewarding. Working with fleeces from your beloved flock adds a whole new level of intimacy with your fiber crafting. Careful planning and research is critical to ensure you get the most from the endeavor and can sustain the flock in a healthy, caring manner for as long as you wish to maintain a spinner’s flock.
Jennifer and Rich Johnson breed fine wool Shetland sheep in western New York. Information about their farm can be found on their blog, www.whisperingpinesshetlands.blogspot.com.
This article was published in the Winter 2018 issue of Spin Off.