It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?
Many changes aboard the good ship Frederick this past while—I’ve been busy! We moved (twice), acquired grandchildren (twice), retired (one of us, not me), wrote a new book (one of us, me), knit up a storm (see: grandchildren), and now we’re happily settling into our newest adventure (which you’ll hear more about in a future post).
Today, however, I want to talk about woolgathering.
Isn’t that a wonderful word? Recently I learned a bit more about its origin. The term has been around since the 16th century, when it meant literally gathering wool—plucking up tufts of fiber that had snagged in bushes and on fences and the like by a passing sheep. Presumably, you’d gather until you had enough to spin into yarn and knit into sweaters and socks and such. You can read more about the etymology of the expression here.
For a writer, the term as we have come to know and use it today is a metaphor for what we do: woolgathering is daydreaming, plucking bits and pieces from the nooks and crannies of our everyday lives (along with our imaginations) and weaving it all into a story.
One of my favorite parts of this job of mine as a writer is research. Research has taken me to some amazing places: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Spy Mice: For Your Paws Only), Jane Austen’s home in England (Pies & Prejudice); a New Hampshire “sugar shack” to watch the maple syrup manufacturing process (Yours Truly); and Nantucket island (The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed), to name just a few. This time around, for my forthcoming Pumpkin Falls mystery Truly Madly Sheeply, research took me to the New England countryside, where I indulged in some metaphorical and literal woolgathering as I visited a sheep farm, made some memorable four-legged friends (and two-legged as well!), and got to see an old-school sheep shearer at work.
My travels began at Liberty Hall Farm in Durham, New Hampshire, home of Great Bay Wool Works.
Theresa Walker and her family run this fabulous farm, raising mostly Romney sheep for their fiber, which they spin into lovely undyed and botanically dyed yarn for knitters like me.
My knitting friend Jonatha recommended it—she’d met Theresa at a sheep and wool festival in New England. (And by the way, it was Jonatha who came up with the title Truly Madly Sheeply—isn’t it scrumptious?) So off we went on a crisp autumn day, eager to learn more about all things sheep. When we pulled into the driveway, Theresa came out to meet us.
That’s Theresa on the left. Don’t you love her smile? She welcomed us warmly and made us feel right at home. I’m the one on the right with one of Great Bay Wool Works’ fabulous knitting project bags. And check out Theresa’s license plate….
I want one!
Theresa is a peach. I couldn’t have asked for a better resource when it comes to all things sheep. She crammed so much information into our visit, my pen could barely keep up.
First up was a tour of the barn, and then a meet and greet with the flock.
See that sign over the barn door that says Liberty Hall Farm? Remember it—it has a cameo in the new book.
Inside, on the main level, you look up and see … hay! Lots of it. This is basically the pantry for sheep food.
The sheep pens are downstairs. (The barn is built into a sloping hillside.) A clever sign showed us the way….
At the bottom of the stairs, the first thing you see is this:
Don’t you love their names? After we oohed and ached over them (I mean, come on, Cute Face?!), you turn around and—there they are!
They were bigger than I’d expected. Romneys are built kind of square, like giant footstools with legs. Their fleeces (wool coats) are THICK, too! Theresa had me stick my hands in and give one of them a good back scratch, and my hands disappeared up to my wrists.
The flock at Liberty Hall Farm is friendly.
This endearing new friend is Little Lamb—as in “Mary had a.” The friendliest of all the sheep, though, was Edie.
Is she adorable or what? I swear she’s smiling! Theresa calls her the concierge. Edie is big on meeting and greeting, and apparently she’s very popular on the festival and fiber show circuit.
In addition to being friendly, she’s also ridiculously photogenic.
I mean, seriously. She knows that camera is there! Edie was the model for the knitting project bag I showed you at the beginning of this post, by the way.
My friend Jonatha was smitten.
No, Jonatha, you can’t take Edie home with you.
“Sheep are the best dogs you’ll ever have,” Theresa told us, and after meeting Edie and her woolly friends, this dog lover is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
We watched the sheep for a while as Theresa shared her sheep-y wisdom with me (HUGELY helpful). I scribbled notes furiously. They’d come in handy later while I was writing Truly Madly Sheeply. In fact, Liberty Hall Farm makes a cameo in the book, and so do Theresa and Edie. Theresa appears as “Theresa Wallace, the sheep whisperer,” and some of the information she shared with me is also shared by a character called Bert Harrison. (Theresa is larger than life! I needed two characters to contain all that sheep wisdom!). Edie I rechristened Beatrice in the book, for reasons which will become apparent when you read it. (Hint: it may have something to do with Shakespeare.)
After we said goodbye to the sheep, we left the barn and went across the yard to Theresa’s house, where I happily shopped for a ridiculous amount of yarn because that’s what knitters do. Back home, I turned some of that yarn into hats. I made this one for my husband (the pattern is called “Jason’s Cashmere Hat” and you can find it here).
And this one was a present for my grandson for Christmas. He’s obsessed with dinosaurs. The pattern is by Celia Hancock and it’s called “Dinosaur Toque.” You can find it on the Ravelry website. The cream-colored accent yarn is from Great Bay Wool Works—and maybe even from Edie! The green is from Portugal. More about that yarn in my next blog post.
I absolutely love knitting with the yarn from Great Bay Wool Works. It’s dreamy. By the way, you can follow Theresa and her woolly friends on Instagram—@greatbaywoolworks—for more great (no pun intended, haha) photos of the flock and their adventures!
My next research outing was to Clark Farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts, where my husband and my friend Jonatha and I got to watch a sheep shearer at work.
It was a blustery autumn day, perfect for holing up in a barn. There was a school group in attendance at the shearing as well—what a fabulous place to bring kids on a field trip! I could tell that they absolutely loved it.
By the way, I want to address something right up front here. Shearing does not hurt the sheep. (When done properly, of course.) In fact, if sheep are NOT sheared, it can be very dangerous to their well-being. Even fatal. Sheep do not naturally shed their wool. It will continue to grow and grow, obscuring their vision, their mobility, and even their ability to reach a food source. There are cautionary tales of sheep who have been found wandering around with massively overgrown wool coats before they were rescued. My favorite is Baarack—a dapper (once you could actually see him) Australian merino desperately in need of a haircut. His fleece weighed 35 kg (77 pounds)! That was estimated to be enough to knit 61 sweaters, or 490 pairs of socks! No fun walking around with THAT on your back, right?
(If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of shearing, here’s a video from the Livestock Conservancy you can watch.)
By the way, while I’m preaching—wool is an amazing fiber! It’s a natural, eco-friendly, renewable resource. It’s biodegradable and sustainable. Wool keeps you warm in the winter, and it’s odor resistant and keeps you cool in the summer. Seriously! It’s SO much better for us, and for the planet, than that stuff made from chemicals. Go, wool!
OK, off my soapbox. Back to Clark Farm.
This is Kevin Ford.
Kevin is a special breed of sheep shearer, one who uses only hand tools (most shearing is done with electric clippers). He first learned the trade from a relative in Galway, Ireland, and later, after perfecting his craft, received a blade shearer certification from the New Zealand Wool board. Kevin is a national sheep shearing champion with over 40 years of experience under his belt. Each year, he travels to farms up and down the East Coast to shear some 4,000 sheep and educate people about sheep and the shearing process. Wow! Talk about watching a master at work!
Kevin starts by placing the sheep on its back, leaning against his legs. The sheep looked surprised to find itself sitting on the floor! But it quickly relaxed and stayed calm throughout the process. I think it knew it was in the hands of a pro.
Next, he begins shearing the belly. Check out the size of those clippers! And that cute border collie in the background, supervising the proceedings.
As he trimmed, Kevin tossed pieces of fleece to those of us waiting to bag it. Later, the fleeces would be shipped off to a woolen mill to be cleaned and spun into fiber. My friend Jonatha brought along a blanket that she knit from one of last year’s fleeces as show-and-tell for the kids. She even knows the sheep it came from!
After Kevin finished trimming the sheep’s tummy, he moved on to the legs.
And from there it was the back and side.
It’s kind of like peeling a banana. A very woolly banana.
In the picture above, you can see the special shoes Kevin wears—they’re called sheep shearing moccasins and they’re made in New Zealand. They allow the shearer to place his or her feet closer to the sheep, and give them just the right traction needed to shift position easily.
After he finished with one side, Kevin moved on to the other.
The school kids were fascinated. We all were fascinated! Kevin has a calm presence and he worked quietly, but he looked up now and then and explained exactly what he was doing. I learned a lot.
You can see here he’s almost done. There’s a newly shorn sheep emerging!
Look at that gorgeous fleece! And that, my friends, is how sweaters and socks begin….
If you’d like to watch a video of Kevin at work, there’s a great documentary called The Shearing Day from Meet My Neighbor Productions that you can watch on YouTube here. Kevin is truly amazing and it was a privilege to see him at work. I honored him (I hope), with a cameo in my forthcoming book Truly Madly Sheeply. You’ll recognize him in Chapter 32.
Kevin has also written a book, Shearing Day: Sheep Handling, Wool Science, and Shearing with Blades. It’s out of print, alas, but you might be able to find it at your local library, or from a used bookstore.
So there you have it. A huge part of the woolgathering process for Truly Madly Sheeply. I think it may be my favorite in the Pumpkin Falls mystery series. It certainly was the most fun to research and write. The book will be published at the end of August, but it’s available for pre-order now. I hope you like it!
That’s all from me for this month. See you next time!
What I’m knitting
Little Moments by Fifty Four Ten Studio. I love her blanket patterns—the repetitive geometrical motifs are so calming. I’m knitting this one in a gorgeous multi-hued blue bulky merino wool called Nônô from Tricots Brancal in Portugal (more on that in my next post).
What I’m reading
For adults: Unraveling by Peggy Orenstein. Hilariously irreverent, informative, and thoughtful—it’s a terrific memoir. I am not only being entertained but also educated on all things sheep.
For young readers: The Midnight Children by Dan Gemeinhart. The writing is wonderful, the kind I like to slow-read to enjoy every morsel. Loved it hugely.
What I’m watching
The Shearing Day, of course! Also The Reluctant Traveler with Eugene Levy (I’ll watch him in anything).
What I’m baking
My Nova Scotia grandmother’s brown bread. Family favorite.
What I’m writing
Absolutely truly nothing at the moment. I’m woolgathering!