Fiber flock

We’re starting the new year with some very exciting (to me) additions to Oak Knoll Farm: wool sheep! If your knowledge of sheep is pretty general purpose, you’re probably not aware of the remarkable range of wool these critters can grow. But think about the variety of dog hair from poodle curls to husky fluff and you’ll begin to get the gist. Our North Country Cheviots grow a solid middle-of-the-road fleece, softer than people expect but more durable than famous breeds like Merinos, medium in length, unglossy and pure white when it’s clean. This wool takes color very well and can make a lovely sweater yarn. It’s largely overlooked by North Country breeders in the USA, who are more interested in the rapid growth, muscular body type, hardihood, and independent nature of these sheep. I’m keenly interested in producing and knitting yarn made of nothing but North Country wool.

Back in November I attended Deb Robson’s spinning retreat here on the island, and the focus this time was on crossbred fleeces. Sheep of mixed parentage can grow utterly gorgeous wool that blend the qualities of their purebred ancestors in unique and intriguing ways. They can also grow crap wool that’s the worst of everything, but therein lies the allure of trying to hone a particular type of fleece in a whole flock over many generations. You can get gold or garbage or anything in between. One woman who really did succeed at crossbreeding a handspinning flock with distinctive characteristics was Sally Bill on neighboring Lopez Island. The Sally Bill Specials are few in number now, but we got to sample a little of their wool at Deb’s retreat. (I think we all fell a little in love with a ewe called Mumsy.) Deb had more wool from Lopez sheep, too, and the fleece that immediately piqued my interest was a Blue-Faced Leicester x North Country/Coopworth cross. I could feel the North Country in it immediately, but the Coopworth and BFL made it sing a new song. I had to find out where it had come from, and I had to start thinking seriously about running a little crossbred flock of my own to see what I might achieve by way of variation on a North Country theme.

My Lopez contacts confirmed my hunch that the fleece was from Lucky Ewe farm. And it just so happened that friends of ours were already arranging to buy some ewe lambs from Lucky Ewe to cross with their Romney ram. I decided we’d better tag along. So we all dropped our kids at school and hopped the interisland ferry with the trailer in tow. Grown-up field trip! A long meander through the wooded country lanes of Lopez brought us to the field where the ewe lambs were waiting for us. Our friends picked out their five and then we loaded up half a dozen more to form the foundation of the Oak Knoll Fiber Flock.

They’re all from a BFL ram, and their mothers are a mix of Romney, Coopworth, East Friesian, and yes, North Country Cheviot. I’ve been in touch with the shepherd who tended the Lucky Ewe flock in its previous incarnation and he confirmed that he did indeed bring over rams from Oak Knoll Farm. We have two sets of twin sisters amongst our six, and from sheep to sheep there’s a lot of variety in their characteristics. Some look more like Romneys, some like BFLs, some like neither. One has suggestions of North Country in her Roman nose and clean, strong head — not to mention her tendency to watch our every move and dash for freedom if we approach — but her fleece is nearly black. All these girls have long, crimpy locks. It’s a treat to bury your hands in their wool.

I’ve named them after great queens of history. Eleanor is their leader, the only one bold and calm enough to approach us and nibble offerings from the children’s hands. Her sister Cleopatra is dubbed Patch for the white spot on her nose. Victoria is the short white one with North Country ears, and Maud has the noble BFL profile and wild eyes. Theodora is Vicky’s brown sister with splotches of white on one cheek. Zenobia is the dark chocolate girl I can’t wait to shear.

They’re separated from the North Countries while they acclimate to their new home, so I built them a covered hay feeder. It’s small and lightweight so that Adam and I can easily carry it about for mobstocking, but I’m proud to report it withstood yesterday’s gale without damage. The little queens seem to think it’s just right, too.

So here they are, back at the farm where their great-grandfather, perhaps, was born. My plans for them are wide open — half to our friend’s Romney and half to a North Country ram with a good fleece, perhaps? I’d like to add more Coopworth somewhere down the road if I could find a ram nearby. For now we’ll take it slow, get to know them, and eagerly await their first clip in March!

New tricks

I’m starting a new sweater. It’s for publication later this spring and I won’t be able to show you much of it, but in the interest of making this once more a proper knitting blog, I’m going to tell you about casting it on. Scrolling down through my Ravelry projects, I find that I’ve completed 68 sweaters of various sizes over the years. The number I’ve cast on is higher. So you’d think I’d have the beginning pretty well nailed down by now. But the marvelous thing about knitting is that there’s always more to learn, and there’s generally a right tool for every job, and there are decisions to be made about the precise effect and function of one technique or another. Sometimes we need a stable edge, sometimes a stretchy one. But most of us use only a handful of cast-ons in the usual run of our knitting, I suspect. I’ve got a stable of five or six I deploy regularly, plus a few special occasion cast-ons for fancy effects that I usually have to look up to remember how they work. June Hemmons Hiatt lists 58 different cast-ons in The Principles of Knitting, which I checked out from the library last week. Fifty-eight. I had to hang my head in shame at the narrowness of my self-education.

I didn’t like the basic long-tail cast-on (that’s the Compound Half-Hitch in Hiatt’s parlance, because so many others also require a long tail) I’d used at the base of the ribbing on my new sweater. I thought I’d try to keep the techniques pretty familiar in this design rather than calling for advanced work like tubular cast-ons, but I just couldn’t live with the effect. Long-tail cast-ons remove twist from the tail as you work, and this mostly cotton yarn — Ashlawn from Cestari Yarns — didn’t bear that treatment with a lot of grace. With my nightstand groaning under the Hiatt volume, I ripped out my original start and decided to try the Alternating cast-on once I’d put the kids to bed and tucked myself up with Netflix and tea.

I learnt right away that this is not a cast-on to tackle late in the evening under dim wattage of both the electrical and mental varieties. The stitches spiral around your needle cord like courting squirrels. It quickly becomes difficult to tell which way is up, so joining without a twist is mostly a matter of dumb luck and counting the stitches is nearly impossible. I tried three times and I got three different numbers with a total spread of 7. Once I finally decided to forge and fudge my way ahead to see how it would look with a stabilizing second row, I found I had 202 instead of 200. At that point, I put it down for the night.

In the cold light of day, I tried again, bolstered by having mastered the trick of telling which direction to push the upside-down stitches. (Hint: look at the mount. If the stitch has its leading leg behind the needle, you need to spin it the other way, even if doing so makes it look like there’s a whole lot of twist in the running yarns beyond the stitch. Don’t ever be tempted to knit through the back loop on the assumption that you might have made a mechanical error in forming that stitch. You didn’t.)

Here you can see the edge starting to form up with the first round of k1, p1 in place. According to Hiatt, this is a cast-on that’s often seen in machine-knit commercial sweaters. It forms an elastic basis for the single rib that looks like a tubular cast-on, but without the many steps and additional bulk. The final effect:

As you can see, I should have taken Hiatt’s direction to use a needle several sizes smaller than the ribbing needle, not just one size smaller, because those first stitches want to spread. That loose effect is going to work for this particular design, I believe, as I don’t actually want this ribbing to draw in. But if I were making a hat and needed a snugger rib, I’d definitely drop down two or three needle sizes.  I have to conclude that the Alternating cast-on is worth the initial learning curve and deserves a place in my regular toolkit.

Also, those beautiful mittens in the top photo? I am the luckiest girl. My internet friend Ita lives in Latvia, and when she saw I’d made admiring (nay, lustful) comments on another Latvian knitter’s mitten calendar, she offered to send me one for 2018. Latvians just might be the mitten champions of the planet, and I am so thrilled to get to admire the beautiful specimens in this calendar all year long. Some are worn and carefully mended, some use fascinating brioche colorwork, some have tiers of fantastic loop fringe. I’ll keep sharing glimpses as the months march on! An added bonus is that this is a name day calendar, which delights my inner name nerd. Happy name day to everyone out there named Alnis and Andulis!

At the turning

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

— Susan Cooper

On the shortest day I loaded a backpack with four tin cups, a thermos of hot cider, a parcel of cookies dusted in sugar, and a picnic blanket. It was a surprise outing for the children, an inkling of a new tradition I’d thought of. We drove a little way north along the rim of the valley, where there’s an open field I like. I used to ride an Arab mare around the perimeter, trotting her uphill for conditioning and resting at the top to puff and look out over the quilted landscape. Our family of four—and the dog—walked along the fence that surrounds the cemetery of the little church of St. Francis and picked a spot in the high corner to spread our blanket and watch the sun sink.

During our first full season at the farm I’ve watch the sun’s arc intersect the hills beyond our valley, working steadily south along the blue knuckles of Mt. Dallas to Little Mountain and then the low hills above Kanaka Bay. This deep in the year it doesn’t even reach the island, vanishing instead behind the Olympic mountains across the straits.

We called up the most luminous points of memory from the year that’s been: adventures in Paris, singing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, bringing home the kittens, making “fifty” friends at school, our first lambs. The great magic of life on this farm—a magic well grounded in work that isn’t always fun or instantly gratifying, mind you, but rewarding all the same.

Now we’re closing the year in a slog through boxing up all our remaining clutter in Portland. I am not quick to find cathartic joy in this chore; part of me would like to light a huge bonfire in the driveway and have done, but alas, city codes and sentiment over the possessions of my ancestors prevent me.

Wishing you a clean sheet, a new leaf, a freshening wind as we welcome 2018!