Knitting is not just about mechanics, it is also about yarn. Don’t get me wrong – nothing can replace the mechanics of knitting, and there is certainly enough to know about the mechanics of knitting to keep one busy for a very long time. But in the end, the knitted piece is more about the yarn than the mechanics. Think of it this way: how many of us look at a new car and think, “Gee, they used the wrong wrench for that part.”? No, we care that it is well made, but we also care about the aesthetics of it – does it look good, and more importantly, does it look good on me? (I am still talking about cars and if you think people don’t think about wearing their cars you’re wrong – they do. But not me, of course, I’m not that vain.)
Quite a few books have come out on the market in the last few years to talk specifically about fiber – different types of fiber to knit with, where it comes from, the properties it holds, what it is good for and how well does it take dye. Clara Parkes has 2 books out, The Knitters Book of Yarn and The Knitter’s Book of Wool, both of which go into great detail about the specifics of yarn and I highly recommend both of them.
To that end, learning about yarn, I became interested in the producers of yarn – the sheep, alpaca, Angora and other fiber animal farmers. How did they decide on the animals? What attracted them to the particular breeds that they work with? Do they produce the yarn or simply produce the fiber? Do they mill their own work or send it out? There are hundreds of other questions that I have, but these were just the beginning.
Enter friend Marylin. I met her when I started working at Lake Forest College 4 years ago. She has since moved to Maryland and is working at another college, but we stay in touch. Two of the biology professors at her college own a Jacob Sheep farm and were all to happy to talk to me about their endeavor to raise sheep.
Introducing Ralene and Chicory Lane Farm.
Nestled just outside of Hanover, PA sits a little farm with more than 70 Jacob Sheep, a farm whose sole purpose is the preservation of this distinct breed. Jacob sheep are spotted and so named for the story in Genesis 30 where Jacob offers to take “all the spotted sheep and all the spotted goats” off of Laban’s hands in exchange for all the years of work that he did. Jacobs are at 60-80% white and 20-40% black (or what is also called lilac). Their fleece is usually very springy with a micron count between 26-36, which places it in the medium fineness of wool – ideal for outer wear and sometimes next-to-the-skin wear. (The lower the micron count the “finer” the wool is: Marino is ~18-22 microns while Cotswold is ~36.)
The fleece can be processed as one (mixing all the colors) to produce a tweed like yarn or they can be separated by color to produce several yarns of color.
Ralene and her husband, Randy, purchased Chicory Lane Farm six years ago and the bonus was that it came with 3 Jacob sheep – how perfect could that be? Today they have 5 active males, several “neutered” males (aka wethers), and lots of ewes with 14 babies this year.
Jacobs can have either 2 horns or 4 horns. Below are the “active” males, notice that the one on the left has 4 horns. The other front one also has 4 horns but one of the top ones broke and now he seems to have a horn like thing growing out of his nose. (I’m not kidding – a horn growing out of his nose.)
One of her ewes that was supposed to be “retired” apparently had other plans, and as long as the males were “obliging”, she sort of “got lucky” and just had twins a few days before our arrival.
They were completely adorable. The ewe looks like she has mastitis, an infection in her udder, so that the babies are not eating well – so we got to feed them. Trust me, it was NOT an easy task. Notice Peter in the pic below holding the lamb while (Becky?) tried to feed him (or her, can’t remember which).
Ralene and Randy belong to the Jacob Sheep Breeder’s Association (JSBA) so that they can be a part of the conservation efforts to keep this breed alive and pure. The JSBA website says that there are around 200 members across the US and Canada. Ralene’s local chapter had a booth at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival – a combined effort of several breeders to sell their roving, yarn and other Jacob products. I think their sales this year were up from previous years because of the shout out (so to speak) by the Yarn Harlot (aka Stephanie Pearl-McPhee) and her excitement over the purchase of a Jacob fleece. She chose to separate out the fleece by color and will be knitting a shawl that is a gradient of color.
Ralene does not process the fiber herself, but sends it out to a mill to be processed. She sells the raw roving or yarn but does not have the mill separate the fleece out by color.
When it comes time to sheer the flock she hires a woman to do the job. She also has lots of friends who volunteer to help – one of the jobs is simply herding the flock because she doesn’t have a sheep dog. (She has other dogs, but they can’t do the job of a good sheep dog.) During the process of shearing, some of the volunteers do a job called skirting, which is simply removing the “organic” stuff from the fleece (I think you know what I mean by this). She currently has a lot of un-milled fiber sitting in her barn – so if anyone is interested in raw fleece – I think you should make her an offer. Heck – she also has roving and yarn, so please, call her and make an offer. Please!