It is a happy, beautiful, busy time of year. Our first snow fall landed today and the farm is as pretty as a picture. The shop has been bustling with industrious fibre folk planning handmade gifts for the Holiday Season. I'm busy as well, preparing gifts and cheer. For today I will repost this note to remind myself just how lucky I am to work at something that I love to do.
A while back I was engaged to speak at a Creativity Symposium.
I like the way that it slips through my fingers as I spin at the wheel and the way that it so often twists, curves and springs introducing its own character and guiding me through my work. I like the way a freshly shorn fleece smells as the steam rolls off of its first wash bath. Most of all I like the fact that real fibre, natural fibre, has a story.
In my mind I see each fibre bringing it’s own story to my work, permeating and supporting a handspun skein of yarn, a hooked rug or a felted hanging.
Indeed the history of working with fibre is paramount. We know that the cultivation of flax and hemp was reported as early as 1699 within Acadian communities and that later in the 1700’s Scottish settlers arriving in Cape Breton brought with them a strong tradition of sheep husbandry, spinning and weaving.
A woman’s spinning and weaving skills were critical in early Maritime settlement. In 1810 John Harrison of Maccan Nova Scotia writes home to Yorkshire expressing the need for “a shipload of young women….them that can card and spin”.
By the 19th century, for many maritime women, working with fibre was their story of survival. This was the case for Polly Mercereau who supplied the honorable Robinson Family of Fredericton with handspun yarn and hand woven fabric during the early 1800’s also the story of Sybil Grey whom, during the 1840’s spent long days dyeing wool, weaving and spinning for her neighbor Mrs. Emily Shaw Beaven and for Mrs. Marsden who spun wool for all of the Carter family of the Kingston Peninsula also in New Brunswick.
For many the story of fibre is that of community, communication, gathering and tradition. Early 19th century photographs document Cape Breton frolics, Acadian Bees, and women in Cheticamp dyeing yarns for their hooked rugs.
I must say that I am as pleased that so much has changed as I am that so much has remained the same.
The stories of fibre are intriguing. They involve connections between individuals, between man and animal, between man and land, between a farmer and his family, his father and his son.
Stories like that of Walter Whalen and his son Felix of St. Jacques Newfoundland who are working, to preserve one of the last remaining, flocks of the hardy little Newfoundland Sheep brought to forage the rugged Newfoundland terrain over 500 years ago and nearly extinct today.
And on the west coast the story of Paula Simmons who over the past 30 years has provided invaluable instruction for hand spinners and fibre producers. Author of the cottage industry producer’s bible “Guide to raising sheep” as well as numerous publications on hand spinning technique, Paula is also central in a thriving business that produces the renowned Patrick Green fibre processing equipment.
In all of this, if you call Paula today with a question, a request or an order, she’ll be sure to ask if you’ve put your garden to bed for the season or how the summer’s crop of hay came along this year. Because of Paula’s story I enjoy working with her equipment that much more and when I spin from the spongy batts that roll off of my pat green carder I hope that even a little bit of Paula’s energy and dedication will pass through the twisted thread.
Everyone knows the story of Shrek. He’s the rogue merino sheep who spent six years roaming New Zealand’s South Island before being gathered up for a long overdue shearing.
Shrek’s fleece was a record 60 pounds which apparently is enough to produce full suits for 20 men. The sheep’s owner John Perriam in a BBC radio interview explained that Shrek had managed to evade capture for so many years by hiding in a cave and that when he was discovered he was not immediately recognized as a sheep. The story of Shreks admirable resign won the hearts of people all over the world and his eventual denuding was televised during a live half hour news program on TV New Zealand. Wool crafters and trivia aficionados raised thousands of dollars in the auction of Shrek’s fleece, all to the benefit of a children’s medical charity, each bidder wanting a small piece of the fleece that tells Shrek’s story.
When you choose to work with fibre, you bring its stories and relationships to your work. They lend life to your work, they lend a depth and care and a foundation, bringing strength to your work before you have even begun. After all, natural fibres are grown , cultivated, raised fed nurtured and in some cases loved as a being long before they are used as a provision or as a statement or in a work of art.
And so I have a little story to tell. It has to do with one of my own relations to fibre and it starts out as my husband Arnold and I sat down to supper on a very cold March night.
At 6 pm we got “the Call” from my good friend Bonnie Avis. Could we “please come out over to Dorchester. Jennifers’ away, she’s got a ewe who’s two hours into delivering, vet’s tied up, Martins’ in charge and things are looking shaky”. Twenty minutes later my husband Arnold and I were driving up the long icy lane to Devonshire farm then pressing our way through the early March wind into an open ended sheep barn where the birthing scene was presented before us.
Bonnie, sweet natured and very petite, belied her 74 years, and stood bent over the blatting ewe holding the animal in a firm head lock.
She, the ewe not Bonnie, stood straddled over a bale of hay. Well presented for the anticipated arrival but clearly distressed. Martin, Jennifers ‘husband in charge’ was relieved to see us and fretfully nursed his stress with a very cold beer.
Arnold, never having been in such a situation, if you can imagine, zipped up his jacket against the cold and made himself available standing among the flock of 20 or so wooly onlookers now gathered around the scene.
My own jacket lay heaped on the ground, the top portion of my coveralls tied around my waste and now down to a tee-shirt I slathered my arms with betadine solution. With as much tact as can be afforded in such a situation I plunged my right arm into the ewe feeling the back of a small head, one pointed hoof and one knobby knee.
What I’m hoping to feel, the ideal outline would have been two hooves pointing the way with a little head tucked in behind ready to follow.
To rectify the problem I push the lamb back in an effort to gain some space to maneuver, straighten the leg that is bent back, reach in around it’s head and palming it’s muzzle pull it’s head around to face the new world.
Now 3 1/2 hours into delivery, Bonnie needs not use her full force to hold the ewe that is utterly exhausted and quite critical. Arnold nervously wrings his hands; he stands among the semi-circle of sheep still looking on, many with equally concerned expressions. Martin continues to empty one cold bottle after another; nervously anticipating the wrath of his trusting wife should all go wrong He sits on a hay bale now, head in hands and extolling the virtues of getting out of farming one of these years.
The lamb, now aligned, needs pulling and with all my force I am not able to free him.
Arnold steps in, first gingerly and then with all his might, he is launched back a step as the newborn finally slips free. Like mother, the baby is exhausted and shows no vigor for life. His mouth and nostrils must be freed of mucus after which Arnold must hold him high and swing him, the lambs limp head facing the ground so that his throat might also be cleared. After what seems forever, he sputters for breath and is presented to his mother who still stands supported over a bale of hay. Suddenly, in the excitement of this achievement it dawned on me that a person should check to see if there might be any other lambs involved in this pregnancy.
Once again lathered up and in for exploration I rapidly discovered a very small twin, perfectly placed and easily pulled. We were quickly presented with a second, considerably smaller lamb, apparently quite prepared to start out his new life and no worse for the delay.
Late into the evening we sat gathered around the farmhouse woodstove. Bonnie, Arnold and I propping up the lambs, warming them and offering them their mothers first, most essential, milk delivered from a bottle. Martin busily stoked the fire and showered us with offerings of a warm meal, a warm drink, a cold drink, a drink of wine or whatever else our hearts may have desired.
Pleased with the lambs, with ourselves and pleased to be warm we shared of Martin’s wine. Newly invigorated he toasted our teamwork, the longevity of Devonshire Farm, farm life in general and the return of his good wife.
As the babies gained strength our heads became heavy. Gathering ourselves we headed for home down the long, dark, farm lane the farm house behind us shows a flicker of fire light in the window and a silhouette of Martin in the open doorway holding up two huge frozen turkeys, yet another offering of thanks; maybe next time.
Jennifer returned from her trip away to a farm that was no worse for the wear. We were met with yet more invitations of farm house suppers, wine, turkeys and such and that Fall London-Wul became home to two beautiful yearling lambs, not the boys as it turned out, but two gloriously fleeced ewes that Jennifer had specially selected just for us.
Had she been home that evening she would, no doubt, have managed the situation with impressive efficiency. A well respected Shepherd, over the years, Jennifer became my go-to person for practical advice on raising a fibre flock. She was also a masterful spinner and knitter and a visual artist. The land, her family and her animals were her inspiration. She was as no-nonsense and to the point as she was warm and accessible. Jen was an easy and comfortable friend. On January 10th last year Jennifer died of breast cancer. Driving past her farm now it seems strangely odd to me that it should still be there. It feels as though without Jennifer there should be no more rolling hills, rambling fences and grey shingled barns when in fact the fields and fences and even a few sheep are still there just as Jennifer would want it.
The Devonshire sheep, Baahby and Pinky as they are now known, represent the beginnings of our London-Wul flock. Now several years later, Baahby remains the matriarch of our eclectic group and the foundation of a farm which fills my every dream.
What pleasures London-Wul Farm has afforded me; happiness in a simple way of life, the pleasure of physical work, the comfort of community and, as an artist, the experience of using a material with which I am intimately connection. Each spring I look forward to shearing and each year I select a special fleece, Baahbys’ fleece, to keep as my own. Bahhbys’ is wool that gives me strength. Baahbys’ wool tells a love story about a little girl from the city of Montreal, who dreamed of nothing but a farm, who years later received a gift from the man who she knew right then and there she would marry. It was a gift of two beautiful barn doors (not the barn, just the doors), a promise of things to come. Baahbys’ wool is full of love and appreciation and respect for the beautiful animals that are the muses of London-Wul farm. Baahbys’ wool is about friendship and community, life and loss.
With that said, I would like to offer you a small gift. It’s a simple gift really; a small bit of wool in a small box. The type offering that friends in fibre so often extend to one another, at a hook-in, in a knitting circle or at a workshop perhaps, just a small bit of wool. In fact it’s a tuft of Baahbys’ fleece. You’d love Baabhy if you met her. Everyone does. She is short legged and slightly plump, for that alone you have to love her. Her winter fleece frames her bare face with a slightly tilted grin like an Elizabethan collar. She loves to be scratched on the fatty fold in the crook between her front leg and her chest. And if you scratch under both legs at once she will lay down.
I hope that someday perhaps you will incorporate your tuft of Baahby’s wool in your work. I hope that it gives you strength and that it sparks your imagination now and always."