Making my own tapestry yarn brings me steady pleasure and year round “work.” It all starts with taking care of my family’s small flock of sheep. One of whom we adopted as bottle-fed lamb when her mother refused to nurse her.

Shepherd 2

Sheep need plenty of water, especially in summer. They also need a clean shed in which they may find shelter from heavy rain or cold wind and snow. Our sheep graze on grass fields from spring through fall. In winter they eat the alfalfa hay that is grown on our land. Occasionally we feed them pea pellets for treats. Every August we mow the pasture to keep the weeds back. After summer harvest, barrels of alfalfa dot our field. Each of them weighs about a ton. My sheep will eat about one barrel in the winter–but I must admit, they are a bit overweight!

Every spring and fall we clip our sheep’s hooves and give them medication for disease and ticks. In May or June our sheep are sheared by our friend, Craig Meredith. Using electric shears as shown, Craig can shear a sheep in minutes. The wool is removed in one piece and is large enough to cover a bed sheet. My sheep fleeces weigh about 9 pounds each. This makes about two dozen skeins of yarn. After the first spring my sheep had ever been sheared, they walked noticeably light-footed. They also did not seem to recognize one another without their wool. They ba’ad and ba’ad as if calling for their misplaced flock.

Shepherd 1

Other wool I “harvest” for my yarn is that from our angora rabbit. Angora wool is delightful to knit with and comfortable to wear. But these rabbits need very special care. They must be groomed often or their fur will matt up–sort of like dread locks. They molt several times throughout the year which allows for easy collection of their wool which basically combs right out. Although our rabbit always enjoyed sitting on our laps while she was groomed, she has run off with a suitor–a rabbit whose fur was coal-black. We trust that she is now living blissfully somewhere with her newly found mate…

After sheep shearing comes the rather tedious process of “skirting the fleece”–picking hay and dirt from it for washing. Then the wool must be combed or detangled so that it can be spun. Shown here is a drum carder. Its drum is filled with sharp needles which comb the wool as it is wound through the machine. A spinning wheel is one way to spin wool into yarn and a relatively “modern” tool. Hand spindles, however, are still being used today in many traditional societies. Their use stretches back some 20,000 years. I use both. The latter is more portable–something I can do in the dentist’s waiting room or airports. For a glimpse of a hand spindle, see my home page.

Once the yarn is spun a “skein winder” helps loop the thread into hanks that beg to be knitted or woven or dyed. I color my yarn with natural dyes–plants that grow in my field, those that I collect on hikes and others such as indigo which I must purchase as an imported dye stuff. Please click here to visit my natural dyes page and slide show.

Here is my workbench where I keep my yarn, hand cards, spindle, scissors, tapestry needles, wood battens and other weaving tools. It also holds my tapestry loom while I weave. As you can see, a tapestry loom is a rather simple device. Mine has a mechanism running across it which helps separate the warp threads into sheds–a space through which the weft threads are passed when weaving a pattern or image. Sometimes I work from a cartoon–a black and white sketch which I tape to the loom behind the warp. Other times I work from scratch. Both ways are challenging.

Shepherd 4

In addition to giving me wool for my projects, sometimes my sheep agree to mow our lawn. I consider them to be quite generous in this respect and I feel lucky to have them. I hope you have enjoyed my story on shepherding and weaving.


Links to Weavers, and Spinning and Weaving Organizations (Handweavers Guild of America) (Interweave Press books, magazine, and conferences) (Weaving cooperative that offers courses, New Mexico)