Monday, 9 June 2014

Raising Betty and Lisa Marie

Lambing at Cottonwood Farm occurred during the February snowstorm when it was very cold and wet.  We lost a few lambs because of the cold and if we were unable to catch mum in time to get her into the barn where it was dry.  When sheep lamb, they have the first lamb which they turn to clean.  The second lamb usually comes from five to twenty minutes later.  If the second lamb arrives too quickly, the sheep will leave the first to turn and clean the second.  This leaves the first lamb vulnerable to predators (ravens are the worst at recognizing opportunity) and often, when it is cold the first lamb does not get the attention it needs to be nudged into life.  If it becomes too cold the sheep will abandon it because it likely will not survive.

This is what happened to Betty.  Although we were able to get her and mum and brother into the barn, Betty was very cold and no amount of coaxing would make mum pay attention to her.  So, into a warm shower she went followed by a warm up in front of the fire.  From a limp little body with barely a heartbeat, Betty struggled back to life and accepted some colostrum (first milk) from a bottle.  The colostrum was provided by one of the local cows about to calf and is essential for the antibodies it contains.

Our new ram is Elvis, a black Romney so all our lambs are black this year (one of the few advantages in a snowstorm).  He gets to stand by and watch these little dramas for which he is largely responsible.   Another ewe produced one of our four sets of triplets in the barn.  Lisa Marie was the smallest of these triplets and, although they were all pretty tough little lambs and appeared to be doing well, she was the one of the three most likely to fail.  In the ‘good things to know’ department, sheep only have two docking stations.  A sheep rarely raises three lambs without a lot of help.  The smallest lamb usually gets pushed aside and eventually fails so is removed and bottle fed.  So after 24 hours Lisa Marie was removed from her mum (the hardest thing I ever have to do) to provide company for Betty.

 Feeding time

Lisa Marie and Betty now live with us and are being raised by my daughter, Deb who is their new mum.   Sadly, they will never integrate with their flock but always think they are human and wonder why they are no longer allowed to lie by the fire or on the couch.  We have walked them through the flock and Lisa Marie’s mum recognizes her cry and runs over to check her out – but will not let her nurse because she does not smell right.  Betty does not even know she is a sheep.

Lisa Marie on Grandpa John’s chair

A month after rescue, they were eating my rosebushes, the heads of my daffodils, any flower stem or stalk that stuck its head above ground – and they were still being fed milk four times a day around the clock.  Weaning happened slowly and at 8 weeks.  At three months, they are fat and healthy and have full range of the property; but they still do not do anything useful, like mow the lawn.

Betty and Lisa Marie at 3 months.

Four others of our lambs are being raised on Windsor farm by Brittany in a flock of foundlings from all over the islands.
This is a new version of an old rhyme revised by granddaughter Emily and myself.

Deborah had two little lambs
Their fleece was black a soot,
And everywhere that Deborah went
The lambs were underfoot.
They followed her around the house
and all around the yard.
They ate the heads off daffodils
 and finished off the chard.
They scared the cat into the bush
and chased the dogs around a tree.
But we all loved them anyway,
Our Betty and Lisa Marie.

Walkies means everyone goes

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Year Winds Down

November and December were busy months, not for the sheep but for me as I continued to process and sell the fleece and became involved in the annual round of Christmas events.  Early in November, 135 lbs of yarn arrived from the mill in Carstairs.  The white fibre was milled as two ply and is a lovely, soft aran weight yarn.  The grey was milled as 3 ply and was also much softer this year thanks to the Romney bred into the flock. It is great for weaving and outerwear.   Twenty pounds of it sold immediately to the local yarn shop.

20 lbs of wool

I also finished weaving my first blanket and am thrilled with the result.  I learned a lot from the process.  Attention to process and detail is one lesson learned as my mentor, Mary advised me to release any of the heddles not in use.  I forgot and when I did remember, decided it was not necessary as I was only using the center foot pedals.   Needless to say, there are two treddling errors in the work that were not visible from the front but obvious when I took the blanket off the loom and turned it over.  They are not that noticeable but I know they are there and they will serve as a reminder not to do that again.  The blanket fulled out beautifully in the washing machine and on a gentle cycle.

My First Blanket

Two more wheels were delivered to my friends, the Cowichan knitters and they have just purchased the last of my roving.  I now have space in the closet in the spare bedroom!  I also bought new shelving for my workroom and got things off the floor.  I know that the space will fill up fast again when we shear in the spring but it feels good to have things tidy for the moment. 

My mother, who was a great knitter, always had a table at the Christmas craft fair in Fulford Hall.  She also baked for their ‘Decadent Deserts’.  Her specialty was chocolate éclairs, something I never had any joy making as I could never get them to rise.  Mum died right after the craft fair of 2007, but before she left us she sent me into the kitchen to make her eclaires for the fair.   From her bed she supervised me mixing those éclairs, requiring that I show her how they looked in the bowl as they progressed.  Those éclairs rose into lovely puffy pastries and I have been making them ever since – and of course taking them to the fair for her. 

Fulford Hall Christmas Craft Fair 2013

I am very involved in rounding up volunteers to facilitate the Fulford Christmas Craft Fair which is held in the community hall on the first weekend in December.  The fair is a fundraiser and earns enough each year to cover most of the annual operating expenses of the hall which is the center for all our local community events.  The hall is across the road from the church where mum and dad are now buried.  My mum loved snowdrops and viewed them as a hopeful sign of spring.  Late in October, Emily, my granddaughter and I planted bulbs all over their gravesite, daffodils, crocus, bluebells and snowdrops.  On December 23 I visited them to place a Christmas wreath and found those snowdrops blooming.  They were a lovely gift from mum.

 Hope of Spring

According to the calendar and the progress Elvis made with the girls, first lambs should arrive around the end of February, perhaps for my birthday.  Meanwhile, the flock is healthy and well and, although we did have one brief snowstorm early in December, they are now enjoying our mild winter weather. 

A brief winter snowstorm

Happy New Year to all our friends as we move into 2014 from us all.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Life is not all about fibre - Peru

My partner, John and I have just returned from an amazing visit to Peru.  The country has always been on my radar but is not a place one can visit without support and John was not interested in group tours.  That is until his Alma Mata (MIT) offered a small group tour lead by a Professor of Astronomy and built around the opportunity to explore the relationship of the various Inca sites to the sun.   The tour fulfilled John’s scientific interests while providing me with further opportunities to experience the vibrant colours of a culture where weaving and knitting play an important role.

Starting in Lima, we visited Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Pichu, Lake Titicaca and then flew to Iquitos and stayed in the Amazon Rainforest for a few days.  Much has been written about all of these places but nothing prepared me for the vibrancy of the colour and the reflection of those colours in the daily life of indigenous people who are still practice their traditional ways. 

Machu Pichu

 Machu Pichu was an incredible place as were many of the other Inca sites.  We spent two days touring the site and saw it in the moody cloud of approaching storms and the bright sunshine of a clearing sky.  Sightings were taken along the way proving again that the Inca did have a special relationship with the sun. 

Prof.Dr. Richard Binzel and guide, Haime taking sightings at Macu Pichu.
My Goodness.  The Inca were right!

Of course, my favurite moments were spent in the women’s weaving co-op in  Chinchero in the Sacred Valley where we watched a demonstration of traditional dying methods.  More particularly we were shown the uses of the cochineal beetle as a source of the perfect red.  

 Demonstation of wool dying.

 The women, who still wear traditional dress, speak English and proudly demonstrate their craft using back strap looms.  In a small market close by, I found a woman sitting on the ground with a variation of this loom in which the warp was hooked over her foot.  She was weaving a strap using a double weave technique in which the warp was manipulated through heddles made of different coloured yarn differentiating between the various patterns.  

Demonstrating a drop spindle.
Note warped looms in the bacground.

 Me receiving special instructions in how to use the dried beetle (cochineal) that I bought.  Add lemon juice for orange and alum for purple!

Everywhere we travelled in the country, we saw women working and if their hands were not busy then they were using their drop spindles and spinning yarn.   

 A vendor knitting on the tourist stop at the highest point on the plateau (14,500+ ft) between Cusco and Puna (Lake Titicaca).

On Isla Taquile on Lake Titicaca, it is the men who knit.  Our guide explained that, as a small boy his father taught him the craft and he was eventually required to knit a hat in the traditional style with a colourful band around the head, floppy ear pieces and a white top piece that fell over to one side and which was embellished with a colourful tassel.  These colours denoted his availability for marriage.  The hat was tightly knit.  If he wanted to express interest in a young woman he could present her with the hat.  She tested his knitting skill by filling it with water.  If it leaked, she handed it back!  This island has been declared a world heritage site for its weaving and the role of textile in the cultural fabric of daily life.  The women are renowned for their weaving and the intricate and delicate designs in their work.

Samples of the fine weaving from Isla Taquile.

Of course the famous Uros people of Lake Titicaca demonstrate their own weaving arts in the creation of the floating reed islands on which they live.  These island people rely on reeds for most of their existence as their homes; their boats, their furniture and most of the fabric of their existence is dependent on woven reeds. 

 Approaching a reed island on Lake Titicaca.

They also produce colourful embroideries and their eye for colour is reflected in their dress of multi-layered skirts and bright jackets, all topped with a bowler hat; a legacy of British explorers.

A welcoming committee.

The men were fishing but the women made us welcome and proudly showed off their homes which are now equipped with satelite dishes and t.v. sets.  They playfully dressed me up in local costume including colouful tassels for my braids denoting my availability.

Well, you can dress me up, but I am not sure you would want to take me out!
Note the home in the background made from reeds.

Next stop was the Amazon River, highway to the many small villages set in jungle landscape along its muddy banks.  This tropical rainforest has no seasons; just high water when the snow melts in the Andes, and low water during winter season.  As a result of climate change and the extensive glacial melt in the past few years, the increased run-off has created some hardship for villagers who's homes are regularly flooded during the time of high water.  

Visiting a typical home along the Amazon River. 

Note the corn, rice, yucca and other plants growing haphazardly around this house.  No need for seasonal planting here as we found corn stalks in various stages of growth.  Villagers mainly live on fish, corn and rice and other tropical fruits such as bananas, breadfruit, papaya, and citrus fruits.
We were also able to visit a school and meet the children who greeted us warmly and told us of their aspirations to be teachers, doctors, nurses and travel guides.  Clearly, tourism is expected to play a major role in the future of Peru.

Some of the children at a school on the Amazon.
To fully appreciate the jungle, we were invited to walk high in the tree canopy above and to see a world unknown to those who prefer the jungle floor.  In the bright sunshine, orchids and other brilliant flowers thrive on their host trees as do other jungle creatures such ad iguana and monkeys.

Our guide, Cesar walking in the high canopy of the jungle some110 ft above the jungle floor.


River life appeared abundant and, after our boat broke down and while we we were making a transfer into a rescue boat in mid flow, we found ourselves surrounded by blue dolphins.  Further explorations along the river found the pink dolphin swimming at the confluence of one of the may tributaries to the mighty Amazon.

Despite what we would describe as poverty by western standards, our guides were all from the local communities and spoke several languages; most commonly one or both of the two main indigenous languages,and Spanish and English. They were all university trained to provide interpretive services to the growing tourism trade and all shared a universal love of their country and their communities.  They were well informed about their history and even the local shaman knew all  the botanical names of the herbs and plants he used in his practice.  Like most other Peruvians, despite the remoteness of these communities, they all also have cell phones and are very much connected to the outside world.

   The local Shaman ridding a fellow traveler of negative vibes.
He wore wellies, camouflage shorts, a t-shirt from the 2002 walk for multiple sclerosis and a feathered head dress and he carried a cell phone - a true representative of contemporary Peru.

Sadly, tourism and technology are opening up these spaces to the modern world and there is little likelihood those traditions will survive over the next ten years.  Despite the poverty, I sensed a degree of contentment among the folks we met that is unmatched in North American society.  I expect that contentment will dissipate as young people are exposed to the acquisitive values of western, contemporary society.   Modern Peru (cities like Lima and Cusco) are already being overtaken by McDonald’s and Starbucks.  Can rural communities survive us all trooping through in out air-conditioned coaches with our cameras ready for the many opportunities to capture the’ quaintness’ of indigenous peoples lives?

For me, the memories of this visit to Peru are about wonderful people, extraordinary sights and colour.  And yes!  It was also about fibre.


August and September were busy months.  While the lambs were growing we turned our attention to processing the special fleece I had set aside and thinking about the future advancement of the flock.  We needed a new ram and, since Walter was white and his progeny was primarily white, it was determined the next ram would be coloured. Our search led us to Jo Sleigh of Bramblewood  Farm in the Fraser Valley and we negotiated the purchase of a black yearling to be picked up at the Cowichan Fall Fair in September.

Cleaning fleece is hard work - for some......!
Rosie asleep on the tags.

Fall Fairs are vital to farming communities across the country and offer an opportunity for farmers to exhibit the results of their hard work to the public.  Livestock is showcased in competitions that demonstrate the best qualities of individual breeds.  Food producers are able to exhibit their crops and demonstrate the many and varied uses of their products in baking, canning, drying and other processing and preserving methods.  Fibre is also exhibited, both in the raw state and in knitting, weaving, quilting and  the crafts practiced by local artisans.
 The guild work on their Fibre display layout for the Salt Spring Island Fall Fair.

Jo was showing our new ram, who we had decided to call Elvis, along with other members of her flock and Dave and I attended the judging, checked out his lovely fleece and watched him win ‘best in class’. 

 Me, checking out that fleece

The grand finale of the competition required Jo to show all five of her flock together and she handed Elvis to Dave with the direction that ‘he is yours now – you show him’!  At this point, he had been in the ring for some time and was getting pretty fed up with the proceedings.  The judge announced that Jo Sleigh’s ram would be shown by David Astill who had just purchased him.  Elvis had had enough.  He headed off in a dance across the ring with Dave on the end of the rope.  Needless to say neither of them won points for deportment.
 Dave and Elvis - just before the dance!

 Following judging, Peter, our shearer removed Elvis’s coat before we loaded him into the truck for the ride to his new home.  He spent the first few days getting used to his pasture with one eye on the many girls awaiting his attention.  He settled in well and on October 1, Dave let him into the field with his new harem.  He fell instantly in love and has been taking care of business ever since.

Elvis, without his coat and in his new home.

The gestational period for sheep can range from 138 – 149 days although the average is 146-147 days.  While there are other factors involved (estrus cycles etc), we can anticipate the arrival of our first lambs on or about  February 23-24.  That will be a nice birthday present for me!

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Hundred Mile Challenge - a side bar on climate change

The recent trip to Edmonton and through the ice fields of the Canadian Rockies brought me face to face with an issue that affects us all - climate change and our individual responsibility for the effects of our personal behavior on the world in which we live.  The last time I drove that route was thirty four ago.  My children were ten and twelve and we stopped at the Columbia Ice Fields and walked to the foot of the Athabaska Glacier.  During this recent trip the glacier was much changed.  Where a narrow path once wound down from the main road there is now about a kilometer of paved road down to a parking lot.  A further hike takes today's tourist up and over the moraine, once covered in ice and to the foot of the receding glacier.  Markers indicate the fast retreat of the ice and predictions are that, in my grand-children's lifetime this glacier will be gone.  The Athabaska Glacier is the source of three major waterways; the Athabaska River, the Saskatchewan River and the mighty Columbia.  The ice fields are also the source of the Thompson River and the lush, fertile valley through which we had just driven.  The thought that, within the next one hundred years all of this would be gone is terrifying; not just because of the loss of habitat for wild life but also the reality of reduced food production and life sustaining water supplies for the growing communities along that route.

Athabaske Glacier 1979

The Athabaska Glacier today. 
The ice has receded over the first moraine and is half way over the second moraine.

For the effects of climate change on our ice from the scientists perspective, check out this article.  We are not discussing these issues and yet Canada is home to some of the worlds largest ice fields and we have a responsibility to protect them. Instead we are focused on the extraction of more of the fuel that is creating the crisis.

I became sadly aware of our own contribution to the problem as we joined our fellow travelers, each in their own vehicles burning up he fossil fuel as we drove through these beautiful places while we listened to the debate on the radio about the building of longer pipelines to transport more fossil fuels across the country.  And I had also chosen to take my wool some one thousand kilometers to the mill when there is a perfectly good mill within a two hour car ride from here.  Expediency and impatience fueled that decision.  The Carstairs mill is better able to handle the volume in a timely way.  Taking the hundred mile challenge and having my wool processed locally might mean some inconvenience in waiting for the final product, but what a price our grand-children will pay for my  current need for immediate gratification.

Which brings me back to our passion for wool.  I have never quite understood the fascination of fellow spinners for seeking out fleece and fiber from the other side of the world.  While Australian merino wool and English Cotswold fleece are wonderful to work with, I have little interest in using the over processed tops of yarn provided to spinners when I have no relationship with the sheep that produced this fiber.  My ancestors did not have the luxury of such finely prepared fibers.  Indeed, my mother plucked fleece off the barbed wire in the field beside her house for her first project.  We need to ask ourselves how we can fulfill our passion while using local fiber.  After all, we share our environment with the animals who live around us.  While our governments have a global responsibility for setting policies to protect our most valuable asset which is water, we need to ask ourselves what we can do to help, one person at a time.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Wool to Market

Since sheering, the past two months have been busy as we have sorted, tagged and cleaned the fleece for delivery to the spinning mill.  Sorting requires further removal of fleece unsuitable for spinning because it is too dirty, brittle or the staple is too long.  The brittleness may result from poor nutrition, stress or exposure to sunlight and the elements while tagging involves removal of all of the badly soiled fleece from the edges of the skirt and the breech.  Of 22  fleece we packed a total of 135 lbs of wool into the truck for delivery to the mill  (67.5 lbs of grey and 68 lbs of white).

Since husband John was going to Edmonton, Alberta for a conference and since the mill is in Alberta, we drove out together and enjoyed the beautiful scenery through our Rocky Mountains.  The trip to Edmonton took us three days.

John with the loaded truck somewhere in the Thompson River Valley.

Once in Edmonton I was grateful to meet a friend from the Salt Spring Weavers and Spinners Guild who also has a residence in that city.  Betty guided me through city traffic and we drove down to the mill together;  a further two and one half hours across the beautiful rolling Alberta countryside.   Since I forgot the map describing the location of the mill in Carstairs, it took some sleuthing and a trip to the local post office to determine the mill is actually located about ten miles out of town on one of the rural section roads.  We saw a beautiful fox on our drive through that part of the countryside.

Destination - Carstairs Custom Woolen Mill

I had not visited the mill before and was interested in seeing the process, particularly how they maintained the integrity of each clients batch and were able to provide assurance that the finished product was indeed the wool sent to them from our sheep on Salt Spring Island.  Betty and I were given a tour of the facility which employs at least eight people.  There are three carding machines as well as spinners, plying machines and other equipment that appears to keep at least two men busy with servicing and repairs.

One of the large carders at work.

The Spinniers.

The plying machine.

Carstairs also provides knitted socks which are produced on a vintage sock machine.  These wool socks are sent all over Canada and have been keeping prairie feet warm for many years.

The sock machine.

I was greatly reassured to see my bags of wool discretely stored in their own numbered stalls as well as numbered batches moving through the mill.  While unsuitable wool of too long a staple may be removed, or substituted if the batch is too small, good sorting and adequate poundage avoids any necessity to do this.  We did bring one small bag of grey wool home that I had set aside and the staple was confirmed as being too long for the spinners.  Much to my husbands amusement, although it traveled and was left in the open bed of the truck all the way home, no-one stole it.

 Stored bags of our grey wool waiting for processing.
 And the white.

Carstairs also has a store in which they offer both yarns and their products for sale.  We arrived in time to find staff taking a much needed break together outside the store.  The day was warm and it was very hot in the barn with all the machinery working.

Staff taking a break in the heat.

 Betty's prize.  A new weaving book.

On our return trip we stopped at a new mill in Innisfree to see their production process.  Exotic Fibers of Canada offer processing of Alpaca and wool and we were interested in comparing their work with the Carstairs mill.  The business is located in an industrial mall on the edge of town.  We entered at a lower level to find a young woman, not wearing a mask and who was dying in an enclosed room with no obvious ventilation.  She directed us upstairs to the office where a man was talking on the phone.  Although his back was toward us, he could not have been unaware that we were standing, waiting to see him.  After 15 minutes during which our presence remained unacknowledged, we left.  The mill equipment could be seen through an upstairs window and there was no evidence of it being used.  The carders were clean and there were no sacks of wool visible.  Perhaps they were stored elsewhere.  We were struck, not only with the  unwelcoming atmosphere but also the inactivity and the obvious lack of concern for employee health compared with the friendly greeting and obvious camaraderie at the Carstairs mill.  I left my card on the desk in an obvious place beside the fellow on the phone but have never received a follow up call or e-mail.

Exotic Fibres of Canada - not a welcoming place.

It will likely be three to six months before I see my spun yarn which the folks at the Carstairs mill will mail back to me.  Meanwhile I kept four brown/black fleece back for hand processing.  That is an interesting process worthy of it's own chapter.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Hannah's Sweater

Each year. Gulf Island Secondary School is host to international student from around the world.  The high school for the islands is located on Salt Spring and so the students are billeted with island families.  Some students do not survive the cultural shock as they transition from large, cosmopolitan centers to a rural environment which has no access to the conveniences of McDonald's or WalMart.  The only 'chain store' on the island just folded because of lack of customers.  In the wintertime, Salt Spring is home to about 10,000 residents. That number increases to 16,000 in the summer with the arrival of summer residents and tourists.

Hannah is a young woman of 16 years of age who came to the island from a large, urban center in Germany.  She was billeted with a member of the SSI Weavers and Spinners Guild on a small homestead on the island's south end. Her hostess also operates a weaving studio and so Hanna became intimately acquainted with fiber processing and decided she would like to take home a sweater knit with Salt Spring wool.  We worked together on the design and settled on a Cowichan style sweater with a maple leaf motif.

Sketches of Hannah's sweater.

Hannah settled on the shorter version on the right.  Three weeks later the sweater was ready, just in time for her return to Germany at the end of the school year in June.

Hannah's sweater

The maple leaf motif was a gift from the Cowichan knitters in their famous sweaters and has been used by several generations of knitters from Salish communities.

I asked Hannah what she would most miss about Salt Spring Island.  She said 'going shopping in her pajamas'.