Getting fleeced

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2007 - 5:25 PM

In many crafts, one thing leads to another. A growing number of knitters now are able to trace their sweaters back to a specific sheep.

The Little Red Hen made bread by first planting her own wheat. So maybe the growing number of knitters who begin sheep-first isn't all that odd.

Just a teensy bit obsessive.

Sarah Rose cheerfully cops to that. She knows there are Internet sites where you can order clean, combed wool ready for spinning, and yes, actual stores where actual yarn is sold. "There's really no reason to go through the whole process," she said, picking a suggestion of dung from a cloud of fleece.

Hand-spinning is growing in popularity, especially among young people, said Natasha Thoreson of the Minnesota Weavers Guild (www.weaversguildmn. com) in Minneapolis. "We have quite a few members who start with the sheep," she said, but most take advantage of the sheep farms that also sell cleaned wool, as well as a growing number of yarn shops that now sell roving -- bundles of wool that's been washed clean of lanolin and combed smooth, ready for spinning.

Thoreson said the guild can't offer enough spinning classes to meet the demand. In addition, two weaving groups meet monthly to spin together.

A good resource for farms and shops is the Shepherd's Harvest Sheep and Wool Festival, held each Mother's Day weekend at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Lake Elmo. On its website, www., is a list of regional businesses that sell wool and supplies.

Among them are Tom and Judy McDowell, who own Misty Meadow Icelandics in Minnetrista (www.mistymeadowicelandics .com). They call themselves shepherds, which is accurate as well as a marvelous icebreaker at parties, said Tom McDowell, whose day job is with the Three Rivers Park District.

Because the wool of their 22 Icelandic ewes grows to "prodigious lengths," he said, they can shear in both spring and fall. Providing fleeces to individuals constitutes most of their business.

At Misty Meadow, spinners come with a range of desires. "Some want to be there when the fleece comes off," while others buy the washed roving. "Others like to 'spin it in the grease,'" McDowell said, turning fleece into yarn without washing it. Clearly, as with many crafts, this one comes with its own arcane language.

Rose, who lives in Edina, had long desired a spinning wheel, "so finally, for a combination birthday-Mother's Day-anniversary gift, I got one." But she had to ask herself: "How can you have a spinning wheel and not know how to use it?"

With a bit of the Little Red Hen about her, Rose taught herself by reading books and browsing Internet blogs. "But one thing leads to another," she said.

She decided she needed a sheep, which brought her to the Shepherd's Harvest Sheep and Wool Festival. Last year's fest led Rose to Carley, a sheep with brown wool. This fall, she found Misty Meadow Icelandics and a white sheep named Ice.

On a recent Saturday morning, Ice was relieved of her coat, and Rose went home with 3 pounds of wool. The unwieldy bundle looks like more than it sounds, just as 3 pounds of marshmallows take up more space than 3 pounds of nails. Over the course of several weeks of preparation, Rose lays her hands on literally every strand of wool.

Beware of agitation

After skirting, or picking clean the fleece over an old screen door in her back yard, she begins washing it. Gently tucking small portions in mesh bags, she places them in her washing machine filled with hot water and Dawn detergent, submerging them with a bathroom plunger. It's a delicate, pivotal part of the process because hot, wet, agitated wool can easily clump together into a tight felt. If that happens, it's game over.

For the sake of family harmony, Rose tries to get the washing done as quickly as she can because the wool does throw off a funky odor. "But I like the house to smell like a barn for a couple of days," she said. "I tell my kids that the world doesn't smell like Abercrombie."

After that, it's a methodical process of carding the wool by combing it, handful by handful, between two "cards" covered with wire teeth, or using a hand-cranked drum carder.

Rose loves the dyeing process and uses a crockpot -- not the stew pot, but "a second one," she stressed -- to mix wool, heat and dye.

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    Monday November 5, 2007

    Some of Sarah Rose's favorite resources:• Alden Amos is widely considered a spinning guru, and his "Big Book of Handspinning"...

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