Have Ewe Any Wool?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Solitude Farm

What a fabulous evening! Gretchen and Sue of Solitude presented an awesome program that was both educational and inspiring to a combined meeting of the Purls of Distinction knitting guild my church's stitchery group at Holy Cross Lutheran Church on March 25th. They brought TONS of yarn, patterns, and samples...and of course provided us with lots of information and background on the various types of wool they use in their yarns.

Gretchen and Sue are Shepherds, hand spinners, and knitters. They purchase wool from several groups of local farmers. These are generally small farms, all of which produce great wool. One of the main focuses of their business is to highlight and promote the local sheep and farms and create a market for the fine yarns that can be produced from these fabulous wools.

Gretchen and Sue's wealth of knowledge about the various breeds was amazing. I love learning about the various sheep, the type of wool they produce, and the type of projects that are best suited for their wool. The part that I find most amazing is that the wool for all of the yarns come from locally raised wool. How cool is that? Just a few miles away is a virtual "supermarket" of woolly goodness!

Of course, as a general fiberholic and knitter, I took copious notes during their presentation and hope to share some of the knowledge I gained by presenting it here.

Seeking Out the Fleece....
On shearing day, they go out to the individual farms to examine and inspect the fleeces. They check several things about the fleece, including the following:
  1. color
  2. staple length
  3. the amount of vm (vegetable matter)
  4. strength of the locks
  5. checking locks for breaks
  6. luster
  7. crimp
  8. amount of second cuts
Fleece Purchase and Wool Preparation
Once they've determined that the wool is up to the quality and type that they need, the fleeces are purchased. Sue then washes each fleece by hand. This process is continual and she tends to have many large buckets of wool being washed or several pounds laid out to dry year round. The cleaned wool is then labeled (where it came from and the type of breed) and once they have enough for a batch, it's sent off to be spun into yarn at a fiber mill. All the batches are small - generally between 70 and 200 lbs. of washed wool.

After the Mill
Once the wool has been spun into yarn, Gretchen begins her magic - the dyeing process. She has a fabulous eye for color, and I definitely consider her a "Master Dyer". Not all the yarn is dyed - she does leave some in natural colors. She can dye a maximum of 4 lbs. of yarn at a time - approximately 16 skeins. These limited quantities make it very important that you select all the yarn you'll need for your project at that time. It also makes the yarn unique - no two dye lots will be exactly alike!

The labels have been a work in progress as the business has grown. The current labels contain a wealth of information that was not included just a couple of years ago. They not only indicate the usual (weight, yardage, recommended needle size, and gauge), but they're also include information about the wool itself - the breed(s), the characteristics, as well as the name of the farm(s) the wool came from. They've even added a list of projects that the yarn is best suited for.

Spinning Definitions
Woolen spun - carded, fibers go all over. This yarn is loftier and warmer.
Worsted spun - all the fibers are parallel

About the Yarns - based on the Breeds
Suffolk and Dorset blend - The Suffolk sheep have black faces and white wool. When they're born, they're all black. The Dorset is short. The yarn created from the blend of these is lofty and springy. This yarn is a 3 ply blended with nylon - the perfect sock yarn.

Romney - These sheep produce a lustrous long wool. Typically, they have to be shorn every 9 month. This wool is stronger and a bit wider in diameter and has an "S" shaped crimp. The longwools, like the Romney, need less twist and therefore produce a soft yarn. There are two natural colors - a blend of the whites and a blend of the greys. Projects made with Romney have a beautiful drape. When Gretchen dyes the white, she gets a lustrous yarn with very bright colors. When she dyes the greys, the resultant yarn has more of a heathered look.

Icelandic - The Icelandic sheep have a double coated fleece. The sheep are short and stocky with square faces. Generally, they're sheared twice a year. Gretchen and Sue generally buy the fall shearing. The yarn itself is crafted with both the long and short fibers spun together.

Border Leicester and Leicester Longwools - These are like the sheep in the movie, "Babe". Both the Border Leicester and the Leicester Longwools have lustrous wool but the sheep look very different. Of course, I think both breeds are very cute. The yarns made with a combination of these wools were either left natural or dyed with natural dyes - such as Black Walnut (which is light-fast), Logwood, and Brazilwood, just to name a few. The beauty with natural dyed wool is that if it does fade, it fades true to color.

Clun Forest - The Clun Forest sheep are cute little sheep with ears that stick straight up. These sheep are a meat bread, but they have very soft and spongy wool as well. The yarns they offer are blended with about 20% alpaca and are great for baby items.

Corriedale - These are a medium wool sheep. The Corriedale is a full range wool suitable for many projects. It's spongy and VERY crimpy - ideal for a Fisherman's Sweater! This is in sharp contrast to the Icelandic that has almost no crimp. The crimp gives wool it's memory.

Tunis - These sheep are red when they're born. As the mature, their wool changes to white, though their faces and legs will remain red. These are sheared once a year. The Tunis sheep used to roam the White House lawn back in the day. The yarns that Gretchen and Sue have crafted are blended with some red alpaca for color.

Tunis Romney Cross - One of the yarns they offered is a cross-breed of Tunis and Romney. The yarn knits well, but may be a bit on the scratchy side....probably more suited for outerwear or a vest.

Karakul - The Karakul are a wonderful felting wool and comes in a variety of natural colors - including grey, white, and black. The lambs are born black and curly and the majority of the black comes from the lambs. The wool is double coated and is a bit hairy and scratchy. It does not have much elasticity on its own. The yarn is a bit coarse, but perfectly suited for rugs and felting.

Merino Silk blend - The final yarn was made from a blend of the ultra soft Merino wool and silk. The yarns from this are 3 ply. when they plyed three different shades of grey and then overdyed, it produced some wonderful marled colorways.

I took a couple of shots of the table to try to give you an idea of the variety of yarn types and colors that were available.

I did my bit to stimulate the local economy...I purchased MORE than my share of these fabulous yarns. I don't have any specific plans for most of my purchases, but I do have a few definite projects in mind:
  • Icelandic - a knitted cap with the Solitude Pattern OR perhaps a cardigan from Japanese Inspired Knits.
  • Corriedale - I purchased the hat kit....purple hat with a white band.
  • Border Leicester/Leicester Longwools in natural dyed colors - an interesting wrap of some sort.


  • At 9:04 AM, Blogger Lizardknits said…

    Oh how I wish I could have been there!

  • At 10:13 AM, Blogger Jinann said…

    I know it's not the same as being there, but hopefully I was able to convey the educational part of the presentation so you at least get some info on the breeds, characteristics of the yarn, and what that type of yarn is good for.

  • At 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Very informative post, thank you!


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