Who doesn’t love a great sweater? We all have our favorites: a thick, cozy cardigan, a soft v-neck, a warm and snuggly turtleneck. Every sweater has a story. If, like me, your favorite sweater is made from a natural fiber like wool, mohair, cashmere or alpaca fiber, then that story starts with an animal. Whether hand knit, crocheted, woven, or machine stitched, natural materials aren’t created in a factory. They come from living, breathing, beautiful sheep, goats, and alpacas. The animal grows the fiber, a shearer shears it from their body (humanely; without any pain or suffering), the fiber is processed and spun into yarn, then the sweater is created from that yarn.
My favorite sweater is a thick, lush cardigan that I knit for myself from fiber that I spun from a sheep that I raised. Every sweater has a story and this is the story of my sweater. It starts with a lamb.
Raising the Sheep
Early on in our farming venture, I knew I wanted to raise fiber animals. I wanted very fine wool that was wearable and buttery soft. I also wanted a heritage breed sheep, so I chose the Romeldale. It is an American sheep breed in danger of extinction with all of the fiber qualities that I wanted. I did my research and found a breeder not too far from me and brokered a deal for a starter group of these amazing animals. My first herd consisted of 4 females and 1 male.
Five months after bringing them all home, Detroit was born. My first lamb! My beautiful boy! There have been numerous lambs since him, but he was my first. And he is my favorite. Even today, he runs across the pasture to greet me and I shower him with the affection of cheek scratches, ear rubs, and, yes, kisses on his lovely head.
Detroit, said with the French pronunciation “Day-twah,” grew fast and strong and was born with the beautiful CVM color pattern of his mother. As his wool grew in, I counted the days until it was long enough to shear. As with all animal-grown fiber, it needs a certain amount of time to reach the desirable length for yarn manufacturing. Usually, this length is between 3 and 5 inches and it takes most sheep one full year to grow that amount of fiber.
Shearing the Sheep
So the story of my sweater started when Detroit was born and then is put on pause for 365 days until he can grow wool long enough to harvest. The next step in the evolution of my sweater is shearing. Despite what you may have heard from a certain over-zealous animal rights organization, shearing, when done properly, is painless to the animal, provides them comfort, and takes very little time. Shearing does not hurt the animal. Shearing does not put the animal’s life in danger. When you care about your animals as much as most shepherds do, you wouldn’t do anything to put their lives in danger.
Though I do shear my own goats to harvest their mohair, my Romeldales are a bit too large for me to handle by myself. And for my Detroit, only the best would do. So I call in reinforcements. I hire professional shearers to come and carefully and expertly harvest the wool from my precious giant. Detroit’s haircut, after a full year of growing it out, takes less than 10 minutes and yields 8 whopping pounds of soft, fine wool!
Processing the Wool
After shearing, there are literally dozens and dozens of ways to process that raw wool into a usable material that prepares it to be spun into yarn. You can wash it, pick it, comb it, card it; make it into rolags, batts, top, or roving. For me, the least processed the better. I like to spin wool “in the grease,” which means unwashed. The grease that the phrase refers to is the natural lanolin that protects the wool from environmental damage. Lanolin, lanolin; now where have you heard that word before? Lanolin is often gleaned from wool and used in lotions, salves, and other moisturizing products used by humans. When you handle wool that has a high lanolin content, like Romeldale, this buttery “wool fat” quickly coats your hands and the result is soft, albeit somewhat greasy, hands. If you’re a wool-ophile like me, it feels amazing!
Although I prefer to spin “in the grease,” there are a few things that I do to prepare my wool for spinning. Once sheared, I skirt the fleece, which is to say I lay it out and remove any soiled or stained wool as well as any hay bits, leaves, chaff, burrs, or other vegetative matter that has made its way into the wool during the year that it was growing. Fortunately, my Detroit is a tidy boy and manages to keep his wool pretty clean. I also scour my wool before spinning it. Scouring is basically carefully rinsing the fleece in hot water without soap to remove some of the excess lanolin. Once skirted and scoured, my wool is ready to spin!
Spinning the Yarn
Handspinning, like wool processing, has many techniques, methods, and facets. You can make unlimited thicknesses, textures, and types of yarn on even more kinds of spinning wheels or spindles. For my Detroit fleece, I let the wool decide. I knew it was a fine wool, so as I began to spin it on my spinning wheel, the wool very comfortably spun quite fine. I decided I would spin a 3-ply yarn, which means 3 strands spun separately, then twisted, or “plied” together. A 3-ply yarn tends to have a good amount of squish and fluff to it and feels wonderful to be wrapped in. And I knew I wanted some texture to the sweater, so 3-ply is a great way to make design elements stand out.
So I spun and spun and spun and spun. I filled bobbin after bobbin and created skein after skein until I felt like I had enough for the sweater. All told, I spun about 18 THOUSAND feet of single thickness yarn. That’s almost 3 and a half miles of yarn! All of this length, once plied, resulted in just over 2,000 yards of yarn, which was about what was required by my chosen sweater pattern. It took me approximately 80 hours of spinning to produce that much yarn!
The yarn turned out lovely, if I do say so myself. It highlighted the softness of the wool as well as Detroit’s own subtle color variations of creams and browns. I opted not to dye my yarn because I really love the natural colors of it. Once spun, the yarn is all washed, set, and dried. Then it is ready to make a sweater.
As in every process of this evolution, one can produce a garment using many different techniques. The most common for a sweater are knitting, crochet, and weaving. I chose to knit my sweater. I purchased the lovely “My Everything” cardigan pattern from my favorite designer, Joji Locatelli, and set to work. Stitch after stitch, row after row, my sweater started to take on the size and shape of an actual sweater! Like magic, my yarn was becoming a garment. Hour after hour my sweater grew….
After several weeks of knitting, easily more than 100 hours, I completed my sweater! I only needed to add the finishing touches of washing and blocking, or shaping, and it would be ready to wear! Finally, the journey is completed!
From Sheep to Shawl
True love doesn’t feel as good as this sweater! It is soft and warm and thick and squishy and cozy and amazing! Every time I pick it up, I see my Detroit. And his mother. And his father and brothers and sisters.
I see my farm.
I feel home.
That is the story of my sweater. Do you have a sweater story?