Friday, June 13, 2014

Craigslist, sheep, and kindred spirits

I may have mentioned, I love fiber. 

It was a good thirty years between my first experience with knitting and my falling headlong into the world of fiber. In those thirty years, I spent a lot of effort on my education, my career, and more recently my family, but very little on fiber. Virtually no one in my circle of friends and acquaintances did fiber. On the off occasion that I knit a sweater, I was an oddity. My friends would squint and oooooo briefly, but in truth I rarely shared the information. I worked in a profession where time spent on hobbies really meant only one thing - time spent not working. Ugh.

When I finally threw in that particular professional towel, it was not entirely an accident that I came to the Midwest. I left Silicon Valley, where orchards and farms and backyard chickens were fading memories, and selected a job in a community where agriculture was still part of the culture. I wasn't thinking specifically fiber! or sheep! or even weaving!, but I was thinking cheap land! farms! animals! 

The vast majority of my California colleagues were aghast when I announced that I was leaving -- and for the Midwest no less. Most of us had spent our entire professional lives trying to get to California, not away from it. I only told one close friend that agriculture had any role at all in my decision. I didn't even tell my family. Instead I just reminded people how much a house in Silicon Valley cost and left it at that. 

Shortly after I resigned my job I got a call from a colleague on the East Coast offering me a position there. She'd apparently heard the news. 

No, I said. 

She couldn't quite believe me. 

I'm already committed, I said. 

Well, in a year or two, when you wake up in the Midwest one morning and wonder how you got there, call me, she said.


What does this have to do with craigslist you wonder? 

Well, it's now five years later and one morning this week I woke up -- still in the Midwest -- and I did not wonder how I came to be there. No, instead I did what I always do these days. I skimmed the farm ads on craigslist while I drank my coffee. And on this particular morning I spotted an ad for a flock of eighteen Black Welsh Mountain sheep. 

Black Welsh Mountain sheep! I said to myself, I gotta see those.  

So I contacted the guy. (Over the internet of course.)

He emailed me back. He was at work, but his wife was at home and could show me the sheep if I wanted. 

Absolutely, I said. 

I called the wife and arranged to visit that afternoon. They were an hour away on the other side of the city, but no matter, I was just thinking rare sheep for sale!

The farm was not what I expected. I've talked to a lot of sheep farmers around here lately and most of them are old-timers. This though was a gentleman's farm. The house was a restored pre-civil war mansion with some old barns and just a few acres parceled off from the surrounding area. It was lovely, lovely, lovely, but it hadn't been a working farm in a while. In fact, the husband worked at Chase. A finance guy. 

The wife was a little befuddled that her husband had volunteered her to show me the sheep. 

They're my husband's, I really don't do much with them.

I asked her if she and her husband came from farming families. 

Well, I did, but we only had a few cows. And maybe ducks. No sheep. 

As she walked me over to the field where she thought the sheep might be I asked her why they were selling the flock. She made some vague reply that ended with something that sounded like, We thought we'd try cows. 

The sheep were not in the field. She thought maybe the shed. As we approached the shed we found a tiny, inky black ewe lamb, maybe all of 4 lbs, stuck in the fence alongside the gate. It was bleating for its mother, who was nowhere to be seen. The wife picked it up. This one was a surprise. She's only a couple of days old. We lost another one just like this earlier this year. It got stuck in the fence too. I wondered how long this lamb would have been stuck if I hadn't arrived. 

We found the lamb's mother in the shed with the other sheep and reunited them. The lamb panted and its mother circled around it. The rest of the flock headed back to the field. 

Too late, I asked if any were friendly enough to catch. 

She didn't think so. 

I explained that I was really interested in the fiber and I needed to be able to touch them. 

I looked around and saw nothing but wide open space for the sheep to run. 

Do you have some grain? I asked.

No, I think we're out. 

How about a chute? I tried.

No, but she thought maybe she could close the gates and trap them in the field. In fact it turned out the field had openings that were not even gated. I wondered if this was the first time she'd noticed.

We followed the sheep out into the high grass. 

We traipsed around in circles for a while before I thought to ask about the fleeces. 

Have they been sheared this year? I tried.

Oh, sure.

And do you have any of the fleeces around? I pushed.

Oh, no. 

No? I repeated.

No, we threw them all away. 

I think I may have gasped.

Nobody was interested in them, so we had to throw them away. Nobody really wants the meat either. Everybody wants those big, white lambs. Though, we've eaten these and they're alright.

As I circled fruitlessly around, I noticed her texting on her phone. I assumed she was asking her husband for help. 

I changed tacks and asked about shots and general health issues.

I don't really know. You should talk to my husband. 

Well, what about registrations? Do you know who's related to whom? 

No, you really should talk to my husband.

This went on for a while longer. I asked questions. She denied any knowledge. Eventually, she turned to look at the house. 

Here come my daughters. My youngest loves the wool and I thought maybe she'd kept some. I texted her to bring it out. 

I saw a young girl, no more than 7 or 8, climbing over the fence with a dark wad in her hand. It was wool. She brought it to her mother.

She wants to see the fleece. Give it to her, her mother said. 

I told her to throw it away, but she ignored me. The wife said this to me in that conspiratorial way that mothers use to talk to each other. The one that really means, You know how it is. Kids don't listen to sense. 

She continued. Every year she hoards some. She just loves wool.

The little girl stretched out her hand and gave me the small, fuzzy mass. 

Thank you, I said. 

Finally, some sense, I thought. 

I spent several minutes talking to the little girl about the wool. She knew the sheep were special because of their color. She also knew that people made yarn from their wool, but she wasn't sure how. I pulled a lock out of the wad and drew the fibers long. I twisted them around with my fingers and doubled them over on themselves. I held out the loosely plied string in my palm and showed it to her. 

There. Yarn, I said. That's how it's done. 

She never took her eyes off of me. 

In the end, her mother made her give me her whole stash to help me decide whether I needed a Black Welsh Mountain sheep (or two or eighteen). The girl winced, but did not object too strongly to having her wool taken away. I am sure she has been roundly informed that her fascination with the wool is silly. Maybe she'll grow up to be a financier like her father. Maybe she'll end up in Silicon Valley in a high stress job, without a sheep in sight. Maybe she'll love that life. But right now, as a child, she's a kindred spirit. A lover of fiber. 

As for this flock of rare, somewhat endangered, sheep? They were healthy, I'm pretty confident, though I never actually caught one to inspect up close. I don't think people are lining up to buy them. I do fear they will end up butchered for meat. I've spoken to the husband who is willing to negotiate a very low price for the flock, but we all know even a free animal is not really free and eighteen sheep, even little ones, is a lot of sheep.  I did bring the wool home and spun it. It was neither fine nor super coarse, though who knows which part of the fleece I got. It was also a little crispy which makes me wonder how much nicer it might be with fleece-specific management. 

I'm still thinking about whether I need a couple (or all) of them. 


  1. Sometimes, you've just gotta go with your heart ..... get my drift?

    1. Oh no, another enabler. ;) When the property taxes price me and my sheep out of the Midwest, I will move to Tennessee and you can teach me how to milk my Pygoras and make soap. Can you make soap from sheep milk?

  2. OK, kindred spirit, I retired from Silicon Valley, came to HOT, HOT, Fresno County to visit my daughter one weekend and bought 20 acres of flat land after living in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 32 years (real close to the epicenter of the 89 earthquake).

    1. I miss a lot of things about California, but earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts are not among them. :)

  3. THIS is a story well written, well shared.
    I think I may have been that little girl at one time...
    I have a hunch she will grow up to 'do fibre'....and remember the kind lady who showed her what could become of a little piece of secret special fleece.

  4. Omigosh, what a story! I would be so tempted to take the whole lot. And I'm not even into sheep. Or fleece. Or fiber as you are. What a story! As MarmePurl said, well written, well shared.

  5. You are made of sturdier stuff than I. I would have tucked all 18 into my car and put plenty of miles between those nimrods and their poor sheep. And I would have tucked the daughter in, too. Hmm. I wonder how far you are from me...hmmm.

    1. Hahaha Susan. You never know. There may be a few Black Welsh sheep available to select fiber homes only before too long.

  6. Wow, what a story! I'd just go get all of them and figure out what to do next ;-).