Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Born still

A couple of weeks ago, Clementine, the Lincoln ewe, had a bad case of the runs that I couldn't get under control, so I took her in to the vet school for help.

While we there, they did an ultrasound. I was sure she was bred.

I was wrong.

Despite living continuously with Johnny Blue, the Lincoln ram, for a good 18 months, she was definitely not pregnant. And for that matter, Emily and Devon, the two Icelandics, have lived with Johnny since last January, and neither of them have reproduced. And even though Johnny has had uninterrupted access to all the Black Welsh ewes since July, I noted over and over how many of them continued to cycle right through the fall.

All of which is to say, I'd sort of given up on Johnny Blue's chances of being a dad. And since macho man Jed, the Black Welsh herdsire, has been sequestered since shortly after doing the tango with Bo Sheep way back in August (resulting in Jack and Jill), I'd allowed myself to relax and start to believe that we were having no more lambs this season.




Maggie, one of the Black Welsh ewes gave birth to a little ram this afternoon. He was already gone by the time I walked in on this ridiculously cold day, though I think I didn't miss his arrival by much. He lay on the ground outside under the shed roof, where the Black Welsh ewes like to sit and watch the world. His umbilical cord and amniotic sac were still attached. It looked like Maggie had just walked away. Since she's an experienced mom, with three daughters in the flock (Jezebel, little Jethro's mom, and last year's twins, Loretta and Dolly), I'm guessing he was born still. Maggie seems to be ok -- eating, drinking, chewing her cud, and surrounded by her girls. I'll keep an eye on her for a few days all the same.

I don't know that there's anything I could have done if I'd been there, but I still feel badly.

I discovered two more ewes with prepped and primed udders -- Welsh Bo and Eve. Eve is one of the ones I thought I'd seen cycle repeatedly. Wrong again I guess.

At night check just now, Bo was hanging off in a corner by herself, so she may ready to go. Thankfully, it's not supposed to be quite as cold tonight as last.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Steaming behemoth

The temps fell to eighteen below zero (F) last night and I did not explode or shatter into a million pieces.

Score one for me.

I did worry about the animals who had to spend the entire night outside in it though. So, when I entered the sheep barn this morning, I was a little concerned to see Jed, the daddy of Jack and Jill, lying as still as a stone in his pen.

First of all, I rarely see Jed lying down. He is always on his feet when I walk in. And secondly, he is never quiet in the mornings. He wants his food and he wants it now. Ram that he is, he usually communicates this by slamming his head into whatever hard surface is at hand. Repeatedly. I've gotten used to it so I hardly notice anymore.

But I did notice its absence.

At first I couldn't tell if the steam coming off him was from his body or his breath. Both I guess.

He is such a grizzly, gnarled, old behemoth.

And, um, notice the hammer I put down when I pulled out my phone is so innocently lying on top of the water. Yeah, Jed's little bucket froze clear through overnight despite my filling it with heated water at night check. There's a special place in hell for little buckets. Jed drinks so little though, that a large bucket would still freeze AND be too heavy for me to lift over the door. Sigh.

In the end, I think he was just enjoying the spot of sunlight streaming through the open window.

Marthajones, caprine troublemaker extraordinaire, who shouldn't have been anywhere near Jed's pen, was enjoying a spot of Jed.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Weekend wrap up

One might think that with all the super cold weather, there'd be a surplus of time holed up indoors and therefore more time to spin or weave or knit or whatever.

Yeah, well, one might be mistaken.

If you've got outdoor critters in this weather, you end up outdoors -- in this super cold weather -- for even longer than usual. Cause everything takes twice as long, you know, when you're slogging through snow and breaking through ice. Frozen doors don't just free themselves after all. And don't even get me started on frozen clasps. You know, the ones down at ground level that hold the frozen buckets; the ones that you have to get down on your knees, to cup your hand around, so you can blow on them with your slightly warmer breath, long enough to get them to release so that you can lift out said frozen bucket, so that you can take it in the house to thaw. The house that is now 500 feet away through ridiculously deep snow. Those clasps.

But I digress.

I did weave some this week, just long enough to screw up, not one project, but two. Nothing fatal, I hope, but I can't help but shake my head.

First, after two missed weeks due to car troubles and bad weather, I finally made it to the weaving studio Thursday afternoon. Last time I was there, I had just finished measuring out an alpaca/silk warp for a couple of scarves, but I didn't get farther than that.

This week, I had to keep it short -- just 2 hours -- so that I could get home and start barn chores early.

I got right to work. It helped that none of my buddies were there, so I wasn't distracted. That's right, I was ON.TASK. Good for me. Worked straight through the winding up. This was only my 3rd or 4th warp on a floor loom and the first I managed alone. I didn't have to ask anybody, What do I do next? How do I attach this? Does this go this way or that way? Where does this piece go again? I was proud of myself. And the warp was so, so lovely.

I got it entirely wound on to the back of the loom just as my 2 hours ran out.  No tangling, no skewing, no miscounting. Yep, it was beautiful and I was on a roll. I even remembered to take some pictures.

It took me 24 hours to realize what I'd done wrong. Any weavers out there see it? I have to admit this is the third time I've made this particular mistake. I've got some kind of learning block for this detail.

I forgot to interleave layers of paper with the layers of thread as they wrapped onto the beam. This means, if left unfixed, that the threads will tangle, snag, and come off unevenly as I unwind during the actual weaving. I will be left with no recourse except to shoot myself.

Don't ask me how I know.

Fortunately, I caught this before I started threading the heddles.

So, next week, before I move on to the next step, I will back up and oh-so-carefully unwind the entire 6 yards of threads, slip some paper in, and rewind. Hopefully, I won't destroy the entire organization of the threads in the process. God help me.

The other project I worked on was my horse hair coin purse. This deserves its own post, truly. I feel like I'm reinventing the wheel here and I'd kind of like to write it all down -- if only for my own amusement somewhere down the line.

In the meantime, here are some pictures and some of the twists and turns of the progress.

The purse frame is about 4 inches across. The horse hair (from Licorice's tail) is tied on like a warp. The idea for this method came from a technique called twining. I tied on with an upholstery needle. Well, two actually and broke both of them. Oy. The beads are just to embellish the point of attachment.

Here's the first attempt to twine with a thread of black linen. It was obvious immediately that the hairs are not stiff enough to simply twine the linen through by hand. They fly about and go EVERY.WHICH.WAY.  Oy.

I needed tension.

I tried a couple of things to get tension on the hairs. Almost convinced myself to buy a bead loom to do it, when I remembered I already own a small rigid heddle loom that's got beams at both ends that can be cranked tight. If I could just figure out how to tie the hairs on I thought that might work. I still wasn't thinking weaving, so much as twining. 

After several false starts, I got it all tied on, when I decided that even then, the hairs were too fine and wispy to easily thread the linen through with just a needle.

It doesn't help that my lighting is terrible and my eyes are old and cranky.

So, finally I decided that as long as I was using the rigid heddle loom, I might as well use the rigid heddle. That way at least I could open up a shed (pick up alternating hairs) without needing to see them perfectly clearly. (The heddles are the things that lift the alternating warp threads in the loom so that you can pass the side-to-side weft thread through. You get different patterns in the fabric, by alternating different heddles. The fact that this particular loom is a rigid heddle loom doesn't matter, except to say that it's a very simple device, which I chose, because it's a very simple device. Oy.)

Anyway, I did eventually manage to untie and retie after threading the horse hair through the rigid heddle. It wasn't as hard as I'd expected. By this point, I was no longer thinking twining. I was thinking full on weaving. 

Yet, again, weavers out there notice anything wrong?

As I finished threading the heddle, I realized that I'd tied the purse frame onto the wrong beam if I wanted to actually use the heddle.


Tying it on the loom backwards, means, well, let's just say it's awkward. I'm now stuck with weaving behind the reed instead of in front of it.

Oy again.

I'm not even sure what the full consequences of that will be, but I'm still plowing full steam ahead. The rigid heddle can move relatively freely forwards and backwards (hmmm, it's not rigid in that sense), so my reasoning (apart from baldfaced denial and laziness) is that I really only have to weave about 3-4 inches of fabric and I've already invested HOURS of time getting to this point.

So, I'm going to run with it. At the very least, I'm bound to learn something else new about how these things work and what not to do when working with horse hair. :)

And that was how I spent my time indoors this very, very, cold and snowy week of February.

Oy. :)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


You know that feeling of queasy fear you get as you crest the top of a roller coaster and brace yourself for the long plunge into certain destruction?

Well, we crested the peak at 19 degrees late this afternoon. As the sun set, my anxiety rose.

We've just begun the plunge to -13 F.

I've never experienced a temperature that low before.

I know a lot of people live in places much colder and survive to tell the tale, but I honestly don't know how they do it.

For me it might as well be the cold black vacuum of outer space.

I can not imagine how my world will survive the impact. Won't it explode? Or implode? Won't it shatter into a million tiny splinters of ice and debris? Surely there is no sustainable life at -13?

If you don't hear from me in a few days, just look up. I'll be that cloud of cosmic dust drifting aimlessly in space.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Last week's wrap up

Later and later I know. Let's just blame the weather shall we? Feels like I didn't do much last week except deal with cold and snow and ice or prepare to deal with cold and snow and ice. We're still looking at another week of solid freeze and endless toting of hot water buckets and hay.

On the fiber front I continued to weave off my linen warp with the silk left over from another project. I'm nearly done so maybe I'll get it off the loom and take some pictures of it this week.

I also washed two Pygora fleeces in a new wool shampoo I'm experimenting with. The fleeces are lovely, but I'm not yet convinced about the shampoo. I may have to give them one more wash. Both fleeces -- Rosetyler and Donnanoble -- unfortunately, have a lot of guard hairs. They are both classified as type B in the Pygora world, but I think they are on the very fine side of B. The new fleece that Donnanoble is growing right now even looks like a C to me - almost no curl at all, just very soft cashmere. In any case, the guard hairs mean they will have to be dehaired. I'm thinking about the best way to do that. Lock by lock would work, but is a little too daunting if there's some other faster method out there.


Rosetyler. This color seems a little too creamy. She's more grey I think.
Rosetyler washed


Donnanoble washed

The box of Clementine's messy lamb fleece still looks every bit as full as when I started working on it awhile ago. I haven't weighed it, but the whole box of washed curls is probably 5 pounds. Because the curls aren't in the best condition -- cotted and full of gunk -- I lose about half of it to waste. It's such a slow process. I've only managed to produce about 2 oz of clean locks in the past week or two. One lock at a time. The major change in my strategy is to try to finish all the combing before doing any more spinning. This is hard for me. :)  It's like being given a really delicious piece of candy and then being told to wait to eat it...indefinitely. Oy.

Finally, my coin purse/ wallet hardware arrived for the next iteration of the horse hair project. I've only just started tying the horse hair onto the smaller coin purse frame. I didn't take any pictures, but it looks promising. The other change I made in this project was to set aside the mane hair for the time being and use tail hair. Yes, poor Licorice, our little black and white paint pony, donated a chunk of tail fibers. He was not certain if he was on board with the plan or not, but he complied. For my part, I can say the tail hairs are definitely easier to work with. Though they're no picnic either. Pictures of this next week.

Now, it's time to get back to thawing water buckets.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The taxman

I've been thinking about numbers a lot lately. Specific numbers. Sobering numbers.

The worst of these numbers is 18,939.

That's the number of dollars I just gave my county government in return for the privilege of owning the real estate on which this fledgling farmstead is located. It would not be unreasonable to assume that this already cumbersome number will only get larger and more awkward in the future.

There a lot of reasons for the size of this number. It's based on residential rates in a rich school district for one thing, in a state with notoriously high property taxes. We moved here, instead of further out into the rural areas, mostly because of the schools. The teenager still needs a good education after all, no matter what craziness I get up to. That was non-negotiable.

I looked into getting agricultural assessments for the land, but even that would only lower the total a small fraction. We can blame the corn market for that.

It's sobering because, well, to put it mildly -- it all but precludes the possibility of quitting my day job.

The way I figure it, even if I were to pay off every dime of mortgage debt, grow every morsel of food that passed our lips or scrap of hay eaten by any animal on the place; even if I and the teenager were perpetually healthy and without the need for doctors or medicine; even if I forwent every form of insurance typically carried -- health, home, farm, car; even if I had no other expenses, I can't eliminate property tax. So any plan for downsizing the job, has to, at bare minimum, provide for enough income to pay the property tax.

In principle that shouldn't be a problem right? After all, farming is supposed to be an occupation, meaning it's supposed to be a way to make enough money to live on. Um, yeah, not this kind of farming apparently. Not here. Not in this state and this school district. No farmer's kids allowed in our district apparently. Not that the teenager really wants to be a farmer's kid. ;)

I know this isn't news to most people, but I wanted to do the actual math, so I could see just how big a gap I'm dealing with. I figured out how much of a variety of different possible farm products I would have to sell in order to cover the property taxes, before we even eat.

Um, like I said, impossible.

If I consider just Lincoln Longwool fiber, it would take 4735 ounces of curly locks a year at $4/oz to pay the taxman. That's 296 lbs, or 49 fleeces assuming each is 6 lbs after washing. That's 25 sheep sheared twiced each year. Just for the taxman. I have 2 Lincolns. Love 'em to death, but there's no way I could keep 25 on this little piece of land on top of everything else. And even if I had 25, I'm skeptical that there's a ready market for 4735 ounces of curls year in and year out. Hmmm. What about selling the fleeces in bulk? Say $20/lb for raw fleeces? Well, that's 60 sheep for the taxman. $10/lb? 120 lovely Lincolns. Oh, I'd be heaven in alright. Cause I'd be dead from the effort.

Bluefaced Leicesters have the same logic, except that they produce lighter fleeces, by about a half or maybe even a third. So multiply the number of sheep needed to feed the taxman by at least 2, maybe 3.

Now, the goats - the fancy Pygora fiber goats - have fleeces that go for more like $10-12 oz. That sounds much better, until you realize that they produce even less fiber than the BFL's and it has to be dehaired. That's expensive. Twenty-five goats sheared twice a year might pay the bill if I could process it myself. But then again, like the sheep, twenty-five goats is a lot of goats. There'd be no time or land left to feed ourselves.

Other possibilities?

Well, how about eggs? I love my chickens after all. I could sell the eggs by the dozen. Fancy, colorful, farm-raised, cage-free eggs -  $3/doz. That's only 6313 dozen a year! That's only 75,757 eggs a year. A mere 207 eggs a day. Right. That, my friends, is about 400-450 birds, if you assume each lays 150-200 eggs a year -- and never eats anything themselves. That's a lot of hungry birds for the taxman.


Nope. No kill.

Breeding to sell to other fiber farms?

Rather not go there.

Value-added products would help, but they increase the workload as well. And believe me, if we had to rely on my spinning abilities to avoid the workhouse, we'd be out of luck pretty darn quick.

Grow corn or soy? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em?

Hmmm. That might not be so bad, but I hear the machinery alone costs 100,000's of dollars.

I could get a part-time job doing something less disagreeable than my current day job. For the taxman. Let's see, at the current state minimum wage of $8.10/hr, I'd only have to work 2368 hours. But wait, that's 14 months full time. I'd be paying for last year, while the new year's bill racked up. Plus, that's full time. Might as well keep the current job, which pays a little better.


So, what's a wannabe farmer to do?

Only one option as far as I can tell.

Gonna have to move again.

After the teenager finishes school of course.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Weekend wrap up

Do you ever find yourself with a little extra downtime and wonder where it came from?

That happened to me today.


But you know what?

It was all in my head.

There was no free time, I just forgot half the things I was supposed to do today.

Including my fiber wrap up.

I did a lot this week, but I'm gonna cruise through it, cause I still have to go do my night barn check and I'm already sleepy. :)

1.  On behalf of ideas hatched but untested, I did some blending -- half super soft Bluefaced Leicester lamb wool from Caterpillar and half even softer and super lustery Pygora fiber from Amelia the goat. I've never done any serious blending before and don't really have the tools for it, but I made do with hand cards.

The locks - Amelia's Pygora locks on the left and Caterpillar's BFL locks on the right.

On the cards.

The blended locks. I didn't try to make a continuous ribbon of top or roving or whatever. I just stuck with the locks as they came off the cards.

On the wheel.

Before washing. Oh geez. My spinning sucks. :(

After washing. Better. I got about 100 yards of single ply from 1 ounce of the carded fiber. It's not as shiny as I expected it too be and I'm still trying to understand why.  (Shrug)  I'm sure it will make a lovely soft scarf regardless.

2. On Wednesday I got a call that the Weaver's Guild wanted their spinning wheel back. Apparently 6 months (or was it a year?) was long enough and somebody else wanted to borrow it. Phfft. So with a Saturday deadline for returning the wheel, I decided to spend more time just practicing my spinning. I had a bunch of commercial roving sitting around unused that got sacrificed for this purpose. I won't go into the painful details (oy), but suffice it to say that if I want to spin decently on a wheel, I'm gonna be needing more practice. A whole lotta practice.

3.  The Guild wanted their table loom back as well! Sheesh. ;)  This was more concerning than the wheel. I put a nice linen warp on the loom back before Thanksgiving to work on horsehair pieces, but have made little progress on that, cause the horse hair is just SUCH A PAIN TO WORK WITH. (There, I said it.) Anyway, I tried, half-heartedly to get the horsehair going, but decided pretty quickly that I would never be able to weave off the entire 4 yards in any reasonable amount of time THAT WAY. So rather than lose the warp altogether, I switched gears and used other, faster wefts.

Linen on linen.

A bit of unspun Icelandic tog that I REALLY liked. I'll probably try to do more of that.

And silk.

I gave the wheel back to the Guild yesterday. I'm keeping the loom for another week or two until I finish the warp. It sure looks like I need to go equipment shopping. :)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Weekend wrap up


I managed not to post a single word since my last wrap up. 

Well, what can I say? It was a hard, fast-paced week. 

I did manage more fiber work than blog posting, so here goes. 

Late in the evenings, I spun a bit more of Clementine's lamb fleece. I see a pattern developing. I like to listen to audiobooks while I spin. Together, the book and the spinning are relaxing in a very indulgent sort of way. Almost as good as eating junk food. This makes it a go-to activity if I'm still awake at the end of the day, after the teenager goes to bed. I've only done a little every day, but it starts to add up and my comfort with the wheel gets a little greater each time. This is all good.

At the weaving studio, on my regular Thursday afternoon visit, I began a new warp for a new project. This time around I decided to go back to scarves. I snagged a nice little four harness loom that I used once before and enjoyed. I chose a pattern based on Atwater-Bronson lace and got the warp entirely measured out. The fiber is an off-white lace weight alpaca silk. When I pulled the warp off the warping board and felt it loose in my hand for the first time, my heart went pitter pat. :) That's as far as I got this week. I'll start winding it onto the loom next week. I may also start a similar warp at home, because, did I mention, the feel of the yarn made my heart skip a beat.

My last fibery bit of work was playing around with an idea still in the embryonic stage.

I came across something this week called twining and it struck me that I might be able to make my longed for horse hair wallet this way.

This is the well-worn wallet that I am trying to replace -- hopefully before the seams completely come apart or any more of the stone tiles crack. I bought this at a Whole Foods store about 10 years ago. It has been an absolute workhorse of a wallet and I'd like to retire it before I completely destroy it, but I need something equally unique, charming and sturdy to replace it. If I can use horse hair, all the better. 

I did some beta-testing, so to speak, with baling twine. I'll share the pictures, but you have to keep in mind that this was really just for the purpose of seeing whether I could get the mechanics to work before I try to do it with horse hair. See, I'm learning to do swatches. ;)

I started by tying individual pieces of twine to a cheap plastic yogurt lid. This gave the structure enough support and shape to work with. The pieces tied to the lid are like the warp on a loom, except there's no tension, because their ends aren't tied to anything.

Next I wove a separate piece of twine through the warp pieces, sort of like basketweaving I guess. It's upside down in this picture. The yogurt lid is resting on the table.

When it was long enough, I closed the circlular form at the bottom by weaving the two sides together. This was awkward with such heavy twine, but it proved that it could be done.

Next, I cut away the yogurt lid and threaded a placeholder ribbon through the loops to keep it from unraveling. 

Finally, I turned the whole thing inside out to reveal a woven pouch.


The details need a lot of work, but I was satisfied enough with the result that I ordered some hardware off etsy to try it out for real. Well, maybe with some yarn anyway. 

Beaded silk clutch anybody? 

And that's what I worked on, when I wasn't at work, doing chores, shuttling the teenager around, or sitting with animals at the vet. Yes, not one but two vet emergencies this week. Both ended well, even if expensively, so no worries there. If I have time, I'll post something about that later.