To Everything There is a Season (and a scope)

10/24/19, 11:30 AM

By: Julie Rockefeller

In June of 2017, Diane and I decided to combine our energy, expertise, and experience to form Kortright Handworks @ La Basse Cour. My impetus at that time was simple and straightforward: I wanted to knit with wool from sheep that I knew.  

The intervening 28 months have been busy and educational. I am grateful for Diane and Larry's willingness to have me working alongside them on their farm.

One of the most important lessons, it seems to me, about raising fiber animals and producing finished goods from their fiber -- aka "Field to Fiber to Finished Goods" -  is relaxing into the natural rhythm of the process.  And a big part of being able to settle into that rhythm is identifying the proper scale at which to operate. 

The first year, we focfleece cleaning.jpgused on learning what it would take to get the existing fleeces ready to go a mill to be processed (washed, carded, spun), and identifying a mill that we were comfortable working with.

That mill turned out to be Battenkill Fibers in Greenwich, NY. We took a field trip to visit the mill, worked on getting the fleeces skirted and picked, delivered them to the mill, picked them up again, did the final washing, put them up into hanks and tagged them for sale. (We also designed a logo and tags for yarn and finished goods, and worked up gauge swatches.)

By May of 2018, we had 3 natural colors of 2 ply DK yarn put up into 100 gram skeins. The biggest take away for me from those first months was the fact that even with a relatively small flock of sheep, the yarn produced from a single year's shearing was more than I would be able to hand knit in a lifetime. It was immediately clear to me that we needed to sell yarn for others to use, and that we needed to explore other ways of producing finished goods with the yarn that we made. Otherwise we would wind up with a barn full of unprocessed fleece and/or a studio full of unworked yarn. 

2018, then, was devoted then to learning about the various ways of adding color to the fiber in order to make it more desirable to customers (and to give me colors to knit with). We settled on natural botanical dyeing, using materials foraged from local fields, gardens, and kitchens. The next several months were spent learning that process, acquiring necessary supplies, collecting & growing dyestuff, experimenting with various methods, developing a system for keeping track of our results, conducting a few experiments, and planting a little dye garden on the farm We did not take any additional fleeces to the mill in 2018.

In 2019 we began dyeing in earnest, with good success, and we began to have more sales Having the colored yarns helps to sell the natural colors as well, and adding them into my knitting was another way to call attention to the whole "story" that we want to demonstrate with our work.

We also began to weave with our yarns on a 16" Ashford rigid heddle loom acquired from CeCe's Wool in Guilderland, NY. Making up some samples for weavers to see and feel created another market for yarns in addition to those who knit and crochet.

Busy with knitting, dyeing, weaving, and attending markets and fairs, we have not taken yet any fleece to the mill this year. We have only a few natural white skeins remaining and a big dent has been made our stock  of "oatmeal" and brown. (Part way through the season I began dyeing with the oatmeal as well as the white, achieving some lovely hues, deep and rich and warm.) Meanwhile the sheep have been sheared twice, and the studio is chock full of bags of gorgeous fleece.

Now that we understand well how our fiber behaves, we intend to ask the mill to make up some worsted and aran weight yarns, and to blend some of our angora goat fiber with the romney wool to make some fingering weight for socks. All that stands between us and this next exciting phase is TIME. We need to make/take the time to finish skirting and picking the fleece we have already accumulated.

Two years into this enterprise, the one thing that I know with perfect certainty: we do not need a larger flock.

So at this point in the year, all my studio hours are devoted to getting ready to go to the mill. No more knitting, weaving, dyeing, putting yarn up into hanks; no experimenting with hand spinning. No more nothing until we get caught up with the backlog of fleece. There is a sense of urgency now that is uncomfortable. We are out of sync with the natural rhythm of the process.

Another important lesson I have learned over the past 28 months is that all tasks in the process are equally important (aka "an hour is an hour is an hour").

Taking care in preparing the fleece well before sending it to the mill improves the quality of the finished product and reduces the overall cost of having it processed. It does not pay to rush through it because of a time crunch. And besides that practical concern, I enjoy the work when I take my time, when I am focused on quality rather than quantity.

As we continue forward expanding operations, we need to make decisions that allow our work to be regulated by natural rhythms rather than artificial human constructs.

We need to learn how to be busy,  productive, and efficient without being rushed, pressured, and stressed. Because perhaps the thing I love best about the whole enterprise is reflecting on each task's connection to all that comes before and after. I remember the work of all the seasons.

When I knit or weave with our yarns, I reflect on Larry and Diane keeping the animals healthy through the long winter, the joy of turning them out to pasture in spring, the skill of the shearer and the warmth of the fleece as it's picked up from the barn floor. I think of the cycle of plants coming available for dyeing, one after another - the first dandelions in June through the last goldenrod in September - and the skeins drying on racks outdoors in warm sun and wind. There's the work of movable fences to facilitate rotational grazing, the growing, cutting, and baling of hay. And beyond all of this human enterprise, there is the miracle of the natural world ----- the beauty and bounty and blessing of it all.

So all of that I ponder as I am picking out bits of vegetable matter and opening tips to make them easier to wash and card and spin. My hands get greasy and warm and smell like sheep. The full bag becomes empty, a new bag becomes full. This is quiet and simple work that contributes to the whole. It is work that makes me feel good.

I cannot leave this narrative without mentioning that in all phases of this operation, I feel melancholy as often as I feel anything else.

Humans are so foolish, so self-centered and so self-absorbed. Our persistent desire for more of everything, ever faster, ever more convenient, and ever cheaper is rapacious and ruinous. Few people seem willing to recognize the truth of this, and even those who recognize intellectually don't seem to internalize it enough to change their ways.

I write here about relaxing into a natural rhythm when in fact humans are hell bent on destroying all that is natural. In a way, I, too, am in denial. Nevertheless, I am beginning to relax into a natural rhythm that is greater than the one proscribed by the process of field to fiber to finished good.

I am beginning to believe -- to have faith -- that the earth will survive the damage we've done. We will have rendered it uninhabitable for ourselves and many other species, but Life will adapt and regenerate and renew without us.

We are only a tiny chapter in an eternal story, and I am finding comfort in learning to live with that truth.