Making Yarn: Part 1

Part one of a three-part series

The story of how we came to produce our own small batch of yarn starts with a casual conversion at a local sheep and wool festival this spring. Hannah was talking with David Ritchie from Green Mountain Spinnery, telling him about our move from the city of Portland to the woods of West Kennebunk, Maine. David said he was familiar with our new area, since they buy organic wool from a farm nearby. Those farmers are great people, he said – we should go meet them. And by the way, he happened to know they had some extra wool from this year's shearing that needed a home. Did we have any interest in developing our own yarn?

Did we? Well, we're not in the yarn business, and we don't want to be. And yet... wouldn't it it be interesting to make one small batch of farm-to-needle yarn? To learn how the process works, and document it along the way? The more we talked about it, the more excited we got about the idea. We made some phone calls, worked out the details, and now, less than two months later, the yarn is happening! We're happy to share the story with you in three parts, starting with this first installment.

NOON FAMILY SHEEP FARM

Welcome to Noon Family Sheep Farm

Welcome to Noon Family Sheep Farm

It's time to pick up the wool. How much room do you need to fit 250 pounds of wool in a car, exactly? We're not sure. We decide to favor storage capacity over gas mileage and take the larger car. Car emptied out, back seats folded flat for maximum room, kids with family for the day: we're ready to go! We head west, away from our coast, through the old riverfront industrial town of Sanford and up into the hills of Springvale, Maine.

Twenty minutes later the GPS brings us to a narrow tree-lined road. We're looking at mailbox numbers, and then we see the sign: a hand-cut piece of rusty sheet metal with a carving of a happy sheep and the word Noon. Noon Family Sheep Farm! We've come to the right place.

Lambs near the barn

Lambs near the barn

Jean Noon isn't home when we arrive, but her nieces Lana and Sara, who grow organic crops at the farm, show us around. The lambs are fenced in near the barn, next to a couple of horses. The flock of ewes are way out in one of the fields, little brown and white dots in the landscape.

Lana and Sara Cannon

Lana and Sara Cannon

Later on we'll get to meet Jean. She and her husband Bill started this farm in the early 70's. "There aren't many people who do what we do," she says. Sheep are vulnerable to parasites and foot disease, which have been conventionally treated with anti-parasitic medications and antibiotics. But at the Noon Farm they keep their herd healthy using a combination of natural practices: good nutrition, reducing parasites with garlic, providing lambs early exposure to build up immunity, selective breeding to favor those less vulnerable to disease, and building rocky paths between fields to keep hooves clean and trim.

Jean Noon and ewes

Jean Noon and ewes

Back on our tour of the farm, we have some newbie questions. Where do the sheep sleep at night? Lana smiles and tells us that they live outdoors all summer long. But they have their llama to keep an eye on them.

One of these animals is not like the others

One of these animals is not like the others

Llama? Yep, a llama. Llamas, we are told, make great companion animals to sheep, and protect them coyotes and other predators. And indeed Yang the Llama turns out to have all the qualities of a good bodyguard: He's bigger than everyone else, suspicious of outsiders, unafraid of confrontation, and looks just crazy enough that there's no telling what he might be capable of. He's spending the day grazing with the ewes down in a valley, and when you look out over the hills you can see the distinctive silhouette of his head sticking up over the top of the hill, keeping an eye on things.

The Noon's sheep have been bred to be multipurpose. The flock started in the 70's as Columbia sheep, a United States-native breed used for both meat and wool production. From there, the Noons selectively mixed in other breeds. Karakul sheep brought brown and black colors into the flock. Polypay and Suffolk improved the meat. Leicester and Rambouillet contributed longer and finer wool. "These are not show sheep," Jean Noon says. Maybe they aren't thoroughbreds, but their heritage makes them work well for a variety of uses. They produce meat, cheese, yogurt, sheepskins, and (of course) wool. The wool fiber is medium in diameter, not as soft and thin as some breeds, but not tough and thick either. When spun, it lends itself to a worsted-weight yarn that's warm, durable, and wearable. It seems only fitting that these versatile, practical animals would produce a versatile, practical yarn.

Portrait of a lamb

Portrait of a lamb

Lana and Sara help us carry two giant burlap sacks of white wool from the spring shearing out of the barn. The larger bag stands about eight feet tall and two feet in diameter. It takes a little pushing and squeezing, but they both fit in our car. (We're glad we didn't try to bring the smaller one.)

It fits!

It fits!

It's a little hard to leave. It's beautiful here, with the fields surrounded by woods and wetlands, spring crops growing, contented sheep grazing with their adopted llama brother. We're already thinking about when we can bring the kids back to visit. Noon Family Sheep Farm is a real working farm, not a park or a petting zoo, yet it's almost the romantic ideal of what a farm should be. It feels like a privilege to get to help this wool become yarn and get into the hands of knitters. We hope it will become garments that are as practical and beautiful as the farm itself.

And with that, it's time to go. Our car is stuffed full of wool and smelling pleasantly sheep-y. We say goodbye and hit the road, heading for Vermont.
 

Next time: Making Yarn, Part 2: Spinning Wool.