The old woman sits by the side of the road with a spinning wheel. It is late fall and chilly, but she has all her wits about her as she methodically transforms the hair from her sheep into wool yarn, seemingly oblivious to the non-stop line of late-day traffic speeding by. Most glance through car windows, but no one stops to explore this peculiar situation. Yet the woman's eccentricity is certainly calculated; there is no other reason to sit there but to attract attention. Finally, on this day, a man, more curious than most, stops along busy State Route 31 on his way home from his job in Clinton. Their conversation is constructive, and the woman, encouraged by her visitor's piqued interest, invites him into her home to learn more about her venerable craft. A while later the man returns to his car carrying a spinning wheel, a Christmas gift for his wife.
Jacobs are the sheep of choice at Jenny Jump Farm , where Joanie Thompson has tended a herd of up to forty-two for nearly twenty years. She learned about them from Buhnne Tramutola, the woman who sold Bob, her husband, a spinning wheel back in the early '80s. After she got the wheel, Joanie returned to Buhnne's small farm near High Bridge to learn how to spin, and saw the funny-looking sheep. The Jacob is a relatively rare breed, characterized by the fact that both the male and female have horns (usually four, up to six), and by their black and white coloring. They are prized for their "confirmation", quality of wool, mothering and survivability. "Buhnne got some from Rutgers, and was one of the first breeders in the country to have them," says Joanie. "Jacobs were originally imported from England to the Chicago Zoo in the 1950s, but not for a long time, since the Mad Cow business. Buhnne wanted to sell her sheep, but we didn't have the farm at the time. But I thought 'if I ever get sheep, that's the kind I want. Black and white with horns.' Buhnne had all kinds of projects and dreams—not all of them panned out—but she had passion. And she taught me how to spin."
Joanie was no stranger to sheep. Actually, after growing up on a farm (Stoneyfield Orchard in Belvidere) and spending much of her youth in 4H, she thought she'd really had enough of sheep. It was the Jacobs inimitability that stirred Joanie—she knew something about things like genetics and phylogeny. She had earned degrees in animal science and chemistry, and worked as food scientist at M&M Mars for twenty-eight years. The only sheep native to the U.S. is the western Bighorn, and most of the dozens of breeds suitable for small farms have been selected and reselected for traits like coats white-as-snow, fibers smooth-as-silk, abundant milk, or tasty limbs; all quite serviceable, domestic and dull. Jacobs are a "primitive" breed, meaning that they have survived from their Old World origins with minimal human selection. They've got spunk and personality; they are sometimes kept as pets. The few thousand Jacobs currently residing in America have retained more of their original characteristics even than their native English cousins, due to rigorous efforts to conserve the heirloom breed. Both the Jacob Sheep Conservancy and the Jacob Sheep Breeders maintain meticulous standards for progeny testing and breed conformance. Jacobs are not warm weather sheep, and the Thompson's are among a pocket of breeders in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Preserving the pedigree is important. Plus, these sheep make really nice wool.
About twenty years ago, the Thompson's purchased a seven-acre property that stretches from County Route 519 to the Jenny Jump Mountain just south of Hope. They bought it because it had once been in Bob's family, and because it suited their purposes perfectly: horses, dogs, and sheep. Joanie purchased her first Jacob ewe and ram from a breeder in Pennsylvania. She quickly went to work breeding her ewes, resulting in about thirty to forty lambs each season that she sold for breeding stock, pets or meat. She housed up to four rams, all very rambunctious, and after years of bruised and battered Springs, she began to scale back. She no longer breeds Jacobs, but keeps a herd about twenty sheep, all shorn each spring without the worry of birth stress. On the commercial market, the fleeces are worthless, because of their natural color. But, for the same reason, hand-spinners love them, as the wool can be spun into a complete spectrum from white to black. Joanie keeps about half her fleeces each year and sells the rest, either locally or at two major East Coast shows.
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On a Saturday morning in early March, Tom Horton, the sheep shearer, arrives from Towanda, Pennsylvania. Certified by the American Sheep Industry, Horton estimates he shears 25,000 sheep every year for about one hundred customers in the northeast U.S and in states as distant as Idaho, Wyoming and Oregon. He lugs a few pieces of equipment from his pick-up truck to the barn: shears powered by an electric motor mounted on a wooden rack, and oil can, and a pair of special shoes made in New Zealand. The shoes, as well as an old rug laid on the concrete barn floor, are intended to protect the sheep from injury as they are manhandled during their haircuts. The Jacob's horns provide an extra bit of leverage as Horton flips the first sheep on its back and into a sitting position up against his legs. This unnatural pose effectively paralyzes the animal, and it surrenders to Horton's skilled hands. He begins at the belly, clipping away stained or soiled wool, then proceeds around the body removing the fleece in long continuous strokes, not repeating, so that each piece of fiber remains at maximum length. A minute later, the fleece lies on the floor all in one piece, and the svelte, butch Jacob shimmies to its feet without a scratch and five pounds lighter. Tom Horton shears twenty-one sheep for Joanie, yielding sixty to eighty pounds of raw wool.
After they cool down from body temperature, Joanie can begin sorting the fleeces. "My clients are hand spinners," she explains. "They are very particular, and some like to buy the fleeces as is, so I take some of the fleeces to shows right off the sheep. Some people like to spin it unwashed, or they want to separate it themselves. Some even use the lanolin to make their own lotions or soap." Sheep were originally all dark; white hair was developed through breed selection. Before domestication, they also used to shed their wool, and people used to pick it off bushes and shrubs. Today's wool sheep don't shed, and some need to be sheared twice a year, yielding up to twenty pounds of fiber. To different degrees, all sheep produce lanolin, which waterproofs and combats wool matting. Some breeds, Merinos for instance, are bred commercially for clothing, with very soft, fine wool. Thicker follicles are stronger, and more primitive breeds have coarser wool outside and thinner, downy wool close to the skin. The Jacob fleece is a "primitive", not selected for anything but color and of medium coarseness.
The fleeces that aren't bagged raw are skirted—cleaned and separated for color. Joanie lays the fleece on a wire grid so that dirt can fall through as she works the fiber with her fingers. Each fleece is different. Wool grows coarser as the sheep ages, and is also dependent on nutrition and care. Belly wool is no good, neck wool is finer. Some is "crimpy"— soft and springy—where the follicles have grown in unison. Most important is color, so much so that the Jacobs sometimes wear coats to protect their wool from bleaching. After she pulls out the junk, like belly wool, Joanie separates for color patches which break up easily, especially on older sheep. Black, the rarest and most valuable; lilac, a genetic version of a mutated black gene; and white. Colors can later be spun, each by itself, or combined in different percentages. Joanie spends about an hour on each fleece, and when she's done, about half of the original remains. The fleeces that Joanie keeps, she sends to a mill in Michigan where they wash the fiber, separate out the lanolin for resale, then pick and "card" the wool, combing the fibers into more-or-less parallel strands, called roving. The material comes back in long and narrow bundles—black, white and gray—ready to spin.
The practice of spinning exists in some form in nearly every culture in the world, and its mechanics have evolved from prehistoric times—when primitive clothiers might have twisted a strand by twirling a rock attached to one end—to the Medieval spindle and the earliest spinning wheels in thirteenth century Persia. The Chinese automated the wheel by the fourteenth century, and volumes have been written on the hundreds of variations that have since appeared throughout the world.
Bob bought Joanie a version of the treadle wheel, the kind most people imagine when they think "spinning". The spinner sits and pumps a foot pedal that turns the drive wheel via a crankshaft and a connecting rod. Spun yarn is made by twisting the roving fibers together to make a unified thread. Single spun yarns are then twisted together (plied) in the opposite direction to make a thicker yarn made of a number of plies. Sheep wool follicles (all hair for that matter) are lined by tiny directional scales that interlock when spun in opposite directions so that the plies don't pull apart. The treadle wheel twists and pulls at the same time, leaving both hands free for manipulating the fibers; combining colors, adjusting draw, and building plies.
Because textile production was one of the first industrialized ventures in the Western world, it is highly evolved, and we are commonly attired with synthetic fibers, often combined with natural, as cotton-polyester and wool-acrylic. Blends of entirely natural fibers are also mass-produced, such as alpaca, angora and cashmere. But a hand-spun piece of clothing is something to be cherished; unique and irreplaceable. Hand spinners are much like heirloom breeders in that they strive to maintain a tradition because it allows creative expression. According to Joanie, spinning is not hard to learn, although her first wheel had a few too many adjustments for a novice to manage. Although she has since mastered them all, she prefers a simpler wheel made in Holland that has only a choke on the axle to adjust tension. The rest she does with her hands. "You can change the diameter of the yarn with the rate the roving comes out of your hand," explains Joanie. "Holding the roving longer gives the strand more twist. It puts more energy into your yarn." With the yarn, Joanie crochets, knits and weaves on a four-harness table loom, or a simple single strand triangle loom. The projects are never ending—hats, coats, shawls, blankets, felt teddy bears—a long procession of things to work on, until its time to go outside and tend to the sheep.
For more information, click Jenny Jump Farm or call 908-475-5109
Spinning craft guilds exist all over the United States, and the local North
Country Spinners serves members in Northwest New Jersey. About sixty members meet monthly in Blairstown, spinning all kinds of hair: dogs, cats, buffalo, alpaca, and, of course, sheep.
If you have sheep to be shorn, call Tom Horton Sheep Shearing: 570-265-8235.
For more information about breeding sheep in New Jersey, visit the Garden State Sheep Breeders.
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