You know those jokes that start off with, “A priest, a rabbi, and a monk step into a bar…”? Well, this isn’t that but it’s close, in its own weird way…
My parents live on Vancouver Island near Coombs, that town with the store called, Goats on the Roof. It’s a great store, by the way, and there really are goats on the roof. Anyway, when I go to visit them – my parents, not the goats – I stay for at least two weeks. And because I have been doing so every year, I now have quite a life there with friends and groups with whom to spend time every day of the week, if I wanted.
One of the groups I joined was the Bradley Thursday Spinners who meet, you guessed it, every Thursday from about 10 am until 2pm.
On a Thursday in October of 2019, a man walked into the large room of chatty men and women, who were all drinking coffee and spinning at their wheels. He said he had just bought a farm and with it seemed to come a flock of sheep. You know those house purchase agreements? “House comes with washer, dryer, fridge, stove, and a flock of Rideau Arcott sheep”?
He seemed quite earnest in his desire to learn how to go from sheep to finished product. He wanted to learn all of the ins and outs of processing fleeces, spinning, and then knitting. Work socks, he thought, might be ideal. To start off, though, he had a pick-up truck loaded down with raw fleeces and would anyone spin them for him?
Absolute quiet reigned save the soft sound of treadling wheels and the whisper of fibre sliding onto bobbins. It was as if he hadn’t spoken a word. I waited for a bit to see if any of these local spinners would speak up but no one did. So I approached him with a proposal.
I explained I work full-time, have a farm with sheep, and live in Ontario. I told him I have little free time but I would process one fleece, take photos, and write explanations for everything I did so he could learn. I said he could pay to send two fleeces to me, I would pay to mail the handspun yarns of one fleece back, and the second fleece was my payment. He looked a bit unsure. He may have had some doubts about my integrity and who can blame him? We’d never met but one of my friends, who was standing nearby and overheard all the insanity, assured him I would do as promised, not to worry. We exchanged contact information and the spinning group packed up and left as it was the end of the day.
For many weeks, I heard nothing. I thought he had changed his mind. Finally, however, a box arrived in the mail packed full of two raw fleeces.
It looks lovely and white in this image on the left. It didn’t have very much vegetable matter but the second cuts!! That was a nightmare.
I couldn’t just hand-card the wool but had to comb it first to get rid of all of those bits. The amount of wool wasted was unreal. I immediately emailed the man (Josh) and let him know what to do or not, for the next shearing. I also let him know that this would take longer than I thought as there was a labourious and time-consuming extra step.
Suddenly, I was done. I was so excited to be finished, to finally have the time to spin what I want without the guilt of obligations ignored, that I packed up all the skeins and mailed them off without first taking a photo.
My observations of this fleece? Beautiful. In fact, I ordered another from this year’s shearing with the hope that the second-cuts problem has been rectified. It was fluffy, crimpy, bouncy, soft, and lustrous. Counter-intuitively, it was lustrous even with hand-carding. In my experience, this is the norm for combed wool but not carded. I spun it two-ply using a long-draw and it still maintained its shine.
In ‘The Field Guide to Fleece”, by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, it mentions that this breed (developed in Ottawa, Ontario at the Experimental Farm) is inconsistent amongst different flocks. To quote, “Because the Rideau Arcotts were developed for meat production, there are no wool specifications in the breed standards and flocks are called ‘variable’.” No real breed standard for the wool. Hmmm…you know what this means, don’t you? This means I will have to try a Rideau Arcott from a different flock, perhaps in Ontario, and see how it compares to the one in BC. Oh happy day!
Conclusion: Would I plunge headlong into such madness again? I did learn some things like how to make do without a picker. And although I’d like to say I wouldn’t, I know me and I know I can get swept up in the enthusiasm and idealism of it all. I would – and am – doing this for myself but for another? Josh was lamenting about the cost to mail his two fleeces to me across the country but I really wonder if he has any idea what an amazingly inexpensive deal he got. Even with the photos and information I provided him, I doubt he has an inkling. How could he, without doing it himself? How much is it worth, this hand processing of fleece from raw wool to finished yarn? It only feels like it ought to be ‘worth’ something if done for someone else. When I do it for me, it is sheer joy. It has to be as I do it over and over again. Now for my next fleeces…