Visiting the Fingerlakes Woolen Mill was great, especially since I’ve had some contact with people who process their fleeces here.
I learned about the steps involved in turning a fleece into yarn from washing to spinning steps. It was very interesting to see the large scale equipment. I was surprised that it takes about 2 weeks to process fleeces into yarns. I expected the machinery to speed up the process significantly. But there is still a lot of manpower involved such as the washing, drying fibers on racks, feeding the fibers in the machinery, and supervising everything to ensure that the machines function properly.
I also got the opportunity to see a rare breed, Hog Island Sheep. The sheep are believed to have genes similar to genes carried by sheep that lived during colonial times. The sheep were isolated for about 200 years on an island near Virginia, and people didn’t manipulate breeding patterns.
As a result, the sheep have highly diverse traits. The owners of the mill and farm, Suzanne and Jay, work with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to maintain the biodiversity of their sheep. Below are a few photos of the sheep:
Jay explained that the lamb Butch, is an orphan because he rejected his mother’s milk and had to be bottle fed. It was adorable to see Butch happily run up to Jay and eagerly drink the milk.
It was interesting to learn about the unique color characteristics of Hog Island sheep. Jay explained that if the lambs are born dark, but have any speck of white, they will turn white when they become adults. This characteristic is so charming to me, it must be wonderful to see the lamb’s color change as he becomes an adult.
Jay and Suzanne have 22 of the 200 existing Hog Island Sheep in the United States. They indicate that they don’t breed them for specific traits because they want to help maintain the genetic diversity. It was great to learn more about sheep from a conservancy standpoint.
Learning that there can be a limited amount of sheep of a certain breed gives greater insight into the true value of wool. Jay indicated that the rare quality of the sheep makes it possible to sell all of the fibers. The connections between the sheep, land, and time contribute to their ecological and cultural value as part of a rare breed with rich genetic diversity. Expanding knowledge about sheep other than Merino is essential to understand the worth of wool beyond its bare functionality.