In the far, far northeastern corner of California, beyond the San Joaquin Valley, and the Sierra Madre, and even beyond the Warner Mountains, there is a magical place called Surprise Valley. Perched on the edge of the Great Basin, the valley provides nesting grounds for the greater sandhill crane and a more permanent home to ranchers, artists, writers, and the various herds and flocks they tend. Although the valley was named for its surprising verdure, the grasses were mostly golden when I arrived in late September. The sun and clouds painted the valley in a wash of grays, silvers, blues and greens, and, just as I arrived in Lake City, the sky opened up and began to pour. Not the best weather for shearing sheep, but no one was complaining about rain during the worst drought in recent history.
The sheep lined up for shearing were a flock of about 40 icelandic ewes and lambs lovingly cared for by Sophie Sheppard and Lynn Nardella. Sophie, a painter, writer, and fellow fiber enthusiast, and Lynn, a retired field archeologist, moved to the valley more than 30 years ago.
In addition to their sheep, their farm hosts gardens, orchards, greenhouses, and a protected wetland for the cranes.
Every fall, Sophie hosts a “fleece harvest” weekend. On the tightly packed fiber agenda are: shearing the sheep (done by a professional of course!), skirting the wool, washing, carding, and spinning. Other mandatory activities include eating delicious meals prepared from the gardens, sharing knitting tips and tricks, and telling embarrassing stories about yourself and your loved ones (sorry, loved ones).
Now, rain is not the best weather for sheep shearing, both because you don’t want the fleece to come off wet and because the poor little lambs can end up with runny noses when they have to face a cold, rainy night without their wool. However, the dry shed and barn areas kept the fleeces dry while we skirted and sorted, and the barn was stacked with hay to keep the animals warm overnight.
After shearing, skirting, and (crucially) lunch, the group turned to washing the wool. A delicate task, mostly: First you soak the skirted fleece in hot, soapy water, then allow to drain (we used onion sacks for this), repeat, and rinse.
We left the wool to dry overnight, while trying our hand at the spinning wheels in Sophie’s studio. We were all novices, so Sophie started us off with pencil roving (no drafting!). After that confidence booster, we turned to the roving. I was so busy trying to learn this new skill that I didn’t take a single photograph. Suffice it to say, the room was filled with women concentrating hard and occasionally swearing.
The following days were a blur of spinning, felting, and knitting. The spinning did get easier, and the icelandic fleeces we were working with were gorgeous. Icelandic sheep were developed in near total isolation after Vikings brought them to Iceland around 900 a.d. Evolved on a diet of grass and seaweed, they cannot stomach grains. Their fleeces are “dramatically double-coated,” according to the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, a fact I can attest to after handling it for several days. The long, silky outer coat is called “tog.” The fine undercoat, the “thel,” is short and fluffy. Unfortunately for this blog post, I only got one picture of these fine animals before they went under the clipper. Here’s the “judas” sheep–the one who leads all her sisters down the pen and into the (gentle) shearer’s hands.
Next time I’ll arrive a day early. But for now, enjoy these photos of “freshly shorn” icelandic sheep.
And here’s a sample of the finished product. We satisfied ourselves that we had created perfectly lovely novelty yarns on the very first try.
Sophie and Lynn don’t have a website, but if you’re interested in attending next year’s fleece harvest or purchasing a fleece of your own, drop them a line at email@example.com.