CVM in the house (and a special free download)!

behind the scenes, how to, mission, what we doSasha TorresComment

CVM Worsted in Limestone

Sheepspot’s CVM Worsted: the new worsted-weight yarn from Sheepspot, spun in the US from the wool of a US flock of rare sheep, is available now.

But what the heck is a CVM?

CVM stands for “California Variegated Mutant.” Yup, for realz. CVMs are a colored strain of Romeldale sheep.

Romeldales are an American breed of sheep developed in the early 1900s, from a cross of Romney rams and Rambouillet ewes. They have always been quite rare. In fact, for many years, almost the entire population of Romeldales lived on a single farm, Stone Valley Ranch, in California. And the entire clip of wool from that flock was sold each year to Pendleton Woolen Mills, in Oregon. Like most commercial wool operations, Pendleton was not interested in colored wool, so colored lambs were culled from the Stone Valley flock. But in the 1960s, Glen Eidman, a sheep breeder who was working with Stone Valley’s owners to promote the breed, decided not to cull a colored ewe and then, later, a colored ram. Eidman bred the two colored Romeldales, and dubbed the resulting sheep California Variegated Mutants.

From the beginning, Eidman bred CVMs with handspinners in mind. But even with a small group of spinners enthusiastic (very enthusiastic!) about their wool, the numbers of both Romeldales and CVMs dwindled without a breed association to promote them. The Livestock Conservancy, a group that champions rare and heritage livestock breeds in the US, formed a breed association and registry for Romeldales and CVMs. Even now, though, the Conservancy lists them as “critically” endangered, which means that there are fewer than 200 Romeldale/CVMs registered annually, and that the worldwide population of these sheep is likely less than 2,000 total. 

CVM Worsted in Sandstone

The yarn

Part of Sheepspot’s mission is to support genetic diversity in the general sheep population by supporting the shepherds who raise rare sheep. We do this by educating our customers about the virtues of these unusual wools, and thus expanding the market for them. Since there are more knitters than spinners in the world (so far), getting these wools into the hands of knitters in the form of millspun yarns is an important part of creating more demand. So you can imagine that we were over the moon when a CVM shepherd in California contacted to ask whether Sheepspot was interested in buying wool—and when it became clear that she had enough wool to allow us to produce a millspun CVM yarn in several colors!

The shepherd in question, Rhoby of Rhoby’s Ranch, not only had wool for us. She was also willing to sort the wool for us by color.  So, after securing a sample, we agreed to buy the wool and Rhoby got started sorting.

After the wool was sorted by color, Rhoby shipped it to Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. There Anne, the owner, washed the wool and, based on the washed weights of the various colors, made a final determination that she could make three roughly equally-sized batches of yarn in three distinct colors. These became (from left to right, below) “Limestone,” “Sandstone,” and “Shale.”

From left to right: CVM Worsted in Limestone, Sandstone, and Shale

The lowdown

CVM Worsted is a two-ply, woolen-spun yarn that’s soft and resilient, with a slightly crisp hand. Its two-ply structure makes it ideal for patterns that incorporate lace and eyelets into their designs. The fact that it’s been spun using the woolen method means that it’s light, warm, and very elastic. Woolen yarns tend to be happy knit with a wider variety of needle sizes and in a wider variety of gauges than their worsted spun counterparts, both because their fuzzier texture will fill in the gaps between stitches and because they contain a lot of air, and can thus be compressed a bit at tighter gauges without distorting the stitches. We’ve found this yarn to be happiest at around sixteen stitches over four inches, knit on US 7 needles (4.5mm), but as always, it’s crucial to get to know this yarn by knitting a swatch to get your preferred gauge. You’ll find a lot more information about swatching with CVM Worsted over on the Sheepspot blog.

CVM Worsted comes in generously-sized skeins of approximately 280 yards, and is priced at $26 per skein.

CVM Worsted in Shale

OK, I gotta have some of this yarn. What should I knit?

We’re so glad you asked

We think CVM Worsted is a great sweater yarn, so we’ve made you a downloadable PDF with a list of eleven sweater patterns—five cardigans, and six pullovers—that we think would complement it perfectly, and that are knit in appropriate gauges. We’ve gravitated toward casual, classic designs that will suit CVM Worsted’s structure and characteristics. We hope you find something that you love. 

There’s a live link on every page that will take you directly to the pattern’s page on Ravelry, where you can learn more and buy the pattern. All the photos are copyrighted by the designers, and are used with their permission. Many thanks to Amy Herzog, ANKESTRiCK,  Yellowcosmo, Melissa Schaschwary, Hanna Maciejewska, Isabell Kraemer, Caitlin Hunter, Stone Wool, Hilary Smith Callis, and Bristol Ivy for agreeing to have their patterns included here.

We can't wait to see what you knit with this wonderful new yarn. 

How I select fiber for the Sheepspot Fiber Club

what we do, behind the scenes, missionSasha TorresComment

Hi there! Here's another video for you—and you can actually see me in this one! I thought it might be useful for those of you considering joining the fiber club to learn a bit more about how I choose the wool I send to club members, so here goes:

Remember, if you have any questions about the club I would love to hear from you. You can just head over to the contact page and send me a message, or comment on this post. You can find all the information about the club here.

Behind the scenes: Finding a flock and a mill to match

behind the scenes, mission, what we doAlicia de los ReyesComment

I'm taking you on a tour of how I source breed-specific, sustainable wools. Last week, I shared how I discover new-to-you fibers. This week, I'll tell you how I find the sources of the wools I use: happy, healthy flocks of sheep.

Once I find a nearby shepherd with a breed I'm looking for (usually via the the Canadian Wool Growers' Cooperative Board listings), I arrange to pay a visit to the flock. I want to get a sense of how the sheep are treated and find out what characteristics the shepherd is breeding for. I also do my best to check out the quality of the fleeces, but this can be is tough when they're still on squirming sheep suspicious of a never-before-seen human.

A Jacob lamb from Cindy Ghent's flock in Ontario.

A Jacob lamb from Cindy Ghent's flock in Ontario.

If the sheep are well-cared for and the fleece looks promising, I go back after the flock has been shorn to select fleeces. Then, when I get home, I choose a fleece, wash part of it, and prepare it for spinning in several ways: handcarding, drumcarding, and combing. Then I spin a number of different sample yarns using different techniques. This gives me a sense of how the yarn might best be spun by machine.

Gulf Coast Locks  from a sheep named George.

Gulf Coast Locks from a sheep named George.

Next I consider the gaps in Sheepspot's product line to make the final determination about how to have the wool spun. My dream is to eventually offer a worsted-spun and woolen-spun yarn in each weight from laceweight to aran, each in a different breed. 

Then comes the hardest part of the process: finding the right mill to spin it. This has been the steepest learning curve for me. Mills are constrained by the strengths and weaknesses of their equipment, and can't always spin the wool in the way that I've envisioned. Often I'll send wool samples to several mills to determine the best fit. When I've gathered all the information I can, I ship the fleeces to the mill and wait (and wait, and wait) and hope. 

Clun Forest Sport  in Dusk in the Desert.

Clun Forest Sport in Dusk in the Desert.

It's a long process with plenty of bumps and pauses, and I don't know the outcome until I get the yarn and open the box. Sometimes, as in the case of last fall's Clun Forest Sport, I love the result. Other times not so much, and I have to make the difficult decision not to ship a yarn that's not up to Sheepspot standards (it's happened). But when it works, it is so satisfying to open a box of brand-new, undyed yarn made from the wool of a breed I love. And it's even more satisfying to be able offer you breed-specific skeins from sustainable flocks that you can't find anywhere else.

Reason #2 why breed study is important for knitters

what we do, missionSasha TorresComment

Teeswater, Tunis, Texel or Targhee?

Here’s reason #2 why breed study is important for knitters (if you missed reason #1, you can find it here): 

Different breeds really are different.

The range of fiber that sheep produce is astounding. There's wool that's strong enough to to be woven into rugs that will last for generations, there's wool that's soft enough to knit into cloth to wrap up a newborn, and there's pretty much everything in between. The Down breeds grow wool that is highly elastic, the long wool breeds grow wool that is sleek and shiny, the fine wool breeds grow wool to cuddle up in, and other breeds' wools combine some of the best characteristics of the other types. There are even multi-coated breeds who manage to grow both a soft downy undercoat and guard hairs that make great rope and twine. As Clara Parkes notes in The Knitter's Book of Wool, "every kind of wool has a purpose and not every purpose can—or should—be met by the same wool.”

You can start exploring the amazing variety in wool by treating yourself to a membership in Sheepspot’s yarn club. You’ll get a different small-batch, breed-specific yarn in every shipment, so you can learn more about which wools you love most to work with, and which breeds you feel most passionate about. What’s more, you can customize your membership to fit your needs and budget, and you won’t get stuck with colorways you don’t like. Add on the "Breed School" option, and you'll get an information sheet on each breed, raw and washed locks of its wool, detailed flock information, worksheets, and more.

You'll know your Teeswater from your Tunis in no time. Oh, and by the way, the lamb in the picture is a Texel.

I'll be back tomorrow with reason #3.

How serious is the threat to genetic diversity in farm animals?

musings, missionSasha TorresComment

In the last post of this series on genetic diversity, I want to finish up by giving you some statistics that tell us how seriously genetic diversity in livestock is threatened.

How serious is the threat?.jpg

These two statistics—that over twenty percent of the world's livestock breeds are threatened, and that we are losing breeds at the rate of one per month—suggest that a lot of breeds are at risk and that they are disappearing at an alarming rate. There are currently six sheep breeds on the Livestock Conservancy's "Critical" list, and two of them are among my all-time favorites: the Gulf Coast Native, which display what the Conservancy website calls an "exquisite" adaptation to their native environment, the US Southeast, as well as having wonderful wool; and Romeldale/CVM, a fabulous fine wool breed. Also on the list is the Leicester Longwool, the granddaddy of the longwool breeds. I won't even get started on the Santa Cruz, because their story makes me so sad; they have lovely soft wool, and there are only 150 of them left.  But that's actually good news; at one point there were only 12. 

I urge you to learn more about these breeds. The Conservancy website is a wonderful place to start; if you want to go into more depth, look at Robson and Ekarius' The Fleece and Fiber Source Book and Clara Parkes' The Knitter's Book of Wool. If you're a spinner, spin these breeds; they will delight your fingers and make you a better spinner. If you're a knitter, look for breed specific yarns made from these wools.

We all have a lot to lose.

Threats to genetic diversity in farm animals

mission, musingsSasha TorresComment

In the last post I talked about the importance of genetic diversity in helping a species survive environmental changes and disease. Today I want to say a little about why genetic diversity in farm animals is threatened.

The first reason is that large-scale industrial agriculture tends to favor what it considers the most "productive" breeds. For shepherds, this means multiple births for the largest number of lambs, fast early growth for the largest possible market lambs, and big white fleeces that are easy for large mills to process. Thus commercial agriculture leaves behind many breeds, breeds that are smaller, slower to mature or that produce multi-coated or colored wool.

The second factor is globalization. The now-global nature of industrial agriculture has meant the world-wide spread of favored commercial breeds. Unfortunately, this has meant that many local breeds have fallen out of favor, even if they have developed over time to fit perfectly into their native environment. For example, the Red Maasai sheep native to Kenya, which are well-suited to arid conditions and resistant to internal parasites, were the predominant breed in Kenya until the 1970s. Since then, though, their existence has been threatened by the importation of larger, less drought-tolerant and less pest-resistant Dorper sheep from South Africa.

Finally, technologies like artificial insemination have made it possible for a single animal to father literally hundreds of thousands of offspring. Globalization insures that these half siblings can spread out all over the world. Here the most striking example I've found comes from the world of dairy cattle. According to the Canadian Farm Animal Genetic Resources Foundation, the popular Holstein dairy bull, Hanoverhill Starbuck, fathered over 200,000 daughters around the world between 1985 and 1996. Although Starbuck died in 1998, his clone, Starbuck II was born in 2000, insuring that Starbuck's genes continue to spread.

Here's a handy infographic that sums these issues up for easy reference: 

Threats to Genetic Diversity.jpg

Genetic diversity in farm animals, and why it matters

mission, musingsSasha TorresComment

Part of Sheepspot's mission is to support farmers who raise rare sheep breeds. My passion for these breeds, and for the wool they produce, began in a handspinning class with Deb Robson, co-author with Carol Ekarius, of The Fleece and Fiber Source Book, on spinning rare wools. I say it was a spinning class, but for me it was a lot more than that. It was my first introduction to what spinners call "breed study," the more or less systematic inquiry into both the characteristics of wools produced by specific breeds and how best to spin them. I had only been spinning for eighteen months or so when I took Deb's class, and my spinning education thus far had been quite limited. The class was eye-opening in showing me the sheer diversity of wool in the world, and how much I loved All Of It. Over the three days, we spun fine wools like Merino and Cormo, long wools like Border Leicester and Coopworth, Down breeds like Suffolk and Dorset, double-coated breeds like Shetland and Icelandic, and primitive breeds like Soay.

More than learning that I really, really love All The Wool, though, I learned how much of it is in real danger of disappearing. I learned about how seriously many of the breeds I enjoyed spinning the most in class, like Jacob and Black Welsh Mountain, are under threat. As I pursued my breed study in subsequent months, on my own and with some of the spinners who listened to my podcast, SpinDoctor, I gathered and spun more rare breeds, both from North American and from Britain.  I made gorgeous yarns from the wools of Gulf Coast Native (currently listed as critical by the Livestock Conservancy), North Ronaldsay and Castlemilk Morritt (of which there are fewer than a thousand animals, according to Britain's Rare Breeds Survival Trust). I came to appreciate the soft bounciness of Romeldale, and the silky strength of Leicester Longwool.

In the process, I learned that there is a wool for practically every purpose that I, as a knitter, can think of. There are soft wools for cozy cowls and baby blankets and strong wools for carpets that can last for generations. And just about everything in between: sturdy wools for sweaters and bouncy wools for socks. That range is what we stand to lose if we lose these breeds.

You may be wondering if there's more at stake than some spinner's and knitter's pleasure in her hobbies. Merino's fine, right? There's plenty of that, isn't there?

Here's where the story gets a bit scarier, at least to me as a lover of wool. I'm no biologist (there's an understatement, and if I've gotten any of this wrong, please let me know), but I've been doing a little research.  As I understand it, genetic diversity is what allows a species (like, say, ovis aries, otherwise know as sheep) to adapt to changes in its environment. When something happens in the world of a given species that threatens its survival, its capacity to adapt depends on the presence of variable traits within its population, traits that can help it live under the new conditions. Genetic diversity is the raw material that produces those variations. In other words, we need the genetic diversity provided by as many breeds as possible to ensure that sheep as a species continue to thrive in the face of climate change, disease, and other threats.

In the graphic below, I list some of the other reasons why genetic diversity matters, not just for sheep, but for all farm animals. Next time, I'll discuss some of the threats to genetic diversity in livestock.

Look, ma! I made an infographic!


who we are, mission, musingsSasha Torres2 Comments

We love sheep and we are grateful for wool

Wool, in all its glorious forms, is our medium and our passion. We treasure the diversity of breeds and the wool they produce as the result of thousands of years of collaboration between sheep and shepherds. We honor shepherds by paying a fair price for their wool. We honor sheep by knowing how the animals that grow our wool are cared for. 

We strive to make knitters happy by expanding their choices and making beautiful, well-crafted yarns that they can feel good about

We know that there are a lot of yarns out there, but we also believe that you want more: more sustainable options, more options that support small-scale agriculture and local economies in North America, more options that take advantage of wool's astounding diversity. Our mission is to make these yarns for you.

We think that yarn, like food, should be fresh from the farm and minimally processed

We believe that the best yarns, like the best foods, are the ones that have been touched by the fewest hands and immersed in the fewest chemicals in their journey from farm to needle. 

We know that your projects are unique; we believe your yarn should be too

Let's face it: knitting by hand is a painstaking and laborious process, and everything you knit is highly singular and uniquely yours. Yet most yarns on the market are mass-produced, with unknown ecological consequences, in faraway factories, from materials of opaque origins. 

Just as every hand-knit project reflects the particular taste and technique of the knitter, every Sheepspot yarn reflects the philosophy of an individual shepherd, the well-being of a specific flock, and the history and characteristics of a particular breed. And each bears the mark of the mill that spun it and the hand that dyed it.

We believe that small changes can make a big difference

We're a tiny company with a big dream: to make it as easy for you to learn about the provenance of your yarn—where, how, by whom and of what it is made—as it is to find out whether it's fingering or sport, or how many yards are in the skein. We exist to connect you more closely to the sources of the yarns you use in the craft you love.