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.

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