hypoallergenic wool

Pure Wool Yarn – Recounting Its Journey

There is an adventurous path that pure wool travels, from the sheeps’ backs to a knitter’s hands and needles. Many hands are involved.

Sheep fleece on shearing floor

Sheep fleece

On shearing day at the barn, one of our Topsy farmers encourages the sheep up a ramp to the upstairs shearing area, where another farmer moves the sheep from a large pen to individual shearer’s pens. A shearer takes the sheep from the holding pen, skillfully and carefully removes the ewe’s pure wool coat within 2 minutes and hussles the startlingly white shorn sheep out the swing door to an outside corral.

One of our team of 10 helpers or ‘roustabouts’ picks up that fleece in such a way that enables him/her to fling it in the air, to float down on the ‘skirting table’. Other ‘rousies’ work around the perimeter of that table, removing bits of fecal matter and chaff, then roll the fleece into a ball and drops it into an 8 foot burlap bag, clamped to a frame in the floor.

It is packed very firmly with ‘foot power’ with other fleeces, then eventually sewn in (with a wicked 4 inch needle and baler twine). That bag is hoisted with a pulley and manpower, then rolled and stacked with other bags.

Our pure wool yarn comes from happy healthy sheep, raised ethically.

That makes 7 pairs of hands, minimum, handling the fleece so far.

pure wool bags on Ferry

Wool Bags on Ferry

At least 3 people maneuver the bags, weighing about 160 pounds, onto a waiting farm wagon, and stack them with others for the trip across the ferry from Amherst Island. (Large trucks cannot fit our boat, so we have to schlep the wool bags by hand and farm equipment.)

On the mainland, a waiting transport trailer is loaded with the wool bags – 4 men haul and roll them into the trailer.

At least 4 sets of hands have helped this transition.

Upon arrival in Prince Edward Island, strong arms and hands again unload the wool bags. Two people open the bags, lug the wool onto scales to be weighed, then grade the wool quality. Someone else manually picks through the wool before washing to remove any large impurities, then another hauls it onto a 70 ft “wash train” where only soap is used.

The pure wool is hypoallergenic. It has not been stripped with detergent or other chemicals.

If the pure wool is to be dyed into one of our more than 20 vibrant or subtle colours it is weighed for the appropriate amount.  It goes straight to the dryer if it is being processed naturally.

Topsy Farms pure wool roving and yarn has 4 entirely natural colours.

Yet another set of hands transports it into a packer which presses the dried, cleaned wool into a bale. That bale is manually transported to yet another picking room. There the wool is blended before carding. One person puts it into the carding machine. Another person takes spools from carding machine to spinning frame where it is spun and strengthened.

Baskets containing skeins of labelled pure yarn

Skeins of pure wool yarn, with Topsy Farms’ label

Another pair of hands removes the wool to the twister table which is set up to produce different sizes of yarn (2 ply or 3 ply). Bobbins are filled by the machine, then a worker puts those bobbins onto a “skeiner”, where the wool is made into 4 oz skeins. Each skein is twisted and finished by hand. They are put in feed bags and carried upstairs, where they are bundled into 8 pound parcels, then wrapped. (Someone of course has to complete the book work).

A truck driver lugs the Topsy Farms order for the skeins of wool away from MacAusland’s Woolen Mills where it has been handled by 18 – 20 pair of hands.

4 to 5 people at Canada Post handle the packaged bundle of yarn as it is received, sorted, loaded on and off a truck and delivered to Bath Post Office. Two people load it onto a van to deliver to us on Amherst Island. The transport has involved 6 – 7 pairs of hands.

Children wear colourful pure wool caps and mitts

Happy Customers in Wool Shed

Back at our farm, the skeins of yarn are individually labelled, counted, bagged, and added to the inventory. (We store them in bins in the unused shearing area.)

The pure wool has ‘come home’.

When the Wool Shed inventory for a particular dye lot of yarn gets low, someone gets it from the barn, notes the inventory change and stashes it in its cubby for retail sale. Come to the Wool Shed, to purchase a 113 gram, or 1/4 pound skein of pure lanolin-enriched wool for $8. We also offer pure wool in roving or pencil roving.

From sheep, via about 40 pairs of hands, to your needles.

Breeding Sheep Season

 

Breeding sheep can be complicated.  Four months, three weeks and four days, or 142 – 148 days: that is the gestation period of a lamb. Our shepherd, Christopher, uses that calculation to determine when to put the rams into the flock. We want our ewes to start to birth their lambs the second week of May, when the pastures should have sufficient green growth to support the ewes. It is much warmer and dryer for the newborns to plop onto grass in the fields, rather than in muddy barnyards.

Rams building up their strength. Photo by Don Tubb

Rams building up their strength. Photo by Don Tubb

In the late fall, Chris works to ensure a ‘rising plane of well-being’ for the ewes, calculating the quality and quantity of the food they receive so that their bodies are confident that all is well. This increases the probability of more ova being made available for fertilization; thus multiple births. We aim for an average of two lambs per mature ewe and one lamb per first year mama (known as “ewe lambs”). There are of course many additional factors in fertility, including genetics.

Our goal is always to create great-tasting lamb.

We now use mainly North Country Cheviot and Suffolk purebred rams to breed the ewes. They are put to 5 groupings of females: 2 larger groups of mature ewes totaling close to 800 (with 21 rams); 2 much smaller groups of purebred Suffolks, mature and young ones, to be bred by 2 Suffolks; then the Border Cheviot (a much smaller breed) rams will join the 300 ewe lambs. The latter produce a smaller, feisty lamb with a high drive for survival (which helps their inexperienced moms).

The two Teaser Rams (those with vasectomies) have finished their work to get the ewes in the mood by December 17th this year, the date the 25 intact rams head eagerly into the fields.

The 5 groupings of sheep are protected carefully by our 9 Maremma and Akbash guardian dogs. We hope to keep stress to a minimum, from predators and from weather – the latter of which of course we can’t control at all.

Healthy, happy lambs make great sheep and wool.

Ewes heading for the breeding grounds. Photo by Don Tubb

Ewes heading for the breeding grounds. Photo by Don Tubb

Our cycle begins again.
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Topsy Farms is located on scenic Amherst Island, west of Kingston, in Lake Ontario. Our sheep farm has been owned and operated for over 35 years by 5 shareholders, and involves 3 generations of the Murray family. Our flock of about 2500 sheep graze on tree-shaded pastures, protected by over 20 miles of fence and numerous guard dogs. Natural farming methods without spraying pesticides, or using growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality.

 

 

Sheep Have Bad Press

 

Lambs waiting to return to mama

Lambs waiting to return to mama

 

How many disparaging phrases have you heard about sheep?  “Led like sheep to the slaughter”; “The black sheep of the family”; “A wolf in sheep’s clothing”…

“Not fair” says our shepherd Christopher, and we agree.

Sheep’s instinct to herd is their protection.

Lacking speed, teeth or claws, hiding in a group is smart.  It follows that when shepherds want them to go into a pen or through a narrow gate, the sheep understandably feel less safe, and simply don’t want the same thing the people do.  That does not mean they are dumb.

A gang of lambs

A gang of lambs

They are individuals.  A stranger looking at a flock might think they are all alike, but those of us close to the animals can clearly see their personal characteristics.  There are mothers more skilled than others; confident leaders and obedient followers; ones who know the guardian dogs are to be obeyed fast while others are mavericks; the steeplechase jumpers who challenge all fences…

Some breeds have certain predictable traits.  A black-faced Suffolk ewe or lamb will be more calm and steady, whereas a lamb bred by a Border Cheviot will be feisty, almost high strung, with great ‘survivability’ skills.

On the road - photo by Audra

On the road – photo by Audra

Personalities vary also.  We fostered twins from one hour old, and one was far more skilled than the other at finding the food source.  It was first born, probably by just a few minutes, and was more playful and clearly the leader of the two.

Lambs being fostered have a high learning curve.   Their instincts say to go under a warm belly and feel for a firm warm teat, then drink milk of a certain flavour.  When they are fostered, they have to learn quickly to seek a hard black rubber nipple up high, with reconstituted powdered milk that doesn’t taste quite right.  A lamb who has been with a ewe for a few days will initially say ‘ptooey’ to the taste.  However, survival instincts rule, and usually by the second feeding they will move toward not away from the person with the bottle, thumping energetically at knees, seeking food.

Full tummies

Full tummies

Our two older foster lambs know “go for a walk” and “into your pen”.  (They like the first.)  I started to save the last bit of milk in the bottle to reinforce the latter directive. After one repeat they knew what to expect, and now enter eagerly.

The next time you hear someone disparage sheep, do challenge it.  Come and visit Topsy Farms and see for yourself.

Shearing Season on the Sheep Farm

"Traffic Jam"

“Traffic Jam”

 

These pregnant ewes are on their way to the barn to be shorn. Their instincts to protect their young lambs from bad weather is enhanced by mamas having thin coats too. Shearing time is the most challenging few days of the year for our farm: we can’t shear wet sheep. The weather can be dry (as it has been this spring) for weeks on end, but lo and behold, when the inflexible shearing dates approach the forecasts are full of wet and cold doom and gloom. Why is this such a challenge? The shearers we hire to do the job are popular guys this time of year: they are booked solid in advance and shearing must happen, regardless of weather.

Do sheep have to lose their coats? Yes, ewes have to be shorn yearly for their health and well-being. We believe that the best time is in the spring, just before they lamb, when (hopefully) the weather is warming, but before the lambs are born. That way, after they have babies in tow, they’ll seek shelter if it is windy or cold. They don’t feel the weather if their coats are still on.

We invite families to visit shearing.

It rained steadily all Saturday, and despite our best efforts, 68 of the 1250 sheep to be shorn got wet. Fortunately the shearers are finishing a job elsewhere on the Island, so will return on Tuesday. There is a glory in the teamwork activity however. There are 3 shearers and 6 “roustabouts” working in the upstairs barn shearing area, with another three people backing them up.

Three shearers and 'roustabout'

Three shearers and ‘roustabout’

The ‘rousies’ pick up and fling and skirt fleeces, and sweep floors. The space is purposefully snug, so people and animals aren’t travelling more than necessary. There is an almost ballet-like quality to the flow of action, with people keeping an eye on what is needed and who else is moving where, as they back each other up. The shearers finish each fleece in about 2 ½ minutes; nudge the animal out one gap so they can descend a ramp to the outside; click a counter to keep track of numbers; get their next ewe or lamb from their individual holding pen and start again. Meanwhile someone has to pick up the fleece in just the right way so it can be flung, right side up, on the skirting table. Someone else has to sweep the area so it is cleared for the next fleece, while not interrupting the movement of the shearer. It’s a dance. In the adjacent space, the fleece on the table is “skirted” with any dirty bits removed, then roughly bundled and put into an 8 ft hanging burlap bag, that is being solidly packed, then sewn and hauled up by block and tackle, then replaced by an empty one. A metal frame with ladder and a suspended bag takes the flow of fleeces while this is happening. Jacob or Kyle have been doing (or helping with) this job since they were about 5 or 6 years old. Meanwhile, Dianne prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner at her place and hauls hot water, coffee, tea, and snacks to the barn for mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks.

These are the ‘Bare-Naked Ladies – a variation on the theme – after shearing. Don and Ian keep the flock fed as well as moving unshorn sheep up the ramp into the holding pens on the second floor of the barn. They also moved the shorn sheep down the road to the shelter of our new barn. The action starts each day about 6:30 am. On the final night the men finished at 8:15 pm. Today, as forecast, there is rain and wind, mixed with snow – just an additional challenge. We do the best we can, providing barn shelter and wind-protected fields, and all the food they want.

Post shearing food and relaxation

Post shearing food and relaxation

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Topsy Farms is located on scenic Amherst Island, west of Kingston, in Lake Ontario. Our sheep farm has been owned and operated for over 35 years by 5 shareholders, and involves 3 generations of the Murray family. Our flock of about 2500 sheep graze on tree-shaded pastures, protected by over 20 miles of fence and numerous guard dogs. Natural farming methods without spraying pesticides, or using growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality.

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Nous vous invitons à communiquer avec nous en français à info@topsyfarms.com, ou par téléphone: 1-888-287-3157. Demandez à parler à Sally.