pure wool blankets
“I just received my three wool blanket order and am very pleased with the quality and prompt delivery.
Thank you very much!”
– Mary, Nanaimo, BC, March, 2015
Our Wool Shed which sells natural wool products is in a small, gently aging ice house/milk house. It is almost at the end of a dead-end gravel road, on an Island. Not the ideal location one might think, for drive-by traffic. We’ve been, as one customer said “a well-kept secret”.
But increasingly, we are not only reaching out to our immediate community, but also across the province and to east, west, and north of Canada. We are now beginning to have our wool products appreciated world-wide.
Well before Christmas, two sets of grandparents came to us, seeking gifts. We had reports back that one newborn in Inuvik N.W.T., was thriving on her lambskin, and apparently enjoying the sheepskin-soled booties. Another pair of grandchildren in Iqualuit, Nunavuit, were happy with the child’s sheepskin mitts, lambskin, and a hat with appliquéd truck.
As we struggle to master the intricacies of getting our website ‘talking to Google’, about our wool products, we’ve had requests for bedding, blankets and sheepskins from every province across Canada except, so far, Newfoundland/Labrador.
Yarn has travelled as far as Hawaii (but mailing costs make this rather pricey) and to Alaska. We were fortunate enough to have one of our blankets featured in Canadian Living Magazine; the first couple of response came from Sudbury and from Chicago. Surprising. People from various states, including the deep south, have discovered our wool products, sometimes thanks to the birders who travel here in winter.
Beyond that we’ve mailed to Finland, other places in western Europe, and the British Isles. Often that’s thanks to Island visitors, or students at The Lodge, who come browsing.
We posted Pat Frontini’s lovely hand-woven mohair and Topsy Wool blended throw on Topsy Farms Facebook page. In two days the information was forwarded from Colorado to a friend travelling in Italy who bought it as a birthday gift to herself.
But this latest connection tops them all. One of our pink tweed blankets is having an adventure.
“I’ve received your blanket (in Calgary) and its now keeping me warm while I volunteer on a hospital ship in the Congo. I volunteer with an organization called Mercy Ships, www.mercyships.org the largest NGO hospital ship in the world. We provide free surgery to the forgotten poor in West Africa. The crew is comprised of over 400 volunteers from 35 different nations who raise funds to support themselves in coming onboard to work from anywhere between two weeks to two years.
“I registered my own Canadian NGO called Sterile Processing Education Charitable Trust (www.spectrust.org) which allows me to educate in local hospitals and teach the OR staff on how to improve their sterile technique and reduce post operative infections.
“I come and stay on the ship for 2-3 months at a time and share a small cabin with 3 bunk beds and tiny bathroom for 6 girls. Each time I return I like to bring a few things that make my bunk cozy and remind me of Canada. The Congo is extremely hot right now (feels like 43C) although the air conditioning on the ship is always on high and it feels very cold. My wool blanket has received a lot of attention because of it’s warmth and comfort. It’ll stay on the ship when I return to Canada so that others can enjoy it while I’m away and then it’ll be here for me when I get back.”
We’re humbled, honoured, proud to have our wool products accompany folks on their adventures through life.
Most of our 41 summers farming on Amherst Island have been dry. The summers of 2008-2011 were a pleasant exception – no Islanders could remember 3 green summers in a row and 4 in a row still seem miraculous.
For us, the driest summer was in 1988. We had to buy some poor quality hay and quite a bit of grain to get the sheep flock through to the next spring.
It was a near squeak that year to pay the bills.
Once again this year we have had a tough spring/early summer with high temperatures and very little moisture. The August rains enjoyed by some have managed to miss us almost entirely. But we are in quite a bit better position than we were in 1988.
Our equipment isn’t quite so ancient and is less prone to breaking down when urgently needed. Hay can be made more quickly. We now have the equipment and experience to make baleage early in the Ontario growing season which enables us to harvest good quality forage while encouraging re-growth for pasture, and at least slightly reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive grain. The sheep are rotated from pasture to pasture. We try always to trim the completed pastures to remove plants that the sheep didn’t eat. (We don’t want the least favourite to reseed, coming to dominate the pasture.)
Christopher, wrapping a baleage bale.
High soil quality helps the farm through drought.
We roll the hay out in the fall and winter, spreading it on the ground. That is the most efficient way for all sheep to have equal access to the fresh hay. It also leaves tiny hay fragments which, combined with the sheep droppings, increase the organic matter in the soil. We have less manure to spread as we now use the barns less, but still stockpile the barnyard gleanings and spread on the fields when we can. This increases the ’tilth’ of the earth, draws earthworms (which add their own castings) and other small organisms, which helps hold moisture if we do get any rain. The first year we unrolled hay on poor pasture, we could clearly see the green stripes in the ground, where the more lush grasses were growing thanks to the increased organic matter.
Don unrolling hay to newly shorn sheep, early spring
Last year was a good year – we harvested as much hay as possible and were able to build up a surplus – called ‘drought hay’ – which we are already feeding during the weaning process (5 large round bales/day plus supplement). Last year we made over 1700 round bales and didn’t start feeding until November; this year, we were able to make just over 1100 bales, and have had to start feeding during the summer. That is a big difference.
Ian loading bales onto wagons for transport
Consequently, culling animals that are not productive for the farm is a much higher priority this year. A first year ewe-lamb who didn’t get pregnant is unfortunately sent to market. Older ewes unable to raise lambs once more would normally be culled in the fall, but this year, they are going in the summer. We just can’t feed them.
Tough decisions. We need to enhance the core of our flock, feeding them well, rather than giving everyone skimpy rations.
So, now our soil is improved. Our techniques are improved. Equipment is in better shape. We just need to perfect our rain dance techniques.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leah, Ian and Randi’s daughter, is probably the reason our history began. When she was on her way, her parents wanted her to be raised by an extended family; by a tribe. However, relatives were scattered, and they had other friends who were interested in living communally, so on December 31st, 1971, some of our property was purchased for the unheard of Island sum of $40,000 by five original owners.
A significant amount of work was done to make the house habitable, and by spring, 1972, massive gardens were prepared and planted and mulched with old hay from the barn, and ambitious plans were debated. The original thought of tearing down the barn and using the wood to build a geodesic dome was discouraged by an Islander, disturbed by the proposal of destroying a sturdy, hand built structure. He also just happened to have several heifers to sell. Someone else had a tractor we could buy.
That began the ‘slippery slope’ of farming.
By this time there were a number of members and more visitors, and lots of enthusiastic labour. Thus, the early days of our history.
Then Christopher arrived, seeking to emigrate from Britain, to a place where he could raise sheep and eat well. For a time the farm had both cattle and sheep then chose to focus on the latter. We started with a flock of 50 head of sheep from Manitoulin Island.
When the commune broke up, reasonably amicably, on June 30, 1975, those who stayed were determined to repay debts as quickly as possible to those who left. The latter were kind enough to wait for repayment, allowing the farm to survive. We are still in touch with many of those who left, and they are still our friends. We are proud of that part of our history.
Over the next 36 years, we have been creative in finding new ways to make mistakes, but we’ve learned from them. Our five shareholders: Ian, Christopher, Don, Dianne and Sally each contribute as we are able, and have found an amicable tolerance for each others’ foibles, and respect for each others’ strengths. We raised another barn and children and now contribute in raising their children. We have 4 gardens and are starting a fifth. We and our children now live in 5 homes on the Island. We started the Wool Shed and this website store to use our wool byproduct more productively and that is growing too. We have sold lamb privately to satisfied customers for over 35 years.
We contribute to our community in a wide variety of ways, especially with the production of the Island Beacon, our monthly newsletter, which just recently passed the 400th edition.
The flock has increased from the original 50 to a breeding flock of 1100 and 1300 lambs in 2011. We were whammied by Scrapie in 2008, having the government ‘harvest’ all but 670 pregnant ewes in order to remove those who were potentially ill. (There is no live animal test.) We are recovering from that, though the financial picture still is difficult.
But we are still proudly here with a good reputation. In farming, that’s a success story.
Photos courtesy of Don Tubb.
” … how very happy we are with the wool blankets we ordered …over three years ago…. we have pulled our blankets out from their summer plastic bag storage (and)… have begun washing them with Eucalan in our washer and partially drying them in our drying on ‘synthetic damp dry’ setting. They are coming out beautifully fluffy and soft on the skin, smelling lovely and clean lovely wooly lanolin. And they are finished so beautifully. We truly love them. They are one of the best purchases we’ve made to increase the comfort we enjoy in our home. Thank you for such a pleasing product at such a reasonable price (including shipping!) and for taking care of the land and the animals in a humble and respectful way.“
– Helen and Marcus Mendes, BC, Fall, 2009