pure wool yarn

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.

A woolly way of life for Amherst Islanders

by Meghan Balogh, Napanee Guide Newspaper


A short ferry ride from Millhaven has the potential to transport you to another world.

On Amherst Island, a 16-by-seven kilometre piece of land in Lake Ontario, life moves by at a different pace.

The rolling farmland on the edge of the water is dotted with houses and small farms, and you can feel the sense of community that binds the island’s little population of 450.

That sense of community can be found in a more tightly-knit group of shareholders a few kilometres east of the ferry dock on Topsy Farms, a multi-family-run endeavour that brings together a group of people interested in a different way of life.

Topsy Farms is one of two large sheep operations that can be found on Amherst Island. In fact, once lambing season is over, the island’s human population is outnumbered by sheep 12 to one, or more.

In the early 1970s, five original owners purchased the island property that is Topsy Farms today. They were joined by friends interested in communal living.

The commune didn’t last, and some original shareholders moved on and were bought out and replaced by the five people who own and operate the sheep farm today.

Those five include Ian Murray and Sally Bowen, Christopher Kennedy and his wife Dianne, and Don Tubb.

Each shareholder brings their own skills to the farm, Ian and Sally running the marketing end of things while Christopher lends his expert knowledge of flock management. Don is a skilled photographer.

Today, Topsy Farms is home to the five shareholders and their family members, including Ian and Sally’s sons Jacob and Kyle Murray, and Jacob’s wife and two sons.

Sally and Ian - photo by Meghan Balogh

Sally and Ian – photo by Meghan Balogh

It’s also home to a flock of 1,100 breeding ewes, multiple rams, and seven guardian dogs.

In May and June, the ewes will begin their lambing process out in the hundreds of acres of pasture that Topsy Farms owns or rents, adding more than 1,000 new lambs to the flock to be raised mostly for the lamb meat market.

Everyone pitches in with the daily chores, from feeding sheep to fixing machinery, checking fences, assisting the flock with lambing, and maintaining the barns, paddocks and pastures that house the livestock. Sally is a green thumb and oversees five gardens. She also co-ordinates knitters and does some knitting herself to fill The Wool Shed, the farm’s on-site shop, with homemade wool products for sale to the public.

Sally lives with Lyme Disease and has to get her sustenance via feeding tube, but this has not dampened her enthusiasm for rural living.

The Wool Shed also features other Canadian-made products including sheepskins, yarn, bedding, apparel, and more. Most items are also sold on line.

“It just felt like an environment in which people supported and cared for each other and were trying to do something good,” says Sally of her initial attraction to the idea of a farm owned and operated by families together, on a small island in eastern Ontario. Sally grew up in Toronto.

“It’s been a whole lot of hard work and not a lot of money, but the fact that all three of our children, Ian’s daughter and our two boys, have had enough education to move elsewhere and experience the wider world they’ve all chosen to come back.

There’s a sense of community and wholeness about this world that is difficult to create nowadays.”

The sons, Jacob and Kyle, have returned to more thoroughly learn the business so that one day they can carry on the farm. But it can be a woolly way of life.

“What it really comes down to is that if me and Jake are ever going to take the place over we’ve got a hell of a lot to learn,” says Kyle, 28. “You can’t help but learn by being here, but you really need to actively try with things like fixing tractors, or making breeding selection choices.

“It’s a weird thing having a species sort of enslaved, but we’ve got a nice symbiotic relationship where we treat them as well as we can and they sustain us. I like it here, to put it simply. It’s a better life than most. It’s not an easy life, but it’s closer to nature and more wholesome.”

Jacob and his wife decided to return to the farm when their first child was born. Now they have two boys, ages seven and four, and would not want them growing up anywhere else.

He wants to make a life out of sheep farming, just like his parents have done.

“It’s a good way for kids to grow up,” says Jacob. “It’s a very pure way of living, but not easy. So the struggle is how do you do it and not be poor.”

The struggle is a reality that everyone at Topsy Farms has had to come to terms with, especially after a government-mandated cull that took their flock from 1,400 down to 670 animals in 2008 after a sheep tested positive for scrapie. It hit them hard, but they are are nearing their original numbers again.

But the ins and outs of farming can never be depended upon to run smoothly all of the time, and while Kyle and Jacob are doggedly determined to keep farming sheep, they understand it will never be easy sailing.

“It helps because my brother and I have grown up here, we know what we’re getting into, we know the sacrifice that it is,” says Jacob. “And it is like a sacrifice. Essentially it’s like joining the clergy or becoming a nun. You’re taking a vow of poverty, for the betterment of others in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of it.”

The commitment of time, effort, and sweat equity are never more apparent than at shearing time on Topsy Farms. This past weekend three hired shearers and all farm hands worked dawn until dusk for three days, shearing the entire flock’s year’s worth of wool, “skirting” the fleeces and removing the worst parts to head to Woolgrowers in Carleton Place, and the top quality portions to MacAusland’s Woolen Mills on Prince Edward Island.

Despite the hard work, Jacob says there are moments that make it all worthwhile.

“Being out in the field at seven in the morning, when the mist is just coming off, and looking over the lake,” he says, describing one of those moments. “And just knowing that this land is ours and we’ve made it better. I just can’t imagine this land, this place being in the hands of anyone else.”

Topsy Farms on flickr

In the spring of 2009, Sherri (an avid knitter) came to see us just after the lambs were born and took some photos of her visit. Her Topsy Farms flickr album can be found here.

Our pure wool yarn is soap-washed only to retain lanolin and to avoid chemicals. It is available at the Wool Shed, our at home store, or on-line. We also have fleeces, roving both natural and coloured, cheeses of pencil roving and knitted wool items for sale. Come visit, on line or in person, and take a look.


“I love using Topsy Farms wool – the skeins are very generous…”

I love using Topsy Farms wool – the skeins are very generous...

skeins not yet labelled

“I love using Topsy Farms wool – the skeins are very generous – you only need 8 skeins to make a man’s sweater – it knits up so smoothly and consistently – the finished product is very professional looking holding it’s shape wear after wear! (It) comes in wonderful colours – I especially like the heathers.”

– Kate Parkinson, Kingston, ON, Summer, 2010
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.