This week, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Rhonda of Ewe and Us Farm. I feel a certain kindred spirit for the farm, located as I am now, in the midwest; Ewe and Us is just next door in Nebraska. Rhonda is a spinner and a needle felter–something I have been curious to try for a while now . . . and boy has she created some beautiful art! Our interview also taught me a bit more about breeding and the ways that certain desirable wool traits can emerge from unexpected crosses. All in all, emailing with Rhonda has been a terrifically fun and educational experience. I hope you enjoy the interview and the photographs, sent along by Rhonda.
How did your farm/operation get its start?
Ewe And Us officially began 40 years ago when I married a professional shepherd, who bought be a spinning wheel for a wedding present, and 2 years later we bought 5 acres, and his parents brought the sheep left over from his 4-H and FFA days. They were Hampshires, but I had already claimed 2 crossbred colored ewes for myself by then. When I later sold my horses, I bought 20 registered Corriedale ewes, and I was in business selling fleece to the area spinners. Time passed, I soon saturated the market for wool, the kids got old enough to be in 4-H, and we shifted back to market sheep for a few years. Fast forward to kids all graduating and leaving home, and my interest in fiber arts was awakened once more. Within a year, we had the opportunity to acquire some Polypay ewes about to lamb, a Corriedale ram, and a NCWGA registered ram. I was back in business. Over the next 4 years, we increased our flock numbers, improved the fleece quality with a crossbreeding program, covered all the ewes, increased the farm to 22 acres, and my husband retired, I quit my contracting business, and both of us committed to the sheep and wool business full time. This spring we lambed 85 ewes, and have 24 yearling replacement yearling ewes.
What kinds of fiber animals do you raise and why?
We raise sheep. Breeds included in the cross breeding program include Polypay, Columbia, Corriedale, and Merino primarily, plus a little crossbred influence from some of the original ewes, and a few ‘found’ ewes added to the flock for variety. Included in the Maverick flock are 4 Romneys, a CVM, and a Coopworth, Some of their daughters have provided some unique and interesting fleece selections for the buyers. Both white and Natural colored are intermixed, and we are watching the color outcome with interest, but as of now have given up all ideas of making any predictions.
Being primarily a needle felter, I quickly determined the type of wool that would give me the results I was looking for. Thats the type of fleece we intent to produce. This means going against the tide as a producer here in the midwest, where wool is often considered a nuisance, but with some national exposure of my fiber art over the last year, that attitude may be changing.
I credit having children with having provided me with experience with other fiber animals however. 4-H projects for the kids included both Angora goats and rabbits. I now get my alpaca from neighbors.
What is your favorite part of raising fiber animals?
Raising any kind of livestock (which I have done all my life) provides one with a sense of grounding. The natural world and order, life cycles, and ones personal place and responsibility in the world can not be denied. Life can never be taken for granted on a farm. Sheep in particular have long been idealized as a lifestyle, and for us, they have been. Literally. I am often told that the connection I have with my medium can be seen in my work. I find it particularly satisfying when I can point to a finished piece of art, whether a shawl, a sculpture, or a needle felted framed picture, and say “I was there when the lamb was born, the fleece was sheared, and I felt it warm my hands on the skirting table. I washed, and carded, and dyed the wool, and rearranged the fibers into what it has become.”
What is on your wheel/needles/loom at the moment?
I do almost everything, so I always have several projects going. Right now, there is:
• On the wheel – I am experimenting with some yearling fleece (Merino X Corriedale) attempting core spinning with dyed locks.
• Needle felting – I have several orders for consignment shops in the works, but special projects include the Nebraska square for the Auxiliary for the America Wool Growers association wool quilt to be auctioned off next year. I also have a felted Sandhill Crane for a community fundraiser, and my usual entries for the Black Sheep Gathering Fiber arts competition. Plus fleeces, dyed roving and yarn, and whatever else I can manage for merchandise for the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival in June, where I will also be teaching a needle felting class.
• Oh – and on the loom is an all wool rug, using roving from our own wool as weft.
What would you like hand spinners to know about your fiber?
As a long time spinner, I am keenly aware of what spinners DON”T want – vegetable matter. And the obvious like weak fiber, Canary stain, and poorly skirted fleece. When it comes to what they do want–there is very large range. Micron, staple, luster, crimp, breed–I will address this later, and other characteristics desired depend on the use of the yarn, and many personal preferences. For this reason, I prefer to have the buyer tell me what they like, and I try to select fleeces according to their preferences. However, we do have mostly the finer to medium wools, there is still a variety to choose from. For colored wool, the selection for color is limited, but becoming better.
One thing I try to pass along to my fiber customers is about the breed issue. Sheep breeds have been developed over centuries to improve chosen characteristics – in this case we will only talk about wool, although there are many other factors to consider. The type of wool considered desirable is based on its intended use – long, strong wools were developed for the carpet trade, medium wools are long wearing for outerwear, and can be multipurpose. Very fine wool was quickly recognized as being preferable for light weight, long wearing, and comfortable fine fabrics. However, it should be known that standards can vary considerably within a breed. A breed title gives only a type and range of characteristics, and often an individual will not even be within breed standard range. An example from our flock, a ewe with Polypay, and some other assorted breeds in her background, including Columbia, had an unusual crimpy fleece. Out of curiosity, we had it tested, and the results came back as 14 micron. In the textile scale, this fleece could have been called Merino, as it easily comes withing range of acceptable microns, possibly even as ‘super fine’. Yet, there was no Merino breeding in her background. I would like to see better communication across the associated industries – sheep producers, wool crafters, and textile manufacture, as I am aware that terms are used that have different meaning for each. Just because a particular wool is labeled ‘Merino’ does not always tell you much. Just within the sheep producers world, there are reported to be as many as 17 different ‘bloodlines’ of Merino, and they continue to change.
How can interested buyers get in touch with you?
We nearly always have fleece available, but the best selection of course is in spring and early summer. Ewe And Us can be found as a website, a facebook page, an Etsy store, and via email at email@example.com
Thanks so much, Rhonda!
I love farm visits and meeting new people (and sheep!): if you are a hand spinner, a shepherdess, a small flock owner, a mill operator, or a wool trader, I would love to feature your work on this site. Please get in touch via email or Ravelry by clicking the “About” tab (above)