About a month ago, I had the chance to visit Seven Sisters Farm in Illinois. My guild-mate, Cathe Capel, runs the farm and tends the flock of Leicester Longwools. She also has chickens, three wonderful guard dogs, and some beautiful bluebells in a lower meadow. Sounds pretty idyllic, eh? When we arrived, Cathe was about to bottle-feed one of the young lambs (an event which captivated my son, who also came along for the tour). The sheep had plenty of pasture, were surrounded by some sturdy fencing, and seemed to generally enjoy the sunshine and each other. As Cathe explains below, Leicester Longwools are a critically endangered breed. Their fleece is amazing; Cathe combed out some locks at one of our recent spinning meet-ups and gave me a bit to spin. Wow, were these locks soft and amazing to spin–a very different experience for me, given that I have mostly been working with medium-fleece sheep so far. If I had a set of combs (and knew how to use them as well as Cathe does!), I would jump at the chance to process one of these fleeces! Cathe sent along some photographs and I pulled a few from her Facebook site (with her permission, of course). I hope you enjoy the interview and the beauty of her flock!
Photos: new lamb, freshly dyed LL yarn, ewe and lamb, LL fleece, young LL ewe, bluebells, yin and yang (AR Cobb photo credit), our 1895 brick farm house
How did your farm/operation get its start?
I always wanted to be a farmer! We were assigned a project in 8th grade describing what we wanted to do when we grew up and how we would get there. I grew up in town, but I wrote mine on becoming a farmer. My 8th grade teacher, who grew up on a farm, was pretty skeptical.
My path led from Illinois to Wyoming and back to Illinois. I worked at an outdoor school, cleaned hotel rooms, owned/managed two horse boarding/breeding/training facilities, ran the purchasing department for a manufacturing plant, managed academic journals, and worked for a nonprofit focused on helping beginning farmers get started farming.
I learned to spin 40 years ago in Wyoming when I helped my husband’s mother with her small flock of Columbia sheep and she decided she wanted to learn to spin her wool. Helping her care for her sheep was very rewarding, and I loved spinning. After almost 40 years, I have finally returned to two things I find fulfilling: spinning and caring for sheep. I also feel the connection to my mother-in-law, who passed from this life long ago, and to the young woman I was all those years ago.
What kinds of fiber animals do you raise and why?
Once I started spinning again, I looked for a fleece, and I found someone on the internet near Peoria with Leicester Longwool fleeces for sale. I visited the farm, and walking in the pasture with her sheep reminded me of Wyoming and made me think about having a small flock of my own. When I looked at the fleeces, I knew I had to raise Leicesters. The lustre of the wool was absolutely striking, the staple was long and strong with a good crimp, and the wool was soft and warm and pliable in my hand.
Leicester Longwools are a critically endangered breed developed in England in the 18th century. If you are curious, more information is available on the Leicester Longwool Breeder’s webpage. Leicesters are part of almost every modern white-faced breed of wool sheep today, but the Leicesters’ numbers have waned because the commercial demand for their strong, lustrous wool has declined in favor of smaller diameter wools and synthetic fibers.
They are medium-sized, docile, and kind sheep, and they are great mothers. They are neither expensive to keep nor labor-intensive to raise; they thrive on grass pasture in the spring, summer, and fall, hay in the winter, and a little grain at lambing time.
What is your favorite part of raising fiber animals?
I get a deep sense of peace in the presence of my sheep. I have daily contact with them as I go about my chores, and managing the farm to provide them with as stress-free an environment as possible is a satisfying and engaging challenge. And lambing, although it’s a lot of work, is pretty rewarding!
What is on your wheel/needles/loom?
I am currently doing my “homework” for the Master Spinner Level One class offered by Olds College in Alberta, Canada. A satellite class was held in Monticello in early June, and I was able to participate. The homework involves processing and spinning wool from 10 different breeds of sheep into worsted and woollen yarn, dyeing yarns with 10 different types of natural dyestuffs, and doing a variety of other projects, some practical and some written, all using or on the subject of sheep and their wool.
What would you like hand spinners to know about your fiber?
Leicester wool is strong, lustrous, takes dye very well, and the beautiful sheen remains after washing, scouring, and dyeing. The locks are distinct and have well-defined crimp, the wool has a surprisingly soft handle, and it is very easy to spin. Lamb fleeces are finer than fleeces from mature sheep, and many of my colored fleeces are finer than white ones.
I sell only the shoulders, back, and sides of my fleeces to handspinners. These are the best portions of the fleece with the lowest vegetable matter content and no stains, so the wool will not need skirting when you receive it. Raw fleece is available in two lengths: 4-5″ for a six-month fleece and 8-10″ for a full year. I also sell combed top, carded roving, washed locks, and 3-ply yarn in various natural and dyed colors.
**Please let me know in January if you are interested in purchasing raw fleece, and I will reserve some for you when we shear in March. Our entire clip is sold and/or processed by mid May.**
Do you have any exciting plans for your farm/flock in the near future?
As far as the sheep go, I am using selection techniques to develop a line of ewes with finer wool, as well as increasing the number of colored ewes in my flock.
I am also helping a member of our guild start her own flock of registered Leicesters. So far, she has two wethers and two ewes, one black and one white, with two more white ewes arriving at the end of June. I’m really excited to have another breeder in the area!
On the farm, we are involved in a new project that we are really excited about. The project explores woody perennial polyculture (a food forest) as an alternative to annual row crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. We leased portions of a 10-acre field to Kevin Wolz of Midwest Agricultural Restoration Services (MARS), and he planted several rows of hybrid chestnuts and walnuts with an understory of fruit trees, hazelnut bushes, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, currants, and grapes. Once established, the food forest will provide commercially viable quantities of fruit and nuts for MARS to harvest, process, and sell. We will continue to cut hay in the aisles between the trees, and in year three of four, we will start grazing sheep and poultry in the aisles. Kevin pans to use the site as a model and demonstration plot, as well as a source for plant material for future woody perennial installations.
How can interested buyers get in touch with you?
Email is best: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks so much Cathe!
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)