Photos and essay by Anne-Marie Chmielewski
Early Sunday morning, my daughter and I head north east out of Boulder County, past Greeley and the isty-bitsy town of Gill, Colorado. A few miles outside of Gill we cross the South Platte, moving full and fast with spring snowmelt. Swallows swoop and dart around its green banks, in and out of cottonwoods. My daughter says they fly like sewing needles.
A few miles past the river, we arrive at our destination, the Hagemeister’s grey blue ranch house with a sprawling Harrison's Yellow rose blooming along the side. 3 Collie dogs and ranch owner Sarah Hagemeister greet us by an ageing shed. Sarah, Julie Bishop, Flo Olsen and Marny Pavelka are the 4 women of Sister Sheep. Sarah and her husband Dean live on the ranch. Julie and Flo help out with sheep chores and wool processing and Marny raises angora goats in Morrison, CO. This morning Sarah, Julie and Flo are planning to check and change sheep jackets, clip toenails and cuddle with a few lambs.
Work starts as soon as Julie and Flo arrive. My daughter and I help a little but mostly try to stay out of the way. Our city feet move clumsily, unaccustomed to navigating sheep poop and heavy gates. I take pictures as the women work, and compare this scene to my Instagram feed. The shed we are in is every bit as beautiful as the photos posted by other fiber farms. Sun streams in and lights up the old wood. Swallow nests are tucked into eaves. The sheep are as wooly and content as one would want them to be. This is a happy place, a pretty scene and I want my camera to capture the light hearted easy gracefulness of the women catching sheep, cutting nails and changing jackets. And, this is work. Julie has a sore back. Catching and holding sheep takes a toll. It's messy. A sheep pees on Flo's foot. Jackets that are too tight or ripped get replaced with ones freshly laundered and repaired. Julie sews patches over any rips and tears. Hours pass and no one stops until every sheep has been taken care of. In the end, this is what I most want to capture: the work. Yes, the scene is picturesque, and I get some lovely photos, but the pictures I want to post are the ones that portray effort, the work behind the pastoral scenes usually displayed on social media.
The shed is small and as a new batch of sheep come in, they press me into a corner. I don't mind; it gives me time to think, and as I survey the sea of sheep around me William Morris' instructions to "have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be be beautiful" comes to mind. This. This wool is the utilitarian beauty I want to have in my house. The wool is useful and beautiful in its own right but understanding the less than glamorous work that goes into producing it adds an invisible yet very tangible layer of worth and loveliness.