with words and images by Anne Marie Chmielewski
A few years ago, on a farm tour hayride, the guide mentioned that although they raised sheep, they threw out the wool. “Every year,” he said, “we have someone who says they will use it, but no one ever does.” I am the sort of person who, due either to “charming” character quirk or “annoying” character defect, needs a challenge. I enjoy mystery. I like to forge blindly into unknown territory. I wanted to be the someone who would use that wool.
I grew up raising Suffolk sheep. We sold most of the wool, but every so often my parents had the mill make us a blanket or two. Suffolk wool is not very soft. The blankets were scratchy but beautiful, warm, functional and treasured. From my youth, I understood that all wool has value.
I asked about the sheep on the farm, and got a vague answer about them being a cross breed from Mexico simply called “Borrego” a Spanish word for lamb. I had never heard of Borrego, but I volunteered to spin and work up the wool. That first summer, the wool was accidentally left out in a series of storms and spoiled. I waited another year and had pretty much given up hope, but one August afternoon when I was at the farm for a children’s event, the owner told me he had left some wool by my car. Great! OK! I was excited! And, when my daughter and I were ready to leave for the day, we saw what he meant. There were two gigantic bags of weedy, poopy, greasy, wool waiting to go home with us. I barely managed to stuff one bag into the trunk and the other bag I crammed into the back seat next to my daughter. I rolled down the windows and drove away dreaming of possibilities.
My daughter and I share a tiny second story apartment in downtown. I skirted the fleeces on our balcony and invested in a heavy duty vacuum cleaner to suck up the piles of vegetable matter that would inevitably end up in the carpet. Then, I sat down to spin.
I learned to spin in the grease on a Navajo spindle. I am forever thankful my teacher insisted I learn this way because it made me pretty fearless when it comes to fiber. Although I love the pure pleasure and ease of spinning processed roving, I can work with wool straight off the sheep and don’t mind a mess.
The mysterious Borrego wool turned out to be a mix of inconsistent traits. It wasn’t sheared with an eye for fiber processing. There were lots of second cuts. The wool’s texture and quality varied quite a bit from fleece to fleece. Some white fleeces were almost soft and downy, while others were downright hairy. The brown had a lot more lanolin and was much softer and harder to spin than the white. It was all dirty.
I experimented. I spun and washed and felted. I crocheted and dyed. Some things worked out well, other things not so much. One memorable afternoon, I learned the hairy fibers soak up dye very differently than their softer counterparts, and I ended up with an undeniably ugly furry yellow-greenish bowl.
This is a work in progress and the work continues. Very slowly, I am making my way through the bags of wool on the balcony. It is hard work, and I often fantasize about sending it to the mill and what it would be like to spin and crochet with it after it has been cleaned and combed and carded. I know just how I would blend the brown with the white. I imagine wooly cocoa and snow colored roving, ready to work up. I have big plans for it, but I am not there yet. I don’t have the money to get it milled and, quite frankly, the mills might not even want to work with all its inconsistencies. It will always be a modest wool; unsophisticated in character, but it has its place, its own merit. Even with all its less than ideal traits, I still prefer it over a mass produced skein that I have no relationship with, no real understanding of where it came from, of what hands and fields came together to produce it.
My homespun Borrego yarn is slubby and not in an intentional Art Yarn sort of way. It is too scratchy for next to skin wear. It would make sturdy blankets or rugs, but right now I am working in small batches and crocheting bowls to sell at the farm’s roadside stand. It is slow and, at times, tedious. I wash and pick and wash, but I cannot completely remove all the vegetable matter. There will be tiny bits of alfalfa and weeds in the finished products, and I have come to accept that, maybe even relish it. I feel a sort of friendship with this wool. I understand its history the place and people who produced it, and the more I play with it, the more I am able to utilize and bring out the best of its properties. I have started calling it “Borrego Barnyarn”.
Tracing, even highlighting the line of connection back from artisan to sheep to soil draws me into a lively conversation between the outer world of farms and farmers and an inner creative process, a process by which I am trying to makes sense of and express the relationship between this land, the fiber it produces, and craft.