Flo Olson and Julie Bishop, two of the four women who run Sister Sheep, meet me on a drippy, fog-soaked morning in Golden where they skirt fleeces and prep them for sale. Before getting down to work, we sit and chat. Immediately, their passion for fiber is evident. It bubbles through the conversation in easy laughter and well told stories. They talk of Sister Sheep’s beginnings, of lessons learned and friends made along the way. What emerges is a tapestry of connection: central to each story are the names of other people, mostly women, who have coached and supported them along the way.
Flo and Julie taught elementary school together at the Jefferson County Open School. They both knitted in their spare time, and at one point, (Julie points out this was back in the early days of email) she wrote an email to Flo asking her if she wanted to take “fleted cog” class. Not knowing what that could be, Flo agreed, only to later learn it was a actually a felted clog class. So, in addition to knitting, they both learned to felt. Shortly after, they got involved in Afghans for Afghans and knitted wool blankets, hats etc. for people impacted by the war. The Afghan for Afghans project only accepts items made with wool so, naturally, this led to the purchase of their first fleece, a Shetland named Baby Faced Nelson. Julie says, “we were like kids in a candy store” with that wool. They learned about raw fiber and the steps involved in getting from fleece to spun yarn to finished project.
In 2005 Julie approached sister Sarah Hagemeister, who alongside her husband, owns a 350 acre cattle ranch in Northern Colorado, with the idea that maybe they could raise some sheep. Sarah agreed and Sister Sheep was born. They started with 6 or 7 Rambouillet and everyone who put up money for the initial purchase got naming rights. The first flock, all white ewes, consisted of Lucy, Ethel, Laverne, Shirley, Mafanwy and Maglona and Nanette.
They began attending the Estes Park Wool Market, took classes, found like-minded fiber friends and the couple who would become their mentors, Myrtle and Roy Dow who ran Black Pines Sheep in Eaton, Colorado. Myrtle has since passed, but to this day, when Flo and Julie get stuck on a fiber project they ask themselves, “what would Myrtle do?” Laughing, and somewhat jokingly, they tell me that Sister Sheep’s annual meeting is held at the KOA in Estes Park during the Wool Market in May. It is much more than a place to show and sell fleeces: it is a gathering of friends and colleagues. Julie sums it up with, “it is the community I rely on.”
At one point the flock got a bit too large, and they realized a need to cut back. Sarah is happiest when she knows the sheep individually and prepping nearly 60 fleeces per year was too much for Julie and Flo to do alone. Today they have 34 sheep in the flock and it is no longer strictly white Rambouillet. They have cross bred with CVM, BFL, and Wensleydale for a variety of fibers and colors. In addition to the sheep on Sara’s ranch, there is a 4th “sister” of Sister Sheep Marny Pavelka who raises Angora Goats in the foothills outside Morrison.
Today’s chores and Tomorrow’s Fibershed
We move out into the garage that doubles as skirting room and fleece storage area. On the skirting table is a stunningly beautiful white fleece from a sheep named Myrtle, after their mentor Myrtle Dow. There is not a lot of dirt or vegetable matter to pick out: the sheep all wear jackets. Julie used to hand sew jackets out of colorful outdoor fabric much to the amusement of passersby, but these days they buy them from Rocky Sheep Company in Loveland.
Flo and Julie pick out little bits of this and that and we contemplate the next steps for our Fibershed: what is needed, what they want to provide, what they are able to do. Ideas emerge including an educational video demonstrating how to wash wool items. They tell me that people are afraid of caring for wool, "we need young hands though," they both agree. Wool is synonymous with older women. Would a video of a young woman doing the washing help reverse the stereotype? We discuss slow fashion, the viability of participating in the 'One Year One Outfit,' Fibershed project and the importance of supporting local economies.
Mostly though, what they want is to keep doing what they already do; provide top quality fleeces to their fiber loving customers. The morning passes quickly, and before I know it, it is time for me to go. They make plans for the rest of their day, finish skirting this fleece, start another, call a customer who recently purchased a fleece and see how she likes it...
Shop Sister Sheep on ETSY: https://www.etsy.com/people/sistersheepcolorado or see our Artisans & Retailers page!
and at the Fibershed Fleece Market Day
May 13, 2017
Denver Puppet Theater Courtyard,
3156 W 38th Ave, Denver, CO 80211