In a bid to tie those two loose ends together, the Manitoba Sheep Association recently put on the Blue Hills Fibre Fest, the first of what is hoped will be an annual event showcasing locally grown and processed wool.
“We want to connect people who grow wool or people who have fibre and yarn with the knitters and spinners who use it,” said organizer Allison Krause-Danielsen.
Save for a small section of Michael’s craft supply store in Brandon, it’s hard to find top-quality local materials for knitting, felting, weaving and crafting even though there are plenty of sheep and alpacas in the province, she said.
“We wanted to connect the two, and have a little bit of fun doing it,” said Krause-Danielsen, who grew up as a “crafty kid” whose “crafty” grandma taught her how to spin and knit.
Susan Sydor is another organizer of the event, which featured workshops on dyeing, spinning, and how to turn raw fleece fresh off the sheep’s back into a useful raw material.
The owner of three alpacas and a llama spends countless hours “listening” — but not watching — television, while stretching fibres and gently pumping the foot pedal of her spinning wheel. For her, spinning is a kind of meditation with an active, tactile aspect that’s very rewarding.
“All of your thoughts go into the yarn,” she said. “You spin the night away, and then when you wake up in the morning, your worries are gone because you’ve solved it all.”
Sydor said the new fibre festival is “multi-layered,” but mainly aimed at educating the public about the abundance and variety of fleeces, their uses, and the types of livestock that produce it.
“We want to bring all of those people together in one place and feed the addiction,” said Sydor.
Manitoba’s fleece industry dates back to the Selkirk settlers, and some people still own and use equipment for processing fibre that was built in the 1880s.
With that long tradition and a strong lamb industry, the province has the potential to become a “place that’s known for its fibre,” if markets can be developed, she said. As well, if more shepherds add genetics for wool-producing characteristics to their herds, they could add a second income stream to their operations.
Brian Greaves, a shepherd from Miniota, director of the Canadian Co-operative Woolgrowers Association, and longtime advocate for wool production in Manitoba, served as judge for a multi-class fleece quality competition.
Instead of grading for commercial value, he was basing his decisions on the desires of home spinners. Basically, the longer the fibres, the easier it is to spin, and the finer the strands, the less “itchy” a finished garment will be, he said.
Woollen long johns, for example, are best made from Merino, the finest of wool fibres, but there are no animals of that breed in the province. But Rambouillet, a French-developed breed, is a close second and is common in Manitoba, he added.
The event represented a valuable opportunity for wool producers to mix with niche market end-users and hopefully open up new marketing channels, said Greaves.
His fleeces, which typically bring about $15 each in the commodity market, could fetch twice that if sold to someone willing to wash it and turn it into a couple of sweaters, he said.
“Some of the smaller producers can make good money selling their fleeces to the home spinners,” said Greaves.
Coloured fleeces from breeds such as Icelandic, for example, may be “worthless” on the commercial market, but are highly sought after by the niche market.
Breeding existing flocks for both wool and meat, he said, can be as simple as adding a ram with better wool characteristics, because that trait is highly inheritable.
“You can take a Rambouillet ram and put him over your Suffolks with poor-quality fleeces and 70 per cent of his daughters are going to have better-quality fleeces,” said Greaves.
Lydia Carpenter, who runs a 100-head, pasture-raised, direct-marketed flock near Nesbitt, taught a workshop on how to wash raw fleece, a key step towards turning it into finished products, as well as drying, carding and combing.
A few washes with blue Dawn detergent is usually enough to get the oily lanolin and dirt and manure out of the fleece, she said. Then, after combing and carding, the wool is ready for spinning or felting.
“You could pay your shearer, and have extra money,” she said.
A spinner and wool user herself, Carpenter previously bought fleeces from others because wool from her commercial meat herd of Dorset, Rideau and Suffolk wasn’t of sufficient quality.
But lately, she has added two dozen Finn-Rambouillet-cross ewes that when crossed with a meat-type ram can produce two to three lambs a year on grass alone — as well as top-quality wool.
“Now, all of a sudden I’ve got 25 to 30 fleeces that I can work with, and we can maintain the commercial production on the meat side,” said Carpenter.
If she sells them for $20 each, that would cover the cost of shearing her whole flock (at $5 to $6 per head). An opportunity also exists for some enterprising individuals, she added, as raw fleeces worth 30 cents to $1.50 per pound, fetch $1.50 per ounce at the retail level once processed into “roving” — wool ready to spin.