‘Field schools’ teach fibre enthusiasts textile skills

Most people completely disconnected from the origin of their clothing, says Ste. Genevieve sheep farmer

Anna Hunter demonstrates how to skirt a fleece.

A Manitoba sheep farm is hosting field schools to teach fibre aficionados wool and textile production skills and to connect people with the sources of their clothing.

“If we can look at how we are consuming clothes and textiles in the same way that we look at how we’re consuming food, I think we’ll realize we have a huge opportunity to make a change,” said Anna Hunter.

Hunter co-owns Long Way Homestead with husband Luke Palka and their two sons near Ste. Genevieve, in southeastern Manitoba. Long Way Homestead is a wool-focused sheep farm and wool mill, which focuses on processing wool from local farmers.

On April 24 Hunter hosted a class on wool skirting and handling.

The group, kept small because of COVID-19 restrictions, learned how to remove contaminants from the fleeces as they came off the sheep. They also learned how to test the wool for qualities like colour, length of the ‘staple’ or fibre, and the soundness or tenderness of the fibre (tested by tugging on the wool and listening to the crackle it makes).

Hunter’s desire to teach comes in part because when she began farming, it felt like reinventing the wheel.

She and Palka moved to Manitoba from Vancouver six years ago. They had no farming experience, but Hunter had previously owned a yarn store.

“I’ve kind of gone backwards on the supply chain when it comes to wool,” she said.

Left: Luke Palka and Christel Lanthier escort ram ‘Bjorn’ to the sheep-shearing area while Anna Hunter provides food incentive. Right: Field school students shake out a fleece after ‘skirting’ it for contaminants. photo: Geralyn Wichers

Raising sheep seemed like the next logical step, she writes on her website. However, while there were many sheep farmers and organizations to learn from in Manitoba, it was difficult to find information on raising sheep specifically for wool.

Hunter found a mentor in Carberry-area shepherd Gerry Oliver.

“I’ve learned so much from other farmers who are doing an incredible job of growing wool,” Hunter said.

Processing the wool proved another enigma. There was no wool mill in Manitoba — the nearest, in Alberta, was fully booked. Hunter would go on to start her own small-scale wool mill in her garage.

They never felt like they were farming enough to fit into farming groups, and yet they weren’t ‘textile enough’ to fit into textile groups.

“We were right in the middle, and so we wanted to create some educational learning opportunities for people who also find themselves in that place,” she said.

Shearer Stacey Rosvold shears the Long Way Homestead flock. photo: Geralyn Wichers

Wool and textile skills go hand in hand with available infrastructure, said Hunter. Canada once produced and used a lot of wool, but that has declined and with it have gone the skills to process and manufacture with it, she said.

Wool production in Canada peaked in 1945, says a handbook from the Canadian Sheep Federation and Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Limited. Wool production has dropped steadily since then, though it saw a revival at the end of the 20th century.

At a farm level, unless producers are focusing on wool production, they may not have financial incentive to develop skills like skirting and do a good job at handling wool, said Hunter.

Hunter has a combination of online lectures and in-person field schools scheduled on topics like marketing yarn, natural dyes, managing sheep for wool quality and breed-specific knitting.

Instructors include artist, writer and educator Seema Goel; dyer and clothing designer Ash Alberg; wool classer, instructor and nutrition consultant Dr. Lisa Surber; and farmer, wool grader and judge Brian Greaves.

Left: Two freshly shorn sheep. Right: Field school students took a break to cuddle lambs while their mothers were sheared. photo: Geralyn Wichers

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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