When you decide to use small-batch Merino yarn in your next project, this decision will result in a soft and warm garment. But it is also a decision to support connection, interrelatedness, and trust. Your act of making a garment from this yarn adds you (and the lucky wearer) to a chain of essential relationships. You become connected to where it all started—the relationship between the sheep and their pastures. Your chain of connection grows to include the shepherd whose attention and care ensured the health of the sheep and the quality of their fleece. And finally, you get to use yarn that has only come into existence because of healthy communication and trust between wool processor and shepherd. It’s much more than buying local or supporting small farms and makers. When you buy small-batch Merino yarn, you inherit a string of relationships and you get to add your own connection, which allows our beautiful web of interconnectedness to flourish.
This chain of healthy relationships is important for every successful run of small-batch millspun yarn. However, I was surprised to learn that it is particularly necessary when it comes to processing Merino. Initially, when I went to talk with Lydia Christiansen of Abundant Earth Fiber about why it is so tricky for small mills to produce a smooth and consistent yarn with Merino, I thought the answer would be a technical one. And because she processed some of my Merino fleece last fall, which yielded perfect pin-drafted roving, I was sure she would be able to describe her secret techniques. It turns out she and her husband Alan do use expert techniques derived from years of experience. But in addition, Lydia described and emphasized how connection plays the most essential role in processing small-batch Merino wool successfully.
Where large mills use lab reports to analyze quality, small mills have a more hands-on approach. Photo by Lisa Mitchell
The Connection Between Shepherd and Sheep
When commercial mills receive Merino in bales that weigh hundreds of pounds, they are receiving wool that a lab has carefully analyzed for consistency and quality. When a small mill receives Merino, they are relying on the shepherd to send only premium fiber. And this means that the shepherd must pay close attention to many aspects of raising their flock. The fiber needs to be consistent in length, diameter, and crimp across the flock and within each sheep’s fleece. It needs to be healthy and strong, without breaks or fragile tips. When the shepherd has selectively bred for these qualities, it is much more likely that the fiber will create the beautiful yarn we all love.
Many Merinos in small flocks wear coats to keep their fleeces clean, which means that the mill doesn’t have to use harsh chemicals to remove vegetable matter that might have accumulated in the fleece if the sheep hadn’t been coated. These coats need to be changed and repaired about three times a year to allow the fleece to grow and expand into bigger sizes. Nutrition, parasite management, and shearing are also a big part of helping the sheep produce the best fleece possible. So that close connection between sheep and shepherd is the foundation of successful small-batch Merino yarn, so much of a foundation that Lydia weighted its importance as 90 percent of the secret to successful small-batch Merino yarn.
Once the sheep have been sheared, there is more that the shepherd must do to ensure that the mill can work with that fiber and produce a good outcome. The shepherd needs to know fleece. While a lab can grade fleece quickly with their instruments, a shepherd must use their senses. Skirting and grading fleece by hand takes experience and time. Once the funky parts of the fleece have been removed or skirted, a shepherd’s fingers need to be calibrated to feel differences in the wool and to be able to identify the premium fiber. Removing less-than-premium fiber, hay-laden patches, and second cuts (created by the shearer’s blade passing over the same area on the sheep twice) is time consuming and tedious. There is little margin for error here because Merino’s fineness only emphasizes mistakes. Even a little second cut or difference in crimp is going to show in the yarn. The shepherd’s level of attention to the skirting and grading process provides a link in the chain between sheep and wool processor. You can imagine the shepherd’s respect and care while they are performing this careful act—for both the sheep whose wool they are working with and for the mill who will be receiving this wool.
The Connection Between Mill and Shepherd
Because of the high lanolin content in Merino, scouring it is time intensive. Unlike commercial mills that have “washing chains” of up to six vessels that hold massive amounts of water, Lydia and Alan scour their wool in two old washing machines. They showed me how they’ve removed the agitators and use the machines for water holding and spinning capacity. While they can scour eight to 10 pounds of medium-grade wool in an hour, they can get only half that amount of Merino cleaned in the same amount of time. Four to five pounds of Merino require an extra wash and many extra rinses.
When Lydia receives Merino fleece, she has to trust that she is receiving premium fiber from a shepherd who has a solid relationship with their flock. The shepherd, meanwhile, has to trust that Lydia is going to spend the extra time and attention it takes to get it clean. Once the Merino is clean, Lydia takes the carding process nice and slow so as not to break the fine fiber. Her mill equipment can do this gentle process, but the reduced speed adds even more time to the preparation for making yarn.
Left, washed wool makes its way onto the carder to be opened up and aligned; right, dreamy coils of carded wool await spinning on Abundant Earth Fiber’s equipment. Photos by Lisa Mitchell
What Makes Small-Batch Merino Yarn so Special?
Once I learned that processing Merino in small batches takes so much extra time and attention, and mills tend to charge the same fee across wool grades, I wondered why mills take these jobs. So I asked Lydia why she does it. The answer I got points to what makes small-batch Merino yarn so special: “It’s for the connection and the relationships we build with the shepherds. It’s to contribute to the community. It’s to participate with others in the love of wool.”
Which brings us full circle. In every step of its processing, small-batch Merino yarn represents community, connection, and goodness. And these days, I think we can all say that this is something we need to grow. From sheep to shepherd to mill to you when add your part and create beautiful garments, we have an interconnected chain.
Lisa Mitchell is a former art therapist. She and her husband raise guanacos for their exquisite fiber on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest. Lisa’s retreats and podcast, A Fiber Life, focus on ways in which caring for wild animals and making things with fiber by hand teaches universal life lessons. Her farm page can be found at afiberlife.com.