My husband and I were in our 50s when he changed jobs and we moved to Eastern Ontario, north of Kingston. I thought it was a bit late in life for me to be job hunting, and since we had bought a house in the country with 10 acres, I told him I would become a hobby farmer and grow all our food. "And I'll have sheep," I announced, "so I can knit you sweaters of natural homespun wool."
My husband didn't outright object to the venture, but he cautioned me to be economical, since I wouldn't be contributing an income any more.
I found my first sheep on the Internet. He was a beautiful Shetland wether (castrated ram) with an oatmeal-coloured coat so shaggy it curled in ringlets. I could see his soulful eyes in the photo. I phoned and made a date to visit him in Joyceville, Ont.
In "person," he was a captivating animal - he even wagged his tail when I petted him. And only $100. "I'll take him," I said.
"What?" the breeder said. "You can't take one sheep."
"They're herd animals. They need the company of their own kind."
"All right. I'll take that one too." I liked the look of the grey ewe standing beside my wether - her fleece wasn't long like his, but soft and puffy as candy floss.
"You can't just take two sheep."
"How many do I have to take?"
"Three. You can get away with three."
So I chose a black-and-white wether, also $100, although the ewe was $300 because of her breeding potential, and I took them home.
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Our property was fenced for horses, but not for little Shetland sheep that could slip under the boards. At the local farm store, I asked for advice on fencing. "We have a lot of problems with coyotes in this area. They'll just eat the leg off a sheep and leave it to hobble around and bleed to death."
Others in the store murmured in woeful agreement. "You'll need a high-tensile page-wire fence fastened over the board fence. Do you have the tools for that?"
I didn't. It cost $200 to buy fence for one acre, and another $200 to persuade the store owner's son to bring his tools along and set it up for me.
The sheep needed shade from the sun and shelter from winter winds: plywood and lumber, $150. They needed vaccinations and medicines to eliminate worms: $90 for the veterinarian's visit. They needed their hooves trimmed twice a year, so I paid $60 for hoof-trimming scissors, although I thought they could probably double as pruning shears (ever mindful of these little economies).
They basically ate grass in summer, and in winter got by on a flake of hay - a slice of a bale - in the morning and a flake of hay in the evening. At $4 a bale, that's feed for three sheep for six months for $240. And in the spring I was rewarded with three beautiful fleeces shorn off my shaggy sheep and flung out expertly in front of me by the professional shearer I had hired for $50. Really it's only $10 a sheep, but I had to pay extra because it's hard to get a shearer to come for only three sheep.
I bought a spinning wheel at an antique store in Picton, Ont., a steal at $80. Finding that I didn't have the know-how to operate it, I joined the Kingston Handloom Weavers and Spinners ($50 annual fee) and signed up for spinning lessons from a wonderfully expert and patient instructor. The class was only $40 for members.
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I learned how to clean, card and spin my own fleeces. Although my early efforts resulted in yarn that was full of fluffy lumps because I hadn't drafted it effectively, or coiled tight as a telephone cord because I was pedalling too fast, in no time I was producing yarn I thought good enough to make my husband's sweater.
Unfortunately I proved to be a hopeless knitter. After several times asking tolerant friends to cast on for me or correct my mistakes, I gave up. "Why don't you try weaving?" one of them suggested. I loved the beginner weaving course I took ($40 for members), and again I learned a lot from an expert and patient instructor. I even attended a spinners' conference to upgrade my skills ($150), attending workshops on triangular shawls and Icelandic crafts as well as a keynote address on the wool industry in Ontario.
On the guild bulletin board, I read an ad for a 45-inch loom, the perfect size for my sunroom, centre of my sweater-making operations, so my husband and I drove the truck up to Perth, Ont., one Sunday and brought it home. The nice lady wanted only $400 for it, but I gave her a cheque for $450 because she threw in a warping board and a skein winder and a lot of other useful things I thought I would eventually need, once I figured out what they were for.
The loom looked grand in our sunroom, surrounded by baskets of my lumpy handspun and my coil-y handspun. I was ready to start weaving. A sweater seemed too ambitious for my first project, so I settled for a scarf.
It was a warm autumn morning, exactly three years from the day I brought my sheep home, when I cut my husband's scarf off the loom and tied the tasselled ends. It was a multi-textured combination of oatmeal white, soft grey and black-and-white mixed yarn, lumpy in places, twisted tight in others, perhaps a bit short to wrap entirely around his neck, but still, to my eyes, a lovely item of handcrafted clothing. And it only cost just north of $3,000. The expression on his face: priceless.
Sheila Deane lives in Inverary, Ont.
Illustration by Leeay Aikawa.