Skip to main content

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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."

"Why not?"

"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?"

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Subscribe to the Facts & Arguments podcast on iTunes

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Join the Facts & Arguments Facebook group

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.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to