October 2021 Studio Hours Recap: Anna Hunter On Drought and Wool Production

by | Oct 19, 2021 | News & Updates, Studio Hours, Sustainability

In October, Studio Members were treated to a chat with Anna Hunter, a Manitoba-based sheep farmer and mill operator. This past summer saw record heat and drought across much of Western Canada and Anna shared the impact on sheep farmers and wool production, and some strategies she is using to improve her farm’s resilience to the changing climate.

Drought led to pastures being exhausted very early this year and farmers had to supplement with feed hay. But hay yields are also significantly reduced during drought, leading to feed costs increasing by 20%. The nutritive value of pasture can also be affected. Anna shared Australian research that has shown that sheep on “drought rations” grow less wool and the wool staple may show changes in thickness, and weak spots. Anna also took us deep into some sheep-geekery—did you know that lambs grow their wool production machinery (secondary hair follicles) in utero, so if a pregnant ewe doesn’t get the right nutrition, her lamb may never produce a great fleece?

Rather than leaving us on that scary note, Anna shared things we can do. Farmers can adopt land management strategies that retain moisture. Mills can find ways to decrease their water consumption in processing. And we as consumers can support local producers and processors, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of our textile purchases.

Many of us find this hard to believe, but in general, wool is not valued in Canada; it is treated as an agricultural by-product. Most of Canada’s wool production is discarded or shipped overseas for processing. We briefly discussed the use of wool in house insulation. We don’t have a local manufacturer, but we could, given innovative thinking and infrastructure support!

One member asked whether it is time to start moving to more drought-tolerant sheep breeds, given Canada’s changing climate. Anna pointed out that sheep are resilient and exist in a huge range of climate conditions, so with appropriate farming techniques, hopefully we can keep enjoying the fibres our farmers are bringing us now.

I encourage everyone to follow Anna’s work supporting the Canadian wool industry. She also shares fantastic photos of sheep and farm life on Instagram @longwayhomestead. Thank you, Digits & Threads, for giving us the opportunity to talk directly with this inspiring Canadian.

After Anna’s presentation, we had time for a member show-and-tell.

(Note: where possible, pattern links are given to original sources. Ravelry links are indicated with (R) after the link)

We saw a vibrant Fair Isle Cowl—that member is definitely ready to knit a sweater now—and the beginnings of a shawl by Paper Daisy Knits (R) showcasing blues/oranges/yellows and many different textured stitches. The colours on both of those projects just shone through the screen.

Lots of members shared ideas that continued the theme from last month of using up small amounts of yarn. We saw mini pumpkins, mini ornament sweaters, and hats made from languishing skeins.

We loved the Mini Unbearable Hoodie by Les Garçons, with a wonderful modification to have trees at the bottom. We saw Flax by Tin Can Knits in a newborn size, using less than 100g of DK weight yarn.

There were socks—some excellent green frog feet socks being knit by trial and error, and Kate’s black socks with Sweet Georgia Yarns’ mohair silk sock yarn. Kate’s hoping for matching fingerless mitts from the leftovers.

And there were lots of hats: Toph (knit in Canadian Artfil Mericana DK yarn), one of our very own Custom-Fit Hats (published by D&T), a few Perky Little Hats (R) (great for charity knitting as the pattern is stretchy to fit many heads), and a Kye Beanie (knit from handspun Vancouver Island Romney wool for the Canadian Guild of Knitters KAL for the Campaign for Wool 2021).We briefly discussed a wonderful charity fundraiser, Shall We Knit’s Under-appreciated Finished Object sale, getting underway soon in Kitchener/Waterloo.

And we heard about Kim’s next step down the rabbit hole of weaving—a floor loom is heading her way. She likened looms to tattoos… it’s an analogy you had to be there to hear!

Hard to believe it was only an hour—we packed so much in. Hope to see you next month!

Featured image courtesy Anna Hunter.