In February, 2021, I received the following message on Facebook: “Sorry, I’m behind. I’ve got sheep in the garage.”
That message is pretty bizarre in just about any context you can think of, except for the context of Canadian wool production. When it comes to wool in Canada, sheep in the garage is just another day.
I had been trying for several months to arrange for Troy Nordick, a shepherd in Saskatchewan who runs a flock of about 350 Targhee sheep, to send one of his fleeces to That Darn Yarn Mill in Kamloops, BC, and had encountered all sorts of issues: lockdowns, shipping delays, delivery setbacks, and then the coldest winter in Saskatchewan Troy had ever experienced. On the day he sent me that message, it was -37 C, but with the wind chill, it was -51 C. His range flock of Targhees, his kids’ two Suffolk 4-H sheep, and some of his pregnant cows had been moved into his garage to protect them from the frigid weather.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about working in small-batch, small-production fibre and yarn in Canada, it’s “expect the unexpected.” And, given the circumstances under which I first connected with Troy, this was all par for the course. Several months prior, I had been browsing the Canadian Sheep Producers group on Facebook, reading old posts, learning more about what was going on in the Canadian sheep industry (as one does), and came across a post where a shepherd asked what other shepherds were doing with their wool in 2020, since the wool co-op and most mills weren’t buying. Many of the replies said they were doing the usual with unwanted Canadian wool: using it to insulate their chicken coops, using it for mulch, burning it, or sending it to the landfill, all of which made my heart sink. I originally started my fleece and fibre business as a way to save some of that wool from the burn pile or the dump, and reading that more and more shepherds were turning to those alternatives was pretty dismal. But then a response caught my attention: One shepherd said he raised fine wool sheep, so he was sitting on it until the wool market improved again.
Fine wool in Canada. Someone had fine wool in Canada. I took a gamble and sent the shepherd a message. What was he planning to do with that wool? And, could I buy some?
You see, we have some great wool in Canada. On Vancouver Island, we have some of the nicest Romney fleece you’ll ever see—shiny, soft, and strong. In the interior of B.C., we have some fantastic CVM flocks. CVM stands for California Variegated Mutant, and they produce a bouncy, fluffy fine wool, but the flocks are still small, so it’s hard to source. We also have excellent Shetland, a few flocks of glorious but notoriously hard-to-source Blue Faced Leicester, lots of Down-type wools (Suffolk, Shropshire, Hampshire, and Southdown, for example), and lots of meat sheep flocks that produce serviceable, friendly, but not always soft fleeces. Fine wools are a rarity in Canada. We do have some Rambouillet and Rambouillet-cross flocks, but there are very few Merinos, and the American range breeds, like Targhee and Cormo, are even rarer. I had been searching for them for a while, and here was a Targhee flock, with some Cormo and Rambouillet genetics mixed in, right under my nose.
To my surprise and great relief, Troy replied to my message, and yes, he would be happy to sell me some fleece. And lo, angels sang—a small overstatement, but there might have been happy dancing involved.
Getting a “yes” from a shepherd is only the first step in a very long process. Shipping fleece, especially fleece in large quantities, across Canada is no small feat. Troy’s farm is 1305 km from the mill in Kamloops, and the mill in Kamloops, which is the mill that is closest to me, is 434 km from my home on Vancouver Island. For comparison, the length of Great Britain from Land’s End to John O’Groats is, as the crow flies, 686 km. The distance from Stockholm to Berlin is 900 km. The circumference of the moon is 1735 km. All of that is to say: Troy’s farm is a long ways away from the mill, and even farther away from me.
The first step was to get a sample fleece to That Darn Yarn Mill in Kamloops, and in March 2021, when the sheep were finally out of the garage, we got that done. The second step was to have Nicole, the owner of the mill, have a good look at the fleece to make sure she could process it (she could), and then talk to her about timelines for processing a large quantity of Troy’s fleece.
Getting fleeces milled in Canada isn’t easy. Our wool production infrastructure isn’t great. We don’t have a large-scale washing facility. We don’t have a true worsted mill. But, what we do have are many excellent small mills peppered across the provinces, all of which work like the dickens to produce a great final product, and who are dedicated to getting Canadian fleece into Canadian crafters’ hands.
I don’t have a mill, nor do I have a sheep flock. What I have is years of experience as a knitter, a handspinner, and a knitting pattern designer. More than that, I have a passion for Canadian wool, and I truly believe that we can, through hard work, determination, and surviving -51 C weather, improve the state of Canadian wool production. My job, as I see it, is to source fibre and put it to work. I jokingly call myself a wool employment specialist, but really, that’s what I do.
Before I can put Canadian wool into a crafter’s hands, I’ve got to find the sheep, get them out of the garage, get them sheared, and get their fleeces to the mill. It’s a journey, one step at a time, and each step comes with all sorts of things I hadn’t considered before I started connecting with farmers and mills. How do I ship 250 pounds of fleece across Canada? How do I sell the yarn that’s created from that 250 pounds of fleece? How do I convinced knitters, who use merino has their benchmark for softness, to try other types of wool? And, how do I fund this?
The answer? In part, I write about it here, so that readers can share in the journey.
After this entry, Part 1: Sheep-In-the-Garage Season, will come How-To-Get-Wool-From-Here-To-There Season, followed by Sheep-Have-Their-Own-Cycle Season, and finally, Yarn-to-the-Left-of-Me, Yarn-to-the-Right, Stuck-in-the-Middle-with-Wool Season. In other words, this is the first of a four-part series about my adventure bringing Canadian Targhee wool from Troy Nordick’s flock from fleece to yarn. Why structure it around weirdly-named seasons? Because, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that we Canadians love to talk about our weather, and when it comes to sheep and wool production, there is weather like you’ve never seen before.
So, stay tuned for the logistics of getting fleece turned into yarn, of how Troy’s flock is making a big impact on the Canadian prairie landscape, and what happens when a global pandemic means there’s no place to sell one’s yarn.
All images courtesy Troy Nordick.