Local Fiber – spinning an Island yarn

Locally grown doesn't just mean food anymore. These wearables are from Island Alpaca. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Sheep have dotted Vineyard pastures since the first Europeans settled here in the 1600s. And, as with so many other back-to-the-land initiatives, people are beginning to esteem the value of wool and other natural fibers more and more these days. Rebecca Gilbert, owner of Native Earth Teaching Farm and an avid spinner, knitter and dyer, said, “I think one of the waves of the future is going to be local clothing. We’ve applied that to food and our economies. If we start thinking that way about clothing as well, I think we’ll come up with some interesting things.”

Ms. Gilbert is among about a dozen sheep farmers who sell the byproduct of their flock’s annual (or bi-annual) shearing. She spins the wool from her four Corriedale sheep, uses natural dyes to color the fiber, and knits with the yarn. She offers classes in all of these fiber skills, including spinning with a wheel or a hand spindle. For $25, a student can purchase a hand spindle and get a spinning lesson from her. “Kids really love it,” she said.

The dyeing classes are relatively new to the Native Earth curriculum. Ms. Gilbert’s friend Elizabeth Toomey of Chilmark recently planted a dye garden on the farm property where she is growing things like black-eyed Susan, chamomile, alkanet, woad, safflower, coreopsis and, most recently, Japanese indigo. The Native Earth farm has held a couple of dying workshops since late summer and will host at least one more this fall.

Ms. Toomey, who studied fashion and textile design and has worked variously in clothing and interior design, said, “I just love fiber. I’ve always worked in something related to fiber.” This past year she set up a display at the Fiber Shed at the Agriculture Fair. She gathered wool from many of the local sheep farmers and made a map listing the wool locations. “I wanted to show the various breeds of sheep that are raised on the Island and the differences.” Ms. Toomey is interested in starting a fiber coop of sorts where farmers could connect with local fiber artists. She would eventually like to see a local mini-mill for processing wool and a space for providing workshops and hosting school groups and off-Island experts. Anyone interested in getting involved can call Ms. Toomey at 508-645-4151.

Ms. Toomey buys fleece — the wool in the rough — from a number of local farms and cards and spins it herself. One of her sources is the FARM Institute in Katama where different breeds of sheep are raised every year. Right now they have 30 Cotswolds sheep. The FARM Institute hosts a yearly Sheepapalooza event every April during shearing time when a shearer named Andy Rice from Vermont visits local farms for a necessary annual shearing.

The FARM sells their wool both on site and at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, in a variety of forms. They offer the unprocessed shearing bi-product, called fleece, as well as cleaned and carded fleece, called clouds or roving. The FARM also sends a good deal of their wool to a spinnery in Vermont to be turned into yarn. Some of the wool is dyed at the FARM and sold either as colored roving or wool. “There are so many fiber enthusiasts on the Island” said Chrissy Kinsman, the FARM’s marketing and development director. “We try to have as many different options as possible. We also try to integrate fiber arts into our fall and winter programs.”

Glen Jackson, who with his wife, Maryanne, owns Stony Hill Farm in West Tisbury, established the Fiber Tent at the Agricultural Fair 12 years ago. He encourages all local fiber farmers and fiber artists to participate. The centrally located tent features live animals — sheep, alpacas, and sometimes angora goats — along with spinners, weavers, and knitters and their products.

Mr. Jackson started in the fiber trade with llamas when he and his wife were farming in Edgartown, but they found that they didn’t produce enough usable wool to be an efficient fiber source. He now has a flock of 12 sheep, which he refers to as Island mutts, which have been developed after years of experimentation from breeds such as Icelandics, Corriedales, and Cotswolds. The Jacksons sell lamb and sheepskins as well as shawls and scarves — all hand-woven from their own llama yarn.

Stony Hill is one of about a dozen local farms with small sheep herds used for meat and wool. The granddaddy of all Vineyard wool farms, however, is the Allen Farm in Chilmark. Founded in 1762, the Allen Farm has been a working sheep farm on and off ever since and is still in the Allen family. Close to 100 head of Corriedale sheep roam the rolling hills of the 100-acre property and lend their fleece to products sold in a charming little shop nestled among sheep pens and farm buildings. There you can find beautiful hand-woven blankets and vests and locally knitted sweaters and hats made from Allen Farm yarn, as well as quality woolen products from some select wool and cashmere labels. The farm yarn is also available at the store. It comes in its natural hues of brown, cream, and grey.

Although not technically wool, the sheared hair from alpacas is used to make yarn, which according to Barbara Ronchetti, owner of Island Alpaca, is claimed to have the strongest fiber tensile strength of any animal fiber and be four times warmer than wool. It is also hypoallergenic. Ms. Ronchetti maintains a flock of alpacas that she sells and uses for yarn and woven and knitted products. Currently she has 78 animals and harvests about 400 pounds of hair a year. The sheared product is processed at a mill in Fall River, where some of it is also turned into hats, gloves, and mittens.

Much of the yarn is also sold in the farm’s large gift shop where the skeins, in a variety of natural colors are labeled with the name and picture of the individual animal. Ms. Ronchetti also employs local knitters to create sweaters, hats, gloves, socks, baby booties and even dog sweaters. Along with these local crafts, the store features a large selection of imported alpaca products, including sweaters and other garments made from colorfully dyed white alpaca.

Although she has very few pure white animals, Ms. Ronchetti’s alpacas represent a range of colors — from browns and beiges to grays and blacks — and she often combines color threads to produce interesting yarn fibers. She also combines specks of colored silk in with some of her yarns.

Both Ms. Ronchetti and Clarissa Allen of the Allen Farm note a dedicated following for local yarn that has increased in recent years. Anne Marie D’Addarie runs a local fiber group that meets monthly at the Ag Hall. Ms. D’Addarie, a spinner, knitter and felter, says that she always uses local yarn when she can, especially for gift items. “When I make something and give it to someone that not only came from my hand but from an animal that lived on the Island and ate Island grass, it means more to me and I know it means more to the person I give it to.”

Native Earth Teaching Farm’s annual Popcorn Festival on October 7 from 10 to 3 will feature demonstrations of spinning and dying, as well as many other farm activities and food.

The MV Fiber Group meets on the second Sunday of every month from September to May at the Ag Hall (October’s meeting will take place on the 7th). Spinners, weavers, knitters, crocheters and anyone working in any other fiber arts are welcome to attend as well as those interested in learning or observing. The sessions which run from 1 to 4 pm, and they are free and open to all.