Steeped in sheep

M.V. Museum offers a four-part program on the Island’s ‘wooly history.’


Martha’s Vineyard Museum research librarian Bow Van Riper and education and public programs manager Norah Kyle are the dynamic duo teaching the brand-new program, Martha’s Vineyard’s Wooly History. The hands-on activities, live demonstration, special guests, and trips to the gallery to see relevant objects in the related “Woven” exhibition, will make for an interesting four-week class.

“If you were to come to the Island in the early 19th century, you would see sheep everywhere,” Van Riper says. “Wool and sheep are one of the great underrepresented stories in the history of the Vineyard. Wool was the backbone of our agricultural economy basically from the colonization in the 1640s down to the end of the 19th century. Vineyarders grew many crops and raised many different types of livestock for their own use, but when it came to cash crops, wool was absolutely king.” 

Van Riper says that most Vineyard farms kept at least a few sheep to generate wool for themselves, but in many cases, they had enormous flocks capable of producing far in excess of what they needed. They would export the raw wool to mainland mills, which would clean, spin, weave, and dye it. Of course, some Islanders processed the wool themselves, creating products that they would sell to their neighbors or to the larger regional economy for cash to buy things not produced on the Island, such as coffee, tea, sugar, and more.

“Everyone in their spare time was busy turning yarn into stockings, caps, scarves — some for local use and others for sale off-Island,” Van Riper explains. “Knitting, weaving, and spinning were, for a significant percentage of the Vineyard population prior to the 1850s and even as late as 1900, the definitive side hustle — the thing you did beyond fishing and farming, especially in the winter when the crops were in, and it was too stormy to go out to sea. And for a small subset of the Island, it was what you did for a living.”

The course will come alive with Van Riper’s accounts about such things as the small-scale entrepreneur Mary Merry, who lived in what is now known as the Mill House in Vineyard Haven. “She was an absolute inveterate knitter and always sent her sea captain husband off on his voyages with bags of mittens and scarves and hats that he could sell to bring back the proceeds,” he says. “There is a story that once his ship sank while he was at sea and when word came back to Mary, her first reaction was not, ‘Oh no, is my husband okay?’ but ‘Oh dear, all those hats, and mittens are lost!’”

On a larger historic scale, we have In October 1778, during the American Revolution, Major General Charles Grey arrived at Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) backed by a fleet of warships and hundreds of redcoats and demanded food for the British troops. In addition to 315 cattle and more than 50 tons of hay, “Grey’s Raid” cost the Island 10,000 sheep; roughly two-thirds of the Vineyard’s entire supply. It took nearly 50 years for the sheep population to rebound to pre-war levels.

“I would love people to walk away with a sense of how broadly and deeply sheep affected the history of the Island,” Van Riper said. “Everything from the look of the up-Island landscape with its endless rolling hills divided by stone walls down to the fact that the most successful manufacturing industry on the Island before the mid-20th century and, possibly the most successful ever, was the old West Tisbury mill, which now houses the Garden Club, turning Island wool into Island-made cloth.” 

The hands-on component promises to viscerally convey something else — the complexity of going from sheep to sweater. “In point of fact, if you were making a living off wool products in the 18th or 19th century, you were orchestrating a technologically sophisticated, multi-step process that required a whole series of specific tasks in a particular way, in a particular order, each of which required a very precise set of skills that had to be executed properly to create a useable product,” Van Riper says. “The people who lived here in the past were a lot smarter, a lot more sophisticated, had a better understanding of a much wider range of tools and techniques, and were tied into a much wider economic network than we tend to, in our Currier-and-Ives-romanticized image of the past, give them credit for.”

Kyle adds, “I hope that people will enjoy delving deep into the intricacies of historical agriculture and teasing out the reality of Island farm life and wool production from the charming agrarian myth of self-sufficiency.”

Martha’s Vineyard’s Wooly History takes place on Thursdays from 5:30 to 7 pm, Feb. 2 to Feb. 23 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Best for ages 16 and up. $60 for MVM members, $75 for non-members. Pre-registration is required. Registration closes Jan. 28 at noon. To learn more and register, visit