This season at my farmers' market stall, I've had a number of people comment on how brutally sheep are treated during shearing. They're very concerned that I use wool, are relieved that I don't sell fleeces, and ask about alternatives for fiber that is treated more humanely.
Three years ago, I applied to be a vendor at the PAWS-Walk, a local festival to benefit the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, one of our local dog and cat shelters. I was turned down. The reason was that I used wool in my handmade products, and they couldn't be sure that the sheep were treated humanely.
Now, I came to knitting in a roundabout way, starting out with training my dog to herd sheep. I've learned a lot in the almost 16 years since I started, and one of the things I've learned is that sheep are sensitive. They are prone to a number of diseases that can only be prevented by excellent care. The dog trainers at Ewe-Topia Herddog Training are incredibly protective of their sheep and ducks. Their sheep live well into their teens, far beyond the normal life expectancy of even the most pampered backyard pet.
Farmers raising sheep for their fleece (wool, and then yarn) will tell you how crucial it is to keep the sheep fantastically healthy and happy. A stressed sheep will not produce a fine fleece. Only the most contented, well-cared-for sheep will grow really great wool - just like us humans, whose hair will become dull and thin with stress.
In addition, only a really well-shorn fleece will be good to turn into yarn. Rough handling, stressed sheep, and abusive treatment will ruin an otherwise excellent fleece. Yes, the sheep need to be turned onto their backs. Often times they don't care to be shorn, and need to be wrestled into position. One of the most calming positions for a sheep is on her back, with her head resting at her side. Any decent video editor with an agenda can make this look brutal and abusive, but when you're there in the shearing shed, helping out and seeing it all in person, it looks much different: calm and controlled and reassuring.
So why shear sheep at all? Why should I give my backyard pet a haircut? A few years ago, Joe and Linda (Ewe-Topia founders and trainers) were given an unwanted pet sheep. She hadn't been shorn in years, and she could barely walk. She had a horrific skin infestation of mites and bacteria. She was so debilitated by disease that they weren't sure she would live. The reason? Her owner thought shearing would be cruel.
Modern sheep have been created by humans to produce wool. Through selective breeding, they now grow fleece year-round, like dogs with perpetually growing coats. They must be shorn, or they will develop horrible skin diseases and eventually die.
Any wool yarn that feels good in your hands can only have come from sheep that were treated well. If you're really concerned about the welfare of sheep, don't eat them. Lamb and mutton come from breeds of sheep completely different from breeds that produce wool.
So please be kind to sheep: buy good handknitting yarn made from wool! You can be sure that those sheep have good lives.
Having a "Gratitude Practice" is one of the best ways to vibrant health. I don't know if that's an actual quote, or who, if anyone, said it, or if it's even a "thing", but I believe it. Any time I'm feeling down in the dumps, I've trained myself to feel grateful for what I have.
When we run low on cash and I need to go to the food bank, I feel SO GRATEFUL for our local food bank, the great people who run it, and the community that supports it.
When I can't make it to an event at my daughter's school because I have to work, I feel SO GRATEFUL for the PTA and the moms and dads who make the time to volunteer so that my daughter can have great experiences.
When my apartment is a mess and I'm just way to exhausted to do anything about it, I feel SO GRATEFUL that I have a beautiful, safe, warm, and well-lit place to live, and that somehow the rent gets paid every month.
I've started a Gratitude Wall. I taped up a big piece of paper, bought blank index cards, and started writing and drawing all the things I feel grateful for. It doesn't exactly match my design aesthetic, but it's beautiful and along with Freya's kindergarten artwork it "goes".
I'm also going to pin this post to the top of my Facebook page. "Beannaigh", pronounced BAN-nah, means to honor, to bless, to salute. It means to feel reverence, amazement, and gratitude for what has been handed down to you. I'm going to add to this every week, to share the incredible blessings I am given every day. Please follow Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting on Facebook to find some weekly blessings of your own.
As I celebrate the 5th year of Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting, I've been thinking back a lot to how I learned how to knit. This dog, Ladybug, is how I learned to knit. It is a funny backwards story that started with an ad in the Seattle Sunday Times...
I'd had to put down my old dog in 2003, and friends were on the lookout for a new companion for me. If CraigsList was a thing then, I didn't know it - I still looked at the newspaper classifieds and checked out the Little Nickel. I was perusing the paper one Sunday when I saw an ad for an 11-month-old Red Heeler, "needs good home, $75". I wasn't looking for a herding breed, but the ad really stuck with me. Later the next day a regular massage client said, "Pam, I saw a dog advertised I think you should look at!", and she told me about the same ad. I told her I'd seen it, and how funny that she would have noticed the same one!
That same evening a dog-trainer friend called. "Pam!" she said, "I called about a dog I think is perfect for you!" It was the same dog, and she'd called the owners to find out all about it.
I still wasn't sure. I was pretty busy with my massage practice, and I knew Australian Cattle Dogs (heelers) could be a lot of work. I thanked her, and sat down to my evening TV time.
That same night, Evening Magazine featured a farm in Roy, WA where anyone could take their dogs, of any breed, to learn how to herd sheep. They talked about how great it was for dogs who were having problems, or who just needed to get out and work as they were bred for. I was sold! I immediately called the people who needed to rehome their Cattle Dog.
Ladybug was a mess. She had grown up in a backyard, with no socialization, never allowed in the house, never been on leash or in a car. There was a deep rut worn into the grass along the fence, where she would run up and down nonstop all day. Please don't think, "oh those awful people, how could they do that??" They didn't understand the breed when they bought their puppy, and they did the right thing by finding her a new home. They asked me all the right questions, and I could tell they wouldn't let me take her if I didn't know what I was getting into.
I didn't know what I was getting into! But the Evening Magazine story said anyone could come, so we went straight to Ewe-Topia Herd-dog Training. Long story short, I've never had such a soul-mate in a dog, and I don't think I ever will again.
But what does this have to do with knitting???
The sheep at Ewe-Topia are there to train dogs, but they also need to be sheared. When I volunteered to help at shearing, the woman who was doing the shearing brought some friends along to pick fleeces. I had no idea what they wanted - turns out they were going to spin the fleece into yarn! I thought that sounded just great, so the shearer gave me a couple of fleeces to take home. I signed up for a spinning class at Weaving Works - me with my dreadlocks and many piercings, among sedate older ladies all talking about what kind of yarn they wanted to spin and the projects they would knit with it.
What was I going to do with my yarn? I had no idea. I found a fabulous book titled "The Knitting Goddess" (I had been a classics major in college), bought it, and taught myself how to knit by making a sweater. They all said I couldn't start with a sweater, but I did and it is beautiful!
Long story short: it didn't take long before I made the connection between my Irish heritage and the fabulous Aran fishermen's sweaters, and then the meticulously patterned fisher ganseys of Scotland and England. I wanted to knit them all! And I wanted to knit them before they disappeared. So many traditional fishing villages have disappeared, and their fishermen's sweaters with them...I didn't want to see these old ways die.
So I created a business...
I lost my Bug Dog in 2008. She wasn't old, but had terrible knees. After multiple surgeries on both hind legs I had to accept that she couldn't recover, and for reasons of quality of life I let her go. It was heartbreaking, and it reinforced my determination to always adopt from a rescue and never buy from a backyard breeder.
But in a funny roundabout way, Ladybug brought me an amazing and thriving handknitting business, and so to her I say "Beannaigh": I salute you, I honor you, and I bless you.
Pam Connolly, owner of Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting, is a hardworking single mom with an old-fashioned cottage industry.