Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cute and Soft

Really!  Look at those eyes!  This is Ginger.   She's six months old.  (BTW...she does have ears....really).

I've got a baby blanket on the needles.  I'm going to be a great-aunt in March.  This blanket is kind of a boring knit, but I'm thinking the next baby project might be a really cool baby dragon hat or something.

This is a Santa made by local artist and my friend, Pat Stamp of Ash Creek Pottery.  Some of my friends might recognize the material that Santa is wearing as my former merino jacket...which I shrank!!!  And this Santa's beard is kid mohair from Elmlea Farm in Ontario.  (The fur cape is faux, by the way).  He's a very special Santa.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top Ten Reasons for Owning (Loving) Alpacas - Chicken Guardians

Well, I did mention that these reasons wouldn't be in order of importance.  This is my third entry in the Top Ten. 
If you've been reading my blog, you know that I keep chickens for eggs, fly-control and entertainment.  We started with five, then the next year had ten, and currently have more than I want to admit.

Our chickens are free-range.  They have a nice chicken house and coop within our front alpaca pasture.  During the spring, summer and fall, the chickens are free to roam where they want always returning to their coop at night. The usually stay within the fenced pastures.  They have a lovely little life and provide a great source of entertainment as we watch them from our kitchen table.

We never had any trouble with predators for the first fourteen months that we kept chickens.  I was surprised, as I had heard many stories from other farmers about raccoons, foxes, weasels, large predatory birds, etc. taking their hens.

We learned our lesson one day.  We had been keeping two of the older male alpacas in the front pasture over the spring and into summer.  I decided to move the boys back into the main male pasture area, to allow the front pasture grass to renew itself.  Three days later, as usual when I rose from my bed, I glanced out my window to check that the farmyard was still as it should be.  Even without my glasses, I could recognize the shape of a large fox carrying off one of my hens in its mouth.  To make a short story, the fox had made off with 4 hens that night.  I realized that the front pasture had not been empty at any other time that we had chickens.

We put alpacas back in that pasture that day.  The fox never came back and we haven't lost a chicken in the last sixteen months (touch wood!).  My neighbours have.  Case closed!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Miracles Happen

Today is Christmas and I have stolen away from my family for a few quiet minutes to write.  This last week, I have enjoyed reading other blogger's entries that share precious memories of their Christmas pasts and peeks into their current Christmas celebrations.

I am the youngest of six children, and my mother came from a large family herself.  I had 24 first cousins on my mother's side, and some of those older cousins were having babies of their own by the time I came along.  My grandparents lived on a farm in an old log house about 40 minutes from our house.  Christmas Day meant gathering at Ma and Pa's home with all the other families.  I can't even recall how my parents were able to transport all of us six, toboggans plus food in the station wagon that was towing a trailer with the snowmobile!

Ma loved Christmas.  Every little person would receive a pair of hand knit woolen mittens.  They would have to be unique, red with a white stripe, green with a red stripe, etc, so that the kids wouldn't be arguing over whose was whose.  I don't know what else the boys got, but I know that the girls always got a pair of new underwear that 'you'd grow into' (in other words, they reached up to your armpits!).  More information than you need to know, right!?

During the day, the cousins would toboggan outside and take turns getting towed around the field behind the snowmobile.  Sometimes we would go into the barn to find the kittens or watch my young uncle milk the cows.  I remember one Christmas, I was about 6, getting very angry because Uncle Grant had turned the cow teat towards me and squirted fresh milk all over my new red woolen Christmas dress.

I have great colour photos of my cousin's shiny faces happily looking up as Ma placed the 3 tier decorated fruitcake onto the table.  I have no idea how we all fit into that house at once.  Happy memories.

About a month ago, I was walking through the mall amid the throng of Christmas shoppers.  Overheated in my winter boots and big 50 lb. faux fur coat, surrounded by the trappings of commercialism in its best retail month, I was misery defined.  Something weighed heavily on my mind this fall and I really couldn't imagine getting excited for Christmas.

Then I saw a sign in a decor store at the mall that said ‘Miracles Happen’.  I was drawn to it and it's message struck deep inside me.  Could I believe?  I felt like someone had handed me a rope.  Christmas is the time for hope and the time for miracles.  I have chosen to believe.
I thought about this a lot over the last few weeks.  Then, I started recognizing other's need for hope this season.
A couple I know have watched their son struggle with treatments in the hospital for the last 18 months.  Their wish is that he will be well enough to be able to spend a few hours out of the hospital today.
A good friend will spend the holidays waiting anxiously for her medical test results.
Happily, my friend's daughter returned from her tour in Afghanistan just before Christmas and my neighbours have our road decorated with yellow ribbons to announce the return of their own son.  However, there are many military families that are bravely holding onto hope this Christmas as their loved ones are still away.
I hope that Christmas brings you the miracle you are hoping for. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten Reasons for Owning (Loving) Alpacas - The Calming Factor

This is the second entry in my Top Ten Reasons...

Nothing beats having your Monday morning coffee in the calm quiet of the barn, being stared at by 20 sets of big, dark eyes...and knowing the chaos that is in the house as your spouse tries to brush the wild hair of an uncooperative 6 year old before school. Even on a cold, dark January morning, it would be reason enough to jump out of bed and quickly declare, “I’ll get the barn this morning!”. It’s been a few years since I have had a 6 year old in the house…but there are still many times that I choose the barn over the intermittent chaos of our household.

Did you know that some alpacas are used for therapy animals? These special alpacas provide joy and stimulation to residents of care facilities when they make special visits with their owner. Not all alpacas are suited for being touched by many people. The typical alpaca is docile, calm with a naturally curious demeanour which makes them enjoyable animals, but alpacas generally do not like being touched. Some alpacas have special qualities that allow them to make a connection with an individual.
Some farms, that are properly equipped, have days where they host groups of people with disabilities that come to experience the alpacas. People can make a touch connection and enjoy putting their hand into the soft neck fibres of an alpaca as it looks back with its big dark eyes and softly hums.   If not intimitated, curious alpacas will get close as possible to a human face, investigating through smell.

My friend Nancy, of Spinning Wheel Alpacas has a therapy alpaca, Ozzie. Read about Ozzie and their therapy work on Nancy’s website here.

Several people have confided in me that they made their decision to start an alpaca herd when they realized that their life was full of stress and they needed a calming influence. Others told me that they had reached a point where work-stress had taken its toll and they needed something enriching at home to provide a balance.  Small groups of alpacas have been used on farms where special-needs children can care for them and gain both work-responsibility skills and an emotional connection.  My good friend, Nancy, who I mention above says that her alpacas have seen her through some pretty emotional times during her recent battle with breast cancer.

Farming is not an easy task, and being responsible for a herd is not a light commitment. There have been times over the last 8 years, when I thought my family’s life might be easier without a barn full of animals to care for. However, I can also recognize that being able to work quietly amongst these gentle animals, to feel deserving of their trust, to be entertained by their behaviours and to witness their births…has made some of my own stressful times more bearable. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Top Ten Reasons for Owning (Loving) Alpacas - The Fibre!

The other day, I was thinking of starting a Top Ten list for finishing off this year 2010.  The idea came to me that I should list ten reasons why I love having alpacas on my farm.  I often get asked why I chose alpacas for my farm by people waiting for a quick, simple answer.  After answering this question for the last 8 years, I have a pretty standard answer.  But could I come up with ten distinct reasons that I could articulate to people who might know nothing about the animal, quality natural fibre, livestock farming or starting a business?  It was amazing that once I started writing, the reasons kept coming.  I didn't intend a particular order for the list, but this first reason is the most important reason for me and my business.

The Very Top Reason to Own Alpacas is -
An ultimate supply of alpaca fibre, of course!

It's soft and non-itchy, comes in many shades from brilliant white, browns and true black. It's a strong fibre with a long staple, so it can be spun into a very lightweight, fine yarn. Garments made from alpaca have incredible drape and warmth.
Like other farms in our climate, we shear our alpacas in the spring. The majority of fleece from my farm and that which I buy off other Ontario farmers gets skirted and sorted into like lots (by fineness, colour and staple length) over the summer and sent off to the mill. Specific instructions to the mill include everything that they need to know for the yarn, such as blending recipe (percentage of alpaca, merino, silk, nylon, or other), desired yardage per pound, and the amount of twist desired. Other fibre might be turned into rovings, batts or felt.

I’ve been using Wilton Road Custom Fibre Mill in Odessa, Ontario for several years. The mill operator, Tracey, is a spinner and fibre enthusiast. She loves working on my fleece, as I usually have some novel requests that she loves to try out. She usually has a few ideas in creating small lots of trial yarns. We know that if we are excited to produce the yarn, then my customers will be excited to weave or knit with it. Wilton Road has been making my 3 ply sock yarn and my fingering weight yarns for the last 3 years and I am really happy with the quality, as are my customers.

The product is returned from the mill, anywhere from 4 months to a year after they receive my raw fleece. It’s like Christmas when I receive a big shipment of yarn back from the mill! Fresh yarn! Receiving the yarn is the culmination of a long process and I still need to knit up a swatch to find out if I have a truly successful run.

I handdye much of the yarns and rovings that are returned to me from the mill. This year, for the first time, I have sent some fleece to a mill that will also return it as dyed yarn.

I will process some of the nicest fleeces myself on the farm in small lots of unique fibre blends that are bought by other spinners. These might be blended with silk, mohair, merino, angellina or other fibres into beautiful rovings on my Patrick Green SuperCard.

I sell the yarn, rovings, felts and batts through my yarn shop, online and at markets and fairs. Some of it goes into finished products I either make or have made, usually locally.

A small portion of the rovings are spun into yarn by myself, for either my use, to sell or to use in end-products. People who can appreciate the qualities that make up a high-quality, unique, natural fibre yarn will spend the money on handspun alpaca yarn. A handspinner can usually spin a yarn that has less twist, and as such, has a softer feel than commercially spun yarns. As well, a handspinner has the option of creating very unique, novelty yarns that are unlike anything created commercially.

Today is the last Saturday before Christmas.  My shop is in my house, so I believe that my family will be relieved that we won't have to have Christmas music blaring for 5 hours every Saturday after today.  I had quite a few shoppers today, preferring to drive into the country for their last minute gifts than to tackle the mall parking lot.  Alpaca socks make an appreciated gift for almost anyone on your list.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Art Yarn

I've recently been intrigued by the creation of "Art Yarn".  I found an Art Yarn group on Ravelry and was drawn to the pictures.  The process looks incredibly creative compared to my attempts at traditional balanced yarn.  I'm thinking of spending some time trying this soon.  To this end, I ordered the book,
Intertwined: The Art of Handspun Yarn, Modern Patterns, and Creative Spinning by Lexi Boeger.

In it, I found a most eloquent passage on handspun yarn that just made my heart swell.

"Handspun yarns are made by concious beings, not unconcious machines.  This imbues them with an internal energy, giving them character and uniqueness.  Each yarn is a reflection of the individual spinner who made it.  It is this quality that makes handspun yarn so amazing to work with.  As you work through a skein, you can see, inch by inch, the decisions that the spinner made.  It passes before you just like a story."

This probably translates to any handcrafted product, doesn't it....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Are you Snowed In?

There's opportunity to read, knit, spin, bake, wrap gifts, address cards or put up the tree!

Here's my gift to you today...check out this blog...

Mennonite Girls Can Cook - most days it is a great recipe, some days it is their 'Bread for the Journey' inspirational entry.  The recipes are well organized by heading on the left side Recipe Index.

I'm hoping that I'll get to baking these cookies today...

Have fun!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scattered Thoughts for a Thursday

One of the great things you'll read about alpacas is that they poop in one area for easy cleanup and they rarely poop in the barn.  This may hold true if you have a very small herd...for about a week.  But the minute it's raining outside or the wind is blowing, one alpaca will figure out that it's more comfortable to stay in the barn, then to go outside and lift her fluffy tail to expose her bare parts to the weather.  Once one starts the pile in the barn, it's a regular poop-festival.  Pretty soon, you are spending your winter mornings with an ice-scraper to clean off the barn floor.  It's important to find the one who starts it all and have a little chat.
This is Alicia, the informant...she'd tell me anything for a bit of extra pellets.

I had some birthday money to burn.  I bought some fibre art books to inspire me.  Yummy!

This book, I ordered through the inter-library loan system.  Did you know that in Ontario you can get almost any book you want through your public library?  This is a fantastic book.  I only get to borrow it for 3 weeks though.  It looks like a keeper, so I may end up buying a copy the next time I have a little gift money.

I am not too sure about this eBook Reader thing,yet....though I'm sure it will grow on me.
It is neat technology, and in Ontario, the public libraries provide the ability to download eBooks.  One problem...if this catches on, what am I going to do with all those exquisite handwoven bookmarks that my fellow weavers have given me over the years?