Pre-Spotlight Untangling: Gothfarm Yarn

A woman in a white T-shirt with a sheep head.

This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of Indie Spotlight, taking place from May 14-16, 2021.

When Monica of Gothfarm Yarn first posted to Indie Untangled in April of last year, I had to laugh at the name. Though you’d expect someone who gave their business such an edgy moniker to be an indie dyer, Monica, a handspinner, knitter and crocheter who is based in Austin, Texas, instead works with small farms and mills to create an array of natural yarns — with an emphasis on the “black sheep,” of course.

Tell us the story of how Gothfarm Yarn came to be.

The idea for Gothfarm Yarn came during a conversation with a friend. I told her that I loved spinning yarn from naturally-colored fleece so much that I wish I could have a “goth farm” just for raising black sheep for their beautiful wool.

The name and concept struck a chord with me. As a handspinner and knitter, I personally enjoyed blending naturally colored fleeces and spinning them up into yarn, but I rarely saw this type of yarn produced in large quantities at yarn shops or fiber events.

I realized that my idea for a “goth farm” worked better as a small yarn business, especially since I wanted to be able to share the yarn with other knitters and crafters. I could buy an array of fleeces and fibers from producers, decide on the blends I liked best, and then work with small mills to scale them up. That’s essentially how Gothfarm Yarn works today.

Another important part of getting Gothfarm Yarn started is the example set by the indie yarn community and the knowledge offered by the Texas wool community.

When I talked to vendors at fiber shows, I saw that everyone had a different pathway to indie yarn. You didn’t need special credentials or a certification. Anyone could take part. This provided a big confidence boost to get Gothfarm Yarn started in the first place. In turn, the Texas wool community – especially Dawn Brown at Independence Fiber Mill – helped teach me about wool and how to prepare it for milling. The community has also provided a powerful network for connecting me with wool producers!

Gray yarn.

How have you found the producers you work with?

I met about half of my current producers at yarn and fiber events or through word-of-mouth networks that started there. The other half I have found through Facebook groups dedicated to selling wool, mohair and other fibers. I’m always interested in hearing from new people, too!

Do you have a favorite sheep breed?

Yes! The Jacob sheep is my favorite breed. They can have up to six horns and are known for their piebald fleeces that come in a number of beautiful shades, from the usual black-and-white to elegant lilac gray. They’re beautiful to behold and have adorably dainty bodies.

I love using Jacob wool in Gothfarm Yarn products because of the body and heathering it adds to the final product. Jacob is part of our yarns Gabbro and Aswan, and in our pencil roving Cirrus. I also stock a 100% Jacob roving that’s great to spin on its own or blend with other fibers at home.

Dark gray yarn.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while running your business?

I find the history of different sheep breeds fascinating. The most interesting thing that I have learned while running Gothfarm Yarn is that a number of breeds — such as the Polypay and the Coopworth— are relatively recent developments, and the result of targeted, scientific breeding for specific characteristics and traits.

In that same line, I’m fascinated by “breed up” programs that are introducing populations of foreign sheep breeds to the United States without importing any individuals. Instead, semen from a foreign breed is imported and used to create cross-breed lambs with an established breed. The cross-breed ewes are then bred with imported semen, and the process is repeated until the genetics of the American offspring matches that of the original foreign population. This method is currently being used to establish American populations of Gotland sheep and the Valais Blacknose sheep.

A pair of cream-colored socks.

How did you learn to knit?

I took a community knitting class while I was in college. It was a four-week program that met every Monday night. The instructor was excellent and wanted to make sure we left the class with a strong foundation that would prepare us to take on a range of projects. We covered colorwork, lace, and cabling. She even made us drop stitches and taught us how to fix our knitting.

She also gave us a list of local yarn shops and regional fiber festivals. I went to my first fiber festival – Kid N’ Ewe and Llamas, too in Boerne, Texas – based on her recommendation. I left the festival with armfuls of indie yarn, feeling excited to knit it all!

Gold yarn.

Can you share some of your plans for Indie Spotlight?

My plan for Indie Spotlight is to show off the yarn! Each of our 14 yarns has a unique look and feel based on the fibers that comprise it. I’m going to go through each one, sharing what went into it and how to use it.

I will also be debuting a brand new yarn at Indie Spotlight. It’s a yet-to-be-named sport weight made from a blend of Cheviot sheep wool and just a touch of light gray alpaca. The overall color is the lightest shade of dove gray.

I am also going to share strategies for working with undyed, naturally colored yarn, make a case for adding more rugged wool to your knitting, and show off some of my favorite finished objects.

Cream-colored yarn.

Do you enjoy other crafts in addition to knitting?

Yes, I enjoy handspinning with my wheel and drop spindle. I also occasionally crochet.

Tell me the projects that are currently on your needles.

I recently started the Shasta Vest. I’m using Gothfarm Yarn’s Aswan for the body and Carbonado for the edging. I also have a pair of socks on a magic loop that I’m pecking away at when I need a change of pace. I’m using YarnTrekker’s Walkabout Tweed sock yarn in the color Pumpkin Spicy.

‘Please, draw me a sheep’: The history of the Hog Island sheep

Three white sheep with black faces in the snow.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch

Imagine a sheep, as unique as the one Antoine de St Exupery drew one morning for the Little Prince. That is the Hog Island sheep, from somewhat unknown origins, and needing protection, a special sheep, a sheep like no other… The Hog Island sheep is unique to the United States. It originated on Hog Island, a barrier island off the coast of Virginia. So few of them are left today that they are a rare, critical, conservation breed.

In the words of Jeanette Beranger, senior manager of the Livestock Conservancy, the Hog Island Sheep is a “snapshot of livestock from the 1700s.” To understand how special the Hog Island sheep is, we have to go back in time 400 years, when Hog Island was settled. Along with the settlers came sheep of British origin. It is also believed that Merino sheep were already roaming free on the island, after having been abandoned by ship-wrecked Spaniards. Even though we cannot clearly match the DNA of the Hog Island sheep with any modern English breed, some surmise that Down breeds have been contributors to this unique sheep.

The sheep roamed the rugged island freely. The settlers would gather them once a year to shear them. The rugged conditions set the stage for the development of the breed into a sheep well adapted to foraging and living in harsh, wet weather conditions. Rugged life continued, unchanged for both the settlers and the sheep for hundreds of years, each year bringing its share of storms. But in 1933, after a terrible hurricane, causing massive erosion that reduced the size of the island by half, the residents of Hog Island found themselves forced to abandon the island and move their homes to the mainland. The sheep were left on the island.

Two sheep in the snow.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch

In the 1970s, the island was purchased by the Nature Conservancy. A decision was made to remove the now feral sheep from the island to protect the natural vegetation. The sheep were resettled at particular sites, among them Mount Vernon and Virginia Tech, and efforts began to study and preserve the breed. Hog Island sheep can still be seen today in living museums like the Accokeek Foundation National Colonial Farm. They are also being raised by farmers dedicated to the preservation of rare breeds.

Geographic isolation, the conditions on the island, few predators, and the lack of human intervention allowed the development of a hardy, self-shedding, parasite-resistant, foraging breed, which reproduced efficiently, with ewes often birthing twins. Most Hog Island sheep are white, with 10 to 20% of them being black. The lambs have the cutest speckled faces. Adults often have dark legs and faces. The Hog Island Sheep is a smaller sheep, weighing around 90 to 150 pounds. It is also a slow-growing sheep, taking 18 months to mature. Alert and docile, they prefer to live in tight flocks.

A black and white lamb in tall grass.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch

What about the fiber they produce? To quote Holly Callahan of the Baltimore Wool Company, “The wool is like the sheep, relaxed and friendly!” To examine the unique qualities of the Hog Island fiber, I purchased some raw fleece, and some roving from Holly Hill Ranch.

White, beige and brown fleece.

Raw fleece from Holly Hill Ranch

The raw fibers are very high in lanolin, a perfect protection from harsh weather. The fibers are dense, compact, with a very tight, disorganized crimp, and a matte appearance. The staple length ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 inches. The newer generations, which are being fed a richer diet can have a staple length up to 3 inches. Overall, the staple length is short, which makes the fiber a perfect candidate for light, warm woolen yarns. The fineness of the fibers is uneven, with some being appropriate for next-to-the-skin wear, while others should be reserved for outerwear.

White, beige and brown fleece.

Raw fleece from Holly Hill Ranch

To spin, I used the carded roving I had purchased, and spun it with a supported long draw to create a lofty woolen yarn. After spinning two fine singles, I plied them together to create a 2-ply yarn. What struck me most was the incredible bounce and elasticity of the yarn!

A hand holding a ball of white yarn.

Woolen yarn spun from Holly Hill Ranch fibers

I knitted a simple swatch, which I then dyed with natural dyes. The swatch was knitted on US 4 needles. The soft matte halo is clearly noticeable, slightly reducing the stitch definition, while giving it a gentle subtlety. The incredible elasticity of the yarn reduces the openness of the sample lacework. The swatch took color beautifully, showcasing the matte appearance. The swatch also proved to be naturally felt resistant, a credit to the Down breed origins of the Hog Island sheep.

A green square of knitting.

A dyed swatch from handspun woolen yarn.

Armed with the knowledge I gained from swatching, I decided to knit a warm, comfy pair of house socks, which would encounter less wear than regular socks, while taking full advantage of the elasticity of the fibers!

A view of white handknit socks from above.

So where can you get this very special fiber? The Livestock Conservancy has created a wonderful program called Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em. Shepherds register their flocks of conservation breeds and are listed as providers of rare fibers and yarns. Fiber artists are encouraged to try different breeds and get stickers for their breed passport! Because of its smaller size, and slower growth, the Hog Island sheep is not as attractive for large-scale farming. It is thanks to the Livestock Conservancy, the dedication of rare breed farmers, and the desire of fiber artists like you and me to preserve breeds by working with breed-specific fibers, like the Hog Island, that we can hope to see this amazing breed thrive in the future.

A white sheep with a black face.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch


More resources:

Hog Island Part 1: A Feral Breed, a blog post from Knitting the Stash!
The history of the Hog Island sheep from Quietude Farm

What to stash this week, online or at your LYS

A collage of yarn trios from Dragonfly Fibers

In honor of LYS Day tomorrow, April 27, the Dragonfly team has created kits for Casapinka’s new pullover shawl (not a poncho!) called Magical Thinking. The yarn is the squishy Superwash Merino Dragon Sock and you can see the sample that North Carolina LYS Friends & Fiberworks worked up here in that last color combo — Silver Fox, Kelpie, Sixteen Candles— which is exclusive to their shop. You can get a list of the dozen shops that are carrying the kit here. Dragonfly will have the first three combos, along with their festival exclusive Carroll Creek Park colorway at Maryland Sheep & Wool.

A woman models a fuzzy gray sweater with a branch motif at the hem.

Speaking of mohair, Mary Annarella’s latest sweater design, Branches In Bloom, calls for holding a strand of mohair-silk lace weight with a strand of single-ply fingering.

Pink mohair silk yarn paired with a beige yarn

Heather of Sew Happy Jane has a mohair/silk laceweight that she has dyed up in some spring-ready colors. 

A mini white sheep wrapped in teal yarn.

Michelle of Crafty Flutterby Creations has debuted the newest must-have notion, the Suavest Sheep! 3D printed by Michelle using biodegradable polylactic acid, these cuties can be used to tidy your cast-on end, hold yarn joined in the middle of your project, act as a handy color swatch to carry with you, or make for an adorable display of your favorite yarns.

A woman wearing striped knee socks lounges on a fence with sheep.

Sweater Sisters’ newest team member, Dana Gervais, has released a new knee high sock pattern called Mojo. They feature 16 Bimini sparkle minis and Selena is offering the kits in two color sets. They are on sale through next Friday, May 3, only.

A woman models a pink and gray striped shawl

Kelly’s latest shawl design, Round the Mountain, has a combination of fun stitch patterns, color changes and shapes.

A trio of teal and gray yarn

Time for a DK spring sale! All DK in the Big Foot Fibers shop is 20% off through April 30 using the code DkSale.