Pre-Rhinebeck Untangling: Daughter of a Shepherd

A light-skinned woman with red glasses and a blue shirt with brown fleece.

Rachel Atkinson of Daughter of a Shepherd © Richard Jung

This is the second in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of Indie Untangled, taking place from October 15-24, 2021. Tickets are now available!

For those of us who are excited about breed-specific, naturally-colored yarns, Daughter of a Shepherd is a must to add to your stash. Run by Rachel Atkinson, who is the literal daughter of a shepherd, the small UK-based operation celebrates natural black fleece in yarn as well as accessories, such as stunning tweed pouches by Julia Billings of Woollenflower, based in Scotland, and supports British shepherds and yarn producers.

Rachel will be participating in our online show in October, with a virtual shopping session taking place on Sunday, October 17 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern.

The story of Daughter of a Shepherd begins with the clip of the Hebridean sheep shepherded by your father. What led to you starting your yarn business?

I had been working in the yarn industry for a few years, initially at Loop in London before leaving to pursue my other job as a technical editor and book editor for various knitting and crochet publishers so was fully immersed in the yarn world. On a visit to see Dad he showed me the cheque received from the British Wool Board which represented 10% of the final value they would receive for the previous year’s clip. The cheque was for 94p (£0.94) meaning the final total would be £9.40 for approximately 300 fleeces giving each fleece a value of just 3p (£0.03).

As a knitter I would have loved to work with the incredible black Hebridean fibre and figured others also might. Just a few months later I was on a trip to the Swedish island of Gotland where you can buy natural yarn at farm stores right next to where the sheep the fleece is from are grazing and I began to wonder why we weren’t doing more of this in the UK?

I had savings for a house downpayment and decided instead to use that money to have the new clip of Hebridean fibre from Dad’s flock spun into yarn and the very first yarn launched in March of 2016. It was originally intended as a one-off project but by then I was absolutely committed to seeing where else this journey could take me.

Skeins of black, gray and cream yarn.

How do you decide on the blends that you mill?

Our first considerations are fleece that is undervalued or considered “worthless,” including the majority of naturally black or other non-white fleeces such as the tan colour of Castlemilk Moorit sheep. These naturally occurring coloured fleeces have a lower value as they are not commercially viable for dye houses whereas white wool can be dyed in a multitude of different shades. We are incredibly lucky to have 72 different British sheep breeds, each with their own characteristics and potential, it sometimes just takes a leap of faith to show others how good products from these breeds can be.

Additionally, we seek out fleece that is going to waste. Many sheep farmers bury or burn their annual clip as the amount they receive from the British Wool Board sometimes barely covers the cost of fuel to take the fleece to a depot and in extreme cases the shepherd can end up owing the Wool Board money, so our Ram Jam ranges of sport and worsted-weight yarns are all woollen spun from fibre that otherwise wouldn’t have seen a mill. We work closely with a longstanding mill in the heart of Yorkshire who spin both the black and white fleeces and blend the perfect grey gradient.

Other factors for blending, particularly with our worsted-spun range, is how well the main fibre responds to the spinning process. For our Heritage range, the Hebridean fibre is blended with Zwartbles, a similarly dark fleece, to enable a smoother spin and we then blend in a smidge of Exmoor Blueface to produce our Brume range of yarns.

A skein of dark brown yarn.

What do you think sets your yarn apart from that of other brands?

Not only do we spin natural black fleece, but we celebrate it and find uses for it beyond knitting wool, for example in blankets and tweed cloth which is then also used for creating accessories to make British wool available to different audiences, not just those who knit and crochet.

Our founding manifesto in 2015 included producing all our own label products within the UK using traditional processors to support jobs and business and ensure skills are passed on to the next generation. British wool has such a rich heritage and for these highly-skilled jobs and industry to vanish would be a crying shame. It often makes the job a lot harder and production costs much higher, but it’s hugely important to support businesses providing work for locals which in turn helps keep communities together and all employees work in what I know to be a safe environment within a company following employment law.

I have always been transparent about where the fibre is sourced, to where it’s washed, spun and finished, which often means I can tell you the exact journey a single skein has been on to get into your hands from the field the sheep graze to where the skeins were tied off.

At the end of the day Daughter of a Shepherd isn’t just about me, it’s so much more.

A flock of black sheep.

Do you have a favorite sheep breed?

It must be the Hebridean! They’re a small sheep, full of character, very hardy and live outside all year round even their lambs arrive in the open air. The flock my father shepherds are used for conservation grazing so also perform an invaluable job in an entirely natural way.

Their fleece tells the story of the year as they change colour with the sun and grow old with age; the natural black wool they are born with takes on tones of russet, gold, and silver grey. Just magical!

What are the most interesting things you’ve learned running your business?

Oh gosh, there’s been so much — it has been a steep learning curve — but learning how wool is processed within the UK has been fascinating. Going behind the scenes each step of the way and seeing the fleece being washed, to the actual machinery it is spun on, to meeting the incredibly knowledgeable people who have spun it always utterly inspiring.

A skein of dark brown yarn and a piece of lace knitting.

Tell me about how you learned to knit?

Like so many people I was taught to knit and crochet at a young age by my grandma with more advanced techniques and support provided by mum. I remember shopping for dishcloth yarn at the market with Grandma then returning to her house where I’d ferociously knit garter stitch dishcloths until the yarn ran out. Mohair (in the loosest sense of the word) sweaters soon followed along with a memorable batwing jumper.

Following on from this ’80s extravaganza, I put the needles and hooks to one side for many years before picking them up once more around 15 years ago during a long illness and got truly bitten by the bug!

Can you share some of your plans for Indie Untangled?

There’s a special, limited-edition shade of Ram Jam Sport naturally dyed by Julia Billings of Woollenflower who I regularly collaborate with on yarn and tweed pouches, and you will also find a few seasonal bundles along with several surprises.

Many moons ago I was a personal shopper for Harvey Nichols department store so I’m looking forward to booking appointments for Indie Untanglers wishing to discuss project plans or pick out gifts for that tricky to buy for someone.

A brown/black tweed pouch in front of fabric with sheep.

What are some of your favorite FOs you or your customers have made with your yarn?

When launching Daughter of a Shepherd I hadn’t thought beyond my hope that people would buy the yarn – it didn’t occur to me they would then go and knit with it and even wear their makes. When finished objects began to appear knitted and crocheted in our Hebridean yarn I was so overcome as it was the pinnacle of a huge and very emotional project. I still have the same reaction today whenever I see someone wearing a project made in Daughter of a Shepherd yarn and fabric or receive an email telling me all about plans for the yarn order just placed. There’s no feeling like it.

The sleeve and body of a dark brown textured sweater.Tell me the projects that are currently on your needles.

I’m most definitely not a monogamous knitter and currently have three sweaters on the go plus a shawl to finish and several pairs of socks and mittens awaiting their partners!

Work on a forthcoming pattern sample is taking priority, but once finished I’ll return to my Dew Sweater by Hiromi Nagasawa which has the most beautiful cabled-lace shoulder detail and is perfect for the indigo dyed Ram Jam Sport. The Spruce Peak Pullover by Amy Christoffers has been marinating in a project bag for a little too long and I’m keen to get it finished as the Ram Jam Worsted works up into a light but very warm fabric which I’ll need in my drafty studio come winter. Think I’ll have to speed up though as I’d also really love a Brume 4ply sweater – either Viburna by Fabienne Gassmann or an Eyelet Pullover by Orlane Sucche.

Wool sweater, shawl, hat, and mitten weather is my favourite time of year!

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.