Closer to Ewe

You’ve heard of farm to table? Introducing farm to sweater, for when you’re ready to meet the animal you’re wearing.

sheep farm to sweater

Photograph by Gregory Perko

Ina Mae was born in North Haven, Maine, of hardy English stock. At the time our lives intersected, she and I were both in early middle age. I was an inveterate knitter. She was a sheep.

Though I have been knitting for decades, up to that point I had only used factory-made yarn: branded and bar-coded, it might as well have been synthesized in a lab. I didn’t know what I was missing until I encountered Ina Mae—or at least, her entire 2012 fleece. There it was: mixed with electric-blue-dyed Angora from a goat in Pennsylvania, hand-carded, hand-spun into yarn, and draped over a basket on a folding table at a Maine farmers’ market. It was love at first sight.

And so I unwittingly entered the farm-to-sweater movement, a trend driven by the same sustainability-minded folk who made locavorism mainstream. Just as Boston’s foodies can buy a particular dairy’s milk or a particular boat’s catch, I can knit a sweater made from a specific sheep. Outfits like Raja Farm, in Lincoln, will even sell a whole raw fleece, if you want to be hard-core about it and try out carding and spinning. “In today’s society we’ve lost track of the journey our yarn makes,” wrote Tanis Gray in her 2011 fiber manifesto, Knit Local: Celebrating America’s Homegrown Yarns. “The yarn in your hands has a life cycle just like we do.”

In Ina Mae’s case, that life cycle started with Pauline Boyce, the woman who was selling yarn at the farmers’ market. She’d met Ina Mae as a three-year-old lamb, she told me with a faint Northern Ireland lilt, and had overseen the processing of her wool. These days, she said, the venerable ewe was retired, living on a remote island farm. This yarn was her final glory.

All September, I spent evenings working Ina Mae’s yarn slowly, steadily, into fabric. When I finally put on my sweater for the first time to admire its unmistakable richness, I imagined its progenitor, somewhere off the coast, her wizened sheep eyes squinting slightly against the approaching winter wind, baaing in quiet approval.

Sheep to Sweater: The Life Cycle of Yarn

1. A sheep is born: On a small Maine island, Ina Mae enters the world.
2. Left to roam on a farm in Maine, Ina Mae fills out her fleece and gets sheered.
3. The farm sends the raw, unwashed fleece to Pauline Boyce. It weighs 7 to 8 pounds.
4. Boyce washes and dries the fleece, then sends it off to a local carding mill.
5. Boyce spins the carded fleece, mixed with Angora goat, into yarn on a Louet S10.
6. The author knits Ina Mae’s yarn into a cozy sweater.