We have an unusual mix of sheep - Santa Cruz/Shetland - and that means, we have an odd, weird, or rare and desirable, but in any case unknown, type of wool. Could be a great product. Maybe. I don't know; in starting out with wool and sheep, while I was not completely unprepared; I was completely naive. In 2019 and 2020 I made numerous spreadsheets about the costs of having sheep, processing wool, and the supposed income from selling yarn. All using real numbers: from a recent book on raising sheep with the costs of hay and grain; real costs of wool processing; and market-based estimates of sale prices. These miss costs of course, like the hundreds of dollars to buy materials for an electric fence set up. But more critically, none of them figured out the problem: how do you get your product to market and get that return??
"I was destined for mixed sheep. In the Fall of 2019, Hannah (one of our first workawayers) and I went to visit Hoppingill farm, in the neighboring town Gill, run by an engaging force of a woman. She mixes her sheep breeds - Southdowns, Shetlands, and Icelandics - and told us she would regularly win prizes for her wool at the Franklin County Fair. Impressive! That introduction definitely set me up for a bias in favor of mixed sheep!
A year later, I got a little flock of mixed sheep. When we sheared them I had three mixed fleeces - two shetlands and one Santa-Cruz Shetland mix. In thinking about what to do with the wool, I made a little leap (based on those spreadsheets). I thought: I'll purchase a bunch of other local fleeces and have all of them, including my own three, spun into wool by a local mill. Then I'll sell the yarn - fancy local, natural yarn! Charlotte and I even visited a farm that had lots of beautiful fleeces they were practically willing to donate to us. I called all the yarn stores in the Boston area and asked if they would be interested in natural yarn. Categorical "nyet" from all of them! Hm that was a downer and it put the whole milled yarn project on ice. Instead, I spent the winter hand processing the wool - cleaning, picking, carding, and learning to spin. It was quite an interesting process but that's another story! It also introduced me to a whole new world of spinners, people who buy wool at all stages of processing - and who love wool.
Well, time does pass, and sheep do need to be shorn, and now we have more fleeces again (eight), plus seven little lambs: it's time to think once more about my wool. I visited the Deerfield Heritage Sheep Days. There, I asked people about wools they liked, and what their reactions were to my Santa-Cruz Shetland mix wool. They had never heard of Santa Cruz sheep. Besides, they really liked purebred sheep there - it was the Heritage Sheep days after all. If you want to mix breeds, they said, you have to keep at it for a while and select just the offspring with the desired qualities until you get a consistent quality result (as in: make a new breed?). They recommended a mill in Battenkill, NY.
In the meantime, I did some research on Santa Cruz sheep. They are believed to be a mix of Merino, Rambouillet, and Churro - pretty good fancy wool parentage - and when processed properly, their wool produces the most elastic yarn, like lycra (only pure wool of course). They have a ton of lanolin too. They are extremely rare. Basically, you can't buy them and even their wool you can only get if you are "in the know". They are also completely unknown, and so there is really not an existing market for them - you would have to make one. Besides, we don't have actually have Santa Cruz sheep (they were not for sale!); we have Santa Cruz/Shetland mixes - one ram and two ewes, and now lots of mixed lambs. Contrary to what the Heritage Sheep Days folks suggested, people do cross sheep - it's an official shepherding thing to do - to try to get the positive traits of two heritage lines. We could say we were accidentally intentional - Santa Cruz/Shetland wool should be like Shetland but softer and more elastic - a serendipitous mix!
With this little store of experience and added knowledge, I believe first, that we potentially have a great and unique product, and second, the only way to get it out to market is to bring it to some wool fairs, where the wool lovers, on the look-out for the "next new thing" are, and see if they like it. Of course, I am not a confident sales woman, but probably the wool folks are friendly and at least I will have a good time. Since it's so new, I also think it's better to bring a finished product, like roving or yarn, maybe dyed, maybe raw colors. I will go to the Battenkill mill with my cleaned fleeces (I want to get the lanolin!), talk to them about how they would suggest mixing them, and then get them to do it! It will be an investment to get it done, but maybe the start of a fun, new adventure and our own, special Big Foot Food Forest wool!....