Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Darning wool socks with felt

Winter! Cold artic blasts have dropped the thermometer to -25C here and we have had 2 ft. of snow in two days, last weekend with another foot expected in the next 24 hours. Average tempertures here for December are -8C. This is the 2nd week of cold.

No central heating here. Our log house is heated with a small woodstove in the studio. Can we say, "cold" floors, which mean cold feet. Time to find the wool socks that have been sitting in the mending basket since last winter. Mending is more eco-friendly than tossing, its also more economical. Mending used to be a standard life skill, but unfortunately the mending of clothing has gone out of fashion in our consumer based economy.

Great-Grandma used to keep her mending basket by the fire to work on at extra moments during the day. Since she spun her own wool, there was always materials at hand for the work. And the garments were sturdy, homespun, handwoven or hand knit fabrics and so were worth the time to patch. Today our reasons for taking the time to mend are different. The fabrics are no longer sturdy, but flimsy. They no longer represent hours of hand work and workmanship but are mass produced overseas, using cheap labour and machines. Made to wear out, to encourage consumption, they are made for the benefit of the manufacturer not the wearer. In fact, they don't even keep us warm and dry. Once worn out they are tossed in the landfill, increasing the burden on the environment. They don't break down -- as natural fibers do, but rather sit as a permanent deposit in the dump.

I am darning with a felting needle this year. Its quick and the socks are more comfortable since they have an even wool layer with no bumps.


Felted wool ball, about the size of a large orange
A bit of wool roving or carded wool -- it can match the colour of the sock or not
An Ashford student felting needle punch or other felting needle holder
3 felting needles (included with the needle punch)
Socks to be mended

Most of the socks I have to mend, have holes in the heel. I place the wool ball into the heel of the sock to be mended.

I take staple lengths of wool roving and place it in over the hole in the sock, being sure to overlap the good fabric in the sock. Just as in making other felt, I place at least three layers of wool over the hole, alternating directions with each layer.

I push the felting needles, held in the punch, through the carded wool and into the felted ball. (Be careful, the felting needles are sharp! They hurt if you get them into your hand instead of into the ball.) I continue felting with the felting needles until the wool is firmly felted. Periodically, I need to push my hand between the wool ball and the felt to ensure that they remain separated.

I check the felted patch for thin spots and apply more wool roving as necessary.

Total time to mend a small hole is less than 5 minutes. A large hole can be done in 15 min. A full basket of holey wool socks can be mended in this way, in an evening.

For larger holes or holes in the ball of the sock foot, proceed the same way, but use more wool and aim for 4 to 6 thicknesses of wool. When the wool is felted remove the ball from the sock. There will be a ball shaped bump in the foot of the sock. Work the sock to a flat shape and ease the wool patch with the felting needle by jabbing it at an angle into the wool. Since the felting needle has barbs on the first 1/4 inch of the needle tip, its not necessary to push the needle in too far to achieve a smooth, flat patch. Again check for thin spots and apply more wool roving as necessary.

I successfully patched several pair of wool socks with large holes by using this method and the sock owners report that the socks are more comforatable patched with felt than they are darned with thread. The patch is smoother.

Joybilee Farm has in stock, Felted wool balls, Ashford student felting needle punches and wool roving.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas Open House

December 19, 20 (note the date change)
10 am to 4 pm, 3rd Annual Christmas Open House at Joybilee Farm, The farm will be decked out in its Christmas finery, with snow, holiday lights and a living nativity scene, where your children can dress up and have their pictures taken with our animals. Live music, spontaneous caroling, and refreshments. Come and do your last minute Christmas shopping for yourself or a loved one in a relaxed, joyous atmosphere, away from the malls. Purchase unique gifts in a homey setting and bask in the family Christmas atmosphere.

Candles for the dark days of winter

Bees wax candles ionize the air and reduce odors. They are dripless, smokeless, and fill the air with sweet honey aroma. They are free of toxic fumes and are health enhancing.

Last week the student made beeswax candles. We needed candles for the advent wreath and tapers for everyday use. We have a tin candle mold which is touchy and difficult to use. The student decided to hand dip her candles instead.

She melted a brick of beeswax in a recycled rectangular olive oil can, using a large stock pot filled with water as a make-shift double boiler. The beeswax was melted on medium and took about 3 hours to fully melt. It smells like honey as its melting and fills the house with sweetness.

Do not try to speed the process of melting by pushing down on the unmelted top layer. A volcano of hot wax over the stove, floor, cupboards and hands are the result and require several hours of clean up with heat gun and paper towels. So beware! Melted beeswax on hands can burn.

To dip 12 inch candles cut 30 inch lengths of wick -- usually a woven braid of round cotton cord. Fold the wick in half and dip into the melted wax, while holding the wick over a dowel. In times past a notched dowel was reserved for the purpose which could dip several candles at once. The student dipped one set at a time, holding it over the pot until the drips had solidified. Then removing it to a cooling rack. A wooden clothes drying rack served this purpose, with a wornout sheet under the rack to protect the floor. Its snowing so we couldn't do this outside.

After two or three dippings, the wicks are straitened while still warm by pulling down on the wick. After the candle is 1/2 inch thick, it is rolled on a counter to to bring it true. Even then the candles have a one of a kind charm. Not the mass produced candles found in the gallery stores.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Wool Commodity Pricing and Your Local Shepherd

Alpaca at $4 per lb. and wool at 17 cents a lb (August's wool market price) is the harsh reality in today's global economy. The cost of a commodity has no bearing on the cost of creating that commodity, but instead is driven by speculation on a stock/commodity exchange far removed from the people whose lives are impacted by the commodity.

International wool pricing (commodity pricing) does not reflect the actual value of wool (or alpaca, mohair etc.) nor the costs of production. In the US, wool used to be subsidized, so that the farmer was guaranteed a base price even if the world market price was down substantially. I'm not sure if this is still the case. The UN is trying to do away with all farming subsidies for every commodity. In Canada there is no subsidy for livestock farming.

The reality is that wool is not just a side product of sheep or alpaca raising. If we want to be able to get quality wool or alpaca or mohair from animals that have been selected for fleece quality, and cared for in a way that keeps the fleece as clean as possible, then their fiber is the main product.

When wool (alpaca, mohair etc.) is sold below the cost of production -- the farming operation becomes nonprofitable and farmer's get out of farming -- something we are seeing in North America at an alarming rate.

Alpaca at $4 a lb. is about $20 a year income from one animal. That alpaca is eating a bale of hay a week. Here that bale costs $6 -- other places only $4. There is no market in N. America for alpaca meat, although it is common food in S. America and in New Zealand alpacas grace the table in high end restaurants. The same animal consumes a lb. of grain a day -- 20 cents a lb. if you buy wholesale in 1 ton lots. Cost to raise the alpaca --$281 to $385 per year -- against value of fleece on commodity markets $20. Value of offspring from animal -- $70 at last week's auction sale, often you can't give the animals away. In my area most alpaca fiber direct from the farm is going at $20 to $30 per lb. Still not reflective of the cost of raising the animal and having it sheared. Shearing costs range from $20 to $50 per animal depending on the size of the herd.

The wool co-op in Canada was paying 17 to 23 cents a lb. last Fall for domestic wool. The average skirted fleece is 7 lbs. for wool breeds and 5 lbs. for meat breeds. (Commodity value of skirted fleece: $1.15 to $1.61 / Cost of shearing $5 average per animal, cost of wool bag to ship 10 to 15 fleeces $8) A wool breed generally needs twice as long to develop a carcass ready for the butcher -- and 6 sheep will consume a bale of hay in a week (2 ewes plus their 4 lambs)($72 per adult ewe and offspring, assuming no hay needs in summer pasture season) Cost of wholesale grain is 20 cents a lb. and each animal consumes 1 lb. a day. ($73 per adult and $75 per two lambs)The price of lamb to the producer is anywhere from $15 per animal to $100 depending on if the producer can sell direct to the consumer (now illegal in some provinces, like BC). The math: Cost to raise 2 market lambs and take their mother through the winter $220 plus $15 shearing -- $235 against value of the fleece and meat $202 -- loss to shepherd $33 per animal. In Canada there is an additional check off charge per sheep and lamb and a tag charge adding an extra $3 per head to the cost of raising lambs. Bring the loss to $36 per animal.

These figures do not take into account the farmer's time to feed, water, attend births etc. Nor do they allow any value for housing, fencing, vet bills, or predator control with dogs or llamas.

One could conclude that fleece or even lamb farming in North America is unprofitable and not in the best interests of farmers. Many have come to that conclusion and sold out their land to multinational interests. This is not in the best interests of the environment or the well being of the citizens of the country. Or one could reason that by asking just a bit more than international commodity prices one could steward the land and keep the environment for future generations.

Every one of us is free to choose to buy commodity priced wool at the world price this week and accept the quality in 1000 lb. bale. And in fact, if you consume 1,000 lbs. of raw wool each year, you definitely should buy it this way, without feeling guilty.

An alternative is to support the local farmer who is attempting to raise quality fleece in an environmentally sound way. But please don't expect any farmer to sell to you at commodity prices -- basically subsidizing your business to the detriment of his own.

Of course, the solution to this inequity to the fiber farmer is for the shepherd to refuse to sell their specially selected fleece as a raw product, but to instead value add and sell a finished product direct to the consumer. This is what we at Joybilee Farm are attempting to do.

As a fiberartist I am frequently offered free fleece -- both alpaca, llama and wool. I mostly turn it down because I have so much of my own. Those of you looking for large quantities of raw fleece might befriend your local fiber farmers. Many would rather give their wool away in friendship or barter than accept the insult that wool marketing boards and co-ops offer them.