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Featured Artist & Farm: Sandy Ryan of Homestead Wool & Gift Farm

by The SpinArtiste on December 22, 2011

Publisher’s Notes:  This week’s featured artist is the ever kind, generous, and talented Sandy Ryan of Homestead Wool & Gift Farm.  Many of you reading this post already know Sandy, but you may be in for a surprise or two with what Sandy has to say and I know you are going to love the images she supplied for this piece.

Spin Artiste (SA): Tell us what moved you to start an animal sanctuary in southern Wisconsin and how long have you been involved in this work?

Sandy Ryan (SR):  I have been involved in animal rescue one way or another for many years. My first rescue was a sweet little red horse given to my parents because she was not wanted. I was 11 and we named her Crissy. She was six months old and I lost her when she was not quite 30. I spent hours with that horse and she was everything to me. She and I saw many years together- both the good and the bad life tossed at us.

My husband Jim was raised in Middleton, WI and I grew up near Chicago, IL. Lots of life changes led me to Wisconsin where I met Jim, we were married and ended up in the lovely area in the valleys near Monroe, WI.  Jim, our son Ross and I have been very happy here doing what we do.

 

 

I was led to the fiber animals by accident when a friend gave me a little black lamb. My sisters work in very high-powered jobs and I am a farmer. This had led to my light-hearted black sheep jokes.

My husband named that little lamb Woolamina or Mina for short. She was so beautiful and sweet but everyone told me to just throw her wool away. Really?? I was determined to learn to create things with her fiber so I took spinning lessons. That is how this all began.

SA:   Having excess fiber from animals is something many of us dream of that aren’t raising animals! You describe your farm as “animal friendly” — how is that manifested in your animal treatment practices?

SR:  Our sheep, llamas and alpacas find their way here from a variety of situations including rescue efforts, special need animals, and retirement needs. Many are a result of changing family situations that force people to re-home a beloved fiber family member. We strive to offer the critter family a safe place to live out their lives romping on pastures with LOTS of treats and hugs to keep them happy. (Their favorite treats are Fruit Loops!)

Our animals are never eaten, sold, traded, given away or allowed to have lambs (unless they arrive already pregnant of course!). We like to think of our farm as a retirement villa for the animals we care for.

We are a family owned sanctuary and the sheep generally manage to pay their own way through sales of their products. While to us this is an ideal situation all the way around, it in no way means another’s practices are wrong either. It is up to each person to choose how they raise and treat their flocks. We work to provide a network of not only safe havens for flock members, but also information about fiber and our farm if someone finds it helpful.

SA:  And, how many animals do you have?  What types?

SR:  Right now we have 89 sheep, 7 llamas, an alpaca, 2 Great Pyrenees dogs, 2 Border Collies, 2 Pygora goats, a little donkey and 3 horses. I try not to count until shearing day!

 

 

The sheep are a varied bunch. We have Lincoln cross, Cotswold, a Wensleydale, British breeds not common here and many more. I love having such a variety of sheep, personalities and wool. Many of our sheep are Romneys, retired here or purchased from our friend’s famous McNair Romney flock.

SA:   Tell us about some of the more colorful characters living with you at the farm?

SR:  Keebler arrived as a bottle baby along with a gaggle of others. Bottle lambs are special beings in their own ways. Not much is better than having lambs in the house tromping about every where I go. They are so cute in their diapers, knowing the fridge is where bottles are kept and seeing them flop down on a favorite blanket for a good nap. They love to be rocked to sleep, sleep under the fleece sorting table or just hanging about on the couch watching TV. I always cry when they out grow me and move to the barn to be big sheep. A friend always tells me that when they move out, I have done my job raising them to be good happy sheep. (I still cry a little and wish they could stay inside!)

One of the lambs that arrived with Keebler was Molly. She was born in the cold of winter and her mom had triplets. As a result, Molly was a little slow to get moving so mom was more worried about the other two lambs romping too far from them. She wanted to keep them close and Molly got cold. My friend whisked her inside and got her warm but Molly lost part of her back leg to frostbite after she was with us a few weeks.

As Keebler and Molly grew up they became inseparable. Keebler took on the role of watching over Molly and has never left her side. They are both around 10 years old now and Keebler is just as devoted to her as he was in their younger years. They live in a separate pasture from the main flock so Molly is not accidentally injured by the other sheep. She is also not able to keep up with the other sheep very well. It’s a little harder to get around on three and a half legs!

Our Shetland sheep Becan is quite a scamp! He arrived as a bottle baby with an injured leg after his mom accidentally stepped on him.  He grew up to be just fine with no evidence of his initial issues. When I look into his eyes, I would swear there is an “old soul” looking back at me. Like he knows what I am thinking and all about this world. He is a stinker, escape artist and instigator of many rounds of sheep tag. After the other sheep get running in circles around the barn, Becan stops and watches them run, looking all sly about his tricks. His best friend is our Shetland sheep Claire. I think he has a crush on her!

I love the little families the sheep form within the flock. The sheep stay families all their lives if allowed to stay together. The moms always keep an eye on their babies no matter how old they are. Conversely, the babies always look to their moms for protection and companionship. I absolutely adore that aspect of the sheep.

 

SA:  As you said earlier, the animals provide for themselves by the products you sell. Tell us about the products that you sell.

SR:  Our specialty is our Crazy Quilt Handspun and our Lash yarns. We do a lot of custom spinning too, which is my favorite thing to do! We also offer a variety of wool from washed all the way to batts, roving and clouds all set for felting and spinning.

 

The sheep are pretty stubborn about writing down dye recipes so colors and fiber combinations are often unable to be repeated.  I greatly admire people who CAN repeat colors though- the sheep and I are just not as patient!

SA:  Let’s pick back up on your fiber arts “journey” —  How did you learn to spin?

SR:  I took lessons from a local lady. I think if Mina had not already arrived, I would have quit trying to learn. My very first wheel was an antique castle wheel from Russia. After I fussed and fumed for the better part of a month I got to try a new spinning wheel out. Wa-la, a spinner I became!

I still love to spin on that old wheel and have gathered a “stable” of others over time. The little chatters they make sound like they are telling a story of their own about all the hands that have spun yarn on them and where travels have taken them.

 

 

 

SA:  Tell us about how you approach your fiber arts practice…what is
your philosophy?

SR:  I am not sure I have an actual philosophy, beyond believing there is really no right or wrong way to create with fiber. It is as personal as any other artistic medium. It is fascinating to see the different ways people spin yarn. And how fiber figures into felting, clothing and so much more. There are so many techniques and projects I would like to try. Seems you could never manage to try them all, even in a lifetime!

SA:  Thank you for say that, Sandy.  It is as personal as any other artistic medium.  What types of yarns do you like to spin the most?

SR:  Definitely our flagship Crazy Quilt and lash yarns. They are both so textured with no holds barred when it comes to colors and combinations of fiber and add ins. I am quite happy with a bag of unmatched fiber and colors and a pile of vintage trinkets or beads within reach too!

SA:  In the time that you’ve been running the farm and producing fiber products and art, what changes have you seen? 

SR:  I have seen a major reduction in sheep flock numbers in our area. The economy is forcing people to re-home or sell their pets and fiber animals. It is a sad part of this business right now.

 

 

The biggest change I have seen over the years is an increase in the popularity of animal friendly fiber. Flock owners have also realized they can actually sell their fiber, not burn it- gasp! For a long time people thought they had no outlet for wool and were only receiving 10 cents a pound from the huge fiber mills. Prices have not changed a lot in that respect, but now that fiber artists have moved to preparing their own fiber, buying direct is an added value to their own products as well.  This offers a whole new market for flock owners and buyers alike. Knowing where fiber came from has become more and more important to people and of course we like promoting that!

 

SA:  From your perspective, are more people getting interested in using hand-crafted/hand spun fibers?

SR:  There is a ton of interest in fiber related items and yarn. Sometimes cost is listed as an issue when it comes to purchasing handspun yarn though. Pricing can really be a tricky prospect when selling handspun yarn or handcrafted items. Costs need to cover time spent preparing and spinning the fiber and the cost of fiber and shipping just like any other product being considered for purchase.

As a flock owner,  the cost needs to reflect raising the animals and offering their fiber for sale. This is something that all of us struggle with and again, there really are no wrong ways to do this. It is up to every spinner/artist to decide what lets them recoup costs and feel good about what they have to offer. That is so different from artist to artist, again just like any other artistic media.

In our case, we do need to move the sheep’s products a smidge faster than some artists. Money goes straight back to feeding and caring for our flock. We also sell fiber for a few other animal friendly farms owned by friends. The money from the sale of their flock’s unwashed wool goes directly back to them to help them support their own flocks. I have a distinct dilemma deciding on charges for my handspun yarn- and fiber for that matter. The sheep have worked to keep their prices in the mid-range. This allows them to keep up with their bills and offer up some special fiber and handspun yarn. Feed prices have doubled the past several years forcing the sheep to review their prices twice a year to be sure their financial needs are being met. It is still very hard to raise our prices but the sheep say they need those raises!

SA:  The sheep are smart to keep their eyes on their financial picture!  What can we do in the fiber arts community do to increase more interest from folks that normally use commercial products?

SR:  I think there is a place for both commercial and handspun yarn. Many projects are more suited to an acrylic yarn that creates a finished item that is a little more carefree to wash and dry.

 

The interest in animal fiber products is very high right now. Many knitters and crocheters have become spinners.  There are also many people unaware of how easy it is to care for wool and animal fiber items. The items are remarkably durable and often much softer than people may think. Wool is an exploration and the more information offered about it will only increase interest!

SA:  I know you were very inspired by your great grandmother, Emma
Lamp — tell us about the influence she has had upon your life and
your art?

SR:  My great grandmother Lamp was a woman I hope to live up to. She lived in the upper apartment of my grandmother Holtz’ house. As kids, my sister, cousins and I spent a lot of time there having a blast. Grandma Lamp was patient as a saint. Almost every time we were there we begged her to play hide and seek with us. We ALWAYS hid in the potato pantry under the counter. She never was able to find us — or so we thought then! She actually would sit and read her newspaper while we hid. Occasionally stomping her feet on the floor so we would think she was walking around looking for us, asking “where are those kids I wonder?”. Then we would have her famous butter cookies for a snack when we re-appeared. She would always act shocked when we told her where we had been hiding too!

She was a gifted quilter and rug braider. She would sit and sort fabric brought to her from the local upholstery shop. She created so many beautiful braided rugs.  Both her rugs and her crazy quilt items were made with a wild abandon when it came to color and texture.  I think that is where my color trends come from.  I named our yarn after her crazy quilts and I hope she would be proud of the yarn I spin.  She was such a graceful, peaceful soul.  I hope I can live up to that part of her too.

SA:  You were lucky to have such a terrific role model and I love her picture!  When you are not actively running the farm or making fiber art, what else do you like to do with your time?

SR:  I love historical research. Right now I am working on tracing our farm’s history. So far I know the house was built right around 1840 and have several names of owners that I am tracing for further information. I love solving those puzzles.

SA:  OK, Sandy, one more question — If you could have one wish granted, what would it be?

SR:  I would wish the economy would improve pronto so people are not forced to make such awful decisions about their pets AND families. The world would be a much better place for all if that could happen for them. That is my one wish…

SA:  That is a wonderful wish and you are not alone there.  Thanks so much for spending some time with us.  Dear Readers, if you wish to see more about what Sandy and the sheep are up to or want to check out some of the products the sheep have available, click here

We also have a giveaway winner tonight!  The winner of Kate White’s darling mini – batt in the “Pepper” colorway is Victoria of Follow The Start Studio.  Congratulations!  I will be in touch with you so we can get your prize to you.

Until next time, all the fibery best, Arlene.

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