Virginia Scholomiti (VS): Like so many fiber lovers, my introduction came from my mother and my grandmother. Knitting has always been part of our family history. For every new baby, there was a layette; every child, a hat with pompom and ear-flaps and matching mittens for Christmas. Occasionally, the lucky ones got a beautiful hand knit sweater. My knitting skills have remained novice, but there is something so special about following the same pattern with your hands, that has been repeated countless times before, with love and caring thoughts worked into each stitch. I was introduced to spinning by a good friend who had a small spinners flock and convinced me to try it. Of course when I started spinning, I was hooked. Up until that time, my background was riding and training show horses. I was unfamiliar with raising sheep and the incredible variety of breeds, each with their own distinct and unique features. We moved to this farm after our children were grown and off on their own. We were searching for more space, and a place to be able to care for our aging parents. This farm met all our needs, and indeed both our mothers lived there last days here with us on the farm. My mom designed and knit little lamb sweaters for the newborn lambs who arrive in March when the weather is sometimes frigid. Just after they are born and dried off, we pop them into a little sweater, knit from one of their flock mates fiber, and it helps to keep them dry and warm for those first few hours.
SA: It is so amazing to hear how your life has led you to become a farm owner and business women. You mentioned your farm is quaint, old, and full of history. Can you tell us a little more about your farm?
VS: About 12 years ago we bought this small farm. It has a yellow house with several barns, many acres of wooded land and some nice pasture. It was an old family farm which was a perfect place for us. Much of the house and barns are original. We use the old dairy for the sheep, who are very pampered and spoiled. We bring them into the barn every night all year long. We use audio monitors to listen to the ewes during lambing season, so that we can be present for the births, and offer assistance if needed. Our hay and straw are stored overhead in the hay loft.
The old barns have lovely old beams that undoubtedly were cut down by hand, from trees here on the property. There are places where you can see names scribbled into several of them. We are always in awe of the work that must have gone into clearing this land and building the farm. We have been working on establishing some extra pasture, and will probably never finish, and that is with the luxury of a tractor and a chain saw! Both my husband and myself grew up in old houses with creaky stairs and swollen windows that don’t always shut properly. We like the thought that many others have come before us, and hopefully many will come after us, all with a love for the house, the land and the animals.
SA: Wow, your farm sounds amazing! It seems like you have really fallen in love with the Yellow Farm. You have a creative and unique way of selling and distributing your fleece. Can you share with us your sales method, and why you chose to sell this way?
VS: We sell our raw fleeces on our website. Unfortunately I don’t update the site as much as I should! People seem to really enjoy knowing what animal their fiber comes from. We name all our sheep, so it was an easy progression to post pictures of each sheep and offer their particular fleece for sale. The response has been wonderful, most of our fleeces are reserved at least a year ahead of time, sometimes two years ahead. This prevents a mad dash for fleeces that I have seen sometimes at fiber shows, or at some farms. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone, and somehow people don’t seem to mind reserving their fleece so far ahead. Our flock is sheared twice a year, and there seems to be a large group of spinners and fiber lovers that are seeking our particular type of fiber. I enjoy hearing from the folks who have purchased fleeces, and love to see how they work with each fleece.
VS: We started our flock ewes from a good friend who had Border Leicesters and Romneys. That was wonderful fiber, but we decided that we would like to explore something else. The first Wensleydale that I saw in the flesh were showing at the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Festival at Rhinebeck, NY. From the moment I saw those fabulous lustrous curls, and felt the amazingly soft handle, I was in love. I had never felt a fleece that was so silky and soft. The American Wensleydale is in the process of being established here in the US, and since you cannot import any live animals, breeders must use imported frozen semen and artificially inseminate ewes to begin a lengthy and expensive process of recreating the breed here. That is why you will see a percentage next to a registered animal which identifies how far along the breed up process they are. An animal that reached 96% (which takes at least six generations of breeding) is considered a purebred.
We brought in several outstanding ewes, from the Dows at Black Pines in Colorado, and also from Sherry Carlson in California to start our flock. We have Super Sire Ltd, come every year to do the insemination with imported semen collected in the UK. At about that time, we discovered the Teeswater, which is another of the luster longwool sheep from the UK that is being established here in the same way the Wensleydale is. We decided to add Teeswaters to our flock as to be honest we couldn’t decide which of those breeds we liked better. I like to think that every shepherd feels their flock and breeds are the absolute best there is, and it is sort of like cheese. Sometimes you want lovely sharp cheddar, but later crave brie, or a lovely slice of Jarlsburg. I would hate to have to choose one to be ‘the best’. It is similar with sheep and fiber, each has their own unique advantages and purposes. Having said that, I feel the Wensleydale and the Teeswater long wools produce by far and away, the most lustrous, soft, fabulously curly fleeces, second to none. We love our sheep!
SA: What are the differences between the different sheep you raise, in character and in their wool?
VS: I am a curl fanatic. I am ever astounded at the endless variety of shape and curl Mother Nature has incorporated into our fleeces. That natural random curl is awesome. In the Wensleydale and the Teeswater it is actually called ‘purling’. The fleece looks like your knitted work that you have ripped out, sort of curls in one direction and then back on itself in the other direction. It creates endless variation and shape. When you part the fleece, and it is as though a light was illuminating from it. You can actually see the shine radiate out of the fiber. Then you touch it and it sort of glides through your fingers, with a lovely silky feel.
Because the Wensleydale and the Teeswater have roots that stem from a similar lineage, they have very similar fleeces. You can spot the Teeswater because their fleeces are traditionally white, and they have dark spots on their faces and their legs. This gives them a very unique look. Wensleydales are solid white or colored with a bluish black skin on their faces and ears, but never spots. Both breeds have ringlets that hang down over their foreheads like dreadlocks. The fleeces are both considered long wools. The fleeces are fairly open and grow at about an inch a month. The long curls, cascade down each side of the fleece. I think I am beginning to see a difference in the handle and tightness of the curl between the Teeswater and the Wensleydale. However, I really think it is unwise to make any generalization yet on the differences. Over several years of breeding, and a widened genetic pool, it may become clearer what the differences may be in the fiber. In any case both breeds produce a fabulous, lustrous curl that far surpasses any of the similar breeds ( in my opinion!).
My ewes of both breeds are curious and friendly, but not docile. I need to be able catch them and handle them by myself, to do routine health work, help with lambing, change their coats etc. I enjoy the various personalities within the flock, and never cease to be amused by some of their antics. The rams are kept separately and take special handling as their instincts can actually make them quite dangerous.
VS: The first time I spun Wensleydale fiber, I treated like I had treated every other fiber up to that point. I washed it, and carded some and also combed some to see how it would spin up with either prep. The result was great; I liked the combed prep a bit better as it gave a great drape to the finished product, and a bit less of a halo. I found that a soft spin was preferable so that the yarn kept a soft handle. The characteristic luster and sheen remained even after dying.
After several months, I realized that I was sort of disappointed with the yarns I was producing. The raw fiber was so very luscious and always made me smile. The endless variety of curl and shape of the lock itself, and the silky sheen that I was used to seeing on my animals, as it was growing was missing. It was then that I decided to spin from the lock, and I have not looked back. Spinning from the fold, in the grease, core spinning, coreless core spinning and free form spinning was what my fiber seemed to be begging for. Any and everything that would allow that naturally random, fabulous lock structure to keep its integrity. When we added Teeswater to the flock, we decided to allow some of the lambs to grow their first (hogget) fleece for 10 months or so. That produced a long staple of about 9” with beautiful curly tips that marks the first fleece. The long locks are the absolute best for tail spinning. My addiction to texture and random creation continues and my love and appreciation for my fiber producers (the sheep) grows with it.
SA: I really love your submission to the secret stash 4! Can you tell us more about your piece?
VS: Can I take a moment to tell you how wonderful it is that you have created such an intimate community feeling among a world of fiber lovers? Your challenges are such an inspiration, and I know all your readers are equally amazed and sparked by the different ways that different folks are moved to create with fiber.
I loved the idea of using more of a monochromatic color scheme that would emphasize the varying textures of the materials. It was truly a kick, to just simply ‘play’ with the fiber and see where it goes. You gave us a really lovely supply of fibers to work with and they truly did sort of form themselves. I am stuck in a very textured place right now, as my fingers seem to only be able to spin bulky yarn with a mind of it’s own. Eventually I will work my way back to a more traditional format, but for now it is a spontaneous and unstructured direction that calls to me. Somehow you challenge brought the thought of a Victorian sleigh ride with it, and that is where I tried to take it.
SA: Thank you for the kind words — we are having a good time, aren’t we? I really see the Victorian sleigh ride inspiration in that piece, it was lovely. You said your farm is in the beautiful Capital Region of New York. That area is full of such spectacular landscapes. What about your farm location inspires you to continue your work?
VS: I love nature in all its forms, but particularly the countryside here in upstate New York and our little piece of it. I have always loved working and being outside, through the seasons as they change. The Northeast is amazing in its diversity. Our farm has more woodland acres than pasture. The smells in the air change with the calendar, the wild flowers that pop up in the pasture right on schedule are all part of the ever changing, always new and inspiring variety that the Northeast offers. Even when trudging out to check the ewes at 1 am during the coldest winter nights, there is a special crunching sound that comes from the cold dry snow underfoot, and spectacular display of stars in the winter night sky. It is the sheep that should get the credit for keeping me interested and inspired. They are a constant source of work and sometimes stress, but always keep me in love with what I am doing. Lambing season is truly a magical time, and always fills me with amazement and awe, and an impatience to see what fleeces will be produced by these new little individuals!
SA: Sounds like an exciting time of the year; I’m sure the anticipation of seeing the new lambs with their growing coats is overwhelming. Looking at your Etsy page, it is clear you are extremely popular and sell out fast; what a great problem to have! How would you say your customers have encouraged you in your years of business?
VS: I still consider myself a newbie at this. Each and every sale means a great deal to me, and I want every customer to be over the moon with what they purchase from us. Our sheep do most of the work in producing awesome unique fiber that basically sells itself. I only act as an intermediary in producing hand spun from their creation! I really like to be able to have a small relationship with each buyer, and encourage them to show me what they create with my yarns and fibers. People are frequently looking for this kind of personal connection. Online communication is so easy and provides an opportunity to feel a connection with so many people.
VS: I am always excited when I am creating something, and tend to think, as it is being created, it is perfection. Then I step back and look at it, and inevitably find that there are several things that could and should be improved. Recently, I was working on items to bring to Vogue Knitting Live in New York City in January. Just as soon as I was pleased with an item, I saw something that I wanted to change. I do adore the process of trying to let the fiber keep its integrity as I work with it, and in the finished product, allow the uniqueness of the fiber speak for itself. Unfortunately I usually get in the way! Promoting the Wensleydale and the Teeswater breeds with their outstanding fiber is of utmost importance to me at the moment. I am always looking to find places to use some of the more textural handspun, to give it a practical application along with the simple appreciation that comes from being a small piece of art in and of itself.
VS: My farm is my studio, and unfortunately for my husband, I use any and all parts of the house as well for fiber work. My favorite place to work is on the front porch during the good weather, watching our flock grazing along with our Highland cows and an occasional forest dweller passing through. The air, the smells, the sunlight are all so much a part of our lives. Inspiration is easy when you have such a wonderful landscape to draw from.
We have been toying with the idea of using the farm to host weekend workshops. I really love to see what others are doing and would love to continue learn from the plethora of folks that are on a similar path. I have been lucky enough to work with some fabulous folks who are pushing the envelope in spinning, and would love to meet and chat with so many more. I’ll try to keep up with what many gifted fiber artists are up to, and again give a shout out to Spin Artiste for keeping so many of us in the loop.
SA: Thanks Virginia, I love being able to build up and connect the fiber art community. I’m just thankful that there are others out there as obsessed with fiber art as I am! Can you tell us anything about the wheel you use to spin your masterpieces?
VS: My first love is my Louet, it has stood by my years of learning and many mistakes and frustrations. With the thicker yarns I am producing right now, I have a Majacraft Aura which is amazing. It has so many ways to nuance the settings, that you can make spinning almost anything a breeze.
SA: Let me ask you a more personal question. What is your idea of a perfect girl’s night out?
VS: Great food, (maybe even just cheese and great bread) and plenty of wine! I guess the ‘out’ part would not need to be going anywhere other than into the living room in front of the wood stove. I prefer a small group of good friends where I can relax and feel buoyed by their friendship.
SA: Thank you so much Virginia for sharing your story with us. I feel like I have truly connected with your work and your farm. I want to close with a question that will keep our eyes towards the future. In 100 years, how would you like the Yellow Farm to be remembered?
VS: I would like the Yellow Farm to be remembered for being good stewards of the land and hopefully for the small part we have played in helping to establish the American Wensleydale and the American Teeswater sheep in this country.
As for the farm itself, I am confident that some family will be occupying this spot, raising a happy and energetic family. The children will spend endless hours exploring and playing in the barns, and out in the pastures and woods. The animals will always be well cared for, happily munching hay and wandering about the farm. Just as it has been for over 200 years, we hope that many, many lives are fulfilled here.
SA: Thank you so much, Virginia, for taking the time to share of your life and work at The Yellow Farm. I hope to get up there to see it in person one day!
Dear Readers, Virginia has some treats for you — below are a couple of charming videos for us…and we’re having a giveaway of some a TOTAL OF 2 LBS of her fabulous fibers (see picture at left) including A total of 2 lbs, including grey Wensleydale ewe , 2 Wensleydale Hogget fleece samples - white and natural color, and white Teeswater ewe.!!! To enter, simply leave a comment below and answer the question, “You know you have a big fiber (and/or yarn) stash when….” Additional entries for sharing about this post on FB, Twitter, etc., just leave a comment letting us know you did. Winner will be drawn at random next Sunday, February 3rd, after 5:00 PM EST. Best of luck to all!