Jennifer is the Co-Founder of the Upper Canada Fibreshed. She is the most knowledgeable person I know regarding all things sheep, farming, wool, natural plant dyes and a great many other topics as well. She is a permaculturist and a very talented artist, who’s wool felted products for the home are so cozy and inviting. This Fibreshed would not exist without her and continues to steadily grow as a result of her efforts. Thank you Jennifer for all you do, and for sharing your wisdom. Visit her at All Sorts Acre or on Etsy at Hair Farmer.
What breeds of sheep do you have and why? What quality do you look for in your sheep’s wool?
Our flock is a shetland based flock. Considered an unimproved or primitive breed that originated in the Shetland Isles. Shetland sheep are ideal for a low input grass-based farm. Considered hill sheep in the U.K., they are very hardy, excellent mothers, lamb easily, come in a variety of colours, slower growing, have naturally short tails so we don’t have to dock them, and have very nice wool. They are almost the perfect sheep. Their one drawback is that they are very small. Despite being fine boned, They are not know for producing the kind of lamb the North American market prefers, even though Shetland lamb is on the U.K Slow Food Ark of Taste. We counter this drawback by cross-breeding other breeds whose characteristics we look for such as size, but that fit well with a hill breed. The resulting offspring are called mules. These mules are the backbone of the British lamb industry. The mules can then go on to produce excellent meat lambs, with the mothers still producing good wool. Much of our breeding program is based on this concept. Some of the other breed bloodlines we have in our flock include finn, Romney, Icelandic, and Blue Faced Leicester.
Much of the wool produced in Canada is from meat sheep such as Polled Dorset, Suffolk, or Rideau. Wool quality varies, and it can be used for spinning and knitting. This wool can be used for needle felting to a degree, but virtually useless for wet felting. Being a felter, we breed for felting wool. I want a wool that is strong, felts quickly, but not too quickly, is often more than 3” in length, and forms a skin when felted. I make mostly rugs, mats, purses, sculptures, and shrouds. Strength is slightly more important than softness for me. The wool needs to stand up to wear and tear. I also look for natural colours. Shetland sheep are some of the best sheep in the world to if you want colour.
Is there anything unique or interesting about your management system?
Depends on who you talk to. What we do isn’t unique, we are probably representative of many smaller fibre flocks across Ontario. Our flock is very hardy so we have few health or lambing issues. We use rotational grazing in our pastures to keep parasite pressure down. We use organic methods for much of our health care. We have the vet come in to do a yearly health check of the sheep. We try and mimic a natural system as much as possible – the mothers wean the lambs, they are on grass for most of the summer, they have access to the outdoors all year, and we like them to be friendly, This makes handling far easier. This past year began implementing tracking systems for the average daily gain (ADG) of lambs, breeding statistics, and other data points that larger producers often look at. We feel the need to keep these metrics on our flock to see if we are improving or not. Over time we will begin cataloguing the felt-ability of each breeding group we have. It will be interesting to see where that goes.
Can you elaborate on your plans for a natural dye garden? What are some native species of plants that make excellent dyes?
With 2015 being the first year of our commercial dye garden I can’t comment too much about it. The majority of colours are deliberately grown, but some colours are foraged. Much research went into plant selection for the gardens. Things such as plant yields to space needed, ease of growing, years needed before harvest, is the plant perennial or annual, cold tolerance, facilities needed to grow plant (we didn’t want to heat a greenhouse) what mordant was needed to get the desired colour, lightfastness, potential invasiveness, plant preparation to get the colour, and of course the potential colour yielded all needed to be considered. Although many plants will give amazing colours, very few are suitable for commercial purposes. Our basic palette will include: blue, red, orange, yellow, and brown,. If you remember colour theory from school you will recognize that is enough colours to have a full pallette.
Many native plants can make excellent dyes on a small scale, but few seem to be suitable for commercial production. One plant that is excellent for dying and native to this area is the black walnut. It produces an incredible rich brown. It is truly beautiful, easy to harvest, and easy to dye with. It has one major drawback though, it stinks!
How did you find out about Fibresheds and what motivated you to organize one in Southern Ontario?
I bought a book by Rebecca Burgess called Harvesting Colour. I was enthralled right form the start. It seemed to me to be the second to last piece in my animal, farming, art, colour, money, permaculture puzzle. I had been searching for a way to combine all of them, and a fibreshed combined everything I wanted and loved doing. In some ways my life is becoming a large art project.
I loved the idea of a fibreshed and wanted to start one, but I was missing some really essential skills to really make it work. At the 2013 Guelph Organic Conference I met Becky Porlier while volunteering at the Rare Breeds Canada table. She asked if I knew what a fibreshed was. Becky was the final piece of the fibreshed puzzle. Becky has the perfect complimentary skill-set to me for creating a vibrant fibreshed. I couldn’t do it on my own.We both thought it would be cool to create one, so we did. I don’t think either of us really had any idea where it would go, if anywhere. We just thought the idea needed to be out there and we seemed to be the two in a position to do it.
What is the most important environmental challenge that UCFS is addressing?
I don’t know if I can bring it down to one thing. UCFS focuses on the system of the fibreshed. It emphasizes that everything is connected. Perhaps the most most important thing UCFS does is help raise awareness of systems thinking, combating reductionist and “mono-culture” problem solving that is so pervasive today.
What excites you the most about the UCFS?
The possibilities of where it can go and how it can have beneficial impact for so many people from all walks of life from farmers to artists to business people.
How / why is it important to look beyond what we wear? What would our region be able to offer?
Textiles are so ubiquitous in our daily lives we barely notice them. Curtains, bedsheets, carpets, upholstery fabric, it is everywhere. Natural fibres are also used in oil spill clean-up, for sound insulation, bedding, stuffing, canvas, and so much more. Historically Ontario produced many textiles including felt, linen, and woven fabrics. Ontario could offer many products, but I can only comment on what I am doing. Some of the felted products I have in development include insulating wall hangings and wool shrouds for green burials. Each of these products can use a local lower quality of wool from meat sheep. I currently manufacture floor rugs and mats as well. Once again, these can be made with wool from just about any flock in Ontario.