Nothing embodies spring like the cavorting, knobby-kneed, curlicue-fleeced lamb, and during the spring lambing season Vermont barn windows glow all night, every night. Each newborn lamb’s first gravelly "baaas" bleat good-bye to winter.
The state census figures have it all down in black and white: Vermont is still Holstein country -- 165,000 dairy cattle at last count in 1992. As for sheep, though their sheer numbers are a far cry from the two million in the 1840s during what is called the "Merino Era," the 11,000 ewes grazing from Highgate Springs to South Newfane today ain’t all baaad.
Among craftspeople, no one does for the ovine what Woody Jackson has done for the bovine. But the state’s 440 or so sheep raisers, along with other artisans who use the woolly visage as an element in their crafts, make for some fun pickings and sheep thrills. Vermont-grown wool becomes lofty fleeces, hand-dyed wool and spun yarn, as well as knit, felted and sheepskin clothing. In addition there is tender lamb for table or freezer. And people who dream of the country life with a small flock of their own or perhaps are looking for a Green Mountain "lawnmower" may sample farm tours and classes in all things sheepish. If that’s not enough, scour the craft fairs and shops for sheep-decorated pottery, prints, ornaments and the like.
Christine Knippenberg of Hartland and Dianne Stott of Woodstock both fled New York
City and environs only to succumb to "a hobby that got carried away." Between them,
they raise about 100 sheep at their respective farms.
Jacket by Coyote Vermont
Knippenberg came to sheep raising in 1978 as a weaver looking for good wool. She dyes some of her Cormo and Romney fleeces vibrant colors that are processed into novelty wool for handspinners. The rest, destined for jackets, is combined with Stott’s Romney, Corriedale and crosses and spun into yarn at Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney.
For more than a decade, Stott was a knitwear designer for several sportswear companies including Evan Picone. "We bought a Vermont ski house and came up on weekends. We said ‘this is nice. This would be nice year round,’ " she recalls. That led to residence in Vermont and a commute to the city, until she gave up the pace for occasional consulting and freelancing.
The clothing industry’s loss is Vermont’s gain. The Coyote line introduced last fall includes a hooded, felt-like heavyweight knit in forest green with black footprints and a rectangle with howling coyote at $425. An Arctic collection was featured last winter, and a new line is in the works this spring. A brochure is available and the coats can be seen at the annual Vermont Sheep & Wool Festival and ordered by mail.
Coyote Vermont, RR2 Westerdale Road, West Woodstock, VT 05091, tel. (802) 457- 2049
Pictured - Nell of Middlebury's striking knits
"Eight years ago, it sort of came to me that I had to learn to knit," says Vojtisek. "Now I don’t know how I ever lived without it. This is the way I unwind."
She emphasizes that this is purely a hobby -- she makes but 5 to 10 sweaters and 50 or 60 hats a year. Each is unique, although she may repeat motifs. Her hallmark is the intricate use of many bright colors, and her work is available exclusively through Frog Hollow’s Vermont State Craft Center galleries in Middlebury and Burlington. A child’s sweater and hat are $120.
Nell of Middlebury, 4 Green Mountain Place, Middlebury, VT 05753, tel. (802) 388-4809
Candy Bear from Shepherd's Flock
Be forewarned, the Heges do business Vermont-style. First, it is policy not to do business at home. "We respectfully request that you do not come to Townshend looking for us," says their brochure. "One day a lady came to see my products and actually expected me to stop painting the house," Rick said. They offer their goods at several sheep festivals and small craft shows in the region. Vermont shows include those at Ludlow, Lyndonville, Newfane, Peru and St. Johnsbury.
They also sell mail order, with a charming reluctance. They make no bones about running out of items and not reprinting their full-color brochure. "We do mail order largely as a service to all the wonderful people who have kept us in business. If, however, you must have a completely up-to-date catalog in front of you, then we fear you would be best ordering from a company that charges prices to cover that kind of overhead."
Sample prices: gray trooper hat, $35; matching gray mitts, $31; gray booties, $13; Candy Bears, $65.
Shepherd’s Flock, P.O. Box 131, Townshend, VT 05353, tel. (802) 365-4588
Dworkin was introduced to knitting early. "I was a ski racer as a kid, and knitted ski hats and mittens on the long bus rides," she says. When she was pregnant during the winter of 1993, she returned to the family home on top of Crow Hill, knitting and looking out the window to the views of Killington, Pico and Rutland. By spring, her son and an offshoot business -- West Hill Woolies -- were born.
The socks can be worn in the traditional manner -- they’re especially suited for clogs, sneakers and Birkenstocks -- or as slippers. Dworkin makes them in heavy and regular weight. One size fits 9-13, but she can custom fit: "I know how many stitches for every size foot." Socks are $42 a pair. Vests are $65 and up. They are sold at selected craft shows, through the farm and through the Rutland Area Lamb and Wool Producers.
A hat both soft and warm, from Singing Spindle Spinnery
To pursue her crafts -- all of them -- she left a high school job teaching creative writing a stone’s throw from the house that she and her husband built. She wound up teaching spinning, dyeing, color blending, knitting, crocheting and felting through Frog Hollow’s Vermont State Craft Center in Burlington and various group and private classes at her studio. Who would guess she has only three sheep?
"It all started with one student in 1983 -- a woman who had received some raw fleeces in a barter and wanted to get the smelly things out of the back of her car," she says. Her own sheep-raising days hark back even earlier. Collins grew up on a large sheep farm in West Townshend. She began spinning in 1973. "The first wool I spun was from the Northfield Carding Mills across the mountain." Each of these facts launches her off on a story.
Because she will tutor anyone at any level on any aspect of the craft, she has naturally come up with some interesting beginner’s kits. Suitable for young children, they cost $10 each for pizza-wheel weaving, drop spindle spinning, felt hat making. Kits to make brightly colored felt balls are $5. Her crafts are for sale at several craft shows, the Billings Farm Museum gift shop and the Waitsfield and Waterbury farmers’ markets.
Singing Spindle Spinnery, RFD #1 Box 1000, South Duxbury, VT 05660, tel. (802) 244-8025
Susan Duckett is one of a handful of Cotswold breeders in Vermont. Her 60 ewes, mostly purebreds, are among a few hundred in the whole country. Her 200-pound sheep produce huge, thick fleeces -- about 15 pounds per ewe. From her home she sells these Mercedes of fleece, plus custom-spun wool and breeding stock. Her yarn is also available at The Artisans’ Hand in Montpelier.
During high-yield lambing years, Duckett, a vegetarian, has had to sell up to 40 lambs for meat. "It’s a pity, when you have a rare breed," she says. Although she doesn’t want to see her sheep turned into hides, she knows they make luxurious sheepskins. This year Duckett, a school recess mother and 3-11 p.m.-shift nurse, is taking a break from lambing. But by next spring she predicts that she will have spent between $300 and $400 for a new ram and will be renewing her flock.
Blacksheep Handspun Farm, RFD2 Box 204A, St. Johnsbury, VT 05819, tel. (802) 748-8548
Vermont Sheep Breeder’s Association, Tom Bennet, HC 32, Box 8, Calais, VT 05648
Vermont Department of Agriculture, 116 State St., Montpelier, VT 05602, tel. (802) 828-2416