Archive | January, 2013

Sheep Breeds and Yarns – Romney

Over the next few weeks, we are going to go into more technical detail about specific sheep breeds and the yarns their wool yields. 

There are hundreds of breeds of sheep in the world, and through deliberate and sometimes natural breeding, such as on isolated islands in Ireland, they have developed very specific breed traits.  These are manifested in their confirmation, the shape of their heads, and their wool.  Some sheep have horns and some don’t.   They also develop differences in resilience to disease and parasites.  There are some breeds that seem to tolerate crowded conditions and some that are weak and susceptible to health problems. 

While wool is the most important issue for a fiber/textile operation, the shape of their heads also has a big impact.  For one breeding cycle here, we used a large Romney ram as sire.  Since some of our ewes are Romneys, we were seeking good pure breed genes.  And, since cross-breeding often improves other breeds, we hoped that this would add size and fiber quality to some of the Jacobs.   Unfortunately, this ram had an enormous head, which by Romney sheep breeder standards was a perfect head.  The poor girls had such difficulty birthing in the spring, though, that I had to literally pull 21 baby lambs during birthing.  They all survived, but doing that as a going concern was not going to be good for my ewes.  It explained why at the farm where we got the ram, many of their ewes were being delivered by c-section.  Yes, c-section.  Not good for the ewes, and a very expensive way to get yarn.

Ever since, we have selected rams with narrow heads, and the ewes are able to birth without help.

Today, we are going to discuss the Romney breed and its fiber in detail.

Romney ewe and lambs


Romneys are a breed that originated in Romney, England.  They developed into this specific breed without human intervention and are a large dual purpose (meaning both meat and wool) sheep that has a long fiber.  They come in both white and black, and white sheep can carry the black gene, as seen in the photo above.  Since they are such a good breed, they are often used to cross with other breeds to improve those.  For example, the Coopworth breed enjoys having Romney in its parentage and you can see it in their large confirmation and long wool. 

Romney wool usually has a long loose crimp and often have “sheen,” the quality that gives the yarn its luster.  When we selected our first Romneys, I deliberately sought the ones with the most sheen, and you can see it easily in pictures. 

The first photograph is of a bulky yarn, the next a worsted, and then a fingerling weight.

 bulky luster

 Meduseld bulky yarn


worsted luster

Meduseld worsted weight yarn

 Fingerling Romney yarn

 Meduseld Romney Fingerling/Lace weight yarn

They also make a lot of yarn.  For several years we had an almost two-hundred pound Romney who created 14 pounds of wool each year.  Once it was processed, his fleece still yielded 8 pounds of yarn, an amazing achievement for one animal.  I wish I had cloned him:)

Romney yarn, due to its smooth cuticle (what gives it its luster) and loose crimp (the curls) tends to drape very well.  It is excellent for loose flowing garments, such as shawls and draping sweaters.  The yarn also makes beautiful, warm hats and scarves.  It would not be good for garment that needs lots of structure as it responds to gravity and drops or pulls from the top.   There are Romney yarns made from a tighter crimp fleece that won’t do this. 

Another factor to consider is the scale that measures from course to fine.  Yarns can be lab tested for microns, or the width of each strand.  Where a specific yarn falls on this scale indicates how comfortable that particular yarn will be next to your skin.  Our Dorset Downs (not to be confused with the meat sheep Dorsets) with their ultra fine fibres, provide a baby-soft yarn.  A Romney’s yarn is more course, making it good for sweaters and outer garments.  Which is good – who would want to cover up that sheen :>)


Meals at Meduseld – Country Eggs Benedict

Food is an important part of life here at Meduseld.  It’s why growing natural healthy food is such a priority.  And, it tastes better.  The lamb just tastes GOOD.  The children are gnawing fresh-picked carrots and talking about how sweet and juicy they are.  The vegetables look and taste so wholesome.sunflower


 Today, we are going to cover another breakfast that is one of our favorites here, Country Eggs Benedict.

  Country Eggs Benedict

If you are following paleo guidelines, you can omit the bread from this recipe.  Otherwise, charge forward! For some of the ingredients I won’t list an amount, because it will depend on how many people you are cooking for.  This applies in particular to bacon and bread.


  • Bacon
  • Eggs
  • Juice of one/half lemon
  • Butter – 4 tablespoons cold, and 6 tablespoons melted
  • Large tomato
  • Generous bunch basil or other greens.
  • Vinegar
  • Bread (homemade spelt used here – use your favorite)
  • Olive oil
  • Seasonings

 This was homemade spelt bread, toasted in a skillet with olive oil.

Fry the bacon – reserve in warm oven.

To make the tomato mix:

Chop one large tomato.  Chop basil (or spinach, arugula, or other greens of your choice).  Saute in skillet with olive oil.  Salt, pepper and garlic to taste.  Add about one tablespoon balsamic vinegar.   Once heated through, turn off heat and keep in warm place.

To make the Hollandaise:

Some recipes recommend a double boiler and I think this is the reason more people don’t make this delightful sauce.  Let be honest, any mention of the double boiler and people think “this is going to be complicated” and that’d the end of it.  I don’t use a double boiler and you don’t have to.  I use a thick bottomed pot and the lowest heat.

 Over low heat, stir 3 egg yolks with juice from one/half lemon.  Cut cold butter into pieces and as pan starts to warm, gradually add pieces of cold butter.  Stir frequently.  Don’t add another piece until the previous one is incorporated into the yolks.  Most recipes call for unsalted butter, but we use Amish roll butter which is salted.  I know its some culinary sin that would get me kicked out of Le Cordon Bleu, but you use what you have, right?  The sauce will begin to thicken and once you can see the bottom of the pan, like this, turn off the heat.


Take the melted butter and add one tablesoon at a time into the sauce.  Stir well to incorporate each spoonful.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

To poach the eggs:

Take a pan with a large surface area.  Fill to only about 1/2 to 3/4 inch with water and add two tablespoons vinegar and one teaspoon salt.  Bring to a simmer.  If you boil the water, the eggs will break apart.  What you need is simmering hot water so that the water is not disturbed.  

Break an egg in a small cup and gently pour it into the simmering water.  The slower you are the more intact the egg will remain.  allow the egg to start forming firm edges.  Once it has, you can start ladling some hot water over the egg, and this will firm up its surface.  Cook until there are no clear parts left of the egg white. 


 My apologies this photo is not clearer, but the lense kept steaming up from the simmering water.

Now, assemble.  Take reserved toast, bacon and place on plate.  Ladle a hot poached egg onto the bacon.  Place a couple spoonfuls of Hollandaise on the egg, and to top it off, a spoonful of the tomato-basil mix.  Serve!


Catching Up

There has been all sorts of activity at Meduseld these last few days, so it is time to catch up.

With the burst of warm weather last week, some of the maples are starting to give sap.  The best weather pattern for sap is freezing nights with above freezing temperature days.  Once this cold snap moves through, we may be heading into ideal syrup weather.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow should see some new items in the store.  I have been wrapping up (pun intended) two shoulder shawls (wraps) to sell, and there will be a little more wool.  Also, last week a large box of dyed wool went off to the fiber mill. 

A hint of an item going in the store…



We also butchered some older hens over the weekend, and continue to see progress in the chickens’ health since we added fermented feed to their diets.  These stew hens were filled with the rich golden fat that makes such wonderful broths.

We also had friends come to visit.  During one of the visits our friend was sampling all the diverse lacto-fermented items we make here.  The idea came up for a lacto-fermentation workshop.  If you live in the area and are interested, please email me and we’ll try to set up a date.  For those who live further away, I will try to cover this topic thoroughly in a future blog.



Wattle Fences and Frontier Culture Museum

This weekend the weather was gorgeous.  Highs in the 60’s with sunshine.  It seemed a perfect time to start a project we had been discussing for some time, making a wattle fence.

Here you can see a picture of the fence that had been in place.  Functional, yes, attractive, NO!  However, with all the feathered friends that run around this property, it is important that we close some areas off to them, otherwise, no vegetables for us.



 Our garden used to be in rows, but last year we went to permaculture inspired “key-hole” beds.  The garden is divided into sections and the interior of each section is accessed by a small path called a keyhole.  The garden will not be tilled, and the soil is not compacted by walking on it.   It has it pros and cons.  One of the benefits is that while with row gardens, fifty percent of the garden is walked on, with Key-hole gardening, about 70 percent of the garden is plantable space.  The stones are my hose guides.

Back to fencing…

There were several reasons that we choose wattle fencing.  By placing a more solid type of fencing on the north side of the garden, we are hoping to create a micro climate in the garden.  The fence will protect the garden from the wind, and hopefully hold in more heat from the sunlight.  We also chose the wattle fence because it uses available resources without us having to purchase fencing.  This fence will be a great deal more work, but there is no expense involved.  Another benefit is that we are thinning the saplings and branches and creating areas where the remaining trees will not have to compete as much for nutrients and sunlight.

There are actually technical terms for the parts of a wattle fence.  The uprights are called “sales” and the horizontal branches are called “weavers.”  The sales can be a bit sturdy, but the weavers need to be thin (less than an inch in diameter) green, (fresh woods bends more easily) and long, as long as you can find them. 

Here we have started setting the sales.  At each end of this section we have placed locust wood posts.  Locust wood does not breakdown quickly like pine, and so these posts should be around for a while – hopefully ten years or more.  Between the posts, we have placed the sales at approximately one foot intervals using a tape measure.   We forced the sales into the ground using one of two methods, “drilling” holes with a cordless drill with a massive bit, or with a post hole digger.  Post hole diggers can be bought at hardware stores.   The sales should be firmly in the ground for the integrity of the fence.



Now we can start with the weavers.  Starting at one side, gradually work a trimmed branch between the sales.  Make sure that the branch extends slightly beyond the post.  When the weaver is used, start with another weaver around the same sale and proceed across the row until reaching the other posts, and leave the excess there.  Now return across the row you have just made, making sure that you alternate which side of the sales you are weaving through. 

Historically, wattle fences were also made into “hurdles,” short eight to nine foot sections of fencing built into logs or boards about the size of railroad tracks instead of into the ground.  These sections were used as moveable fencing for sheep for pasture rotation.  With hurdles, the ends of the weavers were not left as we describe above, but were twisted and turned to wrap back around the post into the sales again.  This makes a very durable hurdle, but in our case, we need the posts to hold our gates, and so we cannot wrap the weavers or we won’t be able to mount the gate hinges. 

We have now done several rows of weaving.  This is forming a strong fence – each row of weavers is making it more durable. 


Here is how it stands today.  It is a work in progress with a deadline.  This fence must be done before the seeds are planted in the spring!

 If memory serves correctly, the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia had a wattle fence surrounding their German homesteader garden.  This living museum is a wonderful place to acquire old time skills and we recommend this place heartily!  There are docents in period costume showing old world skills, and they often invite the children to participate.  It is very family and children friendly, and if someone in your group cannot walk the entire tour, the Museum rents family-sized golf carts for touring the farms.   Here is their website.

In addition to touring the grounds, you can attend diverse classes and there are even homeschool events.  This is one of the best and most educational opportunities in the Shenandoah region, and it is engrossing for the children as well.

 Noon update:  Since posting this morning, I was delighted to get this email from Alex Tillen at the Frontier Culture Museum (FCM). 

“This spring the Museum once again will build a wattle fence on the Irish farm out of ash, willow, and any sapling we can find on the wooded areas of the Museum.  This time we are going to use locust saplings as the post to see if they will last longer then a few years.  We also plan to make some wattle hurdle fence sections on the Irish farm.”

He also provided these photographs of wattle fences the FCM had had in the past.  Sincere thanks to the Frontier Culture Museum!



The Cost of Making Yarn

At fiber festivals you’ll sometimes hear people talk about the cost of custom wool yarns.  “Yarn doesn’t cost this much at (pick your favorite craft store).”  This post will show some of the differences and costs of store vs. custom yarns.  Included in the custom yarns are the quality oriented yarn companies that you can find at yarns shops, as opposed to Walmart or Joann’s.

Let’s look at the differences first.  The most obvious is the fibre content, and the content of the majority of yarns from Caron and Lion Brand and other mainstream producers are acrylic and nylon – petroleum products.  There are benefits to these yarns, and I even have used them from time to time.  Those benefits are:

  • Affordable
  • Consistent
  • Machine washable

That’s where the benefits end.   Here’s where those fibres begin and it isn’t pretty.

(Oil Refinery)

These yarns won’t decompose in the trash and they won’t break down for years in the environment.   Additionally, synthetic yarns do not let your skin breath and they contribute to creating a demand for oil products and a dependence of foreign oil.  Not good.  When you consider the last disaster in the Gulf, maybe less oil is better.

But let’s get back to why custom wool costs more.

Here’s where wool fibres begin, and it is pretty:



Synthetic fibre hasn’t been fed for a year before shearing.   The darlings that produce wool, sheep, alpacas, those fuzzy cashmere goats and Angoras, all have to be fed for the entire year in order to harvest their fleece.  In some cases this is not too expensive if pasture is available and adequate.  During the winter, though, farmers still end up having to “hay” their flocks.  (As a side note, some natural resources experts are starting to see the value of grazing sheep on midwest wild prairies – turns out its good for the prairies….that will be the subject of a future article.)

Synthetics don’t have to be shorn.   Each spring, the sheep are shorn of their fleeces.  This benefits both the shepherd and the sheep, as the summer heat would be intolerable for the sheep with long fleeces.   The going rate is $5-6.00 per sheep, and that does not include transportation.  Each farmer has to budget for shearing day.

Custom mills cost more per pound than corporations.  If one were the head of Synthtic Yarn, Inc (fictional name) you’d approach to mega mill and get a cost of dollars per pound.  When a small sheep farmer approaches a mill, it usually a straight $23.00 – $30.00 per pound, depending on the mill, the type of fibre and number of plies.  If you were to send less than ten pounds to be processed, there is usually a surcharge for that.

What all this means is that the standard four-ounce (quarter pound) skein of yarn is going to have to cost about $7.00 just to make up the cost of processing.  That doesn’t include the cost of the fiber festival registration, the overhead and infrastructure of the farm, the feed, the shearing, the veterinarian, or last of all, a small income for the shepherd(ess).   There are also the unexpected losses – my dear friend Eva lost her sheep to a bear last fall.

Some of the more exclusive larger yarn companies have found ways to get around this by making their skeins smaller.  I am holding a ball of yarn from S. Charles called Adele.  It is 20 percent mohair; the rest is viscose, polyester, and polyamide.  The weight of this ball is only 1.75 ounces, or 50 grams!  The retail price on this little gem is $20.95!  That’s over $160.00 per pound!

Please support your local wool producers.  It supports them, keeps local lands undeveloped and does not support oil dependence!



Conservatory Gardening

Hoop houses are a wonderful way to extend the growing season, but what if you want to grow tropicals?  The winter temperatures would still destroy these tender sun-loving plants.  But even in this area it is possible to grow a West Virginia banana.  The answer is to build a conservatory.

This a a picture of our conservatory.  From the outside you cannot guess the treasure that lives within. 


 It is a true living room, where beneficial soil bacteria, and insects are actually encouraged to grow.  The goal is to obtain a small ecosystem that balances itself with beneficial insects so that pesticides don’t ever have to be used.  Since we don’t sell any plants, we are comfortable with a higher level of insects than many people might tolerate.   We have also released batches of various beneficial insects to address any insect problems that did arise.   When you walk through this building, you find spider webs and frogs, a salamander hops into the little goldfish pond – it’s all very ALIVE.

 musa vente cohol


Here is a banana that is in “bloom,”  called Musa Vente Cohol.  It has pushed out immature banana clusters that will grow and ripen over the next several months.   Behind, you can see an avocado tree that has not started to produce yet, despite being over 10 feet tall.

Here is a cluster of aloe vera growing in an area designated for more desert types of plants.  This aloe vera is growing in the shadow of a cactus that is now about seven feet tall. 

 aloe vera


Here is a Monstera deliciosa producing a fruit.  This kind of plant grows in the tropics and in some areas, like Hawaii, is considered invasive.  It makes a gorgeous house plant, but in this case it is gradually taking over its corner of the conservatory.  We regularly have to cut it back since it now sprawls over about 15 feet.

sponge fruit


Another plant that has to be kept in check is the Bougainvillea.  It is a thorny trailing plant that grows rather large and has paper like flowers in a bright fuchsia color.  This plant grows in tropical climates, Florida, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands.  It is said to have come from Brazil, where is grows abundantly.  The Bougainvillea in this picture has to share its space with another Brazilian tree, the Jaboticaba.  The Jaboticaba has an unusual way of growing its dark purple round fruits.  Instead of hanging from the outer branches, the blossoms and eventual fruits come right out of the thicker parts of the trunk, looking like something Dr. Zeus might have thought up.


 Citrus also does very well in this protected environment.  Lemons, limes, grapefruit, mandarin and orange trees are all included, and we are lucky to have a couple producing fruit right now.  Both the Kefir Lime, used in traditional Asian cooking, and the Naval Orange, have fruit, and they bloom several times a year, filling this living room with perfume. 


kefir lime

 Now for the techincal information.  This conservatory was built on a cement and cinderblock foundation and was framed with 2×8 pressure treated pine. The center of the floor was left as dirt, and once the foundation was done several truck loads of compost and top soil were added.  The trees and plants are planted directly in the ground.  The walls are 3/4 inch polycarbonate, much thicker than greenhouse kits that are available.  The conservatory, house and hot water are all heated with an outdoor wood burning furnace and this can be economical if you have enough wood so that you don’t have to buy it.  In our case, we have enough forest that we can’t keep up with the standing dead trees, so for us this is feasible.

In the recent past is has been unpopular to burn wood – some people asserted  it was bad for the environment.  The opinion of envirnmentalists is changing however, since this is a renewable energy source.  I am not fond of GreenPeace as an organization, especially its extremist positions and tactics, but one of its founders did say this:

“Forestry is the most sustainable of all the primary industries that
provide us with energy and materials. To address climate change
we must use more wood, not less.  
Using wood sends a signal to the marketplace to grow more trees.”          
~ Dr. Patrick Moore, Co-founder, Greenpeace~ 


Guest Knitter and Yarn Review

I am very fortunate to have among my dear friends an expert knitter, Kate.  Her creations are quite simply stunning and she regularly shows up wearing a gossamer web of gorgeous knitted lace.  The last time she came over, she was wearing this:

Here is another view:

She made this with Meduseld’s Romney yarn in the fingerling weight (available in Meduseld’s Farm store).  You can see in the second picture that she beaded the shawl as well.   If you click on the pictures you can see the pattern enlarged.

Everyone, meet Kate!


I’ve always drooled over the books of Estonian lace shawls, so this summer I decided to make one for my sister’s wedding. I found a pattern I liked in “Knitted Lace of Estonia,” by Nancy Bush: Madli’s Shawl (in Meduseld’s Amazon store). The center pattern is called Haga, which means twig, or small branch. The original pattern calls for nupps at the ends of the “twigs,” but I decided to put crystal beads with bronzey gold centers in their place, to add some weight and drape, and just a little sparkle.

The wool was lovely and easy to work with, and after washing and blocking, has a nice drape and sheen to it. I used a slightly larger needle, a size six, because I wanted to emphasize the light, lacy texture. I haven’t shown it to my sister yet, but I can hardly wait to…


Check back for other posts about Kate.  Soon, we will have another post with a pattern for a shawlette that was designed by Kate.

Dying Wool

Another winter acivity at Meduseld is preparing wool for hand spinning or for sending off to the fiber mill.  Yesterday, I spent much of the day cleaning and dying wool.  These batches of wool will be combined into a multi color yarn.  Following are the steps to clean and dye the wool.

I took Royal’s fleece from last year.  She is a lovely purebred Romney ewe who is friendly and always one of the first at the feed trough.  She produces a high sheen yarn and she makes about 8 pounds of fleece per year.  That is the weight before it is washed of its lanolin.  Between that and the loss that always ocurrs during processing, we’ll end up with about half of that in yarn.

First, take the fleece and wash it in the hottest water the tap will provide.  Dawn dishwashing soap seems to be a favorite among wool enthusiasts, but we prefer to use organic detergents.  Usually, we use Ecover which does a wonderful job removing the grease.  You want to make sure you don’t handle the wool too much  – its not like hand washing clothes.  You want to move it about enough to get it to shake free the dirt and lanolin, but you don’t want to over compensate and felt your fiber.  Felting just doesn’t come undone.  Rinse several times with hot water until the water comes out clear.   I don’t worry about making it crystal clear at this point since I am about to simmer the wool.  Here is the cleaned fiber in a large stainless pot.


It is important to use stainless or enamal cookware since we are going to be using Cushings Perfection acid dyes.  You don’t want to have a chemical reaction with your pot or stirring spoon, and aluminum will react.  I am using a stainless spoon, but I also have a wooden spoon that I reserve just for dying wool.

This is what the Cushing Perfection Dye packets look like.  Each packet is costs around  $3.00 and will color approximately one pound of wool, although I have had success with larger amounts.   Cushing recommends 1/2 cup vinegar per pound of fiber, but you can use more.  I used one cup of white vinegar that you can buy at any grocery store.   A good pair of rubber gloves would handy, too.

Combine boiling water, the dye packet and the vinegar.  Try to eyeball how much water you’ll need to cover the amount of wool you are dying.  Cushing says to wet the wool, but ours is already wet from washing.  Now, quickly and smoothly, put all your wool in the pot.  You have to be rather quick about it, or the portion you put in first is going to be darker than the part to go in last.  Stir the fleece around a bit and make sure that all parts are exposed to the dye liquid.

Now, we are going to heat this back up to a simmer and let it stay that way until the wool absorbs the dye.  You can see the difference, because suddenly the water will go from being richly pigmented, to suddenly looking almost clear, and your wool will have taken on the dye.  It is very important to continue to gently stir periodically during this process so that you achieve even distribution of the color.  Here is a picture of my dye pot, and you can see around the edges that the water is still quite dark.

Cotinue stirring until the water clears and look for uniform color in your wool.  This blue is turning out nicely, with deep bold coloring.

Take the pot off the stove and drain the wool.  Rinse several times in hot water until the water is clear.  You don’t want to rinse in cold water because this might cause the wool to felt.  It is important to make your temperature changes gradually.  I make each rinse slightly cooler so that by the last rinse I can handle the wool.

Now the wool goes out on the drying racks.  This time of year it may take several days to dry, especially if the temperatures remain freezing.  During the summer, it will dry overnight.  Here I have several batches set out to dry. 

You can see Cushing’s Blue, Burgundy, and Egyptian Red drying on my porch.  When these are dry enough to card, which means to comb the fibers, I’ll have a post on carding and spinning to make a multi-colored yarn.