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Sheep, and the ways in which they are not what you expect.

This story is about my sheep friends. About how animals, sheep in particular, are so much not what we tend to think they are.

And how that can be a fine thing.

I love sheep, and their fluff with its unimaginably magical qualities and unimaginable uniqueness. Every. Fleece. Is different.

Their soft nibbly noses. Infinite range of personalities.

 

How they only have one row of teeth in the front, in their lower jaw, so they rip upwards instead of biting.

Someone I knew invited a group of school kids to his place, and peeled back a friendly sheep’s top lip, to show the gummy absence of teeth.

To the childrens’ horror.

He explained that someone had been tipping Coke in his dam and the sheep had lost their teeth as a result.

 

This sheepiness and fluffiness is such a happy combination of things.

There will be other stories in this space about how my wooly friends are part of my permaculture based system. How their fleeces are of this place, how I keep them healthy with a system devised by genius wholistic thinker Pat Coleby, and how very much all the plants and animals here are integrated with each other, as in any other ecological system.

 

But this is about Molly, Butty, Luna and Elsie, Mumma, Velvet, Moon, Star, Puzzle, Beatrice and Rain.

Anxious Henrietta with her funny short horns and striped face like a wild sheep, who died while evacuated when the fire was looming.

There is never a completely right decision.

 

Molly is my second greediest sheep. Her table manners are appalling, and involve unspeakably uncouth things done in the excitement of dinner time (you really don’t want details). The thing with Molly (there are quite a few things, but this is one of them) is that she was hand raised on a fine wool Merino stud, and she largely prefers human people to sheep people.

I bought her, so she didn’t go to the ‘meat paddock’. Her time lived in our small back yard before the move here taught me, disappointingly, that sheep do eat eucalyptus trees. And peach trees. Anything really.

 

Molly’s great love in life though, is the hand held carrot.

A carrot in a feed bucket or on the ground is a truly second rate carrot. It merits a sniff. Maybe a nibble or even one half hearted crunch.

 

But the only kind of carrot that elicits the joyful greedy vaccuming style of consumption that only Molly is capable of is the Hand Held Carrot. It must be held right to the end, too. A carrot mostly consumed from the hand, then dropped to the ground for her to finish, immediately becomes invisible, and no longer even really food at all.

Then desperate baaing and sniffing indicates that she is REALLY keen on another HHC. Now, please.

Or not please. Just, now.

 

Once a year Molly is, against her will but in the interests of her health, shorn. Her fleece is incredibly fine, soft and lustrous. The crimp is so tiny and fine that it glitters. It makes the most beautiful felted shapes and prints beautifully with local plants; colours that glow.

 

My second greediest sheep is Butty.

He really only misses out on the Greediest title because his other confronting personality traits eclipse his greed for food.

He is extremely affectionate and loving. In a rather menacing aggressive way that makes giving him a nice scratch mandatory rather than optional.

He is also an outstandingly well covered animal. If there’s a Heaviest Sheep contest anywhere, point me at it, Butty will be a shoe in.

 

He started out life as ‘Loveheart’. Named at 4 weeks old by my sweet (then 5 year old) son who bottle fed the poor orphan lamby. Lamby kept all his bits.

Lamby grew, and soon had a head of steel, a personality like a Mack truck, and a flippant disregard for fencing, which saw him suddenly re named by his young human carers.

 

Butty would appear in the garden, in the sheds, on the driveway, on the porch, in the laundry checking on the progress of the washing.

Trap trapping through the house, invited in by the dog, who can open doors by standing up and pulling the handle down.

 

He would advance on the kids, slowly and inexorably, rock head down. He loomed over us, pooing and butting and bashing his way through every aspect of our lives until at around 12 months old and at a hefty 80 kgs in weight, a visit from the vet removed the source of all that insane testosterone and with it the by then outright dangerous aggression.

He became quite nice.

But he is still very much a force, a massive wooly boulder shoving his way into the feed bucket before I can get through the gate, pushing the 16hh horse roughly aside to stand up and steal her food, and generally battering his way through life.

 

His best friend is Rhyme, my very old horse. On stinking hot days, in the cold rain, they stand together out in the elements, completely needlessly while the others shelter under trees, at the point closest to where the next meal will emerge from.

A shared interest.

Butty’s fleece is long, white, extremely lustrous and has a bigger, open wavy crimp. His merino mum and Border Leicester dad each contributed fine fine qualities. It throws itself on the spinning wheel, and added to felt gives bold clear waves that take plant dyes and shine them back at you.

 

My most loved sheep is Elsa, a coloured merino ewe who was not hand raised and was quite wild and unhandled when she came to live here, but who over two years gradually came to me when I sat quietly in the paddock. First she anxiously took food from my hand with her soft dark lips and raced away chewing.

Then I could touch her silky black nose. Then scratch her face very quietly.

Now her fear of me is gone completely. I scratch her head and neck, and we are friends. On her terms, by her choice.

Her fleece is soft, melting soft, with shades of grey and black and white that meld and blend to the most undescribeable delicious effect.

Velvet is flighty, nervous, highly strung, a soft grey brown merino girl. Beatrice and Rain are the daughters of Butty…Beatrice is friendly, bold but gentle, the daughter of Luna, with her skewed crescent moon face on grey, black and white merino fleece. Rain is aloof and disinterested in human people like her grey corriedale mother Mumma. Happy go lucky Puzzle is white with a big black spot splashed over her shoulders; the daughter of Star, a beautiful grey corriedale.

 

As a group they are citizens of this place, with a kind of ownership, and workers. Kept healthy with minerals and good feed grown on good soil; this is the green triangle and living is generally good. But the responsibility for their welfare, given that I keep them restrained behind fences, is entirely mine.

By keeping animals we form a unique relationship with them.

The assumption of a grave responsibility for their welfare as we take away their agency and freedom to live the lives normal to their kind. It is a pact, and I take this responsibility as seriously as the joy that their company and their beautiful magical fleeces give me.

Working with their fleeces, the undescribeable range of textures and shines and softnesses, the sheepy lanolin smell, is a reminder of all this, and of the land that ultimately grew them. The infinite interactions with all the other creatures here, kept and wild.

And it feels to be the most profound kind of privilege.

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Sunflower Hill – Finding the Solution in the Problem

 

I want to share some of my life in this blog, because that is so intrinsically a part of my work, and what is expressed in my fibre art. The two are the same.

 

I live on my long narrow 7 acres, ‘Sunflower HIll’, between vast farms of thousands of acres, in Far South West Victoria, Australia.

The Green Triangle…a place of rainfall, forest and productive soil in a dry dry country.

I’ve been here two and a half years so far, and plan to fall into a hole by a favorite tree when I eventually die, and pull the earth back over me.

I am Never. Moving. Again.

I am a single parent, a woman living alone out here with my 3 homeschooled kids. I am working on as much sustainable self sufficiency as possible, and use a lot of Permaculture and Regnerative Agriculture principles…and my own intuition. And just Stuff I Like.

 

My favourite permy principle is this; find the solution in the problem.  And my geese. And cats. They solve a lot of problems too. Also create some.

A month ago a 7,500acre fire was marching its nasty way across the horizon towards my place, a line of thick plumes of heavy grey smoke from eating up the gum trees in the forest that surrounds me. I had time, so put out a call for help to move my animals…I have a lot of animals.

Sheep, 11. A very old horse. 5 guinea fowl. 6 ducks. At least 30 chickens. A funny lookin’ dog. 2 cats (beautiful rodent and snake repellers that they are).

And 21 geese (beautiful mowers and snake repellers and pooers and loud LOUD gwompers that they are).

The geese were a bit of a challenge. An amazing friend brought her teenage son to help pen, trim wing feathers and load the 21 geese (as well as helping me move the chooks, guinea fowl and ducks) into the trailer cage, while the columns of grey stuff chewed their way through the forest.

 

Geese are big. Really big, and really strong. They have really big claws, and wing pinions that whack you in the face pretty hard. One of mine is a biter. Ask me (and my friend, and our bruised arms) how I know.

 

We battled our way through the catching, clipping, carrying and pushing into the trailer of about three quarters of these big, nervously pooing, reluctant evacuees. Then my friend looked up and simply said,

Oh no.’

‘Oh no’ never bodes well and in this case it heralded three quarters of my goose flock marching indignantly back into the paddock we had just relocated them from.

So back to the drawing board with the goose in trailer incarceration scheme.

Geese are like this; belligerent, determined, and very funny. We got there in the end, and eventually the fire was stopped about 5km short of my place.

5km is about a 15 minute run for an out of control fire fed by eucalypts and with a decent northerly behind it.

 

I am also a fibre artist, a teacher and a writer. The fires affected me profoundly, and this piece emerged weeks afterwards. Green life emerges through fire. As it does in Australia, one way or another.

I love sharing my skills in fibre art, particularly ecoprinting and using the raw wool from my sheep for felting. There’s something viscerally satisfying in finding things that nature has grown, and scultpting them to marry with the drape and feel of cloth. It creates something both different and the same.

 

Also I love my sheep, they are my friends, and have unique personalities. Each also has a uniquely coloured and textured fleece, so I get the lightest finest white and coloured (shades of black, grey and brown) merinos from Molly, Moon, Elsa, Velvet and Luna, shades of grey Corriedales from Mumma, Star and Henrietta (though Henrietta sadly died while evacuated), and textures in between from Butty, Puzzle, Rain and Beatrice.

I genuinely enjoy teaching these things too, a kind of guidance that is most satisfying at the end of the process when the bundles are opened and the joyful discoveries made. It never ceases to give me pleasure in people’s surprised joy.

There’s no other house visible from mine. My nearest neighbor is 2km away…there are two or three neighbors at that distance in different directions, but otherwise my neighbors are sheep and cows, the bush, koalas, roos, emus, snakes… a lot of tiger snakes.

A LOT.

World’s fourth most venomous snake and crikey did they like my place! They have been RIGHT at home here. Happy and certain that they should never move either.

Me, here alone with small children….less keen on them as housemates. Or on the back porch, in the feed shed, or in poultry cages with us.

 

Every place will have its own unique challenges, here it has been those bloody snakes (I have dealt with 16 around and under my house, on the porch, in the shed, in poultry cages, in the bus…), broken equipment, mice and rats, leaking roof and waterlogging, fires and resultant evacuations in summer, rubbish cleanup, firewood and building jobs.

Learning a bunch of skills I never really wanted to. Plumbing and chainsawing are right up there with skills I never wanted to learn.

Still don’t really.

But useful.

Collecting, cutting and splitting enough wood to keep the kids and I warm through winter is incredibly difficult.

 

 

My place was extremely cheap because it was treated like a tip by the previous owner, which left me to remove the most upsetting amount of hard rubbish.

Machinery, car parts, a whole trashed ute, broken stereos, gym gear and all manner of broken equipment for a multiplicity of purposes, alchohol containers and dispensing stuff (it is startling what is available to the really dedicated alcoholic). A bus.

I kept the bus.

And the antique sewing machine.

The silverware.

Repurposed old baths and other bits.

But the 2000 Sydney Olympics Keepsake Barbie had to go.

Then the rapidfire breakdowns of the various essential bits of equipment.

In 2 years I have had to replace the bore and house pumps, the water heater, parts of the roof, the wood heater, a water tank, add another water tank, put gravel all around the house because of insane sucking boot stealing mud, and redo the fencing on all 5 paddocks.

I did that with sheep mesh.

Which the geese jiggle and wriggle through, no problems at all, on their various visits to the neighbors’ properties.

So now I am redoing with chicken mesh.

 

But…the solution is usually there, hiding in the problem. All of those problems have something to teach you, if you pick yourself up and take a moment to listen to them before tackling the thing from another angle.

The Duck Orchard, which is the most satisfying happily flowing productive space that now offers apple trees, an embarrassing amount of zucchinis, duck eggs and the seething mass of plant life that should produce tomatoes, various squashes and pumpkins, corn and other fabulous foods over the next few months with very little work, came of just such a problem…no eggs over winter.

It is unspeakably hard, but I finally feel like I am finally making progress…I have a vision and can see that the stress and painfully hard work is starting to pay off.

I have gone hard in the first few years to set myself up with a system that should be relatively easy to maintain, and where all the elements work together. And I have some TREES growing! And FLOWERS!!!

Trees and flowers are worth the effort.

My 4 year old concentrating on carefully picking strawberries is worth the effort.

Kids bringing in handfuls of squidgy boysenberries or waving aloft yet another giant zucchini (zucchini chocolate cake, roast zucchini, stuffed zucchini, you name it…) is worth it.

They laid the crazy paving in this vegie garden, with tiles that would have gone to the tip.

Stay tuned, because there are so many stories, and they are bursting out of me.

 

 

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May Hvistendahl workshop – the challenge and the magic.

It would certainly be fair to say that I did not really understand what I was letting myself in for upon committing to the rare treat of a workshop with amazing and inspiring Norwegian textile artist May Hvistendahl at Grampians Texture this March.

This is largely because while I have done some felting…some…but not that much.

But also because May’s incredible technique challenged everyone.

This was seriously out of my comfort zone – which is a great thing because the 4 days packed in a LOT of learning. Steep curve. Very steep! Incredibly useful and inspiring.

But also profoundly exhausting.

May has developed a technique of nuno felting that is all her own and the results are nothing short of the dark arts – a literally stunning bit of magic that turns loose unstructured bits of silk and ribbon and my handspun yarn and flick carded raw fleece form four of my sheep (Molly, Moon, Elsie and Star all contributed; thanks sheepy people!) into…a dress!!

There’s a lot of measuring and calculating. Sample making, calculating shrinkage. Layering just so. Pattern making. Laying out the fleece (or commercial top prepared in a unique and counter intuitive way) in a manner that causes it to act as a spring in some parts of the design, a flat piece in others, and creates long drapey bits in the skirt.

The large class of 16 students diligently followed May’s tutelage, made mistakes, fixed them.

Endured two backbreaking days of painstakingly laying out the fibre in the correct  manner and at the correct angles. Carefully wetted and rolled these absolutely enormous bundles of fabric and fibre and soapy water and reuseable plastic.

I rolled mine 2,600 times.

Yes…I counted…

Tentatively picked at the fibre…no lifting….

Unrolled for the last time.

Fulled and cleaned and fulled and…

Oh my.

A stunning dress. That fits.

A party dress! Gosh what a wonderous thing to wear – even sopping wet, straight from fulling!!

Made from Molly and Moon and Elsie and Star…and a lot of my own hard work and May’s incredible expertise.

The other students worked with coloured commercial top and coloured silk fabrics so their dresses were immediately stunningly coloured and wearable. Mine is also, but with natural fine Merino wool tones ranging from white through subtle greys and browns and blacks.

Next step is properly scouring the wool and then ecoprinting the entire dress.

Watch this space!

I feel very blessed to have chosen that particular workshop and to have had the privilege of learning from May – she is not only remarkably talented and incredibly inspiring, she is also just the loveliest, kindest and most encouraging teacher.

And though the 4 days were incredibly challenging physically, emotionally (it was hard leaving my homeschooled kids for that long), and in terms of skill acquisition, I have walked away with a unique skill for magically transforming my sheepy friends’ haircuts into the most special and stunning high quality dresses, made to fit the individual.

Very cool.

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Stunning colour and much joy at My Crafternoons Workshop

What an amazing thing it is to learn from talented people, evolve techniques and create my own style over several years, then have the pleasure of teaching some of that to others.

The pleasure that the participants expressed at unrolling their ecoprinted bundles at my recent workshop in Hamilton (run in conjunction with the lovely and enthusiastic Stacey from My Crafternoons), was a genuine thrill for me.

The creations of the ten students who shared the day were genuinely beautiful.

They had worked on light airy fine merino wool wraps, layered with upcycled cotton mordant blankets. This meant that each person got several pieces of fabric, each with a different effect, as the wool (protein) and cotton (cellulose) fibres react differently to the plant dyes and mordants used.

The fabrics were printed with various species of eucalyptus, prunus leaves, dyers chamomile (which give startlingly pretty little daisy prints with iron) and a few other bits. The pots simmered and steamed while we talked technique and then trailed through the gardens and trees at HIRL in Hamilton, checking out the native and garden plants that colours (and food) can be coaxed from.

On the reveal there were lovely sharp prints and colours ranging from purples, greens, reds, oranges and soft blues.

The mordant blankets used were simply very light iron / copper form solutions I make myself from iron and copper scraps found on my property (no shortage of either; it was a bit of a mess when I moved in!)

Such beautiful colours and great results from some clever people, all wrapped in a day bathed in sunshine.