Family Activities
Food & Farming

A Journey from Sheep to Sweater

Posted by Cat Parrish
Children's Farmyard and Family Program Manager & Farm Based Educator

Originally posted November 2020.

Did you know that Shelburne Farms has a flock of 60 sheep? The main breeds that you will find in our flock are Border Leicester, Dorset, and Navajo Churro, and they’re raised for both their meat and their wool. Keep an eye out for them along our walking trails—they’ll be there for a while longer until they move inside for lambing season!

So, how do you get from a white woolly sheep to a beauuuutiful blue sweater? The process is quite simple.  

First, the sheep must be shorn. Once or twice a year, depending on the breed, our sheep get their haircuts just like you might. It doesn’t hurt the sheep, but it's best to hire a professional who can do the job gently and efficiently. The wool that is shorn from the sheep is called its fleece. 

Skirting removes any unusable bits from the sheep's fleece.
Skirting removes any unusable bits from the sheep's fleece.

But, a sheep's fleece is usually greasy with lanolin, scratchy with hay, and maybe a little smelly with manure. We don’t want a wool sweater like this! So, the next step is to remove any unuseable bits from the fleece before washing. This process is called skirting. Learn more about this important step in the video below:

After skirting, it’s time to wash the wool. Dish soap works well for cleaning small batches of wool, especially since it’s got tough grease-fighting power and wool is greasy with lanolin. If you ever have the chance to pet a sheep, you’ll find that that lanolin will actually soften your hands. Lanolin is an oil that protects the sheep’s wool and skin and creates a waterproof “raincoat.” So when you see sheep out tending to their regular business in the rain, you can rest assured that their bodies are staying warm and dry!  

Now, I would like a blue sweater, but my wool is from a white sheep. What’s one to do? I need to dye it! By using dyes made from plants, food coloring, or even food scraps, I can turn the wool into any color of the rainbow! Did you know that avocado pits can create pink dye and wild goldenrod can create yellow dye

The tools for washing wool, and wool hanging out to dry after being dyed.
The tools for washing wool, and wool hanging out to dry after being dyed.

Ok, now my wool is washed and ready for the next step: carding. I need to card the wool, which means to brush out its tangles and line up the fibers to help me spin it into yarn. The process is similar to brushing your hair, and it has the same results. Check out this video to see how I card the fiber from our Angora rabbit, Willow:

My dyed wool is now ready to be spun on a spinning wheel, by hand with a partner, or by using a drop spindle. The wool is stretched out and twisted around and around until it forms into yarn. To further increase its strength, two or more strands of this yarn can be twisted together to make super duper durable yarn.

Spinning wool into yarn with a spinning wheel, and a beautiful collection of handspun yarn.
Spinning wool into yarn with a spinning wheel, and a beautiful collection of handspun yarn.

What beautiful yarn we’ve made! I can knit, crochet, felt, or even weave my beautiful yarn into not only a sweater, but a matching hat and mittens, too! Have you ever felted or finger knit at our “Sheep and Shear Delights” program? Watch this video to learn how to do this simple and fun craft!

Mo and Snickerdoodle modeling their fleecy outfits.
Mo and Snickerdoodle modeling their fleecy outfits.

Here is Mo, one of our shepherds, and Snickerdoodle the sheep both modeling entire wool outfits from head to toe. Do you have anything at home made out of sheep wool? Can you think of any other animals whose fibers (or hair) can be spun into yarn?


Submitted by Kurt Fishback on Wed , 12/15/2021 - 05:47 PM

I weave Navajo style on a standing loom. A few years ago ad dear friend in North Carolina sent me some wool yarn as she crochets and knits using yarn other than wool. I got a skein of hands-on yarn spun by Nancy Wilford. There was no date on the tag that surrounded it. I really enjoyed your video. My wife while in High School showed sheep in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Peace, Kurt

Submitted by Joanne on Sat , 05/4/2024 - 11:43 AM

Do you process others sheep wool? I am looking to have a friends wool processed and turned into something for her as a gift. It’s a very small batch so would probable need to use other sheep yarn to make anything. Thank you!

Unfortunately, we do not. While we save a little wool from our flock for education programs, most of it gets sent to Green Mountain Spinnery for processing. They return it to us in skeins of undyed yarn.

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