The ovine fleece


by Kate Tvelia Athearn


Elizabeth Cecil

Inside the Fiber Tent at the Agricultural Fair, the air vibrates with the hum of spinning wheels and clicking bamboo and cheerful voices—both human and ovine. From shearing to knitting, the self-proclaimed Island Fiber Folks demonstrate each step of the sheep to sweater evolution. Glenn and Rosemary Jackson of Stoney Hill Farm are among the many Island farmers and fiber artisans who put their lives on hold for four days every August to take part in this celebration of all things fiber.

Glenn admits all the coordination and moving of animals and setting up of equipment is hard work, but the Jacksons are used to physical labor. They keep pigs, sheep, goats, llamas, and chickens, and preserve their homegrown vegetables at their West Tisbury farm. Like many small farmers, they have day jobs, too. When all the feeding and mucking and repairing has finished, they choose to spend their spare time not flopped in front of the TV, but spinning and weaving the fiber from their llamas and sheep.

As the rest of us mourn the passing of summer, saying our tearful goodbyes to backyard tomatoes and bare toes in the sand, the Jacksons welcome the cooler temperatures and quieter pace, and the opportunity to head inside to their looms, wheels, hooks and needles, reuniting with their beloved crafts, and, of course, other Fiber Folks.

A hundred years ago, fiber arts were a necessity rather than a novelty. Children grew up watching family members spin and weave and knit, absorbing vocabulary and technique, their muscles retaining these memories, their bodies literally getting a feel for it from a very young age. Contemporary artisans must create their own community, and they make a specific point of getting together—at the Fair, monthly meetings of the Island Fiber Folks, or informal circles in wood smoky living rooms crowded with sheepskin covered furniture.

These Fiber Folks have varied backgrounds, but they are of similar stock. They are resourceful, detail oriented, and above all, cooperative. They tell stories about who taught them how to spin, and that farmer who donated their raw wool when they didn’t have the money to buy yarn. They share tips and inventions, and give each other lovely, handmade gifts. The livestock involved are a rare breed as well. They get regular haircuts, and sometimes wear jackets to keep their wool clean, and protected from the bleaching effects of the sun.

Fiber animals give us more than just food, they can be shorn over and over again, producing wool that provides warmth and comfort long after the sheep is gone.

Some Island farmers and crafters do earn at least part of their livelihood selling their handmade goods. Typically, farmers who have lots of sheep and their own busy retail space have a better chance at making money. But for those who deal in smaller volumes, like the Jacksons, it is more of a hobby. “If I make a little to cover the cost of hay,” Glenn says, “I’m happy.”

Statements like this show me our fiber friends have so much more to offer us than cable-knit sweaters and roll brim hats. Buying a hat knitted by a local person with local wool from a local sheep isn’t just buying a hat. It is an investment in our Island economy, in tradition and craftsmanship, and pastures dotted with fluffy sheep.