Why this wool
Black Thorn Farm was named in the spirit of embracing what is right in front of you rather than an idealized future state. It is a name born from an early understanding of an aged piece of land, drafted in the first year of Seth and Sharon's residency. Black Thorn Farm is a mountainous place, a buckled land pockmarked by granite and limestone with large washes of impossible green tying the valley floor to each surrounding ridge. Come winter, the green avails itself of any further promise, turning first a sullen brown and then disappearing, in patches, altogether.
Not so with the black thorns, the savage markers of the Black Locust tree, both long in reach and toothy tenacity. Once caught by a black thorn, you are likely to carry it with you, either in the sole of your unsuspecting shoe or the disrupted cloth of your pant leg. Black Locust is a legume, frequently planted in areas of degraded soil as a nitrogen fixer, a pioneer species, rampant on this land when Sharon and Seth first arrived. Much of it has disappeared, eaten by the sheep or cut down in pursuit of additional pasture, but there is still enough to lay claim within the flocks’ wool as they graze.
I’ve grown attached to these spiny instruments, sinister and suspended like punctuation marks across each fleece. Hands thick with lanolin, running into a barb reminds you of the wildness all about you as you skirt and ready the wool. These animals are not pets. They are as much a part of the landscape as the Black Locust, the Willow, now the Paw Paw grove and the Mountain Laurel
In early Spring, just before shearing, the lambs arrive and suddenly the field is a study in contrasting whites. Alabaster young dart and tussle, slowing only to feed beneath their roily mothers with clean shaven bellies from crutching. It is an annual performance and the only time of year where the stark contrast of downy white makes the ewes appear a mottled greige. It is a vivid moment, clarifying just how much information is contained within a single year of fleece, each a nuanced palette of this place, each with its own version of what transpired. In this way, skirting fleeces is not unlike skimming through the accounts of witnesses who were in the same place but saw different things.
Black Thorn’s flock is a mash-up of classic English long wool breeds, namely Lincoln, Romney, Borderleicester and Suffolk. This year they are introducing Southdown, by way of a ram named Theodore, with hope for improving the micron count of their already fine wool. Opening the flock is a highly considered decision and always in conjunction with a specific long-term need. Three years ago, they selected a ram with good feet. Last year, same ram, still working on feet.
The sheep first arrived at Black Thorn through the side fence of a neighboring farm owned by veteran shepherd and shearer Jonathan Hearne. Much of the genetic focus for his flock, and now for Black Thorn, is a combination of carcass size and wool quality with nuanced attention to traits that favor this land’s steep terrain and humidity laden weather. As Jonathan travels his Southeastern shearing route each Spring, he engages with a catalog of breeds, noting excellence when it appears and later inviting that particular trait into his quilted flock. Black Thorn has adopted a similar approach, with Jonathan as guide. Together, they are fine tuning a land race breed built for this very valley in Sandy Mush, North Carolina.
There is poetry in cultivating an intimate connection between breed and land. The Navajo famously have their Navajo Churro whose spindly, long legs and protective outer coat offer nimble resilience in the harsh desert landscape. Just off the coast of Scotland in the rugged and bleak hills of the Outer Hebrides, conservationists are returning the primitive Hebridean breed to its rightful place. There, its dark coat and craggy horns appear as though borrowed from the sodden moss and rocky cliffs. I wonder what might be observed about these sheep of Sandy Mush in thirty or forty years time, whether the Black Locust will still mark the story of their wool.
An oversized three-ring binder, royal blue, houses notes and schedules about the Black Thorn breeding program. If skirting provides a haptic level of insight into the story of these animals, then the blue binder is skirting’s counterpart. These records are straightforward, fairly scientific and definitively critical in the survival of the flock. Each lamb is tagged at birth and given a page of the binder for recording their health and wellbeing.
Sheep are most prone to two types of disease in this area, stomach worms called Haemonchus and internal parasites called Coccidia. Neither name feels good in the mouth, which seems fitting, as both are virulent and often fatal to the sheep. Last year was especially challenging with high moisture in the field and a Haemonchus outbreak timed with young and fragile lambs. This is all a part of the record now, a deflating season that wreaked havoc on the shepherds’ ethos of adhering as much as possible to nature’s will. Too much intervention and you obfuscate the long-term goal of building a virile flock. Too little, and you risk having not done enough as the steward you’ve committed to be. The critical thinking required to manage this balance is not for the faint of heart for it is the passage between head and heart where this thinking most easily turns opaque.
A resilient flock depends on the shepherds’ ability to select well when it comes time to cull. Ewes that present as poor mothers, sheep that fall prey to every bug rolling across the land, even the overly ascerbic are fair candidates for slaughter. Black Thorn Farm depends on the meat of these animals for their annual larder and harvest is a time of gratitude and steady, calm work.
Several times I have phoned during processing days and spoken with Sharon while Seth was out with the lambs. There is a brightness to her tone during these brief conversations, a transcendent pitch that echoes with the ancestral nature of their work. Reverent slaughter is an ancient way of being with these animals, one often glossed over in farm-to-table jargon or cruelly discarded on the industrial conveyor belt of meat cubes and disks. For me, there is cogent nobility in taking life as Seth and Sharon do -with intention, economy and grace - having nurtured and defended this same life in order to arrive, together, in this final act.
Three years ago, none of us knew what Black Thorn’s wool would yield. As we awaited the first spun samples, a brilliant textiles colleague passed a bit of the fleece through her fingers, immediately scrunching her forehead and turning down the corners of her mouth. She owns an extraordinary yarn store stacked with endless skeins of luxury fiber from the breeds that all textile aficionados recognize and rightfully covet; Merino, Cormo, Rambouillet and Targhee. My heart sank slightly but this difference was precisely why I’d chosen to work with this wool.
I am enchanted by its otherness, drawn to the idea that it still lives outside of a heavily indoctrinated taxonomy. In many ways, Black Thorn wool is very much ‘in the making’ as the flock evolves and a breed emerges, enigmatic, shifting in sync with the transformation of the farm. The only constant in this fledgling narrative seems to be the thorn of the Black Locust.
Since our first spinning, we’ve woven several seasons of garments with this wool, always merging it with an organic cotton warp as a nod to the Linsey Woolsey cloth of a bygone era. It has turned out to be a beautiful fiber, reflective of all that it embodies. After much hassle and testing, we’ve had the wool spun into a diaphanous line worthy of lace and full of air. We’re weaving our first all-woolen garments this Autumn; capes of double weave, a long coat with a wide sash and a jumper meant as a second skin, to shed only when Spring alights.
A list of relevant sources, objects and inspiration
For the Navajo, Sheep is Life.
Primer on the importance of livestock heritage breeding.
A compelling read about shepherding in our modern era.
Listened to this a lot while thinking about / writing this piece.
One of Seth's favorite talks on holistic planned grazing, which I was required to watch, gladly!, while eating my breakfast at the farm.
That extraordinary yarn store and natural dye studio run by two women who have taught me much.
A homesteading weaver raising a flock of Cormo sheep and making brilliant work, also in Sandy Mush, NC- ever inspiring.
Reference guide for fleece and fiber, a must-have in every textile library.