Anne Carlos flips through a book on different breeds of sheep - not because she wants to become a shepherd, but because of her keen interest in wool.
“You can’t imagine the difference in the wools that are produced by different animals,” she said.
Carlos is one of a growing contingent of people, mostly women, in Nova Scotia's Pictou and Antigonish counties who have a passion for wool.
Surrounded by various types of wool, from a basket of scoured fleece from the Annapolis Valley to skeins of yarn spun from the sheep who graze on local farms, she pointed out differences in weight and texture.
“I’m fascinated by all the stages, from the shearing of the sheep to the scouring of the fleece and carding to straighten the fibres. Then it is spun and on to the knitters and, in some cases, to the retailers,” she said.
Carlos fingers a particular rich dark brown yarn spun from a Wensleydale sheep, a British breed, raised in Scotsburn, N.S. by farmer Delia Burge.
“The Wensleydale is a longwool sheep, the fibres or staples being longer than many other breeds. It is also a fairly soft wool, with a beautiful shine.”
Recently, Carlos gathered with shepherds and craftswomen in Tatamagouche, N.S. to mark Worldwide Spin in Public Day.
“We had a sheep shearing demonstration and some of the women then handspun the wool while others knit with it,” she said.
The process from shearing to knitting has become the subject of international Back to Back competitions, where teams go through all the steps of removing the wool from the sheep’s back and putting it on their own in the form of a knitted garment.
Carlos, who spent many years as a learning centre teacher, and her husband Sandy, who worked in information technology, have settled into retirement in a renovated family cottage on the Northumberland Strait near Arisaig, N.S.
“I’ve always had a great appreciation for anything handmade, and now I have the time to experiment,” she said.
Growing up in Stellarton, N.S., Carlos’ grandmother taught her and a friend how to knit. Between the occasional dropped and split stitches, each managed to complete a scarf.
“I think I was probably quite fascinated that I could create something from a ball of yarn. As with anything, I improved with practice, and I’ve always found knitting to be relaxing.”
She was delighted to learn sheep once grazed on her retirement property and to meet a neighbour who raises alpacas on her nearby farm.
“My neighbour introduced me to a group of spinners who meet regularly in Antigonish and I’ve found them very welcoming, just as I’ve found the women associated with the Sisterhood in Tatamagouche.”
Social, ancestral sharing
Faith Drinnan, a Tatamagouche spinner, operates a yarn shop named Sisterhood Fibres and regularly organizes demonstrations and other events on her Wooly Hill property. She is also a force behind various fibre festivals, though the coronavirus pandemic has put much of that activity on hold.
“It is all about being creative and productive and the joy of working with other women,” Drinnan said.
While in ages past most women spun alone in their homes, it was also customary for a number of spinners to occasionally gather at a neighbour’s home to work on larger projects such as the making of blankets.
“That social sharing of our interest and our work is still practiced in our area, though we work less for necessity than our ancestors did,” said Carlos.
The scuffed wooden spinning wheel used by her great-great-grandmother stands in a corner of her sitting room. As best she has been able to ascertain, it was built as far back as the 1830s by her great-great-grandfather, Donald Ruadh McDonald, of Pictou County. It now has a new wheel fashioned by a local craftsman, but the old wheel leans against the wall.
“Sadly, the spinning wheel sat for many years in the attic of the home I grew up in and we played quite roughly with it as children. The original wheel is warped and I’m told it would likely not be possible to spin with it but I hope to try with the new wheel,” she said.
Calling herself a novice, she spins happily on a smaller, more modern machine, feeding the fleece into it and working her feet on the treadle.
“I can spend hours doing this because I just love seeing something take shape,” she said, adding she often thinks of her great-grandmothers and the generations of women who spun for the necessity of keeping their families clothed and warm.
Carlos likes to be able to move between several projects and has a small table loom where she is weaving a scarf in shades of turquoise and wheat.
“It is challenging, and I’m fortunate to have Google to rely on at times,” she said.
While she enjoys the support of local knitters and weavers, the internet has put her in contact with fellow crafters around the world.
“It is wonderful to be working on a pattern and discover someone in Norway is working on the same pattern. There is a constant exchange of ideas and support,” she said.
Confessing that her love of wool is drawing her “deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole,” Carlos has even tried her hand at dying wool.
“It is a very messy business and not for everyone. Many people are using commercial dyes, but my interest is in the natural dyes - those that would have been available to women generations ago.”
She has produced a skein of reddish yarn from the roots of the madder plant and a soft pink from the skins and pits of avocados.
“In earlier times, red and blue dyes were the hardest to produce. Indigo created the most prized blues, but blue also comes from the woad plant.”
According to Carlos, local women would have used what they could find close by in nature for their dyes, including walnut shells and the goldenrod plant.
“There are tricks to the trade and sometimes the natural dyes can be altered by adding something such as a rusty nail to the dye bath,” she said.
Going farther afield, Carlos has a jar of cochineal - essentially pulverized insect bodies - that promises to deliver a rich, red dye.
As Carlos works with her retirement passion for wools and dyes, which have been fostered through travel to quaint shops and markets as well as internet access, she noted the irony of changing times, pointing out an ancestor was born on Eigg Mountain, not far from her home as the crow flies.
“I only learned that fairly recently. He, like the rest of the families on the mountain, left because the living was just too hard, while I am here enjoying my leisure. I came to this property with no connection to the land but knowing his life started in this area and that sheep once grazed here gives me a sense of being in the right place.”