Fleece Fans Flock to Hartford Farm for the Sheer Fun of It

Below is the text of an article on the front page of the Life and Leisure section of Sunday, April 2nd’s Valley News.  The paper has given us permission to repost it.

Here is a link to the article:  Spinners Gather at Savage Hart Farm for Annual Sheep Shearing. 


STORY BY LIZ SAUCHELLI

Hartford — The crowd gathered in the barn at Savage Hart Farm wore a variety of hand-knit and hand-spun items and waited eagerly on a recent chilly Saturday morning for the sheep to be led out of a pen. Eleanor — named after first lady Eleanor Roosevelt — was first.

Gwen Hinman, of Acworth, N.H., wrangles a sheep while shearing its fleece at Peggy and Todd Allen's Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.
Gwen Hinman, of Acworth, N.H., wrangles a sheep while shearing its fleece at Peggy and Todd Allen’s Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.

After carefully clipping Eleanor’s hooves, shearer Gwen Hinman got to work.

Sheep shearer Gwen Hinman, of Acworth, N.H., trims a sheep's hooves on shearing day at Peggy and Todd Allen's Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.
Sheep shearer Gwen Hinman, of Acworth, N.H., trims a sheep’s hooves on shearing day at Peggy and Todd Allen’s Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.

“Oh boy, look at that,” said a voice as the top layer of Eleanor’s fleece revealed a creamy white underneath.

After a few minutes, Eleanor was put back in the pen and her fleece was tossed on the skirting table for initial cleaning. The group then began to pick out pieces of grass and dirt while chatting excitedly about the knitting projects they envisioned.

In the middle of the scene was Peggy Allen, stopping to speak with the nearly 20 people who came to help with the yearly shearing at the farm Allen owns with her husband, Todd. This was the fifth year their flock was sheared — a milestone for the couple who moved to the Upper Valley from the Chicago area. Starting a sheep farm “was a major reset button,” said Peggy Allen, who previously worked in television but had longed to own sheep for years.

“This is a lot of change. It’s been a marvelous experience for Todd and I, and that he was able to live my dream, that’s huge.”

After Eleanor’s fleece was picked clean, it weighed in at 9½ pounds. Cally Judson, of Hanover, marked the amount in a binder. “She’s a genius at this, ever so skilled,” Judson said as she watched Hinman shear Levi — named after vice president Levi P. Morton, who was born in Vermont and served from 1889-1893.

Judson, as did many of the others present, met Peggy Allen at a spinning group that meets weekly at the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon.

“When we got our original sheep, we knew nothing. I mean nothing,” Allen recalled. Their first two sheep broke free just days after they were settled on the farm.

“They walked literally through the (electric) fencing, down the driveway and through the woods,” Allen said. The two were on the lam for five days before a neighbor caught them. During that time, the Allens discovered what kind of community they had moved into.

“That’s how we met our neighbors,” Peggy Allen recalled with a laugh. “We could not be doing what we’re doing if we did not have … a lot of wonderful people.”

Throughout the day, Hinman kept a steady pace as each of the 28 Corriedale, Cormo and mixed-breed sheep were sheared. After an initial struggle as Todd Allen led them out one by one, the sheep seemed resigned once Hinman got hold of them.

Todd Allen, who runs Savage Hart Farm with his wife Peggy, prepares a sheep for shearing on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.
Todd Allen, who runs Savage Hart Farm with his wife Peggy, prepares a sheep for shearing on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.

“Not all sheep are like that,” said Hinman, of Acworth, N.H., who has sheared sheep for 17 years. “Once you get them down, they’re pretty calm.”

As Hinman removed the fleece from around their faces, their big round eyes were revealed and they appeared to relax.

Each sheep took 5-6 minutes to shear, Hinman said.

“They take a little bit longer than a lot of other sheep because they’re big and they have so much wool,” Hinman said. The fleece mostly comes off in one piece due to its density.

“They’ll do a little bellyaching,” Peggy Allen said. Occasionally one of the sheep would let out a “bah” and then the rest would chime in, creating a raucous chorus.

Hinman, who shears sheep throughout New England and New York state, has worked with the Allens for three years. Theirs is one of the only farms she visits where she has audience.

“They’re all just great people,” Hinman said of the spinners and knitters. “It’s hectic, but it’s a fun day.”

After the fleece is bagged up it will be taken to the Hampton Fiber Mill and Spinnery in Richmond, Vt., where it will be washed, carded and spun into undyed, natural yarn.

“Vermont-raised sheep, producing Vermont fleece, processed in a Vermont mill,” said Ann Thompson, of Hanover, a spinner who was wearing a sweater she knit from yarn she spun from the sheep.

The sheep are sheared once a year. Hanson — named after the ’90s pop band — was sheared for the first time since he joined the farm.

“Look at this Peggy. Isn’t it gorgeous?” said John Crane, a spinner and knitter from Hartford who was charged with tossing each fleece onto the skirting table.

John Crane, of Hartford, Vt., throws a freshly sheared fleece to prepare it for skirting, or cleaning, on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at Savage Hart Farm in Hartford, Vt.
John Crane, of Hartford, Vt., throws a freshly sheared fleece to prepare it for skirting, or cleaning, on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at Savage Hart Farm in Hartford, Vt.

“Oh yes,” she said as she paused to watch the steely black fleece that emerged. “Oh, man. You can see his color.”

The spinners and others gather each year to help. A table set up outside the barn held hot coffee, bottles of water, a platter of sandwiches and a slow-cooker of homemade soup. A package of disposable of hand warmers sat on a table inside to help everyone keep warm.

“I got a total different appreciation that wool is not just wool,” Thompson said. “When you go all the way through the process, you get a different appreciation of knitting.”

Wool samples, taken after each sheep is sheared, line the barn wall on shearing day at Peggy and Todd Allen's Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.
Wool samples, taken after each sheep is sheared, line the barn wall on shearing day at Peggy and Todd Allen’s Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.

The shearing is also a good time to tell which of the sheep are pregnant. Of the 28 at the farm, two are rams, four are wethers (castrated males) and the rest are ewes. Peggy Allen said 14-16 of them are pregnant and they’ll begin giving birth around April 10.

The Allens do not keep all the lambs: Some will be sold as meat while others may be sold to other sheep farms. The couple also rent out an apartment on the farm to supplement their income.

While the farm is a full-time endeavor, it does not pay like a full-time job. Todd Allen works for Mascoma Savings Bank and Peggy Allen is enrolled in Vital Communities’ Leadership Upper Valley program to decide what she wants to do next, after decades of working in television and as a consultant.

When they decided to start the farm, Peggy Allen’s sister, Eileen Lambert, suggested that the couple try to apprentice at a sheep farm to see what it was like.

“They said (no), we’re just going in the deep end,” Lambert recalled. She traveled from her home in Ramsey, N.J., to witness the shearing. “Whenever she does something, she’s done it right. It’s how she’s been her whole life. It’s been really fun to be on the sidelines.”

As the day went on, Jack, the Allens’ rescue dog, barked at the sheep and ran around the farm with Hinman’s dog, Lyle. The two would stop for a little attention before running off again.

“He doesn’t have a sheep-herding bone in his body,” Peggy Allen said as Jack picked up a discarded piece of fleece and ran off with it. “He’s feeling very clever right now.”

The total amount of fleece collected was about 192 pounds, Allen said, with fleece collected from Nash — named after the band Crosby, Still and Nash — topping the herd at 10 pounds.

Peggy Allen, left, and Cally Judson, of Hanover, N.H., check the weight of a sheep's fleece on shearing day at Allen's Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.
Peggy Allen, left, and Cally Judson, of Hanover, N.H., check the weight of a sheep’s fleece on shearing day at Allen’s Savage Hart Farm on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Hartford, Vt.

“It’s been very humbling. It’s been an outrageously, fabulous adventure,” Allen said. “It’s been great. Even when things go wrong, it’s great.”

 

Leave a Reply