During a time of pandemic, it’s good to be able to both work and practice creativity from the comfort of your home. Especially if that home is a sheep farm in Greene County.
Local resident Ann Vonnegut, owner of Autumn Vista Farm in Dyke, makes her living selling yarn and fleece created from the wool of her Leicester Longwool sheep. But her passion is for creating woven artwork from the same materials.
“I find that working on a sheep farm pulls me away from my art, especially during lambing season,” Vonnegut said of the balance between work and play. “I also have been busy with putting in a vegetable and flower garden.”
Vonnegut first became interested in owning her own farm after working with the National Park Service at a farm in Maryland, where she learned how to spin wool.
“I learned how to spin while I was there, and then the spinning went to dyeing, and then from dyeing I got into wanting to have a flock of sheep,” she said. “I wanted to raise a rare breed of sheep and so I did some research on the Leicester Longwool; there aren’t that many breeders that raise this particular kind of sheep.”
The Leicester Longwool, popular during the colonial period in America, was developed by agriculturist Robert Bakewell in Leicestershire, England in the late 1700s to be both a producer of long, coarse wool and high-quality meat.
“It has long, lustrous wool for spinning, and it’s great for dyeing and it has good meat on it,” said Vonnegut of the breed. “It did go out of favor over time with the American Sheep Association because it wasn’t as fast-growing as the Suffolks, which is the more common around here.”
Compared to a Suffolk sheep, which is all white except for a black face and legs, the Leicester Longwool has very long, slow-growing dense wool that grows into curls and are very docile, according to the Livestock Conservancy website, which lists the Longwool’s status as “threatened” and a priority for conservation.
The breed was brought back from near extinction in the early 1900s and was brought to Virginia by Colonial Williamsburg, which is where Vonnegut first heard of them. Their wool is very strong and especially good for tapestries or outer garments, as opposed to the baby-soft merino wool.
“It’s good to have a diversity of different genes,” she said. “If we all ate just one type of meat, whether it was beef or one type of breed of chicken … it’s important for breeders to get into the different breeds of animals for livestock. Different breeds of sheep have different traits for their wool.”
When she is not taking care of her sheep or working in the garden, Vonnegut spins, dyes wool, and weaves on a large loom in her barn studio located on the property.
Along with members of a local tapestry group in Charlottesville, Vonnegut has displayed her weaving at Noon Whistle Pottery in Stanardsville, City Space in Charlottesville, a theater in Waynesboro and a small art studio in Berryville. She also sells yarn, roving and fleece at the Fall Fiber Festival and Montpelier Sheep Dog Trials every October and at the Powhatan Festival of Fiber (currently canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
According to Vonnegut, shearing sheep to produce good-quality wool takes a certain set of skills.
“I started trying to shear myself and then I realized that it is a skill, like anything else,” she said. “In order to be really good at it, you need to do hundreds of sheep a year to be very proficient, and I didn’t want to spend my whole time learning that particular skill.”
After taking a class in sheep shearing, Vonnegut hired the instructor, Kevin Ford, to shear her sheep annually so she can focus on the spinning and weaving of the wool.
“If you’re a spinner, it’s important not to get second cuts,” Vonnegut said. Second cuts are when the shearer cuts the wool short and then trims the rest in a second shear, which creates shorter, less uniform wool for spinning.
Ford travels annually from Massachusetts down along the eastern seaboard to a number of small sheep farms, where he hand-shears with old-fashioned blades as opposed to electronic clippers.
Autumn Vista Farm, which normally boasts a flock of 30 Leicester Longwool sheep, currently only has twelve sheep, including one 13-year-old ewe who Vonnegut did not have the heart to take to market.
“I can’t breed her. She’s too old—she was born in 2007, so she’s over 10 years old—that is very old for a sheep, but I just can’t put her down,” Vonnegut said. “But you just can’t keep all the rams … as a farmer, you do have to make those decisions and they’re not always the easiest.”
As for how the current pandemic has affected her artwork, Vonnegut considers herself one of the lucky ones.
“I feel very fortunate to have a job where I can be home and I don’t have to go out that much,” Vonnegut said. “Because both of us are retired and we live on a farm, I can go outside and nobody’s around. Creatively, I am doing more exploring on creating my own designs, especially in the tapestries with a floor loom.” Between variations on weight and thickness of the thread, colors and patterns in the physical weaving to create different variations and textures, there is a lot for an artist like Vonnegut to explore.
For more information on Montpelier’s fall fiber festival, visit fallfiber