Fiber artist Fran Stafford of Newport has called herself many things in her career – spinner, knitter, crocheter, but the Livestock Conservancy would subsume all of those under one title, Sheep Employment Specialist.
In a world where the Agricultural Industrial Complex has bred out taste in plants, in favor of ship-ability and shelf life, and turkeys have been bred to have breasts so large their legs can almost not accommodate them, the Livestock Conservancy is trying to preserve genetic diversity by championing heritage farm animals. As stated in its mission:
Rare farm animals represent an irreplaceable piece of earth’s biodiversity and offer incredible variety that may be needed for future farms – robust health, mothering instincts, foraging and the ability to thrive in a changing climate. These farm animals are a vital part of ensuring food security for our planet – now and for the future.
Founded in 1977, the Livestock Conservancy is a repository of information about rare breeds and how farmers can incorporate them into their stock. In the New River Valley, within a 100-mile radius, there are 18 farms that are registered with and engaged in programs started by the Conservancy. “The staff at the Conservancy has really high caliber people that we can go to for problems,” states Harry Groot, owner of Sunrise Valley Farms in Hiwassee. “They have people specializing in these breeds who can help.”
While the networking and problem-solving are great services provided by the program, for most members, it is the alignment of values they have with the Conservancy, the preserving of genetic diversity and saving rare breeds that seems to resonate most with members. Brit Ritchey had always wanted to be a farmer, or at least, a farmer’s wife. After many moves and different careers, she bought property near Eggleston in Giles County and began tending a small herd of Shetland and Leicester Longwool sheep, a breed once raised by George Washington. “It’s one small thing I can do to help save the world,” she relates. “No breed should go extinct. Genetically we don’t know what we are going to need, but here they are, in case we do.”
Ryan Walker, communications manager for the Conservancy, says that preserving the breeds would be much more effective if there was real work for them to do, and from this idea came one of the more successful programs the Conservancy has launched: Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em. Fiber artists are challenged to use fiber from these rare breeds of sheep to spark new uses and thus new markets for the farmers.
Artists are issued a “passport,” and they earn a “stamp” each time they buy fiber from a provider listed on the Conservancy’s provider page. They earn items for completing projects and are encouraged to post comments and pictures on the Shave ‘Em To Save ‘Em Facebook page and on the fiber arts website Ravelry.com.
While a teacher by trade, Fran has always been a crafter. She learned to crochet and tat lace as a young teenager. When her daughter was born, Fran took a French hand sewing class so she could learn smocking and make beautiful baby clothes. When her grandchild was born, she took up knitting to make sweaters and diaper covers. On a trip to the library, she discovered the Spunsters, a likeminded group of fiber aficionados who expanded her spinning skills.
When her friend, Gail Groot of Sunrise Valley Farms, told her of the Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em challenge, she was all in. The contest started in mid-January of 2019 and by February, Fran completed five projects, and her accomplishment was feted in the Conservancy newsletter. This, in turn, seemed to spark more interest, and by May, more than 1,000 artists were engaged in trying the different wools.
Fran originally was merely buying roving, shorn fiber that’s been washed and combed or carded, which she would spin into yarn. She was drawn to fiber arts by the visual aspect of the colors and patterns and always got white fiber so she could experiment with dyes. However, working with the rare breeds of sheep, she began to notice the variations of natural color and the difference in the feel of dyed and undyed wool. Lately, she has begun to buy raw fleece and do the whole process herself. She has also knitted the yarn from the rare breeds into a shawl.
When Fran first started spinning, “…wool was wool,” she recalls. But the program has definitely honed her appreciation for the differences in the fiber of rare breeds. “It spins differently, and I like the crisper feel of the yarn. It doesn’t pill when you knit with it.” For Fran, any new endeavor is always a learning opportunity, and what she likes best is the challenge of getting better at that skill, to which she brings great enthusiasm.
Walker certainly appreciates that enthusiasm and what it’s done to make Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em a success. “I thank her for being a leader and taking the initiative to get things kicked off and to show everyone else what you can do,” he says. “She led by example in creating wonderful products very quickly, and it inspired a lot more people to get involved.”
Gail Groot would agree. She started as a provider in the Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em program and was so tickled by the response ~ first of all the requests for her fiber products and then to myriad projects she saw on the Facebook page ~ that she became a participant and has started working on her own “passport.” It’s something to do, because she has sold nearly all the wool she has, which is “a good kind of problem to have.” Now, let’s get some more sheep working.
Text by Becky Hepler
Photos by Kevin Riley
FIBER ARTISTS: If you are interested in being part of the Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em project, check out these websites.
The Ravelry.com website asks you to join first. It is free and there are no obligations. Then look under the pull down menu for groups and type in or scroll until you find Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em.