Farmers Gather to Skirt Fiber and Wool in Rite of Spring

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

GREENWICH, N.Y. — Debbie Antonez, a special education teacher, has had a long-time interest in spinning and the fiber arts.

Twelve years ago, after buying a pair of alpacas, she found that her career and avocation could achieve mutual goals.

“So I combined the two,” the Dorset, Vt., resident said, while busily skirting fiber and recently shorn sheep’s fleece.

Now, her Dorset School students can’t wait for visits from the alpacas, where they’re welcomed like Hollywood celebrities.

“I use them as therapy animals,” Antonez said. “They come right inside the school. Alpacas tend to be very, very shy, but when they get around kids they just seem to sense which ones need to be loved, a little extra attention.”

Her farm, called Little Bit of Magic, is on Route 7A, less than an hour’s drive from the Battenkill Fibers mill in Greenwich, N.Y., where area farmers joined forces March 9 to skirt their animals’ fiber and wool, an annual rite of spring.

Antonez worked alongside mill employee Beth Olson, as they hand-picked knots, defects and dirty parts of fiber and fleece in preparation for washing. It’s a time-consuming, tedious process, but adds considerable value to the finished product.

Sheep farmer Dr. Stuart Lyman, a Delmar, N.Y. veterinarian, explained why fleece is shorn right before the spring birthing season.

“It’s for the health of the lambs,” he said. “Instead of leaning up against their mother’s heavy wool coat they get more of the mother’s body heat. That’s important because lambs can’t maintain their own body temperature in the first 24 hours.”

He and his wife, Jane, started their flock in 1982, primarily to give their children a good 4-H animal husbandry project. Today, the Corriedales are still an important part of their 150-acre farm, just south of Albany, the state capital.

“In a couple of months we’ll be planting corn,” Lyman said. “We harvest hay and in the fall we have pick-your-own raspberries. There’s always something going on all year round.”

Twenty-two ewes in his flock of 30 sheep are ready to produce offspring.

“For the next six weeks I won’t be getting much sleep,” he said. “But it’s fun to see birthing and have lambs running around.”

Lambs normally are born in pairs, so he’s expecting to have 44 before long. He’ll keep six for the flock and raise the others for meat that will be sold throughout the year.

Mrs. Lyman dyes white fleece to make different-colored yarn, another income generator. However, sheep are more about passion than business, her husband said.

“Nobody does sheep full time,” Lyman said. “You can’t afford it. This is like an addiction. People have sheep because they want something to do; a hobby. If you’re lucky you’ll break even.”

Battenkill Fiber is kind of a hub, a place where people interested in fiber and wool-producing animals come to share their mutual interests.

Jackie Reed and Chip Perry, of Stillwater, N.Y., recently purchased three Icelandic sheep for a starter flock and wanted to get advice from more experienced people.

“It’s always best to learn from other people’s mistakes,” Reed said.

They both do 18th century re-enactments at places such as Saratoga National Historical Park and are considering using their sheep’s wool to make things such as mittens and hats.

Lyman, while laboring over a skirting table, pointed out the different shades of sheep’s wool, from dark to light.

“Some of this will end up in our booth at the Southern Adirondack Fiber Festival, in October,” he said.

This year’s annual event is scheduled for Oct. 5-6 at Washington County Fairgrounds in Greenwich.

It’s one of several events on the 2013 calendar for people interested in fiber and wool. On April 27-28, a Washington County Fiber Tour is planned that will give people a chance to visit 17 farms from Whitehall to Cambridge. Visitors may watch spinning, knitting and weaving demonstrations and get an up-close look at alpacas, sheep, lamb, goats and rabbits.

For information, visit

Also, a wool pool is slated for June 13-15 at the fairgrounds where clean white wool, white off-sorts and natural-colored fleeces will be accepted for re-sale to a large international buyer. A 4-H youth event hosted by a local 4-H Sheep and Kids Club will be part of that Saturday’s activities.

Plans also call for workshops on fitting-showmanship, animal health, skirting and processing options, and meat processing. For information call (518) 692-2700.

Antonez likes having alpacas for a variety of reasons. However, one stands out above the rest. “It’s a lifestyle,” she said, smiling.

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