Making Lemonade from Lemons

Farming folks seem to have a knack for making the most out of a rough situation. This may come from the fact that farming sees a rather large dose of unforeseen left turns and mishaps. If you tend to give up easy in the face of setbacks, then farming might not be for you.

But if, instead, you find yourself thinking, “What can I learn from this?” or “What else could I do with this?” then you’ll find that your flexibility and ingenuity will serve you well. It may even open doors you didn’t even know were there!

A mix of “things are not as they appear” and true calamity pushed me to find a way to make lemonade from lemons, and these last few weeks I had the joy of sharing my breakthrough with students at Ely Folk School through our Zoom fiber arts sessions. We were laughing and sharing stories—elbow deep in wool. The origin story of our project is completely intertwined in its making and is worth sharing.

It started by inheriting an overgrown 4-H project many years ago—a neutered male sheep named “Shotgun” (we didn’t name him that, but he had strong name recognition, so we kept it). We were told he was a Navajo Churro, which is a wool type I like to use in some of my tapestries, so we took him on. For years, I kept his fleece separate, so we could have it processed into a lopi weight yarn.

But Shotgun was not a churro. Instead, he was a Jacob sheep, with wool much more wiry, and an attitude to match it. We eventually rehomed Shotgun because he did not cohabitate peacefully with our other sheep, and I ended up with cones and cones of wool coarse enough to exfoliate my hands but not pliable enough to weave.

For years, the cones sat in my studio yurt, waiting for the right use, but nothing materialized. And then, two Septembers ago, you may remember how the mice and squirrels chewed their way into my studio yurt and wreaked havoc on my yarn stash. They didn’t touch Shotgun’s wiry wool, but they took to many of the softer skeins, shredding the ends off the skeins and dragging yarn all over. I had urine-soaked yarn to try to clean, terrorized fiber, and generally a terrible mess in their wake.

With time, we replaced the sidewall of the studio yurt, cleaned and sanitized the space, and made sense out of which of the yarns were savable, which were history, and which were too damaged to use for weaving or crochet but too nice to throw away. These I piled into a large tote and pondered what to do. This whole process had me looking at those cones of coarse, gray wool as well, and wondering if they could be part of the solution.

Kara had a book of felted knitted projects, so I spent some time reading about the process. Why not create something similar, only felted crochet? I started with a few swatches, finding that the unique properties of the dual coat of the Jacob sheep wet felted into a tighter, denser mat than commercial wool, and the combination of the two created a very pleasing yet durable and dense textile. Hmm…the recipe for lemonade was coming together.

If you’re like me, you don’t need squirrels to create a stash of leftover pieces or small balls of yarn. As you accumulate finished projects, there’s always that extra yardage that ends up in a drawer or a bag or a bin. It’s too much to throw away, but it’s not really enough to do anything with it. And then, add to that Grandma’s stash and remnants from gifted stashes, and pretty soon the ends and bits and leftovers are overflowing, begging for a destination.

So, what would be a way to utilize a dense, durable, washable woolen textile that could use up these ends and bits? A felted rug! Running a strand of Shotgun’s lopi along with one or two strands of wool or wool blend yarn, I started crocheting away with an oversized hook. The big stitches work up quickly, and the forming rug is very warming to the lap in the process!

A dozen or so felted rugs later, I’ve pretty well used up all the cones of Shotgun’s wool and put a major dent in my ends and bits collection. For my classes on this project, I now source Alafoss Lopi yarn from Iceland, which mimics the felting properties of Shotgun’s wool yet is a little kinder on the hands. The kits I send out ahead of our first session include balls of this lopi as well as wool from our sheep, in a variety of color palates from which the students select.

We first learn the stitches, then pre-felt the rug in the washer and dryer before really getting into the process with hand wet felting, followed by one more round in the dryer. The end result looks nothing like how it started, and now each student has a beautiful, durable rug from their home! This usually results in Christmas presents for their whole family, as they source more lopi and use up their own odds and ends stash. My rug gets to join our selection in our farm’s e-store holiday gift guide, as an option for warming your home.

So, next time you’re handed a setback, consider where in the mess the lemonade recipe might be hiding and see what happens. It might just be the recipe someone else needs as well. See you down on the farm sometime.