Early on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 27, a special delivery came to Ruxville Farm in western Chesterfield County.
Actually, it was two special arrivals. Twin lambs were born on the farm, on the very day that the farm’s co-owner Kim Harrison, a sheep and horse farmer, was hosting an open house for the community to come and see her farm and her home-based wool business.
The two lambs, each of them brown with a shock of bright, white hair atop their heads and white-tipped tails, were the hits of the event, which drew visitors from around the Richmond area.
The lambs huddled in a corner of a barn under the watchful care of their mother, an ewe named Skunk who picked up her name among a generation of sheep born on the farm that Harrison and her family named after woodland animals such as Possum and Squirrel.
“We found them around 5:30 in the morning,” Harrison said of the lambs. “I was so happy.”
“They are ewe lambs,” or females, she said. “That is really good for us.”
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Ewes are valued because they perpetuate the flock through multiple generations.
“We get to keep them, to breed,” Harrison said.
Even better for a sheep farmer who values wool above all else, the two lambs were born with the recessive genetic trait of having a moorit color, a reddish-brown color the breed derives from Castlemilk Estate of Scotland, on which they were bred. The rich, light-brown color makes for some of the best yarn to weave into fabric for such items as jackets, hats, coats and scarves.
“They will make the valuable wool,” Harrison said. “That family line is just a lot of great ewes that we have had for generations.”
Harrison figures that somewhere around 400 lambs have been born on the family farm in the 25 years since she and her husband, Lee, moved onto the property. Right now, she has a flock of around 40 sheep on the 25-acre farm not far off Route 360 in an area of western Chesterfield known as Skinquarter, named after Native Americans who would hunt and skin deer there.
On what was once a large hog-farming operation, Harrison now raises Merino sheep, a breed that originated in Spain hundreds of years ago. The breed has developed a long and rich history for producing wool that is considered ideal for clothing and blankets.
“They are well-known and raised for their fine wool,” Harrison said. “Fine means it is very soft.
“There are other breeds of sheep that give better wool for something like carpet making,” she said. “People may think that wool is itchy, but Merino is the softest there is, and it is fine for being used against your skin.”
Harrison, who has a degree in animal science from Virginia Tech, starting raising sheep in 1987. She has learned how to use an old-fashioned loom to weave cloth from yarn to make mittens, hats, coats and blankets.
“My husband was in graduate school and we were living in upstate New York, where it was really, really cold,” she said. “You are stuck in the house during the winter, which is terrible, so I took a weaving class. It cost me $50.
“My father offered to buy me a loom, so I got a loom and then during the dark days of winter when I could not go out and do anything else, I loomed,” she said. “It became a business for me.”
Harrison’s daughter, Lydia Harrison, who is also a Virginia Tech graduate, works as an assistant herd manager at a Richlands Dairy Farm in Blackstone, but she also works on the family farm in her spare time. The sheep are sheared for their wool in late fall, usually around Thanksgiving.
Harrison hires professional shearers to do that work.
“As a wool farmer, I want a shearer who understands that these fleeces are my product,” she said. “They are valuable to me. A shearer can ruin a fleece by doing a bad job.”
Harrison sends the wool to a mill in Wisconsin to be spun into yarn. It takes several weeks to get the yarn back, and she then goes to work on her loom to weave the yarn into fabric.
It isn’t easy finding mills that can turn wool into yarn, said Harrison, explaining her limited options.
“The Merino wool is hard to process,” she said. “Sometimes I give somebody a test batch and they do not do a good job. Most are honest, and they take a look at my wool and say, ‘We would have a hard time processing that wool.’
It is a profitable business, Harrison said, though not massively profitable. Harrison works part time on another farm, and her husband still works as an engineer.
“It is profitable, but do I live on this money? No,” Harrison said. “I only have the 25 ewes. Think about how much money each ewe would have to produce to make a living off of it. However, I make enough money to make improvements to the property. I have enough money to buy new rams when I need them, and I have enough money to put into my retirement account.”
Harrison sells some lambs to other breeders. The sheep can also be eaten, but Harrison said the wool is what’s important to them. She said she got about 41 pounds of black wool from the herd last year, along with 78 pounds of white wool and 37 pounds of moorit wool.
The softness of the wool can be determined by a “comfort test” performed on samples she sends to a lab in Texas affiliated with Texas A&M University.
“When they send me back the analysis, each individual fleece is analyzed,” she said. “They measure the fiber diameter, which is measured in microns. Our fleeces are like 20 to 22 microns, which is a good sweet spot. The comfort factor is the percentage of fibers that are under a certain diameter, so they don’t prickle the skin.”
Harrison sells her wool products through a contact at firstname.lastname@example.org. At www.ruxvillefarmfiberarts.com, she also sells pet toys and clothing that range from $10 to $600.