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Find out how to brew your own beer

Find out how to brew your own beer

Want to brew your own beer? It’s a great time to do it as grain harvests start coming in.

Maybe you’re even one of the lucky few to have your own hops yard, or your own homegrown grain stores.

But either way, brewing beer is definitely worth doing.

“Home brewing is part of our history and heritage,” Marcus Bezuhly, of Homebrewstuff.com, said. “In fact cultivation of beer ingredients were one of the first priorities of early settlers (in America). George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were both prolific home brewers.

“I personally find a romance to making something at home that most people take for granted by going to the store and buying off of the shelf,” Bezuhly said. “At the very least it makes you appreciate the time and effort that goes into making products from scratch.”

Sustainability

It is possible – with perhaps the exception of brewers yeast – to produce all the ingredients needed to practice home brewing on your homestead.

Apples from a small orchard can be used for cider, any number of grains can be used to make beer and any sugar producing fruit can be used for wine.

“There is a huge range of fermented beverages that can be made from home,” Bezuhly said.

Production

At its most basic form, brewing beer means making a wort with boiled grains and sugars – or the appropriate extracts – fermenting the wort by adding yeast and then filtering and bottling the finished product. Fermentation usually takes up to three weeks and involves keeping the fermenting wort free from oxygen, light and extreme temperatures.

A lot of home brewers ferment their wort in closets and garages, using vapor locks to keep oxygen from entering while allowing waste carbon dioxide to leave the fermenting bucket.

If CO2 cannot escape, brewers run the risk of explosions from the buildup of gases.

During all stages of the process, proper sanitation cannot be over emphasized.

“Clean everything, then sanitize it. When you are done, clean it again,” Bezuhly said.

Once the process is complete, filter the sediments out of the beer and bottle it.

Bottling your beer can be done in a couple of ways.

“The least expensive method is to recycle used beer bottles, clean, sanitize, refill and cap them. The alternative is to use kegs and bottled CO2 to store and carbonate your beer,” Bezuhly said.

You can also purchase flip-top bottles with attached stoppers.

Steps

The first step is to clean all your equipment, the spoons, the boilers, anything that will come in contact with your wort.

Then, mix your wort according to the instructions of your recipe (see the Blond Recipe from EDGE Brewing Co. in this magazine).

Boil your ingredients according to your recipe and then chill the wort in ice water and then transfer it to a fermenter. Many recipes recommend you strain the hops from the wort at this time.

“Pitch” or add the yeast. Some yeasts require “blooming,” where the yeast is added to warm water before adding it to the wort, similar to how yeast is proofed while making bread.

Cap off your fermenting bucket, being sure to place the vapor lock in place. In about 24 hours, you should see bubbles coming out of the air lock. If you do not see any activity in about 48 hours, then you have problems and need to start over. If this happens, consider getting new yeast, as dead yeast is one of the most common problems brewers face.

Allow the wort to ferment for at least a week, depending on the recipe. Once this happens, siphon the wort from your fermenting bucket into another – clean – container, leaving as much of the sediment in the fermenting bucket as possible.

Bottle your beer from the new container. Some home brewers have been known to filter the beer at this point using filter papers, but it depends on the recipe. At this point, a little sugar or dried malt extract is added to increase carbonation.

Cap off the bottles and allow it to age for about a week before refrigerating. As the beer refrigerates, more sediments may settle. Do not drink this material, as it is generally composed of dead yeast.

While you may be tempted to use bread yeast instead of baking yeast, it is not recommended. While the product will be alcoholic, it probably will not taste very well.

Outside of having a good recipe, that’s about it.

With a little effort and some investment, you will have your very own beer. With a little practice, you can produce a product enjoyable for you and your friends.

If you are interested in trying to brew your own beer, check out this recipe from Bezuhly.

Just like a lot of home production projects — think yogurt, kombucha, etc. — it may seem intimidating at first, but with a little bit of effort, you’ll have it down in no time.

The Blonde

  • Original gravity 1.051
  • Final gravity 1.013
  • Alcohol (by volume) 5.0%
  • Bitterness (IBU) 31
  • Color (SRM) 7.3°L

Ingredients:

5lb Light Liquid Malt Extract
1 lbs American Two Row
.5 lb Caramel 15°L
.5 lb Wheat Malt

1 oz Mt Hood Hops – Boil for 60 min (of 60 min total boil)
.5 oz Tettnanger Pellet hops – Boil for 30 min (of 60 min total boil)
.5 oz Tettnanger Pellet hops – Boil for 20 min (of 60 min total boil)
.5 oz Tettnanger Pellet hops – Boil for 10 min (of 60 min total boil)
1 tb Whirlfloc Tablet – Boil for 10 min (of 60 min total boil)
***If you have a coil immersion chiller, add 10min before boil is complete***

Yeast:

(Liquid) Wyeast 1056 American Ale -OR- (Dry) Safale-05  – Pitch into fermenter of cooled wort. Ferment at 65°F for 7 days. Rack to Secondary for an additional 7-14 days.

Procedure:

Heat 2.5 to 6.5 gallons (depending on the size of your kettle) of water to 155°.  Steep specialty grains in muslin bag for 30 minutes. Rinse grain with hot water and remove from kettle.  Add liquid malt extract and bring kettle to boil.  Once a good boil is going, add the first hops and start a timer.  Maintain a boil and add hops according to the schedule above.

***If you have a coil immersion chiller, add 10min before boil is complete*** 

When boil is complete, transfer wort to sanitized fermenter, then add water to make a total volume of about 5.25 gallons.  Pitch yeast into cooled wort (<75°F).  Ferment according to Schedule above.

Homebrewstuff.com offers kits to make the beer brewing process easier. Check out their beer equipment kit and the blonde ingredient kit.

Hugelkultur: Funny word, great idea

Editor’s note: This story and photos are by Cassie Langstraat and a version originally appeared in the latest issue of From Scratch.

Chances are if you are involved in the modern homesteading world, you have heard the term permaculturefloating around. Chances are if youve heard that word, youve heard of hugelkulturas well. Besides being a ridiculously funny word to try to pronounce, the term hugelkultur holds world-changing importance to modern gardeners.

So, whats so darn great about it then? I think it comes down to one thing: water. With a hugelkultur bed, you can eliminate the need for any irrigation or watering system. Boom. Yeah, I said it. Sounds pretty crazy right? But its completely true. Well, after the first year, but still! Give them hugels some credit!

So I guess I should probably tell you what the heck it actually is, eh? Prepare yourself. Its really realllly complex. Psyche! It is literally just buried wood in soil. Thats all it is! So, not only can you save tons and tons of water by setting up one of these hugelkultur beds, but you get to use up any old rotted wood you have lying around, even unwanted twigs and branches.

Before we get into the details on how to build one of these bad boys, I want to give you a little background on hugelkultur. Its a German word. Its been practiced in Eastern European cultures for hundreds of years and its been recently further developed by permaculture gurus, Sepp Holzer and Paul Wheaton. There. When I said little, I meant it.

Now, onto the fun stuff. First, I want to explain how it actually works. Its pretty cool. Basically the hugelkultur beds mimic the natural decaying cycle of the forest floor. As the wood decomposes underneath the soil, its porosity increases so it becomes almost like a sponge. So, it soaks tons of water up, and then slowly releases it back to the plants in the hugel bed over time. Also, because the wood shrinks when it decays, it frees up little air pouches in the soil which enables a little self-tilling situation! How neat?

During the first year or two you will definitely need to water it a bit, but after that it should be completely independent of water. Oh! Another nifty benefit — because everything will be doing its little composting business in the first few years — you will probably get a longer growing season because the soil will be warmed up. In general, the rotted wood will make for a raised garden bed that is incredibly rich with organic material and huge amounts of nutrients.

Speaking of nutrients, lets talk wood. Paul Wheaton makes a really good point in his article, “Hugelkultur: the ultimate raised garden bed. Wood is high on the olcarbon scale. Meaning it will want lots of nitrogen to do its composting business. This could take away from the plants you have in the bed. However, if the wood is already well-rotted, it shouldnt be a problem. So yes, you can definitely use fresh wood you just chopped, even if it isnt rotted, but it could take away from your plants for a while.

While we are on the topic of wood, its pretty important to choose the right type. For example, Black Locust takes ages and ages to rot, so it wouldnt be the best choice. Also black walnut and cherry can be quite toxic so its best to avoid those as well. Good options are alders, apple, cottonwood, poplar, willow, and birch!

hugelkultur

Finally, how do we build one? The cool thing is, a large part of the design and size is entirely up to you. Some people build them on top of sod. Some people dig up a few feet of soil and build them in that. Some build them really tall. Some people build them shorter. Tomato. Tomahhto.

Id say most people that Ive seen build them around 3-4 feet tall and about 3-4 feet wide. Length varies tremendously. However, Paul advocates in his article that the taller the better. He says it holds moisture much longer that way, and you dont have to bend over to plant or harvest.

Bonus! He recommends building it 7 feet tall because it will shrink about a foot.

So, first things first. Lay down the wood. Big logs. Small logs. Twigs. Branches. All of it. If you want, you can add soil in between the layers of wood, it will probably make it much more sturdy that way. Water each layer.

After layering the wood, add the soil on top! Voila, you have a garden!

Finally, it is best to let the hugelkultur bed settle in for a few months before planting. After those few months, plant and mulch your bed!

There can be a lot of variation with these and still, they will be successful. When it comes down to it, yes, they are much more work to set up than just your regular square flat garden bed. But the amount of work it eliminates over the years 1000% makes up for it. Not only for yourself, but for the entire world. Think of how much water we could save if each of us traded our water-hogging flat beds for one of these. Think of how much time and energy we could save with no tilling, and no back-breaking planting and harvesting! Oh did I mention less water makes all of your food taste way better? There really are just no reasons not to jump on the hugelkultur train so get to building one (or 5) right now so you can plant in the spring!

Local Food Feast a highlight at Sustainable Ag Con

Photo courtesy of CFSA

                              Photo courtesy of CFSA

Editor’s note: This entry is an excerpt from a blog post written by Anneliese Marvel, one of the many talented bloggers who contributed to the Sweet Potato Blog for the Carolina Farm Stewardship at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference. Read more from Ms. Marvel here.

The Local Food Feast at CFSA’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference is always a major event highlight. This year, Food Coordinator Kris Reid and Hyatt Recency Executive Chef Brandon Lemieux used meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, dairy and flour from over 20 local and regional farms to create a colorful and
delicious Local Food Feast for SAC 2014.

The menu highlighted the best aspects of the fall season, when leafy greens and root vegetables are abundant and meat from grass pastured animals is extra flavorful.

Winter Squash and Swiss Chard Stew started off the feast on a sweet and earthy note. The stew was followed by a “deconstructed” Bibb salad, with tender Bibb lettuce, candied bacon, bleu cheese, roasted tomatoes, and a creamy ranch dressing made with locally sourced dairy and herbs.

Next were the sides: a Seasonal Vegetable Mash with potatoes, rutabaga, turnips and beets and delicious steamed sweet corn, which was a special late-season treat. The meat centerpieces were rich chicken and dumplings and braised beef in a Cheerwine barbeque sauce.

But it didn’t end there. The meal was finished off with tender dinner rolls from an Asheville bakery and, my favorite, an apple crisp made with apples from Lowes Orchard.

It goes without saying that the meal was amazing, both in flavor and effort. While farmers’ markets and co-op grocers are fantastic places to shop, they don’t account for the majority of food supplied to eaters in the US. It takes extra effort for small,  sustainable farmers and brokers to sell to large local entities like hotels, chain restaurants, and hospitals. Those businesses have to be convinced that stepping away from the existing infrastructure and buying local food is worth their time and money.

Want to read more about the event? Check out this complete blog entry, including a listing of all the foods served at the meal and the farms they came from at Ms. Marvel’s blog.

See our complete coverage from the event here.

Having a Homestead Hanukkah

menorah

For our Jewish readers, Dec. 16 marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

For the next eight days, Jews all over the world will be lighting candles, enjoying wayyyy to much fried food and generally having a great time.

The holiday commemorates the Miracle of the Oil and the triumph of the Maccabees. But it’s also just a great chance to get together with family and enjoy each other’s company.

Here’s our list of the best way for homesteaders to celebrate the holiday:

1-Turn off the TV

I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the Talmud about enjoying the classic stop-motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer (I’m a big fan of the Island of Misfit Toys), but there’s something to be said about declaring at least a brief moratorium on the use of the magic brain eating box for the holiday (or any holiday for that matter. We’re considering a screen-ban during Flag Day even). It’s a lot easier to have those great conversations over meals if you aren’t competing for the family’s attention with Netflix, Hulu, cable and video games.

2-Make your own Menorah

The menorah is the candle holder used to commemorate the religious aspects of the holiday. And while beautiful examples of menorahs abound, there’s something to be said for making your own. You can get the whole family involved too. All the kids (and adults) can put together their own spin on this classic item. And there’s nothing that says homestead more than doing it yourself. Check out these great ideas here.

3-Fry some food

Latkes, or potato pancakes, are a classic dish for Hanukkah. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy them either, but you might want to invest in a food processor or sucker one of the kids into grating all those potatoes by hand. Here’s a great recipe. Enjoy them with apple sauce, sour cream or jelly!

Ingredients

  • 1 pound potatoes
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil

Directions

Grate the potatoes. Place the grated potatoes into cold water to prevent discoloration. After grating all the potatoes, drain them then use cheese cloth or a towel to squeeze the moisture out of the grated potatoes. Heat the oil in a skillet on the stove. Mix all the ingredients together and spoon about two tablespoons of the mix into the hot oil. Use a fork or spatula to press the mounds out slightly. Cook about five minutes on each side. Remove them from the oil and put on a draining rack or paper towels. Makes about a dozen latkes.

Tip: Make them fast. Your family will starting eating them as soon as the first batch comes out of the oil.

4-Make your own candles

A big part of Hanukkah is the lighting of the candles. If you really want to get hardcore Homestead, then why not take this chance to make your own. You may not have the time to render fat and make candles that way, but making beeswax candles is a lot less time consuming. Here’s a great tutorial.

4-Listen to Hanukkah music

There aren’t many Hanukkah songs, but thanks to Adam Sandler and the like, Jews get to enjoy the musical aspects of the Holiday season just as  much as everyone else.

Here’s our favorite Hanukkah songs:

Grandpa’s Feeders

Grandpa’s Feeders

At Sunshine Sisters Farms, we have about 50 full grown birds: 15 ducks and 35 chickens, depending on when you count them.

Originally, we started with about 12, but as time went by, one of the Sunshine Sisters decided to become a crazy chicken lady full-time.

When we started, we scattered the food on the ground. It worked fine. As the flock grew, however, this method became rapidly untenable.

Chickens require about a quarter pound of food per day. Ducks require a similar amount. With so many birds, it meant we had to scatter about 50 pounds of feed per day. Even then, the animals appeared stressed. Without a permanent food supply on hand, they would react to the slightest noise. Even walking buy sent them into a frenzy.

So, we started looking around for solutions.

At first, we used pipe to construct feeders and put three inside the pen.

This calmed them down, but each feeder only held about 15 pounds of food. So, by our math, they needed to be fed twice a day.

This turned out to be wildly successful, as our chickens grew calmer and settled down a bit.

Then it rained.

The construction of our chicken run meant the pipe feeders were exposed. While a cap on top of the feeders prevented the bulk of the feed from getting wet, splashing water from the ground got into the feeders, clogging them.

We had a long run of rain this summer, with what seemed to be a month of rain nearly every day.

Our pipe feeders stayed clogged, and at this point, we decided it was time to seek out another solution.

That is when we found Grandpa’s Feeders.

Made of galvanized steel, these box-type, gravity feeders can hold 20 pounds or 40 pounds of feed. We got the larger, 40 pound option.

The design of the feeders meant they can sit on the floor of our chicken house so they can stay out of the weather.

The really unique thing about the feeders is the lid. The lid covers the food until a chicken steps on a plate, which works a lever that lifts the lid off the feeder.

While the feeder comes with instructions on how to train the chickens to use the lever action in about three weeks, we actually did in in three days.

On the first two days, I locked the lever in the open position. Then on the third day, I closed it entirely. I then scattered feed on and around the activation plate. The chickens, trying to eat the food around the plate wound up stepping on it and opening the device.

I stood by them for a few minutes, pushed them off the plate and watched as they climbed back on it.

After a few repeats of this process, I noticed other chickens watching.

The chickens who watched the process copied their companions and learned how to use the new feeder (proving that chickens are smart creatures.)

Since getting the feeder, we do less work, as it needs to be filled much less.

Since we feed our chickens table scraps and forage, they consume less food when they are not looking at it, so using Grandpa’s Feeder seems to have cut our food bill by about 10 percent.

We still use the pipe feeders as a back up, but since Grandpa’s Feeders stay clean, dry and free of flies, we do not see any reason to go back to using anything else anytime soon.

How to Raise Peafowl

How to Raise Peafowl

How to Raise Peafowl – From Scratch Magazine

Raising peafowl may seem “too exotic” and impossible, but it’s a fantastic hobby with many rewarding results.

What are peafowl?

“Peafowl” is the generic term for peacocks (the male of the species) and peahens (the female). Peachicks are the offspring.

Most peafowl are not what you would consider tame. They tend to be fairly wild in temperament and are more difficult to keep than chickens. Peafowl come in a vast variety of colors from White to Emerald. The easiest coloration to find is India Blue. Peafowl can live up to 40 years in captivity (zoos, breeding facilities, etc.), but only about 20 years in the wild.

Facts About Peacocks:

  • A peacock’s tail is known as its train.
  • The name of a group of peafowl is an ostentation, or a pride.
  • Peafowl are part of three distinctive subspecies: The Indian Peafowl, the Green Peafowl and the Congo Peafowl.
  • Peacocks were once eaten by members of royalty as a display of wealth, along with swans.

Housing

Peafowl are like any other bird: They require shelter and room to run. If you plan on keeping peacocks , you will need to allow extra room in their housing and run for their ever growing tail which can reach up to 5’ long. Ideally, the housing for the peafowl will be tall with a tall roost to accommodate tail length. Do not use metal roosts in your peafowl’s housing. Using metal roosts can result in severe frostbite and toe loss in the winter. Wooden roosts are the best choice. You can use an untreated 2×4 with the short side of the board facing up.

You should also be aware that some peafowl are more cold sensitive than others. Many Java Green owners, for example, will use heat lamps in the winter.

When building the run, you must consider two things – peafowl like to run and peafowl love to fly. Your run must be completely enclosed and a top net is absolutely required. After a few months, you may choose to let your peafowl wander your property, but it’s not guaranteed they will always return home.

Clipping a wing — or both wings — is not enough to keep a peafowl within a 5’ fenced area. Peafowl have excellent flight abilities and can easily fly up and over treetops. While that it is truly majestic sight, you’re also watching your time, money, efforts, and love fly away.

The run should be built in a dry area, ideally. If you know a spot on your property where the rain drains away from well, build there! Muddy and wet conditions can cause tail feathers to break and result in illness. For some extra fun and exercise for your peafowl put roosts of various heights throughout your run.

Food and Water

As with all animals, water is vital to survival. Peafowl need access to clean water daily. You may use tubs, water troughs, or other containers for water. For young peafowl, use shallow water containers to prevent drowning. I would not recommend chicken waterers for adult peafowl due to their size as they may have trouble getting enough water.

Peafowl require more protein than chickens and should be fed accordingly. Game bird or pheasant feed is more appropriate than chicken feed. You can also mix in a bit of dog food into a peafowl’s main food source or use dog food as a treat for extra protein. You can also treat them with any vegetables/scraps that are appropriate for a chicken. Watermelon is a favorite among my flock.

Breeding and Incubation

Peafowl mature sexually between 2 and 3 years old.

They do not breed all year like chickens. Instead they have a breeding season that starts in April through May which continues to about September.

A peahen can lay up to 20-30 eggs a season if eggs are collected and artificially incubated. If eggs are not collected, a peahen will lay a clutch (5-7 eggs) and incubate them herself.

It takes 28 days to hatch peafowl eggs at 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. You can check eggs for fertility after 1.5 weeks of incubation. On the 25th day, or when you first notice any eggs pipping, you can stop turning the eggs and wait for the peachicks to begin hatching. (you should use best egg incubators)

Caring for Peachicks

Caring for peachicks is similar to caring for chicks.

Peachicks need to be kept in a brooder until they feather out or until the brooder temperature meets the outdoor temperature.

Each week that a peachick is in the brooder you should lower the brooder temperature by 5 degrees.

This will ease the peachick into lower temperatures with the least amount of stress possible.

Peachicks should have access to clean water — chick waterers can be used at this point — and feed.

Game Bird Starter is the recommended type of feed for peachicks.

When moving a peachick out of the brooder, you will need a covered run and shelter.

It is not advisable to mix peachicks with your mature peafowl.

Your peachick is likely to get picked on.

Sexing your peachick is nearly impossible for the first year.

You can get DNA sexing for $30 – $50 online. Otherwise, you need to wait — sometimes more than a year — to have an idea of the peafowl’s gender through its tail length.

America’s Favorite Veterinarian: An interview with Dr. Pol

Dr. Jan Pol works with a horse in Michigan.

Dr. Jan Pol, of Nat Geo WILD’s “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” is rapidly becoming America’s favorite veterinarian.Dr. Pol, originally from the Netherlands, spent his youth on the family dairy farm before becoming a vet specializing in large animals.

His more than 40 years of farm and animal experience means he has a lot of helpful information for new and experienced farmers, big and small.

We recently had a chance to interview Dr. Pol and get some answers to some of the more common questions homesteaders might have.

What is the number one mistake you see new farmers make?

The number one mistake new Farmers make is that many times they over extend financially. They need to start small and then grow.

What is the easiest way to ensure the health of your animals?

The easiest way to ensure the health of your animals is to keep a closed herd. Do not buy and sell animals frequently.  If so – vaccinate with a good vaccine.

What kind of animals do you have?

We have horses, dogs, cats, chickens, peacocks, ducks, chickens, and doves.

How important is cleanliness on a farm? 

Cleanliness on a farm is very important. When you sell a product, it is very important that it comes from a clean environment.

Is there a difference in the health of animals on larger farms and smaller homesteads?

I don’t see much difference in the health of animals between large or small farms.

What are some health problems in livestock that homesteaders and farmers shouldn’t see a vet for? 

The health problems in livestock that homesteaders and farmers shouldn’t see a vet for depends on the owner and how much he can diagnose and treat for himself.

What do you think has contributed to your success as a vet? 

I think that three things have contributed to my success as a vet: hard work, being available 24/7, and being honest.

Many of your family members are farmers. What made you decide to be a vet and not a full-time farmer?

As the youngest of six children, there was not a chance that I could get on a farm in The Netherlands. Therefore, I decided to become a large animal veterinarian. In order to practice, it was easier to practice in another country.

Large animal vets are declining in numbers. Why do you think this is?

Many large farms have their own herdsman, so the work for the large animal vet is declining.  Also the work is physically harder and the pay lower in most cases than small animal work.

What does your ideal retirement look like?

My ideal retirement would include lots of sun, sand, and sea in many different places.

About Dr. Pol:

Dr. Pol’s veterinary practice began in 1981 out of their home. It has grown in the decades since, and now Dr. Pol employs ten people and has served more than 19,000 clients since opening.

He treats horses, pigs, cows, sheep, alpacas, goats, chickens and the occasional reindeer.

Dr. Pol prides himself on working with family farmers to ensure they remain in business. Known as something of a character among Central Michigan farmers, Dr. Pol works long hours traveling all over with his Dutch accent and signature mustache.

His son, Charles Pol began assisting his father at the age of five. Charles lives part time in Los Angeles, but joins his father to film episodes of the Nat Geo WILD show, The Incredible Dr. Pol. A graduate of the University of Miami, he divides his time between filming the show and working in the entertainment industry.

Watch the new season of The Incredible Dr. Pol on Nat Geo’s WILD (check your local listings).

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the August/September issue of From Scratch magazine. Click here to read more articles from that issue as well as see more photos of Dr. Pol in action. Click here to read the latest issue.  Click here to Want to subscribe? Fill out the form below. It’s Free!

Discover the joys of spinning your own yarn

Photo by Jennifer Sartell

On a trip to a giant conglomerate craft store the other day I passed though the yarn department and I must say … not too shabby folks … not too shabby at all. I remember a time not so long ago when the yarn department at these types of stores was rather, well, lacking. Think “The One Pounder” in five different primary colors. Everything was a nylon blend of worsted yarn that reminded me of Crayola colored bailing twine. But the yarn department has upped its game. I found myself ogling over some pretty impressive machine spun yarns that looked very hand spun. There were art yarns with plies of fancy feathery blends and mixes with beads and sequins and all sorts of fun additions. This was no Granny Square yarn.

So why spin? Why spin when there are all of these beautiful yarns out there to choose from at half the price, with double coupon days? And my answer to that question lies in an equation. For me, spinning is to yarn as gardening is to dinner.

 

Have you ever tasted an heirloom tomato? The big, juicy purple ones that make you want to sink your teeth into the flesh like a maniac. They taste like … and I know this is ironic … a tomato! The flavors are complex, sweet, acidic, tart, almost smoky at times. I could talk about heirloom tomatoes like some people talk about wine. (It’s a problem really, sometimes my husband gets jealous.) But a grocery store tomato might as well be that Playschool plastic food that my 4 year old niece plays with. You’ve seen the rubber cheese, convincing, but not appetizing.

Raising fiber goats, and shearing, and spinning for me, is the equivalent of toiling in the garden, pulling weeds and composting. All that work, just to experience that delicious burst of flavor. Sure it’s easier to go to the store and buy a bag of tomato “looking” vegetables, but not nearly as satisfying.

I learned to spin a few years ago, after we adopted our two Angora does Knit and Purl. I loved goats, and was (then) afraid of the whole milking routine. So we decided that we would just keep a few goats as pets. Then I found a breed called Angora that could be sheared like a sheep. At the time, fiber seemed a lot less scary than milking, and with the same reasoning as in keeping chickens, why not raise pets with benefits?

After our first shearing, the fiber was too tempting, too irresistibly beautiful not to do something with it. So I learned to spin. And I fell in love with the whole process.

Spinning, knitting, crocheting and weaving are on an up swing as far as popularity these days. In general, it seems that there is a whole movement toward the old artisan crafts. And that’s a great prospect, as these skills are being lost from one generation to the next. But spinners aren’t exactly common, and spinners who raise their own animals are even rarer. So just as heirloom seeds and heritage breeds are dwindling, so are the traditional skills that our no-so-distant ancestors carried. Spinning, blacksmithing, basket weaving, traditional woodworking — it’s a part of our history. It is skills like these that have brought humanity to where it is today. But tragically, in only a few generations, has all but disappeared as a way of living and become only a scarce hobby.

If you have the interest to start spinning, do it! Learn it, and teach everyone you know! (Or at least those that are interested.) A hand spun yarn tells a story. Somewhere on a farm, an animal turned hay, grain and pasture into fleece. The fleece was sheared and washed and carded and dyed into colors that were selected and dreamed up in the imagination and creative enthusiasm of an artist. Every inch of the twisted plies has been lovingly touched and contemplated by the craftsman who spun the yarn. It has slipped through the fingers of a human who sat before the wheel with the soft clickety clack of the treadle pumping the twining fiber. A hand spun yarn is not just a lifeless medium to turn into a scarf, it is strands and skeins of art and skill.

Story and Photos by Jennifer Sartell

If you want to learn more about the craft of spinning, dying fiber or raising Angora goats, visit Jennifer’s blog at www.ironoakfarm.blogspot.com