Fluffy stuff

To add a little levity to our Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, I decided to try cartooning.  Maybe I’ll make it a series, we’ll see!

This cartoon originally appeared in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, November-December 2019 edition.  If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

a cartoon of sheep

Pumpkin Carving with Fluffy & Beau – by Bess Antol 10/2019


A Dream Farm Full of Friendly Sheep

This article originally appeared as an “Editor’s Letter” and a report in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, November-December 2019 edition.  If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

I have lately been obsessed with a farm dream.  I imagine the sort of place where I have room for a flock of chickens, a much larger garden, a small orchard, maybe some goats, and perhaps something of the shearable persuasion once the food-producing routine is solid.  This is not the first time I have been caught up by this longing. And I’ll bet I’m not the only person in the guild to have contemplated owning enough space for a few sheep or an alpaca. A few of you probably already own some fiber-bearing creatures.  What is it about us makers and artisans that get us thinking about owning the process from start to finish?

My economic and commuting reality might not allow for my full-scale dream farm any time soon, but in the spirit of long and cozy late-fall nights, when the garden work is coming to a natural close, it’s a good time for dreaming.  And while we knit and dream of capering sheep, let us contemplate what it takes to produce our wools. Check out my article below on what owning some sheep might entail. Even if you are not afflicted with agricultural aspirations, it might give you a new perspective on some of the small farm booths that you see at fiber shows.  What does it take to produce that skein of yarn?

First, please let me acknowledge that I am not a sheep farmer, and don’t know the day-to-day realities of sheep farming.  This is meant as an overview for people who enjoy sheep products and and want to know more about wool production fundamentals.  If I missed something in this rough survey, please forgive my error and feel free to send a correction, update, or additional information for the next Newsletter issue and/or blog post.

Wool Production Industry:

China, Australia, and New Zealand are the world’s largest producers of wool (1).  While China produces a bunch of wool, they also import a lot of wool, accounting for just over half of the US wool exports in 2017 (2).  That’s 4.39 million pounds of clean US wool (2) which is presumably destined for China’s very large textile manufacturing industry. There may be as many as 500 breeds of sheep in the world (1), but since many are best suited to a particular place or a niche market, only about 47 are recognized by the American Sheep Industry Association (3).  Merino and Rambouillet are popular industry standards for producing fine (as in thin or low micron) wools. If you were going to do farming as a large scale ranch in Texas or Wyoming, which are some of the top wool producing states in the US (4), you would probably go with one of these breeds. There are probably some large Ohio sheep farms as well.  Those are the big players, but if you are thinking more of a small hobby farm, or in the current lingo, a “side hustle”, to supply and subsidize your own fiber pursuits, you may want to look at some specialized breeds.

Jacob Sheep Grazing

Jacob Sheep on a farm in New York State. Photo 2008 by Bess Antol.

Special Breeds:

Lincoln, Romney, Border Leicester and Lincoln Longwool are better known among hand spinners for their luxuriously longer fibers that may not be as fine in diameter, but can feel as soft if spun in a way that suits their texture.  Huge industrial mills are most efficient if they only spin yarns in a few ways, but a hand-spinner has more ability to produce the best from a fiber’s unique characteristics. You probably know that some breeds of sheep are raised for meat and have a poorer quality fleece, but there are also dual purpose breeds that produce good fleeces and also have a bulky frame that provides good meat.  Corriedale is a dual purpose breed you may have heard of at a fiber show (5).  

In addition to the commonly known sheep, there are many other wonderful rare and heritage breeds of sheep that can give a small farmer joy and wool, however.  One of my favorites is the Jacob sheep, for their delightfully quirky appearance being splotched with dark and light wool, and 2 to 6 horns that wave outward at odd angles making them look a little like they have avante garde hats.  Some heritage and rare breeds were bred for thriving in niche environments including semi-tropical Florida – check out the Florida Cracker (6).  While some of these breeds might not make a farmer rich in coin, preserving some of these sheep traits may help future farmers and agricultural scientists breed resilient sheep for future environmental challenges.

If you get excited about the artistic potential of creating with rare wools, check out the Livestock Conservancy’s “Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em” program where fiber artists are encouraged to try many different types of fiber and earn prizes.  No sheep ownership required!

Jacob Sheep with 4 horns

Jacob Sheep with 4 asymmetrical horns (totally normal for Jacob Sheep) on a farm in New York State. Photo 2008 by Bess Antol.

Raising Sheep:

To take the dream to a natural conclusion, you’d need some resources.  First, you’d need some land. They say 2 sheep on an acre depending on how well your pasture grows (7), and you may want enough room for pasture rotation.  Sheep are herd creatures, and will be less stressed when they can live in a group – some sources say at least 5 sheep will show normal flock behaviors (8). For predator protection, you probably need a either a barn, a herding dog, a donkey, or a llama.  Fencing is required to keep sheep in, and some fences can also keep predators out. Sheep are pretty wooly, so you don’t necessarily need a barn if you have predator deterring guard animals. Three-sided shelters are fairly common weather protection, so that the sheep have somewhere to hide from excessive rain, wind, or sun and also to keep their hay dry (8).

For our mental sheep picture so far, we’ve covered pasture, protection, and shelter.  The other big question is food. Pasture might be fairly lean in an Ohio winter because most plants and grasses stop growing.  Hay can be purchased (7) to get through the lean months and to save the pasture from being eaten to death. Commercial sheep feed, a salt lick, or a mineral supplement might also be helpful in the winter (8).

If you want to own some sheep, you’ll probably need a basic veterinary kit and a little training (8).  Some vaccines can be administered by the owner, and some must be given by a farm animal veterinarian. Hoof trimming and deworming are often handled by the sheep owner.  There are additional considerations if you want to milk your sheep or raise lambs. Managing a ram is considered an advanced topic, but you can arrange for time with someone else’s ram if you are interested in breeding.

Jacob Sheep grouping

Jacob Sheep on a farm in New York State. Photo 2008 by Bess Antol.

Ok, my dream farm now has lots of frolicking sheep!  When do I get the yarn?  

How often you shear depends on the breed of sheep, but most need to be sheared at least once a year in the spring.  There are professional shearers who can be hired, but some small farmers prefer to learn to do it themselves. A freshly shorn fleece needs to be picked over in a process called “skirting” to remove badly stained or dung-encrusted parts of the wool (9).  Some handspinners will then take their fleece and “scour” or wash it themselves to prepare it for spinning. You can also ship boxes of fleeces to the nearest small spinning mill. These mills have a menu of services ranging from simply scouring and combing, to spinning, dyeing, and one will even make socks from your sheep’s wool for you – which is probably of less interest to a knitting guild, but maybe you want a product that you can resale quickly out of surplus wool.


  1. International Wool Textile Organization’s Wool Production page: https://www.iwto.org/wool-production
  2. American Sheep Industry Association’s December 8, 2017 Newsletter:  https://sheepusa.org/newsletter/newsmedia-weeklynewsletter-2017-december-december82017-americanwoolexportsincrease24percentinmarketyear2017
  3. South Dakota State Extension article on Sheep Breeds:  https://extension.sdstate.edu/sheep-breeds
  4. Agricultural Marketing Resource Center:  Wool Profile: https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/livestock/lamb/wool-profile
  5. Sheep 101: Breed Selection:  http://www.sheep101.info/201/breedselection.htm
  6. Livestock Conservancy: Conservation Priority List #Sheep:  https://livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/conservation-priority-list#Sheep
  7. Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: Small Farms “How to Get Started with Sheep”:  https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/2010/07/how-to-get-started-with-sheep/
  8. Sheep 101: Sheep as Pets:  http://www.sheep101.info/201/pets2.html
  9. Hobby Farms: “Spinning a Wool of your Own”: https://www.hobbyfarms.com/spinning-a-yarn-of-your-own-2/

The joy of starting vs. the joy of finishing – Guild President’s Letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, March-April 2019 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – May 2019.  If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

This weekend, I went to the Wild and Wooly Fiber Arts event put on by the Cleveland Metroparks with my Mom, my sister, and my nephew.  I was on the lookout for a particular style of yarn, but ended up bringing home some carded fiber to perhaps spin my own even though I haven’t spun in ages.  I haven’t decided yet if this was a silly idea, as I have a plentiful stash of yarn and spinning fibers at home, so I’m not sure I really needed a new pre-project-project to make the yarn for what should be a simple hat.

I had been on a kick of finishing old knitting projects last year, and it felt good to get some projects out of Work-in-Progress (WIP) bags.  I’m pleased to report that I finished as many old WIPs as I created new unfinished WIPs that will linger into this year. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction, and I hope it is a trend I can continue, as my knitting karma is still not in balance with a variety of more-than-a-year old WIP projects that I either need to decide to frog or finish.

But this time of year I tend to feel an insatiable desire to knit new things, which is entirely out of proportion to the amount of time I will likely give to knitting over other things in my life.  This time of year is when I buy patterns, cast-on many things with great hopes, and join Mystery-Knit-Alongs (MKALs) which I may not even attempt to start until after the rest of the group has long-since completed the pattern.  As an aside – I don’t know if other people follow MKALs without knitting them, or is that just me? I will avidly watch the MKAL progress, purchasing the pattern, picking out skeins, reading all the forum posts, drooling over the “spoiler” pictures, imagining I will cast on that very night, but possibly not even winding the ball of yarn…  I guess I get a vicarious knitting thrill over watching MKALs.

It’s also that lovely time of year where everyone in my family really appreciates things I have knit for them in the past.  This month, my husband and kid are having daily playful arguments about whose hand-knitted hat is whose. So whatever I knit for them now will likely give me a frequent warm feeling, as I know they will wear it for the rest of the winter.  That creates a lot of motivation for me to start new hats, scarves, or other winter-wear for them.

The old WIPs will keep until later.  As the weather gets warmer, I can decide if I’m really ever going to finish that cotton short-sleeve cardigan.  If this will be the year I finish that costumey piece to wear to the gaming convention. Or why it ever seemed like a good idea to start that many-colored blanket given my lousy track-record with blankets.  And maybe I will also get organized, and figure out if there are other WIPs lurking in my craft closet that haven’t even been noted in Ravelry.

Until the Ohio spring warms up, I am going to dwell in the sunny land of the newly cast on projects.  I’ll leave WIP clean-up for later.



January casting-on – Guild President’s Letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, January-February 2019 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – May 2019.  If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

January might be my favorite time of year for knitting.

The intense December fun and stress of making for gift-giving dwindles down as the last few holiday-related visits are wrapped up by the New Year. December is usually extremely hectic for my work as well, leaving me little energy for anything beyond the work punch-list and the gift to-do list. For my very large, Brady-bunch style family, knitting for gifts is not a great option, so I do a lot of non-knitting crafts in December, filling all my free-time. And even nature seems to thwart my knitting in December, as my commute home is in the dark (20 or so minutes where my husband is driving that I can promise myself to knit every day).

In January, all the hard work of December has paid itself forward to a well prepared start of the new semester at work. I have scratched the itch to do all the non-knitting crafts, because I’ve probably done a little of everything in the process of making my gifts. The evenings are starting to get a little bit lighter so my commute home is knittable once more. The air is still deliciously cold, and maybe snowy, with a promise of a few more months to enjoy any fluffy knitwear that I can crank out. This means that the possibilities are limitless. Any wool I cast on in January could plausibly be enjoyed the moment I cast off, unlike a thing I might start in April, which better be a warm-weather garment or it may not get worn once until the fall.

I’m not much for New Year’s “resolutions”, because a lot can change in a year,
but I do like planning, goal-making, thinking of the previous year’s accomplishments, and list-making. So here in the limitless crafting possibilities of the New Year, I’ll likely consider a few personal goals. I finished a lot of old projects last year, which was very satisfying. I hope this year to finish a few more old projects, as well as some newer ones. I’ll try to not buy new projects but I’m not making any resolutions about the occasional pretty skein!

Do you make yarn or knitting-related resolutions or goals?


On Mastery… Guild President’s Letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, November-December 2018 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – May 2019.  If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

What does it take to master something?  What skills or topics do you feel you have mastery of and what do you feel you would like to master?

I recently read an article that claimed that several famous successful people “find one hour a day for deliberate learning” (sources: 1), sometimes also called “the 5-hour rule” (sources: 2).  While I’m not going to turn into an Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates no matter how many books I read, I do think there is value to the idea that 5 hours a week of deliberate daily learning or practice can have an impact.  What would be the impact of 5 hours a week of deliberate practice in knitting?

On a good week, I probably spend about only 4-6 hours a week knitting (yes, this is why I rarely finish anything).  While I’m knitting, and I’m racking up inches on my current project, I am not typically spending all of that time actively learning.  If it’s a new stitch pattern, I’ll probably have the hang of it in a few hours.  If it’s a new knitting technique like beading, it similarly might take a few hours.  If it’s a sister needlecraft, it might take me way longer to feel fluid (I’m looking at you, Tunisian Crochet) because my base level of comfort with the craft is lower.  Shaping for sweaters, socks or other fitted garments is something I feel like I have to re-learn each time, because I don’t do it often enough (I haven’t made a sweater in about 10 years).   If that is the case, am I learning and improving while doing my typical daily knitting?

I would argue that I do still gain a bit of skill even when I’m just knitting along on an established or simple project, but perhaps at a slower rate.  While I’m a passenger in the car, or waiting for an appointment, I’m often paying a bit of attention to my tension and my speed. Sometimes I challenge myself to hold the needles or yarn a slightly different way, in order to improve my ergonomics and efficiency.  But less so if I’m watching an intense T.V. show, listening to an audiobook, or chatting with friends. Then my fingers are just moving automatically and I can’t do anything complicated.

But by contrast, when I was completing the TKGA Master Hand-Knitting Level I (sources: 3), I was much more deliberately and proactively learning about knitting.  Not just the hand skills, but also the various methods and reasons for shaping techniques, cast-ons and bind-offs, and the real knitty-gritty of gauge. During those days (in the B.C. or “Before Child” era), 5-10 hours a week of focused reading, study, and swatch knitting for a period of time was doable, and the impact on my learning was tremendous.  I felt like my understanding of knitting was leaping forward by decades compared to my previous rate of learning.

Another metric of mastery is the “10,000 rule” made famous in a book called Outliers (sources: 4), but building off of other works about expertise.  In this much-debated take on mastery, becoming an “expert” in a subject or skill requires putting 10,000 hours into it (sources: 5).  Subsequent studies have chipped away at this concept, demonstrating that the importance of amount of practice depends on the subject or skill being practiced (sources: 6).

So what does that mean for knitters?  While most knitters I have met probably knit at least 10 hours per week, I would argue, based on my own experiences, that not all knitting involves learning at the same rate.  I would say for myself, that I only knit with mindful aim to improve skill or understanding (rather than mindlessly knitting), about half of the time. So I extrapolate that most knitters, if they are getting about 5 hours per week of deliberate and thoughtful knitting practice, would take about 40 years to master knitting.  That sounds about right to me. Knitting designers and teachers probably get far more than 5 hours per week of focused knitting accelerating their rate of mastery accordingly.

Of course, mastery probably not anyone’s sole goal in knitting.  And gaining expertise isn’t even a desire for some. The act of knitting is its own pleasure, the product of knitting a fluffy and delightful reward.  Knit for beauty, knit for gifting, knit for charity, knit for calming agitated feelings, knit for thrift, knit for the love of fiber, knit to be part of a play of strings that has been a human art for centuries.  Mastery is not a necessary pursuit. But if you are pursuing mastery, thank you for sharing with your fellow guild members. We all have learned things that we can share, whether on the 100th hour of the journey or the 10,000th.


  1. An hour a day for learning:  https://medium.com/the-mission/the-5-hour-rule-if-youre-not-spending-5-hours-per-week-learning-you-re-being-irresponsible-791c3f18f5e6
  2. “The 5-hour rule”  https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/317602
  3. TKGA Master Hand-Knitting program:  https://tkga.org/certification/master-hand-knitting/
  4. Synopsis of the Outliers book:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_(book)
  5. “The Making of an Expert”:  https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert
  6. “Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis”, Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., and Oswald, F. L. Psychological Science Vol 25, Issue 8, pp. 1608 – 1618
    First Published July 1, 2014 https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535810 



Crafts and our mental health – Guild president’s letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, September-October 2018 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – May 2019.   If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

I was planning to write a charming, light essay about fall things – but sometimes longer, darker days bring darker sentiments.  So let’s talk about the importance of comfort knitting in mental health. To me, comfort knitting is knitting for relief of anxiety and knitting for calming jangled emotions, or knitting a little gift for someone when I know I can’t do anything else to help them through.  Sometimes it’s just comforting to keep my hands busy, because even when I feel helpless, at least I can make pretty stitches.

There have been a variety of studies lately (sources: 1) that are showing that any art or craft that has a repetitive action can produce a contemplative “repair state” or a state of mind that allows thoughts to come up gently and be worked through and set aside.  On t-shirts and mugs, knitters and other craft enthusiasts quip that their chosen craft is cheaper than therapy. The joke has been around for years, and now the science is uncovering what we already knew – our craft is incredibly therapeutic. Of course, when additional help is needed, therapy under the trained guidance of a professional is also an important tool.

The joy of making things gives us confidence.  The connection of brain and hands grounds us in the real world.  When knitting, we can savor a moment of “me” time. My university colleagues that study mental health tell me that “savoring” is an important aspect of positive mental health (sources: 2).  We can savor in anticipation, we can savor an experience in the moment, and we can savor the memory of what we enjoyed. The act of savoring pushes back some of the dark cobwebs of negative thinking.

We can also bring together heart and hands and produce something for someone we care about, or for a charity project for someone we don’t even know.  Performing acts of kindness is another way in which we can focus on a positive emotion, and give that positive feeling strength over our more negative thoughts.  We can create goodness in the world when we create something to give.

While scientists are still mulling over the exact causes, social isolation and loneliness are being considered a public health crisis in our modern age of too much work and screen-time (sources: 3).  The solution is likely having more connection in our social networks. For that, we may find that we need craft groups more than ever. Craft groups bring us together in real space and remind us that we are among people who “get” us, people who understand our very specific passion.  I don’t know about you, but there is something so comforting about a room full of fuzzy clicking sounds.

These are all tools that we knitters have ready at our fingertips.  Aren’t we lucky? If you have someone in your life who could use more tools for their positive mental health, take some time to find out if there are creative hobbies they are drawn towards but haven’t felt empowered to really try.  Are there ways you can support their activities? Can you have “craft night” with them? Can you go take a class with them to show that you can go out on a limb with them and try something new? Not that this would replace therapy for someone who really needed help, but you might just be able to foster a passion that also gives a friend some additional tools for better mental health. (sources: 4)


1)  http://theconversation.com/how-craft-is-good-for-our-health-98755

2)  https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/10_steps_to_savoring_the_good_things_in_life and also some conversations with various faculty I have worked with in the areas of Clinical Psychology and Occupational Therapy.

3)  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/10/04/this-former-surgeon-general-says-theres-a-loneliness-epidemic-and-work-is-partly-to-blame/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.570fcf86b1c4

4) https://www.healthline.com/health/diy-depression-therapy-how-the-arts-can-heal#2



Ready to Learn – Guild president’s letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, July-August 2018 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – present.  I plan to write an article for you soon about “why you should join a local knitting guild”.  If you are in the Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

Ready to learn.

In this age of the internet (which is nearly magical for the world of informal learning opportunities), if we want to learn about any craft, we need only get online to receive at least some basic demonstration.  So much has changed in the last couple of decades! There seems to be no technique so obscure that there aren’t a handful of beautifully videographed demonstrations. Tips, stitch guides, forums with pattern helpers, and textile history are among the learning opportunities that are just a click away.

But by being part of a guild, we are choosing to spend some of our hard-won time to come together in-person, to spend our time in knitting fellowship and learning.  While the history of crafting guilds is long and interesting, at their heart, most guilds promoted the sharing of craft information and skills, as well as the promotion of the value of the craft.  When we share a skill, a tip, a stitch, a monthly meeting program, or just the encouragement to try something new, we are echoing the craft guilds of old, as well as the centrality of education in our bylaws.  

Unlike ye olden days, ours is not a strict system of master and apprentice.  We all take a turn at being the learner and being the teacher, even if it’s just a simple suggestion to another knitter at our table.  We all bring valuable experiences into the room. As modern life-long-learners in this guild, we are all contributing to the learning environment, our internal motivation is high, because we want to be here and nothing is compelling us but our own desire to learn and do our chosen crafts.  And we are also active participants in the collaborative process of selecting and supporting the activities we most want to do.

So if education is a central tenet of our guild, I challenge each of you to contemplate your role in the learning process in our guild activities.  When are you the learner? When are you sharing your knowledge about what you love to do? You don’t have to be teaching at the front of the room to to be in the teaching role.  You could share your own special insights and experiences at your table at a meeting, at a knit-in, at a SIG. Your experiences and insights can create something valuable in our guild’s collective learning.  I look forward to getting to know the teacher, and learner in each of you, as well as exploring the meaning of our educational mission as in the coming months.