Everyone I talked to agreed that the sheep were adorable. Alejandra had roughly 45 ewes on her farm. She also kept 25 lambs, 1 ram, and some (about 10) wethered males. The wethers apparently make the best wool, so they get to stay around in a separate pen. The ewes who were unsheared (see the photos) were being sent to the butcher so their full pelts could be kept intact. Alejandra said she has been keeping this flock for 3 generations, culling only when she really needs to. She gave an example of a sheep whose teeth had started to fall out, meaning that it would have starved to death if she didn’t put it out of its misery.
On first glance, we decided that the Soay sheep looked more like deer than they did sheep. Their faces were almost dog-like, rather than the sloping horse-face that the other sheep had. All of the sheep seemed pretty relaxed around people, which was surprising considering Alejandra said they weren’t socialized with people very often.
The different sheep breeds felt very different. Some had coarse hair, and some were very soft. Each also had variations of wool textures on their bodies. For example, the ram’s wool was coarse near his face but under his chin it was VERY soft and fluffy. Each sheep had its own personality as well. The ram loved to be touched and petted by people, while the ewes were not keen on it at all (though this might have been because they were eating).
For each dye we had a white and a grey skein of yarn to test the colour variation in the pigment. We used marigold, logwood, and indigo dyes, with two of the skeins getting a marigold and indigo combination, so we ended up with 8 colours from 3 dyes. We tested dyeing wool at different stages in the process, and people dyed their clothes, hair, and skin as well. We used the cochineal as makeup, which made a beautiful red-purple colour on the lips, eyes, and cheeks. As we licked our lips, the colour got darker instead of wearing away. It looked especially good on medium skin tones. The whiter people looked almost frostbitten with purple lips. Surprisingly, the indigo dye didn’t last on people’s bodies and hair. I think this has to do with the accumulation of skin oil. The skin and hair is constantly secreting oil, so the dye won’t have time to set properly before it’s pushed out. This is why the lanolin is washed from the wool before it’s dyed.
Alejandra mentioned the importance of the marigold to indigenous communities in/around Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebration and as a medicine. The delicious smell of the flower and its antimicrobial properties give it a dual use in the physical and spiritual worlds. The indigo and marigold we used were grown on site, while the logwood and the cochineal was imported. 100g of logwood cost around $25, which is a lot! For context we used 50g in our pot, so half the container for just a few skeins of yarn. Cochineals are worth their weight in gold, so they’re much more expensive.
Ratios and Data:
We used 100g of marigold and 50g of logwood, wrapped in cheesecloth, to make the “tea bags.” The marigolds could be crushed, but Alejandra said this wasn’t necessary as they worked perfectly well uncrushed. The marigolds, once dried, could last a really long time. They also bloom all year long. This vibrant yellow was probably a pretty common colour for dye considering the ease of acquisition and use.
Each skein was around 50g, and we waited an hour to steep them in the marigold and logwood. The indigo, because it was a chemical process, only took a few seconds. The mordant used was alum, a kind of salt. We used around a tablespoon of ground alum per 100g of fibre. The fibres Alejandra gave us were pre-alumed, they had been steeping for an hour in an alum-water mixture. The items we dyed ourselves were not-alumed, so I wonder how the dye will stick to them.
Hanging Around With Animals
Everyone was wary of the animals at first, but as soon as we went into the pen we saw that they didn’t want to hurt us. Most people took the opportunity to pet as many animals as they could, though some of us remained wary of the turkey (bird flu). We live such a sterile life in the US. We rarely interact with any “wild” animals, and when we do it’s always on our terms instead of theirs, like in a petting zoo.
I was most touched by the turkeys, who took turns coming over and sitting near us. They just wanted to be a part of the gang. Alejandra said that these turkeys were older, and that 4 of them had come from a farm that was not treating them well, so it was surprising that they weren’t at all wary of people. They were so soft and much gentler than we imagined; even their head ridges were soft.