FIBERuary Jill and Jim Lyons




Skirting Fleece


“Skirting” is the traditional term for removing less desirable/ clearly unusable parts of a sheep fleece.  When a fleece is laid out- cut side down- it looks something like this:

(in this sketch, the head end of the fleece is facing down).  You’ll see that the outside edges of the fleece, all the way around, are the edges to be removed.  (Think of a laid out skirt, with the hem chopped off.)


It’s helpful to lay the fleece out on a skirting table.  Ours is about 4’ by 8’, a wooden frame around welded wire that’s set on sawhorses.  The holes in the wire let some small bits fall through.


The amount of skirting to be done on any particular fleece can vary tremendously:  all the way from none to virtually the entire fleece.


For me, the two things I’m skirting is fiber that is structurally unsound or contaminated by vegetation.  Structurally unsound fleece can be:

  • Fleece from the belly or legs (often a very different quality).
  • Fleece with kemp (hair not wool) fibers- unless from a fleece that should have kemp.
  • Fleece so weathered that all oil is gone.  This fleece is usually found around the edges and (particularly in luster fleece) along the backbone.
  • Parts of fleece that are cotted (clumped together)
  • Fleece with a break (usually caused by stress, when the wool growth has been retarded)
  • Fleece contaminated with manure and so weathered or colored.
  • “Second cuts” or short bits where the shearer has sheared some fleece twice.


Most vegetal contamination is caused by hay or by weeds.  Sheep are gregarious creatures, and love to chew while turning their head over the back of the sheep next to them.  (My tallest sheep almost always have less back hay than the shorter ones.)  They love to pull out great bunches of hay, dropping the uneaten portions.  This is why most sheep feeders have small openings, forcing the sheep to take smaller bites.  Sheep will also dribble hay over their own and their neighbors’ neck wool. Weeds can be of many species.  We’re renovating old pasture and my two biggest problems come from burdock and thistles…sometimes I don’t get to removing them before the sheep find them.  Burdocks aren’t too bad to get out- as long as they’re removed right after they attach.  I once had some sheep get into beggars’ ticks- most of that fleece had to be tossed.


So from a shepherd’s perspective, how do you keep the fleeces clean?  There are lots of strategies:

  • Most time consuming, expensive and effective are sheep coats.  These need to be kept clean (washed and dried after a bout of hot, wet weather- and other times.  Lots of labor- but the value of your fleece is doubled- or tripled.
  • Pay attention to your pastures.  Always check them and remove weeds before turning the sheep into a new section.
  • In winter with snow, ground feed your sheep on clean snow each day.  When you do this, you break the bale into flakes and lay each flake out about 3 feet from any other.  This reduces hay from one dropping into the fleece of a neighboring sheep.
  • We’re trying a new experiment this year, shearing in the fall instead of the spring.  This means that we’re shearing fleece that’s been grazing and not eating hay for five or six months.  The hay falling onto shorter fleece seems to stick less- and some likely washes out over the summer.  The couple we experimented with worked well- we’ll have to see what the whole group look like in October.


The photos are of a Romney fleece with six months growth which was shorn in the fall.  The fleece is a bit jumbled- but  the first picture shows about one third of the fleece, with the two small piles on the right being the fleece I’ve skirted out.

The next photo is a close up of some of the wool so you can see the staple.

From a spinner’s perspective, a lot depends on how bad the fleece is and how much you like it.  One of the frustrations is that the finest fleece around the neck is generally in the worst shape, as shown on the two diagrams below. 

When I skirt I actually sort into three bags:  Prime, Seconds, and Skirtings.  I’ve learned that I can often use the seconds- after washing and dyeing they can surprise me.  I’m still looking for skirting uses.  It composts very slowly, makes lousy mulch.  I’ve had people use it for insulation in a double wall (unwashed….not sure what it attracts).  Someone tried to use it as the first layer on a green (ie, planted) roof.  Our dogs have bags of it to sleep on during cold winters….but I just replace the wool if it gets soaked with urine or throw-up.


I do weigh and make notes about each fleece, and I use those notes when breeding and when culling.


When you buy a fleece it should be clean!  You still should lay it out and look at it whole.  Are the different sections of fleece similar in staple length and softness?  If not and you want to make one project from that whole fleece, you’ll need to take care to evenly blend the different kinds of fiber.  Lots of times I just use the different types of fleece in different ways.


Hope this helps you approach a fleece- buying one raw (in the grease) is a great way to start.  Fun- and it smells good.


Jill Horton-Lyons

Winterberry Farm


FIBERuary Jill and Jim Lyons


FIBERUARY  Day 22   Jill and Jim – Life with Border Collies and Sheep


Life with Border Collies (and sheep.  Always sheep)

My first Border Collie was Kate.  Kate came from good working stock, but was not a keen dog (according to several very skilled handlers).  Which was most fortunate!  I got her when we’d only had sheep for a couple of years, I had a more than full time job, and was learning to weave.  Also, I am not very coordinated, and my special direction sense is poor.  Kate was a sweet beast, unusually laid back for a collie, and a great help penning up escaped chickens.  She lived to a lovely old age.


Kate taught me that working effectively with a herding dog was not easy.  And, given my skill set, would be a huge challenge for me.


My next dog came from a barter.  I was working off farm just half time by now, and we were back from Woolman Hill and doing quite a few kids programs at the farm.  Roy came from very intense (actually, his mother was really neurotic) stock.  He was way too much for me and I also made lots of mistakes raising him….given his temperament I should have spent much more time socializing him.  We worked with a trainer a lot (but a trainer who thoroughly intimidated me)- Roy showed excellent potential.  But he was scared of kids (and we do lots of kids farm programs…)  One day he wasn’t crated fast enough- and he bit a child.  Fortunately not badly.  Fortunately from a low key family we knew pretty well- from lots of programs.  Roy went to live in Texas with a nice man who inspected oil wells and trialed on weekends. Never any problems- he liked traveling on inspections and loved working sheep.


Now I really listened to experienced shepherds.  They helped me find a lovely experienced border collie in Wisconsin who needed more work than he could get on his farm.  He was a steady, not brilliant, worker living on a sheep and cattle farm with a number of dogs.  Several of the dogs were good trial dogs as well as farm dogs- they did and needed to do- most of the work.  Brock was six and a little depressed.  We flew home together and Brock taught me lots about sheep and dogs.  We also took lessons more regularly.  Then he died- after being with us for only three years.  I’d gotten Sweep as a puppy in 2007 (more about Sweep in a bit), but he was nowhere near ready to work.  So back to the border collie network.  I ended up with Bob- also from Wisconsin.  A similar story- older dog, not ready to retire.  Bob’s working style was quite different than Brock’s- so I learned a lot more.  (Bob died in 2011, still working some, from an inoperable cancer.)


Fast forward to 2013.  We moved to Colrain, to the hill farm I’d always wanted (can’t grow crops, but you sure can grow food, clothing and blankets!) Sweep is now seven- and what’s called a “useful dog”.  Trained by a shepherd with limited dog skills, but he was great at fetching and moving sheep.  My dear husband has always loved dogs, but never in all the years of moving sheep to different borrowed Leverett pastures thought the collies much better than a grain bucket.  The hills here are steep and the fields quite wide.  I noticed he took Sweep with him when moving fence…Sweep saved him lots of time and walking when the sheep decided to try for the hay field instead of the lower pasture.

(Someday he’ll end up with his own dog- just doesn’t know it yet.)


So here’s Sweep- now 9.  He was a real late bloomer as a pup- didn’t work until almost 14 months old- but now he’s our steady, do almost anything dog.  The ewes are in their last month of pregnancy now, so we take them out for exercise every day when we can.  Sweep takes them out and brings them in

Maude is a different story.  She is almost 7 . Is sometimes brilliant (did a fantastic job when the pigs got out last summer), and often difficult.  Dog and shepherd need to be a team. After years of work, lessons, dog clinics and advice I’ve come to accept that we never will be a good one.  She (and some others in her litter) have a head-strong streak- they periodically do not listen to (or perhaps simply cannot psychologically hear) the shepherd.  I’m hoping to work intensively again with her this spring and summer- I think she can become an OK back-up for the aging Sweep.  And here’s Maude.  More ewe exercise.  And the picture of us together tells you about our working relationship.

When the work is done we do sometimes play

And I’ve not mentioned Brynn.  Brynn came to us from Washington state, at almost the same time as Bob. She was another OK herder, not a trial dog.  She had a lovely pace, but was timid with our sheep.  So she became our principal duck dog.  (Ducks are useful to show people at farm events how border collies work- sheep are hard to lug around.)  Three years ago her hearing got bad, two years ago her sight started going. She is a particularly sweet and happy thing (even happier than Kate).  Now 11, she is pleased not to work, so stays here for walks and hugs.




FIBERuary   Day 8   Jill Horton Lyons part 2

Keeping the Sheep Alive or Living Harmoniously with Coyotes

Part 2

I spent lots of time that winter talking to farmers with guard dogs and reading about them.  Many shepherds in New England have Maremmas- great big white dogs that look similar to Great Pyrenees.  A friend put me in touch with a Maremma breeder in upstate New York.  First I read Jackie Church’s book, and then I went out and spent a day with her.  Although we’ve always had dogs and I grew up with dogs (my mother bred St. Bernards for awhile) I found the guard dogs pretty intimidating.  Because of their size, because of their bark, and because of the not friendly way they eyed me when I approached their pasture.  These dogs are not pets; they live full-time and year round with their stock.  Which was also intimidating:  What sort of a relationship does one have with a dog who lives with stock and not in the house?  Would it work to have these dogs with all the kids who come to our farm?


These dogs are expensive (about a thousand dollars for a puppy, at least twice that for an older dog).  And everyone I spoke with said that, given the intense predator pressure we had experienced, we needed at least two adult dogs.  Way more than we could afford!  I really liked Jackie’s Maremmas, and I liked the way her four homeschooled kids worked and played with them- the kids would be OK.  But the money was impossible.  I looked into rescue livestock guardian dogs.  Many had problems, and we knew we didn’t know enough to consider taking that on.  In the spring we got very, very lucky.  An experienced breeder suddenly had a working female available.  She’d gotten sick after whelping her pups and needed an emergency spaying. So she’d be available, as would one of her pups.  We jumped at the chance, even though we knew we’d be sleeping with the sheep for yet another grazing season.  (Too many coyotes for one dog to handle, and pups can’t handle adult work until almost two.)  So Alka and her puppy Boro came to the Leverett farm in March of 2012

Immediately we had complaints from our closest neighbor.  The dogs and sheep were right next to our house at night- but the neighbors wanted no barking between 10pm and 7am.  We explained again about the 17 killed sheep; they explained that barking was not tolerable to them for any reason.

Now Leverett had passed a Right to Farm Law which clearly stated that recognized agricultural practices were allowed.  The selectboard, however, initially treated the neighbors’ complaint as a dog nuisance problem.  So there were meetings with the Selectboard, meetings of the Agricultural Commission, talks with the Farm Bureau.  Things became quiet when the sheep- and dogs- and one of us after dark- went off to pasture.  But of course grazing ended, and the dogs and sheep came home.  And the complaints resumed.


So now what?  We were legally in the right, but our neighbors were making our lives very difficult.  Do we now just stop raising sheep?  We decided we weren’t ready to give up!  But we realized that to live in peace we would have to move.


The winter of 2012-13 started the serious farm search.  We finally found a hillside farm on 50 acres in Colrain and a buyer for our Leverett house.  We moved in late October 2013, jerry-rigging shelters for sheep and guard dogs, goats, and poultry.  We’re gradually getting settled; there’s now a small sheep barn, poultry and goat house.  We’ve had several open farm sheep shearings and we’re beginning to offer farm and fiber programs again.  We’re tired a lot (starting a new farm when most of your friends are retiring is a challenge), but living in a farming community is a wonderful treat.  And we’ve not lost one sheep to coyotes since the dogs arrived!

Now for a little factual information about livestock guardian dogs:

Various sorts of livestock guardian dogs (from now on, LGDs) have always lived with shepherds in any part of the world still inhabited by large predators.  In many places, shepherds take their animals into the mountains to graze in summer.  These shepherds are accompanied by herding dogs (like border collies, keeping the flock together) and by guard dogs. The LGDs are large, fierce when they need to be, but very much part of a unit with the shepherd and herding dogs.

In places where large predators were killed off (western Europe and the US), the LGDs gradually were transformed into people guarding dogs or simply companions, with  livestock guarding abilities lost.  In rugged terrain, though, old world shepherds still used both types of dogs.  Dog breeds are a modern convention; these shepherds worked with the same kind of large dogs used by generations of  local shepherds before them.  Now many of these different types of dogs have been given breed names.  In the book Livestock Guardians, Janet Vohrwald Doehner identifies 32 breeds of LGDs.  Many are rare or not even available in this country, but she describes the dogs’ differing guarding styles, their relative ferocity, their weather tolerances, and other variables.

In the US, LGDs were not used until after 1973.  The Endangered Species Act and a more nuanced understanding of ecological systems made the hunting and trapping of all large predators no longer possible.  Predation, particularly in the west, became a major problem.  Farmers and ranchers here were slow to consider LGDs, chiefly because American livestock practices had come primarily from Great Britain, and Great Britain was the earliest place wolves had been eliminated.  Ray Coppinger at Hampshire College was responsible for bringing several breeds of LGDs into this country and placing them with ranchers throughout the west.  People learned a lot about working with the dogs and they are now used in rural areas throughout the country.

The dogs bond with their livestock (initially with help and supervision) and understand that their job is the protection of their stock.  Since canines are territorial, they chiefly work by keeping other canines away.  This is done mostly by barking.  They notice and will bark at any change in their environment. If necessary they will physically challenge any predator who continues to threaten.

They learn who belongs on the farm and will often accept a known herding dog moving their flock.  They can be used to protect alpacas, horses, cattle and even poultry.  It’s important to us that our farm is able to co-exist with our local coyotes.

Our oldest LGD, Alka, was pictured in part 1.  She is a Sarplaninac (pronounced shar-pla-NEE-natz).  These dogs originated in Macedonia (the name means “LGD from the Shar Mountains”).  Her son, Boro, is half Maremma.  And our youngest dog, Grisha, is also a Shar.  He came from a ranch in Alberta, Canada.  More photos follow.

We welcome farm visitors with appointments if you would like to meet the guard dogs. We also welcome phone calls or emails.  Visit for more information.




FIBERuary Day 7 with Jill Horton Lyons  – Sheep breeder, Angora Rabbits, Guard Dogs, Herding Dogs , Spinner and Weaver and so much ore

Part 1


Keeping the Sheep Alive or Living Harmoniously with Coyotes


We’ve been raising sheep since 1985.  First in Leverett, then in Deerfield for six years, then back to Leverett for thirteen years.  And then in 2013 we moved to Colrain.


Our place in Leverett had only ten acres (which seemed a lot, coming from suburbia).  We fenced about half with hi-tensile wire and built a small sheep shed.  And began to search for unused fields in Leverett and nearby towns for summer grazing.  Over the years we grazed something like twenty properties.  Some arrangements worked well, others not so well.  And since we checked each group every day we did a lot of driving. The six years at Woolman Hill Retreat Center in Deerfield were lovely- we had fenced fields, places to graze with electronet and even a hay field.  Coming back to Leverett with sheep was not easy.


Now our first coyote experience was early on….probably about 1990 in Leverett.  Our four geese (white Chinas) free ranged.  Jim looked out the window one day and saw a coyote carrying off a goose.  He dashed outside, yelled and gave chase.  The goose was smart- she spread wide her big wings and the coyote couldn’t pass through some brush.  So the coyote dropped the goose (named Coyote for the rest of her days) and Jim brought her in to heal. And that was it- we don’t even remember hearing coyotes during the early Leverett days.


We did hear coyotes in Deerfield.  But our fencing was good and the sheep were fairly close by- very close by in winter.  We also had Abby- a big farm dog (wolfhound-akita cross).  Abby liked to circle our end of the acreage- especially early morning and late evening.  Which undoubtedly helped.


While we were in Deerfield the Leverett coyote population had evidently grown.  We heard them more often, and several times saw some rather mangy ones in our driveway.  But we co-existed just fine until 2010.  One day in August that year the ewes and ewe lambs were in electronet at Gordon King’s in East Leverett . (These fields were part of the land Gordon gave to the town which became conservation land.) There had been a drought, so we were feeding hay.  After some rain the fields were greening but we still fed hay, wanting the fields to recover.  Now electronet is something you train the sheep to- it’s mostly psychological.  And sheep love fresh grass much more than so-so hay.  So the night of the attack the sheep busted out.  The neighboring coyotes seized their opportunity- somehow all the sheep survived, but we lost seven of our eight ewe lambs.  Even though Gordon’s was our best and largest grazing, we moved the survivors that day.  In part hoping that the coyotes would forget about their feast.  (The good thing about coyotes is that they eat what they kill and they kill pretty efficiently.  Nothing like a domestic dog attack.)


The winter of 2010-2011 was fierce, with lots of snow.  Snow completely covered our perimeter fence.  So the sheep were fed in the field each day but came in at dusk.  But one day I left two of the wethers we use for dog training out in a back field.  They were dead in the morning.  Score is now coyotes 10- and they ate a couple of geese as well.


We researched and decided to buy a guard llama.  Supposedly quite effective and looking not at all threatening to all the walkers on Gordon’s land. Very expensive.


Sam the llama was a beautiful guy but absolutely no match for the now even larger coyote pack.  Who well remembered the taste of lamb.  So this time they stampeded the sheep through the fence themselves- and picked off another seven- six lambs and my favorite ewe.  (Sam did just fine later that summer guarding lambs in North Leverett.  The resident coyote was respectful of both fence and guardian.)


Do we stop raising sheep?  We sure can’t afford these losses!  So we spent most of the summer and early fall taking turns sleeping in the truck next to the sheep fence. (And dusk comes early in fall.)


We decided we wanted to keep the sheep.  Many of our friends used livestock guardian dogs to stop predation.  We were concerned that the dogs would frighten the walkers.  But we couldn’t figure out what else to try.

Part 2 tomorrow