So, what’s with “primitive” and sheep or wool?

For the past week, I’ve been holed up in a studio four hours’ drive from home catching up on a few things. I’m not caught up, but I’m ready to see how the new blog platform works. I’m still hampered by the complications with my photo library that took place last year, and while I have a new system in place, I haven’t had time to learn to use it very well, or to do more than take a stab at restoring all the lost keywords.

There have been some very good things going on, too, and one of them was the recent Explore 4 “Wildcard” Fiber Retreat in Friday Harbor, Washington. Although I’m cutting way back on travel for teaching in 2016—mostly so that I can solve the photo library problem and do some more research and writing—the Explore 4s will anchor my schedule because they’re so wonderful. Each is a four-day retreat. Spring and fall are different.

  • Spring: We explore four fibers, one for each day, at least three of which are wools, chosen for their compare/contrast qualities.
  • Fall: “Wildcard” means that anything goes; last year (2014) it was Shetlands for four days; this year it was primitive sheep and wools; next year (2016) Sarah Anderson (of The Spinner’s Book of Yarn Designs) and I will be teaming up to explore fiber qualities in conjunction with yarn structures.

In both spring and fall, there’s always also some playing around the edges of the topics, the serendipity that arises in the moment.

Thus in early November a group gathered at Lakedale Resort, a few miles from Friday Harbor, Washington, in the San Juan Islands, to consider what “primitive” sheep or wool might be. I decided on the topic a while back because I had noticed the word primitive being used frequently with reference to sheep and/or wool, most often without a definition or at best a partial one.* The same goes for improved and modern, but if you can get a lasso around primitive, you’ll be able to get one around those concepts as well. I wanted to spend some time thinking about these things, and then to explore those ideas with some fellow travelers.

*It also relates directly to my ongoing research into Shetland sheep and wool.

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What makes the Explore 4s so special? What made this one uniquely itself? (Well, one thing was that the company that made the event bags—which I provide in part because they give people a place to organize all the fibers and information I hand out—had a special on a very functional bag that had an embroidered logo, and as a result I could use multiple colors in the design for no extra cost (above)! Whee! That was a first! The sheep I drew for this purpose is a Soay, one of the oldest—dare we say most primitive?—breeds among us on the planet today. Getting the colors to work with the available embroidery threads was a challenge and took some back-and-forth with the production department, but we ended up with decent results.)


I love getting ready. I gather fibers (sometimes there’s a two-year lead time, or more, for a featured breed). I do research. I think. I wash fibers. I prepare handouts. I pack boxes. I dream. I do more of all of those (wash, rinse, repeat).

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One reason we go to a location in a group of islands at the far northwest corner of the contiguous forty-eight states, a place that requires some travel coordination, is that it’s so beautiful. Our timing is off-season, which is why the lodge works out so well for us, and the people who manage the lodge and who feed us not only do their jobs well but care about us.

Here’s the main room of the lodge on the evening before we officially commence our exploration—although I see that a few people had arrived when I took this: it’s the gathering of the wheels (spindles also welcome). The lodge staff greets me on the morning of that day-before with how many people? how would you like the space arranged? and it happens . . . the room is prepared. . . .

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This year, our fall timing coincided with the arrival of the Trumpeter Swans. The photo below was taken right from the lodge where we gather, and there were half a dozen more Trumpeters out of sight to the right. Last year the swans showed up the week after we left. But there are always geese and ducks, including some of my favorites, the Buffleheads.

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Afternoons are open time, which I use preparing for the next day or . . . go for a walk somewhere gorgeous. Or to just sit and spin, in a lovely place and in very good company.

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Okay, it would be great if everyone who ever came to an Explore 4 could come every time, yet even those who aren’t there for a given week, or who dream of coming in the future, are part of the gathering. Many of the connections continue over time and space. It’s like family returning, including those who come now and then, and those who are new. What wonderful people. And what a special place to get together.

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My room at Lakedale ends up being a staging area, with one day’s supplies set out at a time.

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Often we have fibers whose sources we know:

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I met that lovely Icelandic sheep at Three Bags Wool in Virginia just this September, the day before she was shorn. She sent a note and a photo along with her fleece. . . .


The solid part of forming ideas for this year’s topic began for me last April (although I’d been pondering for a number of months, possibly a few years) with a big sheet of paper and a bunch of colored markers, jotting down what ideas came to mind when I thought about “primitive” in relation to sheep and wool. An early realization was that the word doesn’t apply the same way to the animals and to the fibers. I also went through a lot of documents and books, looking for (and recording) the use of the word primitive in describing sheep or wool, and whether (and to what extent) it was clear what was meant by the term.

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Before I was done with that set of ideas, it had turned into something more refined (but still evolving).

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A next thought I had was that if we were going to talk about “primitive,” we might do well to begin with an understanding—in our hands, especially—of what not-primitive wools are like: thus we would launch our exploration with prepared top of not-primitive wools.

Quite late in the process, I thought of making what I came to call a primitivity scorecard, with characteristics of sheep and of wool that are considered primitive, and which could be applied to an individual, a flock, or a breed. Although this became a draft that I plan to develop further, when we filled out the scorecards at the end of the week, we could see that there’s a continuum of characteristics for both sheep and wools, and we had a framework for using the word—and an understanding of how important it is to make sure we know in what ways it applies to the topic at hand.

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Fibers again

In the course of our exploration, we considered the following breeds and experimented with their wools:

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In case you can’t read the small type in the photo, those were:

  • Merino, white
  • Merino, black
  • Cheviot
  • Lincoln
  • Soay
  • Herdwick (lamb)
  • Herdwick (adult)
  • Karakul, American
  • Icelandic
  • Boreray
  • North Ronaldsay
  • Shetland
  • Hebridean
  • Manx Loaghtan
  • Scottish Blackface
  • Black Welsh Mountain
  • Jacob, American
  • Navajo-Churro

And we talked about appropriate uses for different types of wools. One example was Herdwick: it’s an unusual mix of fiber types, including wool, hair, and rough kemp. I brought along an afghan (throw or rug) and a dog leash (lead) made from the fiber of the flock at Crookabeck Farm in northwest England that grew the Herdwick fleeces we experienced. . . .

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. . . , as well as some cases I’ve made for corralling my highlighters and fountain pens. Each of my pen and highlighter cases is made from three four-inch (10-cm) mini-loom squares (constructed on a Weave-It or Zoom Loom or similar), with a crocheted edge and buttonholes at the top. The dark-colored one is from a Herdwick lamb’s fleece and the light-colored one is from an adult’s.

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Because I drove to Washington this time, instead of shipping everything and renting a car, I was able to bring extra things to share, including some favorite handspun objects made from yarns spun by me in years past that would qualify for anyone’s definition of primitive. This included a sweater I wear every day except during the hottest summer months. It’s here with me in the studio. (Oh, yeah. I’m wearing it right now.) We talked about “primitive” in terms of our spinning, and about whether what we expect of ourselves as spinners is appropriate, and about how spinning has changed over the past 40-plus years (and it certainly has).

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In addition, the Woolery generously donated some of their Rosie’s mini-wool-packs for us to play with. Marketed for wet-felting or needle-felting, the bright colors of the sample set presented a dramatic contrast to the naturals we were otherwise working with, and we, being in a spinning mood, spun them. Several of us played with carding or combing the colors together in various combinations. I selected a subset of about half of them, created a blending pattern, and combed to mix the colors. Then I spun the combing waste to make a textured yarn. Ultimately my only unused fiber was a tiny scrap too small to show in the photo.

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One participant set herself the goal of creating a harmonious yarn using all the colors—and succeeded.

We also talked about scouring and washing and pH and the chemical properties of wool and why some fibers might be damaged by the use of a particular cleansing agent while others might not. Thanks to the mix of people and experiences available to shed light on this and other topics, we all became a bit wiser. We left with more information—and new questions to play with.

In sum

Although it’s impossible to put the whole experience of an Explore 4 in a blog post, I hope that I’ve been able to encapsulate some of the spirit and the ideas here. It’s a special time, in a special place, and—most of all—with fantastic people. I want to share that quality, as well as much of the information as will fit within these constraints, with all of you.

This is the sort of thing that makes up for a lot of computer problems!


I’ve been told by a participant at this Explore 4 that I have an inadequate approach to getting the word out about these events. Well, actually two people told me that, in different ways. Thus I will add here, to show that I was listening (even though no, this is not at the top of the post, as has been suggested), that there will be a Spring 2016 Explore 4 (four fibers in four days) from March 14 to 17 (arrive on March 13, which is the day Daylight Savings starts for those clocks that are affected, and depart on March 18) and that there are spaces available. There will be two Fall 2016 Explore 4s with me and Sarah Anderson looking at similar topics from different directions; the first, for which there are spaces available, is from October 31 to November 3 (arrive October 30, depart November 4), and the second, which is waiting-list-only at this point, is from November 7 to 10 (arrive on November 6, which is the day Daylight Savings ends for those clocks that are affected, and depart on November 11). I think you can find sign-up information on this page, with the registration forms accessible here. I see that there are some navigation issues to be resolved on the new site, but that’s not happening right now. . . .




4 thoughts on “So, what’s with “primitive” and sheep or wool?”

  1. Hello Deb,
    So do I have “primitive” with “primitive” wool, or don’t I? Lol. Thank you for sharing your research and Explore 4.

  2. OMG thank you for advertising on Ravelry. Your Fall ’15 workshop is MY DREAM workshop!! I do hope I’ll get to be a regular. I’ve adopted a North Ronaldsay, a Shetland, and a Southdown in England (I’m in CA) and hope the gimmer fleeces will get through customs and arrive sometime this spring/summer.

    How does one get from SeaTac to Friday Harbor without a car? Thanks!

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad we advertised, too. It was a suggestion that I took.

      Getting from SeaTac to Friday Harbor without a car: There are two shuttle services, one of which runs all week and one of which is mostly weekdays. There’s an airport and a way to fly, and I know people who’ve done it, although I haven’t. We try to get folks who are coming to the retreats to connect with each other and carpool up, which I think is the best way–although the shuttles work. The shuttle gets you to the ferry dock in Friday Harbor and there are still four miles to go, but if we know when to meet the ferry, someone can do that run. Warning, though, that cell phone reception at the Lodge is iffy. Wi-fi or landline are the better communication channels.

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