Like so many great Maine stories, this one begins with an island, a lighthouse, and the elusive alchemy of love. In 1916, before interstates and easy communication, in a time when remote rural life was not powered by electricity and automobiles, when ships depended on a granite bound beacon to guide them over the shoals, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter found her place in the world.
When Jenny Cirone moved with her family to Little Nash Island off the Downeast coast of Maine, the world was a broad and uncertain place. The United States was transitioning from a primarily agrarian economy and culture to a decidedly more industrial base. World war and revolution were twisting economies and shifting landscapes. Maine, like other corners of the country, was slow to register these changes. The coming decades would see a profound shift away from the established occupations and industries such as logging and textile mill work, but in the early part of the 20th century in Maine many of the old ways prevailed. Here life, prosperity, and even survival required an attention to the land and a working knowledge of how to live on it and with it.
Life as a lighthouse keeper on a small island, miles from shore in the north Atlantic, is certainly an example of centuries old skills finding a place in the modern landscape. Here self-sufficiency, toughness, and thrift were essential. The beauty and isolation of such a place is not for everyone - those who find their peace there must be able tap into the deep pull of tide, moon, and weather, and feel kindred to those with whom they share the land. Jenny was made for that place. What she and her family embodied on this small and windswept island was a rhythm and purpose as ancient and timeless as the sea itself.
Did Jenny know, when she began keeping sheep as a girl, that she was part of an ancient custom? Could she imagine the line of shepherds and shepherdesses before her who, from all parts of the globe, knew about the practical beauty of islands and sheep? Could Jenny imagine the descendants of her flock 100 year hence producing coveted fleece and capturing the imagination and respect of fiber lovers around the globe?
Jenny lived on Little Nash Island for 19 years. During this time, she raised sheep and increased her flock, allowing them to roam and forage freely across the island. Jenny was able to purchase most of this island before moving to the nearby mainland. Once the lighthouse was decommissioned she also purchased Big Nash Island. This series of moves allowed her to increase her flock to about 150 individuals, all of which lived fence-free on their island homes. The coast of Maine is an exacting place and does not suffer fools, be they man or beast. The sheep required to survive on these bits of rock and turf, scattered across a cold sea, must be up to the task. Fortunately for Jenny, the sheep, and all of us, there are those breeds of sheep who thrive is just such conditions. The Nash Island flock began as a mix of Romney and Coopworth. It is not unreasonable to think that early on there were bits of other breeds commonly found in Maine at the time, that found their way into the DNA of the island sheep. This mix went into producing a strong and thrifty line of rugged sheep who are perfectly suited to their landscape. The combination of long wool, or strong wool, breeds found in these island sheep is important to the story and the success of the fiber over time.
By all accounts Jenny raised sheep primarily because she loved sheep. The fleece and the meat, while being an important part of the equation came after the animals themselves. It would take this kind of love and respect for the animals and the place to prevail and succeed in work so physically demanding and consuming. Jenny was not the only person to keep sheep on islands in Maine, nor was she the last. But she is important for many reasons. Jenny had the vision to purchase the islands, to carefully increase her flock, to find markets for her agricultural products, to create community around the shepherding process and to tell her story. Perhaps most importantly, if most providentially, Jenny was able to find a kindred spirit in the next generation. Her friendship with Alfie Wakeman, who along with his wife Eleni, currently owns these islands, secured the fate of this flock for years to come. The Wakemans are committed to farming as Jenny did, keeping these wild sheep on their island homes, and producing high quality meat and fiber for a broader market. Keeping sheep as Jenny did is particular. While some sheep are summered on uninhabited Maine Islands, this is not the case with the Nash Island flock. They live on their islands year round, foraging for their existence. There is no water source. There is no grain. There is no lovely cut hay. These sheep get their food and water from the grasses, the fog, the snow and the seaweed. After so many generations, these sheep know how to survive. Their fleeces are amazingly clean and free of the dreaded vegetable matter that can so plague both shepherd and handspinner. The sea and the fog washes these fleece constantly, producing a soft and luminous fiber like no other really. And still, these fleece need to find their way into the hands of spinners and knitters alike while holding the spirit and intention of Jenny aloft.
Enter Jani Estell and Starcroft Wool and Yarn, ushering in another chapter in the life of the island sheep. Nearly 20 years ago Jani, anticipating the time when her children would be fledged and flown, began thinking about what her next act would be. She wanted a career that could be accomplished from her home, that had flexibility, and would most importantly, revolve around wool. Already an accomplished handspinner and knitter with deep ties to the fiber community in central and Downeast Maine, Jani was well positioned to take on the role of mini-mill operator. Working with Belfast Mini Mills, a family-owned and-operated business based on Prince Edward Island, Canada, Jani learned to operate their line of fiber processing machinery and purchased what she needed to get started.
For many in Maine this was a cause for celebration. The number of fiber processing mills nationwide was at a low ebb at that time and Maine was no exception. New England, once the fiber processing center for much of the US, was suffering from a pronounced absence of expertise and equipment at all levels.
I first met Jani while volunteering in the Fleece Tent at the Common Ground Country Fair just as she was beginning to process fiber for the handspinning community. I would drive to her property in Monroe, Maine and drop off pounds and pounds of raw fleece that she would turn into the batts that I need for my felting business. Over the years my needs have changed from felting batts to yarn and Jani’s expertise has evolved as well. After several years Jani realized that working with the wide range of quality brought to her as raw fleece, was not exactly what she loved best about being a mini mill operator. As she moved through her first incarnation at the fiber mill, Jani began to understand that what she loved about her work was handling great fleece and designing her own yarn.
Jani’s connections to the fiber community in Maine, specifically The Wednesday Spinners, lead to her to meet Donna Kausen and Jeri Valentine. Donna, a sought after shearer and wood worker, merits her own story. Her importance to this tale is that she has long kept sheep on Flat Island, which neighbors Big Nash and Little Nash Islands. Through Donna, Jani was able to get to these islands and meet Jenny and her sheep. Flat Island is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving Maine islands and wild spaces. While sheep have been kept on Flat Island for many years, there has been a need to demonstrate how the sheep improve the island and help to maintain it as a prime spot for nesting birds. This is a happy symbiosis for all concerned.
At this time there was a yarn company working with Jenny, and the Wakemans, purchasing raw fiber from the island to process under their own label. Sheep would also be culled and sent for meat processing each fall. Jani observed that a good deal of the wool was being wasted along the way. She truly believed that there was a market for this wool and an audience for this story. Maine has, for many reasons, kept an important core of its fiber raising roots. We are a state with very good fiber credentials and a solid reputation for raising and processing a range of handspinning fleece and quality yarn. This combined with an uptick in interest regionally and nationally in knitting, spinning, and raising fiber-producing animals, has helped create a climate in which Nash Island wool and Starcroft Fiber Mill were able to join forces and flourish.
Business relationships change and so in time, the Wakemans and Jani were able to forge a partnership and a shared dream. What has resulted is a collaboration between the island, the fiber mill, and the sheep. What Jani saw when she first encountered the island fleece was wool that was lustrous, long, strong, and clean. These fleeces were a strong wool-lover and handspinners delight. What she envisioned was how to make it even better. When the opportunity presented itself, Jani and her husband Grant sold their homestead in Monroe and moved everything to Columbia, in Downeast Maine to be closer to the islands and the sheep. Dismantling, moving, and reconstructing a fiber mill is not a task to be taken lightly, and Jani has told me that looking back she must have been nuts. The process of moving to new land, building a mill and a home, designing yarn, and getting up and running took longer than expected and a few years got lost along the way. But Starcroft is back in action and we are allbetter for it.
In addition to operating her mill and designing the yarn, Jani is the flock manager for Flat, Little and Big Nash Islands. She purchases the entire clip each spring and sorts it according to the quality of the fleece. Keeping Jenny’s mission in mind while moving forward with the husbandry of the flock and contemporary demands within the industry is a balancing act, but one well worth the effort. A number of years ago some Corriedale was introduced to the flock to “soften” the hand of the wool. Through careful breeding using only Romney or Coopworth rams, Jani has successfully returned the flock to its strong wool heritage. But she has done more, she has improved the shine, strength, consistency, and overall appeal of the fleece these island sheep grow.
There has been another subtle yet profound change - the flock is no longer entirely white. Handspinners know the value of gorgeous colored fleeces and so does Jani. Over time she has made the case to her partners and now Flat Island produces some of the best gray fleece one can find in Maine, or anywhere. The three islands have slightly different compositions. Big Nash carries about 112 sheep, ewes and their lambs, there are about 35 on Little Nash and 35 on Flat Island, all of which are colored. Jani’s goal is to use all of the fleece that comes off of these islands. To do this she must breed well, be willing to cull well, and grade with an eagle eye.
The breeding piece depends on a good ram or two and that can be arranged. A few years ago Michele Bye, of Bye Brook Farm loaned her ram Francis, and he spent a season doing his level best to improve the island wool. It is the culling that hits the hardest. Each fall the ram lambs must be removed from the island. An excellent ram may be kept for breeding, and will spend his winter off island and away from the girls. In fact, the rams only get a short stay on the islands each year before they are removed because it is important to carefully control the breeding. Other ram lambs with particularly good fleece may be wethered and kept, but the majority goes to support the islands through the sale of meat and pelts. Jani herself has retrieved pelts from the butcher, scraped, salted, and stretched them while they dried. She has also hand-sheared pelts to get the last bit of usable fiber.
Each year between 20-30 fleece make the handspinning grade. These fleece are skillfully skirted, wrapped in sheets, and sold to those with a discerning eye and a desire to spin a story into their yarn. The remaining fleece are graded according to the yarn and other products that Starcroft with be producing in the coming year. A single fleece can yield several different grades of fiber, making this a slow process requiring skills acquired from years of contact and observation.
Starcroft currently produces three basic yarns: Light, Tide and Fog.
Light is their stoutest yarn. It is a handsome strong worsted weight yarn that lends itself beautifully to heirloom quality sweater knitting. This yarn is spun from the fleece with less crimp and good staple length. For those who are new to fleece jargon, staple length refers to the distance between cut, or blood end, and the tip. The long wool or strong wool group includes a range of breeds, of which Romney and Coopworth are excellent examples. With fleeces commonly measuring 5-9 inches at shearing, they are lovely to handspin, lending themselves well to the long draw technique and can best be prepared using combs or hand flicking. Because the fibers are long and smooth with larger circumference, the yarn these breeds create are long wearing and resistant to pilling, making them excellent for garments and working mitts.
Tide is Starcroft’s sport weight yarn. This preparation gets the locks with more crimp for a finer, more sticky yarn. “Sticky” refers to a yarn’s ability to grab onto itself to form a smooth fabric. This is particularly important in color-work, for which Tide was specifically designed. This yarn, dyed in a well selected and distinctive palette, shows patterns beautifully while creating a smooth surface without excessive bulk. Tide can also be used successfully in texture work and cable projects.
The third yarn in the Starcroft line is Fog. As its name implies, this is the most elusive yarn Jani spins. Fog was initially spun as a blend of lambswool and angora, as a versatile light sport weight. However, Jani has found that as the flock has improved, so has the quality of the lambswool. Now she assesses each batch before adding any angora. Ideally, Jani would like to offer a lambswool that stands on its own as a purely island product. Annual runs of this yarn are likely to be more limited as they are dependent upon the number of surviving lambs from the previous year. As with any sought-after agricultural product, this yarn is in high demand and when it is gone there will not be any more until the next year.
Jani appreciates that her mini mill is perfectly designed to create small batch yarns and spinning fibers. This allows her to truly capture the essence of the raw fleece at her disposal. It also allows Jani to shift her production according to demand or her own artistic curiosity. Jani told me that she recently had an “aha” moment, realizing that she did not need to be locked-in to creating just three kinds of yarn each year. She has the raw material and the skill-set necessary to create small releases of specialty yarns whenever she chooses. This kind of artistic freedom is at the heart of what brought her to this work and these islands in the first place. And she is finding a way to integrate this intention into more and more aspects of the Starcroft and Nash Island mission. Starcroft also produces felting material and stuffing, effectively utilizing all of the fiber that does not make the grade for yarn or roving.
Jani currently markets her yarn through her own website. She has also done a pop up-shop in New York City. Maine Yarn & Fiber Supply is lucky enough to be one of just two retail locations for Nash Island Yarns. The other is Clementine, a dream shop for those who love sewing and fiber, run by Jani’s daughter Leah. This lovely shop is located in Rockland, Maine, and yes, they do ship. I have been told to expect some new offerings in 2017, and look forward to getting any new work on the needles and on the shelves in Bangor.
Last winter, while I was conceiving the project that would become the Five Farms Club, I thought about what mattered to me about wool. I thought about the stories I wanted to tell and the connections I was interested in exploring. I sifted through my library of notes, books and yarns, people and experiences. What I knew at the beginning was that I wanted to curate a specific selection of yarn, one that I designed, to showcase what I love best about wool. One that paid tribute to the people I admire who work with intention and integrity doing this timeless thing; making this wool possible. Nice work if you can get it right?
As I began to put meat on the bones of this idea, it became very clear that there was more in play than just the yarn or even the sheep. This project, scaffolding I hope for a larger effort to come, was really about love for me too. Love of place, love of Maine, love of the ever changing interplay between the land and all who depend upon it. I realized that I wanted to tell real stories that were as much about landscape as product. I wanted to explore the relationships to see how this particular thing, these sheep, fleece, yarn, and people, are shaped by where they live, and by where and how they are made. And I wanted to see how the land was changed, if it was, by the fact of the sheep and shepherding. I wanted to know about the people. About how place felt to them, and how it shaped their lives and aspirations. Each farm in this story, each flock and each skein are elements in this unfolding tale. From the rolling hills of The County, to a rocky ridge above the Kennebec River, landscape matters to all of these stories. And yet there is something particularly compelling about these island sheep.
Perhaps it is the persistence of this flock, this hundred-year tale set against the backdrop of sea and fog. Perhaps it is the people who, generation after generation, have worked to ensure that these sheep have a place on the Maine landscape. Perhaps it is the sheer wildness of these creatures, living in family groups without the trappings of domestication, defying our assumptions about livestock and their intelligence and grit. Perhaps it is my fiber artist’s soul and my greed for more and better wool.
But perhaps it is something else. Maybe in the end this place, and all the places we shall visit together, matter in a way we can’t really put our finger on. Perhaps we need the wildness of the islands, woods rocks, rivers, fog, and snow as much as we need the security of a well-kept larder, or a great fiber stash. Perhaps when we see a low island rising out of the sea and, bracing ourselves against the wind, spot wild sheep browsing, we feel something ancient and wild awaken in ourselves. We feel, perhaps for the first time, the pull of the tides in our blood, the call of ancestors long forgotten, the need to connect with this earth for meaning and sustenance. Jani knows. She says the best part of this work is being on the islands, watching the sheep be sheep and feeling the rhythm of the seasons flow around her.
Jenny knew too. She felt it as a girl and was wise enough to remember throughout her life. She knew, I think, the power of protecting while letting something be. She knew to watch, listen, and love.
*Photo of Jani by Jodi Clayton * Figures 1-3 courtesy of Jani Estell