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Hopping Acres

By Tim King

When Kelly Smith was a child her dream was to make a sweater from the hand spun wool of her market lamb, “Sneezie.” So she learned how to spin from Susan Elkin, of Morgantown, West Virginia. Then she learned to knit from Woman’s Day or Family Circle.

“I don’t remember which magazine it was but they came out with an article on how to knit a sweater in a weekend,” Kelly said. “I got yarn and needles and asked my mom to show me the basics of knitting. I did it. I learned to knit and completed that sweater in that weekend. I loved it!”

Discovering Leicester Longwools

Little did Kelly know that that weekend was the beginning of a lifelong passion that has created meaningful work for her, established deep and long friendships, and involved her in the reintroduction of Leicester Longwool sheep to the United States.

“I learned about wool breeds of sheep when I took the spinning class and Romney and Teeswater were my favorite wools to spin,” Kelly said.

Kelly Smith teams up with Leicester Longwools to keep wool garment customers satisfied.
Kelly Smith teams up with Leicester Longwools to keep wool garment customers satisfied.

Over the years her search for Teeswater fleeces led her to Colonial Williamsburg and their project to reintroduce Leicester Longwools. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised Leicester Longwools. The breed was the result of the innovative efforts of an 18th century farmer in Leicester, England named Robert Bakewell. Bakewell was a pioneer in selective breeding and his Longwools were the result of his efforts. America’s founding fathers, and sheep breeders around the world imported Bakewell’s sheep as a way to improve their flocks. But Leicester Longwools fell afoul of shepherding trends in North America and by the mid 20th century were nearly extinct on the continent.

“The first year Colonial Williamsburg brought the Leicester Longwools to the Breeds Display at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival was the highlight of my shepherding,” Kelly said. “I was at my booth and my friend Joan had taken a break. She came back saying. ‘You’ve gotta see these sheep.’ So off I went. It was love at first sight. This was the closest wool to that Teeswater I had in my beginning spinning class. I went back and told Joan whatever we have to do we are getting these sheep. So after a couple of years of Joan and me bugging Elaine Shirley at Williamsburg in 1992 we got the honor of receiving one of the first three satellite flocks.”

Kelly likes the Leicester Longwools because of their endangered status. It has been a challenge to increase the breed in the U.S. Since those first satellite flocks were imported from Tasmania, a breed association has been formed and a dedicated group of breeders have increased the American flock to 500 registered animals.

Kelly is pleased to be a continuing part of that effort. She is also pleased to have discovered a breed that has both white and naturally-colored fleeces that are ideal for the pullover sweaters, cardigan sweaters, vests, ponchos, toboggans, felted hats, mittens, felted “sheepy slippers,” felted purses and backpacks she makes.

A Variety Of Wool Types

“I like the wool,” she said. “When you compare the Leicester Longwools to the Lincoln or Cotswold, it is so silky. If you stood all the long wools side-by-side you’d think they all look alike. Well, yes they do but the difference is the Leicester Longwool has the silkiness of mohair. The other breeds don’t have that and it carries through to your end product. You’ll find that silkiness in the garment.”

There is a breed standard for Leicester Longwools but it allows for genetic diversity that includes not only white and colored sheep but a wide range of fleece types.

Uniform, silky wool is Kelly Smith's goal.
Uniform, silky wool is Kelly Smith’s goal.

“When the original flock came in there were five bloodlines,” she said. “There was a bloodline that was at the complete other end of what I have. It was coarse. It was good for rugs. There is a wide range of fleece possibilities and each breeder and flock owner decides what they want. We had a 15th anniversary at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival and we flew Ivan Hazlewood over to America, since he put our original flock together in Tasmania. He is also a world-renowned sheep judge. We also flew in an expert from the UK. We did a card grading where each individual sheep was judged to the standard and not against another sheep. They told us that what they saw was normal and that there is a variety within the standard that ranges from the garment quality to the typical rug wool.”

The Luxury Of Leicester Longwool Garments

Kelly makes sweaters and ponchos on a knitting machine. She has also designed hats that she crochets and then felts in her washing machine. Her friend Kathy Evans likes to make socks and mittens.

“We call her the sock and mitten department,” Kelly said. “Debbie Falk weaves roving into beautiful rugs and Joan Henry makes felt, teddy bears, and other things. We became best of friends and we all work together. We call ourselves the Preston County Fiber Artists.”

Kelly’s decision to use a knitting machine, rather than to knit by hand, did not come easily. She was concerned that her customers would insist on hand knitted sweaters.

Kelly Smith makes beautiful designs, knits them on a knitting machine using her Leicester Longwool flock's lustrous wool, which is spun into silky-smooth yarn at a nearby mini-mill.
Kelly Smith makes beautiful designs, knits them on a knitting machine using her Leicester Longwool flock’s lustrous wool, which is spun into silky-smooth yarn at a nearby mini-mill.

“I got my machine and made a few sweaters and went to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival that next year,” she said. “It didn’t matter. It was the same way with the yarns. I used a lot of hand spun but I couldn’t keep up. I started sending my wool to Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill in Wisconsin but now a friend who has a mini-mill and lives nearby makes my yarn for me. Machine spun yarn and sweaters from knitting machines didn’t hurt my market at all. It was still my wool from my sheep.”

The knitting machine and the mill-processed yarn allowed Kelly to produce enough woolen products to make a profit with sheep on a small acreage. But like any good shepherd, she’s always looking for more ways to make her work more profitable and easier. Her monitoring system for lambing time is a case in point.

“I do all ‘in-barn’ lambing in pens and my dream was to be able to watch the sheep lamb,” Kelly said. “Right after I had my son, I thought this baby monitor is a good idea. I wondered if it would work from the barn to the house. It worked. At least I could hear them digging in the straw and start ‘talking.’ Then I thought, ‘If I could just see them!’ They had these video cameras but they were $500. But one day I was in a local store and they had a security camera for $29. I got about 200 feet of cable, hooked it up to my TV, and it worked perfectly. Now I had sound and picture. I thought this was cool, but there were two areas that were blocked. They were almost right behind the camera. I went out and bought a $12 oscillating fan. Then I took the fan part off and mounted the camera on the base. It goes back and forth and covers the whole area!”

For more information about Kelly Smith’s products and breeding stock visit her HoppingAcres web site at www.frontiernet.net/~hoppingacres For information on the Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association visit www.leicesterlongwool.org.

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