Vermont Innovator: Under the Radar
Vermont Innovation on Maybelle Farm
By Lesley A. Dyson

The media often celebrates entrepreneurs and innovators who have made their first million, often before the age of thirty. For every innovator who has achieved this level of success, thousands more are under the radar, living and doing what they love. Innovation, as well as success, can come in small packages.

Vermont innovators are hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the Green Mountain State. Many Vermont innovators create for the pure passion of the task, without concern for financial wealth, and their innovation is like a small package of marvel. Kathleen Meeks is one such Vermont innovator whose artistry with wool draws awes of wonder.

Kathleen lives on a farm in Wardsboro overlooking the meadows and surrounding hills that her family has owned for generations. Her grandchildren are the seventh generation to call the farm home. She keeps sheep and shares the joys of shepherding with her daughter and grandchildren and is passing on to them her considerable talents in the crafts of wool. Kathleen has taken her craft to a higher plain and is a true innovator.  

She appreciates all she has in her rich and full life. “I dance through life, sing and dance in the barn, and talk and sing to the animals. I can’t be serious very often.”

This harmony is seen in the felted wool animals she painstakingly makes from the wool of her sheep. The faces and the poses of the animals bring out personalities – mischievous, sweet, wondering, regal. Her animals and figures are imbued with nobility: a moose with antlers made from black walnut carved by her nephew Shawn, a leopard with individually felted spots that she embellished over a three-week period, a stately gorilla holding a peeled banana, a drowsy hippo, a fat sow on its side with three piglets cuddled into her belly. 

On the center table is a tree decorated with felted wool acorns and painted wooden sheep with curly wool sides that Kathleen creates for children to buy when at fairs along with her felted animals, wool socks, mittens, and other wool items. Everything comes from the wool of the sheep that she tenderly cares for in the fields around her studio.

Her flock comprises mostly Shetlands, a heritage breed originally brought from Scotland’s isolated Shetland Islands to Canada in the 1980s. In 1989, the first Shetlands arrived in Vermont, at the Maple Ridge Farm, and ten years later Kathleen bought her first four Shetlands from a farm in Wallingford.

In 1820, the most profitable industry in Vermont was sheep, and by mid-century Vermont farms and the surrounding rugged hillsides, denuded of trees, were home to more than two million sheep, mainly Merinos brought from Spain in 1810. The number of woolen mills in Vermont spiked from 33 in 1836 to 334 in 1837. By 1840, before the industry began its decline due to tariff removals, cross breeding of the Merinos with inferior sheep, and competition from Western states, Addison County had more sheep than any other county in the country. A hundred years later, less than 18,000 sheep remained in still-agrarian Vermont. Today, only about 11,000 sheep graze our mostly-forested state, but Kathleen is increasing those numbers, as well as the quality of the sheep here.

She now has 58 sheep, some the descendants of the original Shetland flock. The sheep live in outdoor stalls year ‘round, although they have access to the large barn behind Kathleen’s house. Her father, Melbourne Bills, built the barn 71 years ago, the year Kathleen was born. Until about 15 years ago, the barn was also used as a dance hall – Kathleen comes from a musical family – and the loft, where the band played, still holds the old piano.

In the sub-freezing Vermont weather of early December, the hardy sheep are all outside, chewing on hay, walking around and enjoying the sunshine, their thick fleeces keeping them warm. In a snowstorm, the sheep will lie in the snow, big bumps of white, until they get up and shake the snow off their massive impermeable fleeces.

Kathleen rotates the sheep every three days on 11 pastures. They eat grass in the summer and hay in the winter. Grass-fed sheep have a softer, richer wool than the coarser fleece of grain-fed sheep. The wool comprises a wide range of natural colors, white or black or shades of grays and browns, and have many markings, all with intriguing Scottish names like gulmoget, katmoget, moorit, bersugget, or mirkface – which is just what it implies:  a white wool fleece with a dark face.

Kathleen learned some of her craft through a sheep management class under emeritus professor Chet Parsons at UVM, who operates a large sheep farm in northern Vermont, but mostly through hands-on learning and her professional skill of nursing.

She has been a nurse for 51 years, and, as a hospice nurse, she is attuned to the feelings and emotions of those in her care, whether human or sheep. She will often bring her wool to the homes of her patients to felt or spin. The solitude of the nights is useful for creating things with her hands. “It’s calming and comforting to the patients,” Kathleen says. “The spinning wheel sound is very soothing, the ‘ta-TIC, ta-TIC, ta-TIC.” 

Her caring nature encompasses all her sheep, and each one is named and enjoyed like children. Each year’s lambs are named with the same initial letter, which helps keeps track of how old each sheep is. So “Windor” and “Wisteria” were born the same year, and “Enid” and “Esme” born in another year. She has expanded breeds over the years to include a few Coopworth, Tunis, Merino, and cross-breeds. Each has a different fleece. Shetlands have a fine coat about 4" long. The natural brown or white wool of the Coopworth sheep is easy to spin as it is 8-10” long. The Tunis has a lovely, puffy, soft fiber, “gorgeous,” says Kathleen, “and Border Leicester fleece is so soft and spins like a dream!”.

The sheep are shorn once a year, in April. Kathleen washes the wool, cards it, spins it, dyes it, then creates everything from animals to sweaters to 3-D pictures. She does nuno-felting, which is wet felting on silk, and displays an elaborately colored silk scarf that she’d done. Felted creatures include mythic, fictional and real. Dragons are next to Brutus, Popeye, Olive Oyl, and an endearing Swee'Pea, and owls and horses sit nearby.

Her innovative felted memory animals are created with hair from pets. "If someone sends me a picture of their dog and a handful of the dog's hair, I can combine it with some wool fiber to make a replica of the dog," Kathleen says. Kathleen also adds pet hair to knitted hats so the owner can wear something close of a beloved dog or pet. For a friend's pet llama memory animal, she added two pearls of rice to the bottom lip to highlight the llama's protruding teeth, and the resemblance to the original llama was remarkable.
She will spin other wools, like angora, which she gets from a friend’s rabbits, or qiviut, musk ox hair, into her yarns. “There’s nothing softer than musk ox underbelly hair, and it’s five times warmer than wool,” Kathleen says. “It’s delicious to spin.” But at $60 for a two-ounce package, it’s an expensive addition to a hat, although that hat might be the warmest thing you’ll ever put on your head.
To learn how spin, she took one class, and her daughter bought her a spinning wheel. “It’s something you have to teach yourself,” Kathleen says, because it is almost a dance of feet peddling and hands moving to draft the wool onto the bobbin. Bobbins are held in place on a lazy kate, while the spinner plies the yarn.  “You draft the wool backwards to make the ply,” Kathleen explains. “One ply is one bobbin, two ply is two bobbins, three ply is three bobbins.” Right. Got it. It’s definitely a lot harder than it looks and yet Kathleen makes it look like fun.

The wool she doesn’t process in her own studio, which is many, many pounds worth, she sends to mills for processing and resulting products. She has researched and used mills around the United States and Canada and now has a select few that she favors. She uses different mills for different uses of the wool, like roving for spinning, or straight yarn, or knitted goods.

She sends some raw wool to a small mill on Prince Edward Island, where it is spun into yarn. The mill does single fleeces so that processed wool will bear the sheep's name, and those knitters who prefer a particular sheep can be assured that Florence or Fergie is the source. That mill can also turn twelve pounds of raw wool into a beautiful queen-size blanket for Kathleen to sell.

Mills may have a long turnaround time to wash, card, and spin the wool. A year ago, she sent 75 pounds of wool to a mill in Minnesota to processing and, after processing, that mill forwarded it to another mill that makes her rugged Maybelle wool socks and hats on vintage sock machines.

The mill convinced her, very persistently, to try their mittens, too. Kathleen didn't know what to expect when the two big boxes arrived at her door and anxiously waited to open them when her business partner, her daughter Darcy, would be there. Both were delighted with the warm and colorful "Twice-Baked Mittens," made from fleece-lined recycled sweaters with her sheep's natural wool knitted cuff. The mittens have been a favorite of buyers at craft and Christmas fairs this year and online at her farm's website.

Darcy is hands-on with the sheep, too, and, like her mother, also works with people, as a teacher. Darcy's skills were put to the test recently when one of the lambs got pneumonia. The vet treated the lamb, but the saying is "a sick lamb is a dead lamb," and Kathleen, who was sick that week herself, did not have much hope. Darcy nursed the lamb for five days, and both lamb and Kathleen were reunited at the end of the week, healthy and happy.

The lamb, Margie, was one of a pair born in April to a 12-year-old blind ewe, which was a surprise to everyone. The ewe had recently been acquired from another farm. Kathleen had gone into the barn that chilly morning and found the mother “talking” to her four-pound twins nestled in the straw. Although blind, the ewe was a fine mother. Kathleen writes in her Maybelle Farm blog, “…it is always nice to go to the barn and forget about everything except watching little lambs bouncing around, chasing each other and loving life.”

Not one to rest, Kathleen teaches her crafts to adults in her studio or to children at a week-long “Fiber Fun Camp,” which includes spinning, dying, felting, knitting, weaving, shepherding and even fairy houses. She opens her farm to families or groups that want to see a real working farm and pet a lamb that may have been brought into the world the night before by Kathleen or Darcy.

With evident joy, Kathleen writes, “Each day we seem to learn a little more, have at least one farm adventure and say again how happy we are to have found Shetland sheep. Their unique personalities, feistiness and wagging tales always bring a smile to our faces.”

“Find your passion, people say. I found my passion!” Kathleen Meeks’ passion is her life – life on Maybelle Farm with her creativity enfolding her family, her profession, her sheep, and her art.

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