For the last 10+ years, Barbara Parry and her husband have been establishing a flock of Cormo and Border Leicester sheep at their 220-acre farm in western Massachusetts.
More recently, she began documenting her daily life on the farm in her blog, Sheepgal—it’s one of my daily reads, and I encourage you to bookmark it.
[Note: In 2014 Barbara stopped updating her blog. Instead, I suggest you get a copy of her book, Adventures in Yarn Farming, and settle down for a superb read.]
Barbara sells her yarns primarily at sheep and wool festivals in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York, and she also makes them available to the general public through her Web site. Foxfire Fiber is perhaps best known for its luxurious Cormo wool blends, but Barbara also offers some intriguing blends based on her Border Leicester fibers—and that’s what I review here.
Upland Wool and Alpaca is a single-ply blend of Border Leicester and Cormo/Leicester/Rambouillet cross wool fibers, mixed with 20% prime alpaca fibers that Barbara selects by hand from the clip of a local alpaca herd. It is an ideal harder-wearing counterpoint to Barbara’s delicate Cormo.
Knitting with Upland Wool and Alpaca was easy and swift. This loosely twisted single-ply yarn has a relatively consistent thickness, and I encountered no knots and just a few flecks of vegetable matter in my skein.
The different fibers absorb and reflect dye at varying degrees, giving the yarn a beautiful heathered quality with a remarkable swirling sheen throughout.
I was quickly able to knit by touch alone, gazing out the window while my stitches flew past quickly and snaglessly on the needles. My stitches looked mostly even, with just a hint of irregularity here or there that I suspected would even out in the wash.
Blocking / Washing
The label had no care instructions, so I resorted to standard procedure: I washed my swatch in lukewarm water with a dab of Ivory dishwashing liquid. The deep red dye didn’t bleed a bit. I rinsed my swatch and blotted it dry, delighted by the way that the fabric had become smooth, fuzzy, and cohesive, my stitches even.
I did have to pin down the top and edges of my swatch to keep them from curling as they dried. The dried swatch showed no change in stitches or in rows per inch—the gauge was perfectly steady.
Upland Wool and Alpaca has the somewhat dry hand you’d expect from a very good Icelandic yarn, but the fibers stuck to one another in a way more reminiscent of Shetland. Both of those qualities are countered by an overall softer feel provided by the finewool and alpaca fibers.
The presence of the Border Leicester fibers makes this an innately stronger, more durable yarn than a comparably spun finewool. The Border Leicester also gives the yarn spunk and character. No, it’s not nearly as wear-it-to-bed soft as Cormo or Merino, but Upland Wool and Alpaca is not prohibitively scratchy either.
And its qualities cannot be overlooked: it has a crisp feel, superior durability, and can trap lots of still air within its fibers to keep you toasty warm. This is an ideal yarn for any of those warm, comfy sweaters you’d wear over a turtleneck.
Barbara Parry is very fussy about her yarn. She doesn’t just send her fleeces to a mill and say, “Spin this please.” She usually travels to the mill, so that she can be physically on-site while the yarn is being spun. She often makes last-minute changes, tweaking the twist until it is just right. She is a perfectionist and a knitter, and the results are evident in a yarn that is quietly perfect.
You’ll need about 1200 yards of Upland Wool and Alpaca for an unadorned, medium-sized women’s pullover, which translates to 9 skeins at a bill of $135. [As of 2016, the yarn is priced at $14/skein for natural, $16/skein for dyed.] Once you read Barbara’s blog and get an idea of how much time, love, and soul go into these fibers—from lambing season to shearing day and dyeing—you’ll realize how fair a price this is.
Even so, I know that $135 will be out of some people’s reach, especially in the current economy. In this case, don’t be afraid to think smaller. The yarn may not be quite soft enough for scarves, but it begs to become a cabled hat or a pair of mittens. Two skeins will get you a hat, and three will guarantee you a great pair of mittens. In fact, Barbara sells this yarn as a kit for Kate Gilbert’s Bird in Hand mittens for $50. (The yarn also renders exquisite cables—scroll down on this page to see some examples.)
And if $50 is still beyond your budget, how’s this for a deal: One skein will make a perfect and long-lasting pair of my Maine Morning Mitts using a special yarn that comes straight from the hands of the shepherd. The pattern’s free, bringing your total bill to $15.