A Chat with Underhill Farm

I have a treat for you today! A few weeks ago I started a new sweater for myself, at my daughter’s instigation, using some yarn I’ve had stowed away for a long time. It came from a farmers’ market, where I bought it straight from the farmers themselves. On a whim, I looked them up, sent an email, and one of the farmers, William, agreed to chat for a little bit. It’s not every day that you get to learn about the very sheep your yarn came from, many years after the fact. So here’s a little bit about Underhill Farm.

William Churchill and Fred Stowell have been farming in Hollidaysburg, outside of Altoona in central Pennsylvania, for thirty years. They’ve kept Leicester Longwools for ten years, after previously raising Corriedales. (Leicester is pronounced “Lester.”) They were looking for a new breed, and went to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. They had a conversation with Elaine Shirley, who was the president of the Leicester Longwool association. She mentioned several times in their conversation that Leicester Longwools are a “heritage” breed. Since they live in a historic town, William and Fred thought the breed would be a good fit. According to the Livestock Conservancy, Leicester Longwools are considered “threatened.” They are a very old breed, having been used in the development and improvement of many other breeds.

A Leicester Longwool lamb. Photo copyright William Churchill 2014.

                I asked William what Leiciester Longwools are like to work with. He described their sweet disposition, and that they are well-adapted to the climate of Pennsylvania. The heat seems to bother them more than the cold. I brought up the stereotype, which I have often heard (and sometimes propagated), that sheep are unintelligent. William disagreed strongly; he described how his sheep can recognize up to ten faces, and can tell when you’re smiling or not. He told one story of a sheep named Annie, originally called “little orphan Annie.” He raised her himself, and she answers to her name, running up hoping for a handful of corn out of his pocket.

The yarn I bought was labeled with the names of four animals: Rocky, Lilac, Tulip, and Obama. Even though I bought the yarn at least six years ago, William knows each of them by name. Rocky is a goat who is still alive; the rest are sheep. Lilac is still alive and breeding. Tulip died of a digestive problem. But my favorite story was about Obama. He was their first black male lamb, who would sire their line, and they bought him just after the US had elected their first black president. He lived for nine years and died of old age.

Some black ewes. Photo copyright William Churchill 2014.

Underhill Farm has worked with different mills to make unique batches of farm yarns. Some mills design the yarns themselves, while others offer suggestions. Some mills dye the yarn for them, but undyed yarns they dye themselves. They have their own basement studio where they dye the yarns with acid dyes. They prefer acid dyes for repeatability, and so they can dye large enough quantities to be consistent over large projects. Their latest yarn is a color twisting yarn made with two different colors of mohair: natural white and “red”, which is a tawny brown.

Three Angora goats; the top right one is “red.” Photo copyright William Churchill 2014.

I asked William if there was anything else he’d like to pass on to knitters. He says he sometimes apologizes for the expense of the yarn, but that’s the price of working in small batches. The yarns that they make can never be duplicated, and they are completely unique. Knitters are particularly attracted to the sheen of the yarns, and the fact that the breed is so historic: these are the same sheep that were raised by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. William finds that knitters love to come back and show off their projects that came from their sheep, and they don’t want to go back to using cheap yarns.

In my opinion, in the current world of boutique and small-scale yarn production, their price point is very reasonable. Like any small batch yarn, though, you always want to make sure to buy enough for your project. I’ll discuss the yarn more when I update you on my sweater, but for now I can attest to the beautiful sheen of the yarn, which comes from the fact that it is a longwool breed, and it has a softness and halo that comes from the mohair.

Underhill Farm sells most of their yarns at local festivals and in person. If you’d like to learn more about them, or find out where you can find their yarn, you can find them on their website and on their Facebook page. Special thanks to William for his time and for permission to use his photos of their lovely animals.

“King Arthur.” Photo copyright William Churchill 2014.

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