Photograph by Lisa J. Godfrey
How Blue Pepper Farm is turning local wool into local wear
Shearing day at Blue Pepper Farm happens on a bitter-cold morning in late February. Smoke curls from Shannon and Tyler Eaton’s farmhouse wood stove. It feels counterintuitive to remove the fleece coats from Blue Pepper’s East Friesian milking flock during such frigid weather, but Shannon explains that shearing the bulky fleeces before lambs are born in March will help mothers and babies navigate feeding and sheltering, both of which are crucial to the lambs’ survival.
Shearing is an all-day affair. The professional shearer, Mary Lake, arrives from Vermont late morning. As Mary shears, the Eatons and a couple of volunteering friends scoop up fleeces and bring them to a table for skirting. Skirting is the initial cleaning of each fleece—removing hay and burrs stuck in the wool—before fleeces are sent to a Washington County fiber mill for washing and spinning. The skirters diligently keep up with Mary, who steadies each sheep between her legs and removes its fleece in a few well-aimed motions with her electric clippers.
The Eatons bought their Jay farm in 2011, raising sheep, pigs and chickens and boarding heifers from Upper Jay’s Sugar House Creamery. Blue Pepper Farm’s signature product is sheep’s-milk yogurt, but, intent on using the whole animal, the Eatons also sell sheepskins, meat and, more recently, wool yarn.
In 2016, Shannon co-founded Adirondack Fibershed with Brittany Christenson, executive director of ADK Action, a community-development and environmental organization based in Saranac Lake. The plan was to create and market products made from Shannon’s wool. They signed up to launch an Adirondack affiliate of Fibershed, a California nonprofit founded by Rebecca Burgess. It envisions “the emergence of an international system of regional textile communities,” and supports producers and artisans in creating environmentally sustainable, regional al–ternatives to mass-produced “fast fashion” made from petroleum-based materials and expected to last only as long as the next trend cycle.
“It’s so wasteful,” says Shannon. By contrast, “in slow fashion, you make your clothing out of valuable textiles, and it takes you a long time, but then it’s higher quality and it’s going to last a long time.”
Most wool yarn is made from sheep bred specifically for fiber. Shannon could find little information about whether her East Friesian sheep, traditionally bred for dairy, would produce good-quality fleeces. “It was a shot in the dark to see if the fiber was going to be nice enough to make yarn,” Shannon says. “And in the beginning, a lot of people I spoke with were not encouraging. But we went ahead and did it because we had this raw material.”
Lilly Marsh, a Glens Falls–based weaver, came to Blue Pepper Farm to volunteer that first shearing day in 2017. Marsh had experience raising sheep for wool on a homestead in Indiana and helped Shannon and Tyler establish a skirting practice with wool production in mind.
Marsh was impressed enough to purchase the farm’s entire clip of 34 raw fleeces the following year. She worked with Mary Jean Packer, owner of Battenkill Fibers, a custom carding and spinning mill in Greenwich, New York, to develop a versatile weaver’s yarn with a blend of Blue Pepper’s East Friesian wool and a small percentage of alpaca from Little Creek Alpaca Farm in North Salem, New York. The East Friesians’ wool was durable and resistant to pilling, while just a little alpaca fiber added a missing softness. The result was a wool yarn that could be woven into sewable fabric and ultimately used to produce local clothing.
Since Marsh first purchased Blue Pepper’s wool, she has continued to collaborate with Battenkill Fiber to develop local fabric, using a variety of regional wools, which they call “Hudson Farm Cloth.” Marsh and Packer have also been instrumental in integrating the Adirondack Fibershed into the Hudson Valley Textile Project, which has similar aims, to broaden the services and education available to fiber producers, millers and artisans in the two regions.
Shannon says she is hopeful that the emergent collaboration will “breathe new life into Adirondack Fibershed,” while she focuses on producing high-quality yogurt, meat and yarn from Blue Pepper’s growing flock of 50 sheep.
She remains passionate about applying the locavore concept to fibers and helping consumers understand the im–pact of their clothing purchases on the environment and the regional economy.
Like food, Shannon says, “clothing should also be seen as an agricultural product.”