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Women at Work: Tammy + Char White, Fiber Farmers at Wing and a Prayer

Tammy, tell us about Wing And A Prayer, your farm in Vermont.
We’ve got 20 acres, with about 70 sheep right now (it’s lambing season) as well as 7 alpacas, 3 mini donkeys, 5 angora goats, 1 hog, 4 dogs and 9 cats. Some of our animals are rescues, however we have also bred our sheep and goats over the years, and have many Shetlands and Cormos, Merinos, now Valais Blacknose (aka The World’s Cutest Sheep), and more breeds born here.

You describe your farm as a Fiber Farm. What does that mean?
Because we raise our animals for fiber, they are producers year in and year out. Harvesting their fiber happens once or twice a year, depending on the breed, health, etc. that dictates how fast/how much fiber they grow. This type of farming suits us so well and is very sustainable. We are able to raise these animals from birth to natural death and they are part of our family. They also all grow, naturally, a fiber that can be humanely shorn/harvested and then processed and spun into a sustainable thread or yarn. So we’re lovingly raising an animal, a companion, that is part of a cycle of drawing down carbon to clean up the earth’s atmosphere while producing a natural fiber—which we also dye using dyes we make from flowers and vegetables we grow ourselves. My daughter Char is the master of the dyeing and cutting garden.

Char, tell us more about the dye garden.
The dye garden is one of my favorite annual farm projects, and I love the process from start to finish. It can be hit or miss with certain crops, but I feel very accomplished when we get a good indigo harvest, or when the annual and perennial flowers are established enough for cutting. This winter, I started my seedlings in the wood shop of our garage, which has a wood stove in it. I fed the fire a few times a day, keeping the temperature above 50ºF, until mid April. In May I began planting out a lot of the baby plants, especially the madder, which is frost-hardy. Madder is a 2-year root crop, and it’s a very popular color—I need all the time I can get for it to establish roots and foliage before it’s ready to harvest and be turned into dye for yarn.

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Char, you’re also an expert shearer and midwife to mamas in lambing season. What’s the most rewarding part? What’s the most challenging?
Lambing can be so wonderful—the best scenario is when the ewe needs no help with delivery, and the lambs are born healthy and need no help learning how to nurse. However, in the past few years I’ve been a part of some more difficult births here on the farm. This spring I helped our Teeswater ewe, Dolly, who was having a hard time with her huge, improperly positioned triplets. That birth had a happy ending. Not all cases do, but even when there's a tragic end, I feel very privileged to have helped out as best I can. I also find the more medical parts of lambing to be incredibly fascinating.

Tammy, you’re a pelt pioneer! Growing, shearing, blending, and dyeing your own super high-quality fiber long before slow fashion was a thing. What drew you to doing things the long and hard way?
Ha! I love that—a “pelt pioneer”!It never occurred to me that I was a pioneer but I get what you mean. I’m glad there is a lot of focus on slow fashion now. I came to fiber farming very organically. I grew up on a farm. And fiber farming was a project that started as a way to steward the earth humanely and sustainably with my kids when they were young. Then when the kids grew up, I upsized it. I turned my business from a sleepy table at the farmers market—with a few skeins of wool, pies and eggs—to an online marketplace, a travel schedule to include fiber festivals and retreats, and increased marketing.

Tammy White with some of the yarn she makes and dyes

And how’s this for slow fashion: When I finally got to farming full time in my late 40’s, my daughters had been in the habit of fixing my overalls for me for Mother’s Day or my birthday every year with new embroidered patches. I wore the same pair all of the time, but they would get holes. And they’d find them, put the cutest mends on them, and package them up for me to discover. It was such fun.

Tell us about some of the yarns you’ve made.
Thelma + Louise—a 2-ply yarn that incorporates the strength and luster from the long wools (our Cotswolds, Wensleydales and Teeswaters) and soft silky fiber from the Angora goats (mohair for the win!). Plus fineness and crimp from our Cormo sheep.

Hey, Sugar!—a 3-ply bulky yarn made with the chocolatey fine wool from our colored Merinos and our sweet dark-fleeced Shetland sheep with their downy-soft, lightweight Moorit and black wool.

All The Single Ladies—a 3-strand single-ply worsted 100% Shetland wool yarn that we make with the fiber from All The Single Ladies—the ewes in the field

The Boy Band—from the rams and the wethers (neutered males), comes this  2-strand 100% Shetland yarn that has a little bit of "tooth."It makes really good garments for keeping the cold and snow out, and stands the test of time.   

If you were blindfolded, would you know which wool you were touching?
In a heartbeat. These are my kids—you know the differences!

Char, tell us about an animal, who is particularly close to your heart.
When I was 14 or 15, we had a Shetland lamb named Aisling who was rejected by her mother. Aisling was our first bottle baby, and she lived in the house with the family for the first few weeks of her life. Aisling got a midnight bottle and an early-morning bottle. I was generally up doing homework until 10:30 or 11, so after I finished up with that, Aisling and I would watch Netflix at the family computer together until midnight bottle time. Aisling would sit on my lap, dutifully watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then have her bottle, and go to sleep in her crate with one of my shirts as a comfort item. She grew up into a beautiful ewe who was a classic bottle baby: friendly and trusting, but also a bit of a hellion who would escape the sheep pen whenever she felt like it.

Tammy, please finish this sentence: Mary had a little lamb…
Let’s back up. And give Mary more lambs, for one thing. OK, here goes:

Mary had some little lambs
Their fleece was soft as cloud
And everywhere that Mary went
Her lambs would make her proud.
People loved her lambs so much
They followed them, followed them
On Instagram and Patreon
The LambCam was a hit…

You’re fiber connoisseurs. On a freezing cold Vermont night, what blankets do you sleep under?
I’m buried in wool filled comforters that I make with my flocks’ wool. They are akin to a getaway at a posh hotel.

Please answer each question:
Winter in Vermont is…
T: …so much fun, especially when ice skating at the pond on our farm. Join us! We have 40+ pairs of ice skates and a warming hut.

C:…hot toddy time. With Vermont whiskey, of course, from one of our many wonderful distilleries. I make a mean one.

Tell us something no one would guess by looking at you.
T: I love tequila. Also, I’m really good at hula-hooping.

C: I can't whistle, and I’m actually allergic to most animals, including almost all the animals I help raise! 

What’s always in your pockets?
C: Hay. Lots of hay. And in my bra. And in my socks. Hay everywhere. I’m always itchy. 

T: lambs’ tails and lambs’ testicles. It’s a whole long story…

Follow Wing And A Prayer farm here.
Tammy + Char both use she + her pronouns.