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Shepherding Mom's Unfinished Stitches

A delivery truck dropped off an oversized box at my front door in Maine after New Year's. My sister had discovered it in my mother's back hall closet in Florida and sent it to me - along with so many of her things.

Yes, it was all there. All 40 skeins of wool. The fibers were uneven in color and texture; in other words, unmistakably homespun.

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My mother and I had been part of a wool operation for years: I'd raise the wool, ship it, and she'd knit it. Over seven years she had knitted enough four-inch squares for two bed-sized blankets - heirlooms, she called them - with just her Quicksilver needles and my wool. Her rewards were simple enough, she claimed - blankets for her grandchildren and softer hands from knitting the oily fibers.

"Mom, my spinner called and said she'd trade some black for some ivory. Do you think we could use another color?" I'd ask her.

"Sure. Let's run a new skein through the border," she'd suggest.

I admired her quick hands and nimble fingers. Her needles would click away like two birds talking. Now, the knitting would fall to me. Could I make those needles sing? Three children, two blankets. One more blanket to go. Gee whiz.

Over those seven years, my husband and I had never intended to be in the wool business. We had become shepherds by default. I mean, we had only started with three sheep - one for each child to raise, as my husband had reminded them, as "freezer lambs."

But the freezer part never worked out. The lambs became pets the moment they arrived at our house. How do livestock become pets, you may ask? Easy. You give them names.

"I'll call mine 'Deana'!" Lara shrieked as the spring lambs were unloaded from the back of a tall-sided truck. "Mine's 'Danny'!" Matt shouted. "Belle!" Heidi yelled. (There you go. It was only March. I could already tell these lambs weren't going into any freezer in the fall.)

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Once October rolled around and "freezer" came up again, I suggested that "fleece" was a good reason to keep our livestock, or was it "love stock" now? "Think of the mittens! The scarves! The hats!" I pleaded.

My husband looked half-amused, half-convinced, knowing I was crafty (but not in the knitting sense). He caved in. Now the meat business became the wool business.

We were busy. After many seasons of crossbreeding these wooly pets, three sheep became five, then five became nine in no time. The need for mittens, scarves, and hats could no longer handle the supply of wool. We had ourselves fleeces that needed a much larger purpose.

How about blankets? we asked ourselves. That's when my mother offered to knit as much as we could spin.

Every spring, Mr. Saucier, the shearer, would come by the house and set up in our garage with an extension cord, a rug, and electric shears. He'd sit each sheep on its haunches, snip away, and then flip the animal over his aproned knees to clip its backside. Most of the time the fleece would roll off like a rug, all in one piece.

I'd gather the wool quickly into a bag, shake off the dust and chaff, and rub the oil through my fingers. The wool was now ready for washing, carding, and spinning. And then off to Florida.

"Wow! I didn't know Danny was so small, Mom!" Matt would wrap his arms around his ram and lead him back to the pasture. Without a wool coat, Danny looked like a goat. But in another nine months - wow! - you'd lose sight of your forearm as you rubbed his back.

IT'S been 10 years since sheep grazed our fields, growing enough wool to fill nine burlap bags every spring. My spinner would wash, card, and spin it all, leaving me half. That was fair. Between the two of us, Mom and I (I'd sew the squares together) would complete one blanket a year.

Now it's my turn to work the needles through the last skeins of wool. I'll complete one more family heirloom, knowing that my hands will be better for it.

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