I’ve always counted Brooke Sinnes of Sincere Sheep Yarns as my original newfound friend in the yarn world, and she is still one of the most knowledgable and thoughtful people I know, in addition to simply being one of my favorite humans. When I first started knitting, the two of us somehow became aware of each other on Twitter, met for tacos in Berkeley, discovered that we both had Napa and Kansas City in our backgrounds, and became instant friends. Shortly thereafter, I designed the Double Basketweave Cowl in one of her gorgeous naturally dyed yarns, and we recently decided to upgrade the recommended yarn for that cowl to her incredible US-grown and -milled Cormo — a breed-specific, single-farm yarn, still naturally dyed. So we’re relaunching the now-Cormo cowl kit in the webshop today, and I thought it would be a great time to talk to Brooke about what it means to make and knit with breed-specific yarns and get her highly informed take on where we are with known origins at this stage in the knitting world.
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When I first ran across you — when I first started knitting — I read the About page on your site about the name Sincere Sheep and that you were selling yarns made from identifiable breeds and farms, which made perfect sense to me as you live in Napa and I had lived in Napa, and that kind of awareness of “terroir” comes with the, er, territory. So I’m not sure I even realized how not-the-norm that was at the time. Did it seem groundbreaking to you when you set out with that as your mission?
At the time, although it was groundbreaking, I remember it seemed very natural to me. I moved back to Berkeley after graduating university in 2001, and I was living smack in the middle of an area known for progressive thinking. The slow food movement was really taking root. Seasonal eating, farmers’ markets and local food sourcing were a regular thing. A couple of years later, I moved to the Napa Valley and learned that wineries were creating single-vineyard wines, which was taking the concept of terroir to an even more specific level. I looked around at all of these developments related to food and the annual growing cycle and said to myself, “All of these concepts apply to natural fibers and dyes.” Every year sheep need to be shorn, and their fleece is a record of what happened to them during the year — just like grapes and other agricultural crops develop characteristics based on weather, soil, water, care, etc. The same is true of the plants we use for dyes. To take it a step further, each sheep breed has wool with different qualities that interact with the environment and make it appealing for different types of yarn. And actually, each sheep has its own individual characteristics.
Sincere Sheep came into being when I connected this concept with something I had learned while taking fiber arts classes in Berkeley: American wool prices were incredibly low. So low, in fact, that many small farmers weren’t even bothering to send their wool to the local wool broker. Instead they were throwing the wool away, composting it, or stashing it in the barn. I met with a shearer who specialized in small flocks and ‘lawnmower sheep,’ and they put me in contact with local farms where I could buy the wool. With that connection, taking the idea for terroir and translating it to fiber was doable. I had the local wool made into yarn and roving at a mill only 50 miles from my house. I dyed it with natural dyes, then labeled it with the name of the farm and its location, and also the sheep’s name if it had one. It felt really good to be supporting these farmers while making a highly transparent, local product that was fun to work with.
Like the larger “slow fashion” movement, it can feel like a new or trendy concept — knowing where your clothes or the fiber of your yarn comes from — when really it’s just an effort to get back to how things used to be. I know this is a book-sized question, but can you talk a little bit about the difference between “farm yarns” and where large-scale commercial yarns come from?
When I think about terroir in yarn, I think about texture. Farm yarns are typically made by farmers with wool from only their flock — which means all the wool comes from a specific place and reflects how the sheep lived that year. Mass-market yarns are different. They are made in large quantities, and made with wool that has been selected for specific qualities: fineness, length, or color. This means that a mass-market yarn will be exactly the same from yard to yard and from year to year. Their goal is absolute consistency. The fiber does not usually come from a specific farm, ranch, or even region!
One of my favorite things about farm yarn is how it has more texture — the wool can vary slightly from yard to yard, and it changes each year. This allows the qualities of the sheep breed(s) it is made from to shine through. For example, you get to experience the incredible elasticity of Cormo wool first hand in yarn form. Additionally this means you can revisit a farm yarn and experience how that year’s rainfall or temperature affected the character of the yarn. It is also more engaging for me to make — When I make a local, custom yarn I get to go to the farm and help with the shearing. I get to pick the fleeces that I want and send them to a mill to be processed into yarn or roving to my specifications. I think about the best yarn I can make with the wool I have just chosen. Other times, I work with a wool broker to find enough fleeces with the quality I am looking for from sheep that all live on the same ranch. From there, the wool is sent to the mill to be processed into custom yarn with specifications that we designate. It’s always interesting to open the boxes of yarn when they arrive and see how it has come out, how it is reflective of its terroir. My involvement allows me to create a yarn that shows the wool to its best advantage and a product with a unique, handmade story.
So you had this concept and named your business Sincere Sheep, but it’s a steep challenge. Was it as you imagined, or how would you describe the trajectory from where you started out to where you are now, and what you’ve had to navigate in between?
When I started Sincere Sheep 15 years ago I don’t think I was thinking long term. I saw that there was an opportunity for me to make a difference to local farmers who were hurting because of the low wool prices. That continues to be one of my goals today, even though American fine wool prices have almost doubled from 2017 to 2018. Regardless of wool price, small-scale farming is hard work and needs our support if we want it to continue.
What I didn’t realize when I first started making yarn was how little of the American textile industry was still around after the mass exodus of both jobs and machinery in the ’80s due to the push toward globalization. It was a real challenge to find a mill that could handle fine wool in small to medium quantities and then spin a yarn to consistent specifications year after year. It has been heartening to see some of these small-scale production capabilities return to the American textile industry over the past 15 years
As the business grew, I started to incorporate more international yarns that were Merino-based because of market demand. I semi-jokingly refer to those years as the era of the ‘cult of the soft.’ Throughout that time, I continued to make small farm yarns and roving mostly from California ranches and kept my eye open for when I would be able to offer more domestic bases. That happened about 4 years ago. Since 2014, I’ve been custom making my American-sourced and -spun Cormo yarn in coordination with Jeane deCoster of Elemental Affects. By working collaboratively, we can buy a large lot of wool and take advantage of large-quantity price breaks given by the mills where we have the wool cleaned and spun.
I’ve had yarns custom made for me since the beginning, and as my business has grown so has the scale of these projects. Scaling up has really changed a lot of the dynamics within Sincere Sheep. Most indie dyers buy [finished, undyed] yarn from wholesalers on an as-needed basis. This means that they only buy what they need, when they need it. The wholesaler is therefore the one who is shouldering the bulk of the production risk and inventory warehousing in order to fulfill orders. Currently, if you want to make a custom-spun yarn that includes wool from only one clip and only one location, you have to buy all the wool at one time that you are going to need to make all of the yarn that you will need for the following year. So it becomes more complicated: Not only are you forecasting how much wool is enough without being too much, but you also have to be prepared to outlay all of your cash at once. Then when the yarn is finished being milled it all comes at one time, and you have to warehouse hundreds of pounds of yarn. It is a lot of planning ahead. With everything that goes into it, it’s always an exciting day when we finally get a batch of yarn or roving back from the mill!
I know in the 6.5 years I’ve been knitting, the surge in visibility of farm yarns — and I’m referring here specifically to farmers who are having their fleece milled into yarn, and marketing it with some success, even beyond their own farmers’ market — and in yarn companies shifting more and more toward origin transparency and breed specificity has been really amazing to watch. Where do you think we’re really headed?
My mom is in sales and taught me the term ‘bleeding edge’ — meaning you are too far ahead of a trend and there isn’t yet a market for your goods. Fifteen years ago, when I was starting to make farm yarns from non-Merino wools, I was the bleeding edge. People were interested and supportive, but they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around using my yarns. Around the same time, Merino was really starting to make a huge splash as a breed-specific yarn and people were discovering that wool could be soft and wearable. Over the years since then, there has certainly grown a greater understanding of breeds and origins and that’s a very positive shift! People are now interested in single origin, non-Merino wool yarns, but I still have new customers who are surprised by just how many breeds there are. I am hopeful that this trend in origin transparency and breed specificity will continue and that people understand that they have the powerful ability to directly support farmers, mills and dyers with their purchase.
So let’s talk about this Cormo of yours. Cormo, to the extent it’s known at all really, is best known as an Australian breed, right? But you’re among a small number of people bringing US Cormo to the forefront. What is it about Cormo that lights you up especially, and how did you come to be making Cormo yarn?
You’re correct, Cormo is an Australian breed. The Cormo sheep was developed in the 1960s in Tasmania by crossing Corriedales (a medium-wool type sheep) with Saxon Merinos (a fine-wool type sheep). Cormo sheep were selected for breeding based on the weight of their fleeces (high); the diameter of their fiber (18-23 microns, which is relatively fine but still strong); high fertility so more lambs per litter; and body weight. Cormos were then imported in the 1970s to the US to improve the wool produced on rangeland ranches.
What I love about Cormo wool is its soft, downy hand and incredible elasticity. It’s common for me to have people unfamiliar with Cormo ask me if my yarn is cotton because of how soft it feels. We have the yarn spun and plied on the tighter side to help the yarn wear better and it looks equally great in accessories and garments. I love it when a customer wears their finished sweater to a show and tells me how much they loved working with the yarn — and then proceeds to buy more for their next project! It is incredibly satisfying to see someone love a specific yarn that much.
I first discovered Cormo wool via Sue Reuser who was farming Cormo sheep up in Orland, CA. She had the most amazing flock of white and colored Cormos. She was breeding them towards producing fleeces for handspinners. Sue had a strong and loyal base of spinners that would buy a fleece or two or three every year and would often reserve a fleece a year in advance and then come up for the shearing. I was at one of those shearings when Sue offered to sell me some white Cormo fleece that wasn’t already reserved. I bought the wool and made my first Cormo yarn from it. This continued on the next couple of years until Sue retired, and I convinced Jeane DeCoster to start making a replacement Cormo yarn with me. Now Jeane and I make four different weights of Cormo yarns every year and then each of us dyes the yarns in our own distinctive way. I love the hand of our yarns, and it takes natural dyes beautifully. I have yet to tire of knitting with it on a daily basis!
What makes you so excited about switching over to the Cormo Sport for the Double Basketweave Cowl kit?
I often talk about how much I enjoy being a part of and supporting the handmade community, and connecting with all of the people that I meet through Sincere Sheep. I’m passionate about providing makers with the best quality yarn that is both enjoyable to work with while knitting and results in a finished project that is richly textured and enjoyable to wear. I love the way the Cormo Sport feels to knit and it’s so cozy in the finished cowl. As a bonus, it’s a meaningful opportunity for your customers to support an American wool farmer, mill and dyer.
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Thank you so much, Brooke! And for those interested, check out the free Double Basketweave Cowl pattern here on the blog, and find the Cormo cowl kit (includes the printed pattern and two skeins of Brooke’s beautiful yarn) over at Fringe Supply Co.!
Happy weekend, everyone—
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