Thirteen years ago, Karen Kauth moved away from heavy traffic and gangs, and landed in a red brick farmhouse between Winchester and Mountain. They had just enough land to warrant the purchase of a ride-on mower. She now raises Shetland sheep, with lovely soft, naturally coloured wool, for both their fleece and as breeding stock.
I discovered Karen and Karberry Farm when I was looking for local wool roving in order to felt some soap I had made. Roving, by the way, is a long narrow bundle of fibre, in this case wool fleece. It’s wool before it’s spun into yarn. She also sells fleece, yarns, socks, sock yarn, and spun wool for knitting and such. Her wool is gorgeous. She has hand-dyed, 100% Shetland wool, natural wool from other sheep, as well as a variety of brands.
Karen got into wool and sheep because she’s an avid knitter, and she wanted to learn more about the process from sheep, to yarn, to clothing. She learned to spin, and tried spinning roving from a variety of roving from different breeds of sheep. She enjoyed the Shetland roving the best.
Getting sheep seemed the logical next step as she already had horses and chickens. It didn’t seem a stretch to add a few sheep. She chose Shetland sheep because of her love for the wool. It is very versatile, and naturally comes in many colours, including black, brown, grey, cream, and white, with various diverse shades and markings within the colours. She likes the Shetland sheep themselves too, because they are relatively independent and smart. The ewes are good mothers and require very little assistance with lambing, if any.
There is a small local market for local wool. Some other farms in the area raise sheep with good wool, so she buys from them, then cleans it, and transforms it into sought-after fibre. This supports other local farmers, and provides more inventory and selection for her customers.
She does not sell homespun wool, because it is very time-consuming to produce. She skirts the wool (cleans it, taking out the hay, chaff, and poop). Washing wool can remove 40% of the weight, but if you send it unwashed, the mill charges to wash it. The mills charge on received weight, so the process involves either washing a lot of fleece, or sending a lot of fleece. Either way, it’s a lot of work. The sheep get shorn once a year in spring.
Karen knits, spins, weaves, felts, and dyes wool. These skills help her to know what her customers are looking for in a product. They sell lambs and breeding stock, along with fleece and wool. Fleece costs more to produce than it can bring in. Like so many heritage breeders, it’s the love and passion that keep the breeds, as well as heritage skills, alive.
Karen’s last big event was attending the Chesterville Spin-in last February. March, 2020, saw the beginning of the fairs and festivals cancellations. This continued throughout 2020, and 2021 doesn’t look much better so far. Some determined craft fairs tried to go ahead before Christmas, either outside, or inside with extreme social distancing measures in place, such as our Parade of Lights Vendors’ Fair. It is fibre festivals and similar events that fuel the business and feed the sheep. Kemptville’s Farmers Market continued as best it could, with pandemic restrictions in place. There she found supportive clientele, and, on hot summer Sundays, customers bought chicken and wool.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on wool and fibre sales. Like many others, Karen has done her best to shift her business in response to lock downs and closure orders. Her studio became a small wool shop where people could shop by appointment. She had a website, but in her words, it was more of a “landing page”, rather than a full-blown, e-commerce capable, interactive website. The animals have to be fed, and she had worked hard building the business. The first thing out of every animal-owning business person I have talked to about the pandemic has been “I have to feed the animals!” Karen investigated and found the Cornwall & the Counties Community Futures Development Corporation. They were a huge help with finding out about loans and support. Through them, she also found out about the Technology Innovation Program (TIP), where she received the help she needed to build a user-friendly website with secure e-commerce capabilities. She has learned a lot about websites through them.