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Confessions of a Wool Processing Convert

Or Welcome to the Wonderful Word of Processing Fleece!   

In honor of our new sampler, we decided to cover the processing of raw fleece into a finished yarn this month.  While there are certainly numerous other posts on the topic (you can find links to some of our favorites at the end of the blog post) we often get questions and we like to share tips when we can.  Here goes!


I never thought I would enjoy dealing with raw wool.  It’s greasy, smelly, has … things … in it and my hands are gross when I finish handling it.  And the buckets of scour water – it’s like there’s a mud puddle in there sometimes!  Right?  Are you with me?  Well, that’s what I felt about it anyway; I was not a fan.   

And yet…

The raw fleece to finished object process is wonderful; you control all the steps and create exactly the textile you want (with some practice and sampling of course).  For a control freak, it’s ideal.  For someone who wants to maximize their expense to enjoyment ratio, it’s heaven.  For a person who wants to explore, it’s perfect.  

Don’t get me wrong – there’s still grease and grime, and things, but you pretty soon realize that wool has different smells by the breed and place of origin (for you wine lovers out there, pour a glass and enjoy your wool’s terroir!) and those fumes soon become a source of stress relief and comfort.  I should really consider starting a “Baaa day” – wool fumes and a facial or mani/pedi!

It all begins with scouring the raw fleece you acquired.  Lots of people are intimidated by this process but it’s really quite simple.  In fact, it’s fundamentally identical to a thing we all do every day: bathing.  Scouring wool is literally the process of immersing something dirty in hot water, cleaning it with soap, in this case scour, and rinsing all the grime away.  

The Steps

Shaken, not stirred…

Select a fiber you wish to try.  Open its bag and set the bag aside – you will want to keep the label.  Shake the fiber out gently over a trash can to loosen the locks and shake out larger bits of vegetable matter (“VM”), dirt and debris. You don’t need to get TOO crazy here, but a good shake does make a difference.  VM will not scour away, but it can be difficult to get the fleece to let it go until the grease is gone.  This is also a good time to open up some of the dirty tips with a comb if there are any particularly clumpy ones.  

Those happen – sheep like to frolic in muddy pastures and barns, and while the shepherds work really hard to rotate flocks away from such things, they are sheep.  They live outdoors and they get rained on.  They tromp around in grass, they lay on it, even in the rain.  And coating is often not practical or healthy for sheep, and always more expensive for a wool buyer.  

Just remain calm, this is after all dirty fleece.  Shearers skirt at the time of shearing.  Shepherds skirt again when they inspect the fleeces.  98% of anything you might see in your bag is VM or dust and debris.  1.5% is tarry tips (which are oxidized lanolin and I highly recommend a cold soak for those). Only very rarely might a dag (yes, that is a dob of sheep poop) sneak through.  But look, they’re vegetarians and we all clean ourselves, so let’s not panic ok?  Wash your hands afterwards.  Wear rubber gloves if you want.  This is not cause for alarm, let alone the destruction of a shepherd’s reputation or someone’s business by attacking them online and decrying how unacceptable and poor you find their wool.  These things are often subjective.  

Gently place the fiber in the mesh bag.  You don’t want to stuff the bag so tight, or fill the tray so much that the water has no room to work.  Leave lots of room for the water to get in and do its magic and a solid couple of inches underneath the fiber when it’s wet for the grime to fall away.  If over packed, the grime stays in and you have to rinse and scour more.  

If the fiber looks very grimy – give it a cold soak for an hour or so.  I frequently do this with particularly high grease fleeces such as merino and cormo as well.  I’ve even left them overnight by accident.  I try to limit it to overnight as I am not personally a fan of the fermented suent method of fleece scouring.  Periodically take a look and if there are muddy tips, you can gently rub them between your fingers to loosen the dirt.

You can gently rub open dirty tips, in this case where we have some mating dye on the wool.

 

Most of the mating dye has been removed with a cold soak and by gently opening the tips. 

You can actually stop here if you want.  A cold soak is actually sufficient for cleaning if you want to retain the lanolin for a more water resistant garment (say for mittens, hats, or even heavy fisherman sweaters).  

A kitty litter tray makes a good scour tray

If you want to scour the wool, now is where we get into the nitty gritty.  Put a dollop of scouring fluid in a container.  And fill that container with piping hot tap water (hot enough to scald your hand should you attempt to leave it in the water for more than a second or two after the water has been sitting for 10-15 minutes). I don’t use a boiling kettle to supplement my tap water because I use a scour designed to be used at home hot water temperatures.  This saves me time and costs because my hot water is already hot for home use and I am not adding time and electricity or gas for getting the kettle up, let alone carrying a boiling kettle to wherever my scour bucket is.  

I can tell you that I find the water best suited to this purpose in my laundry sink which is located about 5’ from my hot water heater and in between the heater and my washing machine.  While that means I have to go to my basement to deal with my scouring, it also means I tend to scour wool on laundry day.  

Immerse the wool in the hot scoury tap water.  Remember, there should be plenty of room for water to penetrate the wool and for the grimy bits to fall out.   I can’t stress this enough.  If you don’t think you have enough room for the water to get in and do it’s magic, or if you are finding that it takes more than 2 scours after you’ve done a cold soak, you might consider less fiber in your water.  Let the wool soak for 18-20 minutes, I’ve even done 15 minutes for less grease wools like shetland.  

Remove the wool from the grimy water, either by lifting the bag or the colander, and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water.  Your water no doubt looks something like below.  Like I said, a muddy river has camped in your bucket.  Dump that in your garden, I assure you the plants love that stuff.  I had roses blooming under my bathroom window in January once because I scoured wool in the bathtub into mid January and they kept getting dumped on.  Hydrangeas like it too.  If you are concerned about any chemicals that may have gotten into the wool from sheep dips or the like, simply don’t pour it on edibles.  The wool scour I prefer is environmentally friendly so I am not concerned about that.  

Muddy river water? no, just dirt from the a fleece.

You’ll repeat those steps one more time then rinse the container out – it probably has silt in the bottom.  Refill the container with piping hot clear water – no scour.  Immerse the bag in the water and let soak 18-20 minutes.  This is your rinse.  It’ll get out any remaining scour and dirty water that may not have been squeezed out after the second scour.  You MAY need a second rinse – err on the side of the rinse.  In this second rinse you may choose to add some Fiber rinse to condition the fiber.  Rinse is particularly welcome in the case of down breeds which tend to feel “crispy” after scouring.  The rinse will also restore some of the lanolin we scoured out alongside the grime.  

If I have a particularly low grease, clean, fleece I might top off the 2nd rinse water to bring the temp back up to scalding, add some scour and reuse the water for the first rinse of my next batch of wool.  But I only suggest this on particularly clean, low grease fleeces.  

Once you‘ve completed your rinse cycle, remove the bag from the water and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water.  If using the colander method – press the water out.  Your fiber should look something like this-

 

And, it’s now much less dirty!

At this point lots of people will try the whole thing again – thinking the fleece is still dirty.  Maybe it’s not bleach white like they wanted.  Fleece comes in a wide range of white from buttery to pearl.  Nothing you do will change that white color, it’s part of the protein and collagen the sheep made.  Embrace the array of natural whites.  If you want bleach white, you’ll need commercially bleached fiber – and yes, I do mean bleached.  Sparkling white has been bleached in industrial vats with strong chemicals and then treated with optical brighteners.  By processing our wool we avoid all these industrial chemicals; it’s part of the allure.  If you hate that your white is buttery, you’re only option is dyeing – or giving away/selling your hard won processed wool.

Or maybe they think those tips are still filthy. They are not still filthy.  Remember that cold soak I suggested earlier?  The one before which I combed open the tips, or wherein I massaged the tips to help loosen them up?  Both of those actions help solve tips such as these.  Whatever you do, do not scour again.  Further scouring may actually damage the fiber.  Turn the fiber very gently out onto a towel or mesh sweater drying rack and let it dry.  Maybe turn it over onto a drier section or a fresh towel half way through.  Generally I walk away for a day.

Once the fiber is dry, it’s ready to flick, comb, card or lock spin into yarn.  If those high grease fleeces still feel greasy, it’s ok to get another scour and rinse WITH fiber rinse in, but I wouldn’t worry about it unless it’s hard to process or spin.  You still have to set your yarn AND wash and block your finished object.  Over processing now will only augment damage to the fiber later.  And remember, those finished objects have a long career ahead of them.  

If you are still worried about your tips and want to make sure you don’t need another round, go ahead and flick them open to release the dirt (experience will generally have you do this as part of your pre spinning preparation instead). If the tips were damaged, they’ll come off in the flicker and there’s no cause for alarm. You may achieve this by tapping or by twisting the lock in the center and brushing the ends.  Tapping opens the fiber into a cloud, brushing retains lock structure. Tapping is a woolen preparation and creates a lofty airy yarn, brushing is worsted and creates a smooth, dense yarn.  

Congratulations!  Your fiber is ready to spin.  Wasn’t that easy?   

Frequently Asked Questions

What is this black stuff?  

Most likely it’s tar – oxidized lanolin and grease.  Let it soak a while and it will come out when you flick.  It is not a cause for concern, but a cold soak would be helpful as they tend to be stubborn.

Why is it so grimy?  

Sheep live outside and some like lounging in mud.  Some even snuggle into compost heaps.  They don’t shower and even though they may get rained on, it doesn’t help them much unless they walk through a moving stream or river, thanks to all that grease.  That’s why we use hot water and scour.  

My wool isn’t white!?  

White comes in many shades from almost bleach to creamy butter.  Wool runs the gamut.  If you want bleach white – well, wool is probably the wrong fiber for you.  If you try bleaching it, it’s likely to be damaged.  Take a page out of Beth Smith’s book and love all the shades of white!    

The tips aren’t completely clean, do I scour it again?  

If you scoured as instructed, then no.  Those tips have some staining from the grease or still contain trapped dirt.  The fleece is clean; flicking it will open the tips and release the dirt.  Once it’s dry – is it still really greasy? Then the water temp may not have been high enough.  This sometimes happens with very fine wools like merino.  Do a “second scour’ again this time adding a kettle of boiling water and re-rinse and dry.  It should solve your problem.

 

Now those links to my favorite wool scouring posts:

http://bethsmithspinning.com/wool-scouring-simple-and-mostly-quick/

http://bethsmithspinning.com/washing-wool-by-the-lock/

http://independentstitch.typepad.com/the_independent_stitch/2008/08/washing-wool.html

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It’s The Year of the Sheep!

THE YEAR OF THE SHEEP – Part 1

We spinners get all the luck in 2015!  Have you heard?

Year of the Sheep!

It is the Year of the Sheep according to the Chinese calendar so we here at The Spinning Loft have decided to do something exciting.  We are celebrating …. wait for it…..

SHEEP!  

I know right?  Aren’t you excited?  It’s a whole new thing for us! I thought we might branch out.

Ok ok ok, fine.  The Shih Tzu Overlord has decided my sense of humor is flatly NOT amusing and demands I get on with it.  (When is the year of the Shih Tzu, Mummy? Huh?  WHEN?)

Cheviot yarn on the bobbin
The Loft colorway – Sock yarn singles on the bobbin

Throughout this year we will be featuring certain sheep.  Challenging breeds, unsung heroes, personal favorites, super versatile fibers, and even, if we like you all very much (and we do), some spinner’s fleeces* – they are all fair game this year.

Why should you love this?  Aside from the fact that it’s all about Sheep and so are we?  Well, because you will get a 10% discount on any featured breed/fleece product!  There’s no need to enter any coupon code, the discount will appear on the featured products automatically.

So who or what is the lucky first victim candidate?  Well, it’s one of my favorites for lofty poofy well wearing yarn that is still comfortable for the hands: Cheviot!

I LOVE CHEVIOT.

Cheviot plys
Top to bottom: Cheviot Singles, 2-ply and 3-ply yarns

It makes great socks.  It’s lofty.  It takes dyes nicely.  It has a lovely creamy color when left white. Did I mention it makes great socks?!   It shows cables well.  It’s a great winter outerwear wool.   It’s sturdy.  Did I mention the socks?  Ok – so maybe it’s not so good for drapey lace shawls, but if you wanted to add a lacework element to some cables it’s a great option.  It weaves nicely.  It’s spongy and springy – a friend once described it as “bouncy as a bunch of kangaroos.”  That’s because of its characteristic helical crimp. Sometimes the texture of this crimp comes through as “crunchy” and can give the impression of coarseness.

Cheviot are sturdy sheep, bred to care for themselves in the harsh conditions of the Cheviot Hills and the HIghlands where they range free on the hillsides and rarely see the inside of a shed, let alone a barn, and their wool reflects that.  It’s lofty and thick and warm and sheds water.  This is why Cheviot is so good for socks and outerwear or anything that needs some ruggedness.  I confess that their history is as much why I like them as their wool – they were mentioned as long ago as the 1370s.

It’s just SO GOOD!

What should I tell you about Cheviot that is not in our Sheep-o-pedia? Well, I’ll tell you.

Cheviot is one of the parents of Perendale (the other is Romney).  I find it doesn’t object to be spun thin – and given how much it likes being a traditional 3-ply, I am fond of this trait.  It works well for worsted OR woolen spinning as well, which is why it does so well as socks or outerwear.  The wool has a spongy-ness to it that promises loft (and it delivers) and thus it also spins nicely into uber floofy thick and thin singles – or even just very lofty bulky yarns.  Where the strongly spun and plied singles for socks are sturdy, the fluffy singles are warm and lofty.  You can also coax it to felt with a little effort.   I would call Cheviot felt-resistant as opposed to some who say “it’s un-feltable” – Cheviot is not a true down breed so it’s less likely to be un-feltable.

And just to be even more fun I have photos of some of my samples for you too.  Singles yarn, 2-ply yarn, 3-ply yarn, stockinette samples, lace samples, woven samples – even, yes, sock yarn made from The Loft in Cheviot.  These are the best socks EVER.

Cheviot locks, raw and cleaned
Raw and scoured Cheviot locks
Raw and cleaned cheviot locks
More raw and scoured Cheviot locks

 

We even have some Cheviot dyed in our “The Loft” colorway from Spunky Eclectic for anyone who doesn’t want to process it themselves!  I love this colorway so much I accidentally dyed my hair to match it over the holidays.  (Seriously – I really did do it by accident.  Well, the dyeing was on purpose, I just didn’t realize I had created the colorway on my head until a friend said they wanted to knit my hair.)

Skeins of The Loft colorway on cheviot
The Loft sock yarn on Cheviot. Such great colors!
Swatches of The Loft
Swatches of The Loft, that’s the sock swatch on top.

 

Also interesting is that North Country Cheviot is actually a different breed of sheep.  They may originate with “hill breed” from the highlands of Scotland, the Cheviot, but these sheep are from the lowlands on the English border with Scotland.  The difference in environment creates a difference in the fleece.  Cheviot is sturdier.

If you are accustomed to or prefer Merino, Bond and BFL, you will find Cheviot coarse feeling.  But it’s a really fun spin anyway so don’t give up.  Give Cheviot a chance – it’s a wonderful all around  fiber from a great sheep!

On more thing…. A brief announcement.  We have received updated pricing from our vendors for 2015.  Most have had some sort of price increase over our previous stock and we will be updating accordingly.  After February 28th, we will be listing the new stock at the new prices.  On the other hand, there was no postal increase in January so that’s refreshing.

* A spinner’s fleece won’t be breed specific – but it will be a fleece or fleeces from some of my favorite shepherds who are producing delicious fibers for spinning that I fell in love with and JUSTHADTOHAVEZOMG.  They might be strange and unusual crosses or they might be just plain delicious.  You’ll have to wait and see!

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Fleeces and Lambs and Rare Breed Kits – Oh My!

So, I realized the other day that I haven’t written in a while.  Things have been so busy around The Loft in the past few months that we haven’t had time to stop whirling around like Dervishes in ages!

InterweavebreedskitAs you all know we spent some time developing a rare breeds sampler to accompany Interweave’s Rare Breeds Kit and it’s a big hit.  The Kit is made up of 6 very excellent rare breeds, Deb Robson’s Spinning Rare breeds DVD and her recently published Field Guide to Fleece – a must have book for any fleece shopper at a fiber festival’s fleece show and sale.  Who needs a field guild to wildflowers – we want WOOL!

We here at The Spinning Loft are very excited to have put together a sampler that covers 6 very varied breeds, one of which is the “sheep that makes Deb cry” in the video, with a great range of wool types and we think you’ll just love it.

It has arrived just in time you see.  Why you ask?

Hog Island Lamb
Isn’t she adorable?

Well, it’s spring of course!  Even though mother nature does seem to want to sleep in this year – and who could blame her- lambing time is upon us and with it comes shearing time.

I’m not entirely sure which one I like better, but I may have to lean slightly in favor of shearing for what I think are fairly obvious reasons:

Shearing time of course means spring fiber festivals!  It means fleece shopping! And boy do we love fleece shopping here at The Spinning Loft.  It’s better than coffee! Better than wine! Better than well… anything! (wow, can that be possible?)

And because it’s shearing time we have a few other things brewing around here, so keep an ear out for the sheep bells.

We’d also like to give a hearty shout out to A Certain Guild in Wisconsin for diving into a really fun breed study.  We had a great time assembling it for you and we hope you enjoy it!   If there are other Guilds interested in doing such a study, please feel free to contact us and we can develop a study package for you as well.

Happy Shearing!

Alison, James & Max
The Spinning Loft

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Accokeek Hog Islands

Sheep in the Mist
Sheep in the Mist – like gorillas, only smaller.

This past Saturday my web man and I had the opportunity to squelch out to the Accokeek Foundation’s National Colonial Farm where we met with Polly, the livestock coordinator, and the Stitch n’ Time crew.

See those sheep over there? That's where our fleeces came from!
See those sheep over there? That’s where our fleeces came from!

While we were there we met a number of the farm’s Hog Island sheep which are part ofthe Foundation’s Livestock Conservancy Program.  The two fleeces we have in stock currently come from sheep in this very photo!

It was QUITE the soggy day –  foggy, wet and squelchy but it was really rewarding to see these critically endangered sheep out in the fields, being lowed at by some cows and chased around by the geese, wandering about happily like the feral sheep they are. 

We also learned about picking cotton which was rather fun and right up my honey’s alley with his anal retentive streak.  I confess that I got a little excited about the natural green cotton myself, but fear not!  My heart still belongs to wool.  (Not that I don’t have a desperate need to have James weave us some naturally colored cotton kitchen towels now….) 

We spent some quality time with the stitch group talking about different fiber qualities, and the work done by the farm to restore the breed.  We carded some of their previously scoured Hog Island wool and did some spinning.  And we talked about the future.

Carding and spinning the fleece
Carding and spinning the fleece

James, in his historical happy frenzy, has volunteered us to participate regularly in their Stitch n’ Time – and it’s only fair.  We do love the Foundation’s mission, it is a living history farm (it’s possible that at some point in the future we’ll be dressed accordingly) and they have a small flock of a critically endangered sheep breed after all.  This project screams out for our attention!

You’ll find two of Accokeek’s Hog Island fleeces in the shop right now!  They’re quite lovely, and display breed standard: they have that crispness that fleece with down breed in their backgrounds have, with a short dense staple (2-2 1/2″) and good bounce.  Hog Island doesn’t felt very easily – and when you can convince it to, it’s a loose felt – which bodes well for socks accidentally thrown into the washing machine! – and it spins up very nicely.  This fiber will never create a smooth orderly worsted yarn though, and it’s not meant to; it’s lofty and airy and is great for woolen spinning. Hog Island shows stitch definition nicely with good round yarns, and it will wear well.  It cards beautifully and if you wanted to try combing I’d suggest mini combs.  But truthfully, this fiber sings when carded and woolen spinning really shows it off to the utmost.

The sheep were shorn by Polly herself and there will be more to come.  James and I will be going to the shearing in March to choose fleeces from the 2014 clip.  Even more exciting, The Spinning Loft is partnering with the Accokeek Foundation’s Farm to source quality Hog Island fleeces and 10% of all proceeds from our sales of Accokeek’s Hog Island fleeces will be donated back to the Foundation’s livestock program.

Hooray for saving sheep!  This is a great example of our mission in action.

Alison

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Meet the Shepherd

Now that the inventory is well in hand, shopping for new fleeces is underway, and some much needed scour, combs and cards are in stock, it’s time to meet The Spinning Loft’s new shepherd, her faithful companion and the supervisory “sheepdog”.

Alison spinning Victorian fashionI am Alison, your new shepherd. While I introduced myself briefly when Beth announced the shop transfer, I thought it was important that you get to know me a little better.

As you can tell, I have some rather historical interests. I work at the Maryland Renaissance Faire for a fantastic seamstress and I have a love of history, which is shared by my partner in crime. It is not, however shared by the ‘sheepdog’ who views the garb merely as a hint that he won’t be seeing us for several hours, again. I also like wine and pairing it with the dishes I enjoy cooking for my friends and family (often with a historical theme). When I get to combine these passions it’s even better.

I love all the wools. All of them. My favorite is whatever I happen to be working with at the present moment – and given what some might call a rather disturbing habit of acquiring wheels and spindles, that can encompass rather a lot of options. But it’s wool and the sheep grow more, and it’s soft and floofy – or long and wirey, or curly , or straight, or… .

I confess that I came to this love via the aforementioned Beth Smith who conveniently offered a breed study class not far from me at a rather ‘coincidental’ time. I am still not convinced that it was coincidental, but that’s a conspiracy for another day. Anyone who has met Beth knows that her love of wool is infectious. Over that weekend I learned that all the wools are the best wools and that I simply must spin all of them, even if it would take a while to get all of them. Coarse wools, soft wools, long wools, down wools, primitive wools, new fangled cross bred wools, crimpy wools and smooth wools – they are all wonderful and they all have something to offer. She also told me about Deb Robson’s book that was coming out, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook.

A wall of fleece!That weekend began my slippery slope down the mountain of breed study. Then a couple years later Deb met me as the crazy fan girl (can you be a wool fan girl?) at Maryland Sheep and Wool, bouncing up and down and squeaking with excitement when I got the Sourcebook signed . I’m pretty sure that’s how she’ll always remember meeting me. I can assure you that Deb did not help with my obsession – unless by help she meant “oh look at this one! I wonder how this spins?!!!” as she greased that slippery slope some more. Deb’s rare breeds classes and video are the best (and yes, I always cry at that part…).

Since that weekend I have sampled 96 different breeds (with a few new ones from Norway waiting by the wheel as I write this) and each and every time I sample a breed I am reminded how rewarding wool is. Its variables, its textures, its wealth of natural colors, its ability to be dyed and transformed into so many different things and it’s profound sustainability should we as shepherds take care of the sheep. I have so many more to go!

He's a history guy

I am joined in this project by my faithful companion: my husband, and internet and social media guy, James. He has generously leaped down the slope after me, spinning and weaving his way through Merino and Tunis (unlike me, James does have some distinct favorite fibers). He is also usually one of the more guilty parties when it comes to fleece acquisition, so if there’s something you are craving, you should not hesitate to Tweet or post a note to James on the website or our email asking him to slide that item in my shopping list.

There is one other in our menagerie: Our supervisor – who admittedly supervises far far away from the store, from the comfort of his bed upstairs. Our fearless “sheepdog” Maximus makes sure we stick to the straight and narrow. He has been known to choose a little something from our personal stashes, but otherwise he finds our obsession rather smelly (“How can you stand that?”) and avoids it entirely by standing at the top of the stairs, snorting in derision and turning his butt at us as he trots back to his puppy bed and a stuffed crab toy.

Max & the Gotland.

We are your shepherds. In our natural environment we shall continue to source magnificent fleeces in as large an array of breeds as we can source. It is our mission to help the shepherds who raise the sheep treat and view their wool, not as an unnecessary byproduct, but as a welcome additional source of joy and income.

We look forward to your participation in this journey!

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All the fleeces!

Friends and fans of the Spinning Loft!

With some minor exceptions (Mohair, our recent Suri acquisitions, and some mystery fleeces we are tracking down) ALL THE FLEECES ARE ONLINE!  We also now have Unicorn and Kookaburra fiber washes and scours in stock – and our fleece washing service has made a triumphant return.  The combs and cards currently in stock are also up.

We continue to work feverishly to be ready for Small Business Saturday.  Books, DVD’s, a few knitting kits and the fabulous textiles from the Centro de Textiles in Cuzco are coming.

New orders to replace stock are in process.  Thank you all for your patience and patronage!

Alison Pacuska
Your Shepherd