2018-02-01 / Features

Sheep to Sweater

Farmers and knitters stitch together a community of warmth
Carolyne Meehan | Photos by Matt Fern

There are a hundred stories stitched into a hand-knit sweater. There is the story of the knitter and her hands that danced with needles and yarn. There is the story of the knitting group that helped when she reached the armpits of the sweater and got stuck. There is the story of the shop where the yarn for the sweater was carefully selected for its weight, softness and perfect shade of violet. There is the story of the yarn, and the artist who dyed it, and the mill that spun the fibers and sent off the skeins.

And there is the first story, the tale of the shepherd who raised the sheep that provided the wool that would one day dance in the knitter’s hands.

In the State College area, the knitting and fiber arts community is strong and growing. Local libraries and yarn shops host knitting groups. Classes for makers of all ages and abilities are offered by talented teachers. Local sheep and alpaca farms produce and sell their wares locally and in the popular fiber festival circuits. Hand-knit, crocheted and felted items are sought after at farmers markets, festivals, pop-up events and in local stores. You can even go on a knitting retreat or take a fiber arts bus trip.

“As humans we naturally love warmth and color and texture,” says Cynthia Spencer, owner of Stitch Your Art Out in Pine Grove Mills. She describes her love for fiber as something “primal,” which makes sense as our history with wool can be traced back tens of thousands of years. It’s a modern and ancient fiber, long revered for its insulating properties in clothing and its ability to be woven, knit, crocheted or felted into both beautiful and useful items.

Spencer is a longtime knitter and a self-proclaimed sweater girl. “I love to knit them and wear them,” she says. When she started knitting, she used to worry that it would get boring. “In 15 years, it’s never happened. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. It gets more interesting as time goes on.” Spencer says the best thing about the fiber arts is that there is always something new to learn and, to her, “learning is what keeps life interesting.”

Next month The Centre Knitters Guild is hosting its annual Love of Fiber Festival on March 17 at the Ramada State College Hotel and Conference Center. Alpaca farmer Ann Caruthers Taylor will be there with her alpaca yarn and teddy bears made from baby alpaca fleece to sell. “Everyone talks about their animals, checks each others’ stuff out. And it’s so interesting to see what kind of things people are doing with fibers. Sometimes it’s like, ‘No way! You made that?’” Taylor says.

Also in March at Stitch Your Art Out, Abbey Caldwell will be sharing her latest knitting obsession called “Mochi Mochi,” the Japanese art of knitting tiny, squishy animals with big eyes.

Jan Jenkins with her sheep at Tamarack FarmJan Jenkins with her sheep at Tamarack Farm

When Jan Jenkins and Michael Arthur bought their farmhouse and started a family on Tamarack Farm in Spring Mills, Jenkins began brainstorming ways to be home with her children as a working mother. Their farm’s hilly and rocky land was not ideal for growing vegetables, but it was perfect for raising sheep. So in the early 1990s, Jenkins took on the title of shepherd in addition to stay-at-home mom.

“The learning curve was steep in the beginning,” says Jenkins. They started with three ewes and one ram and over the last 25 years have grown their flock to close to 130 Tunis, Icelandic and Merino breeds. Jenkins and Arthur read piles of books on raising sheep, called on mentor neighbors day and night, and then learned from their daughters once the girls were old enough to participate in 4-H.

While Arthur can be found locally at the Boalsburg and Millheim farmers markets selling their wool and lamb products, Jenkins stays busy at the farm, carefully plotting grazing and mating patterns for the sheep and creating her own woolen products. Lambing season is the highlight of farm life for them.

On summer nights, Jenkins and Arthur like to sit on their front porch and watch the lambs chase each other, their mothers yelling for them when they’ve gone too far.

Two valleys north, Ann Caruthers Taylor has a flock of a different fiber. Taylor, with help from her family, has been raising alpaca on her farm Bald Eagle Valley Alpaca Ranch for just shy of 11 years. In late May, Taylor fills her truck clear to the top of the cap with alpaca fleeces and takes them to an alpaca fiber mill in Hughesville to be spun into yarn. Last June, she returned home with 75 pounds of yarn, a haul that made her very happy.

Ann Caruthers Taylor at Bald Eagle Valley Alpaca RanchAnn Caruthers Taylor at Bald Eagle Valley Alpaca Ranch

“Alpaca is gourmet yarn,” Taylor says. The fibers are smoother than those of sheep wool, she explains, making it extra soft against your skin, “like butter.”

Taylor says her animals have lots of personality. And it’s true, they do spit. “They get cranky if their grain doesn’t show up on time!” she says. The farm has been a gratifying family project and her doctor says it’s good for her health, too, giving this retired teacher something to do while allowing her to be outside and interact with people.

For Cynthia Spencer, seeing what her clients and students have created, “the show and tell,” is the most gratifying part of being a yarn shop owner. Besides a wide selection of yarns and fabrics, she also has an impressive stash of buttons for adding the finishing touches to sweaters, scarves and hats.

Spencer designs her own knitting patterns, Really Clear Designs, and sells them in her shop and online at She aims to make knitting easier, with patterns that are simple to understand and to knit. She has 70 patterns and lessons on all different kinds of knitting techniques, from the basic knit stitch to more intricate cabling. The gorgeous photos of scarves, hats, gloves, socks, sweaters and hats are enough to make even a non-knitter want to give the craft a go.

Some knitters are happy to learn at home, either online or from a book. Others seek out a teacher. Abbey Caldwell teaches knitting classes at Stitch Your Art Out and at The Makery in downtown State College. She starts all of her Beginning Knitting classes the same way: She shows her students the first scarf she ever knit, complete with holes, weird bumps and uneven stitching. “I still wear it,” she tells them. “And when it’s all wrapped up around my neck, no one notices the mistakes.” Her adult students often say things like, “Well, I’m not very crafty” and “My grandmother tried to teach me to knit years ago and it didn’t work.”

It only takes a week or two for it to “click” with most of her students. Those who have tried knitting before are surprised that even if it’s been many years, muscle memory kicks in and the needles start moving and clicking in a familiar rhythm. In her 10 years of teaching beginning knitters, Caldwell has yet to see a student knit anything as bad as her first scarf.

The Craft Yarn Council reports that a third of women ages 25 to 35 now knit or crochet. Technology must have something to do with the resurgence of the craft. Websites like Ravelry support online communities of knitters, providing a space where knitters can log their yarn, find ideas on what to knit with certain types of yarn, and connect with other knitters who share similar interests. With the help of YouTube, even 10-year-olds can learn.

For those new to knitting, Jan Jenkins suggests getting started with big needles (13-15) and thick yarn for quick progress and the satisfaction of seeing something get finished. She shares knitting advice that has always stayed with her: “If you make a mistake, you just have to keep on going or else you will never finish. You have to work through the mistakes. Just. Keep. Going.”

While some knitters are “product” oriented, Caldwell describes herself as a “process” knitter. “As I knit, I like to think of the person I am knitting for. It’s like saying a prayer for them or sending an intention.” Her most challenging projects have included a lace shrug for a dear friend’s winter wedding, and a large shawl for a friend undergoing chemotherapy. Both were time- and detail-intensive — true labors of love. “I never knit anything without having an end destination in mind,” Caldwell says.

Abbey CaldwellAbbey Caldwell

Friends and acquaintances often comment on Caldwell’s stylish hand-knit cowls, or the adorable flip-top owl mittens she made for her daughter. When people try to place orders Caldwell declines, saying “I don’t sell anything I make, but I can teach you how to do it yourself.”

In her current “Block of the Month” class at The Makery, knitters learn a different technique each month and knit a square using that new stitch. At the end of the year, the knitters connect the squares to make a blanket. Caldwell also holds a knitting club for teens and will run a summer “fiber arts” camp for kids ages 4-19.

In this town it’s common to spot knitters with their work in their laps during PTO meetings or while watching sporting events. But these days it’s not just locals who have knitting needles tucked into their handbags.

“Yarn shops have become a travel destination,” claims Main Street Yarn Shop owner Kim Bierly. A favorite part of her job is getting to meet people from all over the country. Her Rebersburg shop is located in the same building as the Forefathers Book Store, run by her husband, making it a double whammy of a spot for book and yarn lovers. Bierly is not a hoverer. She’s happy to help with any kind of knitting question, even if the yarn wasn’t purchased in her shop, but if customers are happy just browsing, Bierly will most likely return her focus to her own knitting project.

“I try to have something for everyone,” she says of the yarns and patterns she stocks in her shop. She has skeins available at discounted prices, as low as $6 per skein on her sale table, as well as high-quality, hand-spun, independently dyed yarns. She makes careful choices regarding where she purchases her yarns. Of the 30 vendors she carries in her shop, 20 are small businesses and of those, 18 are women-owned.

The wool and knitting community is tight knit, pun intended. And Bierly plays a large role in educating, inspiring and organizing fellow fiber lovers. She gets an annual bus trip together for the popular Maryland Sheep and Wool Fiber Festival. Quite often large festivals like that one include a “sheep to shawl” demonstration, where festivalgoers get to watch each step of the process. First, the sheep is sheared. Then the fleece is cleaned, carded and made into roving for spinning. Next the roving is spun into yarn, plied, and then finally knit into a shawl.

Beyond knitting for pleasure and the end products, there are many health benefits to knitting. According to Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind/body medicine, the repetition of needlework crafts can provide many of the same benefits as meditation and yoga.

Knitting and crocheting can even lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce harmful levels of the stress hormone cortisol. These calming effects on the body take some time to happen — during the initial learning curve, there can be a lot of shoulder hunching and tenseness from the concentration. But before long, the movements become second nature and it’s possible to knit and watch TV or carry on a conversation.

Many knitters come to the craft after their children leave home and they have more time on their hands.

Many are looking for a hobby and others want to make warm and beautiful things for new grandchildren. For knitters of the older generation, knitting is especially helpful for health of the mind.

Mayo Clinic studies have determined a diminished chance of developing cognitive impairment and memory loss for those who engage in regular crafts like knitting and crocheting.

Because knitting engages both sides of the brain, it can also help with overall mental health and staving off depression, even the “winter blues” that seem to settle on many during our darker Central PA winters. And if you can’t get away to a tropical island in the middle of winter, take a trip to a yarn store. Stepping into a light-filled space bursting with vibrant color with lots of wonderful things to touch immediately makes you feel warmer.

Sock yarn, or fingering weight yarn, is a popular souvenir item. When Abbey Caldwell visits yarn shops, that’s what she buys. Once she’s knit one sock, she’ll wear it mismatched until she finishes the other one. Bierly is also a big fan of hand-knit socks. Her license plate reads “knitsox” and she wears them, straight through summer, 365 days a year.

At Main Street Yarn, there is a special basket of hand-knit hats, gloves and scarves that are not for sale but are available for any community members who may be in need of something warm. The items are knit by the Penns Valley Area Knitters, who meet in Bierly’s shop on the second and fourth Saturday of every month. The group is a mix of beginners to expert knitters and is open to anyone who has an interest in knitting. Some knitters in the group are working on personal projects and are there for the help, support and camaraderie. Others only knit items that go to charity. This generous group makes child- and adult-sized items for places like the Outreach Center in Aaronsburg and for Hearts for Homeless.

When Bierly spotted two young boys playing behind her shop in wintertime without any hats and gloves, she brought them into her shop to pick some things from her special basket. “Helping is important. Staying warm is important.”

All it takes is a few stitches. •SCM

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