Georgia Rustic Wool
I met Joanne Maki, the shepherdess behind Georgia Rustic Wool, through a mutual friend. We began corresponding via email and then meeting via Zoom to learn a little more about each other's work. I was already in love with Gulf Coast Native wool and yarn, but working with Joanne has given me some insight into the wonderfully quirky personalities of the sheep themselves. Her flock is a healthy, happy, rambunctious lot and someday, I hope to visit them in person on my fiber tour around the country :) If you are in the southern US, you may be able to catch Joanne at a fiber festival--her award winning fleece are not to be missed!
I hope you enjoy getting to know Joanne and the flock via this interview. We have Georgia Rustic Wool in the Flock Farm Yarn Shop in a few different blends, plies, and weights--we even have sweater quantities, which is an awesome feat for a small-batch producer! Enjoy!
Interview with Joanne Maki
KTS: How did you start your flock and why Gulf Coast Native sheep?
Joanne: In 2002, I had an opportunity to purchase four ewes from a neighbor who had recently visited Mississippi and returned to Georgia to start a new flock of Gulf Coast Native (GCN) sheep on their farm. This breed of sheep is a hardy, multi-purpose breed with naturally acquired parasite resistance, which is a desirable characteristic since internal parasites are a serious husbandry concern for farmers in the southern US. I liked the idea of raising sheep which thrive in the South. I also found out GCN is considered an endangered heritage breed under conservation measures by the Livestock Conservancy. After owning GCN sheep for two years, I started working with their fleeces and decided to learn how to spin yarn and start my business Georgia Rustic Wool. In 2004, we decided to breed the ewes and I soon had a flock that today averages 30-40 ewes and a few breeding rams. I have enjoyed working with this breed and select lambs for quality fleeces destined for hand spinners.
KTS: Are there any specific shepherd stories you'd like to share: something touching, funny, or just really indicative of life with sheep?
Joanne: Two aspects of being a shepherdess I really enjoy are naming the lambs and walking the pastures with the flock in the evening. Some lambs show up with a specific trait or certain personality and naming them is easy (such as Freckles, Sunny, Angel, Honey, or Twiggie). Others end up with names related to an event. I have a ewe named Briar who as a very young lamb went missing, but I could hear her calling for her mom somewhere in the pasture. She had managed to get caught in a briar patch by her wool and I had to cut her out of the brambles. So naming her was easy! When the weather is nice, I enjoy walking with the flock as they graze their way back to the barn while the clouds gather and the sky reflects the evening light. It's a peaceful time and the purple and orange skies can be magical. Those moments are the best and it's when I'm grateful to live life on a farm.
Shearing the sheep in the spring is also a favorite time of mine. That's when I can see each fleece as it come off the sheep. For those of us raising sheep for fiber there is nothing prettier than a clean, lustrous fleece. The sheep are also happy to be rid of one full year's worth of wool. That's also when I start getting excited about which fleeces are good enough to enter fiber festivals in the fall. You can tell the moment the sheep are sheared if their fiber has great luster, crimp, and consistency. I bag and weigh each show fleece and the others are combined to be made into yarn, batts, or roving.
So, there are seasonal rhythms to owning sheep that makes the lifestyle quite enjoyable. Don't get me wrong, there are days when I think I must be crazy to have a sheep farm! Bad days include lambing problems, or when the rams break through a fence, or a sheep becomes lame or injured, or tree limbs fall during a storm and damage the barn; but those days are relatively few. Overall, being a shepherdess is wonderful and worth the effort.
KTS: I understand that you have developed your own colorways over the years: what inspires you as a dyer and a maker?
Joanne: I enjoy dyeing wool as it is a great outlet for playing with color. My brain is part scientist and part artist, so dyeing yarn is a perfect creative outlet for me. I use acid-fast dyes that have good color retention yet do not require strong chemicals as mordants to set the pigments. The techniques I like best are over-dying and kettle dyeing.
For colorways I am influenced by many things. For example, one colorway of light teal, gray, soft brown, and light blue showed up in the dye pot after a trip to the beach where I was influenced by driftwood, sand, water, and sky. In the fall I gravitate to warm hues of ochre, pumpkin, russet, and gray. I rarely write down my dyeing strategy and part of the fun is spontaneously trying different combinations of dyes and seeing what works well. I consider producing yarn very much like harvesting grapes for wine. Each year you go through the same process of shearing the sheep, sending it off to the mill, and getting it ready to go into the dye pot, but each year the results are different. The colorways produced are never the same and are impacted by many variables. Each year's production of yarn is a discovery process of new colors added to the base of creamy white fiber; which is beautiful to look at all on its own. For me, the lure of local products is their uniqueness. I confess I often buy yarn from other farms because they are beautiful and each farmer has their own story about why and how they produce their product. I remain inspired by the richness, creativity and diversity of fiber and fiber artists. Everyone I've met who are into producing local yarns, dyeing yarn and promoting heritage breeds share the same passion. We love what we do and so it is very easy to stay inspired and creative!
KTS: What are your plans for 2021 and/or the future? Anything new on the horizon?
Joanne: One 2021 goal was to attend the Southeastern Animal and Fiber Fair in October. I submitted my fleeces and won several ribbons including best of show. That moment made me very proud to have a Gulf Coast Native fleece be judged as a top winner at at the largest fiber festival in the south. For next year, I'm already planning my new dye colors and plan to put skeins in the dye pots during the upcoming November and December holidays.
KTS: Where can yarn-lovers find you online?
Joanne: I'm glad to answer e-mails but doing so may take a few days, as I still work a day job and have farm chores. I really appreciate starting this on-line collaboration and look forward to working with you, Melissa. I'm working on a website (www.rusticwool.com) and hope to have that launched in early 2022.