Even the most casual reader of local news in the Hudson Valley can’t miss the increasing emphasis on farm-to-table eating, whether we’re talking restaurants buying from local farmers in a mutually supportive relationship or individuals encouraged to seek out the locally grown varieties of fruits and veggies available from farmers’ markets to prepare at home. This is a good thing. But what about extending that “buy local and sustain your neighborhood farms while making your own life better” philosophy beyond the dinner table? There are regional farms worthy of supporting who may not feed our families, but who feed our creative souls: places like White Barn Farm Sheep & Wool on Albany Post Road in Gardiner.
Its owner, Paula Kucera, raises sheep – 18 of them at last count, mostly Cormos, with two rams expected to join the flock within days. The new rams were chosen for the color of their fleece and its effect on the color of the yarn that they’ll produce, says Kucera. One ram will be a Cormo, the other a California Red, whose fleece ranges in color from apricot to “Irish Setter red,” which, according to Kucera, will blend beautifully with the Cormo fleece into a lovely yarn.
Knitters know that while natural-fiber yarns can be dyed a multitude of colors, often using plant materials to produce the hues, sometimes the color of the wool just as it came from the sheep is beautiful left as it is. At the fiber shop that Kucera runs at White Barn Farm, where she carries a variety of yarns spun from her sheep and other local sources, there are colors of yarn available that just couldn’t have been achieved in any commercial dye bath. One yarn in particular is a subtle shade of brown best described as dark chocolate crossed with oatmeal; it’s an earthy, rich brown wool, straight from the sheep that produced it, and so lovely that it practically begs for you to take it up and knit with it. Once you obey its siren song and pick it up, it’s so soft to the touch that the tactile pleasure of it makes it hard to put it down.
Cormo sheep are known for their incredibly soft fleece. Once people feel the difference in working with hand-spun natural yarns rather than the processed ones from the craft store, Kucera says, “They never want to turn back. There’s also a spiritual connection with the sheep and knowing where the yarn came from.”
Kucera’s background is in the arts, with 25 years of experience as a mural-painter in the interior design industry. After moving to the farm in New Paltz about 16 years ago, she decided to raise sheep there, and that led to opening the fiber shop on the property in 2010. Now the extensive handcrafting community that exists in the Hudson Valley has not only a place to find the materials with which to fashion their fiber arts, but also a gathering spot: Kucera offers her space twice weekly for informal “Knit Local Café” sessions free of charge for anyone who cares to drop by with a project to work on.
There are classes offered at White Barn Farm, too, in a range of skill levels. Among the classes suitable for beginners are ones on learning to crochet, making a wet-felted Christmas stocking (or other vessel), needle-felting a holiday ornament and Sewing 101, to learn the basics. For those with some knowledge already, there are classes on crocheting a hat, weaving a tote basket (perfect for carrying all your yarn around), sewing a knitting bag and (this is a lot of fun) crocheting on the edge of a tee-shirt to up-cycle it into an entirely new garment.
Advanced fiber folks can take classes here to extend their skills. If you’ve wanted to knit a sweater, but are intimidated by the fitting of it and the seaming involved (most sweaters are knit in pieces and then sewn together at the seams), a four-session workshop, “Design Your Own Top-Down Seamless Sweater,” will show you how to shape a neckline on circular needles, divide for sleeves and knit the torso from the top down to end up with a perfectly fitting garment. The instructor is Heather Dixon of Army of Knitters. For this class and others, Kucera offers a 50 percent discount on yarn purchased for it from her shop.
After you’re done knitting from the top down, try knitting from the toes up in a sock-making class that reverses the usual procedure (where you start with the cuff and work your way down to the toe). The advantage of knitting from the toe up is being able to try the sock on for fit as you go, and there’s no need for sometimes-challenging Kitchener stitching (to graft together the toes) at the end of the process.
The classes at White Barn Farm are taught by knowledgeable instructors active in the Hudson Valley fiber/artisan world. The cost ranges from $40 to $60 for a single-day class to $240 for the four-session “top-down” sweater workshop. A full schedule of classes offered can be found on the website www.whitebarnsheepandwool.com. Kucera is beginning “knitting on demand” classes this year, too, scheduling classes by customer request. The drop-in Knit Local Café sessions are free, held every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Fridays from 9 to 11 a.m. No reservations are necessary to enjoy the camaraderie.
White Barn Farm Sheep & Wool is located at 815 Albany Post Road in Gardiner. Shop hours are Wednesday through Friday from 1 to 6 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 12 noon to 5 p.m. Knit Local Café gatherings are held in the shop every Wednesday evening from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Friday mornings from 9 to 11 a.m. No reservation is necessary; bring projects to work on and enjoy the camaraderie. A complete listing of classes is available on the website. For more information or to register for classes, call (914) 456-6040; e-mail [email protected]; or visit www.whitebarnsheepandwool.com.