In the Spotlight – Kathy Donovan of Checkmate Farm

Do you ever wonder how someone choses the breed of sheep they raise?

For Kathy Donovan, the decision to raise sheep came when she and her husband bought a Virginia horse farm in 2004. The prior owner lost the farm property tax break, so they had to pay five years of back property tax when they settled.  This prompted them to “find something to farm” to regain the farm tax break. At that point, Kathy decided to raise heritage sheep despite having no prior shepherding experience.

The “something” they chose to farm was Persian Karakul sheep.

When asked why she chose the Karakul breed, Kathy easily gives a list of their fine qualities:

1. Karakul lambs are the most beautiful lambs in the world.  They have a primary black gene, but they will also be born red, brown, silver, white, and spotted. Newborns have tight curls to wavy moire curls. They can have sheen or be dull, and textures can range from fine to coarse.
2. Fewer than 1000 live in the U.S.  Karakuls are a rare breed listed by “The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.” By raising registered karakuls for breeding, Kathy hopes to help guarantee their existence for future generations to raise and enjoy.
3. Manageable size.  They are medium-sized sheep. A size that allows Kathy to manage providing health care for them by herself.
4. Karakul’s unique conformation and elegant appearance.  The Karakuls are called the “fat-tailed sheep.” In middle eastern deserts, the tail provides nourishment during drought and low foliage seasons. Since they are one of the oldest breeds in the world, their tails enabled them to survive since BCE.
5. Ewes are wonderful mothers.  They are easy lambers, good mothers, great milkers. Some sheep breeds have larger heads which can make lambing difficult. The Karakuls slim nose reduces the chance of a difficult delivery.
6. Karakuls are smart with good attitudes.  Karakuls are quick to learn personalities. You can train them to know their names, come when called, and jump on grooming stands when it’s time to clip hooves! Generally, they are very calm. Another reason why they have survived for centuries.
7. Karakul fleece have stunning colors and textures.  Karakuls offers a wide variety of fleece colors. Their fleece has been woven into Persian rugs for thousands of years. Now, there is renewed interest to create braided roving rugs. Thanks to Letty Klein and Ann Brown, authors of the book called “The Shepherd’s Rug.” Anyone can follow their instructions to braid a beautiful and practical rug.
8. Fleece is easy to felt.  Their long coarse fibers are terrific for felt projects and knit to felt projects. Felt hats, outwear coats, vests, boots, and mittens helped mankind survive harsh weather for many years. Now spinners seek their fleece for their yarn projects.
9. Perfect rug fiber.  Their fiber is a long coarse fiber that is durable and well suited for rugmaking.

Kathy Donovan of Checkmate Farm

Since the start of her flock, Kathy has won awards at the Virginia State Fair and Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival for her sheep and fleeces.  Kathy has worked to build awareness of the “Fat Tailed” sheep’s wool as a valuable resource to produce various products due to the sheep’s long sturdy fibers which have been used to make Persian carpets for many generations.

Which leads us to Kathy’s artistic side and what she does with all her beautiful wool.  Since Karakul is a perfect rug fiber, Kathy decided to check out traditional rug hooking as a way to use her fiber.  Years later, this first foray into hooked rug making has evolved into a career in designing and making punch needle rugs using Karakul yarn instead of fabric strips. Kathy is an accomplished instructor for punch needle rug hooking and braiding of rugs, chair pads and runners for stairs. In 2014, she became a certified instructor for punch needle yarn hooked rugs using the Oxford Punch Needle process after completing an intensive classroom and hands on curriculum under the direction of Amy Oxford. In a typical day, Kathy cares for her sheep then devotes her time to washing and dyeing fiber, designing rug patterns, and punching rugs.

Kathy loves teaching the history of her rare breed sheep and introducing their fleece to spinners, weavers and rug makers. She offers classes on her Cartersville farm, at fiber festivals, and through local guilds.  You will find her hand dyed wool rug yarn, rug designs, and punch yarn kits for Oxford regular and fine needles through her business, Checkmate Farm LLC.

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