Have you ever wondered about how someone ends up owning a farm and raising fiber animals?
For Lisa Check of Flying Goat Farm, it all started with an interest in how to weave an ikat blanket. The ikat process requires dyeing of the threads prior to weaving so Lisa learned to dye. Then she won a spinning wheel in a raffle and taught herself how to spin by watching a friend. She held on to her interest in weaving and spinning and when she moved her family to Maryland 17 years ago, Lisa thought it would be fun to have her own fiber animals and decided that they should find a small farm and raise goats. “I had no previous farming experience, just a desire to have these cute animals who would give me beautiful mohair.”
As Lisa succinctly put it, “over the next few years, the farm and my yarn offerings became larger pretty quickly.” “Originally, I wanted just a few animals who could give me enough fiber to hand spin so we started with 2 mohair goats. But our mohair soon surpassed what I could physically process and spin myself. So then I turned to a mill to process the fiber. As I learned how to get yarn made, I realized I needed sheep to expand the types of fiber to use in my spinning.” In 2010, a neighboring farm was giving away a few Romney-cross naturally-colored sheep so she took them in. Once these sheep were established, Lisa decided to buy some Cormo sheep because she loved the fiber. At one point she became part of an informal farm animal rescue group and other Cormo sheep followed. Later she purchased some Blue Faced Leicesters. “My focus has been fine wool and fine mohair to make farm yarn that is nice to feel and great to wear. I can get those qualities with my Cormos, Blue Faced Leicesters, a hybrid of those two, as well as the Angora Goats.”
Starting with no knowledge of farming, what surprised Lisa the most once she settled on the farm is just how much she had to learn, not only about nutrition, but also veterinary care and yarn manufacturing. “It has been a learning curve for sure. In addition to the farm learning, it’s taken me a while to get the exact kind of yarn that I’m proud of. I’ll add that I’m also proud that I can give a shot pretty easily too!” When I asked her about the most significant challenges she faces as a fiber farmer, Lisa replied, “when we lose an animal, it is never easy. While thar aren’t quite pets, we care for them as part of our family. It’s always heartbreaking to lose one.”
At one point, the farm had 50 animals which proved to be more work than fun as she originally intended. She stopped breeding animals and the farm currently has about 20 animals – 7 angora goats and 13 sheep. She’s continuing to downsize the number of animals they keep and has become more mindful of the amount of fiber they are producing. Her most recent clip was 100 pounds and she’s planning on reducing the amount to around 50 pounds this year. “I’m thinking about raising fiber in a more sustainable way which means not producing more than I can personally dye and sell in a given year.”
With 25 acres and fewer animals, she has others bring their animals to the farm to keep the pastures grazed. Thirteen of the Flying Goat Farm acres are no-till hay fields, and the remaining land is split into one acre pastures for rotational grazing. The farm is completely run on solar energy. While they are still connected to the grid as a backup, they have solar panels on their barns which power the house, barns, and garage. They use very little of the power produced and much of their solar power goes back into the electrical grid. Flying Goat farm holds itself to a humane and sustainable farming model with a low carbon footprint.
When talking to Lisa, it is clear that she is understandably very proud of what she has learned about making beautiful yarns from her own fiber animals. Being able to take the fleeces and turn them into a yarn that fits her specifications, whether it be designing a yarn for softness or durability, takes factoring in not just the breed and quality of the fleece, but all the processing steps from animal care to finished yarn. Being mindful with these many decisions determines the end product and allows her to offer a variety of beautiful wool yarns from fingering to worsted weights.
Over the years, Lisa discovered that her true fiber love is dyeing. While she still has 3 looms and 3 spinning wheels, she does less spinning and weaving, and tends to knit only to show what can be done with her yarn. “I dye just about every day. I love seeing how colors work with each other and how the colors work with each of my yarn bases. I’ve been dyeing fibers for 30 years but until now only used natural dyes on a small scale.” Lisa heard about the Fibershed movement several years ago, and at the was the beginning of 2020 she read Rebecca Burgess’ book. “Because I am concerned with the environment and making sure we are as low impact as possible” said Lisa, “I was immediately drawn to a movement that promotes these same values.” Natural dyes will be a focus for Lisa in the coming year and one of her current goals is to create a line of purely fibershed yarns with naturally dyed fiber from the farm. The clothing challenge of Rebecca Burgess has inspired her and she’s already thinking about what she can make with her fibers when our Chesapeake Fibershed hosts its farm-to-closet challenge in the future.
If you’d like to learn more about Lisa and her farm, as well as see her yarn products and learn about her spinning, knitting and dying classes (in person and online) you can find more information on her website: www.flyinggoatfarm.com. Lisa also hosts open studio days where people can come to the farm and squeeze the yarn, and also sells at all the large festivals in the DELMARVA area.