I remember the first time I saw a fiber-producing animal. It was at the petting zoo in Greensboro, North Carolina, where my grandparents took me to feed the ducks. I don’t know exactly how old I was, somewhere between preschool and school. In one pen off to the side was a llama and I was transfixed. I wasn’t allowed to go in the pen—not to perpetuate the stereotypes, but there were some spitting incidents. I wrapped my hands around the wire of the fence and refused to leave. My grandparents tried lots of things to get me to leave, but I refused. My little fists held tight. I think there was a timeout involved later in the day.
I knew this creature’s coat could be used to make yarn, and I thought if I just stood and watched long enough, something miraculous would happen—and in a way, it did. I already knew what weaving was from experience in the occupational therapy ward of the University of Virginia Hospital where my mom worked for a time. The idea that there were animals, who grew fiber, that could be turned into yarn, and then woven into cloth, was just too much—mind blown. I pursued this know-how for the whole of my life, often the information swam over my head, but always struck a note in my heart.
My deep, abiding affection for all aspects of weaving—the materials, history, art, culture, geopolitics, agriculture, education, literature, technology, economics, migration, production, and so on—have allowed me to wrap my arms around the entire breadth of human existence. Weaving is not a discipline to be narrowly defined.
Life often makes more sense when seeing it in the rearview mirror. Although there were lots of deviations along the way, a constant in my life is fiber and looms. From seeking out the sheep barn at the county fair to volunteering for anything remotely related to fiber work—animal rescue organizations, conferences, guild events, various ranches, and a weaving project on the Navajo Nation, my introduction to indigenous weaving in the West and the marvel of goats. I’ve never been much of a hangout kind of a person, I need a job and some focus, like a sheep dog.
I moved to Colorado to pursue a college degree on the seven-year plan, taking time off for equal amounts of disillusionment and joyful pursuits, as well as to work to earn enough money for the next semester. I managed to put together a mishmash of coursework tucking myself under the umbrella of the Social Science department. All you needed to get a degree was fifteen credits in one of the disciplines. After that you could pretty much take anything else you wanted until you amassed enough credits to graduate. Under the umbrella of the socioeconomics of value-added agriculture, I headed to New Zealand for two semesters of wool science, signed up for a minor in the fiber arts, and wrote my senior project on Tierra Wools in Northern New Mexico. Eventually, I landed a job at Interweave, working on Spin-Off and Handwoven magazines and bought a piece of property that was zoned for “seven goats and a flock of chickens”.
Finally, I could have a herd of my own. After some pondering, I settled on cashmere-bearing goats. They produced glorious fiber, but not too much of it, would keep my acre lot mowed, and I had such fond memories of working with goats.
I found my herd, if you can call four goats a herd, by stumbling upon a 4-H project that got way out of hand. These goats were not bred for their fiber, but rather for the sake of showing—runway goats, if you will. This was a 4-H kind of showing judging how well you tended your animal, not necessarily breed-specific fiber showing.
Within this herd of fifty or more goats, I spied one or two with really amazing fleeces, and one or two goats that looked as if to say, “please get me out of here”. In the former category were Diva and Bella, their snow-like coats were highly crimped and seemingly fine. In the latter category were Zeus and Faith, whose fiber lacked crimp, but offered natural colors of brown and gray. Zeus sported classic badger markings with grand white stripes down the side of his face, and Faith, with her soulful eyes. What I didn’t do was cull for temperament, lesson learned.
Bella was the only goat that didn’t come with a name. I gave my friend and longtime backpacking partner’s children the honor of picking a name. They gave me two choices, Stinkypants or Bella Bella Goatarella. I went with Bella.
A friend and fellow goat owner volunteered to drive the six hour round trip with me to pick them up. Laying eyes on Faith, she rightly assessed “There is your escape artist.” Her years of herd life allowed her to spot this characteristic quickly. Faith was the only goat who ever slipped through the fencing by her own ingenuity, and not because I left a gate open.
My colleagues took up a collection to buy me my first barnload of hay. I was verklempt. The barn itself was uninsurable and held in place by two large chains anchored in the ground. Attached to the back of this rather dubious structure—it is still standing—was a rather large, homemade sauna. (I ran into more than one person who said they got stoned in that sauna during the seventies.) It had an outer chamber where you would have disrobed, and an inner chamber with staggered benches and an old stove pipe used to vent the fire. It was a perfect spot for goat respite and establishing a hierarchy. Who got the top bunk, who got the middle bunk, and who had to sleep on the floor was always in play. Anyone could bang their horns against the pipe and demand hay.
When last I was up on these things, the establishment of a “cashmere” breed was a little controversial from a taxonomy point of view. There has been a long-concerted effort to recognize a Cashmere breed in the United States. Historically cashmere didn’t come from a specific breed of goat, rather it is produced in varying quantities by most fiber-bearing goats except Angora’s which don’t produce this down undercoat. True cashmere meets certain fineness and crimp structure to be officially recognized as cashmere, otherwise it is just goat down. At one point in history, “cashmere” could come from a variety of down bearing animals—yak, camel, bison, etc.
The name is derived from Kashmir, a geographical region in the Himalayas where nomadic people gathered goat and antelope down from the region to weave. The Kashmir shawl, a famed textile, woven from these fine downy wools in a twill tapestry technique, is associated with this region, although its history is debated by historians and fiber folks alike. The geopolitical borders and meanings, its people, and the animal breeds of this area have evolved and migrated over the centuries. I’m speaking about the history of this place, its people, and fiber production in its broadest terms. It is a rabbit hole all of its own, thus weaving being a portal into all things. If you are interested in the history of fiber-bearing animals and their people, I highly recommend checking out Wild Fibers. The editor, Linda Cortright, is also an owner of and deeply committed to the cashmere goat and the place of its origins.
I had plans to get more goats, but then life happened. I was in the middle of writing my first book and my first marriage was dissolving. I was suddenly on my own with my little herd. I decided now was not the time to expand. So Zeus, Diva, Bella, and Faith and I made a go of it. I got the book out, sorted myself out as a single person, and took a job an hour away from my home. I would come home exhausted and worn out at the end of the day, go into the field and feel better. Tending things keeps one grounded.
There is a lot of drama to be found in herd life. For instance, I did not know that Bella was the daughter of Diva’s sworn enemy and that caused some issues. (I wrote about some of their exploits in Raising Cain, the back page essay of the Fall 2009 issue of Spin-Off.)
It is easy to romanticize and anthropomorphize herd life. The Instagrammable moments are a sliver of actual reality. Dabbling in herd life is much different from the ranchers who are devoted to it. The ones whom we rely on to maintain valuable genetics, supply us with breed-specific fibers, preserve culturally rooted fiber traditions through the generations, and even restore the environment to balance.
After I decided I couldn’t take a two-hour commute, and didn’t want to move, I quit my job not knowing what I was going to do. I lined up every teaching job I could lay my hands on, launched Yarnworker, and started editing video for extra income. Teaching means travel and I was fortunate enough to have a neighbor who would look after the goats while I was on the road. The long thought-of herd expansion was definitely not to be.
Along the way, I got remarried, and an opportunity to move to New Mexico presented itself. We looked for a suitable place to keep the goats, but decided there weren’t any great options and we really weren’t sure this move was going to work out. About that time, my herd-sitting neighbor’s rental was being sold, so I offered him and his wife a deal—cover the mortgage, look after the goats, and we’ll see how it goes.
In the end New Mexico did stick, and I sold my house to my friends, still pondering what to do with the goats. The new owners of the property were interested in creating an orchard. Orchards and goats aren’t a great mix.
I was down to three goats by this time. Zeus, never the healthiest or most well-adjusted goat, succumbed to urinary calculi, a condition that vexes wethers, particularly those who are castrated too young, and I suspect he was. When I found him, he was a companion to the intact bucks. I don’t think that was a very fun job and it led to a bit of an attitude.
When he was young and acted up, I would sit on him until he calmed down—goat psychology is all about who can make who do what. As he grew into a large, nearly one hundred and fifty pound fellow with a very large rack, this physical intervention was not possible. I had to figure out other ways to negotiate shared space. Having learned that dog training techniques work on goats, I place trained the herd. Each goat had a place and I would tell them to “go to their place” while I did my chores and then release them for treats.
As I was pondering what to do about the goats, I was starting the weave-alongs. Marny, a weaver who had taken an in-person class with me, reached out to inquire about participating. I remembered she lived in the mountains of Colorado and had goats. Did she, by chance, have room in her barn? The answer was a swift yes. I said sleep on it, but the answer the next day was still yes. I am still amazed. The weave-alongs are the gift that keeps giving.
Bella, Faith, and Diva retired to the high country to live with a herd of Angora goats and were now known as the Bully Goats. They were not gracious about sharing space. I traveled up to Colorado about once a quarter to harvest fiber, do various goat-related chores, and visit with the humans. My now fast friend, Marny, likes to travel, so as much as I could manage it around my teaching schedule, I would house sit while she was off adventuring with her family. I had now lived longer without the goats than I had with them. Somehow though, they were still a part of my identity. I am a person who has goats.
As Diva aged, she was reaping the results of years of haughty treatment of her fellow barn mates. She was not queen of anything anymore except herself. Bella developed a bit of lameness in her front leg and lost sight in one eye. This spring, I was housesitting and Bella told me it was time. Bella and Faith had become a bonded pair, so I assumed Faith would be next, but I was wrong. Shortly after Bella left the herd, Diva decided that without beauty, hubris loses its spunk and I also said goodbye to her. I scattered Bella’s ashes in the pen to keep Faith company. I didn’t want to bury or process a goat on land that was shared with big predators while I was on my own. I brought Diva home to New Mexico and buried her. In a few years, I will dig her up and mount her horns. One of her horns has a broken tip. I plan to make a mold from the other horn and replace the missing tip with a bronze replica. She would love being honored in this way. She was in every sense of the word, a diva. Timing was not right to harvest the fiber, so I let both of them keep it. They had given me dozens of years of fiber, they could keep their divine coats.
I’m left with Faith, which seems right. When you strip away the thunder of life, the hubris of being, and the beauty of things, you are left with faith. I would like to bring her closer to me, but that is probably more about me than her well-being. I’ll talk to her about it the next time we meet. Metaphorically speaking, I try to keep faith close at hand.
Life is much like living with a herd of goats, there are pushes, pulls, and headbutts. In-between, there is joy. In that lovely, hundred-year old house with a weaving studio out back that looked over the tumbling down barn and an acre filled goats, I was surrounded by it—the neighbors on either side of the fence were named Joy.
It is very easy to lose sight of joy. Circumstances can conspire to strip it away or perhaps it can even feel self-indulgent or frivolous faced with the muchness of life. Joy is the oxygen of the soul. Don’t let anyone take it away from you. It is more precious than gold (or cashmere).
Update to add: Faith took a turn in July and we said goodbye after many days of pure joy open grazing in the mountains together. At nearly 16 years of age, she was ready to join her barn mates. I want to give a little love here to Faith, who was always the wisest of them all.