Spinning Morehouse Farm's Legacy of Wool and Knitting
This article was orginally published by New York Makers.
The spinning of wool is almost as old as civilization itself. For as long as we’ve raised sheep for meat, we’ve used their wool to clothe and warm us. By 10,000 B.C., tribes throughout Mesopotamia and northern Europe were transforming sheep's wooly fleece into soft, decorative fabrics to heat and adorn the home and body.
The easy mobility and adaptability of sheep allowed Persian, then Greek, then Roman conquerors to transport the animals and their wool across their burgeoning empires. Over the centuries, intentional breeding practices resulted in sheep with better, softer wool. In 1797, the first Merino sheep, selectively bred in Spain and South Africa, were introduced to Australia, where farmers further perfected the texture and durability of their wool through careful breeding.
That tradition, born in the fields of Mesopotamia and passed down and perfected over thousands of years, is alive and well in Milan, New York, at Morehouse Farm.
Margrit Lohrer and Albrecht Pichler, former Manhattan creatives (via Switzerland and Austria, respectively), fled the urban jungle for the rolling pastures of the Hudson Valley, and in 1983, they bought Morehouse Farm, and began knitting an empire together. Margrit is described by Morehouse’s current knitter-in-chief and outreach coordinator Erin Pirro as a “magical force of nature.” Sadly, Margrit died of cancer in 2015, but Albrecht and Erin have vowed to perpetuate her legacy of living a creative, sustainable life that gives back as much as it takes from the community and land, Erin says.
When Margrit and Albrecht founded Morehouse, they not only wanted to share their love of natural fibers and knitting, they wanted to reintroduce Merino sheep (and the wool they produce) to New England.
In 1987, Morehouse welcomed their first two superfine Merino rams specially bred in Australia. Margrit and Albrecht worked to grow their herd, instituting a breeding program that involved the testing and re-testing of the sheep's wool for fineness, to ensure their stud rams were producing finely fleeced sheep. They were also looking for a brilliant shade of white and dense, long wool.
Their meticulous attention to breeding has produced a flock of all merino lambs on their own farm, plus interest from farms all over the country desiring the “services” of their studs. Accolades accrued, and Margrit and Albrecht reveled in seeing Merino sheep dotting the hills of their backyard, and hills all over the country.
Erin grew up in a farming family that was friends of Margrit and Albrecht, just across the state line in Connecticut. She visited often and fell in love with their sheep; she began working there between breaks from school, on and off at age 8. (She’s 38 now).
Meanwhile, in addition to breeding and raising award-winning sheep, Margrit managed to launch a knitting yarn venture.
“Margit learned to knit as a child in Switzerland,” Erin recalls. “And I learned as a child too. So that was something we bonded over. She had an extraordinary ability to interest people who had never thought about knitting. In her hands, it was truly an art: she created incredible designs, out of thin air, for clothing, for fanciful animals.”
They began selling yarn, but realized many newbies required a bit more hand-holding than typed instructions and a ball of yarn delivery. Flash forward to today, and they have a robust array of outreach programs, including a Knit Along group that anyone can join. The Knit Along boasts almost 1,000 members, from New York, to California, to Australia. They keep up with each other on Facebook, posting shots of their progress, their triumphs and, more importantly, the challenges they run into.
“Every month we pick a project, with the goal of helping people expand their repertoire of stitches,” Erin explains. “This month we’re all knitting a shawl. It is so rewarding seeing what other people are working on, and watching old hands help and support new knitters.”
Morehouse also sells kits with patterns and instructions, knitting needles, and of course, yarn.
They sell 45 different colors, in five different weights. (The finest weight can be used for lace shawls and the densest can be used for cozy blankets or bulky hats). There are also three different variations of colors, enabling knitters to have variegated, solid or in-between colors. Plus, there are five undyed natural color options, from white to black.
“And when it’s really sunny that year, the black is actually the color of chocolate,” Erin explains. “It’s so cool. Sheep’s wool is just like our hair. It bleaches in the sun. I love seeing how it changes year to year.”
There are also other equally exciting, but probably a lot more stressful, changes in the wool from year to year.
“The average sheep will give about eight to ten pounds of wool,” Erin says. “But that depends a lot on the age and size of the sheep, as well as the weather conditions.”
She and Albrecht also have to watch the sheep very carefully for any sign of ill-health.
“Happy, healthy sheep produce beautiful wool,” she says. “Stressed or sick sheep do not.”
To maintain a certain baseline of consistency, Erin and Albrecht have the same local shearer they’ve been working with for years come by and shear the sheep (once a year, in the Spring). Then they send the wool to a spinnery in Pennsylvania where it’s washed and spun.
From there, it is sent to North Carolina, where a specialty dye house uses all natural, plant-based dyes to color the wool. And then...back to the Farm. And on their shelves, in kits and off to all corners of the world.
The softest, itch-free wool on earth, there’s a reason Burberry, Alexander McQueen, Pringle of Scotland, and of course, your Great Aunt Ruth and hipster BFF depend on merino for their trademark garments. It’s simply the best, darling.