One of the hardest-working women I’ve met lives in Vale.
She’s 56-year-old Susan Proctor, owner of Windy Wool Windings, a lovely sheep farm on blustery hills just a stone’s throw from the Catawba-Lincoln County line.
With the exception of sheering, Proctor tends her 35-member flock without help. She feeds, vaccinates, prevents parasites, trims hooves, treats illnesses, assists lambing ewes, weans, moves the flock from place to place and changes their clothes – more about that later.
Then there’s breeding-stock selection, marketing and sales, meat stock, and competing in fleece and fiber shows.
With winter approaching, Proctor has a bit more time to attend to other activities she loves: spinning wool into yarn, dying it and knitting it into clothing or weaving it into blankets or shawls.
Of course, all of the above must be scheduled around Proctor’s full-time job as follow-up coordinator at FleetNet America, a vehicle-maintenance company that coordinates service for truck fleet emergencies.
Whew! The women should be pictured in the dictionary next to “busy.”
Proctor’s operation borders Sunny Hill Farm, owned by her husband, Vance “Junior” Proctor, a dairyman and grain cropper who operates the business with their son, Van. The two men help Susan Proctor during sheering season in early spring.
“It’s bikini days after sheering,” she said, smiling. “You can see everything that’s there.”
By summer’s hot days, the girls – as Mary Proctor calls the majority-female flock – have about an inch of wool on them for protection against the sun.
Prior to sheering is lambing. “Roughly 25 ewes will lamb mid-January to April,” Proctor said. “Last year I had three sets of triplets.”
“A lamb between two weeks and four months is a delight to watch,” said Proctor, who lets her animals frolic on 20 acres. “They play. They’re into everything, like a passel of kindergartners.”
A couple weeks ago, the ladies were in the breeding pens with three lucky rams.
“They’re pure breeds,” Proctor said of the rams. “Their fleeces have to be as good as the girls, or they don’t stay.”
Proctor’s goal: “To have the best fleeces to show,” she said. Proctor’s fleeces and sheep have won numerous awards, including grand champion at the North Carolina State Fair four years ago for one of her ewes. Proctor has arrived at shows with her fleeces and sold them before she could get them all displayed.
The rams currently are in residence in “the bachelor pad, where they’re getting used to life without the ewes,” said Proctor. Among them is Chandler, the senior ram. All of Proctor’s flock are registered and named, including Black Diamond, an ebony ewe; Moola, a black-and-white spotted female whose coloring resembles a Holstein; and Nut, who’s “a little bit crazy.”
Proctor studied agriculture at Wingate University and N.C. State and graduated with a desire to raise sheep. Thirty years passed before her wish came true. In the meantime, she worked on her husband’s farm, held down a job and raised her son and daughter.
When they were grown, Proctor decided she wanted something of her own. A friend gave her a spinning wheel.
Proctor took lessons from Victoria Johannson, who teaches spinning and weaving privately and at Gaston College.
“Spinning is an obsession,” Proctor said. “You get that motion going, and a lot of tension will come out in the process of spinning.”
To spin, Proctor needed wool roving: sheets of fiber that turn to yarn when fed into the spinning wheel. Time for those sheep she’d been wanting for three decades.
Proctor spent four years researching sheep farming and sheep breeds before she chose one white and one black bred ewe from Oregon in 2006. “I wanted sheep with very soft fleece and with legs and faces that didn’t have to be sheered,” said Proctor. “It’s too easy to nick them, and I don’t like for my girls to be hurt.”
Before her first sheep arrived, Proctor built fences, decided where they’d pasture and renovated an old barn.
“When you farm, particularly if you’re a livestock farmer, you’ve got to have it – that livestock draw,” said Proctor, who certainly has it all now.
All the sheep provide wool but not all stay at Windy Wool Windings happily ever after. With the exception of the males used for breeding or sold as breeding stock, most of the boys enjoy a pampered life on the farm and then head for the “abattoir,” the nice French word Proctor uses instead of slaughterhouse. Rams are “temperamental and can be dangerous,” said Proctor, who sells the meat, which returns to her inspected, packaged and frozen.
Now to the fun part: the sheep’s clothing. When Proctor determines that a fleece has prize potential, that coat must be protected; therefore, the animal must wear a covering “made of something similar to parachute material,” Proctor said. As the fleece grows, Proctor changes the covering to a bigger size to prevent compacting of the valuable fleece. “I get $7 to $15 a pound for a fleece,” said Proctor.
Fleeces she doesn’t sell become roving for sale, yarn for sale or clothing for sale.
Once a fleece – which can be white, black, or any color in between – has been sheered from a sheep, Proctor washes it at least three times, cards (combs) it to straighten the fibers and make roving, and then spins the roving into yarn.
At various points in the process, the wool can be dyed. Proctor has an artist’s eye for color and for combining colors when she knits and weaves. “My mother is an artist,” said Proctor, “a phenomenal quilter.”
Proctor is taking fleeces north in May for the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. A judge at a recent show told Proctor her fleeces were of such quality they should compete in a bigger venue. “Maryland’s show is old and huge,” Proctor said.
With all the work and love she puts into her sheep venture, it would be imbaaaaasible for her to come home without a handful of prizes. (Had to do it.)
For information on Windy Wool Windings, visit http://saintsandstars.powweb.com, call 828-320-4775 or look for Proctor April-October 2013 at the Conover Farmers’ Market in the parking lot of the Conover Post Office.