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Alaska Life

Alaska’s first flock of Merino sheep arrived 25 years ago. They still serve a weaver’s devotion.

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: November 26, 2017
  • Published November 26, 2017

PALMER — Karen Gardner keeps sheep to support her weaving habit.

At Gardner's arrival in the family's Matanuska Colony barn on a windy night a few days before Thanksgiving, her flock comes running as one.

"It's kind of fun to be weaving and see little sheepies running around," she said.

But the Merino sheep Gardner and her husband shipped up from New York state in the early 1990s aren't just any sheep.

The Gardner herd of purebred Merinos are known for their fine, soft wool, which is versatile enough to be used in everything from slinky silk to hefty blankets. The sheep were the first of their kind in Alaska when the animals arrived 25 years ago.

Today, there are pockets of Merino sheep around the state: in Delta Junction, Fairbanks, on the Kenai Peninsula. Originating in Spain in the 12th century, the animals are known for their hardiness and strong flocking instinct. Farmers here say they're well suited to the cold.

Still, keeping sheep in Alaska isn't easy. Long winters and short time for munching grass outside necessitate months of feed costs that Lower 48 producers don't face.

Producers here recently weathered what many viewed as a mortal threat to their cottage industry: a bid by a wild sheep group to remove goats and sheep from Alaska's "clean list" of pets that don't need permits.

The wool makes any trouble worthwhile, says Gardner, a 56-year-old nurse practitioner who owns Wishing Wellness in Palmer.

She can see her flock of about 30 sheep out the window as she sits at one of the enormous looms that fill about half the home she shares with her husband just off Palmer-Fishhook Road near Palmer.

"I thought, if I'm going to take all this care of these sheep, I might as well get the product I want," Gardner said. "It's all really to support my weaving habit."

The sheep are only the start.

Gardner gets 80 pounds of wool from the herd every year. Eighty times 25 years … equals literally a ton of yarn. Skeins of it fill a wall of shelves in a few rooms. A crawlspace is apparently full of the stuff.

Gardner dyes the wool herself, mostly using natural colors.

A large basket in one room reveals salmon-colored balls dyed with lemon juice, a yellow produced by the sawdust of Osage orange trees, and a deep maroon derived from the carcasses of bugs that grow on cacti.

Gardner has six regular looms. The largest, a Swedish Glimakra that's computer-assisted, stands head high and about 6 feet wide. Thousands of white warp threads, the backbone of the weave, hold the start of a blanket.

Gardner grew up in Pennsylvania and Maryland. She participated in Four-H but never kept animals.

Instead, she got the weaving bug as a child, visiting a relative at a senior home in Baltimore. A group of ladies sat in the basement, weaving. Gardner would come down and sit, rapt.

Her mother kept a blanket the women made when Gardner was 8, a green tartan pattern shot with red and yellow. She gave it to Gardner a few years ago.

"Where is that blanket?" Gardner said to herself during a recent visit, pulling it from the bottom of a drawer. "I used to just watch them. I thought it was just the coolest thing ever."

The blanket is acrylic, not wool. Yet it started her on the path to sheep ownership.

She bought a spinning wheel and used hand cards to prepare purchased wool. She was a nurse. Her husband Vaughn, an orthopedic surgeon in Wasilla, was in medical school at the time. They weren't flush.

The couple moved to Alaska in the late 1980s. That's when Karen Gardner got her own sheep.

She wanted quality control.

The fine, crimped fleece of Merino sheep spins up into a soft yarn prized among knitters and weavers.

The Gardners found a farm in upstate New York willing to "go through the hassle of shipping to Alaska," Gardner said. They had to coordinate the livestock import with the state veterinarian and get the animals tested for various diseases before they traveled.

The number of Merino sheep in Alaska has grown considerably since then, though not exactly to commercial proportions.

Amy Seitz and Jane Conway keep a Merino ram on their Soldotna farm.

Seitz, who's also executive director of the Alaska Farm Bureau, praises the ram's "really nice wool" but offers a warning: the superfine fleece, combined with moisture, heat and friction under a cover, can "felt" on the animal instead of after the wool is sheared, spun and woven or knitted into mittens or blankets.

"Merino felts really well but you don't want it felted when it comes off the sheep," Conway said. "You want to felt it yourself."

Another Merino owner in the Matanuska Valley, Sabrieta Holland, is a large animal vet with a small herd she's expanding through breeding. Her first sheep — named "Sheepie" — came from someone who said it originated with Gardner stock.

"I actually discovered them on Craigslist," Holland said. "I was looking for something that was not a video game for my younger son and he was afraid of cows."

She said Merinos are generally easily managed sheep that need some extra attention. Their thick wool may give the illusion they're fatter than they are, masking underweight or pregnant ones.

They're prolific breeders, so farmers also need to make sure they don't end up with winter lambs.

Holland has five sheep now, with two due next month.

A number of Alaska Merinos owe their genetic lineage to the Gardner sheep, she said. "They're cool sheep."