handcrafts

a philosophy of sewing

 

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Or, why I took a break from sewing, and why I'm back at it.

I worked myself raw in the years after Lachlan's birth and first two heart surgeries. I filmed my Craftsy course, came out with a ton of new patterns, and attended my first Quilt Market. Sew Liberated was our primary source of income while Patrick was in grad school, and since we had such high medical bills, it needed to grow. Sewing became work - something that took me away from my little family. But Sew Liberated wasn't cutting it. We made the decision for Patrick to teach himself programming so he could jump off the history PhD ship that was sailing to oblivion. We needed to be able to stay near Duke for Lachlan's cardiology needs, and we needed a more stable income. When he landed a programming job, I became a full-time mom, and no longer had the time to work on Sew Liberated, even if I had wanted to.

We hired Danica to run the show, and I took a deep breath. Lachlan's third open heart surgery was on the horizon, and I did a ton of mental work to prepare myself for that sickening moment when I handed my baby off to scrubbed and masked strangers. I meditated. I did yoga.  I tried to get us out into nature as much as possible. Tried to create a nurturing cocoon of a home. Tried to do anything in my power to equip my little ones with love, attention, and good memories. I birthed a sweet baby girl. I felt my ability to focus on anything other than my family slipping away into a pleasant, homey blur. My family became my creative outlet. Months went by, and I didn't touch my sewing machine. Then a year passed. I didn't miss it. It was work. I didn't want anything to do with it.

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I didn't miss that rushed feeling of trying to sew "just one more seam" before the baby awoke. I didn't miss feeling frustrated when I didn't finish a project in the allotted time frame. I didn't miss the constant stream of project ideas that would hound my thoughts when I could have been enjoying the present moment with my kids. I didn't miss the creative to-do list. I didn't miss the stacks of yet-to-be-used fabric, beckoning me from the shelf. They used to cast a shadow of resentment over my children for their incessant needs that took me away from being a more productive creative person. 

The surgery day dawned. If I hadn't focused on Sew Liberated since before Sadie was born, now I didn't even give it one thought. Facing the tender, fleeting, mortal nature of being human gives you tunnel vision. This little boy of mine had his heart mended and fit by a tailor far more skilled than I. His surgeon's skilled hands touched Lachlan's heart, stitching pieces of previously-used human cloth onto my baby's own fresh tissue. Weaving gortex with muscle, he re-designed a circulatory system that would, for the first time, provide Lachlan with near-normal blood oxygenation levels and the energy of a typical three year-old. Lachlan's heart is re-purposed. Fully functional, yet beautifully flawed, like sashiko mending. 

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Nearly six weeks later, after battling with accumulating fluid on his lungs and the subsequent dehydration of his treatment, Lachlan's little mended heart slowed and stopped. I was at home, nursing a stuffy-nosed baby and five year-old. Patrick was with him as they rushed him to the pediatric cardiac ICU, soon starting chest compressions. When I got the call, I was eating a veggie quesadilla, which I spit out while I screamed and fell to the floor. I thought he was dead. I guess, in a way, he was. Had he been at home, 30 minutes from the hospital, he wouldn't have survived. (Hence our eventual move downtown. Covering bases, you know.) 

Lachlan recovered. But what does it mean to recover? To cover again. To mend. The mending is visible. Like his heart, life for our family would never be quite the same. There is a patch that covers our physical and psychological wounds. There is stitching that holds it together. Sometimes the stitching is pristine, in other places it is knotted with fear and anger. But we are functional. And achingly, imperfectly beautiful. 

We are still mending. A well-rubbed piece of cloth will, eventually, break down. When it does, we take up a needle and thread and piece it together any way we can. In my family, the cloth is often made threadbare by sibling bickering, hidden scary medical memories, and parental stress. But it can always be mended. Re-covered. Made functional. Unique.

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At some point, perhaps when that subtle shift occurred and my toddler started to spend long stretches playing with her dollhouse, a few minutes opened up in my days. I wanted to make her clothes as a gift of love. I cut into some soft cloth. She sat on my lap and removed the pins as I sewed. It was slow. But it brought me so much joy. I didn't take pictures of it. I didn't have to market the design. It was just that, a physical manifestation of love. An expression of my creativity and a happy investment of my time. I never want to sew for any other reasons.

Sewing has an important place in my life again, along with writing. But I have a personal manifesto that I now follow.

  1. Begin each project with the intention of expressing love and gratitude for the intended recipient, be it my own body or the vibrant bodies of my children.  
  2. Breathe deeply while cutting. Breathe deeply while sewing. Sewing is slow, and the act of slowing down is a gift of mindfulness. Accept any interruption in the process as a gift to be present. Find joy in the process, and appreciation for the amount of time it takes.
  3. Buy less. Make what you need, but not more.  When clothing wears down, mend it. Bring a mindset of minimalism to the fiber arts.
  4. Sewing is an act of self-care. It is not selfish. It is practice of mindfulness mendfulness. I sew because it helps me on my journey to be a more aware, loving mother and creative person. 

If I returned to my old way of sewing - the resentment, the oppressive to-make list, the feeling of being squeezed for creative time, I would need to stop and reassess. My time with these three little children is too short. With this healthier creative mindset, I hope to mend together my creative nature with parenthood.  

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I made these Rainbow Shorts for Lachlan using the Basic Pocket Pants pattern in my book, using Kaffe Fasset's Exotic Stripe in the Earth colorway.  It took me two weeks to sew them - a seam here, a seam there. He helped me. So did Sadie. He is clothed with love. 


poetry and the class picnic blouse

 

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Sadie took me for a walk the other day.  Fortunately, we didn't have a disagreement about the destination - a newly-opened donut shop. Before we left, we picked out poetry books for our weekly Poetry Tea Donut Time and packed them in the stroller. I must have a good excuse to head to a donut shop. This one was mildly homeschoolish. The smaller crew gathered up all of the Shel Silverstein they could find, while I brought my favorite

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I didn't need to provide directions. Sadie and her brothers knew just how to get there. They have hound's noses for donuts, my kids. Which is good, because it freed me up to take pictures of this dang cute blouse. 

It's the Class Picnic Blouse from Oliver and S that I made for Sadie about six months ago. I loved this one so much that I cut out three more. I should know myself better. Whenever I cut out several garments at once, the first one is a delight to sew. The subsequent projects start to feel like an obligation, which drains the joy out of sewing for me. I granted myself permission to relegate the un-sewn pieces to the scrap collection, a decision helped along by a growing toddler, who was quickly sizing out of the original cuts.  Ahhhh. Creative freedom! 

You've seen the fabric before, both on the Clara Dress pattern front, me, and - if you have visited my home - on a handful of curtains. I purchased an entire bolt of this Nani Iro double gauze a handful of years ago. (The crazy things you get to do when you're a sewing pattern designer!)

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Sadie is pushing along her galimoto. The galimoto is imbued with a kind of magic that can make a toddler walk for miles without complaint.  Twelve dollars well-spent, plus it's lasted through all three of my kids. 

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Destination reached. Poetry was read, and pages were made sticky with donut detritus. Bodies were moved, urban wildlife was noticed, and real-life math discussions were had. I'd call that a successful day of homeschooling.

Below is what happens when you ask her to smile! Spunky, this one. Super spunky. 

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looking back on squam

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It was so good it was almost surreal, like a sweet dream gently nudged into wakefulness by the rooster's crow. The dream was fluid, the conversations were lucid and uninterrupted by the needs of the small people, unencumbered by The List that always barks at me from the sidelines like an over-zealous basketball coach.

In the dream, I was surrounded by my people. Friends who understood my passions, my ideals, and my reality. The food - oh, the divine food - which was summoned forth with nothing less than a magic wand at each and every meal, and dishes which were spiffied up by the dish faeries that don't seem to live near my house - it was certainly a dream, wasn't it?

Yes. A dream for which I am very grateful to have experienced. I am so thankful that I have a partner who fully supported me in this time of creative renewal, and who, along with my parents, surrounded my boys with love and much fun during my absence. Patrick had even done all the laundry while I was gone. Some sort of superdad, right? Mind you, it did take me a day to clean up after all of their fun, but at least we all had clean clothes!

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 I didn't realize until I returned home how very few photos I took while there. I was just enjoying myself and didn't think about documenting it. You can get a sense of the surroundings from Amanda. Here are just a few of the things that I made  - a spray that now resides in my herbal first aid kit, made under the tutelage of the gentle Holly Bellebuono, and Mama Acorn and Baby Sapling, made during my class with the spunky Phoebe Wahl

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How I love Phoebe's work! I've saved all of her illustrations that have appeared in Taproot - you can see some in our studio in this photo. I purchased her kitchen print at the Squam Art Fair and promptly put it up in a frame in our kitchen when I returned home. Finn said to me that very evening,"Mama, I love looking at that picture. I love how the little girl is playing while her Mama is making her cookies."  To me, that means two things: first, Phoebe has succeeded in creating a piece of art that is warm and inviting for all ages, and second, that Finn wishes that I'd make more cookies for him. Noted.

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I have a new crafting obsession - creating soft, posable figures around wire armatures. This doll is totally hand sewn and utterly spontaneous in her formation. She kind of emerged from my hands as her own little self, inspiring the kind of quizzical awe that mothers feel after birthing their child. "Oh, it's you who has been in there this whole time - I made you, but I didn't have a hand in any of these details. You turned out pretty darn cool regardless." 

I'm now equipped to make little animal soft sculptures, too. (Fingers crossed.) I'm thinking a mobile for baby girl might be nice. Finn has already put in his request for a dinosaur.

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Here I am at home again. Awake, and enjoying it. Squam was a rejuvenating and inspirational dream come true.


maternity sewing

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Things are getting bigger around here. I've never been one of those twiggy-preggy ladies, despite my petite build, but I'm at peace with it this third time around. More fat to put in that supermilk, right? 

What I'm NOT at peace with, this third time around, is maternity clothes. Is yuckblah a word? Because I don't want much of anything to do with an actual maternity wardrobe. Oh, yes - the first pregnancy was so exciting. Jeans with a big, stretchy waistband! Shirts with ruching on the sides! Now, though? I don't want to be bothered by packing away my normal clothes and wading through the attic to find that bag of winter maternity stuff that must be up there somewhere. Give me a bella band and my already-in-rotation knit wardrobe from my Craftsy class. Add in a few cute tops that will be equally wearable post-partum and beyond. 

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Enter my Schoolhouse Tunics, slightly modified. I took my regular size 6, dropped the bodice by 1 inch to easily accommodate the extra "umph" up top (as well as to make it even easier as a nursing top) and took the size 10 skirt and fit it into the size 6 bodice by making the darts deeper. More room, but not so much that I won't wear this after I'm back to an actual size 6.

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And good thing, because I love these fabrics. Both are Nani Iro double gauze. The white is called "Little Letter," and I can't find the name of the blue fabric, but they are from the same collection. I'm afraid you'll be seeing a lot of these fabrics, because I have plenty left over to make clothes for my little one!

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And finally a picture of me that I really like, blur and all, taken by Finn. 


little things

booties for my friend's baby girl

Oh, it's SO good to be back! Hello to all of you sweet people. Your words of congratulations and encouragement fill me with gratitude for this technology that connects us, despite the temptation to use it to escape from reality. It is my hope to continue to use this space to share our family's committment to (and often, our struggle with!) enjoying the present moment with our children. That the future is uncertain was branded on our hearts the moment we received Lachlan's diagnosis, but it has, in some ways, been a bittersweet gift. I hope to write a bit more about our healing journey in the coming months. I feel ready to open up about that and put down in words some of the mess of emotions which has characterized these last three years for me. 

In the meantime, there's a jar of sequins that has just been spilled on the floor of the kitchen that needs to be dealt with, and another request to help sound out a word. You know - the reality! 

A few things:

- I made the above booties for my friend's baby daughter who was born last month with HLHS. Baby Annie will be home very soon, thank goodness. I'm sure I'll have to knit another set for our little girl! The yarn is Madeleinetosh sock in the Night Bloom colorway, and the pattern is called Stay-On Booties. Dude, I'm going to have to start keeping up with things on my Ravelry account. It's amazing what opens up to you, crafting-wise, when you're expecting a little girl! It's ridiculous, really.

- I'm now on Instagram! Follow along at instagram.com/meghanmcelwee 


projects in progress

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:: Second Milo on the needles :: Snow Pixie hats on the cutting table ::

:: Other project-themed books ::

These handful of days have been off-kilter. Following an unprecedented string of good days, in which everything seemed to flow, the boys (and myself, no doubt) trudged through the last two days with low energy, sapped patience, and a general grumpy malaise. 

This time, though, I have a peace about it. I've come to expect these days, just as I expect the perfect ones. It even feels, dare I say ... comforting. I feel grateful to pass through very human situations together as a family; grateful to learn about each other and let each other experience a full spectrum of feelings. 

It also feels good to hop into a project in the creative space that opens up after a patch of ho-humness. There's plenty to do in the studio between now and Christmas, and the gift-making is kicking into gear. I'm also really liking my circular saw, and have my eyes on some of the projects in this book once the chicken coop is done.

And - I can't recommend highly enough Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert. It speaks to me right where I am as parent just starting off on the homeshooling journey, which can be totally daunting if you see all the ideas that can be done out there on the internet and all of the facts that can be passed on to a child. Here's an exceprt:

"Try to avoid pulling attention away from your child's project (his deepest interest) with random, one-off activities. Save casual field trips and similar activities for times between projects. The less you distract your child with random activities and interruptions, the more engaged and focused he'll be. You're giving him the opportunity to stay longer with what he cares about most; you're giving him the chance to build something really meaningful." 

Love.

Back to my projects. Have a wonderful weekend!


this is wool

Hey all! Meg here, popping in to share with you the work of a dear, long-time reader, Mary Jo of Five Green Acres. Shepherdess and fiber afficionada, wonderful mama and all-around cool person, Mary Jo is launching her This is Wool yarn tour today to coincide with the debut of her hand-spun, plant dyed fibers from her backyard flock of sheep. Take a moment to watch this beautiful video she put together documenting the "birth" of her yarn.

This is wool. First Harvest: Backyard from Mary Jo, FiveGreenAcres on Vimeo.

Meg: That video makes me want sheep in baaaad way, Mary Jo! :) Puns aside, what have you found to be the most rewarding and most difficult aspect of shepherding a flock in your own backyard?

Mary Jo: Ah, there are so many answers to this question.  Lambing is an obvious answer, as it's easily the most rewarding and by far the most difficult.  This spring left us with an orphan bottle lamb - Munson - and he surely fits the bill, entering our lives while we struggled, unsuccessfully,  to keep from losing his mother.  He's become so deeply bonded to us that he's now more like a pet dog than a sheep.  But this year, I'm inclined to answer this question with regards to the drought that defined our summer.  Our sheep normally spend more than half the year out on pasture, eating the grass and weeds that grow effortlessly, for free.  I strategically move them through the couple of acres, enclosed in a portable electric net fence, to let them chew down the grasses just far enough to stimulate their lush regrowth.  By the time they've made the first pass through the entire pasture, the grasses have cycled back and the loop continues, unless, of course, the grass doesn't grow back, due to a lack of rain.  This was the situation I found myself in this summer.  By the beginning of July, I had to locate some hay to buy (a very expensive alternative to feeding them free grass all summer) and worry about the impending shortage of hay to get them through the winter.  The basic question of how to feed my sheep consumed me all summer, and I took to watching the sky like a farmer, cursing the dry heat as it burned my pasture to a crisp.  The mounting stress and added expense called a lot of this endeavor into question and I found myself wondering more than once what it all was for.  Just as we were down to the last bales of hay we had for July, some friends called with an offer to let our sheep graze their back lot, overgrown and not accessible by mower.  "YES!" I shrieked, "ABSOLUTELY!"   So off they went, and we all heaved a sigh of relief, knowing they'd be fed for a few weeks at least.  But an eerie quiet descended on our Acres with them gone; it felt empty here.  I visited them every two days to move them to new grass, and we were mutually thrilled to see each other.

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A few weeks into this arrangement, I spent the weekend at a Sheep and Wool festival.  That weekend was steeped in all things fiber - I took classes each day, and the booths upon booths of gorgeous wool and fiber were tremendous inspiration.  But I found myself lingering the most near the sheep barns, strolling through each morning to visit the show sheep, whose baa-ing was the first sound I heard upon waking.  It made me tremendously homesick - not for home as it was, but our home with the flock intact, grazing out back.  I meandered without realizing where I was headed and found myself in the festival's lambing barn during each break between classes, and I felt that pang of longing for more lambs the way women feel the calling to have another baby.  It became abundantly clear that weekend that I wasn't interested in living without sheep, drought or not.  Soon after, the flock had finished their contracted work at the friends'  lot, and were blissfully reinstated at home.  Their first night back was euphoric - we enjoyed one of the last picnic suppers of the season with them milling about in our backyard. 

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Meg: How is daily life different for a family raising sheep? What do you do to care for them, and in what ways are your children involved?

Mary Jo: The day-to-day of keeping sheep is simple; I'd contend more so than having dogs.  Moving the fence or tossing a bale of hay,  providing fresh water are about all they need.  I was most surprised to learn that they don't need a barn to keep them comfortable through the winter - their wool is more than adequate - but that barns are more for the convenience of the shepherd.  There's shearing time, usually during the spring, which also includes some grooming, and lambing time, which is quite involved but for a short duration.  We include the kids in small ways wherever we can - Isadora (7 yo) has made it a personal goal to befriend and "train" (whatever that means) each of the sheep personally.  She's begun to understand how they think and move, and has become instrumental in helping us get them corralled when needed.  The firsthand exposure to the life (and death) process of our sheep emerged as a valuable experiential learning opportunity, and a great asset to us as newly-minted homeschoolers. Errol, a scant month older than Finn (3), seems to have a natural affinity for animals; the careful attention and tenderness he displays towards the sheep, in particular, makes my heart smile.

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Meg: Tell us a little more about how you learned to process that amazing fleece - did you learn how to card, spin, and dye before or after you welcomed your sheep?


Mary Jo: Oh, the fiber/sheep learning curve seems steep at times!  There is SO. MUCH. to learn, and so many filters to process the information through - i.e. distinguishing "conventional" practices from holistic.  The grace of keeping sheep, however, is that the information need not be all in place before getting them.  We brought home our four starter ewe lambs and while they contentedly mowed down the grass and casually grew their wool, I steeped myself in books, classes, and local connections to other sheep people.  Even after this First Harvest shearing, I took my time deciding what to do with it and how.  There's no rush - wool keeps indefinitely if stored properly.  It's all been quite experimental, and will continue to be, but this level of learning would not be possible without having the sheep physically here.  Fiber festivals like the one I mentioned abound and were the best way for me to learn how to spin and card.  There are also many local guilds for spinning and knitting.  Ravelry has several boards on keeping sheep as well as in processing the fleece, but many folks utilize small mills to do a lot of the processing, which is also a great option.

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Whatever the mode of instruction, from class to guild to youtube tutorial, I have found "fiber people" to be, without exception, exceedingly generous in sharing their knowledge and genuinely devoted to perpetuating their craft.  They are among the nicest people I have ever met!

Thank you for sharing your passion and your craft with us, Mary Jo!


what's today?

Here's my answer to Finn's question:

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Turns out, our days are pretty simple. Simple enough to be described by one or two main activities a day, in three year-old terms. In my terms, it's more like "wakeupprocessphotosbloggoforarunshowerpacklunchremembertoscrubthepoopoffofthatdiaperetc ..."

You know.

But isn't it nice to look at it like this instead? I think so, too.

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I've edited out the name of Finn's Waldorf nursery as well as a friend's name, but here's the low-down:

- Everything I used here was found either in my scrap fabric pile or in my art closet, except for the metal clasps - I think they're called findings? - which I found at Michael's and hot-glued to the activity squares.

What you'll need:

-smooth stones, one for each child

-mat board. I found mine a while back at the Scrap Exchange, a creative reuse center

-fabric and paper scraps

-one larger piece of fabric (brown linen in my case)

-thin cardboard - cereal box thin (this is for the brown labels)

-hot glue gun

-metal findings, both rings and clasps

-Mod Podge

-acrylic paints or other paints if you wish

-Micron pen for little details

-random stuff around the house

-felted wool sweater for the "day" pockets for the stones

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Go at it! I can't really give you any specific instructions other than I used collage, got crazy with the Mod Podge and hot glue, and had a lot of fun doing it!

Happy weekending, y'all.


doodle tee

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I almost forgot to show you Finn's handmade birthday gift for Lachlan! I know you would have seen the shirt in photos eventually, and you would have wondered what the deal was with that crazy shirt, so I think an official show-and-tell is called for.

We used a basic white onesie and Finn drew all over it with fabric markers. I did need to hold the fabric taut while he drew to prevent it from stretching and bunching under the pressure of the marker. It turned out to be an activity well-suited for a two year-old. I think it's one of those gift projects that's perfect for all ages and all occasions - Mother's Day, Father's Day, sibling's and friend's birthdays, etc. I'm sure we'll do it again one of these days.


sheepish

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Sheep! Seventy of them. The boys and I had a grand time at Stoney Mountain Farm during their sheep shearing festivities. The gracious owners opened their home to a good bunch of people, offering entertainment in the way of wool harvesting and sustenance in the form of a tasty home-cooked lunch.

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Having never seen a sheep get shorn before, I was amazed at how accommodating and docile the animals were through the ordeal. Look at the adoring eyes of that sheep up there! He looked like he was getting a spa treatment. 

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In preparation for the big shearing day, I checked out some shearing-related books from the library. Pelle's New Suit will have to be added to our own collection. Not only does Finn adore the book, but he looks exactly like Pelle. Who knew? The boy with just a drop of Swedish blood in him (there's more Mexican in there than Swedish) would come out looking like the spittin' image of a turn-of-the-century Swedish boy. 

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In addition to Pelle's New Suit , we've also enjoyed Feeding the Sheep and Weaving the Rainbow - all of which are about the process of shearing the sheep, making yarn, and then weaving or knitting clothing from the sheep's wool. 

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We've been shearing some of our own sheep right in our living room. I love observing how new experiences come out in imaginative play, and how they are understood and written in the memory of a child through prolonged and repetitive play or games. 

Do you have a local farm that makes an event of shearing day?