Sheep Producer and Artist
Sandhill Cranes for Museum Exhibit Fashioned Out of Farm’s Wool
Sheep Industry News Contributor
Her sheep’s wool is roughly the same color as the feathers of a sandhill crane. Actually, Rhonda McClure interrupts, “the match is nearly perfect.”
A Nebraska fiber artist who married into sheep ranching more than three decades ago, McClure has spent many years turning her farm’s wool into art. Her latest work centered on one of her state’s most prominent springtime residents: the sandhill crane.
When the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney was putting together its current exhibit “Cranes: Taking Flight,” McClure’s wool work seemed like a natural fit. Her birds are a big part of the exhibit, which runs through May 11.
“There has been talk that someone is going to purchase the cranes so they will be a permanent part of the museum,” McClure said. “Creating them was a lot of work, but it was very rewarding work. And it’s even more rewarding to know that it all begins with our sheep.”
It begins with the Sheep
The McClure family business has been raising sheep on a small farm in eastern Nebraska for over 35 years. Rhonda’s husband, Don, is a professional shepherd, working for many years as the shepherd at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
An expansion of their flock in 2008 and the re-introduction of natural colored wool in 2009, with the emphasis on wool for the craft industry has proved successful. The foundation sires are of Corriedale and Columbia origins, and NCWGA registry of some.
In the spring of 2012, the opportunity came about to expand the farm.
“With the sheep numbers already on the rise, we all were ready for ‘new pastures.’ An additional 17 acres adjoining us to the north
Their company, “Ewe And Us,” has been producing quality wool and sheep related and inspired items and artwork.
The McClure’s flock originates from Don’s family’s registered Hampshires.
“When we moved to the farm in 1978, the ewes he had earned while in school were returned to him,” Rhonda McClure explained. “Soon after, we chanced to come across a couple of natural colored ewe lambs, which of course the breeders would rather not recognize.”
Being a spinner, Rhonda jumped at the chance at a foundation for a natural colored flock. A couple years later, some colored Corriedale ewes and a ram made a significant addition to the number and fleece quality of the colored flock.
In 1980, with two small boys and a growing interest in wool related art, Rhonda sold the horses she had been keeping. The money was reinvested in a flock of purebred Corriedale ewes, and the wool trade began in earnest.
Over the years, the primary purpose of the flock was adjusted to meet the current demands, and varied from fleece, custom market and 4-H lambs, and general profitable farm purposes.
The natural colored flock diminished and disappeared. In 2008, wool production was re-established as a priority with the purchase of a group of Polypay ewes.
As the primary focus of the flock shifted to the production of wool for the spinning and hand craft trade, additional changes were made. In 2009 a Corriedale ram and a black NCWGA registered ram became the foundation Sires. Their influence was apparent with the lamb crop in the spring of 2010 with eight colored lambs, and improvement in fleece quality and quantity of the white ewe lambs, many of which were kept for replacement ewes. In 2011, a second colored stud ram was added. The current crop of lambs are sired by all three, and each bloodline is making contributions to the overall quality of the wool and flock.
The McClure farm is divided into several small plots, and grazing is limited by time, which is fully adequate for a ruminant. In dry years, hay may be supplemented for short periods while the pastures recover.
Marrying Into Sheep
As a child, McClure was sure she was going to be an artist. But growing up in a rural area in the late 1960s, the possibility of ever making a living with art was slim, and highly discouraged.
When she married a shepherd, and was given a spinning wheel as a wedding gift, and went on to raise natural colored sheep herself, she discovered there was this whole vast category of art called fiber – and that the sewing, knitting, quilting, and other techniques she had been taught as a child, and was still learning and doing had been an art form all along.
Spinning and the business of selling fleeces gradually led to experimenting with dyes. Then watercolors led to painting on silk, and then to combining techniques of painting on silk with quilting. Over time, the lines separating one practice from another blurred into oblivion. The variety of media and techniques has since become a source of interchanging of ideas, and are often put to use in the contracting business.
She has also learned to care for the sheep and their wool.
Because vegetable matter is a major problem, care is taken throughout the year to avoid as much contamination as is feasibly possible.
A major advance was made in the fall of 2009 with the purchase of “Sheep suits” (Made in Colorado) for most of the flock. The ewes, decked out in their new 'outerwear', are now protected from the hay leaves.
“Each year as shearing time approaches, usually in late February, we look forward to seeing the fresh crop of really clean fleeces,” McClure says. “Don does the shearing himself, and does his best to avoid second cuts on the underside of the fleece. All fleeces are shook clean, picked over, and skirted heavily before packaging separately. The weight, condition, length, crimp, and color of fleece is recorded for each ewe.
“I have been processing our fleeces myself for years, and with proper handling they are suitable for either spinning or felting purposes.”
When it came time to produce the sandhill cranes, McClure noted the similarity in color between her sheep’s wool and the birds’ feathers.
“Really, the ony dye I had to use was the the little red splotch on the cranes’ heads,” she said. “Our sheep provided the natural color for everything else.”