From Sheep to Blanket

From Sheep to Blanket

The story of how the Nordt Family Farm transforms natural and hand-dyed merino wool into finished woven goods.
Published on Thursday, April 8, 2021. This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Diane Daniel
Brown sheep grazing between a tree-lined road and a white fence

Photo courtesy of Nordt Family Farm.

On a sunny afternoon in May 2005, weaver Dianne Nordt arrived at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in her pickup truck, with her 2-year-old daughter strapped in the back seat. She was meeting a farmer from upstate New York to pick up her prearranged purchase: three 90-plus-pound merino lambs. The animals, sought after for their soft fleece, would provide Nordt with home-sourced wool.

The farmer placed the lambs in a pen in the bed of the truck, and Nordt headed south on Interstate 95. “Driving home, I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” she recalls. “It was both total excitement and also, ‘Is this the craziest thing I’ve ever done?’”

Three hours later, the live cargo arrived at the Nordts’ 400-acre farm along the James River southeast of Richmond, Virginia. “As soon as the lambs jumped out of the truck into the pasture, the horses started chasing them,” Nordt says. One lamb had a broken leg. Luckily, her husband, William, could use his skills as an orthopedic surgeon to fashion a splint for the injured lamb.

“There’s been all kinds of crazy learning experiences since then,” says Nordt, whose flock now rests at 36 sheep from a high of 50.

As a teen, Nordt couldn’t wait to leave the Virginia farm she’d grown up on for a life of fashion and glamour in a big city. But after studying fashion design at Virginia Commonwealth University, she realized that although she loved fabrics and constructing clothing, she abhorred the industry’s reliance on trends and disposable garments. Meanwhile, the farm life of her youth beckoned.

A chance peek into a room filled with looms drew Nordt to weaving, and she took every class in the subject she could. When her father said he wanted to give her a car as a college graduation gift, she asked for a 16-harness loom instead. After a long pause to raise three children (she also owned and ran a women’s shoe store in Richmond for a decade), she returned to weaving full-time and still uses her father’s gift.

Nordt focuses on making throws and baby blankets, which she started selling in 2011. She numbers each blanket, and is soon to top the 2,500 mark.

She keeps her designs simple and prefers the sheep’s natural hues of white, gray, and brown, with muted accents of yellow, green, and red yarn that she hand-dyes using natural sources.

“I consider myself a production weaver,” she says. “All of the design and color comes in the weft, from side to side. That allows me to save time and make a product that’s affordable to the consumer. That’s the sweet spot.”

Nordt weaves nearly every day.

“When I sit myself down at the loom, to this day I feel like this is exactly where I need to be,” she says. “The rhythm of locking myself into the loom feels like coming back into my heartbeat.”

 

Merino sheep, Two brown merino sheep on lawn originally from Spain,Illustrated map of Spainare known for their fine, soft wool. Weaver Dianne Nordt Woman embracing two sheep tends to a small flock on her family’s 400-acre farm on the James River White shed beside footbridge surrounded by trees southeast of Richmond, Virginia. Her 36 sheep forage on clover and other natural grasses, Several brown sheep grazing on lawn supplemented with hay Bale of hay in field and grain. The sheep are Close-up of sheep being sheared with hand scissors sheared every February by internationally known blade shearer Kevin Ford.

Man bent over sheep shearing using hand scissors

The average fleece produces eight pounds of wool, Pile of wool which reduces to four or five after washing. The wool from one sheep can produce about four Four gray throw blankets on shirt hangers outside throw blankets per year. Nordt sorts the wool by colors—white, brown, Several sheep eat hay and gray. She packs it up and ships it off by tractor trailerIllustration of tractor trailerto a mill in Michigan. There it’s cleaned, carded, and spun—a yearlong process. When the spun wool is returned, Spools of wool on shelves Nordt uses her 16-harness Woman using a manual loom manual loom to weave throws and baby blankets.

Woman using manual loom

She relies on natural colors supplemented by dyed yarn. Colorful spools of yarn on shelves She dyes her own yarn using natural sources, such as goldenrod illustration of goldenrod plantand black walnut. A black walnut She washes each piece and hangs it on a clothesline to dry. Blankets drying on a closeline outside She then hems the borders by hand. With each blanket she ships off, Nordt includes a personal handwritten note package of blankets wrapped in tissue paper with handwritten notes and a photograph of her woolly flock.

assorted hanging wool blankets

nordtfamilyfarm.com | @nordtfamilyfarm

ABOVE: Photos of shearing (two) by Jeff Glotzl. Map by FogueraC / Wikimedia Commons. Hay bale photo by Tony Webster / Flickr. All other photos courtesy of Nordt Family Farm.

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