Two Winters ago one of my favorite rams passed away. Derby. He was born on our farm in 2004, sweet and gentle from Day One. As he aged, his disposition never changed. He was top ram for a couple of years when youth and testosterone were on his side, but slipped from power pretty quickly because he just wasn't a fighter. He is the only ram we've ever had that never, never, lowered his head to me. I was perfectly comfortable, never hesitated in fact, to break that Cardinal Rule and turn my back to him while in the pasture. Aside from his remarkable demeanor, Derby was, and still is, the only sheep we've had who has shed his wool. Each Spring, I would wait for his fleece to loosen and lift off the skin. He would stand stock still for me while I pulled off, handful by handful, his gorgeous chocolate brown wool. When he died late one evening, the other rams stood vigil. My husband found them and remarked how it was chilling to find Derby on the ground while the three other rams stood quietly with their heads resting on his lifeless body. Being the middle of Winter and befitting a Shetland ram who has equally strong Scandinavian as well as Scottish heritage, we built a large bonfire from a shed that had been torn down and sent Derby off in glory. His soft nose, nuzzling into my hand, and his calming presence are sorely missed around the pasture.
So I decided to honor his memory the best way I know how,
with my needle and thread.
My Derby Dress.
Using a piece of lightweight, wool suiting, I made a simple shift dress.
The sleeves are two layers of tulle. Cascading down the arm are nine skinny pleats. These represent the nine years that Derby lived on our farm. Ram horns leave a ridge or ring each year, sort of like a tree, so you can literally count the age of the animal. Growth is fastest in the first few years of life. Imagine my hand is the beginning of the horn. From my wrist to the first pleat is the first year of his life; followed by the second year; and so on. As Derby got older he had less and less horn growth each year, hence the pleats are closer together at the shoulder.
I used Derby's wool to knit a scarf. Leaving large snarls and lumps, I hand carded the wool much less than I normally would. I wanted the piece to resemble Derby's fleece as it would have been on his body, not sleek and overly processed. I even left in a few bits of hay. I spun a heavy, chunky yarn and knit an asymmetrical wrap. The wooden pick holding the scarf is topped with a horn bud from Melly, a ewe lamb sired by Derby. Sometimes Shetland ewes will grow small, irregular horns, but they rarely achieve any size, having a weak base, and usually fall off on their own.
At some point over the years, Derby lost his ear tag. I happened to find it out in the pasture one day. It seemed the perfect, final touch to my Derby Dress.
While this dress and all it's components are not technically difficult, it has been one of the most rewarding sewing projects I've done to date because I feel it goes beyond simple dressmaking. It embodies my passion, my flock and reflects my daily life. It connects me to who I am. Admittedly, I won't be flashing the green ear tag when I'm out to dinner with the Husband. And if I didn't explain the growth rings on the sleeves, you wouldn't know the difference; it would just look like an interesting sewing detail. In fact, I've already worn the dress to church with a cardigan and looked perfectly respectable. To the World, it looks like a brown dress. To me, it feels like an old friend.
And so as to leave you with a giggle, here's a pic of Melly. She decided to give me the slip, ruining the perfect photo op, and headed right for my husband who's behind the camera. Sheesh! Who hired these sheep? You'd think it was their first modeling shoot!