Nanne Kennedy is a nonstop, one-woman operation. In the few hours I visit with her, she is fielding questions from construction workers, fixing an irrigation system, cleaning the chicken coop, weeding, giving a border collie puppy her shot and then selling the dog to a lucky new owner.
I follow along, trying to stay out of the way, as she pulls dyed yarn from bins. The bins sit inside a self-contained passive solar system with roll-out drawers. They’re filled with seawater and food-grade dyes; for a week, the heat of the sun has been helping the yarn absorb the dyes.
Kennedy inspects the yarn and deems it done, fully colored in dazzling shades of blues and greens, as well as deep reds and purples. She calls her company Seacolors Yarnery, named for the variegated palette that reflects the ocean and the colors seen in nature.
“I love making colors,” she says. “It’s my favorite part. But everything is my favorite part.”
The dyeing process is closed-loop system that Kennedy designed and developed herself, recycling the wastewater to irrigate the pastures at Meadowcroft Farm. The dye has a calcium carbonate base that helps the soil and grass. It’s smart and sustainable, but it also creates a product that is intensely colored. After being washed and then rinsed in an old claw-foot bathtub, the skeins hang on hooks to dry, creating a bright spectrum against the weathered wood of the barn. The yarn is a soft, lightweight worsted wool.
“Ask any young person what they think of wool and they say ‘itchy,’” says Kennedy. “Maine was known for its meat breeds and scratchy yarn. I want to change the reputation for itchy Maine wool.” That’s exactly what she has been working on for the past 25 years. “I really wanted to create a better sheep for our landscape and our marketplace,” she continues.
In a pasture beyond her home, a flock of Polwarth sheep, an Australian breed known for its high yield and fine wool, are grazing under the watchful eye of guard dog Khaleesi. Kennedy started with a hand-spinning flock from North Haven in 1990, then crossed them with a Merino ram, a breed that produces excellent fleece but not very much of it. Determined to find a solution, she worked to develop the first American Polwarth.
“I found some wonderful folks in New Zealand,” she says. A small grant from Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education (SARE) allowed Kennedy to import semen from four of the New Zealand rams and have it implanted it into her Merino ewes. “And now I have the first actual Polwarth in the country,” she says. She meticulously records data about the sheep, keeping a close watch on them with the aid of radio frequency tags. “I’m super impressed with the way these animals have grown,” Kennedy says. “They make sense as a commercial animal, and I feel like it would be nice to leave a legacy for other growers.”
The sheared Polwarth fleece is aggregated with wool from other farmers’ flocks. “I choose a handful of growers with good, fine wool. I’m there at shearing,” she says, “sorting, grading and classing the fleece, so I know exactly what’s going in the bag.” Off it goes to mills for spinning before returning to the farm for the dye process.
A different mill will then weave the yarn into luxurious, substantial blankets and local artisans knit one-of-a-kind sweaters, all designed by Kennedy. She’ll put the finishing touches on each one, adding vintage buttons or handspun trim. “All the sweaters are named after fabulous women,” she says. “There’s Madame Curie, Emma Snodgrass and even “Fly Rod” Crosby, the first Registered Maine Guide. They make you feel really beautiful.”
The wool is sold online, but to really appreciate its texture and color it’s best to visit Meadowcroft Farm. Kennedy wants to make the place a destination for fiber artists and shoppers, who can be fitted for a sweater or peruse the blanket selection. A new display room is being constructed in the barn, along with a studio, a cedar-lined workspace and a storage and packing room.
Upstairs, workers are putting the finishing touches on an apartment that will house a “small-ruminant resident.” The living space is bright and sunny, with an expansive deck that overlooks the pastures. “This is an opportunity to pass on my knowledge,” Kennedy says. “It’s for folks who want to enter the sheep-farming business, and I want to set them up for success. People can come learn without making a big investment.”
As we talk, Annie, a year-old livestock guardian dog, has draped herself over Kennedy. Wherever Kennedy goes, so goes Annie. She’s the daughter of Khaleesi, a Maremma sheepdog, and Nelson Mandela, a Great Pyrenees sheepdog born and raised on the farm. Meadowcroft Farm is a menagerie, with 10 dogs, including the litter of border collie puppies, guard donkey Daisy, chickens, horses and, of course, the flock of about 150 sheep.
The dogs are all working dogs, moving sheep from barn to pasture and back in the evening. They also keep an eye out for coyotes, by constantly working the fence line. “The girls will do anything I ask,” says Kennedy. “I just work with their natural instincts.”
As we wrap up our conversation, she asks, “Are you a knitter?” I confess that I am not. “Knitting gets the left brain/right brain juices flowing,” she says. “It’s a very good thing. Knitting is love.” The yarn hanging to dry in the sun is tempting me to take up a new hobby.