Whether shearing sheep on the North Fork or tending her own llamas, Tabbethia Haubold-Magee delivers the fibers that make local knitters swoon
Tabbethia Haubold-Magee is a self-described animal person. In 1995, after completing a degree in animal science, Haubold-Magee accepted a position as animal science program manager for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. The rest, as she tells it, is history: a dog attack on a sheep flock that led to the procurement of llamas as guard animals, followed by establishing her own farm in Yaphank with around 20 of the South American animals. Now in its 25th year, her Long Island Yarn and Farm turns the fleece sheared from those llamas into beautiful artisanal yarn.
Llamas, Haubold-Magee said, fill a space in her heart where horses once ran free. Growing up, she was involved in equestrian activities, until money and life got in the way. “When I got involved with the llamas, I just kind of had this hole in my animal heart,” she said. “And they just slid right in.” Today, her llamas rule the proverbial roost in Yaphank, animals that she describes as “docile” and “smart.” These guard animals have a keen sense of sight and are observant, gentle creatures. In fact, Haubold-Magee is so enmeshed with her llamas that she invited two of them to her wedding a decade ago — dressed up as a llama bride and groom, of course.
Haubold-Magee’s thriving business sends her up and down the eastern seaboard, where she shears llamas, alpacas and even sheep. “It’s definitely more mainstream,” she said of knitting and fiber farming now versus two decades ago. “People are wanting to be more connected to where their yarn comes from.” The pandemic, she said, has added fuel to that homesteading fire.
On Long Island’s East End, she is one of two local shearers, with clients like Browder’s Birds, Goodale Farms and Breeze Hill Farms, as well as private clients who keep sheep on their North Fork property. (In the past, she has also sheared for Hallockville Museum Farm’s fiber festival, which takes place in May.) The higher quality wool and fiber she shears — assuming it’s not being used by the animal owner — often goes out to a mill, where it is processed, dyed and returned to Yaphank in the form of spun yarn.
The fibers sheared from a llama — as opposed, say, to a sheep — differ in texture, style and feel. Llama and alpaca fiber, Haubold-Magee said, are hypoallergenic, unlike wool. The fiber, she added, also acts closer to hair. “It’s a hollow cord fiber, where wool is a solid cord fiber, so it also wears lighter, yet it is warmer and stronger,” she said. “Llama acts much more like our hair. It doesn’t have spring, or what we call memory.” As a result, llama and alpaca fibers are traditionally blended with sheep’s wool in order to achieve a yarn that is soft, generous, warm and also capable of holding shape.
So how does a magnificent llama, standing in a field in Yaphank, go from docile farm animal to bearer of your sweater? Llamas are shorn once a year, in an attempt to keep them cool (the animals are more sensitive to warm weather than some others, according to Haubold-Magee). It takes a llama about a full year to grow back its coat. Shearing a llama is no small task. “When you shear sheep, they’re on the ground, and I’m holding them in between my legs and kind of putting them through a series of twists and turns. You’re basically unzipping that fleece off of them,” she said. “But when I shear a llama, a llama is standing up, and I have a restraining chute? that I utilize.”
As she is shearing, Haubold-Magee places the better fibers into a barrel, allowing anything imperfect, which she’s not interested in collecting, to fall on the floor. The fleece then goes onto a screen, which allows it to be sifted through and further refined. “My animals live in, sort of, the woods, so oftentimes it might be, like, a pine needle or two stuck in it, or you get a pine cone,” she said.
The skirting process is dedicated to removing debris, stains and vegetable matter from the fleece so that the finished product is fully useable. This process is followed by a washing, which removes grease from the fiber. With llamas, Haubold-Magee said, dust can be an additional factor: “Their fleeces tend to be extremely dusty. So one thing that we’ll oftentimes do is kind of put the piece in a cage and blow it out with a leaf blower or something like that, just to shake out as much of the dirt and debris as you can.” Finally, fleeces undergo a combing process called carding, which lines the fibers up so that they’re parallel, and readies the material for spinning.
As far as what that spun material later becomes, therein lies the artistry. And in the yarn department, this farmer is something of an artist. “I do consider myself a yarn designer,” she said. “I have my hand in the process.” Yarn provides an opportunity to get truly creative, to “create a little bit of a variety.” Recently, she has collaborated with other fiber artists to yield a series of different yarns, some of which employ natural dyeing. These yarns are available for purchase online and at the farm, and her lanolin skincare line is available both wholesale and retail.
But in the end, the animals are the driving forces behind Haubold-Magee’s success. “My business is about my animals,” she said. “That’s really where people connect to me. It’s not that they’re connecting to the yarn; they’re connecting to who I am as a person, to who I am as a fiber farmer, to the animals that they get to know and meet and see on a daily basis.”
The llamas, it turns out, have made all the difference.