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Counting Sheep

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Counting Sheep

 

Margrit Lohrer and Albrecht Pichler — who raise rare Merinos in Milan — find that being the black sheep has its advantages

 

by Mary Forsell

Photographs by Thomas Moore

 

If you want tips on how to stop smoking, Margrit Lohrer and Albrecht Pichler can suggest a most unusual therapy: buy a farm and start breathing some serious country air.

 

When they took on their 35-acre property in Milan, Dutchess County, in 1977, the Manhattanites immediately made good on their promise to each other to kick the habit (30 years later they’re puff-free). Maybe it was the clean, farm-living atmosphere of the 1790 farmhouse and classic slate-roofed red barn that inspired them. Or maybe it was because their hands were just too occupied.

 

Soon after the couple acquired the weekend retreat, Margrit (who once considered a career as a zookeeper) spotted a chicken running along Riverside Drive in Manhattan. In that era, ritual sacrifices of poultry in the park were common, so she figured that this particular chicken had narrowly escaped an unpleasant fate. She scooped up the haggard hen, took it to the office where she worked as a graphic designer, then hauled it upstate. She and Belgian-born Albrecht cobbled together a henhouse for what they dubbed “the Voodoo Chicken,” adding a few local hens for company. All obligingly laid eggs -— except the Voodoo Chicken, which turned out to be a Voodoo Rooster.

 

No matter. Emboldened by their animal husbandry efforts, the couple decided to up the ante by adding other animals to the mix. Nix to cows, horses, and goats — they just didn’t intrigue. Dogs, of course, would work — Margrit always had several in the city. And what goes so well with dogs? Sheep, of course. They would produce wool, and wool would make yarn for knitting — yet another thing to keep Margrit’s hands busy.

 

Margrit grew up in Switzerland, where yarn was such a scarce commodity in the postwar years that often the only way to procure it was to unravel something old. As a teen, she knitted clothing and blankets for Hungarian refugees. “Knitting was actually part of the curriculum in school,” she remembers.

 

To someone who had to scavenge wool as a child, the idea of having sheep (and wool) of her own was very appealing. After doing research, the couple decided that nothing less than Merino sheep would do. “Whereas most sheep have 5,000 to 8,000 wool follicles per square inch, the Merino has 50,000, to give you an example of how superfine that wool is,” says Margrit. “Ordinarily, sheep wool is finer in the front, coarser toward the breech. Merino sheep’s wool is uniformly soft, fine, and dense.”

 

Deciding to raise superfine Merinos was one thing, finding them quite another. “We were told no one does this anymore,” recalls Margrit. Sheep used to be prolific in the Northeast, but were raised more for their meat than for their wool. And even among sheep that were raised for their wool, Merinos were less popular because their wrinkled skin makes shearing them so time-intensive.  “It takes a skilled shearer to do it right,” says Margrit. The couple made one false start by acquiring Merino sheep from an Ohio farm in 1983, but those turned out not to have the superfine wool that Margrit craved.

 

During their search, they learned that Spain once held the monopoly on Merino sheep. “Wealth from their Merinos is said to have funded Columbus’s voyage,” says Margrit. When Napoleon invaded Spain, the borders opened and Merino sheep were taken to other countries, including Australia, which is where Margrit and Albrecht’s original sheep came from. The couple sent a bidder all the way Down Under, and after their proteges sat for a while in quarantine in Hawaii, they started their superfine flock in 1987.

 

In American sheep competitions, the reaction was lukewarm. “No one had ever seen these wrinkly sheep before, at least in our era,” says Margrit. “But once they saw what the wool was all about, we started getting offers for our flock.”

 

For a while, the couple divided their time between farm and city. (Margrit confesses to rubbing her woolen mittens in her flock so that she could get a whiff of the farm while working in the city.) Then in 1989 the couple debuted a knitting yarn business called Morehouse Designs and opened a shop on the property to sell the yarn as well as ready-made items knitted by Margrit. (The shop, Sheep’s Clothing, has since moved down the road to a larger space.)

 

By 1990, Margrit had declared herself a full-time sheep farmer and forsook city life, though Albrecht, an architect, still spends weekdays in the city. Margrit designs in earnest, creating knitting patterns (as well as finished pieces) and promotional materials for the shop, as well as conceiving all the packaging.

 

   While the flock has numbered as many as 500-plus animals, today it’s deliberately kept small (about 100 sheep). One reason for downscaling was to allow Margrit more time to tour the country promoting the new book from Potter Craft, Morehouse Farm Merino Knits: A Collection of 40 Farm Fresh Designs. The company’s focus has also shifted from raising sheep to acquiring more wool from other sheep farmers whose Merinos have sprung from Morehouse Farm’s flock.

 

Thanks to Lohrer and Pichler’s efforts, countless superfine Merino sheep graze the country today. But the Morehouse flock has one great distinction: black sheep galore, numbering almost half the flock. Historically, these animals were considered outcasts and immediately culled. “But if you dye black over black wool, it yields a black with greater depth, without any brown or blue undertones,” says Margrit. Ralph Lauren once proposed buying their entire cache of black wool, but Margrit held firm, not wanting to shortchange their other clients.

 

Dyeing wool of any color takes a bit of alchemy, she explains. You dribble on the dye and cook it in a pot, but there’s always a chance of colors varying due to water quality and humidity.

 

Although there are now fewer sheep baa-ing about the farm, other animals are quickly filling the void. Peacocks roam the grounds, preening on the Morehouse Farm sign, shrieking and performing macho feather displays. Chickens peck about. Ancient geese waddle with tail feathers low. And, of course, there are the dogs.

 

Jet is a breed of herding dog called hunt-away. More aggressive than a border collie, he will actually charge and bark at sheep until they fall in line — not always an easy task with feisty horned rams.

 

Guard dog Jasper is a Maremma, an Italian breed used in the Alps to protect the sheep from wolves. Jasper patrols the field where the Morehouse ewes wander. They also have a Great Pyrenees, Bari, who guards the sheep from foxes, coyotes, and whatever else lurks in the dark. Then there’s Keepsie, a dog with a charmed life who doesn’t have to work. Old and frail, Margrit rescued her from an animal shelter; her name is a shortened version of Poughkeepsie (where she was found).

 

“Everyone’s life is imprinted on this house,” says Albrecht, referring to the previous owners, among them the Morehouse clan, who inspired the farm’s name. Albrecht’s contribution was a porch add-on that flows seamlessly from the oldest part of the yellow farmhouse. “I like traditional, but I like modern too,” says Albrecht, who studied with famed architect Marcel Breuer.

 

Filled with primitive furniture and paintings and Shaker artifacts, the house has an easygoing country simplicity. There is evidence of Margrit’s hands at work: a burnt orange Merino wool throw on the sofa complemented by a lilac-and-orange striped pillow; hand-knit Merino wool blankets on the beds; scarves in earth and sky colors hanging on a mudroom pegrack.

 

Margrit admits that for her, knitting is akin to meditation — “I just want to knit and knit some more,” she says. Her idea of a good time is to spend an uninterrupted week knitting on a single project — and dreaming up the next big step.

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