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November 2009

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Couple settle in with sheep and Woolly People

By Libby James
North Forty News

Realizing a long-held dream, empty nesters Marie and Ron Schmidt moved high into the Rocky Mountains above Livermore nine years ago. What they didn't know when they left Fort Collins was that their dream was to expand and develop into a passion, a source of enduring friendships, and a business that continues to evolve and grow.

Never mind that this energetic pair continues to work full-time, Marie as a community case manager at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Ron as a rural health consultant for the Veterans Administration based in Cheyenne.

"In those early years, we got awfully tired of trying to keep 20 acres of land mowed," Ron said. "We went looking for some animals to help us."

Partly because Marie enjoyed working with fiber, and because they seemed more manageable than cattle, llamas or alpacas, the Schmidts settled on sheep.

"We were told that goats prefer brush and gardens over grass and that sheep were big grass eaters," Marie said. "And the little lambs were so cute."

They bought two sheep, both rare breeds that produce the fine wool favored by hand spinners and craftspeople. Opal, a CVM Romedale, and Ruby, a Karakul, set to work chowing down on the Schmidt grass.

When it became evident that two sheep were not nearly enough, the herd began to grow. The Schmidts became skilled shepherds, learned to welcome tiny lambs into the world, and to care for and shear their animals. They built lambing pens and sheds to protect the sheep from weather and predators. When lambing season is over in late winter, there are more than 30 in the herd, but the Schmidts like to keep their herd to 15 or so. They don't give names to the baby rams who will eventually find their way to dining room tables, referring to them only as "the eater boys."

Fleece began to pile up in the Schmidt household until a whole room was given over to colorful mounds - way more than Marie would ever be able to use for her own projects. Ron and Marie entered a whole new world when they began attending wool markets to sell their fleece and sheep.

"I'd never even heard of a wool market a few years ago," Marie said. "We've met so many talented shepherds, artists and craftspeople. I love being able to use my own fleece and also market it to other fiber artists."

Marie and Ron said that mentoring by long-time sheep experts, Roy and Myrtle Dow of Black Pines Sheep in Fort Collins, has been critical in their journey. They bought their first ewes from the Dows and learned from the couple how to shear and "skirt" fleece to prepare it for sale. During the summer, Marie dyes her fleece in a whole rainbow of colors, setting up her vats and frames for drying outdoors in her mountain setting.

Marie was fascinated by the simple craft of needle felting as practiced by Myrtle Dow. One year she decided to try felting caricatures of her family members for Christmas gifts. Emily, her goldsmith daughter with a degree in art, suggested that Marie might work a little on body proportions. As Marie's sculpting of fleece improved, she discovered endless possibilities and began designing a whole array of characters from a shepherdess to a Victorian lady to a quilter, a spinner, a knitter and a cowboy.

With each creation, her technique became more refined. Soon her Woolly People sculptures were in demand at wool markets. Interest from other fiber artists led Marie to develop patterns, and the next logical step was to include instructions with her brilliantly dyed fleece in a kit so that artists had everything they needed to create one of the whimsical Woolly People.

Marie designs the sculptures and writes the instructions, and together she and Ron photograph each step in the process. Ron is official photographer, editor and publisher of the patterns. His newest project is publication of a book written by Marie that tells the story of Durakai Ranch and also includes instructions for needle felting a shepherd and shepherdess and the knitter and spinner. "Woolly People" made its debut at the Taos Wool Market in October.

"Needle felting is an imprecise craft," Marie said. "All measurements are approximate. Allow your imagination free range and adapt the sculptures to suit you."

The Schmidts called their ranch Durakai in honor of the sheep station in Australia where Marie's mother grew up. Roughly translated from the aboriginal, Durakai means "home in the big scrub."

Marie and Ron have found more than a home in their special spot in the hills, they have discovered a creative way of life that brings them continuing pleasure and the special satisfaction that comes from working together as a smoothly functioning team.

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