A dozen goats drift along the hillside, browsing on brambles and brush. Roosters challenge each other - and sometimes an unsuspecting human - in the yard, as their harem of hens feeds in the area around the snug log cabin.
The woman of the house has worked at a church for a few hours this morning, joining other parishioners to prepare food from scratch for an upcoming Lenten food sale. This afternoon, she'll put in a few hours on her spinning wheel, as the final step in turning a fleece from one of the goats into fine strands of Angora yarn for knitting.
If not for the bright red pickup in the driveway, it would be easy to think you stepped back in time by about 150 years. The woman of the house, Cathy Riotto, Barnesville, spins yarn, makes soap, grows and cans vegetables, and weaves baskets. Using the same technique she's employed to learn all those crafts, she's also teaching herself to weave rugs.
For the past couple years, other craftspeople have deemed her knitting work worthy of state awards. At the January 2013 Pennsylvania State Farm Show, her silk and wool tablecloth took the blue ribbon in the Family Living category. The tablecloth also garnered a Best in Section (Needlework) at the 2012 Bloomsburg Fair.
In 2011, Riotto won two red ribbons at the PA Farm Show, one for a knitted shawl and one for her hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn (see www.hollyroadfiber.com) ; and in 2010, she won a blue ribbon at the PA Farm Show for a six-foot round tablecloth.
She's already working on next year's entry, and that's no wonder since a project may take her six months to complete, working mostly in the evenings. She and her husband Frank, a mechanical/electrical engineer, enjoy listening to music as they work on various projects around the house. Frank relaxes by playing the banjo.
"I find it (knitting) very relaxing," Riotto says. "You have to concentrate because the patterns are very complicated, but I just really enjoy that type of work."
Riotto's knitted creations come from patterns designed by Herbert Neibling (1905-1966). She first found directions for his patterns, which were written in German, at a specialty craft shop in Orefield called Moonrise.
The Neibling pattern which Riotto used for this year's farm show winner is titled Decke Tannenzapfen, which she knitted in size 2 lace weight yarn. She explained that was able to decipher the German instructions because the pattern is "charted." In other words, it can be "read" like a map, with lots of counting and figuring.
"It started with eight stitches for the center, and from there I knitted 405 rounds," Riotto said. "To design such a pattern you would need extremely good math skills, because you have to continually factor in stitches so that the finished product lays flat."
"What's amazing about Neibling is that he was able to transfer an image or idea into a knitting chart without using any drawing or sketch," she added. "He's known as the grand master of lace knitting."
Neibling was knitting his own socks when he was just six years old, she said. Neibling once explained his talent this way, "As the composer writes down the notes that he hears, in the same way I write down the stitches I see."
How he was able to do that is a mystery. There's a mystique in working with one of Neibling's patterns, she said.
"When you're making it, you can't really tell what it looks like," she said. "It looks like a bunch of knitted pouches."
When she's finished knitting the pattern, she must then wash it, stretch it and pin it. Her last piece was so big that she used two pieces of 4 x 8 foam insulation to lay the piece flat to dry.
When the show season ends, her creations are stored in airtight containers. The monetary value of her knitted products is virtually immeasurable, but arguably she could easily sell them.
But she prefers to give them away to celebrate family events such as weddings and birthdays.
"That's the way they did things in the old days," she said. "It makes me feel really good to be able to make a gift of something I made."
The Angora Goat
The Angora Goat comes from the Ankara region of Turkey. Turkey, along with the United States and South Africa, are the top three producers of mohair.
The Angora Goats were brought to the US in 1849, but during the Civil War the flocks of them in the south were largely destroyed. They held on in Texas, which is still the top Mohair producer in the US.
The goats are shorn twice a year, producing about a five-pound fleece each time. Sheep are shorn once a year. Since 1998, mohair producers have registered colored Angora goats, which can be found in the colors of white, black, gray and red.
The goats need a high-quality diet to produce quality fleece. Both sexes have horns. The females, does, tip the scales at 70-110 pounds when full grown, while the males may get as large as 180-225 pounds.