Marion woman has done a lifetime of knitting with homegrown materials

MARION — The steady click of knitting needles, the quiet hum of the spinning wheel — these are the soft and soothing sounds generated by the busy hands of Ann Davenport Speer.

A lifelong knitter, she knows the pleasure of transforming colorful and supple yarns, stitch by stitch, into beautiful and useful items ranging from mittens, scarves and sweaters to luxurious throws, toys, baby garments or one-of-a-kind gifts.

Unlike most knitters, Speer has a foolproof way of assuring she has the yarn she wants — she makes her own, from scratch, by raising animals that bear the desired fibers.

A teacher and librarian, she retired and moved north following a career in the Redford area public schools. She purchased Bird Hill Farm near Marion where she now lives and raises sheep.

But not just any sheep. Speer has a spinner’s flock, so called because it comprises several carefully selected breeds. With intriguing names like Jacob, Cormo, Shetland, Finn and Bluefaced Leicester, each is chosen to produce a distinctive type of wool. The sheep are sheared once a year and the fleece is spun into yarns of varying texture and sheen.

Speer’s first experience with sheep on her farm was with a borrowed flock brought in to clear tall grass around the house. While they were there, she realized that a woman could handle the care and feeding of several sheep. “I didn’t get knocked down too often,” she said, “and I came to the conclusion that I could do this.”

When the flock went home, one sheep named Pepper stayed behind. Others were added, babies were born, and she now has a thriving flock of 17. Speer handles all aspects of the daily care and feeding of her flock as well as the goats, geese, chickens and Angora rabbit she has added to the farmyard.

For Speer, shearing is a highlight of the year and the reward for many hours of work. She hires specialists to do the shearing, and when completed, the processing of the fleece begins. She performs all the steps herself, including skirting, washing, picking, carding and dyeing, before the wool can be spun into yarn.

To add a sumptuous, fluffy quality to scarves and mittens for lucky friends and relatives, Speer also spins the fur from Bunny, her Angora rabbit, into silky yarn.

Passionate about the art of spinning, Speer generously offers to share her expertise with others. “For anyone interested in spinning, I’ll be glad to teach them, at no cost,” she said. “I only ask that whenever possible they pass along the skill to someone else so we can keep this traditional craft alive.”

If you are interested in knitting or spinning, you may want to attend a meeting of the Marion Knitting Club founded by Speer. The group gathers in the conference room of the Marion Public Library every Tuesday afternoon from 1 to 3 p.m.

“The idea came from Shelley Scott, the librarian,” said Speer. “She knew I was a knitter and encouraged me to start a local group.”

The club provides a meeting place for those who love to knit; they work on projects, spin yarn, exchange ideas and socialize. Now in its fourth year, the club has about a dozen members from Marion, McBain, Harrison and other surrounding communities. Their skill levels range from novice to master knitter.

Everyone is welcome; there are no membership requirements and no dues. If you are an experienced knitter, bring your current project and join in the activity.

Don’t know how to knit? No problem.

Members of the group are always glad to teach beginners the joy of knitting. All it takes to start is a pair of needles and a ball of yarn.

Knitting is an inexpensive craft to take up. You will find needles at most discount stores for $2 or $3, or watch for them at garage sales. Yarn costs about $2 or $3 also. So, for about $5, you can begin a new hobby, and end up with an attractive, useful finished product.

“Whether you’re already a knitter, or hoping to learn, we invite you to our club,” said Speer. “Knitting or spinning with a group is an enjoyable way to enhance your skills and meet talented and interesting people.”

During a busy career, Speer often thought of retirement and dreamed of country living. Her success at Bird Hill Farm leaves little doubt that a determined, single woman can accomplish just about anything. “I’ve been at Bird Hill almost four years now, and I’m living my dream,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

Bird Hill Farm is open to visitors by appointment. To arrange a tour and for further information about the Marion Knitting Club or spinning and knitting instruction, call Speer at (231) 743-9607.