By NICOLE MONTESANO
Of the News-Register
Heads tossing and tails held high, half a dozen yaks gallop toward big plastic tubs, excitement about an offer of grain overcoming their suspicion of the strangers standing outside their fence.
Ordinarily, they won't come near a stranger, unless it's to run him or her off the property. Yak are only about three-quarters the size of cattle, but with their menacing horns, a small herd of them is more than capable of making it clear who owns the pasture.
"They're very territorial," said owner Shelia January. "They will chase deer and coyotes and people off the land if they don't think they should be here.
"We've never had any trouble with animal attacks since we've had them. They think elk shouldn't be here, either, and they terrify the poor things."
When camera clicks catch their attention, they roll wary eyes and grunt. One plants both forefeet in a bin, the better to reach the grain inside -- and keep everyone else out.
"People say, 'Why did you get them?'" January said. "I just wanted them. I always wanted them."
They earn their keep, however, by providing luxurious wool for January to spin and knit, in addition to guard and entertainment value. "They're very intelligent, much smarter than the cattle," she said.
January and her husband, Adam, moved to the Newberg area five years ago to retire.
However, their idea of retirement didn't involve slowing down. They preferred to start a farm, raising grass-fed beef for sale.
"People think, 'Wow, Wall Street and then to come out here,'" she said. "But I grew up on a farm in Southern Oregon, so this is not that different.
"My husband is the New Yorker, so this is all new to him. But he's fallen right in with it."
January teaches knitting and sells knitting patterns. She also writes about knitting for publications around the world.
She has been knitting for most of her life. She learned at the age of 7, from one of her grandmothers.
"One was from Texas and one was from Montana, and they felt there were things a girl needed to learn," she said. "I learned to crochet and embroider when I was 3 or 4, and to knit when I was 7."
In college, homesick and lonely, she knitted for a reassuring connection to home.
"I knitted my way through college," she said. "I carried it everywhere with me, like my security blanket."
During her career in finance, she knitted for relaxation.
After the Twin Tower attacks of 2001, she was unable to work for several months. During that period, she learned to spin her own yarn as well.
When her office reopened in temporary quarters in a warehouse, she knitted during her lunch breaks.
"People would come and watch me knitting," she recalled. "They said it was calming."
Until then, she felt knitting had lost favor as a hobby. "I thought it was just me and old ladies," she said.
But she discovered there was an active Internet community, and began joining in, entering her work in competitions, attending classes and becoming more and more involved.
In 2006, she entered a pair of socks in the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival and won best in show. "That got me started designing and selling patterns," she said.
Today, in addition to designing, she's also teaching.
To support those pursuits, she's begun traveling to various parts of the world to research knitting traditions. She is particularly fascinated by the work being done in Gotland, an island off the coast of Sweden.
Island residents specialize in breeding Gotland sheep, a cross between imported and indigenous sheep. They produce silky, silvery gray wool that is highly prized for spinning into yarn for knitting.
Over the centuries, Gotlanders have developed unique knitting designs to showcase the best of the wool's unique qualities, with themes that echo island lifestyle. January said she has translated some of those patterns and "put them in modern designs."
She displayed socks knitted with Gotland wool, one featuring a fishhook pattern, another an island vine motif.
"They were known for their traditional patterns," she said. "They have this whole culture driven by sheep and fishing that's not really appreciated outside."
January said the women of Gotland separate the sheared wool into light, medium and dark grades, then spin it into yarn. When deciding which young sheep to cull or save for breeding, they select for a wool with a distinct silver-blue sheen, avoiding the brown that can creep in.
January loved the wool so much she brought back a sizable quantity for her own use. It supplements the wool from her own animals - the yaks, a breeding flock of seven Finnsheep and two wethers of other breeds of sheep, Shetland and Wensleydale.
All three of the sheep breeds are prized for their wool, and January's animals produce more than she could possibly use by herself.
"I sell wool and I sell a lamb here and there, mostly for breeding stock," she said. That way, she said, "The sheep pay for themselves."
Raw wool must be washed, combed and carded before it can be spun.
Generally, she said, "I have the fleece processed." She said it just gets to be too much otherwise.
January's studio is filled with spinning wheels, each with its own unique tale.
Some are antiques, as functional today as they were a century ago. The rest are either reproductions of antiques or modern designs.
Each has its own appeal, and she happily demonstrated. "I'm kind of a collector of spinning wheels," she said.
"This one appeared on my doorstep," she said. "It was from a co-worker of my husband.
"His mother found it in her attic and was going to throw it away. He said, 'No, I know who would want it.'"