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Bringing History to Life | Fall 2013 Out Here Magazine

Tracy in period clothing with a lamb on her lap, a spinning wheel in the foreground

Tracy Riddle showcases the appeal of a simpler, rural lifestyle

By Jodi Helmer

Photography by Sarah Conard

On many weekends, Tracy Riddle dresses in a petticoat and bonnet and spends hours milking goats, spinning wool, weaving on wooden looms, and making soap.

For the emergency room nurse who moved in 1992 with her husband, Steve, to a hobby farm in Worden, Ill., living more simply off the land was a dream.

But by participating in living history demonstrations, she further immerses herself into a time when people really did make their living from the land.

The Riddle family's introduction to living history demonstrations began when Steve decided to showcase their border collie in herding demonstrations. He purchased a small herd of Montadale sheep, put up fencing, and put the dog to work.

Meanwhile, Tracy, who knew how to crochet, became interested in the traditional art of spinning wool with a spinning wheel. She tried her hand at spinning the wool from their sheep and found herself hooked on making yarn from her own animals.

Her newfound spinning passion led the couple to purchase a herd of Border Leicester sheep, whose wool particularly is prized by spinners because of its long length and luster.

While attending herding demonstrations with Steve, Tracy discovered that historical reenactors favored Border Leicesters for their heritage fleece.

So she started selling both raw fleece (wool that has been shorn from the sheep but not washed or processed) and roving (fleece that has been cleaned, combed, and ready for spinning) at living history events. This, in turn, led to requests for her to offer spinning demonstrations and to provide authenticity by dressing in period clothing.

Tracy consequently established a business — The Shepherd's Wife — to sell her wool, handmade wool products, and soaps and lotions made from goat's milk.

For two decades, Tracy has traveled to farmers' markets, festivals, and special events to participate in living history demonstrations and sell her products.

Indeed, the entire Riddle family participates at events. Steve does sheep herding demonstrations, son Geoff participates in battle reenactments, and their daughters, Libby and Katie, demonstrate traditional skills such as weaving, knitting, and open-hearth cooking.

"It's been a great activity for us to do as a family," Tracy says.

Living on a farm has afforded her children the opportunity to truly see where their food comes from, but participating in living history demonstrations and interacting with the public has taught Tracy that children — and adults — are often far removed from the realities of rural life.

"I've heard children call our sheep everything from goats to alpacas," she says. "People aren't connected to the land the way they used to be."

And while Tracy loves traditional crafts and participating in events designed to recall the past, she doesn't want visitors to think that spinning, weaving, knitting, and soap-making need to be limited to historic re-enactments.

"I spin and weave because I want people to see that these are still viable art forms, not just something their great-grandmothers did," she says.

"I want people to know that a lot of work goes into this lifestyle," she says, "but so much satisfaction comes from producing things with our hands."

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina writer.