Have you any wool?

Yessir!! Yessir!!!

And considerably more than three bags full too.

The next 10 days sees fibre artists in various places in the UK doing final preparations for Wonderwool Wales in Builth Wells at the Royal Welsh Showground. I’ve been to every Wonderwool bar one since it’s first tiny beginnings as a section of the Royal Welsh Smallholders Show. I think this is my favourite show; apart from spinning, knitting and general woolliness being my favourite hobbies, the spinning/fibre community is largely made up of generous, kind, enthusiastic lovely people all fired up with great ideas and happy to pass their skills on and “enable” new spinners into what is joking referred to as “the dark side” or the “rabbit hole” as mostly once bitten by the spinning bug, it’s with you for life.

Wonderwool is one of the bigger fibre shows in the UK and goes from strength to strength each year. This year is no exception as it has apparently expanded into another building so I’m looking forward to seeing new stallholders. It covers spinning, knitting, dyeing, weaving, felting and crocheting. Other crafts are in evidence too such as woodturning because so many of our tools are made from wood. There is a great atmosphere as people who’ve never met before except perhaps online or friends who live far apart and don’t get to meet up very often bubble over with shared enthusiasm and with the glorious riot of colours and textures bursting from the stalls – well it’s hard to take in really. I think it’s fair to say that most of us start counting down to next year’s Wonderwool the minute we get back in our cars to drive home from this year’s…

Last year I was able to sell my sheep’s fleeces through my friend Katie’s kind offer of hosting them on her stall HilltopCloud. It worked well for both of us and she’s kindly offered to do the same again this year. Last year I worked on a few shows for her and I will be doing the same on the Saturday at Wonderwool – stand N4 if you’re visiting!!

So over the past few weeks I’ve been gradually shearing my sheep in readiness for selling the fleeces. Keeping Gotlands (a Swedish breed) means that they are sheared in Winter and housed in a barn. The best quality wool is gained this way and if it was left until May when most UK sheep are sheared, the silky fibre would have felted onto their backs and become useless. I’ve learned a huge amount about fibre growing and preparation in the 7 years I’ve been keeping this breed and take pains to produce the best quality fleece I can. Gotland is something of a niche wool, it’s not really a general purpose knitting wool in the way that say Bluefaced Leicester or Shetland is. It has quirks that make it slightly different to work with; it’s silky and has no crimp but instead has a “S” curl to the staple, it felts readily and has a slight prickle even when the fibre diameter is fine. It comes in the most glorious range of pure greys from almost black to silver white and over dyes beautifully. It makes great worsted spun yarn and is fabulous for weaving and felting. Spun with care not to overtwist it makes a reasonably hard wearing knitting yarn and it blends well with other fibres to give a range of spinning/knitting fibres.

Here is a sweater (pattern Blank Canvas by Ysolda Teague) I made last year from the lamb fleece of one of my sheep called William

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I blended his fleece with tussah silk and it’s made a lovely fabric which looks very different to how it looked on him….

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I also cross breed my sheep with various other breeds (William is in fact not one of my pure gotlands but crossed with other genes too), one of these being the handsome Black Welsh Mountain. I call this cross Welshland and last year Katie had some of this fleece off me which she blended with some of her own hand dyed silk brick and knitted an Icon Dress which is a pattern we both fell in love with at Woolfest when we saw the sample there. This gorgeous dress is a labour of love, the hours and hours of work going into blending and preparing the fibres, spinning the yarn and knitting the dress makes for a very special garment that turned out exactly as Katie hoped and I know she was really pleased with it. And I get huge pleasure from seeing my beloved sheep’s fleeces being turned into beautiful and useful clothing.

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So going back to Winter Shearing, all the Gotland fleeces have been stacked in boxes in the barn for a few weeks since they were sheared in January. Yesterday I sheared the Black Welsh Mountain and their crosses (Welshland) and those are also waiting for me to bag and price them ready for next weekend.

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Here they are waiting in the shed before shearing.

I have had to teach myself how to shear over the few years we’ve kept sheep purely for fibre. When we kept commercial meat sheep we got contractors in in May. Unfortunately when you have a small flock (and we never had more than 30 breeding ewes) it’s hard to get shearers in at the right time, the shearing gangs are horrendously busy getting round the big flocks shearing several hundred sheep in a day. A small bunch of smallholders sheep just aren’t that important to them so small flocks tend to get pushed to the end of the shearing season, either that or you have to find someone who has the skills necessary to shear a few sheep. So when I started keeping sheep that needed shearing in winter I decided to tackle this myself. Up until last year I sheared all my sheep with hand blades whilst they stand up, tied in a head stall. I have joint problems so I find it near impossibly to turn sheep (onto their backs which is the usual method of handling them) and so I’ve found my own way of getting round the problems I encounter (and probably set up a few more special ones of my own too no doubt!!) Shearing is a young persons game, it is hard work, skilled and puts strain on your back so to be a professional shearer you have to be fit and strong. I don’t pretend to come anywhere near a shearer’s skills but I am happy with the fibre I get from my sheep and it gives me time to check my sheep and work with them and the fleece is the priority not speed.

Last year I swapped from using hand blades to a shearing machine. I was forced to do this because my back is starting to play up and it is quicker using a machine although I prefer the fleece I get from hand blade shearing. I’ve encountered more learning curves here and at some point I will take myself off to one of the British Wool Marketing Board shearing courses to learn properly. Professional shearers use something called the Bowen Technique of shearing (not to be confused with the other Bowen Technique which is form of therapy!) which is fast and efficient unlike my method. I don’t think my sheep realise how lucky they are to be allowed the dignity of staying the right way up whilst they get their haircuts!!

Different breeds of sheep have different fibres, some are easier to shear than others. Of the eight BWMx sheep I sheared yesterday, they fell into three types although even those fleeces varied according to the individual sheep.

The last three to be sheared were one of each type and whilst I was trying to take photos of them to display some of the differences they obligingly lined up for me! It shows really well how they change with each new dose of genetics as I cross breed them.

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On the right is Quink. She is a pedigree Black Welsh Mountain and is small, muscly and compact with short ears and bluntish face. The fleece is short stapled and quite strong in character and the fleece comes off as a sheet and hangs together well. It doesn’t really have lock formation like some other breeds do and although BWM is a hill breed it is like the Down breeds in it’s fibre type. In the middle is Leila, a BWMx Gotland (my “welshland”- 50% of each in her breeding). The black gene in sheep is a recessive one so normally a black sheep crossed with a white on will result in a white sheep or a very pale grey although the black genes will be lurking hidden waiting to throw out a black lamb every so often. Black sheep crossed with coloured sheep can vary in the colour that results but here they end up looking like finer, larger BWM. You can see the larger frame, the longer finer face and ears, the longer staple in the fleece (from the longwool side of the Gotland) and the fleece is softer, more open, has a different crimp and falls apart more readily. It’s also incredibly bouncy fibre which makes for a wonderful springy knitting wool. And it retains the deep warm black that only the BWM really has – other black British breeds tend to be a very deep brown. On the left is Elvis. His mother was a Welshland and his father was a coloured Leicester Longwool, now a rare breed although once very important in the development of various UK breeds. You can see the much larger size (although under that fluff he has a rangy goatlike frame) and the really long staple, the very strong open locks and the paler colour as the black genes give way to other factors. Although the weathering on the outside of the fleece makes it look a caramel colour, under the sunbleached tips in fact he is a warm charcoal colour and the staples are shot through with silver threads which comes from the gotland genes.

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This is his fleece once sheared. It’s enormous…

For Wonderwool I split the fleeces up into smaller quantities. Even for garments, it’s rare that one will need a whole fleece for a project and I find that Gotland and it’s derivatives benefit most from being blended with other fibres which means that the fleece goes even further. So splitting down the fleeces means spinners don’t have to buy more than they need and those who fancy trying something new can also try out fibres without having a loft or shed full of leftover raw fleece. It also means that you can choose to buy several shades of grey if you want to try colourwork in natural colours (I’ve long wanted to weave a tartan throw out of the different shades of grey but still haven’t got around to this!!)

I also overdye the fleeces and I shall talk about this in a separate post as this one is getting longer and longer…

I’ll leave you with a couple more photos of the fleece growers out in the pasture, these were from last autumn.Image

Elvis with Esther and Snip (both pure Gotlands)

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Robbie – Gotland x Leicester Longwool. Note the lack of BWM black genes and how pale he is as a result!

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