This is a story about Wales, about sheep, about wool – a Welsh yarn. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin…
I’ve been dropping hints about yarns for a long time now. Creating and selling proper Welsh grown yarns from my own sheep is something I’ve desperately wanted to do since before I started selling my fleeces as BarberBlackSheep.
When I first started keeping Gotlands and crossing them for different coloured fibres I had this idea I’d somehow handspin everything. Hmmm… maybe not!
Having yarn spun commercially from individual fleeces or from breed specific flocks is actually quite tricky. Within the UK there are now very few commercial mills that can cater to the small market and of the mills that can spin the kind of worsted yarn that benefits the kinds of fleeces I grow there are only two. And only one of these can deal with the tiny quantities of fleece I have.
When I switched from keeping commercial meat sheep to Gotlands I did so with the aim of looking for the “perfect” sheep. Over 10 years later I think I’ve now realised that this doesn’t exist within the parameters I was looking for; an animal is always going to lean towards one characteristic or other.
I was going through a rather zealous eco-friendly stage after a prolonged period of ill-health that forced me to give up my job in my mid-20s. Having ignored and even scorned the knit-your-own-yoghurt / wholemeal-socks brigade as we thought of them I was forced to think differently – but there’s nothing like chronic illness to burst an arrogant bubble.
My long and uncomfortable quest to find my health again involved facing a few home truths I’d chosen to ignore and realised that what we eat, wear and live in has a major impact on what we are. Having gratefully clawed my way out of debilitating pain over 18 months I threw myself 110% into natural food, clothing, toiletries and even housing in that way that converts do! I was interested in permaculture concepts and became somewhat obsessed about sustainability, often setting the bar impossibly high. No aspect of my life was spared the scrutiny of sustainability and that included the animals we were keeping.
The meat sheep we’d kept till then were bred purely for the European export market. The fleeces went to the BWMB for not very much money and the sheepskins from the fat lambs would have been a waste product, I believe most likely going to China for making trainers (although I’m not certain!). I don’t have a problem with animals being farmed for meat or eaten as a moral principle I do however feel very strongly that nothing should be wasted, that we should never take lives unthinkingly and few things make me as angry as meat or animal products that gets thrown away. I wanted a sheep that’s fleece was as valuable as its meat but unfortunately we consumers dictate demands that often require a specialist breed rather than a dual purpose one.
Wool growing sheep are usually rangy rather than meaty but we like juicy plump joints of meat; those sturdy, well muscled breeds that provide the kind of cuts the butchers require don’t have soft, snuggly fleeces for fine spinning.
I considered several traditional breeds for some time and narrowed it down to either Wensleydales or Shetlands for different reasons.
In 2006 I went to the Royal Welsh Smallholders Show which also included the Green Building Exhibition and the very first WonderwoolWales – fraction of the fabulous show so many of us went to last month. I had recently taken up knitting again and was learning to spin but I’ve always been a bit obsessed with textiles so I was blown away by the idea of an exhibition about textiles and wool.
I got chatting to a lady on a felt making stand and said I was hunting for “the perfect sheep” and she said “Gotlands!” and I said “whats?!”. She pointed me in the direction of Sue Blacker who had just bought Natural Fibre Company and was moving it from Wales to Cornwall (Oh how I wish it were still in Wales though!) and also had a flock of Gotlands and was manning the Gotland breed stand with another Gotland breeder. Gotlands in the UK are marketed as “the three crop sheep” for wool, meat and pelts (back in Sweden they are generally used for pelts).
There weren’t any Gotlands on show but she had photographs and Sue told me what massive personalities Gotlands have and then I saw some of the handspun overdyed yarns the other lady had spun and I was sold from that second.
Over the next few years I fiddled around trying to breed from my two foundation ewes I acquired and crossing a Gotland ram onto another couple of different breed ewes we already owned. I quickly discovered I liked crossing for fleeces types more than I liked breeding pedigrees!
I also realised that creating a “perfect” sheep is not a question of putting one breed onto another and hoping for the best. Genes will play the lottery, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes the results are predictable, other times not. First crosses can vary wildly, new breeds are created by selectively breeding those first crosses back to each other to reinforce the desirable characteristics whilst culling any that don’t meet the grade and I quickly realised also that a 15 acre smallholding combined with a shepherd with a complete inability to part with anything as adorable as a Gotland sheep is not cut out for creating a new sheep breed!
However I did get some interesting sheep and fleece types out of my experiments. One of the most special is what I refer to as Swedish Mule (neither a slipper nor a cocktail – a sheep!). A straight Gotland/BFL cross, it’s like the best of both breeds with none of the downsides. I bred 4 of these before I sold my ram. I’ve only ever sold a couple of their fleeces, I’ve carefully stored them over the past 4 years and last year I had enough to reach the minimum quantity for processing.
Artisan yarn like this is really expensive to produce; having discussed the yarn a year ago I had to save up the capital to do this project and so it was late autumn before I could afford to ship the fleeces to Natural Fibre Company with my heart in my mouth for the next stage of a project I’d wanted to do for so long.
The yarn came back a couple of months ago – it’s truly beautiful and I’m very happy with it. The yarn I designed is a worsted spun 4-ply/fingering weight yarn blended with tussah silk to enhance the wool’s characteristics – specifically created for a drapey, lustrous luxurious yarn perfect for lace shawls or other items where lustre and drape is an advantage. It’s limited edition, it will be costly and there isn’t actually a huge amount of it. It will also probably never be repeated exactly like this because I now have only 3 of the sheep whose fleeces it’s made from, having lost Boudicca to pneumonia last year. So I wanted to be sure exactly how I was going to sell it, skein size, colours etc.
If this project works well then there are other kinds of yarn I’d like to create from other fleeces I have stored once I’m able to afford to do so. I’m aware that my tagline “made in Wales” that originated from starting with my own fleeces is drifting further away from it’s roots in my products although everything I dye or card myself is made here in Wales and strongly influenced by the Welsh landscape and everything I stock has been carefully chosen for a reason such as the stunningly beautiful Haunui New Zealand Halfbred which has such great provenance behind the sheep and the business.
A couple of months back I realised that the Cambrian Wool project (part of the Cambrian Mountain Initiative) which had been in discussion for some years was getting close to launching so I started making enquiries about stocking their yarns to dye myself to compliment my own homegrown ones.
It’s beautiful and I’ve spent some times in recent weeks finalising the palette of twelve shades I will be offering these lovely Welsh grown yarns in … as well as future yarns I hope. I’ve chosen initially to stock the DK weight to compliment the 4ply/fingering weight of my own yarn and it’s created from Welsh Mule, soft but robust and springing, perfect for garment knitting.
So there you have it – two contrasting Welsh yarns, spun in England and dyed in Wales. Coming to a shop near you soon!! ;0)
In my next few blog posts I’m going to tell you about the new colour palette I’ve been creating; it’s inspired by Wales and by my childhood memories so each of the colours has meaning for me and make my heart sing when I look at them. I can’t wait to share them with you now it’s done!