The Southdown sheep has been established in the UK for over two hundred years, but has been in its current ‘improved’ state since the 1800’s with the breed society being established in 1893. The fibre can be as fine as 29 microns (comparable to Shetland in some cases) and has been used for knitwear for many years.
We have processed quite a few batches of Southdown in our time and have found it to be a rather ‘amicable’ fibre; quite willing to run through our machinery and very versatile when it comes to various different yarn weights. From our own experience through Blacker Yarns we have found that Double Knitting has remained a firm favourite as it makes the most of the bouncy, loftiness of the fibre while retaining stitch definition. To get a better idea of why Southdown yarn is so good to work with, I spoke to Louise Spong from South Downs Yarns; a small business based entirely around Southdown wool from the South Downs themselves, to find out what made her start working with the breed’s wool. The yarn we made for her business is a 2 fold yarn based on the traditional yarn that would have been used in the 1800s, and so varies from the everyday yarns that we usually produce.
Q: Why did you choose Southdown?
Firstly, because it’s my local sheep breed and when I first started knitting and learning more about British wool I just couldn’t find any for sale, with the exception of yours! Secondly, it seemed wasteful not to use the wool from my local flocks, especially when it appeared from my research Southdown wool was once so highly thought of. Thirdly, because I wanted to know what it was like for myself.
Q: Why the ‘traditional’ specification?
I love old books and I came across one serendipitously that really set me off in the direction of creating South Downs Yarn. That book, ‘The Southdown Sheep’ written by E.W. Lloyd will probably be familiar to readers of the Southdown Society newsletter; Lloyd was once press secretary of the Society. The book was published in 1933 and talks in some detail about the fleece quality, characteristics and use of Southdown wool, drawing attention to the fact that it was woollen spun historically. This made me think about how not only the breed of sheep but also the way in which wool is spun affects the resulting yarn. I realised that there didn’t appear to be much information about the way in which wool was spun on yarn labels, and consequently it was difficult to feel you had choice as a consumer when considering woollen or worsted yarns.
Southdown's Yarn in Mini three skein gradient set (available here)
Q: What is your favourite thing about it/working with it?
Oh, lots of things! I love knowing that it is my local wool and which flock it has come from. The provenance is important to me because I also get to know the shepherds. It makes me, and hopefully our customers, feel connected to the finished garment in a way that just isn’t possible with mass produced textiles. In terms of the spinning, I love that South Downs Yarn is part of a continuum providing the fibre community with fine, woollen spun Southdown wool from the South Downs. It was so important to me to be able to undertake all the processing in England, and also that I could work with a mill that listened to my requirements and could also advise me and produce them. I am really proud that we offer something out of the ordinary, albeit on a small scale. It’s my dream come true!
If you are interested in finding out more about Southdown Sheep, the breed society has a variety of useful information including breed characteristics and a list of breeders throughout the UK.