Starting a flock with wool in mind

Sue Blacker's picture
8 November, 2020 - 16:00 | Sue Blacker

So here are some white sheep - but that's about the only thing they have in common - they are different sizes, have very different fleeces and also personalities.  So their wool will be very different, as will their care.

When I say “wool in mind” I really mean yarns, and this means hand knitting or crochet yarns or weaving or rug yarns, usually for small-scale or craft production.

So what we do at The Natural Fibre Company is turn a very basic raw material into a more usable raw material – it’s finished by us but not yet a finished product.  We also take the mess and hard work out of preparing wool for hand spinning or felting by sorting, scouring and carding wool.

This means you need to have an idea for a finished product and then select the sheep to suit it.

Many people come to The Natural Fibre Company for their first ever batch of machine-made yarn.  It is a great thrill for our customers, when they get the results back – usually!  Indeed, because we do spend a great deal of time with first customers in particular, who we hope can soon visit the mill again, we mostly manage to fulfil their hopes and dreams. 

The wool you produce is a very versatile product, but we cannot make silk purses from sows’ ears!

People will choose a sheep breed for many reasons:

  • A friend suggested it
  • Someone at a breed show advised it
  • The sheep, and especially the lambs, look pretty
  • The sheep are fashionable at present
  • They came with the land
  • They were a gift
  • They were what my family has always had

All of these may be good reasons to own a particular sheep, but they don’t always make good yarns – or not the sort with which you can spin, needle felt, knit, crochet or weave.

Perhaps the most interesting example of a pretty sheep is the Castlemilk Moorit, shown above and bred specifically to be a small, brown, decorative grazing animal for an estate owner who had the time and resources to create it.  So too are the Valais Blacknose pretty.  But while it is possible to  make yarns from their fleeces, they both present challenges: Castlemilk Moorit is very short so can only be woollen spun, and produces a plushy, rather than soft, yarn, while Valais Blacknose is coarse and usually needs another wool added to enable it to be processed, making yarn more like garden twine than anything else.  Indeed, our production team prefer Herdwick to Valais Blacknose, which is saying something!  Here they are below.

People who come to us with the “best” breed for some attribute or other – maybe rare and local, maybe new and exciting – need to remember that they may not have thought about wool when choosing it.  Wool should not be an afterthought unless your primary purpose in having sheep is to grow for meat, and even then I would argue that a couple of really top class fleeces sold locally to hand spinners can sometimes pay for a goodly chunk of the shearing cost for the whole flock.

So it may be a little surprising that my first advice is to buy a local sheep!  This is because a sheep from your local area will have the right immunities to local versions of parasites and diseases and will also be properly adapted to the mineral content of the local soil, which is essential for good health.  So even before selecting for wool, you need to select a breed which can live in your local conditions.  The most extreme example of this is the North Ronaldsay, now flourishing in mainland Britain as well, but those who have left the harsh conditions, seaweed and beaches of the island cannot flourish if they return.  These sheep are small and part of the Northern Short-tail group, like their relatives, the Manx Loaghtan, Hebridean, Shetland and Gotland, all of which are popular with smallholders and which are mostly not white.

Once you have a list of possible local sheep, you need to consider their husbandry.  All sheep are escapologists and need good fencing, but for some, and Shetlands are proverbial for it, the fence or gate is just a challenge or exercise tool.  So you need to consider whether you have good fencing and then whether you are at the top of a windswept hill or in a river valley.  Generally all sheep will be happier on the hills, and you especially need to remember that those with very dense, sometimes quite fine fleeces, like the Southdown, are not suited to river valleys but to downs and open country, where they are much less likely to suffer from flystrike.  It is worth remembering that the more primitive sheep breeds, while not all the best producers of fine soft wool, are generally more resistant to flystrike.

At The Natural Fibre Company we have spun the wool of over 50 of the UK breeds, as well as many European breeds and cross-bred sheep over the years, and Blacker Yarns has gradually completed making small single breed batches of most of these.  However, coarse, crunchy, white wool will not sell in large or repeatable quantities once a few enthusiasts have completed their collection.  So some rare breeds, while all deserve preservation on bio-diversity grounds, should be promoted for felt or rugs rather than fine knitwear.

For example, the afore-mentioned Herdwick is not a yarn for next to the skin, but will make table mats, tea and egg cosies, really hard wearing outer socks and rugs and furnishings.  These, on the other hand, are much less suitable end products for Shetland, which will not stand the wear and is much better for clothing.

So in deciding on your list, you can now select down according to the type of wool products you have in mind – selling something you love and care about will transmit your passion to the customers and this will make the wool, and your flock, more of a success, whether you are aiming at lace shawls or floor rugs, felt toys or craft twine.  But it will only work with the right fleece and breed.

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Blacker Yarns

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The Natural Fibre Company

enquiries@thenaturalfibre.co.uk | +44 (0) 1566 777 635