We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
We do complicate our lives by having a lot of different breeds of sheep. Each is a different colour, has specific needs and their own rams. And they have very different personalities.
We did not select them all for good hard-headed business reasons.We chose the Herwicks (our most recent breed) in a reminiscent mood: we lived in Cumbria early in our married life where we saw and loved them when walking and climbing in the fells. Herdwicks are hefted, which means that they learn their territory and and stay within it – which is just as well for us as they are very adept at getting over, under, through and around our fences! The handsome black and white Jacobs were bequeathed from my brother’s flock and the Shetlands began as a present to our son when he was about ten years old. Our first Hebrideans arrived unexpectedly from the Isle of Wight: Adam had been advising the National Trust Ranger there about maintaining their wildflower pastures and had commented that they might have an influx of fleabane, which you will have seen if you walk at Cogden and know to give a fine late summer display of bright yellow flowers which attract insects but can be very invasive. “Oh no”, they said, “We don’t have fleabane, we have hebrideans!” When they came to visit they had in the truck three young ewes! Even though they have taught their daughters and granddaughters to eat it they can’t keep it down. We think of our Dorset Downs as the sensible, commercial flock that fatten well, and so they are, but even these were chosen because our other son, when very young thirty years ago, preferred their fluffy dark faces to the clean white faces of the more popular Polled Dorset breed. Dorset Downs are a rare breed, listed in the Minorities section (less than 3000 breeding ewes) of the Rare Breeds Society, so we are pleased to be part of keeping this breed alive.
The wealth of the nation in the thirteenth century and for a long time after that was built on the wool this country produced. Indeed the landscape and social history was defined by the enclosures acts which supported the wool industry. The Speaker of the House of Lords sits on a wool sack because wool was so important when the office was established. But since that time, the trade has declined and for the last couple of centuries the main reason most people have kept sheep in Britain is for their meat. The wool marketing board, the only remaining state monopoly, does its best to sell our wool but it competes with other less natural and less local fibres and it no longer fills British farm coffers. There are new ways being developed to use what has nearly become a waste product, such as house insulation and packaging. For many years income from the wool has not covered the cost and work of shearing, – but still the shearing must happen for the welfare of the sheep. With their lovely woolly coats on, they are simply much too hot in summer and they are vulnerable to horrible and life-threatening fly-strike. To bypass this difficulty some farmers are keeping sheep which have been bred to shed their wool (using genetics from the Wiltshire Horn breed) but, commercial though we may be, we are also sentimental and have great pleasure in our established flocks and varied breeds. So we have gone the other way, making a virtue of the necessity to shear by making the wool into yarn.
I learned to spin at ten years old from a member of the Dorset Guild of Spinners and Weavers. I have always loved the natural colours but I rarely found time to spin enough to knit what I wanted. Frustration at buying wool when we had our own going to waste led us to create the Tamarisk brand of yarns.
After shearing, all of the fleeces are separated by breed and colour, then bagged and selected wool is sent down to Cornwall to be carded and spun using dependable Victorian machinery. The mill we use is certified organic; so we can be sure our organic wool remains free from chemicals.
We are so pleased with and proud of our product – natural and undyed in a wonderful variety of soft greys and browns, through to bolder blacks and chocolates. Some are the colours as they come off the sheep, others have been blended using different proportions of darker and lighter fleeces to create new colours. It has been a great pleasure every time we get a new colour, to play with it, creating different samplers and patterns.
Members of my family who don’t knit always find that the process seems completely miraculous: a ball of yarn turns into a sock over the course of a few evenings listening to the radio. This is 3D printing for clothes! After the hot summer we’ve had, the autumn evenings are drawing in and it becomes the time to start thinking of the winter clothing we might want: a new jumper, hats for Christmas presents, ready to start knitting as the evenings cool down. One of my current projects is a fairisle jumper for my daughter to wear in the depths of winter.
Sheep have provided us with clothing for millenia and knitted clothing has been around for the last 800 years. In the yarn spun from our mixture of native breeds and in our sheepskins we are continuing the rich history of Britain. In spite of their inconvenient habits the pleasure we gain from seeing the variety of sheep in our fields and enjoying the characters of each breed makes keeping them all worthwhile.