It might already be apparent to those of you reading here or elsewhere that I love wool. I’m fascinated by everything that the world of wool has to offer us and it seems that I have, quite unintentionally, made it one of my life goals to surround myself with all things wool related. Wool, as my beloved dictionary tells me is the “outer coat that grows on sheep” that is “used to make things such as clothes, blankets and carpets“. It seems so simple and obvious. And yet.
I have a confession to make.
I grew up in the West Country, in the beautiful county of Dorset. An area, like much of Britain, whose countryside is quintessential sheep rearing country. And yet it wasn’t until recently, very recently, that I started paying attention to sheep. Really paying attention.
Like most people, I could recognise a sheep when I saw one. They have woolly coats, live in fields, eat grass and have lambs in spring. But those basic things apart, sheep were only sheep. I would not have been able to name the specific breed. Or what part of the world it belonged to. Or known what it was doing in that particular field or why it was there.
It was only in 2013/14 when I first started seriously becoming interested in where my yarn came from that I began to realise that not all sheep are the same. That there are different breeds which have been developed over time to become adapted to the land they live on. And that these adaptations make for an infinite number of possibilities, in terms of shape and size and character of the animal. And therefore also in the fleece.
Quite soon after taking up the wheel and spindle in spring 2014, I realised that these new activities had opened up a new source of joy for me. At the time, I was living in a sheep rearing valley in the French Pyrénées. It was possible to spin yarn from sheep I’d met whilst out walking in the mountains. Or as Annie Claire has so beautifully put it, “to tighten the gap between pasture and pullover”, as it were.
From the moment I was invited to select my first fleeces from a friend’s farm, I felt a deep rooted satisfaction when I held my first finished skeins in my hands. Knowing that I’d worked with it from raw, stinky fleece through to final, washed and blocked yarn. Even if it was a bit lumpy and bumpy.
So far, all of the raw fleeces I’ve worked with have come from sheep that were born and raised in the valley where we used to live. Some from the local rare breed the Barégeoise, (see the photo above). Other fleeces came from other traditional (French) South West stock. Beginner that I was, very early on into my experiments I nonetheless started noticing differences in the way the fleeces responded to the various stages involved in spinning yarn: scouring, carding, spinning, plying and blocking. It quickly became apparent that if I were to do justice to the fleeces, it was important to become familiar not only with the various characteristics of the breeds but also the history and fibre traditions associated with each.
And now we are living in Brittany, a region where wool (but also flax & hemp) are deeply embedded into the landscape & textile traditions, offering me ample opportunities to try my hand at new types of wool & fibres as we explore the area around us.
Perhaps one day, we’ll have a patch of land. Where we’ll live in a tiny round house made of fleece and spend our days getting grubby. Him tending to a little permaculture veggie plot, me looking after a little dye garden and our own (tiny) flock of sheep. Then I’ll not only be able to meet the sheep whose fleeces I work with, but I’ll know them intimately.
Until then, I can enjoy the wondrous fibres by working directly with fleeces and yarns that have been grown elsewhere and cared for by other hands. And so in keeping with my personal slow wool project, I’ve decided to start sharing some of my sheepy discoveries and experiments with breed specific fleeces and yarns from here in France, my native Britain and perhaps, occasionally, a little further afield.