Category: sheep & wool

Growing wool

DSC_0041Whenever we’ve visited my parent’s-in-law this winter, we’ve spent time lending a helping hand in their allotment, pulling up carrots, beets & leeks from the frozen ground. It’s a place we’ve always enjoyed coming as a couple and now a little family, with our boy bundled up against the cold and wet in layers of wool & welly boots. On some days, as I dream of harvesting this summer’s crop of tomatoes with L, I let my eyes wander to the adjoining field where my love’s uncle keeps a tiny flock of sheep to graze amongst the apple trees. And there my mind wanders to other dreams.

DSC_0055I have the tiniest of dreams that one day we might have our very own (tiny) flock. Because flocks of sheep grow into balls of yarn, don’t they? And I find there’s something incredibly appealing about the continuity that would come from slowly working from field to fleece to finished ball of yarn using raw materials that I had been responsible for growing.

DSC_0030That said, we are also realists and understand that caring for one sheep let alone a whole flock would be both an enormous responsibility & commitment. And yet somehow, coming up to Brittany and moving to this place has really felt like a step closer to this dream as well as a few others. There is ample space in the garden of our current abode for us to keep a couple of local Breton breed Ouessant sheep, and we had fully intended to be hunting for a pair of ewes with the start of spring. However unforeseen circumstances in our family mean that for now, that project (along with the chickens) will have to wait for another day. My love thought the disappointment would be crushing for me, but somehow even just to know it would technically have been possible is rather exciting. And whilst I wait patiently, I am content to meet as many local sheep as possible, and try out their fleeces (more on that later). To meet shepherds, sheep breeders and farmers. To talk to them about their many experiences of raising sheep in these green hills and gather their wool to transform into hand spun yarn and felt. And also gain some hands on experience at handling & living with sheep before we get some of our own.


sheep & wool

baregeoise-1It 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.

slow wool

spinning wheel

March will always be a precious month to me. Near it’s end, we will celebrate the start of Spring, welcoming in all the hope & joy that can be found in Mother Nature’s re-awakening. And in my own little life, March has been a month of two significant new beginnings. The first, was in 2009 when I first moved to France to begin an exciting adventure in a mountain village school as a language teacher. The second came in 2014 when I “met” real wool for the very first time on a mountainside…and two weeks later I had found a second hand spinning wheel and was teaching myself to spin. Four years later, I am quietly working on opening the doors of my little shop in time for the arrival of Spring. And so it seems fitting this month to share a series of posts I had previously published elsewhere, to give you a glimpse into this project which has been slowly percolating since that very first skein of hand spun yarn.

An idea was cast on in the back of my mind about the middle of 2014, not long after I had fallen in love with wool & spinning. Since then, there has been a baby and this whole new life as a mama to get my head (& heart) around. But all the while, in those quiet moments between, I’ve been listening and reading and crafting and dreaming. And just like a piece of knitting, those different strands have been slowly growing and growing. Recently, the time felt right to pick up those ideas again and try them on for size, just as I might a pair of socks in progress. That idea is slow wool

It might sound pretentious. Or possible a tiny bit hippy dippy. But I don’t really mind. For me, it’s more than a concept, or a label. Rather, it’s a coming together of a variety of different threads into a coherent expression of my personal understanding and approach to a natural resource which I’ve come to love deeply. A woolly manifesto, of sorts.

So here are some of those threads…

Slow wool expresses first and foremost a personal love affair with a natural material which has been quietly unfolding since I moved permanently to France in 2012.

But why wool, you might ask? Wool is a natural resource. It is 100% sustainable, biodegradable and renewable. It can be utilized in an infinite number of uses. To insulate our homes. To stuff the mattresses on our beds. To weave the carpets beneath our feet or the cloth on our backs. It’s fibres can be rubbed together to produce felt, for making blankets or slippers or oven gloves. Or twisted together to produce yarn, which in turn can be transformed with knitting needles, crochet hook or loom. In almost all cultures on the world, wool has been the golden thread running through our shared histories.

Wool in all it’s many beautiful forms can be processed in a way which is respectful to the land on which it is grown. To the sheep from whose backs it is shorn. And to the human hands which skilfully work with it to transform it from raw material into finished item. Or not.

Slow wool is therefore partly my own quiet resistance to mass production. To fast fashion. To disrespectful treatment of the land, of animals and of fellow human beings. It is a conscious decision to embrace the art of authentic craft and pure raw materials, to seek the stories behind the fibres that run through my fingers. To create not only with my hands, but also my head and my heart. It was born of my dismay at many of the current realities of the wool & textile industry both locally and world wide. It also grew from a desire to make a deeper connection to the landscape and sheep rearing traditions of the landscape y where I have chosen to make my home.

And on a more personal note,  slow wool also serves as a reminder to myself to be more mindful in my making. To refuse to be rushed. To pace myself. To not put too much pressure on myself to produce. As Inge put it so succinctly, to remember that “I am not a factory“.

I believe deeply that the acceptance of slow is essential to create beautiful things. But also for me to live well and sustainably within the confines of my chronic health condition, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS). Refusing to be rushed, slow wool is therefore also a conscious reminder to myself to take things one step at a time.

woollen hearted

At my heart, I’m a maker. And at the heart of my making, there is wool.  Wool is the raw material I return to time and time again. Whether hand spinning, knitting, natural dyeing, felting or bear making, the golden thread running through my making is woollen.

And this work with wool feels somehow like an extension of the whole of me. When I work closely with this fibre in an intentionally slow & mindful way, I find some of life’s many tangles become unravelled, some of it’s creases become straightened out.

Working wool with my hands allows me to reconnect with myself and my values, my wildest dreams and my most cherished priorities. Each turn of the wheel, click of the needles, tiniest of stitches is an outpouring of my heart, as it were.