Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Boreray Project part 4 - The day that became known as the Pooh Party

 The task - to sort through a mountain of Boreray fleece and separate out the fibre which could be sent to Natural Fibre Company

The challenge - to do this in less than a week.

I contacted my friends and bribed them with promises of food and the chance to play with my English Wool Combs and on Sunday 28 August 2011 they came to the house for the day, complete with aprons.  I had initially thought that we'd be removing the thickest of the hair and kemp, along with a bit of skirting, so I sold them on the fun of a De-Hairing Party.  (Spinners are robust people.  Spinning wheels have parts called mother-of-all, maiden, orifice, lazy-kate, so calling an event a De-Hairing party was guaranteed to get people involved)

How wrong I was!

We started off with moving the bags of fleece to one side of the lounge and putting a white sheet on the carpet.  The intention was for Carol and I to empty one bag at a time onto the sheet, pick out the nice bits of fleece, and carry them to the table in the sunny kitchen where the de-hairers, Sue, Ros & Alison were ready with their smiles.

 But then we found the felted bits of fleece, the 'rough as a badger's arse' kempy, hairy britch bits, the thistles, grass, hay........ and the pooh.  We had a lot of fleece to get through.  Here's a small selection.

Time to rethink.  We all had a good look at what we actually had and realised that the hair wasn't the issue for most of the fleece.  Once the fleece had been 'cleaned up' and the heavily kempy and felted parts removed, what was left would make a nice yarn with the remaining hair being part of the character of the yarn.  It was really exciting seeing 'cleaned-up' fibre emerging from the sacks of fleeces and appreciating how much character and individuality it had.  This wasn't a breed that could easily be confused with other breeds of sheep just by looking at the fleece.

We did however keep finding little sections with the superfine undercoat.  It just seemed such a shame to include this with the rest of the fleece to be swallowed up in the final yarn.  There was so little that taking it out of the Boreray yarn fleece wouldn't affect the character and softness of the yarn.  The decision was made to separate it out.

So now we're all happy again.  Very happy indeed, because the only thing we could think of to do with this superfine undercoat was to hand-spin it.  So we could all share it out and have fun spinning it.  There was talk of making some of our hand-spun yarn available for knitters, fundraising for Borerays and RBST.... We thought of a lot of things, but mostly we thought about the joy of hand-spinning some incredible laceweight Boreray yarn.

We cracked on with sorting out the fibre for NFC and got that done before the end of the day.  Just time to start de-hairing the fine undercoat we'd kept separate.

Now it's really difficult to photograph very fine fibre, unless you're someone like Deb Robson.  You can see her super photographs of Boreray on p156 of the Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook  This is my attempt to show some of the Boreray fibre.  

On the left against the red background is a lock of hair fibre that has been eased from a lock of fleece.  Top on the right is what's left.  The dark coloured fibres are kemp.  Borerays have white and coloured kemp.  The vertical dark line is the 'rise'.  This is the natural break between the fleece from the old year and the new fleece.  There are some scurfy skin cells along the rise and you can see that the new year's growth has more kemp than the old fleece that has been sheared or cut off the sheep.

The bottom right hand image is a close up of part of the image above it.  The slightly creamy coloured 'cloud' is the fine undercoat.  Too fine to even see the individual fibres.  It's easier to identify it by feel - just imagine what the finest undercoat on a mouse might feel like, and you're in the right area.

So that was how we finished a day we'll never forget.  Sitting there with woolsacks full of the very characterful Boreray fleece in colours ranging from white to dark brown and prepared all ready for the Natural Fibre Company.  Most importantly we were over the 20kg.  And just time to sit round the table and start de-hairing the fine undercoat.

A few days later I took the Boreray fibre with me to British Wool Weekend and at the end of a tiring but most enjoyable weekend, Sue Blacker had the job of fitting it all into her car to take down to Cornwall.  We'd also found time over the weekend to talk about the few kg of fine Boreray and another plan was hatched.

The Boreray Project part 3 - what about the knitters?

So 2011 had seen spinners enjoying the experience of handling and spinning Boreray fleece.  But long before I started spinning I was a knitter who loved using wool knitting yarn from different breeds of sheep.  It's like cheese - why eat just mild Cheddar when there are so many different varieties of cheese to enjoy and use for different purposes?

Looking back through my email folders I see that by the end of 2010 I hadn't been able to find any sort of Boreray knitting yarn for sale.  I was learning more and more about Boreray sheep as I was able to track down one after another of the special people who support this breed and keep the gene pool viable.  At times it felt like following a trail of crumbs.  Many of them are smallholders with the inevitable challenges on their time.  Slowly though a list was growing and an idea was germinating.

I posted this on Ravelry in April 2011 in reply to a query about the bags of Boreray fleece for Wonderwool Wales:

It’s quoted that there are fewer than 300 registered breeding ewes - the problem isn’t just tracking down who has some Boreray sheep, it’s getting hold of the fleece. Because they shed naturally, and that is the preferred method of getting a good finish for showing, there aren’t a lot of them being shorn.

Then you add in that it’s not always convenient for the owners to shear at the optimum time for a good fleece, or in optimum conditions. For the price the fleeces fetch atm it’s often not worth packaging them up to sell - some owners do have fleece lying around that you can buy if you go to the farm/smallholding, but many of our rare breeds of sheep - well, the fleece just gets dumped. (yes, I couldn’t believe it when I heard it from a member of RBST!) I’d assumed these rare breed fleeces would be extra valuable.

I’ve got a little personal project that I’m trying to get off the ground and if it works - big IF - then there may be for the first time a small batch of commercial Boreray yarn spun for knitters and this may lead to it becoming financially viable for Boreray owners to have a system to get their fleeces in the right condition to a mill, and this should lead to some being available for spinners as well. I’m risking a bit of my money and rather more of my time (I may be driving round the country personally picking up all these fleeces!) but if I can make the experiment work this first year enough that it can be shown to be financially viable for the owners in the future if I’m not ‘financing’ it - well I live in excited hope of what this could mean for the sheep, knitters and spinners in the future.

I'd already spoken to Sue Blacker, Natural Fibre Company, about what would be required for NFC to spin a batch of Boreray yarn if I could get enough fleece together.  The answer was 20kg as a minimum!  There was also the additional need to ensure that none of the fleece came from sheep that had been treated with certain fly-strike treatments before shearing or gathering of the fleece.  This is because NFC is licensed for organic production which also affects the non-organic wool they produce.  The fleeces would also be coming from people who were not used to supplying fleeces for processing, so they could well need sorting, skirting and having excessive amounts of vegetable matter (VM) removing before they could be sent to NFC.

So this was the challenge - to get 20kg of suitable fleece to NFC!
In March I started emailing and telephoning every Boreray owner I could locate.  I've no doubt that some of them must have thought I was a little crazy.  They were located in Scotland, Wales and the north of England and all were very busy people.  Somehow I had to persuade them to find the time to collect their fleeces and if possible to package them up to post to me.  I wanted to make sure none of them would be out-of-pocket for any postage or other costs and where possible I collected the fleeces myself.

A welcome bonus from those fleeces I collected is that I got to meet some of the Borerays and their owners and came to appreciate the delightful and individual characters in this breed.  'Boring' is not a word that could ever be applied to them!

Then I had the excitement of parcels arriving and opening them up to see what sort of fleeces were inside.  I quickly realised that, even though rams are moved between flocks for tupping to carefully increase genetic diversity, each flock's fleece is a little different.

Sometimes I got boxes, sometimes well wrapped bags and sometimes I filled the car.

 By August the house was being taken over - well the lounge anyway ;-)

Now the challenge was to get all this fleece sorted and ready to go to NFC before British Wool Weekend on 3 September when I'd be able to hand it over to Sue Blacker to be taken down to the mill in Cornwall.

Time to call in a few friends!

The Boreray Project part 2 - Sharing the fun with spinners

Part 1 of the Boreray story is here

So, March 2011 and I had a big box of fleece.  An exceedingly big box for a newish spinner!  The obvious thing was to share it round my spinning friends.

I sent some to Barbro in Finland and she used her skills and experience to spin the different types of Boreray fibres and wrote a fascinating blog post about it.

Wonderwool Wales was coming up and every year Amber and her Ravelry helpers organise a Raverly activities area where Ravelry members can meet friends and money can be raised for Air Ambulance.  I decided that a great way to share round the Boreray fleece & raise money for Air Ambulance would be to have bags of the fibre for people to take in return for a donation.

I skirted the fleeces and sorted the unfelted & cleanish parts of the raw fleece into 100g bags in 3 categories: Fine & Surprisingly Soft, With Character & Kemp, Robust Character

 Keeping back some mixed fleece for myself, we had 22 bags which proved very popular.

I then swapped some of this fleece with Marjorie in return for a carding lesson at Stanhope Spinning Group.  This was an incredibly fortuitous thing to do since Marjorie is a very good weaver as well as a spinner and she spun and wove a Boreray scarf!

This is the spun yarn, together with some that Marjorie dyed using lichens.
The scarf was woven with a silk warp and the the undyed and dyed Boreray woven to create this beautiful design.  The final scarf, although having even the more robust fibres in it, is very soft and quite beautiful.
At British Wool Weekend in Harrogate in September 2011, Marjorie brought her scarf to show Sue Blacker of the Natural Fibre Company

In the meantime I'd had a go at spinning up some of the finer fibres I'd separated out, spinning it as fine as I could manage then!
At the end of September 2011 I was at Masham Sheep Fair and Freyalyn brought along the yarn she'd spun from one of the Wonderwool Wales' bags of Boreray - rather more impressive than my efforts!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Brecknock Hill Cheviot Sheep

I'm on the hunt..... yet again.  Also wondering if I've found a new project.  Not that I need one!

It all started with a tweet from Deb Robson and then reading her blog post: Sending more wool locks off to be photographed

I got straight onto Ravelry and started a thread in the Blacker & Beyond with FFSB Group (for anyone not a member of Ravelry, it's free, easy & instant to join, high privacy, none of the issues some people don't like about FB, & increasing numbers of farmers are joining to connect to keen hand-spinning fleece buyers)

Result was that within a few hours the modern Norwegian Spelsau locks were found, a good contact for Est à Laine Merino found, a back up source for Stansborough Grey sorted - and that just left Brecknock Hill Cheviot.

I did manage to track down and speak to one person involved with Brecknock Hill Cheviots who is spreading the word, but this is a bad time of year to be looking for fleece, even if it is only a few locks that are needed.  This is the sort of amount, below, that we're talking about. Even half that would be enough.  Not a lot, but if ALL your fleece has gone off to the British Wool Marketing Board, it could be tricky to track down.

These locks of fleece are actually Whitefaced Woodland - I just happened to have them lying around the kitchen where I knit and have the laptop.  Actually, I must confess to having bits of wool yarn and fleece in most rooms in the house.  I call it my 'house insulation'.  DH remains patiently pragmatic but unconvinced about the insulating properties of the wool in the middle of rooms.

Anyway, I then turned to twitter and remembered that Derek the Weathersheep, @WeatherSheep is in the Brecon Beacons so tweeted my request there.  Then a bit of googling and looking round twitter and I found more possible sources - and discovered some more great people/organisations to follow on twitter (have I told you about my dream of keeping sheep one day.......)
So if you're interested in research into sheepy things then have a look at @geneva_geneva and @KNconsulting (on FB)

Result is that some lovely people are checking contacts and I remain hopeful that someone has a wee bit of their Brecknock Hill Cheviot fleece lying around somewhere.

All this has however brought the Brecknock Hill Cheviot to my attention and I read on page 56 of the Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook that the fibre is "crisp, dense, even with a slight luster." The fibre is also finer overall than other members of the Cheviot family.

There is also a quote from John Williams-Davies in Welsh Sheep and Their Wool.

"The history of no other breed demonstrates so clearly the peculiarly close and complex relationship which exists between the sheep and its environment."

I've had a North Country Cheviot fleece which I found to be a very good wool indeed - a very versatile fibre and it was fun to process, spin and then knit.  
This is a blog post about Cheviot fleece with details about the preparation, spinning and knitting.  The Cheviot used here is from America.

This is an interesting article about the observed differences between Scottish-type and Brecknock Hill Cheviot sheep and links to some of the Cheviot Sheep societies.

I've had a quick hunt to find specific Cheviot wool in fabrics and knitting yarns.  Interestingly I've not found much so far - it doesn't mean there isn't more out there, but it's going to take hunting down.  Some manufacturers of Scottish tweed and tartan fabrics seem to use Scottish Cheviot wool.  This is the first Cheviot knitting yarn I've found, and it's described as Border Cheviot.  Nothing for Brecknock Hill Cheviot wool though.  Is what sounds like such a lovely wool really just going into generic British wool through BWMB?  Not that there is anything wrong with our fabulous blended British wool, but it would be lovely to have some of it kept separate and turned into special Brecknock Hill Cheviot yarn & textile goods.

So, of course, those who know me will by this stage be asking themselves if there might be a Brecknock Hill Cheviot (BHC) knitting or weaving yarn project to occupy my time next year..........
It would have a head start anyway with getting contact information for BHC farmers to find some lock samples for Deb, so it should be easier than the Boreray Project.

I think it would make very nice fabric and knitting yarn indeed, just from what I've experienced with North Country Cheviot.  I'm thinking nice BHC throws and other textile gifts to buy in shops in the tourist areas of the Brecon Beacons, plus of course knitters & crafters having a versatile yarn to use.  Hmmm, I'll try and get Christmas out of the way first ;-)

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Spinning with friends & rescued fleeces

First Saturday of every month the Travelling Spinners meet somewhere in Northumberland.  Yesterday we ventured south of the Tyne (just!) and met at Bede's World in Jarrow.  We were in a lovely room and happy to demonstrate and chat about wool and spinning to any of the Bede's World visitors.

During the morning we met some of the staff and heard that the fleece from the sheep on the Bede's World farm was just being stored........ now this is exciting news to spinners.  The sheep on the farm have been chosen to be similar to those the Anglo Saxons would have had and include Shetland and Shetland X Manx Loaghtan.

Needless to say we were all ready to put our shoes on (some spinners prefer to spin wearing socks or soft soled shoes) and find the fleeces but they were brought to us instead.

Great excitement as we looked through the bag.  As is usual with fleeces that have been shorn for the welfare of the sheep, with no plans for using the fleece, there was a lot of VM (vegetable matter), dirty bits from the rear end of the sheep and some of the fleeces were so badly matted/felted that they've have made rugs with little further processing needed.

But not all!

Here you can see one of the fleeces hanging over the table and the fleece is starting to pull apart under its own weight.  This is the 'lace curtain' effect and its what spinners are looking for.  The locks of fibre are not matted at all and will separate very easily.

Yes, the wool is definitely a dirty shade of white, but it's been keeping a sheep warm and dry for a whole year and it will wash clean.
This is a closer view of the fleece where you can see the dirty grey tips of the locks and the beautifully clean, unmatted butt ends of the locks.

The butt end is where the fleece has been shorn from the sheep.  These sheep had been shorn with hand shears rather than electric clippers and as you can see from the lack of 2nd cuts, shorn very well indeed.

Three of the fleeces were like this, one being an incredibly fine shearling that was snatched up straight away by one of my friends.  It's amazing how quickly a spinner can move when a 'special' fleece has been spotted ;-)

The result was that the 3 nice fleeces all went to appreciative homes and appropriate donations were made to Bede's World.

More importantly though we introduced the Bede's World staff to Jon, an ex-plant biologist who has used his knowledge to dye wool using plant material, and has the expertise to be able to dye wool from the Bede's World sheep using plants that would have been used by Anglo Saxons.  Hopefully next year Bede's World may be able to give visitors the opportunity to buy some wool products and fully use their fleeces.

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Boreray Project part 1 - Discovering the Fleece

Boreray sheep are the UK's rarest sheep breed.  They are classified by the RBST as critically endangered.

So why have these sheep been a presence in my life over the past 2 years that is second only to Woolsack?  Well actually, the person to blame is Felicity Ford (Felix on Ravelry) and I'm pretty sure she's forgotten a post she made in the Blacker & Beyond with FFSB group that I help to run on Ravelry.

Felix wanted Boreray yarn and I got hunting and found out that there wasn't any to be had.  Now one of the clever things you can do on Rav is a search of forum posts, and the Boreray search in B&B has really brought back memories for me.  Helen posted that she knew of a flock of Borerays and sent me contact details.  I followed this up and in February 2011 a box of Boreray fleece was on its way to me.  I wrote in a post that I was expecting that it could be used for felt and I might make a Woolsack felted cushion with it.

We had Boreray as Sheep of the Week in B&B, so I did some research and came up with some links.
Sheep of St Kilda
Gaerllwyd Flocks 
Soay & Boreray Sheep Society 

I was fascinated by Boreray sheep - and then the box of fleeces arrived!
  Fortunately the same day my March 2011 copy of Yarnmaker Magazine arrived with a very comprehensive article, written by Elizabeth Lovick, about how to assess a fleece. There is also information about assessing fleeces written by Elizabeth in her Starting Spindle Spinning CD   (Detailed instructions with plenty of photos showing you want to look for when buying a fleece on the hoof or in a ball. A table of the different types of breeds of British sheep and their main uses to the hand spinner is included)

Using this information I started looking closely at the fleece from the box and realised it was something rather special and exciting.  There was everything from the roughest, hairiest, most kempy fibre you could imagine to fibre finer than anything I'd seen or handled before.  These little sheep had within each fleece a fibre suitable for every purpose.