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.
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!