Embracing our Heritage: Hand Spun Wool from Rare British Breeds

With the Royal wedding this weekend, I thought I'd keep it British in this week's blog! This won't be a royalist rant though, just a quick run through of one of the topics I could talk about for hours, British wool - in my opinion some of the most varied and beautiful wool in the world.

Natural Colours in British Sheep

The British breeds of sheep are amongst the most colourful breeds around. During my degree I spent hours collecting and collating samples of raw wool from rare breed flocks, seeing the huge variation in natural colours is something that will always be special to me. The deep bitter chocolate through to the true inkiness of the Black Welsh Mountain sheep fleece. Far far more than 50 shades of grey from the adorable Herdwick pictured below. Stunning honey coloured locks from the six horned Manx Loaghtan, and of course, the most colourful sheep of all, the Shetland.

Herdwick Sheep showing varying grey coat colour

Herdwick Sheep showing varying grey coat colour

 

Dyed and Undyed Wool

Whilst all of the wool used at Lana is sustainably sourced and processed following extremely high environmental standards, there is no doubt that the undyed Shetland wool is the one to choose for the fiercely sustainably minded. Stripping wool down to white and then dyeing, naturally involves chemicals, and whilst I'm not for a second suggesting we all wear only naturally occurring undyed colours, maybe just for a beanie or a jumper it might be a nice idea? There are a dozen officially recognised colours (and endless blends) to choose from after all!

Shetland sheep showing huge range of colour.

Shetland sheep showing huge range of colour.

 

Hand Spinning Wool

Once the sheep have been shorn its time to spin - spinning being part of the prompt to write this blog. I received a truly gorgeous collection of limited edition, handspun skeins of yarn the other day from Bright Moon studio and it took me back to my first attempts at using a spinning wheel. The texture of handspun yarn is unlike anything a machine can replicate, the yarns I received (picture below) are wonderfully slubby, thick and thin, loose and tight and with an almost watercolour dye quality. 

The Bright Moon yarn corner, handspun, ethical and natural

The Bright Moon yarn corner, handspun, ethical and natural

 

Rare Breed British Sheep

Sadly over the past couple of decades, wool from British breeds had become so poorly paid for that farmers were burning or burying their fleeces instead of going through the laborious process of finishing them. It's partly thanks to independent spinners like Imogen that British wool is seeing a resurgeance once more. However the people with the real buying power are the ones that need to be convinced. Sue Blacker of Blacker yarns started paying twice the price per fleece and set up her own organic spinners in Cornwall, its now trebled in size, showing that there really is a market for British wool. Such a market in fact, that our rare breed sheep are being saved from the brink of extinction by this renewed interest in the unique qualities that only British breeds can offer. 

The unique coat of the Wensleydale sheep, from West End Wensleydales

The unique coat of the Wensleydale sheep, from West End Wensleydales

 

Looking back only a couple of hundred years, British wool was amongst the most highly prized in existence. The long lustrous locks of the Wensleydale were selectively bred in the 1700s for the length of staple and incredible sheen, particularly good fleeces sold for seriously large sums of money. Nowadays there is an obsession with Merino, don't get me wrong, its soft, but the more textured British wool is less and less commonly seen. In fact it wasn't too long ago that farmers were being offered less than £2 a fleece, it's a real cause for celebration that this is changing!

If this quick read has piqued your interest, then a good way of supporting local industry is to buy from small spinners or yarn producers using British wool. For the more adventurous why not talk to farmers about buying some wool to try spinning yourself? Many farmers will provide wool cheaply and there's nothing more satisfying than knitting with something you've spun yourself. For Brighton locals, the Sussex Spinner's Guild often runs workshops, but with the rising popularity of this ancient craft, it's an accessible pastime to try anywhere in the country. Happy spinning (or knitting, or crochet... or weaving!)