Written for Cumbria Life.
The suns out so it’s shearing time for the sheep. It’s a warm job for man and beast but very satisfying. Because we use the wool to make knitting yarn or sell it to other businesses, we take great care to try and keep it as free from debris as possible. Grass, Bracken and straw are almost impossible to clean out of the wool when it’s processed. Each breed of sheep is separated and sheared in their group to avoid cross contamination of the fleece. It is then bagged up in wool sacks and compacted as much as possible. Because of its natural springy nature, Cheviot wool is hard to squash into the bags so we climb on top and trample it down as its filled. Teeswater and Blue Face Leicester, because of the long luscious locks are very easy to compact. A sheet full of Teeswater wool can weigh close to two hundred kilos whereas one of Cheviot will be seventy or eighty.
I’ve always wondered why the wool sacks, or sheets, as they are called, were such a strange shape; long and narrow, like a mattress. And like a mattress, they are difficult to manoeuvre. But it seems they were designed this way so they could be strapped to either side of a pony and transported to the wool merchant. It could be a rural myth but it would make sense.
Once sheared the lambs don’t recognise their mums for a while, running round shouting in distress as mum shouts back.
You can almost hear them thinking, “She smells like mum and sounds like mum but I don’t recognise her”. Thankfully the chaos is not long lasting and the commotion settles down but it’s advisable to keep them in a small field after shearing so it’s easier for them to find each other.
“Fashion is Agriculture,” said Kate.
I was in a meeting with Kate Stalker from Oubas Knitwear, Zoe Fletcher, a wool researcher with a PHD in British Wool, and Gloria Mazzer who recently started Woven Beyond after feeling like the fashion brands she has worked for, green wash their sustainability credentials. We were meeting online to talk about what motivates us to work with wool, what our aims are, and in what ways we can support each other. It was a lively, passionate discussion but that statement, ‘Fashion is Agriculture,’ made us all pause. Living and working on a farm, a lot of what fills our dinner plate is what we have reared ourselves, but many of the farmers we know have nevereaten, or rarely eat,their own produce. In terms of wool, I bet even fewer wear their own flock. We often hear that people are disconnected from where their food comes from, but there’s an even bigger disconnect from the clothes on our backs. Consumers have normalised this disconnect, including us farmers. Zoe brought up the point that even the sheep breed societies sell synthetic ‘fleece’ jackets and hoodies, and just have their sheep breed logo embroidered on them. They could be producing wool fleeces from the sheep they love and promote. Actually, I don’t know why they’re allowed to call them ‘fleece’ jackets. Should they not be called petroleum jackets?
All four of us in that meeting want to see changes in how wool is used, and how it is valued. I started up our wool brand Shear Delight because I was shocked at how little the British Wool Board paid John for his wool clip; so little for so much work. The price for Cheviot wool this year is £0.25 per kilo (each fleece weighing roughly 1-2kg), and it costs us £1.50 to shear each sheep. Many farmers burn their wool clip rather than waste time and effort bagging them up and delivering them to a depot. When the wool is checked, the price per kilo can come down even further as money is deducted for fleece not wrapped properly or if the quality is less than perfect. One farmer told me that for nearly a ton of wool, after transport costs, she got £8 back from the Wool Board. But I know that there are designers, like Kate, that want to support British wool. They struggle to buy wool with any real provenance because there isn’t a big enough demand for the Wool Board to take any notice of their needs. We hope we can work in this gap. Gloria, Zoe and I, working together as ’The Flock’. We want to work with designers to source British wool yarn directly from farmers, pay them a better price for their wool and bring them in to the story of the garments being sold. Kate has stared that journey already by working with our farm to develop yarns she can use to create a new knitwear range. Hopefully this winter I will be wearing a jumper from our flock at Nibthwaite, knitted by Kate in Ulverston.