Category: sheep & wool

shearing day

shearing dayshearing dayIt’s a chilly Autumn morning, at the start of October last year. We’re stood shivering in the yard of a local mountain barn, wellies on our feet, scarves wrapped round our necks, the baby bundled up beneath layers of cardigans nestled on my chest. The farmer and his helpers have been up to their elbows in sheep and wool since first thing. The yard smells of machine oil, manure and sweat. The trimmers buzz, the sheep bleet loudly as they scrabble around on the cobblestones and the workers say very little. The air is thick with dust and fibres, and as a light drizzle starts to fall, I wonder if it really was a good idea for us to bring the baby up to this barn this morning. But he is unperturbed by all the excitement and sleeping soundly in the scarf, no doubt lulled off to sleep by the whirring of the shears and the shouting of the men as they wrangle each ewe from the barn and across to where the shearer is working furiously.

” Numero 50017. 50176. 10237, laisse le cou.”

“ Numbers 50017. 50176. 10237, leave her neck.”

It takes less than two minutes for the shearer to undress each sheep. The farmer and two of his helpers gather up fleeces as they fall from the animal to the ground. After a few minutes, the farmer approaches me, with what looks like a cloud in his arms. All be it, a very grimy cloud, covered in bits of straw and dung. He gestures to me to touch and I reach out across the gate. The wool is still warm from the sheep. Running my fingers through the locks, I imagine this must be what it feels like to pluck just-laid eggs from a hen’s nest. Oddly intimate. A few seconds ago this fleece was part of a living animal, protecting it from the elements all year long.

For this sheep farmer, who raises his flock not for the spinning mill but rather the slaughter house, shearing day is the end of the production line (for the wool) and just another necessary aspect (and expense) to his farming year Now the wool has been removed from the sheep, it’s status as a protective covering for an agricultural product (sheep) has been reduced, to that of a category 3 animal by-product. Current EU legislation sees no difference between the sack of warm fleeces in the farm yard and catering waste, slaughter house waste & “former food”. Meaning it’s value as a precious, renewable and sustainable agricultural resource has depreciated to that of an item of (at worst) hazardous agricultural waste or (at best) an animal by-product. At least the wool from this clip, destined to be turned into thick woollen blankets by the local blanket makers, is still considered valuable enough to just about pay for the expense of the shearer. But sadly it is not the case for many farmers and their fleeces here in France, in my native Britain, indeed all across the EU. Often just the cost of transport versus what a farmer is paid for raw fleece often makes it economically invalid to send wool to be spun in mills. Which for a local wool enthusiast like me seems like a very sorry state of affairs.

By half past ten, the men are halfway through the flock and they pause briefly to drink a slurp of coffee, brought out on a tray by the farmer’s wife. If she is nonplussed to find an British girl in waterproofs stood somewhat awkwardly in a corner of the farm yard, she is surprised to discover I have a three month old baby snuggled up on my chest. Before we are allowed to leave, she ushers us in to the cosy warmth of the adjoining barn, where a fire is burning merrily in the grate and a big pot of garbure (the local hearty mutton stew) has been slowly bubbling since first light. The shearing will soon be over, but the day is not yet finished. The men (and lone lady shearer…) will soon be joined by various wives and family members to sit down and enjoy a hearty lunch by the fire as the freshly shorn sheep are left shivering out in the drizzle. Twice we are invited to stay and join them at their table. As tempting as it is, the babe is starting to stir and we’d rather get back down to the valley. We don’t leave empty handed however. As we prepare to leave, the farmer hands me three bags full of lovely greasy fleeces (2 white fleeces & 2 black) to take with me back down the mountain.

fleece

Raw fleece

For the past two years, corners of our house have been filled with bags of greasy, dirty, lanolin covered fleeces, gathered directly from local farms at shearing time. Little by little, I have been working my way through them, learning as I go about skirting & sorting but also experimenting with a variety of scouring processes. Every stage is an opportunity to learn something new, even when I get things ‘wrong’. And therefore further expand my knowledge of these rawest of materials. This knowledge guides my feet & fingers when sat at the wheel making yarn, but also when I am preparing for a knitting or crochet project.  There seem to be as many variations within individual fleeces as there are between the different breeds of sheep who have kindly gifted me their woolly coats. I know I am still far from unravelling all the mysteries of wool & fleece!

sheep

baregeoise-1

It 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 2014 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. Living in a sheep rearing valley in the French Pyrénées, it was possible to spin yarn from sheep I’ve met. 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 I 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.

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

An idea was cast on in the back of my mind about the middle of 2014. 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 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 Pyrenean valley 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.

wool stories

Slow Wool from the French Pyrénées

And so here we are once again at the start of Wovember – a month dedicated to the pursuit of celebrating & exploring wool for what it is and all those fabulous folks who produce it. It’s a subject very close to my heart: wool and the way we interact with it. So I’ve decided to start gathering some of my own woolly discoveries together with you in a regular post – Wool Stories. It will feature tales of the wool and wool producers that I’ve encountered, discovered & gathered here in France, in my own native country of Britain. And perhaps sometimes further afield.

Like any practice, both growing & working with wool can be done in a quick, easy, chemically assisted (!), harmful way. Or it can be done slowly, naturally, lovingly. Personally I choose the latter (for various reasons which I’ll talk about later in the month) and I’m drawn to other people who have chosen the same path. We seem to be kindred spirits, people who create for pleasure, discovery and to reduce our environmental impact. Because as Joanne so rightly commented last year, “Wovember everyday!”.

I can’t wait to share more soon! Until then, I can highly recommend taking a little trip over to the Wovember blog to see what’s happening this year…or to the archives to explore a wealth of wondrous woolly resources.

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growth

gardeningWhenever we’re in Brittany, we spend as much time as possible outside in parent-in-laws garden and their little allotment, situated on the old family farm. My beau père is a keen veggie grower and it’s always a joy to be sent off with a bucket and fork to dig up some spuds for lunch.
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This time, I tied the babe on me, pulled on my wellies and took him to watch his grandpère getting grubbing on a chilly January afternoon. Come the spring, when our man will be starting to eat, he’ll be out here again sowing the seeds of the summer crop into the ground. And not long after that, we’ll be here again, those seedlings will have already grown and we’ll be harvesting them with him tied on our backs. Or if he’s already toddling by that time, that he’ll be helping us pick.
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