Here at Alfie Purl Yarns and Textiles, we believe in starting things from scratch. All our yarns are made from the fleeces of our beloved sheep, and we can tell you exactly whose wool is in a particular batch of yarn. Although I do hand-spin some yarns, the majority of them are spun by one of two mills,Diamond Fibres in East Sussex or the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall. Here’s a look at the start of the process!
We start in June, with the shearers coming to visit. We are fortunate to have wonderful, competent and friendly shearers who really respect our sheep and understand the way we do things. For us, the fleeces are the raw material for our business, not an annoying nuisance which have to be got rid of as quickly and cheaply as possible for the welfare of the sheep (as they are for many commercial shepherding operations). I don’t think shearing is pleasant for the sheep, but it is a necessary discomfort, and if they have confidence in the shearer it can be a lot less stressful for them. The older sheep, who have all been sheared many times before, know all about what is happening, and realise that they will feel much better once their fleeces are off. We take care to ensure that the sheep are all physically fit enough to be sheared; the flock is taken off the pasture the night before and kept in the barn, eating hay, so as to ensure that their rumens aren’t full of grass, which can be gassy and make them uncomfortable when being put into the positions the shearer needs them to adopt. We also make sure that we are there to reassure the sheep – it’s amazing what a difference that can make to them.
Tony, our Australian shearer, shears Oberon, a 2 year old pedigree Cotswold. You can see the clever sling he has, which protects his back from the strain of shearing hundreds of sheep in a day. Fortunately, he and his son Kim and daughter Emily had an easy day with our 28 sheep! You don’t get the impression, from a photograph, of how quickly and smoothly an experienced shearer can work. The sheep is never still, moving in a soothing rocking motion, and the shearer’s footwork is like a dance.
The fleeces are rolled up and are put into individual paper bags, labelled with each sheep’s name and the date, and are stored for a while, until we are ready to use them. This year, I have decided that the pedigree Cotswold fleeces will be going to Diamond Fibres, who specialise in longwool spinning, and who I know will do an amazing job. We can’t just bundle up the fleeces, though, and send them straight away – we have to sort them first.
Here’s a rolled up fleece on the table ready to be sorted. It came from Grace, a 2 year old pedigree Cotswold ewe who is one of my very favourites. We need to unroll it first, to get a look at it, but you can already see from this picture that it is very shiny and lustrous on the underside (this is the cut side, which was closest to the sheep’s body).
My good friend Mary loves sorting fleece! Here, she’s bouncing the fleece on the table before unrolling it. The bouncing helps it unravel freely.
Here’s the fully unrolled fleece. We have to remove all the matted bits, plus the very dirty stuff, and pick out any vegetable matter. The mill could do all that for us, but they would charge extra. It makes sense to only send them fleece they can actually use.
A close-up picture of the fleece. This one was from 2013, and to be honest it isn’t in terrific condition. But it is useable.
After these processes have been undertaken, the fleece is put in a bag ready to be taken to the mill. This 40kg batch comprises the pedigree Cotswold fleeces only; we’ll do the Lleyn and the cross-breed sheep separately.
The next process will be to take this batch of fleece to the mill. I’ll be contacting them and making arrangements for this to be done, and then we will head off to East Sussex to deliver the fleeces in person. I also need to decide exactly what I want to have made… but that’s another post.