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Friday, 6 December 2013

Hand Spinning and Dyeing Herdwick Sheep Fleece

This is not just any Herdwick sheep, this is UK564083 00014. She is a two crop ewe, (three years old) and had two lambs on 10 May 2013.  On 14 May she was shorn and on 24 October, I bought her fleece for £4.
It arrived in a box, carefully rolled so it was easy to lay back out again.
Fully skirted, hardly a twig or seed left in her wool, the locks were open with no matting, all the greys from almost black to practically white.   I have never received such a beautifully presented fleece, let alone had the opportunity to pick one from a selection of photos or been given details about the sheep themselves.  If you would like to buy a Herdwick fleece, I recommend you contact scocha on Ravelry.  She keeps other breeds too.  The photo above is shown with her permission.

The long fibres are crisp and wavy, rather than tightly crimped, with a shorter, finer layer at the base.  Though this sheep lived in Scotland, the breed originated in the Lake District. I had read that Herdwick sheds water more efficiently than other fleece and can confirm that scoured skeins dry out in no time.  What a good strategy for a rainy climate - instead of producing oils to waterproof their wool, Herdwicks simply don't get wet. Visions of UK564083 00014 tossing aside an umbrella and giving it a bit of the old Gene Kelly - Singin' in the Rain.  Anthropomorphism?  Beatrix Potter, eat your heart out.

Combing the locks did not go well. The undercoat got separated out with other shorter fibres, but drafting roving off the comb was frustrating.  The fibres did not want to drag a continuous flow behind them, so I kept getting handfuls of one staple length.  

Carding makes a bouncy rolag. Using high twist, it is quite feasible to woolen spin a fingering weight yarn. 

Being such clean, dry open locks, spinning from the fold was a delight.  First time I have been able to spin without so much as flicking tips with the dog brush. No preparation was needed before spinning an 'artistic' aran or chunky wool - what a pleasure to work straight from the fleece! All credit to scocha, who clearly knows what a spinner values.

I divided the wool into darker and lighter halves.  As the top photo shows, darker locks came from the chest and shoulders and the dark yarn proved softer.  I've done very little dying on naturally sheep coloured wool, which is lovely anyway. However, I did wonder what the effect might be on the lighter yarn.  I had just fermented the lichen I collected after the October storms.

Since the dye was ready to use, I brewed up a vat for a couple of the paler skeins.  The picture above shows the three colours and weights of yarn I had to choose from.

A good looking hat was featured in this month's Purl Two Together news.  This struck me as the perfect purpose for wool that doesn't get wet.  Better still, the Novi Hat pattern by LThingies is free.  I used the softer, darker wool spun about aran weight, coming down to a 4mm hook to get the right tension. The needlefelted brooch is made with Dorset Poll fleece from the same dyebath, so you can compare how the grey fibres sadden the colour relative to the effect on white fleece. Some comparisons are odious.  There will be no comments about the wool looking better on the sheep.


  1. WOW Fran, you've excelled yourself again - that hat is superb!

    1. It's a cracking pattern which works as a fedora as well. Thanks :)

    2. btw your tip about plastic bottle rings against slugs has worked a treat on the second wave of weld seedlings

    3. Yeahhhhh!!! The only time mine have failed is when my cat knocks them and the slugs can get under the gap.

  2. Gorgeous and I bet it's really warm too!

  3. Oh Fran, I'm so pleased you've made that hat, I fully intend to make one for myself and it's lovely to see your result. Thanks for another great post, you're so creative :-)

    1. It's all derivative really, thanks for the many inspirations.