Friday, 3 July 2015

Preparing and Spinning a Portland Sheep Fleece

One year ago, at the Weald and Downland Rare and Traditional Breed Show, I bought a Portland fleece. They are quite small sheep and the fleeces on sale weighed about 1.5kg, with a staple length of about 8cm. The one I had was finer than most, open and quite soft to handle.
Seeing that the crimp was not defined throughout, I guessed Portland would be a Down type wool, it seemed to me to have much in common with the Dorset Poll I had spun the year before. Just like the Dorset, Portland was not inclined to felt.  Stuffed loosely into a pillow case, it went through the wool cycle in my washing machine, then straight into the bath to soak for 24 hours 
in 10% by weight alum solution. Once it had dried, this fleece formed my supply of ready mordanted fibre for plant dye experiments and leftover afterbaths.   Last summer's blogs featured portions of Portland fleece in many shades of yellow, orange, pink, grey and of course, beige.  But what to do with the various small quantities, including many frankly unattractive results? Apart from being multicoloured,
even the most good tempered fleece is no longer at its best after simmering in dye baths, then spending a winter compacted into a sack under the bed. While clearing out, I was half ready to chuck the lot on the compost heap, so taking the Portland to Spinning Camp was a last resort.
"Go on then, Beaut.  You go and ask your spinning friends to come and have a look at it.  I'll just stop here, do my knitting and keep an eye on things."  
My companion, Elinor Gotland, was more concerned not to let other commodities preserved from past summers go to waste.

Thanks to friends, I learned to use a fleece picker, which rapidly pulled apart even the most matted locks of wool.  As they emerged in a fluffed up state, handfuls were munched up by a David Barnett drum carder and turned into batts.  I made no attempt to pick out the neps, only put the fibres once through the carder, and didn't bother cleaning it in between colours. In one long morning of manic activity, the whole fleece was transformed into a great pile of batts and in the process, I started to untangle my own wooly thinking about changes I am making. Though far           from being smoothly aligned, 
the rough batts still made the dyed fibres look far more interesting. Even the grey stuff had greenish tones and variations. Suddenly, I was keen to spin it all up and excited about the outcome. Tearing the batts into strips and rolling up sections into a form of rolag, I stuck to practising backward drafting and letting in the twist to make lumpy, semi-woolen singles. A day and a half of furious pedalling on Roger, my 
Ashford Traveller spinning wheel, turned the Portland fleece into skeins of bulky two ply yarn and also soothed some of my jitteriness, though probably, the good company and the damson gin had more significant effects. My favourite skeins are the 'humbug' ones, a mixture including a strip from every batt in each single, randomly plied.  Yet another inspiring idea from a very clever friend. 
Back home from camp, I sat in the garden admiring the fruits of my labours, while Elinor went to inspect our damson tree.  I called to her, across the lawn.
"When I bought this fleece, the lady at the show told me that according to folklore, the Portland breed started in the sixteenth century with Spanish sheep, rescued from the wreck of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel."
"Implausible, Beaut.  There were a couple of sea battles off Portland Bill, but the Armada was really defeated by the weather.  Those ships were blown off course round Scotland and driven onto rocks on the east coast of Ireland."  She sniffed distainfully. "Your damsons are still tiny green things, nowhere near ripe."  
Elinor disappeared off indoors for a moody, post camp flake out.  It must have done her good, as she emerged with a new surge of vitality.  Next day, instead of staying up on the headland to read her book and have a smoke, she actually climbed down the rocks to the beach, where I was treated to a virtuoso re-enactment of 'The Perils of Paloma, Piscatorial Progenitor of the Portlands.'


  1. Oh Fran, you really must publish all these bloggs as one volume, they are just wonderful.
    The lifeboat ring is floatatious (new word). I can see rows of sheep lined up ready to take a dip, bedecked in bouyant rings and armbands...
    Any thoughts on what to make with your lovely yarns.

    Susan in Pembrokeshire.

    1. Like the new word, must tell Elinor. My sister just came up with 'flaptitude', for people whose general attitude for life is panic. I'm well on with weaving a cushion cover from all the yarn.