Friday, 28 August 2015

Preparing and Hand Spinning a Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Fleece

I've been told Black Welsh Mountain sheep fleece commands a higher price from the Wool Marketing Board, because carpet manufacturers need only add a little dye to make a proper black for the details in their designs.  Mmm, the operative word in that sentence is carpet. Though Black Welsh may have the deepest natural colour of any wool, having handled a few fleeces in past years, I can confirm it is typically harsh to the touch.  
At the Glynogwr Show a couple of weeks ago, taking advantage of my location in the Wool Tent, I sidled over from the spinning display to have a grope of the entries in the Best Fleece Competition.  Looking at them, I was sure one just had to be a Black Welsh Mountain, then on stroking the shorn underside, I had my doubts.  Far too soft.  
The owner had also entered the livestock competitions with the 'Show Crew' from his flock and was pleased to have me check their fleeces, getting in the pen and practically cuddling any sheep that would tolerate it.  He selects his breeding stock for softness of fleece as well as meat production, simply because he prefers to handle a finer wool.  There followed a highly enthusiastic conversation and an offer to spin some wool for his mother to knit in return for a couple of fleeces.  A plan was made for me to drive up to the farm the next morning to go through the wool sack, since it was due to be collected shortly.
I hesitate at my own temerity, but for the first time ever, I will take issue with that deeply admired and most treasured reference of spinners, The Fleece and Fibre Source Book.  It says that Black Welsh Mountain sheep don't go grey with age and don't have much kemp.  Some do, you know. I speak as one who has got all the way to the bottom of a six fleece deep sack.  
I quite agree that the staple length varies between 5-10cm and the locks are dense and firm, blonder only at the tips. The crimp is disorganised but tight, giving an elastic, bouncy spring to the locks when you stretch them out.  Since the raw wool has little lanolin, it was easy to get straight in there, card rolags and spin long draw.  I made a skein of 2 ply and heated it up to 80 degrees with plenty of detergent, three hot rinses, thwacked it about  to full the wool and soon as it was dry, I knitted up a sample swatch.  Which was not as soft as I remembered the fleece had felt.  Damn.
I stumped down to the kitchen to have a moan to my companion, Elinor Gotland, on the subject of what to do with a ball of rather fuzzy, slightly dandrufty yarn with a modest amount of prickly kemp that the longdraw method had caused to protrude from the knitting at itchy angles.

"Fancy a cup of tea, Beaut? Kettle's just boiled."  Elinor had company, her aunt, Mord Black Welsh.  "I've said she should stay with us, while she refits her boat."
"You're very welcome, Maud. Where are you moored?"
"I'm by here, bach."
Elinor spelled it out for me.  "The boat's on the Ogwr Fach and her name's M-O-R-D  Mord, short for Shwmae Mordwywr, and that's Hallo Sailor, in Welsh. Lambs in Glynogwr said it to wind her up when she was building her first 
I thought it simpler to move the conversation on.
"Is that a withy trap pot you have with you?  I don't think I've ever cooked a lobster."
Mord grinned and Elinor roared with laughter.  
"That's a crab she's got in there, he's called Baetio. A nice little simmer would do him good.  Less of a pet, more of a pest, isn't he Mord?"
"You mind your manners, Elinor, my girl, or he'll be out of there, nipping at your britch, just like he did when you were an uppity shearling, calling your auntie names."

We took the car up the valley to fetch the boat next day.  Mord rested her hooves on a drystone wall and gazed out, over Bridgend, across the Bristol Channel.  There is quite a bit of grey in her fleece and could be she just needed a breather; on a clear enough day to see all the way to the Somerset coast, her old eyes had a contemplation of things even farther off.  
"Was it this view, tempted you to go to sea?" I ventured.
"Not so much to sea, bach, I just had a hunger to see Porthcawl lighthouse. Carried on around the coastline, haven't stopped since.  Fair play, there's still a living to be had on the estuaries.  Hard going against the current, though, lucky I've got myself a proper sail boat now. Or I did, til the flood. Nets are gone and the sail's in rags."  She strode on with such vigour I had trouble keeping up.
Back home, Mord had a look at my spinning and suggested I combed the Black 
Welsh Mountain to get the kemp out.  Spun with short forward draw to smooth the fibres, my second yarn sample was much less fuzzy and the knitted fabric smoother to handle, ok for a jumper.  Mord sat with me, spinning some Welsh Mountain Crossbreed fleece, saying she liked plenty of kemp to make her sail and net weaving durable and waterproof.   I think she approved of my Japanese Indigo dye job, too, as she felted herself a new Sou'wester while she was at it. 
"It's going to take a month of 
Sundays combing enough balls of wool to give the farmer's mother, before I get to use any of this fleece myself.  Love the colour, but I can't understand where all that softness went."
"If it's soft you're after, why aren't you spinning the good fleece?"
"What, the one I left in the bag from the Fleece Competition?  But I went to choose this one, specially."
"Oh aye, dark in the barn, was it, bach?"
"Well, I remember I was a bit frazzled that morning, after backing the car into a lump of concrete on the yard."
"You didn't pick a shearling fleece, that's all I can say.  Look at the tips of those staples. If it was a first shearing, they'd be pointed, not blunt."
Mystery solved.  At least I found out which fleece to use before I sent samples to friends ready for the Tour of British Fleece. 
Mord has finished her spinning and weaving and it's all hooves on deck. We went down to Ogmore By Sea to wave her off on her tour along the South Wales coast, sailing the refitted 'Sea Change' down to the Gower for the cockle picking and laver, then on to Carmarthen for the Celtic Coastline Open Challenge I am already looking forward to seeing her come back up the River Ogwr.

Though I am not so sure Elinor will be as glad to see Baetio.


  1. Lovely blog post. Thank you for sharing with us

    1. My pleasure, thanks for responding. I've since been told that the wool used for Viking sails came from sheep that had been roo'd, as the natural fleece break point is waterproof, while cut fibre ends from shearing are not. Isn't life fascinating?

  2. I love your blogs. The things 'your' sheep get up to . . .

  3. Thanks :) Mord got to Carmarthen ok, we visited her yesterday, good to see the rigging intact.