The variety of British wools is amazing! For hundreds of years we have bred sheep to suit the type of land and to produce wool for a range of purposes. Some sheep even have two layers of wool to protect them from British winters - a tough, water-resistant outer layer over a softer insulating layer.
Not all sheep have white wool; some breeds are grey, or caramel brown, or a brown so dark it is almost black. Shetland sheep have many different colours of wool within the same flock, which means that patterned items can be made without the need for dyes.
So which wools do I use? That depends on what I am making. A silky-soft wool perfect for gloves would wear out really quickly if used for a rug or a bag. A smooth wool that works beautifully for a woven cushion cover may be too inflexible for a knitted beanie hat. Below is some information about the wool I use and the sheep that produce it.
Blue faced Leicester
The Blue-faced Leicester looks down it's long Roman nose at you. It is the skin which is dark blue/grey colour - the wool is white and curly, and one of the softest in the UK. As the wool is fine and smooth, it can be worn next to the skin. The weight and semi lustre of the wool makes a drapey yarn which reflects light softly, creating bright saturated shades when dyed.
The Castlemilk Moorit sheep is one of the RBST success stories.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the late Sir Jock Buchanan-Jardine began a breeding programme on his Castlemilk Estate in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Using Manx Loaghtan, Shetland and the wild Mouflon breeds, he developed a new breed of sheep. These were specifically to be ornamental on his parkland, and at the same time provide fine, kemp free "moorit" coloured wool to clothe his workers.
However, following his death in 1970 the flock was mostly culled! Just a few ewes and two rams were saved, and all today’s Castlemilk Moorits are descended from these few remaining sheep. With careful husbandry the flocks of these rare sheep have increased, so they are now only "At Risk" i.e. there are now 900 to 1500 females.
The wool of these special sheep is a lovely toffee brown colour; I use it for hats and gloves.
The Corriedale sheep was created by cross breeding Merino and Lincoln sheep for a breed that would thrive in lower rainfall areas. My Corriedale yarn comes from Falkland sheep which is spun in the UK.
The Exmoor Horn sheep of today are direct descendants of the horned sheep that roamed Exmoor for centuries.
“Exmoor horn” yarn is usually made up of 70% Exmoor Horn wool and 30% Exmoor Blueface wool, though there is a yarn made from 70% Exmoor Blueface sheep and 30% Bluefaced Leicester sheep fleeces. Ideal for cosy cushion covers.
Wool from the Falkland Islands comes from breeds of Corriedale, Polwarth and Merino sheep. Due to the climate, there are no flystrike problems on the Falklands, allowing for much higher animal welfare than Merino from other countries. No sheep dipping or "mulesing" is undertaken by Falkland Island farmers.
Hebridean sheep were otherwise known as St. Kilda sheep.
They are a small breed originally from Scotland, with dark brown or black wool which sometimes fades to brown at the tips in the sun. The fleece is actually a double coat: a soft insulating undercoat with a coarser, rain shedding top layer, but these layers are not always separated before processing. They are similar to other members of the North European short-tailed group, such as the Shetland and North Ronaldsay breeds. Both ewes and rams may have two, four, or even more horns.
I love the cheeky look of the Herdwick sheep with it's white face and sticking-out ears on a body of grey/brown wool. Herdwick sheep are widely considered to be the most hardy of all Britain’s breeds of hill sheep, with most flocks in the hilly western Lake District. These fells run to over three thousand feet and facing the westerly rain bearing winds. The Herdwick fleece is heavy and dense, with an undercoat of finer wool and a coarse rain-repellent outer layer. This hard-wearing wool is great for bags and rugs.
Jacobs sheep have both brown and white wool, and usually have four horns.
Known from Biblical times (hence their name), they originate from the Middle East, but are surprisingly hardy in Britain and are long-lived. They are easily over wintered outside and have fewer foot problems than many other breeds. The wool can be split into the separate colours, or blended together to make a mottled light grey/brown.
These striking sheep have four horns, similar to the Jacobs, but are toffee brown wool all over. Found primarily on the Isle of Man for which they are named. The wool makes lovely hats, and I also use it for cushion covers.
Named for the town in North Yorkshire, Masham sheep are created by crossing a Teeswater ram with a Swaledale or Dalesbred ewe. The result is a medium sized sheep with very long and lustrous fleece. They have been bred for over a century in the north of England. Lovely soft wool that I use for hats and gloves.
Red Fox Sheep are a hill breed and originate from Bavaria. They are rare in the UK, but there is a flock in Patterdale in the lake district.
The lambs are born red all over and then at 6 months old their wool turns a cream colour with red flecks. Their head and legs remain red.
The rare Ryeland sheep are small and chubby and the nearest in appearance to a teddy bear! They are mainly white with a few also coloured, so we can make white, dark and a blended natural shade. Ryeland sheep are from Herefordshire, and can be traced back to the thirteenth century when the monks of Leominster grazed them on fields of Rye – hence their name. The wool is medium soft and good for accessories and outer wear.
The Shetland is from the Scottish islands, one of the smallest British breeds. They produce fine soft wool in many natural shades of browns and greys as well as white, differing from sheep to sheep. Beautiful multi-coloured Fairisle designs can be produced without any need for dyes.Soft enough for hats and gloves, while firm enough for cushion covers.
The Wensleydale is from Yorkshire; it has long shiny, crinkly wool that looks like dreadlocks.
It is very soft and lustrous, my favourite for gloves. This is another breed of sheep on the RBST "At Risk" list, i.e. there are only 900 to 1500 females of this lovely sheep.
Not a sheep, but members of the same family as camels and llamas, however they are much gentler in nature.
Their super-soft fleece is ideal for sensitive skin, even for people who are sensitive to sheep's wool. Excellent for luxurious gloves, hats and scarves.
Recently they have been brought to the UK, and farmed here successfully. I support these specialist farms by only using British Alpaca yarn rather than imports.