Part of a series introducing some of the places and people we’ve come across since moving to Scotland. Some you may already know but, more often than not, they will be new to you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do…
I recently had the chance to talk to Sariann Lehrer of Chopped Ginger about a project that she’s got going over the past few months…
A chef and cookbook writer, Sariann grew up on a working New England farm and then attended the University of Vermont, where she became involved in the local food and small agriculture movements and spent time working on a dairy farm. She’s also a keen knitter who, on moving to Scotland last year, was overwhelmed at the abundance of sheep in the countryside, the native sheep breeds, and the connection to agriculture that so much of the US lacked.
After noticing that there was a lot of focus on the end product of wool farming- that is, the yarns that we all love so much- and very little on the farmers who care for the land and animals that produce them, Sariann took the plunge and contacted small flock shepherds across the UK to launch the Wool Project. In her own words, the Wool Project “focuses on connecting knitters and the recipients of knitwear with where their wool comes from, the importance of keeping traditional small farming alive, and the integral role that we as yarn consumers have in saving heritage and rare breeds here in Britain”.
Sariann has bought 20kg each of fleeces from four different growers and is producing a small batch of yarn from each of them, to highlight both the value and beauty of each breed and the work that the individual growers are doing to sustain them as wool breeds. She launched the project a couple of months ago with her Wensleydale yarn, has just released a Teeswater yarn and will bring out both Gotland and Bluefaced Leicester yarns over the coming few months.
Sariann strikes me as the kind of woman who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or her heart broken, a good thing for the driver of a venture that many may say is too difficult in the current market. So many UK-based mills have closed in the last 20 years that there are few medium or large yarn companies still having their yarn spun here. But it is encouraging to see that there is a growing number of small fibre growers and individuals using specialist mills to produce small-batch yarns, enough to sustain a number of specialist processors and mills, such as the Natural Fibre Company and the Border Mill, who Sariann decided to work with. Her reasoning was threefold; the Border Mill is based nearby in the beautiful Scottish Borders, owners Juliet and John are happy to work with many different types of fleece and to process any quantity, from a single fleece upwards, and they specialise in alpaca fleece, which has long, smooth fibres similar to many of the breeds she is working with.
A little about the breeds and end products of the first two batches…
Chopped Ginger Wensleydale
The Fa’side flock was started by Susan and Ian Brash, with their purchase of three Black Wensleydale foundation ewes, and has grown to include a separate flock of White Wensleydale sheep. The Rare Breed Survival Trust lists Wensleydale sheep as “at risk” on their register, meaning there are between 900 and 1,500 registered sheep in Britain. Fa’side Wensleydales are meticulously bred and registered each year, with the hope of preserving and growing the breed.
The Wensleydale breed originated in North Yorkshire in the early 19th century with the crossing of a since-extinct, local longwool ewe and a Dishley Leicester tup. Unlike most sheep breeds, the lineage can be traced directly back to one ram, Bluecap, born in East Appleton, five miles from Bedale in North Yorkshire. Developed as a dual-purpose breed, Wensleydales still carry the characteristics of the founding tup: dark skin, excellent quality of wool and large size.
A separate register was started in 1994 for black lambs, and the number of registered ewes has been quite volatile, with 88 registered in 1999, which has since declined. The black wool colour is a double recessive trait and is impossible to predict within a white herd. Historically the dark lambs were culled to avoid contaminating the valuable clip with their dark fibres. However, these unpredictable black lambs from white herds have become a valuable resource for the small number of Black Wensleydale herds, as they widen the gene pool and lessen the likelihood of inbreeding.
Wensleydale fibre is very strong but soft, lustrous and especially beautiful in its naturally coloured forms. Yarn made from it has lots of drape and silkiness and, although it develops a slight halo, shows up texture well.
Chopped Ginger Teeswater
Tunstall Teeswaters are a small but dedicated breeding farm, located in Captain Cook country, with one aim- to keep the Teeswater breed alive and to help remove them from category 3 (vulnerable) of the Rare Breeds Survival watch list. When the small flock was started a number of years ago, the breed was at category 2 (endangered) on the RBS list, so the Tunstall shepherds like to think they have gone some way towards achieving their aim. Today Tunstall-homebred lambs are located as far south as South Devon and as far north as Aberdeenshire.
The Teeswater breed is descended from longwool sheep brought over to Britain during the Roman invasion. Initially, they were used to crossbreed with the highland and hill sheep to create larger, fatter sheep suitable for lamb production on gentler, more fertile land. There are records of Teeswaters being exported to Tasmania, Australia, in the early 1800s and they were also bred into Leicester Longwool flocks to improve the breed. When Teeswater ewes were crossed with the Dishley Leicester Longwool ram named Bluecap, the offspring were the origins of the Wensleydale breed. With the rise of the Wensleydale sheep, Teeswater numbers began to decline, until the 1920s when the breed was nearly extinct. The Teeswater Sheep Breeding Association and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust have worked hard to keep the breed alive, supporting farms like Tunstall Teeswaters to ensure that Britain does not lose this historic breed.
Teeswater fibre is incredibly lustrous, strong but soft and has extremely long fibres of up to 30cm. Yarn made from it has the sheen of silk and lots of drape and shows up texture well.
You’ll have to wait a couple of months to see the next instalment of Chopped Ginger Wool but here is a sneak preview of one of the handsome sheep contributing to the next batch…
Sariann has been really pleased with the results of the first two batches; the lustre and smoothness of both Wensleydale and Teeswater fibres have been highlighted by the processing and spinning and the resulting yarns are smooth, strong and drapey… I’m really looking forward to seeing what projects these beautiful yarns inspire. Sariann’s aim is to eventually buy the entire clip from some of her growers, thus ensuring the continuation of their flocks and an ongoing supply of these beautiful fibres.
As for what I’m going to do with mine, I think I’ll stockpile it until all four are released and then use them together… perhaps a striped shawl?!