Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Shropshire Down Sheep

The Shropshire Sheep is part of the Downs family of sheep and was on the watch-list of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust but has recently clawed its way back up in numbers and numbers have increased by more than 5% in the past year (at the time of writing).

All of the breeds in the Downs family have coloured faces and lower legs from a tannish brown through dark brown or dark grey through black and are free from horns.  Breeds in the Downs family are Dorset Down, Hampshire Down (Hampshires), Oxford Down (Oxfords), Shropshire, Southdown and Suffolk.

The sheep are primarily raised for their meat as they are quite large sheep and produce lambs prolifically, often having twins or triplets and so their fleece are often sheared and sold for commercial uses.

Shropshire Ram

Traditionally the fleece should be white and should not contain any coloured fibres although some farmers have cultivated those that do have coloured fibres in their fleece and are now able to produce Downs sheep with coloured fleece.

The term "Down" in connection with this family of sheep does not refer to the fibre called "Down", which is the softest, finest undercoat that some animals grow, but rather to the geographical area from where the sheep originate, which are the downs or downlands of southern England.

Now, back to writing specifically about the Shropshire, the staple length is relatively short at 2-4 inches, is springy with great elasticity and strength and so is fantastic for making hats, socks, mittens, blankets and sweaters.  It does not have lustre and is very matte in the finish but does take dye very nicely and it doesn't felt very easily, making it great for items that need to be washed often.  Raw fleece will generally weigh 2-4.5Kg from a Ewe and up to around 6.4Kg from a Ram.  Shorter fleeces are best carded but if you find one that is longer, then it can be successfully combed.

Shropshire Ewe

Monday, 30 March 2015

Ryeland and Coloured Ryeland Sheep

Ryelands are said to have been named after the fields of ryegrass that they grazed on in Herefordshire back in the 1300's, when they were raised by monks.  The Ryeland is one of the oldest breeds of sheep in Britain and had one of the finest wools of the time.  Queen Elizabeth I was given some stockings made from Ryeland wool in the 16th Century and from then on stockings made from any other wool were not too well received.

Today, the fleece of the Ryeland is not not as fine as it originally was, having being crossed with other breeds to increase meat production, but they do still produce a relatively fine and fluffy fleece which is probably best spun woollen style due the loft and good elasticity of the wool.  It can be spun worsted style too if that is your preference, which will make a lightweight yarn with a smooth finish and will be more durable than a woollen-style yarn.  Ryeland fleece does not felt as easily as most other wools and so is very good for items that need a lot of washing.  You can dye Ryeland fleece of both varieties and the fleece will produce a lovely matte finish.  Just remember that when dyeing the coloured fleece it is best to choose a stronger darker colour for best results.

Regular "white" Ryeland Sheep

British Ryelands are relatively small sheep, compared to some other breeds, producing a fleece of 2-3Kg with a staple length of around 2-5 inches, although generally more 3-4 inches.  British Ryelands also have a gene which can produce offspring with dark coloured fleece.  These are not referred to as "black" due to the fact that the coloured fleece may have many different colours in them including black, various shades of grey and brown.  Other strains of Ryeland, such as Australian Ryeland, do not have the coloured gene.

Coloured Ryeland Sheep, these ones are predominantly brown.

Coloured Ryeland Sheep showing how mottled the colour can be.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Teeswater Sheep

The Teeswater sheep is a British breed of sheep from Teesdale in the County of Durham in the north of England and named after the River Tees, which meanders for approximately 85 miles from Cross Fell, which is the highest summit in the Pennines, to the North Sea and is breed primarily for its meat.  It is part of the English Longwool family of sheep and is categorised as "vulnerable" by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which means that there are between 500-900 breeding females in the UK.


The fleece should have long, lustrous, shiny locks which hang down individually without clumping or matting and is free from any dark fibres and kemp.  The wool is uniform throughout the fleece and is a warm white in colour once washed.

Fleece can vary between about 3.4Kg and 8.2Kg with the staple length (length of the locks) between 12 and 15 inches.  Some farmers shear this breed twice a year and produce fleece with a staple length of around 6 inches.

The locks can be used unspun to make a fleece rug, presumably weaving into a base fabric and I am sure details on how to do this can be found online.  It is often used to make dolls hair too.

For spinning, the locks can be flicked open but is probably best prepared by using Wool Combs and taking very long strokes with the combs because of the length of the staple.  When spinning any longwool fleece it is best to take your time and keep your hands far enough apart to keep the draft area light and open and your grip on the fibre light else it will clump up in your hands.  Spun with care, Teeswater will produce a beautiful fine yarn with lots of lustre and drape without being stiff or scratchy and will give good stitch definition.  It will take dye beautifully because of the lustre.


Friday, 6 March 2015

Teeswater x Shetland Fleece

This is another fleece that is a cross-breed, this time its a Teeswater crossed with a Shetland.  An interesting fleece as you have the long wavy lustrous locks of the Teeswater combined with the shorter, softer, highly crimped locks of the Shetland.  This came from a farm close to Yeovil in Somerset in July 2012.

It arrived weighing 1.8kg and after a quick sort and washing weighed 1.45kg.


The next job was to turn this beautiful fleece into spinnable fibre using my wool combs.  That was a big job but I thoroughly enjoyed it as its a beautiful fleece to work with.  Yeah, that's me holding my big bag of hand combed top just after I had finished combing the last of the fleece.  It took me about 3 weeks to comb my way through the entire fleece, starting on 19th January and finishing on 11th February but I didn't work solely on this, I had other things to do as well.  I got 955g of hand combed nests to spin, which is about 66% yield from this fleece.


I started spinning on 12th February and this was an absolute joy to spin.  It took me a full 7 days to spin the three skeins shown in the photo below, which has beautiful lustre, just look at that shine and that's not flash white-out as I took the photo without the flash being on.  The skeins are in need of their final bath though.


I finished spinning this fleece on 5th March and I got 9 skeins of yarn from this fleece, totalling 912g after their final baths which washed out any remaining dirt and lanolin.  Here is just one of those skeins in close up.


This will make a beautiful bridal shawl one day.