Growing Wool

As you know, these first days of WOVEMBER are themed around Growing WOOL! Wool has its very foundations in the work of shepherds. This is an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the amazing work of WOOLGROWERS!

Sue Blacker who runs The Natural Fibre Company with her flock of Gotland Sheep, photo © Douglas Bence

Generally at this time of year the rams are being put with the ewes. In Cumbria, there is talk of the ewes “holding to the tup”. It all means the same thing: sheep funtimes!

It’s obvious that without those funtimes THERE WOULD BE NO WOOL, but it seems that how a shepherd matches their sheep is crucial to shaping the quality and character of the wool they produce. Barbara Parry explains this in her wonderful piece “The Ram is half the Sweater“:

When making my breeding groups, I’m working to enhance the best qualities of both ewes and ram.

Parsley’s offspring carry his legacy of his baby fine fiber, with crimp so fine, you almost need a magnifying glass to count it. Like mini-marshmallows, his lambs bear soft, dense fleeces with high yield. I’ll pair him with ewes of more open fleeces in hopes of increasing wool productivity.

Teaberry’s lambs often have their dad’s big, dark dreamy eyes and movie-star good looks. If I’m lucky they will also inherit the luminous white fleece, dynamic crimp and super long staple length of their sire.

Ultimately my hope is that the pairing of excellent ewes with rams who will enhance wool traits will result in an awesome bunch of lambs. They will in turn carry forward the most desirable yarn-defining characteristics. That’s the goal. In yarn farming the ram is not only half the flock, but also half the sweater.

– Barbara Parry, The Ram is Half The Sweater, Twist Collective

Last year during Wovember Diane Falck – The Spinning Shepherd – also alluded to the special place of the ram in the shepherd’s schemes, musing that wool begins in “the knowing sparkle in the eye of a ram”:

The special properties of sheep’s wool ensures it a place of honor among textile fibers.
But where does this exquisite fiber actually come from ?
What is the actual source of all those woolly balls of yarn that are used to create our lovely jumpers, scarves, and hats ?
For many a knitter, it all begins with a trip to the local yarn shop.
For the spinner, it’s a freshly shorn fleece.
But for the shepherd, it begins on a crisp autumn day.
With a cool breeze blowing… leaves crunching underfoot…
and the knowing sparkle in the eye of a ram…

– Diane Falck, WOVEMBER 2011

Dagobert – a fine Ouessant Ram, © Diane Falck

Also in this vein, Lesley Prior – who many of you might know from the excellent Devon Fine Fibres blog – talks about “Ram gold“, i.e. sheep semen stored “in the (semen) bank” to preserve the precious genetic qualities specific to her Bowmont flock:

“Ram gold” is sheep semen, in this case from two of my very best rams which will be frozen and preserved for future use in my sheep flock. It’s a very expensive business but for me with my precious flock of Bowmonts, its a no-brainer. I am doing my best to preserve and develop the work of the Macaulay Institute on these sheep and the only way to ensure their precious genetics do not vanish in the next Foot And Mouth epidemic is to take this rather clinical and cold approach to the joys of reproduction!

– Lesley Prior, Devon Fine Fibres

Bowmont Yearling Ram, photo © Lesley Prior

Yet as Barbara writes, The Ram is Half the Sweater. After the ewes have held to the ram, there is still much work to be done to get a WHOLE sweater! Over the next few days we will hear from many experienced and expressive woolgrowers – and also appreciators of woolgrowing- about the shepherding activities that lie at the heart of wool.

Luckily, shepherds are as varied as wool types, so there will be many voices and styles to this sheepiest phase of WOVEMBER 2012!

WOVEMBER hopes that you will enjoy this stage in “Closing the Gap”, and that you yourself may be inspired to wear more wool, enter our photo contest with your images of Growing Wool, sign our petition, or find some other way of celebrating what real wool is and where it comes from!

Our last sheep photo for the day is Ernie – a much loved wether from the Juniper Moon Farm flock.

Ernie, Juniper Moon Farm flock, © Susan Gibbs

Unlike the other boys in this post, Ernie was not kept for his WOOL-improving genes; he was a Cotswold sheep whom Susan Gibbs bottle fed as a tiny lamb. In fact, Ernie was one of Susie’s very first sheep. She didn’t want him to go for meat, and his fleece wasn’t quite right for Juniper Moon’s Fibre-producing purposes. He became – in Susan’s own words – a very expensive pet. WOVEMBER reckons, though, that as well as picking the right genes from the right rams to make the right wool, you need a brave heart to be a shepherd. Lesley touches on that in this gorgeous post, and this moving requiem for Ernie is a powerful reminder of the bond between shepherds and the animals they watch over. Surely that love and that bond are part of the sweater too, and also part of what makes wool WOOL?

Afterall, you don’t often read of folk crying over polyester.

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This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

12 thoughts on “Growing Wool

  1. I was nearly in tears with the poignancy of this post and then I snorted all over the keyboard with your last sentence. Seriously, though, this is truly eye-opening. I consider myself quite a thoughtful consumer but you and your shepherd friends have made me see how far I am from really understanding what goes into not just the woolly stuff I buy but actually everything else as well. Fantastic.

    • Thanks for your comment, Joanna. I felt that way when I saw Raymond Blanc giving his impassioned talk at Oxford, last April. He said “the problem with this country is we have separated our food from our lives”. When he said that I realised it was exactly how I feel about wool.

  2. as a long time reader of Susan’s blog, I am so happy for her to have “made the post.” She’s living the life we all need to attempt to, as you said in your reply, well, what MR. Blanc said, we have separated our food from our lives applies to much more than just food. And for anyone who doesn’t get your (very clever) last line, the need to read Susan’s post about Ernie. I never had the pleasure, but I still cried today re-reading her comments, following her links. From a wool point of view, unfortunately I live in Florida, but I will try and do better this month, and the months to follow, on living the life I should. Thanks for the post.

    • Oh dear, did I express myself badly? So sorry. I simply thought Felix did a marvellous job of exposing our disconnectedness by conjuring the picture of someone crying over polyester. I have indeed read Susan’s post and thought it was extraordinarily moving and made all the more so by the superb photography.

  3. I really enjoyed your post about growing wool, but cannot bring myself to read about Ernie as animal stories tend to make me teary!! Anyway, I’m all for wool and only spin ,knit,weave with wool.Thank you for Wovember, Felicity!!

  4. Ernie has been sorely missed in the Juniper Moon community…I almost hate to point it out, but half his exploits featured were because…

    …he wasn’t a ram.

    He was, in fact, the bellwether.

    How about that for the literal roots to an oft-used term, especially this time of year (here in the States)?

    • Oh yes, that’s right! I remember reading now that Ernie had been castrated, but being an urbanite still learning the ways of sheep, had somehow failed to make the connection between that and non-ram status! To me I guess ram just meant boy sheep even though I have heard of wethers! Thanks for pointing this out, I will make an edit so the information is right.

    • Thanks Joelle! I fixed it! I have heard of wethers as a term for castrated male sheep, I guess bell wether means the same thing? I wonder where the “bell” part comes from…

  5. Just came in from the pasture and read this post. I’m not sure I’d describe the look that my Imp has right now as a “knowing sparkle in the eye” – he is a young ram so at this time of year he’ll mount anything that will stand still long enough. Currently none of my girls are in heat so they won’t stand for him, so he is focusing his attention on ear licking and tummy nibbling. Hopefully one of the girls will go into heat soon so he can have a bit more satisfaction!

  6. Pingback: Wovember Words: Bellwether | Wovember

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