Magnus Holborn on Harvesting and Processing Wool
Tonight we’re having another chat with Magnus Holborn from Foula. We asked him a few questions about his flock and how he harvests and processes his wool. All pictures in this blog post are ©Magnus Holborn and used with his kind permission.
A view of Foula from the ferry
Hi Magnus! Earlier this Wovember we enjoyed reading the Q&A you had with Kate Davies in October. We would like to hear some more about your gorgeous wool. First of all, does the wool all come from your own flock?
Magnus: We use the wool from our own flock and we also buy fleeces from the other crofters on the island.
A couple of fine Foula sheep, enjoying a sheepy snack
Wovember: Can you tell us a little bit more about your flock, from our chat at Shetland Wool Week I understand you inherited it from your father, and you down-sized. How has taking on the Foula Wool adventure changed this?
Magnus: Yes I inherited my father’s flock of sheep. A flock of sheep will tend to have their own identity, a combination of the traits of the individual sheep and the characteristics that the shepherd selects in their breeding stock. The different flocks are closely linked to the crofts they are raised on and local knowledge can usually trace the origin of the flock back to an individual who had a particular preference. It is quite common to talk about a flock of sheep that belonged to someone who died many years ago and conclude with the present keeper of that persons sheep, even though logically it is not the same sheep, it is just the same characteristics and traits that are still present. The lifespan of an individual sheep is only about ten years, but the lifespan of someone’s flock can be hundreds of years, provided the flock passes to someone who cares for it.
My father had a large flock of sheep, which demanded a lot of commitment. The lamb and wool prices were really terrible when I took over his flock so I started to reduce the numbers to something more easily manageable. A few years later and things have changed again, we have started selling our own wool straight to hand knitters and I am trying to build the flock back up again, but focussing solely on wool production this time. I don’t sell any lambs for meat at all and I am not planning to either.
Wovember: Some of our readers will have seen the hand-shearing video you put up on YouTube. Why do you prefer shearing by hand?
Magnus: Hand shearing is one of our traditional crofting skills and I want to see it survive. It is the way that I was taught to shear and I hope it will be the way that I teach my own children too. There are also some good advantages to hand shearing. You have better control over where you clip in the separation between the old and new fleece. This lets you leave more of the new wool on the sheep, which is better from an animal welfare point of view in our relatively harsh environment. More new wool on the sheep means there is less in the fleece that you send off to the mill, which is also good as the new wool fibres are usually too short to make it into the finished yarn anyway so there is less waste overall.
I like to keep things as simple as the need to be and it doesn’t get much simpler than a pair of hand shears. So long as you keep them sharp then there is not much that can go wrong with them and they don’t cost so much to operate. A couple of jam sandwiches and bottle of gingerbeer usually gets the job done !
Magnus in action with his shears
Wovember: Once you have your clip, it obviously needs to be made ready for spinning. Which parts of this process do you do yourself, and what do you do and/or leave to others?
Magnus: We do all the grading, shading and sorting of the fleeces on the island so that we only end up shipping wool to the mill that will come back to us again as yarn. It is quite laborious but well worth the effort in the long run.
Wovember: As Foula is so far north, I understand you have to shear your sheep very late in the season. What does implications does this have?
Magnus: Yes this is true, compared to other sheep keepers in the UK we do shear our sheep later in the season. This is to do with the weather, as we have to wait a bit longer for the natural separation between the fleeces to form. The downside of this is that we always seem to end up at the backend of a que at the spinning mill, we will need to find a way to compensate for this in the future so that we don’t risk running out of yarn again like we did this year.
One Foula sheep ready for its haircut
Wovember: Your yarn is 3-ply in construction, giving a heavy Double-Knit weight yarn; why did you choose this, and are you planning any other weights?
Magnus: Our DK yarn was a bit of a shot in the dark I suppose. There did not seem to be a local Shetland yarn in a DK weight and I’m not really sure why. We discussed the different yarn weights with the mill owner and he was very happy to try and spin a DK yarn from our fleeces, so we thought we would give this a try. Our DK yarn knits up quite quickly and produces functional garments that will keep you warm and that seemed to make a lot sense to us up here on our windswept Isle.
We would love to see Foula Wool available in some other weights too, so that is something for us to aim for in the future. At the moment we still have to find the balance between how much fleece is available on the island in each different Foula Wool shade and the demand that we have from hand knitters for our DK yarn.
Foula sheep are one of the few breeds which shows some ewes with horns, testiment to how old this strain of sheep is
Magnus, many thanks for sharing your views on hand shearing and giving us an insight in how you process your clip.