An Snag Breac on Working with Wool

Yesterday we looked at closing the gap between producers and consumers of wool on a commercial scale, and at what knitwear designers and yarn shops can do to bring wool growers and knitters closer together. This is amazing! Tonight, though, we will take the concept of closing the gap to a domestic level by looking at the work of long-term WOVEMBER supporter and artist extraordinaire Caroline Walshe AKA An Snag Breac, who this year grew her first crop of wool, hand-processed it, and turned it into a garment which is truly representative of its wonderful sheepy provenance! Without further ado, here are writings and photos originally presented here and here with some additional commentary from our favourite Irish magpie! All content and photos © Caroline Walshe AKA An Snag Breac

As a knitter and spinner it’s been my dream for a long time to source my fleece right outside my own door. This finally came to be this year. We got sheep in November last year. We are lucky to have some amazing neighbours who breed Shetland-Jacob cross sheep and farm in fantastic ways. They gave us our sheep in exchange for my husband working on their small-holding. They have a small amount of animals that they raise to be very tame for easier handling, so our sheep are extremely friendly – in fact sometimes too friendly – it is hard to go for a walk in peace as they do have a tendency to mob you!

It has been a great journey the last year, getting to know these sheep, having to shear them and process their wool, and now sending them off to the ram for a wee while, awaiting our first lambs in five months time! Jake (a wether or castrated ram) remains here, and as if on cue is now bleating outside my window. He is lonely for his lady-friends, but there are a gang of rams and wethers coming over soon to stay for a guys holiday while the girls are away.

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Jake the wether!

Jake was bottle-reared. Our neighbours had fallen in love with him and did their best to convince us to take him for his lovely wool as long as we promised not to eat him! It didn’t take much convincing. Jake is a gorgeous sheep – beautifully natured and his wool is excellent. His was the first wool I used from the sheep, and I chose to use his wool alone to make one garment. There is something great about making a single-origin-sheep garment. When I show it to people I say: This is Jake! And to me it’s like it is him – our lively and friendly wether, that I am wearing about my neck.

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Jake and the shawl made from Jake

July 5, 2013 – Shearing Sheep

We put sheep coats on the flock early this year to make the most of their wool. It is definitely worthwhile in the Irish climate!

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Sheep in coats – the laughing stock of Roscommon!

Today, we uncovered the sheep one by one and the Amazing K sheared each one. Behold the un-coated fleece of dear Jake. As you can see the covered part of his fleece is so much cleaner than the uncovered section (to the left, on his bum.) So we are happy with the coats.

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The Amazing K in action, shearing with the most enormous set of vicious-looking hand-shears ever.

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Jake’s fleece.

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His wool is soooooo nice and soft, with a staple length of about 5.5″ and a beautiful even tight crimp.

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I immediately combed a lock out and spun it up into this lovely 2-ply yarn.

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11 wpi for those of you interested and very even and fine, easy to spin.

I had originally been thinking of making a jumper out of Jake – which I’m not sure I would’ve had enough usable fleece for after skirting him. But as the wool spun, it was clear something finer, a thinner yarn, would be more suitable. Perhaps a shawl?

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Rosebud was the first sheep to be shorn and as a result, there was an awful lot of second cut in her fleece – little annoying bumbles of fleece that have been cut twice and end up forming a little lump in your spun yarn.

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Also her fleece was shorter – due to us being a bit cautious with the shears – staple length of 4″ or so. Her fleece is more matted and difficult to comb out so produced a lumpier sample yarn when I spun it up.

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Someone was very interested in the bags of wool.

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I washed Jake’s fleece by placing it in mesh laundry bags and soaking it in hot water with a little detergent. Then I gently rinsed it out after a half an hour or so. I gently squashed the water out of it, and rolled it in a towel to squeeze as much water as I could out.

Even so, the tips remained dirty. I’ve been thinking of ways to combat this next year. Firstly, I think we will try putting the coats on earlier – we didn’t get them until January so there was a lot of dirt in their fleeces already. Secondly I would consider flick-carding the tips of his fleece either before the coat goes on, or before shearing. Jake is so tame that this would be okay with him. (Not so with the girls…)

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I used small combs to prepare the wool for spinning, and also this home-made hackle. (A load of nails stuck through a bit of wood.) I loaded it up with fibre, tips all facing out.

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After much trial I decided to just cut the tips off – it was much easier to use the rest of the fleece then, whereas with them on there was way too much combing involved and the fleece still came out dirty in places. If anyone has an interesting advice on dealing with a fleece with dirty tips please pass it on.

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I combed it out then and pulled it off the comb and rolled it up ready to spin. Mmmm… it’s like a cloud… all lanolin-smelling and soft and mushy… mmmmm…

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After shearing, the sheep were all suspicious of the “new” sheep – they don’t recognise each other with their new haircuts.

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Jake having a snack afterwards.

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The girls with their fresh haircuts.

All in all, it was a learning experience. The two tamer sheep weren’t too bad, but the two wilder ones were pretty unimpressed with the whole event and hard to manage.

In terms of wool, Jake’s wool is by far the best of the herd, the softest and least matted so I think he is where we will focus our efforts on wool protecting in future.

Now I have bags and bags of fleece to deal with and am wishing for more dry days so I can get it washed!

August 30, 2013 – Jake to Shawl… the result

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The shawl is finally finished! It’s hard to believe it actually went from this…

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…to this! (Obligatory cat shot.)

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I ended up with three shades of grey, and white and black.

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Starting with the black and working 2 rows of each colour I made a frankenshawl of two different patterns. I began by using the lace edging from Annis (Knitty pattern) sans nupps (working yo, k2tog instead) and then changed to a modified version of the Alma Ella Shawl (Ravelry link). But it worked well, and looks more interesting than just the Annis pattern.

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It’s a great feeling to have made something so lovely from our own sheep!! I would’ve liked to use more grey – I don’t usually wear white – but I wanted to keep this a single-origin-sheep garment.

The next things to be spun will probably end up being from different sheep. But for now I’m enjoying this one! Thanks Jake!!!

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Thank you so much for this amazing sheep to shawl story; WOVEMBER readers might remember that Caroline did a beautiful watercolour of sheep in her piece on WOVEMBER in 2011 which has in turn inspired another WOVEMBER reader to paint a ewe and her lamb on her wheel!

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You might also remember that Caroline has kindly supplied WOVEMBER with felted sheep prizes for the past two years running? Well this year – after a year of dealing with the realities of shepherding – she has kindly donated a 100% WOOL felting kit to our prize-pot for one lucky WOVEMBER photo-competition entrant, and this time it’s a fox because “you need something to chase the sheep”!

Thank you, C! x

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This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

8 thoughts on “An Snag Breac on Working with Wool

  1. I love the dark edge to the shawl, so nice to have it all made from one sheep 🙂

    To my very non-expert eye I thought the fleece looked a little felted when the coat was removed, which would explain why the tips gave such problems. No suggestions for a cure, but are the coats really needed?

  2. I have been spinning for a little over 30 years and have never owned wool combs, after seeing this piece I think I will get some. The shawl is so beautiful and the dark edges are wonderful . I need to coat my sheep too. Many thanks for such an interesting story. Carole

  3. Loved it, laughing stock is right 🙂 but to great advantage. Good job and thanks for taking time to document. Have done EVERYTHING with wool except keep sheep for it….I leave that to others. this was great!

  4. Thank you for documenting your work. It was very helpful and interesting. I like the baby wpi measure ruler. I have heard that you measure the crimp to determine the size of the needles to use with each individual fiber. For example, Jacob looks like it would be 8mm or max 11 size needle for knitting. Have you heard this?

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