Lesley Prior on Working with Wool

WOVEMBER readers are already well acquainted with Lesley Prior of Devon Fine Fibres and may remember her from previous posts, and also from the wonderful snippets we shared of life on her farm during ‘Growing Wool‘ earlier this month. This second batch of posts cropped from Lesley’s superb blog is all about the different sorts of work that Lesley does with wool.

Lesley’s Bowmont Merinos outside the Royal Academy, representing fine British Wool during Wool Week 2013, part of the Campaign for Wool

I’ve tried here to get a good cross-section across the different sorts of work that Lesley does with wool (we have already explored some of the work involved in growing it) which involves hosting students at her farm; making public appearances with her sheep; and participating in events like ‘Wool House’ designed to promote and celebrate the value and wonder of wool. There is a single question and answer after each one, so that WOVEMBER readers have the latest updates on the tuition of Sustainable Textiles in Fashion; the genius of the Solidwool chair made by Justin Floyd and spotted at Wool House; and what birds do with the fibres Lesley grows! Unless otherwise stated, all photos and content © Lesley Prior and used here with kind permission

January 30, 2013 – Textile students, help yourselves!

I’m sure I’m not the only supplier of niche, high quality British yarns and fibres who gets inundated with requests from students doing their Final Year Collections. It’s a regular annual event:

These sentences show the APPALLING ignorance of fashion students.
“Can you send me samples of your wool cloth please? On cones?”
“How much do I want? Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t a clue and there’s no one at College I could ask.”
“What type of yarn? Are there different types then?”
All absolutely genuine!!!

It’s very clear that students are not always being taught the basics of type and production of natural fibres and the yarns they make. Nor are they being taught cutting skills, apparently – all that is left to an ageing band of Technicians taught in the Old Days while the students spend time designing round their computer screens.
To my mind, designing ANYTHING without a fundamental grasp of the raw material you will make it with is a nonsense and does nobody any good. The student, who may be an amazing talent, will be working blind, not knowing what he could technically do with the material, and the supplier may be blamed for supplying yarns/fibres/cloth which don’t do the job they are being asked to do.

However just occasionally I get one who asks for specific things relevant to my range i.e. Bowmont Merino yarn, Cashmere yarn or the raw material of both. They will tell me WHY they want MY stuff and what its value will be within their collection.

These students I will bend over backwards to help, offering them what I have and often at a discount even though I cannot really afford to do so. Students are the future, and the bright, innovative ones who have thought about WHAT and WHY they want certain fibres and yarns and have done their research properly are to be encouraged at every turn. They give glimmers of hope for the future!

Typical Bowmont Merino fleece

WOVEMBER: I sympathise with your frustrations at textile students apparently being taught very little about WOOL in fashion college; surely some of the mis-labelled and mis-described garments which WOVEMBER campaigns against arise out of a culture in which these aspects of textile production are not being explored in enough depth in education? One of the reasons we have established WOVEMBER is to guard against the widespread ignorance surrounding this amazing textile and all of the different possibilities that it offers. Particularly inspiring for WOVEMBER are situations when people write to say that they have learnt something new about wool or been inspired to try something else with this amazing textile on account of reading something we’ve assembled here… I wondered if you have any stories where textile students visiting your farm have obviously learned loads or been particularly inspired by seeing the source of textiles in the landscape, and whether you could tell us about one such occasion?

Lesley: The visit from the group of students from the University of Colorado has to stand out. They were on a European tour and specifically asked to come and see me. Huge honour and a pleasure. They were doing a specific degree entitled Sustainable Textiles in Fashion and although they knew a huge amount of theory (probably more than UK Fashion and Texitle students would know at undergrad level) they had no real understanding of the reality of wool production and how sheep fit into the landscape. Lots of questions arose from that and I think they learned a lot. A great visit and huge fun.

March 18, 2013 – Wool Triumphant

I spent Tuesday to Saturday at Somerset House in London helping to run Wool House, (on until 24th March so go along!) the major Campaign For Wool event of the year. Well, what can I say? I was absolutely blown away by the room sets, the carpets we walked on, the fashion and tailoring etc.



You might expect me to say that but it’s true. Even I, as a fully paid up member of the Wool Lovers Club was truly astonished at the versatility of wool. From solid, fibreglass-substitute chairs and acoustic noise baffling wall panels to the finest, most exquisite and complex woven cloth for suiting, it was a revelation.

On top of that we had marvellous craft exhibits – Jason Collingwood weaving incredible rugs, masterclasses in Shetland Lace and Fairisle knitting, all helped along by a team of great spinners I had organised.

Visitors came from all over the world. I had arranged to meet Australian Sheep Farmer of the Year Michael Blake there and show him my wool which I’m delighted to say he thought was great – excuse the little cock-a-doodle-do of joy! He was not the only Australian there and visitors from Uruguay, all places in Europe and the USA have signed our visitors’ book so far.

Their comments have been lovely. “Amazing, unbelievable, inspiring, thought-provoking, etc”.

WOVEMBER: I loved your infectiously celebratory report on WOOL HOUSE! In your work with ‘Growing Wool’ you obviously are breeding for quality and fineness of wool, and to continue the work established by the Macaulay Instititute. The Bowmont wool you are focussed on growing has very specific applications and puts you firmly into the world of fine woollen textile production. However there are many other types of wool with many other types of applications; what was the most surprising and/or inspiring use of wool that you have spotted in WOOL HOUSE?

Lesley: Definitely Justin Floyd’s Solidwool chair. He had approached me for help developing the project and I managed to get him a spot in Wool House to show it off – recognising that this has huge potential when it comes to using poorer quality wools that can be difficult to sell otherwise. I’m looking forward to seeing him go great places with this.

The Hembury Chair from Solidwool photo © Justin Floyd and used with kind permission

June 18, 2013 – A Working Life

Lesley’s desk

I looked on my windowsill in my work area just now and thought how neatly the collection of objects there summed up the working life of this place.

Combs in the centre top – note the complete absence of cards of any kind – raw cashmere behind them from a young goat, a cone winder, my microscope – out permanently now the animals have been grazing for a while to allow me to check for worm eggs as pictured next to the scope. To the left of that are my Health Certificates for MV/CAE and Scrapie and some info leaflets about my animals. On top are skeins of my cashmere and, to the left, some of my raw Bowmont Merino left over from a sample sent off for testing. To the left is a small ball of dyed cashmere – a sample done while completing an order for someone. Further left is a 20ml syringe, used commonly when treating the goats or sheep for worms – we never use drenching guns here.

In front of all of them is a my collapsed skein winder – faithful friend during long hours of winding off interminable lengths of yarn for various orders and then, at the top left, is a little cashmere lined Long Tailed Tit’s nest – reminding me constantly that we and our animals are not the only creatures living here.

All in all, a neat summation of the life of this place and the rounded nature of the work I do. How lucky can one person be?

WOVEMBER: You mention a lovely thing in this post about your working life – a bird’s nest lined with fibres taken from your very special flock of animals! I wondered if you could tell us about when you found the nest, and what it was like to discover that the birds in the area around your farm are using the fibres you grow in their own lives?

Lesley: The nest was found under a conifer tree on our driveway. It had clearly fallen out perhaps after a windy day. Yes it was lovely to think the birds were making use of the fibres. Puts our valuation of luxury firmly in its place. Birds see these precious fibres simply as nesting material. It’s us that puts the high price on them.

WOVEMBER: I am reminded by the nest and your thoughts on it of a lovely post that you wrote featuring photos of foxes and badgers taken by your son. This post reflects beautifully on the relationship that you and your farm animals have with the indigenous wildlife on your farm; I’ll close with a lovely quote from that piece, and with the gorgeous Fox Cub photo that you sent in, because for me this perfectly summarises that ‘Working with Wool’ can be done in time and in harmony with the natural world; Thank you, Lesley.

Fox cub, photographed by Lesley Prior’s son

When we see photos like these, taken in “our” woods, we are even more conscious of our true place here on the farm. We are temporary residents. Our 10 years here is as nothing to the age-old eco-system which exists, and has existed here since just after the last Ice Age when the Ancient Woodland became established. It has survived past episodes of global warming and cooling, predation by man and wolves and everything the modern age can throw at it – so far. It is up to us to ensure we pass on this precious inheritance for the generations who will follow us as stewards of this land.

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

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