Rachel Atkinson on Working with Wool
This evening on the cusp of Working with Wool and Wearing Wool, we hear from Rachel Atkinson whom many of you may know through her blog, My Life in Knitwear. Today she writes about the role that sheep have played in her life and her plans to spin fleece from her father’s flock into a hand knitting yarn.
MY LIFE IN KNITWEAR
Rachel Atkinson for Wovember 2015
For as long as I can remember there have been dogs in my life. Dad originally kept German Shepherds – there was Danny followed by Karl – whom he trained for police agility and recall events. After a growling incident in the back garden, Karl popped off and it wasn’t long before Dad came home with another dog to train, this time a Border Collie. We called her Beth and she was the first in a long line of sheepdogs to pass through our gates. With the Border Collies came the sheep and so my sister and I spent our early childhoods playing in fields watching Dad run the dogs and tend to his flock of Suffolks.
This all sounds very idyllic doesn’t it? What you probably don’t know, and what I think is quite unique about all of this, is that we have never lived on a farm. Home was a four-bed detached house on a new build estate in a Yorkshire mining village, and for his day job, Dad wholesaled his own line of ladies underwear and Mum sold houses. The animals were very much a hobby that paid for itself.
In exchange for grazing, Dad would move the sheep from field to field – Council owned land and waterworks treatment centres were the most memorable. With Spring came the lambs and every now and then he would breed a litter of pups who were kept under pig lamps in a brand-spanking new shed down the side of the house. More often than not lambing season would bring an orphaned lamb home to spend time in our back garden whilst it grew stronger. One lamb in particular – we named her Susie – became a pet and stayed with us at the house. Dropping her at the field to spend time with other animals was part of the morning school run; Mum driving, me and my sister on the back seat, and Susie sitting up front in the passenger seat of the old Mini.
The sheep were canny beggars and notorious for escaping at the most inopportune moment. This usually happened when Mum and Dad were dressed for a night on the tiles, or just as we were leaving to go out for the day or on special occasions such as Christmas morning. The phone would ring; “John, sheep are out”. More than once Dad was spotted herding his flock down the main street of the village, and I also seem to remember waking up one morning to find most of the flock in the garden grazing their way through the Mums flower borders. Never a dull moment!
Mum was always knitting – as a teenager she had a Saturday job in a wool shop and whilst we had the sheep and unrestricted access to a lot of raw fleece, I only ever remember her once spinning and knitting a sweater from it. If I recall correctly, she loathed every single minute of it and the finished jumper was so heavy and stiff that I don’t think Dad wore it. Both Mum and Grandma taught me to knit and after several years churning out 1980’s ‘mohair’ sweaters as I moved into my teenage years I left knitting behind. Mum and Dad had split up by this stage and the sheep had gone with him leaving just our old faithful dog Beth and us.
Fast-forward 25 years and I am fully immersed in the yarn world and Dad continues to breed and train Border Collies which have been sold as far afield as Norway, America, Canada and Japan. In addition to the dogs, he is now employed as a shepherd just outside York looking after a flock of Hebrideans raised and kept for conservation grazing.
These hardy sheep recognisable by their dark brown fleeces, fairly diminutive size and beautifully curled horns, are just coming off the rare breed list having almost vanished in the 1970s.
Shepherding is hard work and you are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I spent last weekend at Dad’s and as a reminder of days gone by, just as we are leaving the house to go to a dog trial, the phone rings with a report of a sheep stuck in a fence which needs attending to. As we arrive home after the trial there is a knock on the door and a report of a dog attack on a sheep, so off Dad goes again to sort it out. This is the seventh sheep (along with a deer) to be attacked in two weeks, and whilst this time the sheep is thankfully not too badly injured, some of the attacks are just horrific. Other fatal accidents he has had to deal with have been caused by gates being left open, leaving the sheep to wander out into the road. It’s simple countryside code, keep your dogs on leads around grazing flocks – the dog is never ‘just playing’ – and close the gate behind you.
The fleeces from the flock, which is now over 300 strong, last year raised a grand total of £9.40 from the British Wool Board, and with this ringing in my ears I took the decision to embark on a flock to yarn journey and see just what we could do with the fleeces. The Fleeced project launched in October to a rather fantastically overwhelming response and last week we delivered the sacks to the scourers marking the start of the spinning process.
After years in London leading a thoroughly ‘city life’, it feels slightly surreal and strange yet very, very right to have returned to the sheep and make them part of my life in knitwear once again.
All words and pictures © Rachel Atkinson and used here with permission. To follow the story of the Hebridean fleece becoming yarn, subscribe to My Life in Knitwear here.