Is keeping sheep to make your own jumper a step too far?
You recycle your rubbish, grow your own veg and eat organic. But is keeping sheep to make a jumper a step too far? Sanjida O'Connell takes up the shears to decide for herself
Thursday 31 July 2008
Lucy is looking at me out of the corner of one eye and seems distinctly nervous. Apparently she'll be fine if I look confident and grab her. By flinging my arm round her neck and chucking in a martial arts-type manoeuvre, I should have her sitting on her haunches, ready for inspection.
Lucy is a white-faced sheep that is helping me to learn how to go from keeping my own sheep to producing a jumper – with a bit of help from Nick Cox, assistant farm manager at The Magdalen Project, an organic farm and education centre in Dorset.
Cox runs courses on sheep-keeping in conjunction with the Soil Association, aimed at those who've got a plot of land and are hoping the good life will follow. "Most of us have experienced the environment as children but as adults, it's all too easy to lose that connection with the natural world," says Gyles Morris, director of the project. "As a result, we've seen a revival in rural crafts and food courses as many of us are trying to re-engage with nature."
In these leaner, greener times, more of us are feeling the need to make do and mend, whether it's re-upholstering the sofa, baking bread or raiding charity shops. But how much more satisfying to go from an animal in your back yard to a jumper on your back? This has to be the antithesis of throw-away fashion.
At least, that's the theory. Lucy is teething, which may be why she's giving me such a jaundiced look. Lambs have small milk teeth and, like humans, they're replaced by adult teeth, until their teeth start to fall out after eight years. I ask Cox if it's true that sheep are stupid and he says it is. It's also true, apparently, that they have suicidal tendencies. "Sheep are not animals you can put in a paddock and leave. I can guarantee that if you left a bit of string hanging from that fence, she'd try to hang herself."
This part of Dorset used to be thick with sheep and was the centre of the woollen industry until the 16th century. Then Yorkshire mechanised and the north's "dark Satanic mills" proliferated. Dorset now has the highest number of alpaca of any county and we're wearing Gortex, polyester, nylon, Lycra, Capilene and the odd bit of cashmere. Certainly not wool. It now costs more to shear your sheep and transport the fleece to the Wool Marketing Board than the board pays for the wool. Currently, you'd be lucky to earn as much as £2.50 per fleece.
Keeping sheep as a small holder, eating the lambs and using the fleece, either as insulation or to make into jumpers or rugs, seems a viable option. But, as Cox points out, it's hard work and not cheap. A lamb costs £70 and you need a minimum of two so they're not lonely, and at least an acre of land. Surely, I think, all they need is grass and the odd bit of fly spray? Apparently not. You might need a dog if they're skittish, plus hurdles, buckets, a shed, soft food pellets, hay, worming equipment, toenail clippers, and shears for dagging (cutting off the muck around their bottom) – all of which adds up to about £700. Plus very good fences, the services of a ram, a trailer to transport lambs to the abattoir and a yearly visit from a shearer. After two to three years, however, you should be able to feed a family of four for a year on lamb and keep them warm in winter woollies.
"Once you get used to sheep, you become addicted to them," says Cox. Simon Rands, the farm manager, laughs: "It's an awful lot of work if you're looking for financial return. This has to be an animal you love."
So what is it about sheep that Cox finds so addictive? "I like to have a good-looking female for breeding and good-looking lambs ready for the abattoir. That's my driving force."
My next stop is Tony Smith, a spinner and weaver who lives in a cottage on the farm. He has one of last year's fleeces. It's surprisingly intact, and is yellow and white and oily, with sections that look as if a hairdresser had gone mad with a set of crimpers and, as you'd expect, is full of muck and straw. Smith uses about two-thirds of the fleece. We use wooden paddles with metal hooks to get rid of tangles and twigs. In the past this would have been done by children with the dried flower heads from teasels. I think, as I'm struggling, that wasn't such a bad idea.
Smith shows me how to use a spinning wheel; it's definitely a job for the co-ordinated. First, you have to keep the wheel turning by pressing a paddle with your foot (it's a lot harder than it looks), while allowing the wool to feed in to the spindle with your right hand and play out the carded wool with your left. As it is spinning, the wool twists and you have to prevent that corkscrew from passing the fingers of your right hand. My spin frequently ends up near my ears and the wool is thick and clotted and frequently tangled round the wheel.
Once you've spun your fleece, you can dye it. Smith uses dyer's broom, which gives a glorious golden yellow, madder root, which produces delicate reds and pinks, and onion skins, which turn the wool pale-orange. The wool from Jacob's sheep is naturally a rich chocolate brown; that from Shetland Isle, a brooding grey.
The next step is to knit your wool. Unfortunately, mine is way too lumpy. Smith's is even yet coarse, because that's what he prefers for his rugs and hangings. A single fleece could provide three or four jumpers or a couple of rugs. The problem is, it takes ages. Smith has been spinning and weaving for 35 years and he has to spend three hours spinning enough wool to weave or knit for an hour. It takes three days to set up the loom: he has to string the linen warp vertically to create a framework for the rug. The weft is woven horizontally across the warp; it can take a further three days to create a large rug.
I think, as I slowly weave a shuttle of Shetland wool across the loom, you really have to love sheep...
Man's woolliest friend: facts about sheep
* Sheep are one of the earliest animals to have been domesticated and are most likely to have descended from the wild Asian mouflon.
* The word "sheep" originated in Middle English and is a derivation of the Old English word sceap.
* Males are known as rams, females as ewes and castrated males are wethers.
* Sheep have scent glands below their eyes, which are used during reproduction, and on their feet.
* Sheep are aged by the number of teeth they possess. Their first adult teeth come through from the age of 12 months, and thereafter in pairs every year until they have eight teeth at age eight, when they start to break and fall out.
* There are more than 200 breeds, including the most popular sheep for wool, the merino, and the carpet wool sheep, whose name is self-explanatory.
* Sheep's milk is ideal for cheese as it contains more fat and minerals than cow's milk. Feta, pecorino and manchego are all made from sheep's milk.
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