Katherine Hamnett is making rare sheep chic, writes Matthew Brace
There was uproar in the barn. Ewes and their lambs paced in the straw, sending dust floating up through the rays of sunlight. Their bleats were loud and piercing. Gina III, a heavily pregnant ewe, was about to give birth. Her waters had broken and two of her lamb's hooves could be seen protruding from between her legs. One of the world's rarest breeds of sheep was about to have its numbers boosted.

The flock's owner, Sally Holton, looked tense. She encouraged Gina III: "Come on, old girl, it'll be a lot better once you get it over with." But it was taking too long: something was wrong. Mrs Holton hurdled the low wall of Gina III's enclosure, held her firmly by the scruff of the neck, grabbed the lamb's hooves and began to pull. In a flash, two lambs were lying bewildered and blinking in the sunlight, being licked clean by their mother.

They were the new generation of Wensleydales and their wool, bloody and straw-caked at birth, was destined to cloak the shoulders of supermodels on the catwalks of London, Paris and Milan. Mrs Holton's flock, bred solely for their wool, have captured the imagination of the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, who cannot get enough of the silky, lustrous fleeces with their long wool.

The outspoken designer who created the fashion of slogan T-shirts calling on people to "Preserve the Rainforests" has turned to grass roots in the English countryside to seek out environmentally-friendly materials for her knitwear.

"The wool is exceptionally soft," says Katharine Hamnett. "The quality is wonderful, more like mohair. We are delighted with the results."

Some of her designs using Wensleydale wool were paraded at the Winter 1993/94 Milan fashion show. "Next to Armani and Gucci, there were our little bits of knitwear running up and down," Mrs Holton recalls.

Her wool is about as ecologically sound as raw materials get. The sheep are reared traditionally and organically in the Somerset village of Stoke sub Hamdon.

"We don't like this crash-bang-wallop style of today's farming," she says. "We don't even use a dog. When we are gathering them up, all we have to do is call them and they come running."

The farm uses no synthetic chemicals or antibiotics and practices homeopathy rather than conventional medicine. Once the sheep are shorn, the wool is then washed, combed and spun, avoiding all the chemical processes of conventional wool production. The dyes all come from plants growing locally, which Mrs Holton gathers by hand. Most afternoons you can catch sight of her rummaging through the hedgerows along the banks of Ham Hill, overlooking the village.

The floor of Mrs Holton's office, in a cramped farm outbuilding next to her home, is cluttered with steel bowls full of soaking green walnuts, tree bark, gnarled roots and petals. "We experiment, using old recipes from the 1600s for our dyes. We really don't know what we'll get when we soak various twigs or herbs. It's very exciting."

She dips her hand into a sweet jar full of colourless, bone-dry lichen. "This is oak moss. If you ferment this in natural ammonia - you know, urine - for about two weeks, the water will turn the deepest emperor purple. But if you boiled it now it would be bright yellow," she says. "So every shank of wool or knitted garment we produce has its own unique colour." She runs through a line of coloured shanks of wool hanging by the wall: onion-skin orange, woad blue and others.

The Holton-Hamnett partnership has meant that at a time when many rare breeds of farm animal are on the brink of extinction, this line, at least, is being saved. Wensleydales are described by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as being "at risk". If their numbers drop further they will become "vulnerable", then "endangered", and finally "critical", before vanishing, taking with them 200 years of farming history.

Long-wool Wensleydales can be traced back to the late 18th century when their ancestors would have been plentiful across England, although the family tree of the white wool sheep, from which Wensleydales have come, dates even further back, before records were kept - to Roman times when, it is thought, they were introduced to Britain.

The Trust's national field officer, Peter King, believes that Mrs Holton's flock is proof of the worth of rare breeds. "The link with fashion can only do good for the breed and for rare breeds in general, and it helps to explode the myth that breeds are rare because they are useless," he says.

"Rare breeds are every bit as valuable as stately homes. Each one has fascinating attributes. None of us can say what will be needed in 100 years' time, so the more biodiversity in farm animals we have, the better."

Mrs Holton is proud to have deliberately discarded modern methods and returned to the roots of rural tradition. "One of the reasons we do this is to show that we can produce a top-class product in a chemical-free environment. You can be commercially viable just by changing back to older, traditional ways," she says.

"I just can't stand the state that we have all got to, the way we live our lives. The way we have lost touch with nature and with reality. Everyone seems to be out for themselves, moving faster and faster and not caring about the world around them."

However, business does demand a certain amount of modern thought. Mrs Holton does own a fax machine, which lately has been spitting out valuable orders from buyers in Taiwan - the home of synthetic goods - who are interested in her home-grown wool and Hamnett's designs, and willing to pay large amounts for them. Enough to keep Gina III's two new lambs in homeopathic medicine for quite a while.

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