Monday, 8 September 2008

Herdwick sheep and scratchy wool

We have just got back a four-day escape to the Lake District. The idea was to celebrate mine and K's birthdays (which, believe it or not, were on Friday and Saturday respectively) at the top of some large mountain or other, but as I'm sure you all will have worked out by now, it rained. And then it rained some more. Finally, there was some rain, and all thoughts of climbing even fairly small mountains were shelved in favour of rather more modest rambles.

Being the intrepid lasses we are, we did manage a few smaller walks despite the endless downpours. I reckoned that it was an important step on K's path to genuine Britishness that she was heard to utter the words 'I think it might be getting brighter' on beholding a patch of sky that was a slightly lighter shade of grey and that she donned waterproofs and set out on a two hour walk even though it was already raining and showed absolutely no signs of letting up. Who needs a citizenship test? While we we on these slightly soggy walks, we met quite a lot of sheep.




These sheep are Herdwicks, the traditional breed of the Cumberland and Westmorland fells. Uk readers may remember that they were hit particularly hard by the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, not only because Cumbria was badly affected but because each flock is 'heafed' to a particular patch of mountainside, meaning that the farmers can allow them to graze freely after they have lambed in the Spring without having to worrying that they will end up somewhere they shouldn't be. Personally, I am incredibly glad that Herdwicks are still prevalent in Cumbria. Those who complain about British farmers (and I'm not saying that such complaints are always unreasonable) should still remember that they do a lot of invisible work in keeping the landscape looking the way it does - I for one do not especially want a Lake District covered in birch scrub. In any case, they are an attractive breed and very much part of traditional Cumbrian heritage. And I'm told they taste nice.

There is only one problem; they are completely uneconomical to keep. They are bred mostly for their meat, but since they only have one lamb, it is hard for them to compete with other upland breeds like Swaledales which reliably have two lambs even in fairly harsh conditions. Their wool, although extremely hardy and warm, is practically unused, to the extent a few years ago, the British Wool association offered to pay farmers a penny a kilo for their wool 'as a goodwill gesture'. People want mohair and cashmere, apparently, and the only reason that Herdwicks ultimate survive as a commercial breed is because of government grants and because many of the farms are owned by the National Trust and are obliged, thanks to Beatrix Potter (a well-known Cumbrian sheep-farmer), to keep Herdwicks on their land.

But what about people who like scratchy, smelly wool? I admit that this is not to everyone's taste, but as readers of earlier posts might have noticed, I actually like the kind of wool that still looks and smells like it once belonged to a sheep, and there's nothing like a slightly scratchy and hard-wearing jumper for a day in the garden, a Sunday afternoon welly walk or just an afternoon curled up in front of the fire with a cup of tea. I was therefore extremely pleased to discover another new range of 'plain' wools on a rainy Saturday morning in Keswick. To my mind, these are even better than Sirdar's eco-wool, because they are produced from exactly those British breeds that struggle to find a market for their wool - including Herdwicks!

So for anyone else out there who doesn't mind a few tickles in their jumpers, allow me to recommend these to you. Not only these yarns plain, simple and hard-wearing, but they help Cumbrian farmers keep their beautiful landscape exactly as it is known and loved.

Now all I need to do is to find a decently plain knitting pattern to match...



9 comments:

silverpebble said...

Hurray for the herdwicks! A symbol of stoicism if ever there was one. I love their rough grey wool - I'd buy a herdwick hat any day of the week. WOnderful that it's sold in balls like that one. I want to know what you make!!

carolyn Boehle said...

Herdwick wool is wonderful for felting, both needle felting and wet felting.

andrea roe said...

help I am trying to buy a herdwick jumper or wool to replace my husbands favourite jumper which was unfortunate enough to have been put on a hot wash. every year I get the same old "do you remeber my favourite jumper" question? and I have decided to either buy one or knit one any one have any idea where I can buy the knitting yarn or said jumper?

Denise said...

Loved your post, it made me smile! On a bit of a mission to champion Herdwick wool. We have made some yummy cushions using Herdwick and lamb nappa, lets see how they sell!

Mokosh said...

I am just about to spin up a small bit of Herdwick wool as I stumbled upon your post. It is smelly (but like you I like to smell sheep in my rovings), it is scratchy but not as bad as Black Welsh Mountain. It is sad that only the more luxurious/ finer fibres like cashmere or merino are sought after as I do find a charm in the traditional breeds. I understand that it is the softness that is the appeal but some character, historical novelty or practicality can do the job as well.

At the moment I'm working through some British wool samples to get an idea of the other fibres out there. I am enjoying the feel and texture of the wool, how it spins up and knits.

Nice to read the post! And a 'hello' from Australia :)

Devon girl said...

I have a wonderful pattern book from the 1970s for Herdwick wool published by the National Trust. I can vouch that the wool never wears out and is extremely weatherproof, the lanolin also leaves your hands soft as you knit it

Elizabeth Moon said...

Herdwick wool makes incredible warm socks, much warmer than you'd expect from the yarn weight. Though it seems scratchy at first touch, I find that the lanolin in it soothes my hands as I work (and feet as I wear the socks.) Unfortunately, my source has quit selling 100% Herdwick in worsted/light-Aran weight yarn. And I have enough in the stash for only a few more pairs.

Alison said...

Just found this as I was looking for herdwick yarn for knitting ... http://www.crookabeck.co.uk/herdwick-wool.html

In Stitches Daily said...

I know this is an old post, but I can't help commenting. I'm so glad you said all this - firstly for saying you like the kind of wool that still looks and smells like it once belonged to a sheep (hear, hear), so I. Like another commenter (Elizabeth Moon) I have knitted some socks and they are incredibly warm. If only more people (home knitters and industry alike) would buy Herdwick wool as they are adapted to their environment. Few sheep, apparently can thrive on the vegetation in the high fells, so they are the best users of that environment.

I have written a few words about Herdwick wool too here: http://institchesdaily.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/swatchalong-herdwick-swatch.html