As the first clip of the year comes in to our wool shed here on Grimsay, it seems like a good time to discuss one of my favourite subjects: sheep and fibre. Let me talk you through our yarns; fibre by fibre, sheep by sheep.
At Uist Wool we don’t dye any of our yarns, preferring instead to let the fleece dictate the qualities of each individual product. Blending dark and light fleece in varying quantities gives us our great range of shades and hues, offering woolly crafters a delightful pick and mix, however there is more to designing each yarn that blending a gorgeous shade.
For us the breed of sheep is an essential part of designing a yarn. Each has its own character and personality dictated by staple, crimp and kemp, as well as colour and quality.
Uist crofters raise a wide variety of breeds these days, mostly for meat production though there are a few that keep sheep for conservation grazing too. Whilst the traditional breeds are tougher and easier to keep, they produce small and slow-growing lambs and their value is not as high in today’s market. This means that heavier continental breeds are increasingly common in Uist, as they are around the rest of the UK. For us here that means that we have a whole selection of different fleeces, each with their own character for processing. Many crofters produce cross-bred lambs, resulting in yet more different types of fleece.
As such, I thought I’d start a series of blogs about the breeds of sheep we use in our yarns. So let me take you through a few ‘local’ varieties of sheep.
First on our list is the mighty Hebridean.
As the name suggests, this is our native breed of sheep. Thousands of years old, the breed is part of a larger group of North Atlantic Short-Tailed Sheep which were thought to have originated in Scandinavia and came by sea with the Vikings across the Northern European region.
As a breed, the sheep is characterised by its wild and hardy nature, able to survive on less nutritious fodder such as heather and moor grasses. Their fleece, as with many of the short-tailed sheep, has a double coat: a long, stranded, water-resistant outer layer which develops kemp over time, and a short insulating layer which is usually much finer and has a very high lanolin content. Because of these two different lengths, the fibre can be difficult to work with, causing yarn breakages in production, however it is not impossible and we often use Hebridean in blends with consistent fibres such as Cheviot to strengthen it for yarns such as Sìth and Conntraigh, where the Hebridean brings a crisp blue to the grey shades. Our pure Hebridean yarn, Calma in DK and aran, has a rich deep deep brown colour to it, as well as a smooth and close handle due to the longer fibres.
Our most used fleece breed is the majestic Cheviot.
The Cheviot sheep is a long-standing staple in Uist. An excellent all-rounder, this upland English breed has proven to be reliable on the island croft. Its fleece too is an excellent multi-purpose fibre, with a medium staple and the potential for a medium/soft handle it is often the white base for our yarns.
With our mill machinery, Cheviot is an extremely versatile fibre, lending itself to a wide range of yarn types, from the specialist 5-ply of Geòla, the pure Solas, unusual Fras, right up to springy Lùb and super-chunky Meath, plus a whole range of gorgeous blends in DK and aran including: Conntraigh, Fuaran, Reothart, Siaban, and Sìth.
In Uist it’s common to get cross-bred Cheviot, and we often get Cheviot/Texel crosses, but we also get fleece from a handful of Cheviot sheep that have, somewhere down the line ben crossed with a Hebridean, resulting in a luscious dark Cheviot fleece.
This gives us the best of both worlds: a fine crimpy fibre with long staple and darker colour. We’ve just spun a brand new yarn with this; “Brisdean” silverweed, which is beautifully soft in a shimmering silver-grey. We can’t wait to launch this yarn on the 16th June!
Another common breed in our stash is the graceful Zwartbles.
Originally a Dutch breed, this sheep is becoming increasingly popular in Uist, which we’re thrilled about. Zwartbles fleece is medium staple, with fine soft dark fibre, with lots of crimp (bouncy frizz).
We are also using Zwartbles in one of our gorgeous new yarns, in a blend with the loveable Ryland sheep: watch this space for “Caìrinis” Carinish, launching on the 16th June!
Last for this blog we have the Scottish Blackface.
This is a bit of an anomalous breed for this blog, as we aren’t actually spinning this fleece at the moment, but as it’s so prevalent in Uist, and is an important part of the crofting landscape, it seemed right to mention it here.
A hardy traditional breed, there are plenty of these long tough fleeces on the island. Their fleece has medium to long staple with plenty of insulating kemp.
This is great for the sheep, keeping the wind and water of their backs, but for us it is difficult to work with. As you can see from the photo, the fibres in the fleece are quite thick and lay evenly along the staple almost like hair, the result when spun is a strong durable yarn. However it’s not very soft, and so we have yet to find a home for the lovely Scottish Blackface amongst our stock, but there is time yet.
That concludes our first tour of sheep breeds this week. next week we’ll look at some more unusual breeds and introduce our new range of yarns “Trusadh” sheep gathering.
We are, of course, beginning to take in wool-clip for this year, if you have fleece that you’d like to sell to us, please get in touch via the usual routes.