Who could resist this face....
I've been spinning some Wensleydale. Originally I was going to use this fiber for shawls I was weaving on my Triangle Loom. I quickly realized this probably wasn’t the best project choice.
Commercially prepared Wensleydale top hand dyed by me.
Wensleydale is a long wool. It is very lustrous and silky, and strong, and in many ways would remind you of mohair. It is relatively heavy though, and so spinning a heavy worsted weight for use on my loom was resulting in a very heavy fabric. Lesson learned –I set out to spin a lighter fingering weight yarn and I am really enjoying it.
Here’s a descrition of the breed from the Gedgrave flock site ……(I’m hoping to be able to purchase some of their beautiful fleece after shearing )
The Wensleydale breed originated in the lower Wensleydale region of North Yorkshire in the early part of the 19th Century. The breed was developed to provide crossing rams for use on hill breeds like the Swaledale. The Wensleydale ram gives its progeny that extra size and quality to its fleece.
During the latter part of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the value of wool fell and by the 1960s the breed became virtually extinct. Today however, although still on the at risk register with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, we number some 1500 ewes. (You can check out The Rare Breads Watch List here. Intersting stuff.)
The Wensleydale is one of the most visually striking and heaviest of our indigenous breeds. It has a distinctive deep blue head and ears, a long curly lustrous wool with a well developed forelock known as the ‘topping’. Both sexes are polled which means that they are naturally hornless.
So why does it matter- all this talk about sheep and fleece characteristics?
There are so many things we take for granted and as spinners we can take steps to recognize the vulnerability of sheep that provide unique characteristics and help create and support a viable market.
Back in 1999 Spin Off magazine ran a series of articles and sponsored the “Save the Sheep” project in order to build awareness and educate the community on the importance of preserving rare breeds. Deborah Robson wrote an article for the Spring 1999 issue that explains some key points.
First if we look at color- The genes carried for colored wool are almost exclusive to rare breeds. In sheep the dominant color is white. Even within a breed that produces colored fleece, colors can be rare. I read on the Gedgrave site that the black Wensleydale are rarer than giant pandas.
In reference to texture Deborah explains that if for the market the first consideration is meat as a product,followed by fleece – but the market calls for fleece that can be processed by machine, the Shepard has little choice but to raise sheep with that in mind. Wool bred for the machine, not the hand spinner, is bound to lack the varity of texture that can support a variety of purposes-be it fine next the skin, coarse carpet and outerwear or something in between.
In Deborah's words....
“We owe it to ourselves- now, while we still can- to teach our fingers the ways of working with wools outside our comfort zone and expertise. Our informed decisions now about wool from endangered sheep can assure that the fiber is still around when we discover that we need it after all.”
It is very satisfying to help in this effort- even in a small way – even if it’s just awareness, and so I’ll be searching out fleece from rare and at risk sheep to see what they have to teach me.
Pattern from "A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns", Barbara G. Walker p. 218, Seafoam Pattern