Sunday, 15 November 2009

At last: Industrially spun yarn from my sheep

part of the flock in their surroundings

Our sheep are pets. A pet is an animal that may look like many others of its kind, but is special to you - as you are special to it. Over time you know each other well. You get to know the individual personalities of your pets. I don’t think that these personalities are just imagined by pet owners. They are as real as the personalities of human beings who you know well.

After we had got our first sheep, and had experienced our first lambing season: When time would have been ripe to sell the lambs, we realised we couldn’t do it. We had such great experiences with them; we had learned to like sheep a lot. The thought of selling the lambs for 30 pounds each, if we could get that at all, and not make a lot of money with the few anyway, but them being most likely slaughtered…

No. We decided to keep them all, and not let them produce any more lambs in the future.

me with some of the ewes

So, we separated rams and ewes, but we had overestimated the age of ram lambs to be able to tip ewes. A few lambs followed the next year. As did a few more over the years, because two rams learned to jump fences. With growing older they stopped that habit fortunately.

I think I could write a book about sheep, but here are just two funny incidents I won’t forget.
There was this lamb, the only one that year, the mother tipped by a ram lamb that was too long kept alongside the ewes in the early years. We had him and Beauty in the back garden for several weeks. As he was the only lamb he had no companions to play. But didn’t he run his rounds around the orchard until he could hardly breath. Anyway, I used to sit on a garden chair sometimes to watch them. One day he just jumped into my lap. Then down again. We developed it into a game. For a few days he did it: up, and down. Up, and down. That was the time when they explore everything. After a few days he stopped it, other things became more interesting. We called him Jumper after that. And no, he wasn’t one of the rams that jumped fences later on.

Jumper and Beauty

Then one or two years later, another ewe (Laemmle = little lamb) had twins. This time a jumping ram (Rabauke = rowdy; sun of Lucy) had caused this.

Laemmle had her lambs at a nice spot, but it was beside a drain. I stayed there and watched, and didn’t I have to get the two of them out of the drain after they had slipped in?

After some time Laemmle moved away with the lambs from the drain to another spot, and I could leave them alone. When I returned an hour later, Lucy had discovered them. Lucy was one of the ewes I bought, and neighbours said I shouldn’t have done so, as she was already old. She had a lamb in September with us before the following incident. She was just perfect mother - and grandmother?
What happened was she was trying to steal the lambs. I heard this can happen with pregnant ewes, but she wasn’t pregnant. She didn’t leave the three alone, but was acting as if the lambs were hers, and routinely so. We tried to chase her away, but that resulted in even more disturbance. She wouldn’t go. So we finally left, hoping that they will sort it out. An hour later, when I checked again, one of the lambs was lying beside Lucy, as content with her as she was with it.

We had to move Laemmle with her two lambs to another meadow. Didn’t Lucy stay two nights and days beside the fence, calling for “her” lamb?

Then she finally accepted and forgot about them.

The two lambs from the story


I had done some hand spinning before I had sheep, but that was from purchased prepared wool tops, just ready for spinning. When I had sheep I did of course want to use their fleeces instead. And when I did so I realised how much preparation is needed: Sorting the fleeces, combing or carding, washing, spinning, dyeing. There is a lot of time, and water and energy involved. I realised if you have more than three or four sheep, you don’t get all the fleeces used, even with hand spinning a few there wasn’t much time left for weaving or knitting.

So I was since years looking for a spinning mill that would spin small amounts of fleeces for people like me industrially. I also always wanted to know what would come out from the mixed flock of typical Irish sheep as mine are. And would it really just be good for carpets, as is commonly said about Irish wool?

Did I think initially, when we started keeping sheep, that I could possibly develop a small business, based on my craft skills and using yarn industrially spun from their fleeces, in the country famous for its Aran jumpers? The facilities to get the yarn spun weren’t there, and it turned out that Aran jumpers have a very low content of Irish wool, if at all.

Wool in Ireland is a neglected crop since decades. There is no Irish Wool Board, only a few spinning mills left, no incentives to breed for wool that I would know of.


Finally early this year I found out about the
Natural Fibre Company in the UK that offers exactly what I was looking for to small holders, from a minimum of 20 kg of fleeces.

Small is relative, you see. 30 kg of fleece turned into 24 kg of yarn might be a lot for you and me, but it is a small amount for commercial mills. The reduction in weight results mainly from the removal of grease that naturally is in the wool.

Anyway, my heart bumped. I immediately knew I wanted to take this chance this year.

It needed some preplanning, as you can only send fleeces from sheep that have not been treated with any veterinarian products for three months before clipping. These include anthelminthics, which we need to use to treat against liver fluke.

I had kept the good parts of last years clipping, but I couldn’t use them for the yarn, because a few sheep had to be treated for maggots that year, and I had not separated those fleeces but stored them all together, as I had not then known of the Natural Fibre Company and the requirements.
There was still the problem with the weather: Would we be able to get clean dry fleeces? Following the experience of the previous summer this was not for sure. As my husband is clipping them over a period of time on the field – and many thanks to him for this - we needed a long enough period of good weather.

MeinFreund before, during and after clipping

Luckily there was a good period in June, and when nearly half of the flock was clipped I contacted the Natural Fibre company and asked: would they process our fleeces. They said they would and I placed my order, and I was sent two bags to fill. They also arranged the transport.

Fleckchen before and some time after shearing

My part was to sort the fleeces.

It is clear (not to all farmers or shearers though) that you remove the dirtiest parts. But I wanted to only send the best parts. If the Natural Fibres Company has to dispose of wool that is unsuitable, you have to pay for this as well.

So I removed parts that I knew would be too course for knitting yarn, all matted parts, short cuts, vegetable matter as far as I could detect it.

I also noticed again during sorting how different each fleece is in character.

me sorting

Two bags full with fleeces then went to the Natural Fibre Company in mid July.


The Natural Fibre Company discarded none of my wool.

Now, I’m not sure if I was probably too rigorous. I asked myself when in doubt: Could I spin this by hand directly from the fleece? All those parts were put into the bags. But some slightly matted yarns, some slightly dirty tips that I could easily comb clean for hand spinning? As I wasn’t sure what the industrial process could take I probably removed a too great amount? I don’t know.

Here is a picture series that shows the processes at the Natural Fibre Company that turned the fleeces into yarn:

The yarn was spun quite quickly, but I then decided to have some of it dyed, albeit I wasn’t too sure of the colours on offer, because there weren’t dark tones, which I need for the colour stitch patterns. They don’t dye black or dark grey, because they process wool that has this colour naturally, which is perfectly reasonable.

However, if I did dye most of the yarn naturally myself, I needed a lot of water and energy, and wouldn’t get dark tones either. I knew I could combine my yarn with the dark grey yarn from Kerry Woollen Mills for the stitch patterns. I also knew I could dye yellow easily with plants, or over-dye some of the blue and green I ordered to get other shades.

Waiting for the yarn then was very exciting. How will it turn out?


I’m so pleased. And very thankful to the Natural Fibre Company which made this possible in a kind manner.

The yarn is three-fold woollen spun DK. There are approximately 180 meters in the 100g hank. With needles size 3 or 3.5 19 stitches and 25 rows make a 10 cm square in stocking stitch.

It is very evenly spun, which I hadn’t expected to be possible. It is not soft, I think the expert expression would be: It has not much loft? But it is smooth. When knitted in stocking stitch it feels light and smooth, somewhat like Shetland wool jumpers, I’d say; it feels not as rough as the yarn from Kerry Woollen Mills I have, even if this is a mix of Irish wool and wool from New Zealand. My yarn has not much elasticity; that reminds me somewhat of worsted yarn. There is some amount of lustre in it.

the yarn I'm proud of

I still have to do more tests for felting. I put a swatch into a 40 degrees wash with clothes. It came out only slightly felted, but feeling really soft. I was reminded of the feeling you get from Mohair indeed.

And I do notice the difference in the fleeces slightly in the yarn when knitting. There are lengths that feel a bit softer, or a bit courser. I then think about which sheep’s fleeces I may handle at the moment.

I think I proved with this that Irish wool is not only good for carpets. Considering that most of my sheep are old, that rams fleeces were included, that no attempt was made to buy or breed my sheep for wool: still the resulting yarn is perfectly suitable for knitting, and will also make good yarn for weaving.

I’ve made a pair of socks, two hats and a good few swatches so far, and am now after many years actually knitting a jumper for myself from it.


  1. Love the result! Well done.

  2. It looks amazing. What a lovely post on your sheep and your relationship to them. Its an interesting tale of the journey from sheep to yarn. Well done!

  3. Dear Christine, well I have to say that I am very impressed!
    I like your blog very much and it was most interesting to learn how the yarn is actually made.
    I once tried it by hand myself and it is a lot of work as you know.
    You story about your sheep made me miss some sheep I once knew, who definitly had their own characters and especially one, who loved it to be fondled on the throat.
    I have to tell you that I love your patterns and will definitly try them myself, as soon as I have finished all the socks that have to be knit until Christmas.
    So maybe I will have to write again soon and ask for help.

  4. Thank you very much, Saskia, for your lovely comment.
    And please don't hesitate to ask for help. It might help others as well.

    Re sheep liking to be rubbed at there throat, I often wonder why that is, but they definitely like it.

  5. Dear Christine!
    Which live Blog with animals, nature and the most beautiful hands have created. Can only admire and wish that I can learn a little bit of this Master who Christine is.
    Self, I love animals and nature ..... but I have no sheep but Satin Angora Rabbits.
    I have learned to spin but I am a beginner. It is so relaxing to sit down at the spinning wheel. When my daughter was ill and we were inside the hospital, I sat and just looked lethargic ...... and suddenly I saw Christine's absolutely fantastic hats and a pattern I had never seen before. Just as amazing .....
    I'll try to learn something from all this beauty that Christine's hands have created......
    I am thrilled and admire your sterling creation.
    Thank you for giving me the inspiration and generously sent your wonderful blog Christine
    Kind Regards Carina

  6. Hi Carina,

    thank you so much for this! I will be pleased if you can get something for you from this meanwhile abandoned blog!