Makers have always been at the core of everything that we do at Travelling Basket and over the last few years we've been lucky enough to travel to the most exciting locations, studios, workshops and barns to learn more about our artisans crafts and trades. This time we caught up with our favourite shepherdess and her 18 month old shepherding son, who look after the 1,400 Scottish Blackface Sheep on the heather clad hills of the wonderful Baddinsgill Hill farm. Josephine talks us through the highs and lows of hill sheep farming, the day to day chores, about tackling and overcoming problems and finding new ways that the business can flourish, whilst supporting a local and growing market in meat and wool as well as reducing waste and impact. So we were literally over the moon to discover that part of this adventure was going to be turning the clip of the flock into beautiful yarns, so local that they are just one hill away from us.
A wealth of knowledge and evident passion, Josephine explains:
The British Wool Marketing board has been operating a non profit central marketing system for British fleece since 1950. It means that each year, each farm has a guaranteed sale for the wool clip. Less than a generation ago, the price they paid the farms per fleece based on auction rates would have paid my salary as shepherd for the year with the sale of all the fleeces.
This year, our ewes were shorn for £1.10 per head. This year, the Marketing Board is estimated £0.79 per kg of fleece if the fleece is intact, clean, free from vegetation and faecal staining, without any fibre discolouration along with minimal stock marks or spray, rolled the right way and packed correctly in the bags with labels for traceability. I spent quite a few evenings, with my son asleep on the wool bags, rolling all our fleeces as best I could and packing the bags and writing out 2 labels for each bag. But because our sheep love to hide out in woods, take great joy in racing each other to swim bottomless peat bogs, and obliviously snuggle down for the night against the sand banks our fleeces are consequently full with enough logs and peat to light a fire with, after you’ve shaken out enough sand to fill a beach. Not to mention that in performance recording I have sprayed them all multicolour and each of our ewes also bears a big bright blue or red keel mark so neighbour shepherds can identify at distance whether a ewe is theirs, and where specifically she has come from on each farm.
Since each year we make a fairly substantial financial lose on the wool clip I have been looking into alternative methods of selling our fleece. The first one was pretty obvious. Yarn. But everyone knows Blackface fleece is too full of wiry guard hairs with too much fibre memory to make a decent yarn. However, three of our tups are producing lambs with pretty exceptional fleece quality. I separated out these individuals fleeces as I shore them, and a friend of mine has worked closely with the local wool mill to investigate whether there is a possibility of producing a hard wearing comfortable yarn. The results are looking pretty exciting!
Noticeably now the days are drawing in. I've had the fire on for a good while now in the evenings as the temperature begins to drop. The view from my windows look out over the Bothy field and at the bottom is a stretch of trees whose leaves are tinted orange, a beautiful reminder that autumn with its crisp frosty mornings is here. It's not unusual to hear the geese in the evenings as they make their way to the reservoir for the night, enjoying stunning Scotland on their winter migration vacation. Knitting is quite possibly my favourite way to spend the evenings of autumn, sitting by the fire with a cup of cocoa after my son is asleep in bed, designing and creating an array of hats and jumpers for the winter months ahead.
Once all the fleeces are carefully rolled and the bags are sown shut, the British Wool Marketing Board will come and collect them for sale through auction, along with all the other wool produced in Britain. This year, however, we carefully selected a dozen or so fleeces for a new project for a close friend of mine. She wanted to try to produce a Scottish Blackface yarn that was comfortable, durable, had good stitch definition, would stand up to the Scottish elements and in a range of highly attractive tweed colours.
The fleeces were driven over to the mill in Duns, a little town in a hollow surrounded by the most brilliantly heather clad hills you've ever seen. The Borders Mill is a family business, operating several incredibly technical and intricate machines. They talked us through how the wool is first washed to remove the lanolin which coats the fleece fibre to make it waterproof and weatherproof for our sheep. The fleece is then passed through a machine which uses agitation to separate out any vegetation or longer courser guard hairs. What is left is the return, usually around 60%. This beautiful clean soft wool is then sometimes dyed, carded to align all the fibres, and spun into a single thin strand. This strand makes up the basis of the yarn weight, with various combinations of these strands being twisted together to create the finished product. This yarn is then finished in a skein, which is a twisted knot of wool, and is ready to be knitted into garments for the colder months ahead.
Knitting is coming back into fashion, and I strongly recommend trying it as a way to relax. And besides, there are few things more satisfying than wearing a jumper you knitted. Likewise, there are unfortunately few things more soul destroying than watching your son wreck a jumper you'd knitted. But that's what's so brilliant about this new Scottish Blackface yarn. It stands up to the abuse my son gives his clothes. His little jumper has been in and out of the hen house to collect (and unintentionally smash) the eggs, it's been tested by little puppy teeth as Tigger and my son go exploring and playing at the bottom of the garden, it keeps him toasty warm out checking the sheep with me, it brushes clean after the sloppy mud pie ingredients he uses to make rather disgusting culinary creations for the chickens have dried, and it makes him really cosy to snuggle next to in the evenings when we read our bed time story together. I simply love that my son is walking around in a jumper made from fleece that kept my sheep warm last winter. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for my son.
I visited the mill today, where our fleeces have been processed and are drying ready to dye a range of heather tweed colours before spinning. We will hopefully have the skeins back at the end of the week so if you are looking for some wool for a new knitting project, watch this space! As they say, ‘Wear British Wool - 23 million sheep can’t be wrong!’
Josephine Holbrook is shepherdess at Baddinsgill Farm, who have now successfully launched their range of beautifully dyed wool skeins with the totally fabulous Lifelong Yarns. This co venture has produced the most beautiful local dyed yarns we've seen, made by hand at The Border Mill. Travelling Basket was lucky enough to explore the mill too and photograph the various fascinating stages of the yarn making process.
Travelling Basket now stocks the un-dyed natural yarns from our own flock of native breed Hebridean, Shetland and Herdwick, hand shorn by Josephine and processed by hand at the Borders Mill to bring you natural, organic yarns.
Wishing you all yarn creativity,