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A Fascination with Wool

A Fascination with Wool

by Lindsey Schwenn

I am a huge fan of sheep. There is nothing like seeing these beautiful creatures dotting the hillside, grazing contentedly in the sun, or watching a newborn lamb take its first clumsy steps. Lambing season, though still quite cold in Wisconsin, is hands-down my favorite time of year, and my art practice has been significantly enriched by incorporating wool into my weaving. One of the main reasons I wanted to join the Gwenyn Hill crew was to learn more about our special sheep and the skills that go along with raising a flock. I continue to seek opportunities to build my own knowledge and am so eager to share all I can about everything sheep and wool through our upcoming winter and spring programming at the farm! 

We raise Cotswold and Border Leicester at Gwenyn Hill. They are quintessential English longwool breeds that serve a dual purpose providing both meat and wool.  Adult ewes of both breeds weigh around 200 pounds, though you can tell them apart by the curly locks on the Cotswolds’ heads in contrast to the wool free heads of the Border Leicesters, who also have a distinct Roman nose. Both breeds are hardy sheep and excellent mothers too, known to be easy to keep and manage.

The Cotswold breed developed on the Cotswold Hills in the west of England and descended from the white sheep brought to England during the Roman conquest over 2,000 years ago. The wool trade in the Cotswold region financed many churches and grand estates and was a significant contributor to the exploration and expansion of the British Empire. They were one of the first breeds brought to the Americas in the early 1800’s and were crossed with fine wool breeds to produce larger sheep used for both meat and fleece. 

Cotswolds are one of the 23 conservation breeds listed on the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List. They were nearly extinct in the mid 1900’s due to the popularity of crossbreeding, but there has been an effort to breed pure Cotswold stock and increase their numbers. This is something we are focusing on with our flock at Gwenyn Hill as well! 

Today, the specialty wool market and the use of conservation breed wool is essential to the preservation of these breeds. Programs such as “Shave ‘em to Save ‘em” (SE2SE) and other fiber initiatives encourage makers to consider using wool from conservation breeds in their projects. Financial incentives provided by the Livestock Conservancy are also available to help support those interested in raising conservation breed sheep. We participate in the SE2SE initiative at Gwenyn Hill and offer stickers for your wool passport when you purchase our raw wool, roving, or yarn. Just ask!

Longwool breeds generally grow impressive locks of 6 inches or more. Both Cotswold and Border Leicester wool is well known for having beautiful luster, versatility, and strength. Longwool fleece is a pleasure to spin, takes dye readily, and felts relatively easy. Of our two breeds, Cotswold locks are a bit longer, which is better for creating a strong yarn for weaving warp. Border Leicester wool has a bit more crimp, so it can hold more air and warmth which makes it perfect for knitting and crocheting. 

Humankind’s relationship with sheep has come a long way from the days when wool was gathered from trees and brush after wild sheep had shed it naturally. Our ancestors soon realized that this incredible fiber was not only warm, strong, and durable, but also absorbent, and even flame resistant! I have been exploring the possibilities for using wool in different types of garments and hope to create a variety of clothing options that utilize each of these characteristics to their full potential. It’s encouraging to see more and more clothing and home goods companies skipping the synthetics and recognizing the versatility and sustainability of wool.   

FACT: Most sheep in the U.S. are grown for meat nowadays with only 4 breeds of sheep in the U.S. making up 75% of all registered flocks (Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire, and Rambouillet). 42 breeds represent the other 25%, which obviously makes for diminishing diversity. 

By supporting dual purpose, conservation breed sheep, you are not only helping increase diversity of sheep in our country, but are also rewarded with the traditional characteristics these breeds retain, such as parasite and disease resistance, climate adaptation, and strong maternal instincts.  

As a fiber artist, I’ve been more than enthusiastic about getting familiar with our wool types and traits. I process my own wool at home by skirting, picking, washing, combing, carding, dying, spinning, weaving, and knitting it into gorgeous yarns and one-of-a-kind textiles. My dye experiments have produced a range of natural colors and I’ve used plants grown almost exclusively at Gwenyn Hill, such as onion skins and strawberries, and would love to add more natural dye plants to our gardens in the future, like madder, indigo, and coreopsis. I’ve been taking extensive notes, planning projects and exhibitions and seeking out collaborations with other shepherds, fiber artists and teachers. 

My personal goals include entering fleeces in the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool festival, learning to tan hides, and exploring cheese making. I am attending shearing school in December through the UW extension (along with crew member Kelsey Scherer, who has an interest in alpacas), and can’t wait to get some practice in before we shear in Spring, just before the lambs arrive! 

Future plans include offering a variety of handspun yarns, naturally dyed roving, and handmade textiles at the Farmstand, as well as monthly fiber classes this winter to provide opportunities for everyone to dive into fiber processing, skill building and more. All experience levels are welcome! Get a sneak peak of our goods during the final CSA pickup of the year on December 15th from 4-6pm. Pick up some gifts or treat yourself to some luscious fiber! Be sure to keep an eye on our website and newsletters for info on upcoming fiber classes and events.

 

Want to read more about sheep and fleece? Here are some resources: 

The Spinners Book of Fleece by Beth Smith

The Field Guide to Fleece by Deborah Robson & Carol Ekarius

The Livestock Conservancy

 

Lindsey Schwenn is an art educator and fiber artist who found her way to Gwenyn Hill Farm this spring. She divides her time between the produce team and assisting Josh and Ryan with the sheep and laying hens. 

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