When Kate wrote this amazing post about the (mis)labelling of clothes and the confusing use of the terms WOOL, WOOLLEN and WOOLLY in garment descriptions, I was struck by the disparity between the widespread (mis)use of those terms by the fashion industry, and the lack of value given to ACTUAL WOOL from ACTUAL SHEEP. The world of fashion is one of desire, dreams and association as well as being a nuts-and-bolts production line for the creation of clothing and where WOOL is concerned, it would seem that the mythic or imaginative dimension of WOOL is regarded much more highly than the animals, skills and farmers involved in physically producing the stuff. While a lot of lip-service is given to the cache value of WOOL through the widespread use of terms like WOOL, WOOLLEN and WOOLLY in garment descriptions, widespread ignorance persists regarding how and where it is actually made.
How is it that the associations of the word WOOL – the countryside; fluffy sheep; cosy fireside hearths etc.; – can be popularised and used to imply a certain rustic charm to garments, while those garments are sometimes not made from WOOL and when (as the case was for farmers in 2009) shearing an animal for its fleece sometimes costs more money than the WOOL board will pay for it?
Such questions have their origins for me back in the Autumn of 2007, when I went to stay at Beech Hill Farm in Sussex and inadvertently discovered my own ignorance regarding such matters. I had to do a write up of my MA studies in order to conclude the course and had searched everywhere for a quiet place (rural; inexpensive) in which to debrief and reflect on my work. From the online descriptions The Studio at Beech Hill Farm sounded perfect. I had no idea as I drove through the leafy, winding roads from Tunbridge Wells deep into the heart of The Weald that I was going to gain in that place a fully revised perspective on the situation for WOOL producers in the UK. I arrived late in the evening and was greeted first thing the next morning by a robust chorus of baas from the sheep.
It was the first time I have spent any time in my life on a sheep farm, and I was struck by the enormous gulf between the comedic way that sheep are often represented, and the boisterous nature of the actual animals. There is a world of difference between CLOWNSHOES SHEEP of giftcards and colouring books and the earthy, noisy, hoofed, fragrant beasts whom I met at Beech Hill Farm.
…I had vaguely understood from my correspondence with Julia Desch that she kept a small flock of Wensleydales at Beech Hill Farm and that she was involved in a local craft group called Woolcraft with Wensleydale. Being relatively new to knitting I profess that in the Autumn of 2007 I was entirely ignorant about the scope and vision of those projects. In the intervening years I have learned more about the specific advantages and challenges of breeding coloured sheep, and of the ambitious vision of the Woolcraft with Wensleydale group to keep sheep-breeding, spinning and weaving skills alive through a programme of open-days, and workshops, and the ongoing production of top-quality 100% Wensleydale yarns.
What blew my mind about staying with Julia was that I could look out of the window and see these sheep…
…and then I could go out of the studio, cross the yard, and enter The WOOL Room to discover yarns spun from their fleeces.
Maybe it sounds stupid and obvious to point this out now, but in this world where the means of how everyday things which we use are produced are so often inscrutable, (how is an iPhone produced? by what process are Addi-Turbos constructed? how are silicon muffin-tins made?) the tangible connections between the animals on Julia’s farm, the place itself, and the WOOL yarns feel rare and precious and rich. Looking through all the photos from that first stay, I have found this picture, which is of a ball of lumpen yarn (my very first handspun!) which I had taken to Sussex to proudly show to Julia. It is a very naive kind of a photo and my handspinning is clearly that of a novice, but I feel it says something about the start of my obsession with REAL WOOL.
I visited The Studio several times after that first journey; firstly to celebrate the WOOLLY heritage of the area with Kate on our wonderful, Oomska-laden adventure in 2008, and again later that Winter to research an article for Yarn Forward Magazine on Julia’s sheep, and then the piece I wrote for Twist Collective on discovering the hidden traces of shepherding within a landscape.
Later I had the wonderful privilege of gaining more spinning experience in a lovely afternoon class shared with Liz and Ruth, when Wendy (a member of the Woolcraft with Wensleydale Group) came to teach us what she knows about handspinning. Happily she bought some fleece from Roger’s black Romney sheep for us to spin with; sheep whom I had previously met during my visit with Kate.
As well as breeding these wonderful animals, Roger also runs Diamond Fibres Mill where Julia’s coloured fleeces are spun. Visiting the mill with Kate, we learned about the many processes which go into producing spinning worsted and semi-worsted yarns.
I also explored the history of shepherding in the nearby region of Romney – where Romney Sheep grazed in their thousands for many years, looked after by “Lookers” who stayed in their huts to mind the sheep during lambing season and difficult weather. And I recorded many sounds associated with the people, places, processes and animals that I was coming to associate with WOOL for my SHEEP radio show, produced for an episode of framework:afield.
I returned to Beech Hill Farm just once in 2009 on a mission with the talented Martin Ellerbeck to investigate the possibility of creating a documentary focused around linking the production of wool more closely with the fashionable world of urban Stitch’n'Bitch culture. You can see the trailer that we made featuring Julia and Tom Davies (who works on London’s city farms) here.
In all of these experiences – especially in recording the sounds of these animals – I found a growing respect for the skills, textures, folks and beasties involved in our contemporary British WOOL industry. WOOL is an ongoing theme here on this blog, and I have made no secret of the fact that my longterm aim is to one day have a small flock of my own, because I have fallen in love – starting with Julia’s flock and that seminal visit to Sussex – with what it is to feel connections with land, history, places and creatures, and to embed those connections into one’s wardrobe and sense of personal style.
Kate’s post on the misuse of the word WOOL touched on that obsession with the vast imaginative richness that our WOOL industry contains, and piqued my frustrations at the fact that people still think it’s some sort of comedy pursuit to be a knitter, and that sheep are stupid and amusing. In the words of Rachael Matthews, “You get fed up with knitting being a big joke”!
I cannot help thinking that the misuse of the word WOOL in the description of garments coupled with the relentlessly silly way that sheep are so often depicted denigrate the world of WOOL so that the very things which that word is meant to conjure become devalued.
That is why I am so happy to be involved with WOVEMBER, which is all about celebrating WOOL FOR WHAT IT IS! I think that if we are to truly support the WOOL industry in this country then we need to raise awareness about what WOOL is; where it comes from and how it is produced; and to insist that viscose/polyester and other NON-WOOL GUBBINS do not get to take the credit for what is surely one of the finest things we can make and wear.
You can get involved with WOVEMBER too, and offer your own perspectives on what WOOL is by visiting the site Kate and I have created HERE! There are 100% WOOL prizes to be won, a petition to sign, and a glorious, non-comedic celebration of sheepiness to be had. The aims are succinctly described on Kate’s post describing the launch of this magnificent, month-long celebration of WOOL!