Fleece Ideas

The following article appeared in FARMERS WEEKLY: www.fwi.co.uk
& is reproduced by kind permission of the author: Dorothy Hollamby

Fleece Idea’s a Money Spinner

It was a natural progression from sheepkeeping to spinning
on one Sussex farm, as Dorothy Hollamby found

When Roger and Pam Mobsby bought their smallholding, the stables were perfect for Pam’s main interest, keeping horses for competition long-distance riding.

But the dilapidated 15th century barn and outbuildings begged more attention and usage than their small sheep flock could warrant. Today, with their partner of four years Sheila Petitpierre, it is home to Diamond Fibres, a business which has customers worldwide.

Diamond Fibres offers a specialised service to people who have a sheep’s fleece and want it turned into knitting wool, rug wool or a bespoke garment. They also clean and card wool ready for dispatch to people for hassle-free spinning. They have found an exclusive niche market and filled it.

They now return finished yarns to customers all over the UK, the US and as far away as New Zealand, with completed garments dispatched to customers in Japan. They have never needed to advertise, all their work comes by word of mouth.

Roger’s love of old machinery was the catalyst that sparked the new enterprise. In 1988, he bought his first machine and from then on their emphasis changed from sheepkeeping to yarn production.

As more of the textile mills in the north of England were closing, Roger began to buy other old machines. Luckily, he was just in time to speak with older men who, having worked al their lives with these machines, could pass on invaluable information. The universities at Bradford and Huddersfield were also helpful.

Roger’s mechanical flair was then tested to the full. The machines first had to physically fit into their new home – an old brick chicken shed. No simple task! Some were cut in half and others were altered with two machines being combined to become one working model. Plus, the machines had to fulfil different criteria from their original commercial uses in the mill.

The process is fascinating and these old machines have a charm all of their own. But, they have to start with a good quality fleece. It is more amenable for handling and it’s impossible to get a wonderful finished product from a manky badly-fed sheep. The old adage is true, says Roger. “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”

The yarns produced can be single gossamer-fine threads or the thickness of commercial knitting wool, from 4-ply through to chunky knit and rug wool.

Although they do not dye or weave, they do spin other fibres, such as mohair, silk and alpaca, but process only natural-coloured fleeces. An average Kent sheep would give about 10 hanks of knitting wool which would easily make a man’s large Aran jumper. And 3.5kg of wool in its greasy or natural state will yield 60% when it is finished.

A new fleece is washed and spread on the sorting table ready for detailed inspection by hand to remove any foreign bodies from the wool. “You name it and we’ve found it,” says Roger.

Mostly they are looking to remove second cuts – the little short clippings from the shearing. But wood shavings are really bad news, as are excessive marking by coloured sprays and baler twine. Twine can stay right through the spinning and end up in the finished yarn as coloured streaks, spoiling the whole batch.

Some of the meat breeds are not suited to this process because the fibre length must be more than 7.5cm (3in) and these breeds are often shorter than this. Sorting is rigorous and typically only 40% of the original fleece is used. The neck and belly, for example, are not used.

The sorted fleece is washed again (it usually has three more washes) and passed through a ‘preparer’ which opens up the tufts of wool gently teasing them apart. Next is a carding process to separate the fibres from the original tightly-held tufts and the resulting slivers are then put through a gilling process to get the fibres parallel. Next comes the spinning machine, where the amount of twist is calculated – it can be between 0.67 and two twists/inch.

Once ready fro dispatch, the wool is wound into hanks and twisted. These hanks, ready for packing, have that special sensual quality of natural materials. To see their variety is a pleasure – not only the different natural colours but the various thicknesses and textures from the different sheep. The Leicestershire, for example, is a ‘lustre’ wool and the sheen in the finished yarn is beautiful.

In Britain, we may have lost our mills for cloth and wool production, but a little part of that tradition lives on in the heart of Sussex.