When I was in the initial research stages of this collection, I was very surprised to find that there are very few spinners of British wool for commercial knitting (i.e not hand knitting).
It’s pretty common to read the words “spun in the UK” or British “spun” yarn – which means the wool itself comes from overseas – usually New Zealand, but is spun into yarn in the UK. It is much harder find actual British produced wool.
I was disappointed to discover this because it seemed like such a waste of resources. Anyone who passes through the British countryside can see how many sheep there are in the fields – virtually all of them must be farmed for their meat as most of their fleeces are discarded or used for very basic by products such as packaging or insulation.
I bought the British Wool Marketing Board’s guide to British Sheep (see further reading below) and I soon realized that many breeds which are unique to the UK risk dying out because there is no demand for their wool (there aren’t enough processing plants where the shorn fleeces are washed and cleaned once they have been shorn). I couldn’t quite believe that instead of using our native wool, the British mills are paying a premium – not to mention the contribution to our carbon foot print – to import much blander, more uniform wools from the other side of the world, without addressing the huge potential of our own more sustainable and culturally rich material.
Sustainable British Wool
Once I saw what kinds of wool that were available in the UK I was fascinated by the huge variety of breeds – more than 60 and all so different to each other; from the long curly fleeces of the Teeswater sheep who have been farmed on the same land since the 1890s, to the fine white wool of the Ryeland flocks whose wool has been used to make cloth in Britain as far back as the 12th century.
The wool used for the original Norfolk Gansey jumpers was a Yorkshire worsted which was twisted together to make either a 3 ply or a 5 ply yarn which produced compact, medium to lightweight jumpers. In Sheringham the knitters prided themselves on the fineness of their knitting – which meant that the stitches were smaller and flatter so that they looked like they had been knitted by machine in a time when mass production was still new and exciting. In contrast, I have set out to achieve more of a chunky “hand knit” weight to my garments because I wanted to make the knits look more “hand crafted” in an age when the personal touch is appreciated once again.
But I really wanted to make a product where the material and the process was 100% traceable because I feel that we live in a time where if the provenance of a product – be it meat, palm oil or wool – is not transparent to the consumer, then it probably does have a negative impact on our planet, its people or wildlife in some way. I fell in love with the story told by the British Wool Marketing Board in their short film documenting the journey their wool takes – from the sheep shearing through to the spinning.
I am very proud to be able to show you these images of the two breeds of sheep: Bluefaced Leicester and Masham whose wool has been used to make the British Wool in my collection and also to be able to use the British Wool trade mark on the jumper knitted in wool.