Norfolk Goes to the Mill

IMG_20171013_165925So, would you like to know what I did this weekend? I am so excited I can hardly contain myself.

You will probably have picked up that I have a bit of a thing about Norfolk Horns. Well I have decided to do something with it and have a wee project. And on Friday I took a whole load of fleece to the mill to be spun into yarn.

All summer I have been tracking down flocks of Norfolk Horn with the aim of sourcing fleece from small local producers.  I’ve been hunting up and down byways and highways, chasing leads. I’ve met some really grand folks who couldn’t have been more helpful and others who were less so. All were passionate about their sheep. I have to give thanks to them.

This has seen me spending a few days at Gressenhall Farm during shearing. Where I was privileged to watch and learning about shearing with Richard, the farm manager. He even let me have a go at shearing. I’ve never actually handled a sheep before. The closest I have ever got is petting some on the head. It’s no wonder she has a mad terrified look in her eyes. Junior is a wee bit curious…

The clippers were surprisingly heavy and vibrated strongly, nothing like the ones I use to clip Sean. I was a bit of a jessy and did a terrible job. I don’t think I will make a shearer!

The flocks tend to be tiny. In general their fleeces are in such small quantities that they do not send them to the BWMB. It’s too complicated and doesn’t earn any money. The price for Norfolk Horn at last check was about 80 pence a kilo. The average fleece weight for a Norfolk Horn fleece is about 1.5kg so thats less than £1.50 a fleece.  Selling via the BWMB won’t even cover half the cost of shearing. Other markets are hand spinners or selling on line. Here the price is better, £5 – £8 per fleece. But this is time consuming, reliant on word of mouth and networks and there are only so many hand spinners to go round.

I wanted to do something about this. Can I source local fleece, pay a fair price and produce a yarn that is economically sustainable? This is very much a pilot project. We will see what the answer to these questions are in the coming months.

On Friday the 13th October (an auspicious date) I packed all the fleece up into the back of the van and drove them to the Natural Fibre Company in Launceston, Cornwall for the next stage in the adventure.

The Natural Fibre Company is a specialist in processing rare breed fibre. Its also the sister company to Blacker Yarns.  I think it might be the largest small mill in the UK that spins both wool and worsted yarns under the same roof! Most importantly for me, in addition to a wealth of experience of spinning single breed yarns, they have tip top sustainability ethics and environmental credentials including a licence for organic production. The mill has been in Launceston, Cornwall since 2005. Though the company has a longer pedigree. It was started by Myra Mortlock in Methyr Tydfil in 1991 with her husband Phillip. In 2004 the business was taken over by Sue Blacker, one of their customers, and moved to Cornwall.  In 2008 the company installed a dye plant and launched Blacker Yarns. Quite a heritage.

So on a wet windy Friday we pitched up with our three bags full and were met by Cyd.  The mill itself is not what you would expect from the outside. As you pull of the A30 onto the Penygillam Trading estate you think this can’t be the right place but there it is at the end of the line. A very modest non-descript typical trading estate building that gives nothing away of the magic that is happening inside!

We took our bags and put them on the scales with fingers crossed.  The minimum quantity was 20kgs. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the scales tipped in at 30kg.

Cyd was wonderful, despite being ill and looking like death warmed up, she gave us a quick tour of the mill where Sean snapped away. I was so overwhelmed I forgot to take any pictures!  We started up on the Mezzanine where the incoming batches of fleece were stored.

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Quite a load!

After sorting, the first thing that happens is the scouring where the fleece is cleaned. It’s then carded into lovely fat fluffy rovings.

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After this the production line is split in to either woollen or worsted.

The woollen spinning takes the carded fibre, which contains fibres of different lengths and arranged in all directions, and teases it out into the thinnest ‘sheet’ of fibre I have ever seen.

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Scouring on the right and carding on the left

This is then drawn into rovings. Which is then spun and plied.

The worsted spinning takes the carded fibre and combs it a number of times to remove all the short fibres and aligns the remaining fibres in the same direction. This is what gives worsted yarn that sheen and density. The resulting tops are coiled like soft coiling snakes into drums. I love the beautiful symmetry of the coils.

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The tops are then spun and plied into lovely luscious yarn. The yarn is then finished as either skeins or balls on the amazing balling machine.

You can take your own virtual tour of the mill if you like.

Sssh don’t tell anyone but I had a good old squish of some of the beautiful Blacker Yarns. Oh my goodness, you should see what they have planned for next year! I could tell you but I think they would have to kill me. And the Samite!!

I can’t wait to see those fleeces back as yarn. I will keep you posted.

 

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Knit Mission Impossible

IMG_20170912_145154200.jpgMe: its your birthday in soon, what would you like?

Sean, looks into the distance for a few moments: You know those fishermans jumpers in that exhibition.  One of those.

He is referring to a gansey and the exhibition was The Dutch Gansey exhibition at Sheringham Museum.

I blink and do a quick calendar roll in my head. That’s four weeks. To order the yarn and knit a mansize gansey. I sort of physically recoil. Blink. Gulp. And say in a quakey small voice: Ok.

I give him the Stella Ruhe book and tell him to show me what he likes. And then in a mad panic get myself online and order 2 cones of Frangipani yarn in traditional blue. Which thankfully arrived the next day. Thank you Gorgeous Yarns!

It’s not the first time I’ve done this. Setting myself a seemingly knit mission impossible. I do it all the time. If there is a special event I will always want a knit up the perfect shawl, wrap, cardigan, and jumper whatever. In the least time possible. Sometimes I pull it off. More often than not this will involve working later into the night that I ought to or getting up stupid early. On the bright side it’s about the only time when I’m grateful if I am having an insomniatic episode. I find myself getting a bit stressy with those I live with. And tears. Yes there are usually tears and tantrums.

It’s not just spinning and knitting projects, I do it to myself all the time. Inventing a huge list of chores that need to be completed, or decorating/DIY project to be finished in time for a visitor or some other deadline. None of these things are actually important or even necessary. The world will not end. The sun will still rise and set. No one will think badly of me. No one will judge me a failure. Only me.

Does this sound familiar?

I don’t think I am alone here.

There are times when setting and accomplishing small stupid tasks can seem just as overwhelming. When the black dog dogs me getting dressed, leaving the house, making a phone call or sending an email can seem to be too big to deal with.

But by setting a seemingly unachievable goal – even the trivial ones – will stretch me. And this is, generally, a good thing. Just trying to achieve that one thing can, if you pull it off, bring such a good feeling that is more positive than the self-defeating one of not even trying. Even if it does not go according to plan.

I won’t mention those over achievers that make the rest of us feel bad. They are just ridiculous.

Goals that stretch are good. Failure to reach them is OK. Not trying is not OK.  Why are we afraid to fail? How do we learn or grow ourselves if we are so afraid to fail that we don’t even try.

But I’m only talking about knitting. How silly. Or am I?

This is the progress after day 5:

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I have set myself a completely unachievable mission. A knit mission impossible. But I will give it my best shot. And if it’s not finished in time then so be it. I will be posting updates through September on my Instagram if you want to follow my progress.  And please give me encouragement. I think I am going to need it…

#knitmissionimpossible

 

The Norfolk Horn: Part 2

As promised, a second post on the Norfolk Horn. In this post I want to tell you a bit about its wonderful woolly fleece.

Facts first. Todays Norfolk horn is a medium sized, hardy sheep. With its distinctive black face, alert bright eyes, with magnificent strong open spiral horns.  Both rams and ewes have horns. Long black legs and a belly that is free from fleece. It is intelligent, inquisitive and friendly, and, relative to its ancestors, fairly docile.  Its docility is thought to be owed to the Suffolk part of the modern Norfolks genetic heritage.

If you can get your hands on a Norfolk horn fleece you will find it is a creamy coloured, down land type, with flecks of dark fibres, the amount of dark fibre will vary between fleeces.

The British Wool Marketing Board classifies its fibre as fine, with a given micron range of 32 – 34.  So not so fine.  But bear with me. It does have a soft to medium handle. It has a staple length of 7 – 10 cm. The lock structure varies from a longish pointed staple in Shearling fleeces to a short thick more blocky staple in older sheep.

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Shearling locks

The fleeces are quite small weighing in between 1.25 – 2.25 kg.  But the belly and legs are not fleeced. I have found that their fleeces tend to need little skirting so don’t generate too much waste. But they are greasy.  Very greasy.

Another factor in their favour, it is incredibly reluctant to felt.  So best avoided if you want a woollen yarn to full if you’re a weaver or felter. But great if you are a bit on the heavy/careless side with your finishing and washing. That’s not say they are impossible to felt…Here’s something from my research into the Norfolk breeds history: The poor felting of the Norfolk breed was one of the reasons why Norfolk developed a thriving Worsted yarn and cloth industry during the middle ages.

Surprisingly the lovely soft chocolatey brown fleece in this photo is Norfolk Horn.  The Lambs are born with dark fleece and this gradually grows through to white with time. If you are lucky enough to get lambswool like this, the fleeces are a beautiful, short stapled but very fine and wonderfully soft. You’ll find shades ranging from salt and pepper grey through to dark rich chocolatey brown/black.  The black fades out over time but some adults keep some dark fibres which gives an interesting colouring when it’s spun.

It is a great fibre to spin giving a bouncy lively yarn. The medium staple length and crimpiness make it a very tolerant fibre perfect for new spinners. It is not slick and slippery like over processed merino. It sort of sticks together and lets the spinner focus on keeping the wheel/spindle turning, whilst drafting the fibre and letting it feed in without having to concentrate too hard on keeping the drafted fibre.

I have found it spins up much softer than its fibres suggest it ought.  But it is definitely a tickly sheepy yarn with bounce and life.  The yarn seems to carry the character of the breed it comes from.

In general I card Norfolk horn on a drum carder. I used to painstakingly comb locks before feeding on.  Took for ever.  My hands raw, sore and blistering from combing.  I don’t do this now.  Now I pick up the locks, pull out any offending neps, noils, second cuts and other reject bits.  Lay the lock perpendicular to the licker in and then feed it onto the drum sideways.  Yes sideways.  No.  Not tip first.  Not butt first.  Sideways.  Brilliant.  I promise you try this once and you will be amazed at how speedier this whole boring slow boring and tedious process becomes.  I will then split these once carded batts and then card them another couple of times.  Picking out nasty bits as I go.

In general a woollen or semi-woollen spinning suits the fine character of the Norfolk the most.

 

This swatch was spun longdraw from the batt as strips that I’ve pulled into slivers.  Its about 15 wpi and knitted on 3mm needles.

I’m useless at hand carding rolags, always seems to be full of neps and lumps and bumps. The yarn is light,airy and bouncy.  It has a much softer hand than expected but is definitely tickly.  Don’t mock the quality of my spinning, I can never seem to get enough ply twist!

The longer staples make a great worsted yarn. Unlike the sample in this picture, which is not my best. It spun denser than the woollen sample, at about 13 – 14 wpi and is knitted on 3mm needles.

 

When combed and spun worsted the resulting yarn has a lovely lustre and an amazing memory. Although it has a crisper handle the stuff is like elastic! It just keeps springing back to shape. It makes a perfect sock yarn. I’ve wondered about adding blending in some mohair for a harder wearing sock yarn. Haven’t got around to it yet. Although you will also lose a lot of fibre through combing but this can be carded and spun into a lovely textured woollen yarn. This swatch is spun worsted short draw.  Sort of. I may have drifted of at points and forgot to keep with the inch worm…its firmer and a little harder hand that the woollen spun.

This cardigan is Norfolk horn.

I was in a silk phase so everything was being blended with silk.  Didn’t need it.  The brown pattern work is Alpaca.  Despite being light its incredibly warm.

Heres another example.  These are socks are Norfolk horn.  I knitted them from a two ply worsted yarn spun from combed top and then dyed. They never, ever sag or bag. And I really like the lustre and good stitch definition. They have also more than a few trips through the washing machine at regular 40oC cycle.  Did not felt. Amazing.  The pattern, if you are wondering is Sunshine by Cookie A.  Love love love her socks….

To sum up, its sheepy, bouncy, a full of life, versatile, dyes well and is virtually a natural superwash  fibre.

Hopefully that’s what you need to know. Go find some if you can and give it a go. I would love to know how you find it.

Dutch Ganseys at the Sheringham Museum

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I took myself of the The Stella Ruhe Dutch Gansey Exhibition at the Sheringham Museum yesterday.

The exhibition is the result of research by Stella Ruhe in to the heritage and history of Dutch fishing communities and the ganseys worn by these men. It’s a travelling exhibition of over 60 ganseys reproducing old patterns in modern yarns. The exhibition also includes a few Sheringham Ganseys.

What is a gansey? It’s a close fitting, usually seamless, sweater traditionally worn by fishermen along much of the North Sea coastline of Britain and the Netherlands. Designed to be a very practical item of work wear. Hardwearing, windproof, waterproof. Tough. A tough garment for a tough environment worn by people who had tough lives. I think you get the point.  Ganseys were the work horses of knitwear. Hardcore knitwear.

Everything about them was practical and honed to achieve a windproof, waterproof, hard wearing easily mended long lived garment. From a technical point of view Ganseys were perfect for their function. A simple construction. A basic T shape. Knitted seamless in the round on fine 5 double pointed needles (14 – 17 imperial or less than 2mm) to create a dense windproof textile. Tight fitting, with little ease, often with an underarm gusset for movement. The sleeves a little on the short side to keep the hands and lower arms free. Cuffs knitted after thought to make repairs easy.

Traditionally knitted in dark blue in 5-ply worsted yarn. Although research is turning up all sorts of colours, greys, pale blues, black and red. Decorated with textured patterns round the upper torso, possibly to increase thickness for extra warmth.

Working ganseys were also rarely, if ever, washed and were worn next to the skin. The oils, dirt and grime all adding to the weatherproofing. I can’t help wondering what they would have felt and smelt like. Savoury?

What I find fascinating about ganseys is that despite the practicality of the gansey as work wear space was found for the knitter to express her art and craft in the decoration.  Ganseys were, by and large, knitted by women for their menfolk. Their sons, husbands and fathers.  The stitch patterns (all in simple combinations of knit and purl) were passed along by word of mouth down generations from mother to daughter and transmitted around the coastal communities of the North Sea. Each community developing its own unique pattern and stitch ‘library’. Rich in traditions and heritage, the stitch patterns symbolised everyday life: tools, harvest, landscape and weather. Stitch patterns include ridges and furrows, waves, anchors, diamonds, cables, lightening, ropes and ladders. The textural patterns are clean, linear, abstract and look modern.

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This is a wonderful example knitted by Esther Nurse of Sheringham in 1950. Its the Norfolk II Sheringham in Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Ganseys by Gladys Thompson. It used a 4-ply yarn knitted to a tension of 12 stitches and 20 rows to the inch. Her father died wearing a gansey of this pattern, it apparently fitted so snugly that it had to be cut off. The pattern shows the 3 ridges around the chest common to most Norfolk ganseys. What I really like is the unrepaired hole. I am wondering if its wear and tear of if moths may have been the culprit.

A gansey was much more than just a practical uniform for work. Fishermen wore their ganseys at all times, even having a Sunday best Gansey for Church, weddings high days and holidays. And it is thanks to this that we have some scanty records of these beautifully crafted garments.

As an item of workwear produced by women and worn by working men ganseys are overlooked and largely unrecorded. There are surviving records of boys and men posing in their best ganseys in rare (and expensive) studio photographs or documented at their work by photographers such as Olive Edis.

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Just how fine is this knitting? I love fine knitting. I assumed it was hand knit. It was so beautifully even, crisp and precise and fine. I can appreciate the time this garment took to make, if it was by hand and not machine. It’s truly amazing. A testament to the art and craft of the knitter. I wish I knew the women that made this.

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Mending and repairs. Definitely not a disposable item these were precious garments to be mended and maintained. Or just worn to destruction. There is a lovely picture in the Fishermans Heritage Centre , just around the corner from the Sheringham Mo, showing a lifeboat man at work in a much worn and frayed gansey. The yarn curling and unravelling out from a hole at the cuff. I didn’t note the name of the gentleman pictured, and excuse to go back…

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Pompoms and tassels. These confused me. Would having cord around your neck with fluffy balls on the end not be something of an accident waiting to happen on a working fishing boat? This is a question I hope I can get answered at the 2 day Symposium being held at the end of September.

I ended the visit with chips on the beach watching the world and his dog go by and trying to imagine quieter days before ‘holidays’ were invented.

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You can visit the exhibition from now until the end of September. The Gansey Symposium 2017 is from 29th September to Sunday 1st October.

 

We are the Ovaltinies

I’m feeling very smug. I’ve just finished my latest knit and I love it.

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The pullover is based on a Patricia Roberts pattern, Ovaltinie (Patricia Roberts Second Knitting Book p.72).

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I had been gifted a beautiful set of gradient mini batts in the colours of a Blue Tit by the lovely Mrs Biker(team mate in Spinzilla). These had been sat in the work shop waiting for that special moment of inspiration. I tend to act on impulse and am quite happy to wait for said moments of inspiration no matter how long. I have materials stashed that I have had for my entire adult life, and I am sure that I am not alone in this habit. I have learnt that forcing things creatively doesn’t often lead to good results. I digress. In one of those moments I was rifling through my book stash and remembered this pattern. I wasn’t enamoured of the colours used, totally 80’s clashtastic, but appreciated the design. I wanted to see how the fair isle design would work with more subtle colours. Keeping in with the Blue Tit theme I paired the colour work with a soft grey to act as the base.

I began the project on April 9th and finished it today.  80 days.  I could have gone around the world in that time.

I kept a visual diary of the process and thought you might appreciate it if I shared.

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April 9th fibre preparation

The batts were merino (hateful stuff but I worked through my ) and the grey was provided by the delightful Arabella who is a rare lady indeed, a beautiful black Romney.  For speediness the fibre was spun long draw from carded batts.  The original yarn is long gone, and I guessed the tension gauge of the yarn to be an old fashioned 3-ply or heavy lace weight.  I think a good modern substitute would be Jamiesons & Smith Shetland Heritage. I rushed it, so it’s came out a bit thick and thin but meh! Who cares it usually averages out ok in the end.

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April 24th spinning complete

I was also bit nervous that I would have enough of each of the colours as some of the skeins had more metrage than others. We will revisit this thought a bit later…

The pattern called for 1 main colour and 8 colours for the stranded colour work. I only had six plus the main. And this is what really slowed me up.  Whilst I wanted a subtle pattern I wanted the pattern to be visible.

I first worked out a rough colour arrangement for each of the separate design bands. Once I was happy with them I checked out that the colour values would also work. I was a bit suspicious that the values were a bit samey and the pattern would be a lost.

Here is probably the best tip I can every give for colour work: I always find it really useful to render the original design image and my chosen coloured yarns into black and white/greyscale. Working with colour value, rather than colours themselves, may seem a bit abstract. But trust me, it really helps. Particularly if you are using subtle colour shifts.

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original image in greyscale

This was a tip I had read about in Deb Menzes book Color in Spinning. There is also a wealth of resources out there. I recommend this excellent blog post by Jared Flood.

As you can see, I didn’t have a large range of colour values to work with.  This was particularly noticeable with the blues and the dark green (top left). I did wonder about including black but chucked it out of the mix as it was too jarring.  So, with fewer colours, little contrast and low range in colour value, I knew that this was going to be a complex challenge.

Even with the planning, some of my initial choices did not work out. There was lot of frogging and swearing. I reckon I knit a garment at least three times over by the time it’s done.

I also modified the pattern.  I like a nice deep rib.  I don’t like a deep armhole. And I wanted higher V neck – did not want boiling spuds if I wasn’t wearing a top underneath. And I only wanted one work through of the chart.  Fortunately, the row tension of my hand spun was bang on so I did not have to mess around with the chart repeats.

I calculated that if I doubled the rib length and increased the main grey colour banding to 4 rows then the single chart repeat would fit. It didn’t. I was about 5 cms too short at the shoulders. To overcome this, I repeated the first four rows of the chart and accepted that there would be a bit of a deep band of grey at the shoulders. It gave a nice symmetry to the pattern and closed it well.

What else? The original was knitted in two pieces flat. I wanted to knit the main body in the round. Knitting stranded colour work in the round is so much easier when following charts. My brain has difficulty ‘seeing’ the pattern on the purl rows. I didn’t use steeks but maybe next time I might, not sure if this would save any time.

Also, remember at the start, I was a bit nervous that I didn’t have enough of a couple of the colours…Top tip:  listen to your inner voice. Yup. I ran out of two of the colours…

Why do I always do this!

Luckily, two things. First I got the fronts finished and ran out on the back shoulder. Who cares about that – I can’t see it! Second, I had just bought in a lucky dip bag of mixed tops from Wingham Woolworks for a workshop I was running and it had a few colours that I could blend to get a sort of match as I only needed a teeny tiny bit. Result! Don’t you love it when the universe shines its happy face your way?

It took an age to knit. 80 days.  I had forgotten how much you have to concentrate when knitting stranded colour work. Let your attention slip and its abstract pattern time where everything goes on the huh. Frogging and swearing. So, I haven’t got a clue what was on TV for the past 80 days. Which is cool as it means I have the perfect excuse to re-watch American Gods and season 2 of Preacher all over again.

I am having a break from stranded colour work for a while. Give me something simple.

Suggestions welcome.

 

 

 

 

Me and The Norfolk Horn sheep

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Norfolk Horn Ewe. One of Olivers in Elsing, Norfolk (Image: J. Monahan)

Look at her, isn’t she magnificent.

She is a Norfolk Horn. Medium sized, hardy breed  with a distinctive black face. Long in the body and limb with alert, bright, inquisitive eyes. And those magnificent strong open spiral horns sweeping backwards found on both ewes and rams.

I have been developing something of an obsession with the Norfolk Horn.

Me and the Norfolk Horn have history. It was the first fleece I worked from start to finish. From scratch. It took a year. It was not a good year. It was the year I hit a wall and something inside me shattered and broke. I’m not going to dwell on why it happened, that is another story, but I guess some explanation is required. It occurred after a protracted period that began with the death of a parent after a period to watching them dissolve over Skype from Motor Neurons Disease, we emigrated to New Zealand, then came back again, picking up the old life as best we could, renovating a house whilst burying myself in work (over the subsequent three years I wrote my PhD thesis in 18 months, co-authored a book, started working as a lecturer as well as taking on three research contracts). I was sleeping 3- 4 hours a night. And then the crying started. My brain felt like it had literally broken. Snapped. I could barely string a sentence together. I could not work anymore. I was just functioning. Everything went monochrome and tasted like cardboard.

Working the small, dense, very greasy, crimpy fleece saved me. Is that too dramatic? Scouring it, carefully combing it and dizzing it into rovings. At this time I only had two dog combs and a vice with a button for a diz. Spinning it. Dyeing it. Designing a pattern and knitting it up. I think that through this slow, slow, oh so very slow process I was mending myself. I’m alright now, different, but doing ok.  This year I have rediscovered sleep.  Its wonderful.

Anyway…

Suffice to say, I have a deep personal affection for these mad looking wee beasties. The more I find out about them the more questions I seem to have. Their story is an extraordinary one that I can only summarise for you here.

Rare, now found mostly in or around East Anglia, the Norfolk’s story is one of abundance, decline to near extinction and, tenuously, back from the brink.

It is thought to be one of the oldest breeds in Britain. It is currently thought that they came to Britain with the Saxons. It can trace its ancestry back to the Saxon Black faced heath sheep that once roamed over Northern Europe from the Netherlands to Russia.[1].

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The Norfolk Sheep – a portrait P Nursey 1846 (image courtesy of Norfolk Museum Collection service)

It was the breed that was found everywhere across East Anglia from the Anglo-Saxon period through to the C18th. The Norfolk was a tough hardy breed. Small, feral and deer like, well suited to life ranging on the relatively poor Heathlands found in the region. It thrived on the poor sandy soils in the Brecklands and North-West Norfolk. Excelling at converting the low-grade heath pastures into milk, wool, manure and meat under the fold-course agricultural system unique to East Anglia [2].

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St Peter and St Paul Church, Salle, Norfolk. My favourite church and a fine example of a Wool Church, built to impress by merchants grown very rich indeed on the proceeds of wool.

 

Its wool is said to be the wool that created the wealth that built Norfolk’s numerous and ostentatiously over-large wool churches that pepper the county. It produced the wool that was exclusively used in the famous worsted yarns upon which Norwich’s medieval worsted textile industry was founded.

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Thomas William Coke of Norfolk Inspecting his Southdown Sheep, 1808 (Thomas Weaver). Thomas Coke, the 1st Earl of Leicester at Holkham, a keen advocate of agricultural modernisation.

Later, the Norfolk Horn found itself at the heart of the modernisation of livestock breeding during the C18th. Ironically, acting as the agent of its own demise. It was the crossing of The Norfolk Horn with the Southdown during the 18th Century that produced the Suffolk. Why is this important? Today, the Suffolk is the ram most used to produce the British Lamb that you will find on your plate.

By the mid C19th the Norfolk Horn was deeply unfashionable, considered a poor and troublesome breed by the Agricultural reformers. Their feisty, wild nature and inability to remain where they were put – leaping fences to keep roaming – made them ‘difficult’ to manage. They were replaced by these heavier docile Norfolk/Southdown crosses which were held as superior in every way. The number of Norfolk Horns declined.

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Prince Frederick Duleep Singh

There was a small Antiquarian revival lead by gentleman farmers such as Prince Duleep Singh at Old Buckenham, and (another ironic twist) Lord Leicester at Holkham. But this was over by the start of the First World War. By 1917 there were no Norfolk’s left in Norfolk and just one flock remained.

The survival of the breed is down to one man, Mr J. D. Sayer. JD Sayer kept the only flock known in existence from 1895 until 1947. At this time the flock of 13 surviving Norfolk’s were moved to the Cambridge Animal Research station, later the remnants of this flock became the nucleus of what would become the Gene Bank at Whipsnade Zoo. Over the next 20 years The Norfolk’s situation went from bad to disastrous. By the late 1960s all that remained of the breed were 14 badly interbred individuals. The breed was on the brink of extinction.

The last Norfolk ram died in November 1971. This has me welling up, it is so sad.

It isn’t the end though, clearly.

In yet another ironic twist of fate, to preserve what was left of the Norfolk’s genetics and to increase the genetic diversity of the breed, Joe Henson and his daughter Libby at their then recently opened Cotswold Farm Park in 1969 and in subsequent years, in an extraordinary act of foresight outcrossed one of the final surviving Norfolk rams with some of their Suffolk’s. Outcrossing with the Suffolk was continued in the early 1970s ensuring the survival of the breed.

It is at this point in the Norfolk’s story that it finds itself at the centre of the fledgling Rare Breeds Movement story as the Gene Bank Project was closed down in the late 1960’s. It was the desperate situation of the Norfolk Horn breed that led to the awareness of the need for genetic conservation of traditional farm animals. The Norfolk was the most at risk of all the breeds identified at the formation of the Rare Breed Survival Trust in 1973.

Through dedicated and careful stewardship by a number of people the breed survived and by 1994 The Norfolk Horn Breeders Group was established. By this time were less than 300 registered breeding ewes. By 2005 RBST moved the breed to Category 4 ‘At risk ‘on their watch list.

Today, there are more than 2500 sheep dispersed between 79 flocks, predominantly in its ancestral home of Norfolk. The Norfolk Horn is now off the critical list and is a Category 5 – minority on the RBST watch list.

I don’t know how the modern Norfolk Horn compares with the Old Norfolk. They look stockier, less agile and less wild. But they have a certain way about them, in the same way that Irish Wolf Hounds do. A rough raggedy regalness in the way they carry themselves. And I love them for it.

If you want to know more about the Norfolk Horn story the best reference I have found is Peter Wade Martins book. Black Faces: A History of East Anglian Sheep Breeds.

In the next post I will blog about the fleecey aspects and talk about the fibre side of life.

[1] Ryder, M. L. (1983). Sheep and man. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. . Wade-Martins, P., & Martins, S. W. (1993). Black Faces: A History of East Anglian Sheep Breeds. Norfolk Museums Service.

[2] Fold-course or Sheep-Corn system is unique to East Anglia. Under this distinctive form of agricultural management flocks were run on the open heaths during the day time and then folded (penned) on a set field area overnight to tathe (manure) the fields and feed on the crop residues.  See Allison, K. J. (1955). The wool supply and the worsted cloth industry in Norfolk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Doctoral dissertation, University of Leeds).

Saori and me

I recently spent a very happy few hours playing in a Saori Weaving Sessions with Kim at the Saori Shed.

I confess I am not a weaver. As a craft it has never really appealed to me. I don’t know why.  It has always seemed so complex, all that talk of ends, so much jargon and all those rules. Too many rules. Too many conventions. Too controlled.  Too complicated.

Saori (pronounced Sa-Ori) promotes freestyle weaving with no rules or restrictions. Saori is an art form in which the weaver can express their true self in weaving. There are no mistakes, no patterns to follow. Weavers just weave what they want to with complete freedom and creativity. This resonates with me and my approach to making.

I first met Kim a couple of years ago when she gave a talk and demonstration to my Guild (Mid Norfolk Guild of weavers, spinners and dyers). Kim weaves some extraordinary, breathtakingly beautiful textiles from handspun yarns using wool, natural and local fibres and recycled materials. She combines her woven fabrics with knitwear to create garments that can be worn in many ways. A very talented lady indeed.

I spin and I knit. I don’t weave.  Aside from keeping me sane I spin for two reasons. Firstly, to make yarn to feed my knitting. A knitting addiction that could quite quickly drain my very limited funds dry. The second is for pleasure. I gain huge satisfaction from dipping into bags of fibre, locks, threads, random found things and creating textured arty yarns.

These yarns are fragile and delicate. Whimsical and decorative. Beautiful but limited in practical application. They are Divas of the yarn world. They make great accents in garments, beautiful cowls, wonderful cuffs, collars and cushions. But, unless they are given enough freedom in the knitted fabric to really strut their stuff they become trapped, caged animals. Loosing something of their wild, unconventional ballsy nature.

I have often heard spinners of textured art yarns recommend weaving with them. Somehow, trapping them in a woven fabric keeps their character. I was curious but also as someone who sells their yarns I really ought to know the process and how my yarns behaved so I could talk about my experience to my customers.  And this curiosity is how I came to spend a couple of hours with Kim at the Saori Shed clutching a skein of my handspun.

I had quickly thrown together a single skein in a grey Romney with some mohair locks in pastel candy shades the day before and bought it along to try out.

Firstly Kim took me through the origins and philosophy that underpins Saori. Then we were introduced to the looms.  The looms were already warped up ready to start weaving. So no time wasted for warping, an art in itself.  We began by raiding the ‘Wall of wool’. An amazing resource.  Coned yarns in different textures, colours and weights and baskets of brightly coloured fibres, locks and an assortment of objects. I went for grey and dark purple for the base colours with a bright citrusy green and pale lilac for accents.  With some locks and roving.

I found it difficult getting the gist of the rhythm. A dance of beat, feet, hands, repeat. I can understand why weavers find it meditative and restful. But for me the dance did not come naturally.  Maybe I have no innate rhythm?  Or maybe it was just new and needed time to get ingrained into muscle memory to achieve that restful meditative state as I do when I spin and knit.

Keeping the grey I introduced the hand spun.

The thickness and texture meant it was slower going but faster growing. I interspersed my yarn with some of the coned grey, wondering if it would blend with the first section. It didn’t.  The handspun fabric was thicker but softer. Weaving was most definitely faster than knitting.  It was amazing to see the fabric grow so quickly.

I’m undecided as to what this cloth will become.  At the moment I am just enjoying looking at it.  It will tell me what it needs to be when the time is right.

I had a great time with Kim but, I know in my bones a weaver I will never be. However, I also know myself well enough to know never say never…