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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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.

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).