Spinning Drenthe Heath Sheep

Last year, I bought a bag of Drenthe Heath sheep wool. During our walks, we often see flocks of these sheep at work in one of our national parks. They are kept for conservation grazing, and their work is eating young trees and shrubs. Without them, our open heathlands would turn into woodland in no time.

Drenthe Heath sheep are not primarily kept for their meat or fleeces, but their meat seems to be good (I’ve never tasted it) and they produce fleeces of 1 to 2 kg per sheep. I know that their wool is generally considered to be of poor quality, but still I wanted to experience for myself what it feels like, how it spins up, and what I could knit with it.

An entire fleece would be way too much for me, so I bought a bag with small quantity of prepared wool.

Taking the wool out of the bag, I saw that it contained five rolled-up batts, or large rolags.

The label on the bag said, ‘150 grams. Washed and carded Drenthe Heath Sheep Wool, €10,00.’ There was also a business name on the label, but no website or contact information.

Asking around, I found out who had done all the washing and carding for me, and also that this person was going to be present at a crafts fair. Bringing a tuft of wool, I visited her stall at the fair to learn a bit more. Although she was busy selling her wares, she took the time for a chat. One of the things she said about the wool was, ‘there is quite a bit of kemp in it.’

Kemp???

‘Yes. If you look at the wool closely, you can see some dark fibres mixed in with the lighter wool. That is kemp.’

Back home I looked for more information about kemp. On p. 22 of The Spinner’s Companion Bobbie Irwin defines it as ‘Undesirable fiber found in some fleeces, especially those of more primitive breeds.’ I also found out that kemp isn’t actually wool but hair. I went on to read much, much more, including that sheep have primary and secondary follicles. It was all very interesting, but would go much too far to repeat it all here.

Summing up, all sources agree on one thing – kemp is bad news!

Only Robson and Ekarius are slightly milder in their great tome The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. On p. 9 they state, ‘Kemp isn’t all bad, though. Its very nature of odd dye absorption is sometimes useful, as in the production of true tweeds.’

In spite of all the bad news, I started spinning.

When I spin, I always have a tea towel on my lap, to protect my clothes and catch any dirt and fibres coming from the wool. For light fibres I use a dark tea towel, and for dark fibres a light one. This helps me to see what I’m doing.

I divided the wool into two equal portions and spun it into a fairly thin thread. During the spinning, the wool shed a lot of kemp. I put some on a sheet of white paper to take a closer look.

So this is kemp – short, rough, slightly curly hairs that make yarn prickly and don’t take dye well.

After spinning two bobbins full, I plied everything into a simple 2-ply yarn. While I was plying even more kemp fell out, but quite a bit stayed in too.

Drenthe Heath sheep can vary in colour, but their fleeces are mostly off-white. They are fairly small, hardy animals and have apparently lived in this region from about 4000 BC. My wool came from an animal like this one:

Although this isn’t the nicest wool I’ve ever spun, spinning 150 grams of Drenthe Heath Sheep wool has brought me a number of things:

  • In-depth knowledge of kemp
  • Several enjoyable hours of meditative treadling and drafting
  • A closer connection with these animals that have lived here for thousands of years
  • 135 gr/422 m/460 yds of yarn

The yarn is a sort of heathered oatmeal shade and feels, let’s say, rustic. I like it more than I expected, I have to say, but I don’t think I’d use it for something to wear.

I am also left with several question marks:

  • Would it have been possible to remove the kemp entirely? How?
  • If so, would the yarn still be scratchy?
  • Would it have been better if I’d spun it into a thicker, loftier yarn?
  • And last but not least – what could I knit with it? Hmmmmm…

If you’d like to read more about Drenthe Heath sheep, I’ve written about them here and here. And there is more information on the website of the Drenthe Heath sheep breeders’ association (mainly in Dutch, but with an English summary).

Heart-Lifting Spring Things

Good morning!

How are things going in your part of the world? I feel torn in two directions. On the one hand, my heart is heavy with all the bad news from around the world and closer to home, but on the other, it is still spring. And what a glorious spring!

I think there’s enough bad news already, so here are a few heart-lifting spring things from my home turf. Let’s start indoors. Every spring from around Easter I grow garden cress on our windowsill.

I love it sprinkled over cottage cheese on Swedish knäckebröd.

This time my knitting is in sync with the seasons. I found six balls of alpaca yarn in a lovely blossom pink shade in my stash, bought in Norway years ago. They are going to be knit into a Lace Sampler Scarf. Here’s my swatch.

In our back garden, the pear tree has shed its blossoms in a snow of white petals. Now it’s the apple tree’s turn to shine.

There’s lovely quick and simple apple blossom embroidery project in the May issue of Country Living (British edition). It has some other nice ideas for things to make as well.

The pink knitting on the right is for a new design I’m working on. This is just a first try – it may take a while for the pattern to materialize.

Leaving the house through the front door, the first spring things to catch the eye are a pot and a basket filled with ‘wild’ strawberries, dug out from an overgrown patch in the garden.

Normally I’d plant them with pelargoniums. Every spring members of our local brassband go from door to door selling them to raise money for new instruments and uniforms, but not this year. It’s one of the many things that are different this spring. The brassband will have to make do with their present kit a little longer.

Turning left and walking almost to the end of the street, we come to an old, old Japanese cherry tree in full bloom.

The sky is incredibly clear and blue now that there are no planes creating a haze. Our solar panels have never produced so much energy in the eight years since we installed them.

Strolling along the street in the other direction, we come to our farmer neighbours’ cows. They are out again after having been are kept indoors all winter.

I would have loved to go a little further afield to visit a flock of sheep, pet the newborn lambs, chat with one of the shepherds and take some photographs, but unfortunately that’s impossible this year.

I did talk (on the phone) with one of the volunteers of the Rhedense schaapskudde, though. It’s a flock of Veluwe Heath Sheep, a rare breed breed much bigger than the Drenthe Heath Sheep I wrote about here and here.

The volunteer told me that their lambs are growing fast and the adult sheep will be shorn soon. (Their wool can be spun, but is too rough to be used for clothing.) Their four bottle-fed lambs have become a close gang and tend to wander off together when the flock is out grazing the heathland.

This is a difficult period for the flock, as they largely depend on the revenue from their annual Lambing Day and the adoption of lambs by visitors, but they are moving with the times and people can now adopt a lamb online. It’s not as nice as choosing and petting one’s ‘own’ lamb in person, but it’s a good alternative. Although this year’s Lambing Day is cancelled, we can still visit virtually through this video from a couple of years back. Enjoy!

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Sheep Shearing

There’s been a lot of sheep shearing going on around here during the past couple of months. Often it’s just a solitary farmer shearing his own sheep in his own farm yard. The farmer above is shearing one of his Texel sheep. He keeps them for meat, like all of our local farmers. The wool is just a by-product, shorn off quickly with electric clippers, stuffed into bags and shipped off to China.

But we also have sheep shearing festivals, where wool plays a much more prominent role. I’ve been to two of these, and here’s a compilation of what I’ve seen.

Below you see the Holtinger Schaapskudde, 630 sheep kept together by one of the sheep dogs.

These Drenthe Heath sheep are kept for landscape management, grazing on saplings and keeping the heathland open. I’ve written about this herd and their ‘job’ before in this post.

As you can see, most of them have already lost their warm, white, brown, grey or black winter coats.

A small group of sheep has been herded into a pen. Now it’s their turn to be shorn. Visitors to the festival can point out which fleeces they want.

The wool is especially suitable for felting, and some visitors will be coming back to take part in one of the felting workshops given on the premises.

The sheep they’ve chosen is then dragged out from among the others. It is placed in a rather unflattering upright position first, and the shearer starts clipping around its neck.

After that the sheep is laid down on its side, and the shearer frees it from one half of its fleece, turns it over and then removes the other half.

This particular sheep kept very still, and didn’t seem stressed at all. I think it’s because the shearer is very experienced. And he uses hand shears, unlike the farmer at the top of this post. Perhaps that’s less stressful for the sheep, too?

I took the picture below, of an onlooker’s feet, especially for my readers in other parts of the world:

Yes, some of us actually do wear wooden shoes! They’re light, warm, comfortable to wear and even count as official safety footwear. I’ve worn them a lot, and our daughter did too as a small child. (She prefers Jimmy Choos now, though.)

Apart from the actual sheep, there’s a lot of other woolly goodness on offer at these festivals. Fleeces for spinning and felting from various sheep breeds:

And also lots of lovely hand-made things. I particularly liked these felted slippers, decorated with beads:

Some people brought along their spinning wheels. This spinner told me that she spun all the yarn for the rainbow of cabled ponchos on the rack next to her, but that somebody else did the dyeing and knitting.

In the photo above you can hardly see the cables, so here’s another one. This one’s taken from the front and shows the stitches and the construction better:

Colourful and cosy, aren’t they?

I thought all sheep shearing would be done by now, but I just found out that there’s another sheep shearing festival and wool market next weekend. If you’re in the area, it’s on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st of July 2019 at the Shepherds of Balloo. More information can be found here. Judging by the list of participants, it’s going to be a big event.

To close off, here’s a close-up of one of the Drenthe Heath sheep. I think they are just so photogenic, don’t you agree?

The Shepherds of Balloo

On Sunday morning we decided on a whim to pay the shepherds of Balloo a visit. It was a lovely day for a walk and I hoped we would see some newborn lambs.

When we arrived, the doors of the sheep fold were open. We could see that it was empty and the sheep were out, which was only to be expected in the middle of the day.

In 2011, the old fold was destroyed by a terrible fire. Fortunately, enough money could be raised to rebuild, and there is a new, very light and airy fold now.

Looking inside we could see the fresh, golden straw on the floor and the wooden feeders filled with hay. In cold and wet weather the ‘windows’ can be closed with a kind of roller blinds.

The area where these sheep roam is not very big, so we should be able to find them. The wind was a bit nippy, but otherwise it was a lovely dry and bright day. The start of our walk took us along a cycle track:

Very soon we turned right, onto a sandy path and the heath. Although spring has arrived in our garden, the landscape here still looked bare and wintry.

I haven’t discovered how to share the sounds and smells of our walks with you here other than catching them in words, so that’s what I’ll try to do. Well, I don’t know about the smells, but for a soundtrack to this walk think of the soughing of the wind and the song of skylarks, climbing higher and higher into the sky. Nothing else. No cars, no planes, no traffic noise at all.

We didn’t have to walk very far before we spotted the flock of sheep in the distance:

Walking on, we lost sight of them for a while. Why? Well, in my pictures the landscape looks flat, while it is in fact slightly undulating. But soon enough, climbing a hillock, we suddenly saw them again. And sitting in a sheltered spot, leaning against his rucksack, was one of the two shepherds who own this flock, keeping an eye on his sheep.

And he was not alone. His two sheep dogs were with him. One of them is a border collie, like many other shepherds in this area have. And the other one is an Australian Kelpie. Meet Woods:

Oh, what a lazy dog! Just lying around enjoying the sunshine instead of minding the flock. Or is he? Look at his ears – they are not resting at all, but on the alert all the time. And as soon as they register something he sits up:

The shepherd told us that Woods is a dog with a natural instinct for herding. A really reliable dog. ‘If we get back to the fold at the end of an afternoon and Woods keeps looking back, you can bet your boots that there’s a stray lamb left behind,’ he said.

Talking about lambs – where are they? Well, as it turns out we were a bit early in the year. There were only six lambs as yet. They were hidden among the adult sheep, but I was able to take a snapshot of two of them. Can you see them?

These sheep are again of the Drenthe Heath sheep breed, about which I wrote in A Chat with a Shepherd. And here, too, their main job is nature conservation.

The shepherds of Balloo have the biggest flock in this part of the country, with over 400 sheep before the lambing season. As is usual for Drenthe Heath sheep, their colours range from (almost) white to black, with other colour variations in between.

What interests me, of course, is what happens with the wool. In the Middle Ages wool was an economic factor to be reckoned with, and the wool trade brought great riches to parts of Europe. But we live in different times.

At my knitting group, last week, I was shocked to hear that another shepherd with Drenthe Heath sheep receives literally nothing at all for his fleeces! His fleeces are shipped to China, as some kind of waste product, to be used in the carpeting industry.

At Balloo things are looking better, I’m glad to say. Along one wall of the fold I saw stacks and stacks of plastic bags filled with fleeces.

Fleeces in all of the colours Drenthe Heath sheep come in are offered for sale. Each bag has a label describing the specific properties of that particular fleece. I read things like: ‘Ideal for felting’, ‘Good quality for spinning’, ‘Fleece with especially long locks’, etcetera.

An entire fleece would be  too much for me, at the moment, but fortunately I was able to buy a smaller quantity of wool. I am looking forward to trying out how it feels in my hands and how it spins up. I need to finish spinning and plying some other wool on my bobbins first, but when I have something to show, I’ll definitely let you know.

More information

There are two websites dedicated to the Balloo sheep. I don’t quite understand why. One seems to be the shepherds’ own website, and has information about the flock and the wool studio (more about that some other time). The other website provides similar information about the flock, as well as a description of the landscape.

A Chat with a Shepherd

By far most of the sheep surrounding us are of the well-known Texel breed. Stocky, white-fleeced sheep, like the woolly lady enjoying a bit of wintry sunshine in the picture at the top of this post.

When I started spinning, decades ago, I only spun Texel wool at first. Simply because it was the only wool I could get at the time. Since then I’ve tried out various other sorts of sheep’s wool and non-sheep fibres. Even some nutria (also known as coypu rat). Ugh, never again! But let’s not get distracted – back to sheep.

We do have other sheep breeds in the Netherlands – 67 other breeds, in fact. (I didn’t know that. I looked it up.) One of these is the Drenthe Heath sheep. There are several flocks of Drenthe Heath in our part of the country, and we sometimes meet them when we’re out walking.

On one of our Sunday walks I already spotted them from a distance. How nice that they’re here today! (We never know exactly where they are – it’s always a surprise.) But when we came closer, something seemed different. Strange. Wrong.

Normally they roam freely over the heath, but this time they were all huddled together.

Huddled really, really closely together. Look:

That was decidedly odd! And where was the shepherd? We stood watching the sheep for a while, wondering what was up. Meanwhile I took some close-ups of individual sheep. Most of them are whitish with a brown or golden head and legs, but there are also some grey and black ones among them. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Then the sheep dog, a Border Collie, came back with the shepherd close on its heels.

We asked him (the shepherd, not the dog) what was the matter, and he told us that one of the sheep had broken a leg, jumping into a ditch. He’d had to carry it back to the fold and herded the rest of the flock closely together to keep them safe while he was away for a while.

He also told us that the flock consists of 380 sheep now. In spring, after lambing, it grows to 700-800. The sheep’s job is nature conservation. Their grazing keeps the heathland open, like this:

Every sheep eats about 5 kilograms of plant material a day. So, in winter the flock eats 380 x 5 = almost 2000 kilograms per day! Without the sheep, the area would soon be overgrown with shrubs:

The shrubs would be followed by trees. And the heath, with all its rare flora and fauna, would be gone within a decade. Thank you so much, dear sheep, for preserving this beautiful habitat for us.

Although these are the native sheep around here, I’ve never spun any of their wool. To be honest, I actually know very little about Drenthe Heath sheep or their wool. So when we got home I got out my Fleece & Fibre Source Book.

Yes! They’re in the index – go to page 313. And what does it say on page 313? The breed is mentioned under Zwartbles, as one of its ancestors, ‘the horned and hairy-fleeced Drenthe (outside the scope of this volume)’. Not very helpful.

Well, I’ll have to go looking for more information elsewhere. There’s always the internet, of course. Or I could visit some of the flocks and chat with other shepherds. I know that the Shepherds of Balloo have a wool studio, but I’ve never been there. A visit during the lambing season would be something to look forward to.

And maybe I could try spinning some Drenthe Heath wool. I don’t know what it’s like or if it would be suitable for knitting. Do any of you reading this have any experience with the wool? If you do, I would really appreciate it if you’d tell us about it in a comment.

To be continued…