100% Wol

Hellooo! How wonderful that you’ve come all the way to the Frisian Museum of Agriculture to visit us!

Eh, well, we eh…

Moo, yes wonderful! I love telling visitors all about ourselves and our legendairy milk production.

Wel, eh, that sounds udderly fascinating…

…but we’re a bunch of knitters and spinners, and we’re actually here today for your colleagues the sheep, and the 100% Wol exhibition.

Baa, did I hear someone say sheep? Welcome!

I’m more than happy to tell ewe about ourselves and especially our wool.

Happy? We thought it’d be all gloom and doom, what with your wool ending up in waste incinerators or being shipped off to China as a waste product.

Oh, that! Yes, that’s too baad. But in the grand scheme of things it’s just a temporary blip. Think of all those centuries that our wool was a highly valuable commodity. We have a few items from the past here that’ll give you an idea.

There’s this interesting teasel brush, used to raise the nap on woollen cloth. So much care was taken for a perfect finish.

And here are some spindle stones from the 15th to 18th centuries. It must have taken so much time to spin our wool this way. People wouldn’t have put all this time and effort into it unless they thought the end product was really worth it.

A lot of care has also gone into knitting these woollen mittens. And they were valuable enough to the wearer to repair them time and again.

There were a few decades when people thought importing synthetic items from low-wage countries was better than using our fleeces, but let’s forget about those. Let’s look at the great initiatives now being taken using local wool.

To begin with, there’s this movement called Pleed that started with making woollen blankets and is now branching out into other projects.

And look at this wall of new products, all using our lovely fleeces.

There’s also been an experiment using locally grown woad to dye wool blue. You may already have heard about it.

And many more great initiatives are being taken. Just look around and you’ll see that the future is looking bright for us and our coats.

All’s wool that ends wool, we always say. Do come again – we have lots of woolly activities scheduled.

Or for those living too far away, there’s also a virtual tour of the museum. Thank ewe so much for your visit – it’s been such fun! Baa-bye!

Non-Superwash

Hello!

From the 1970s I remember something new appearing on the yarn market: Superwash Wool! It was considered a blessing. Garments knit from superwash wool were so much easier to care for – they didn’t felt, they didn’t shrink and all in all they were more durable.

For the blanket I knit for our grandson, I deliberately chose a superwash merino wool to make life easier for his parents. And now, recently, I read ‘…I have stopped purchasing superwash wools…’ in this book:

Why? I thought.

And then I came across a yarn explicitly marketed as non-superwash. Again I thought, Why? (Uh-huh, I have deep thoughts from time to time.)

Intrigued, I bought a few hand-dyed non-superwash skeins. They are now an almost finished Thús 2, that I’ll finish as soon as the weather gets cooler:

‘But’, I asked the indie dyer selling this yarn, ‘does that mean that your other yarns are superwash, even though the labels don’t say so?’ ‘Not all of them, but some of them are,’ she said. I was flabbergasted.

Apparently I’d been using superwash yarns all along without being aware of it! I’d always thought that all yarns were non-superwash, unless specifically labelled as superwash. And what’s wrong with superwash yarns anyway?

Always happy with an excuse to do some research, I dived into an online sea of opinions and information about superwash versus non-superwash wool, almost drowning in it. Here is a summary of what I found out:

Why would wool need superwash treatment at all?
Wool fibres have tiny open scales that interlock when friction is applied or when they come into contact with quickly changing water temperatures, leading to felting and shrinking. Superwash treatment can prevent that.

A controversial superwash treatment
The most commonly used method for shrink/felt-proofing wool by far is the chlorine-Hercosett process. After washing, but before spinning, the wool goes into a bath of diluted chlorine to dull the scales. And after that the scales are coated with a synthetic (polymer) resin to make them even smoother and prevent the wool from felting/shrinking. There is a lot of debate about this method:

  • On the one hand: The chlorine-Hercosett method requires large quantities of water and produces an environmentally hazardous effluent. In some parts of the world this may lead to water pollution.
  • On the other hand: Because of the strict waste water legislation in the EU and some other countries the effluent is treated to such an extent that only very clean water leaves the factory.
  • Positive: This treatment prolongs the lifespan of items made from the wool.
  • Question mark: Does the resin coating release micro pollutants when the wool is washed? Some producers say that the resin used is biodegradable and does not, but somehow I do not feel completely assured.

More environmentally friendly alternatives

  • EXP, which stands for EX-Pollution, was developed by Schoeller. This method avoids pollutants altogether, but still uses extra water.
  • Naturetexx Plasma, a treatment not using any water at all, but just air and electricity. The drawback is that it uses lots of electricity and there are questions about the durability of the wool treated in this way.

So, what is an environmentally conscious knitter to do?
It’s complicated – sigh! The labels don’t tell us much. They sometimes tell us that a yarn has been superwash treated, but not always. And they don’t tell us which treatment process was used. What we can do is this:

  • Visit yarn manufacturers’ websites. Some of them give useful information about their production process.
  • Look for yarns with the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) label. Chlorine cannot be used in any stage of the production of these yarns.
  • Remember that any superwash treatment makes knitted garments last longer, which is also sustainable, and may be necessary for items that need to be washed often, like baby things.
  • Choose non-superwash yarns for items that do not need frequent washing. Some people say that non-superwash yarns have less saturated colours than superwash ones, but I find that hard to believe looking at these yarns from my nearest indie dyer.

Joure Wool Festival 2022

Hello!

Together with a friend, I visited the annual Wool Festival in Joure last weekend. We had a great time and (not entirely unexpectedly) saw LOTS of wool. There were bundles of curly locks, bags filled with raw fleeces, and cleaned and carded batts of wool from specific Dutch sheep breeds, like Texel, Dutch milk sheep, Kempen heath sheep and Dutch piebald sheep.

There was also wool from many other breeds of sheep, single or in blends, undyed or dyed.

I remember a time, not so very long ago, when I could only get raw Texel fleeces, and later some merino from Australia. It is amazing how much the wool landscape has changed over the past decade or so, and how much more local wool is available and appreciated now.

I don’t know why, but there was no sheep shearing this year. There were other fleeces walking around on four legs, though.

Don’t they have the sweetest faces?

There was also wool in the form of yarn, of course – machine-spun and hand-dyed, hand-spun and dyed and hand-spun in natural colours.

And then there were things made from wool. Adorable hedgehog mittens, Scandinavian and Latvian inspired mittens, and felted and woven items (click on images to enlarge).

Among all the animal fibres, there was also one plant fibre present: flax. “The Frisian Flax Females are spinnin’ flax into linen” the notice board, decorated with a bundle of flax, said.

Very interesting! Spinning flax into linen is very different from spinning wool into yarn. The flax fibres are kept from tangling by placing them on a distaff. On the rack to the right of the spinner you can see a few of the towels woven from the hand-spun linen.

The spinner keeps her hands close to the flax on the distaff and feeds the fibre onto the spinning wheel in short drafts.

And do take a closer look at the spinner’s traditional cap.

More information about flax, and how it is spun and woven can be found on one of the spinners’ website. It is in Dutch, but if you have Google as a browser, you can right-click on the text and have it translated.

And then, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of the market, a quiet corner with an elderly couple. She is spinning and he is keeping her company.

They are both made from wool, needle felted and wet felted. And they are part of the project Gewoan Minsken (Frisian for Simply People). Artist Lucie Groenendal portrayed the people living and working in a care home by felting, drawing and painting them.

These are just two of them, with to the right in the photo above a work called Helping Hands. More about this beautiful project can be seen and read on the artist’s website.

I’m ending today’s post with the answer given by one of the people portrayed to the question what makes life worth living:

“Look for the good in people, enjoy the things you do, and know that growing old is a search for a new balance.”

xxx

PS: The general website of Joure Wool Festival can be found here, and a list of participants here.

Woolly Country Life

There was a small market in the square behind the church in the photo at the top. This market – called Wollig Landleven (Woolly Country Life) – visits a different village in our part of the country every month from spring through autumn. It is a lovely small-scale event.

The Country Life part refers to ‘essentials’ like soaps, sausages, cheese, herb teas, clothes and all kinds of knick-knacks for the home. My favourite of these is the baker with his wood-fired oven.

The smell is heavenly, and their lovingly displayed loaves are delicious as well as a feast for the eyes.

But I mainly came for the Woolly part, of course. There was wool in different forms. There were raw fleeces in plastic bags…

… complete sheep skins…

… and hand-dyed fibres for felting and spinning.

The last time I went to a ‘real’ crafts fair was in February 2020, and no indoors yarn events will be held here in the near future, as far as I know. The organizers of our regional (indoor) crafts fair are now aiming for February 2022. This market only gets permission because it is outdoors and complies with all the regulations, lilke one-way traffic and a limited number of visitors. And we still need to be careful to keep a 1.5 metres distance, disinfect our hands etcetera.

But in spite of all that, the atmosphere is relaxed, and it is wonderful to stroll around looking at the wares and just be among people. It takes some getting used to that again. There was one person who stood out because of her daring and original outfit.

Looking at the shawl now, it occurs to me that it might be a Stephen West design. And yes, a quick Ravelry search tells me that it is Slipstravaganza. He is so creative, and his designs really stand out.

I enjoyed looking at several baskets filled with handspun yarns. To me it is always inspiring to see what choices other people make. What colours did they choose to combine? How many plies? How thick or thin is their yarn? Is it slubby or even?

It was a lovely surprise to meet two new indie dyers. The first was Wat Wollie (which is a pun in the local dialect and could be translated as What WOOLd you like). Petra dyes her yarns in beautiful saturated colours.

Apart from at these markets, she also sells her yarns through Etsy, and her website can be found here. Petra has only been knitting for a few years, but has quickly become an accomplished knitter, as her sweater shows. I forgot to ask which pattern she used, but I think it is Goldwing by Jennifer Steingass.

The stall next to hers was that of Badcattoo Yarn. It’s fun to see how every dyer has her own style. Badcattoo’s yarns are generally lighter and often have parts left undyed. She also has a website.

For a long time now, my policy has been only to buy yarns with a specific project in mind. But for once I’ve deviated from that rule and bought a skein from both dyers with no idea what I’m going to do with them yet. I had some pocket money to spend on frivolous things, after all.

Both are fingering-weight yarns with a percentage of nylon in them. Top right is Badcattoo’s yarn in lovely pale sky blues with black, white and brown tweedy neps. And bottom left Wat Wollie’s skein in deeper hues of blue and purple, with a few brown speckles here and there.

It felt so good to be hanging out with my ‘tribe’ again for a while.

For anyone living in or near Drenthe, an overview of upcoming Wollig Landleven markets can be found here.

An Inspiring Friend

Hello!

It’s been an unsettling and busy week. Certain things have taken up so much of my attention that other things have piled up. Now what am I going to do? Rush around the house cleaning and tidying? Tackle a pile of ironing? Do some admin? Or write a blog post? Reading this, you know the answer.

Ah, it’s good to sit here, look through my photos and chat with you. Today I’m going to chat about a belated birthday visit to one of my dearest friends, who is a wonderful knitter, spinner and yarn dyer.

Shortly before leaving home, I hopped onto my bicycle for a quick visit to the flower garden just outside our village. (In case you have found my blog recently, you can read more about it here.)

Armed with a bunch of flowers and a bag filled with small birthday gifts, I set off for my friend’s place. I won’t give you a full account of my visit – you can imagine that: sitting in her garden with mugs of tea, cake, and endless talk and laughter. What I’d like to show you, is how my friend inspires me.

Last year she gave me some spinning fibres in a gradient of blues.

I spun the yarn a long time ago – looking back through my blog posts I saw that I mentioned it in August 2020. And then it stayed on the bobbin for almost a year!

I wasn’t sure what to do with it. In order to keep the gradient intact, I could do various things:

  • I could have split the fibres up in two portions and made it into a 2-ply yarn, but I didn’t. I spun it into a fairly thin single ply.
  • I could ply this single thread in on itself (aka chain plying or Navajo plying).
  • I could ply it with another thread.

Chain plying would have given me a fairly short yardage, and the possibilities for things to knit with it would be limited. So, after thinking it over for a loooooong time, I decided on the last option. I could have spun a thread to ply the gradient with myself, but I chose a commercial thread instead.

This is a lace-weight silk yarn sold as ‘Shantung Yaspee’ by two weird and wonderful Belgian guys who stock some very special yarns and fibres. (Ever heard of the fibre categories Bizaroides, Experimental Recycle Upcycling, or Brazilian Chicken?!)

My inspiring friend had used this technique before, and I was curious to see how it would work out. It was very handy that the silk yarn fitted onto the bobbin holder of my spinning wheel.

Plying these two different fibres together went very well. It gave a lovely barber pole effect at the dark end of the gradient.

At the light end, the effect was more subtle. All in all the shantung silk, with its nubs of white and royal blue, and my hand-spun merino-and-Tencel, made a lovely tweedy kind of yarn, from deep navy to start with…

… to a pale baby blue.

Here it is – 138 grams/572 m/625 yds of a merino/Tencel/silk blend…

… ready to be knit up into… something. I have a vague idea, but it’ll take a while to take shape.

I arrived at my friend’s place bearing gifts, and also left with gifts. Tidying her crafts room she came across some fibres she wasn’t going to use and thought I might be happy with. And I am!

This is what she gave me – some turquoise-and-lime wool blended with undyed silk:

And a box filled with small quantities of wool from various sheep breeds.

I think I’ll start spinning the turquoise-and-lime blend straightaway – such cheerful colours!

What with the current explosion of Covid-numbers in this country, the extreme downpours and flooding in the south and our surrounding countries, and news of unprecedented heatwaves and conflicts in other parts of the world I sometimes have the feeling that the end of the world is near.

Will spinning yarn save the world? No, of course not. What spinning (and an inspiring friend) can do, is lift my mood of gloom and doom, so that I can keep functioning and making a positive contribution, albeit in a very small way. Spinning is such a gentle, soothing thing to do. Do consider giving it a try, if you are not a spinner already.

Again, I hope you’re all safe and well. Take care!

Spinning Friesian Dairy Sheep

Hello!

Today’s post is all about Friesian dairy sheep. The silly creature above sticking its tongue out at you belongs to this breed. I’ve spun some of their wool that I’d like to tell you about. But there is more to these sheep than wool. In fact, their wool is only a by-product. Their main job is producing milk – they aren’t called dairy sheep for nothing.

According to the breeders’ association the Friesian dairy sheep is the sheep breed with the highest milk yield in the world (!). It produces about 600 litres of milk during the 6 month lactation period every year. It is a rare breed that was almost extinct 40 years ago, but thanks to several enthusiastic breeders their numbers have grown to around 9000 registered pedigree sheep now.

What do they look like? You’ve already seen a cheeky one in the photo at the top. Here is more serious picture.

Friesian dairy sheep are large sheep without horns, with a long neck, a hairless face and tail, and a slightly bent nose.

I was kindly given permission to use these photos by sheep farm Bongastate. I’m a big fan of their smooth and creamy sheep’s yoghurt. There are lots of delicious recipes using sheep’s milk and yoghurt on their website.

The recipes are in Dutch, but Google Translate does a remarkably good job in this case. The picture shows their lemon yoghurt sponge cake.

Sheep’s yoghurt is fairly new to me, but I grew up with sheep’s cheese. Fresh sheep’s cheese is a speciality from Friesland that is only available from about March to October. It is a small, soft, white cheese sold in plastic tubs.

This ‘wet’ cheese comes in a bath of whey and has a very mild taste. I like eating it on a slice of wholewheat bread, sprinkled with freshly milled black pepper and sea salt.

The last time I bought some, was at the farmers’ market I love visiting (and have written about here and here). It was there that I also found some Friesian sheep’s wool. It was tucked away behind a cushion with a cover knit in bulky white wool.

I don’t know if you can see it? Here it is from closer up, in deep brown, white and a mixture of brown and white.

According to the sheep breeder’s association, Friesian dairy sheep are always white. How come there is also brown here? I need to ask the sellers about it if/when the market starts up again in May. I hope they’ll be there again.

Anyway, I chose white. It was sold in small quantities as rolled-up batts (carded ‘sheets’ of wool). The label said it was 30 grams.

I bought both the wool and the cheese from Puur Schaap, a small and sustainable sheep farm. I’ve only met them once and don’t know much about them. For more information, please check out their website.

The wool had been cleaned and carded, but was still slightly greasy. Perfect for spinning. I rolled out the batt and divided the wool up into a sort of unofficial rolags. I tore off strips lengthwise and tore them in half widthwise.

 A ‘real’ rolag is made using hand carders. All I did was roll up the pieces I’d torn off by hand.

Then I spun the wool using a short backward draft. When it was not holding the camera, my right hand guided the thread, but it was my left hand that was doing the actual drafting.

I spun all of it onto one bobbin. At this stage the wool was still yellowish and it felt like binder twine.

My plan was to wind it into a ball, and ply it into a 2-ply yarn from a centre-pull ball. But I changed my mind and decided to make it into a slightly thicker 3-ply yarn instead.

So I wound the wool into 3 small balls (weighing them on precision scales), put them in a basket to keep them from rolling all through the living room…

… and plied the three plies together.

Then I wound the yarn into a skein and washed it, first in washing-up liquid and then in Eucalan. The grease came out and after drying I had a skein of creamy white, perfectly clean lavender-scented yarn.

It is the softest yarn I have ever spun from local sheep’s wool. Not as soft as merino, but it spun up into a really lovely, slightly airy thread.

The skein weighs about 40 grams (according to the label I bought 30 grams of unspun, but they have obviously been generous) and has a length of approximately 100 metres (110 yards). I think it counts as a DK-weight yarn.

Well, that’s all about my small wool-rescuing project for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about this special sheep breed. And I hope to come back to the yarn later, when I’ve decided what it’s going to be.

Something small… Perhaps a knitting notions case? Or a pair of wrist warmers? Or it may even be enough for a hat. Shall I dye it, or leave it as it is? Decisions, decisions.

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).

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?

Balloo Wool Studio

Two days off plus a weekend with few planned activities gave me a lot of uninterrupted knitting time. I spent it knitting my Stay Soft shawl – row upon row of garter stitch. When I’d knit about a third of the shawl, I decided to rip it all back and start again (more about that soon). And while I was knitting more and more rows of garter stitch, my mind was free to roam.

I looked ahead, making plans for summer knitting projects. And I thought about spinning, too. I’ve finished plying the yarn on my bobbins, so my spinning wheel is free to take on a new project. I thought of the Drenthe Heath sheep wool I bought a while ago, waiting to be spun up, which made me think back to the day in April we visited the Shepherds of Balloo. And suddenly I remembered that I was going to write about their Wool Studio, too.

So here we are. My train of thoughts has transported us to Balloo Wool Studio:

The Wool Studio is housed in a wooden building across from the sheep fold, is open every day of the week, and is run entirely by volunteers. When the weather is nice, tea and coffee are served outside. On chilly days, visitors can warm up inside around the wood stove.

The volunteers have created a really cosy place, with books on the shelves and playthings for the children. And everywhere you look there is wool. Hanks of handspun wool hanging from a thick branch,

handspun wool on balls, and handspun wool made into blankets, sweaters, shawls, socks and much, much more.

Knowing how long it takes to spin up 100 grams of yarn, let alone an entire fleece, I was amazed by everything I saw. There was so much to see and such a lot of variety. Not just in the type of projects chosen, but also in thickness (or fineness) of the yarn used, and in the techniques.

On the sofa were two crocheted throws, made from grannie squares and thick yarn in various natural colours.

There were stacks of handknit items in a beautiful antique cupboard. Sweaters in all kinds of stitch patterns and a shawl with a knit-in sheep pattern.

Hanging in front of a window was a narrow scarf that made me look twice. What’s that? It doesn’t look like knitting or crochet. It isn’t woven either. What can it be? Oh, wait a sec, I think it may be bobbin lace.

What a great idea! Especially with the thick thread meandering through it. Here’s a detail:

What struck me was that almost everything I saw, was in the natural colours of the Drenthe Heath sheep fleeces. The only exceptions were a few brightly dyed balls of yarn on a shelf and this pair of adorable baby booties, with some green and red accents:

Other than that, everything was in one or more of the shades of white, grey, brown and black the Drenthe Heath sheep have to offer.

I think it’s wonderful what the people at Balloo Wool Studio have done with the fleeces of their flock. It’s so good to see that not all of our local wool is bought up for next to nothing to be shipped to China for low-grade uses.

Now it’s my turn to do something with it, too. As I told you in my previous blog post about The Shepherds of Balloo, I bought some unspun Drenthe Heath sheep wool during my visit – a plastic bag filled with batts of washed and carded wool:

I’m not a terribly productive spinner, so I only bought a small quantity. At a recent crafts event, I met the woman who washed and carded it. But that’s a story for another time…

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.