I'm very fortunate at Fine Fettle Fibres to have some wonderful local yarn suppliers producing high quality yarns with something different to offer. Each of them uses British wool in different ways - using premium raw materials and spinning or dyeing them to create yarns that are a joy to knit with and which showcase the skill and diversity of the woolly folk of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.
So I have decided to publish a series of blog posts in which I ask my suppliers to talk about their relationship with wool and the ways in which they use it. First up is Fransje Sansom of Deneburn Meadows near Wark in North Northumberland.
So Fransje, how did you first get into working with wool?
I studied Occupational Therapy in my early twenties. The course included art and craft subjects. One of these was textiles. I was intrigued by wool processing then, bought my first spinning wheel and got a fleece from a local farmer.
- How many woolly miles do you do in a year and where do they take you?
I travel locally mainly. I have visited Woolfest and different agricultural shows in the borders and the north east, or when on holiday further afield. I sell my wool products at local wool events such as North Pennines Wool Fair, Wool on the Wall, Horsley Wool Fair, Hexham Farmers Market and Tynedale Guild Gathering. My wool is also stocked in a few local wool shops and studios. We only have a small flock and wool stock is never high so I don’t go very far!
- What is important for you about British wool?
Britain has such a great variety of sheep breeds and every wool type has its own merits. Wool is not only used in the clothing or furnishing industry but also in building and for other practical applications. We need to recognise it more, wear it more and use it more. I value sustainability and if you can produce or purchase something local, that is important to me. It is an environmentally friendly product and can be grown again and again.
- Who are your woolly heroes?
The sheep for growing wool on their back! I don’t really have a hero but learned to felt from Ellie Langley, who is amazingly skilled. She taught me about British wool breeds and how to felt. I also value the support I get from Shetland sheep breeders, many of them breed for wool and have a wealth of knowledge. For me wool and sheep are one entity.
- Where do you get your inspiration from for your colours/yarn names/designs?
My local environment provides me with a pallet of colours. I use natural powder dyes and like warm, bold colours. Meadow, flower, heather, tree, sky, there are plenty to choose from. Our breeding ewes have wild flower names as well!
- How connected do you feel to our nation's woolly heritage?
When travelling I will always find out if there are local mills, historic buildings, heritage centres or wool crafters to visit. I like reading and gathering books about wool and sheep. Having our own flock and working with local shepherds, I hear many stories – old and new – through hanging around the sheep pens! In medieval times wool was a money maker and until quite recently in history, the clip would pay for a farmer’s rent. Prices have been really low in modern times and most farmers breed for meat more than for wool.
It is great to be part of a world where people are promoting British wool and share the many ways of working with it, celebrating its heritage.
- What is your most rewarding woolly activity?
Spinning gives me most satisfaction. I love quietly perfecting the skill. Feeling the wool slide through my hands. Appreciating different textures and colours. It is such a mesmerising and therapeutic activity. Once the bobbin comes off the wheel and the yarn is plied, washed and set, there is great pride in an even spin and balanced yarn.
- Without giving away any closely guarded secrets, what new woolly ventures do you have in mind?
Being a keeper and breeder of sheep, my mind is always on the next generation of lambs and what wool they are going to grow. Though the majority of our flock are Shetlands, I have a Bluefaced Leicester ewe and some cross breeds. Both breeds produce a premium, fine wool. By interbreeding I hope to create the best of both worlds in their fleeces and thus the yarn. I try to build up stock of natural colours in the yarn and carded wool for traditional Fair Isle knitting. With a good quantity of white yarn, experimenting with new colour dyes is always on the horizon.
There are always too many projects on the list. Such are the possibilities with wool. Most of all; I’m still learning and I never know what will tickle my fancy next!