Laura Rosenzweig is one such artisan weaver based in the market town of Sedbergh in the Yorkshire Dales.
She’s inspired by the subtle colours and textures of the landscape and designs and weaves scarves, throws and fabric from British wool. Her company is called Laura’s Loom. Some time ago I asked Laura to explain exactly what goes into the making of a simple scarf or rug. Next time you look at the price tag on British textiles, perhaps you’ll remember some of this!
Around Sedbergh, Bluefaced Leicester rams are often bred with Swaledale ewes to make lambing more reliable and easier for the ewes. The resulting off-spring is called a North of England Mule. They have long legs like their fathers and are usually born in pairs. They have a pretty good fleece too.
Lambs start to appear around March and farmers hope for decent weather, not too wet or too much snow. The ewes will be brought down from the fells to lamb in the more sheltered fields and barns. It’s a 24 hour a day job for the farmers and their families at this time of year as they check round the clock on the lambing ewes to make sure nothing is going awry.
Lambs grow quickly! Those being kept for breeding and wool production will not be clipped (sheared) until their second year. This fleece is called a shearling fleece. Clipping occurs between June and August depending on the weather.
Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) fleeces are very fine. Most farmers say it could just about fall off the sheep if you pulled it. They are not as easy to roll as a Swaledale fleece. The quality of the wool is much finer, with a long staple length making BFL a sought after wool in the textile industry for knitting and finely woven goods. Most other British sheep breeds produce coarse wools, from the mountain and fell breeds like Black Welsh Mountain, Swaledale and Rough Fell, to the rare breeds such as Hebridean and Shetland.
Much of the wool produced in Britain goes into carpets. But increasingly more attention is being paid, especially by artisans, to celebrating the wide range of wools available in this country and producing products from single breeds.
Clipping takes place near the farm, preferably somewhere out of the weather. Keeping wool dry and clean of vegetable matter (straw) is not as easy to do as it might sound in this wet part of the world! Many farmers clip themselves as the price for wool is still low despite recent increases.
When I first started to collect local wool all the farmers told me that a generation ago the wool cheque used to pay the annual rent of the farm. These days it barely pays for the sharpening of the shears. High quality wools like BFL can bring in a premium price. I’ll never forget one farmer grinning with delight when I paid him for my first 20 BFL fleeces – I had paid almost the same amount as he’d just received for 200 Swaledale fleeces and I thought I’d got a bargain!
My job begins when the sheep have been clipped. I go around to a dozen farms throughout the Dales collecting a bag or two of fleece from each farmer. Once I’ve loaded a few bags in the car I set off home again where I sort the fleece on a tarpaulin in my back garden. I have to wait for a dry day to do this as I don’t have a barn or big shed to work in and it’s easier to do outside anyway. I start by shaking out a single fleece so I can see the whole thing.
First I take off all the daggy bits and any felted or matted parts of the fleece. I skirt around the outside of the fleece where it tends to get very dirty and pick up lots of straw, bracken and general dirt. I remove the tail and the belly wool which is generally much shorter staple than the rest of the fleece, so not as good quality, and I take out as much straw as I can.
I could go on to sort each fleece into different grades according to quality but I’m happy to stop at this point and accept that the resulting yarn will be an average of the general quality of my entire fleece collection. This can vary from year to year depending on the health of the sheep.
The most surprising difference is in the colour variation year on year. Sometimes it’s nearly white, others it’s a wonderful clotted cream. Once I’ve sorted the fleece, the clean stuff goes into a clean bag and the dirty bits go on the garden or into the compost heap (it’s supposed to deter slugs!)
This process of collecting wool, sorting it and bagging it up continues until I’ve visited all my farmers. Once it’s all done it’s time to label the bags, tie them up, and drive to Bradford where the fleece is scoured in a big warehouse full of washing tubs and air dryers. The fleece is tipped in at one end, gets pulled apart into smaller pieces then goes through a series of about six tubs, gradually being cleaned of muck, lanolin and moisture.
Wool can absorb over 30% of its own weight in moisture. It is naturally greasy and it’s usually filthy! When you’ve bought your fleece by the greasy weight and paid the scourer the same way it’s a bit shocking the first time to realise you’ve only got half your raw material left! However, there’s very little loss after this stage.
The next stage is done at the spinners where the wool is tossed around in a big bin to blend it then emptied into another bin attached to a huge carding machine. Little by little the wool is drawn up onto a series of carding drums with ever finer combs until it emerges 60’ later as a finely combed ‘roving’. All of the fine wool fibres are now combed in one direction and are ready to be spun into an even finer yarn. Within 48 hours 100kg of fluffy wool has been transformed into about 100 cones of spun yarn and is ready to be woven into beautiful fabric.
The yarn I produce is usually pure British Bluefaced Leicester spun as a single ply with sufficient twist to be woven on a power loom as both warp and weft. Sometimes I blend my BFL with other breeds, such as Hebridean to soften the coarser quality of the Hebridean and give me beautiful natural shades of soft brown and grey. Occasionally I will have my fleece dyed “in-the-fleece” then blended before spinning to create a soft heathered effect in the yarn and a greater depth of colour in the finished product.
Some of the yarn will be package dyed “on the cone” where colour is infused into the yarn in a giant vat.
I will have chosen the colours months before, sampling with different ideas to arrive at a final choice. My colour choices are very much inspired by the subtle colours of the fells and dales of north Yorkshire.
Once colours have been decided upon it’s time to design a new collection of scarves or throws. As with the wool, some of my throws can be dyed once they have been woven. This is known as dyeing “in the piece” and results in a strong matt colour effect.
Other throws are not dyed at all but woven from naturally coloured blended yarns. For the scarves I design samples on my loom and on my computer until I have achieved the effect and colour combinations I am happy with. I then send all the relevant instructions to the weaver who will weave up a batch of these designs on his power loom.
Of course I have to make sure I supply the right quantity of yarn so he can weave what I’ve requested! All of these measurements must also take into account the cloth finishing process, where the woven fabrics are washed and brushed to achieve their final soft handle.
Wool, as most of us will have experienced, has a tendency to shrink quite dramatically if it is over-washed! Even with gentle washing a woven fabric will shrink. If it goes wrong at this point patterns can be distorted and woollen cloth can felt. All of this must be planned for in advance.
It’s a heart in mouth moment when your fabric goes to the finisher. You cross your fingers and hope that the washing instructions are correct, the colours for piece-dyeing will work (it’s a bit like paint chips – the colour looks stronger on a larger piece than it does on your samples) and your weaver left sufficient gaps between each throw or each scarf so the fringes can be purled.
If you’ve got it wrong or didn’t provide sufficient information, time and investment getting the wool from the sheep to the finished product will be ruined. Thankfully, because everyone along the processing chain shares their knowledge, mistakes seldom occur and the results speak for themselves.
Now it’s time to get out and sell the products! By the time they’re on the shelves or on the website it will be time to start collecting fleece again.
See and buy beautiful wool throws, scarves and other woven products from Laura’s Loom