Herdwick: like no other sheep, like no other wool

I'm way behind on blog posts: lots to say, not enough hours right now. Running fast for a deadline (that I now see in the rearview mirror and I'm still trying to meet it); there's hardly time for sleeping or eating.

But here's a quick note about what I spun up yesterday: Herdwick. Sheep, Herdwicks primary among them, are responsible for the landscape of England's Lake District. Beatrix Potter (locally Mrs. Heelis) raised Herdwicks and was the first woman to belong to the breed society. There are lots of good conservation stories involved with Mrs. Heelis, the Lake District, and Herdwicks, although I need to keep moving. . . .

Herdwick wool is truly distinctive. When we went looking for samples for The Project (deadline buzzing), the shepherd who ultimately supplied us with some wondered why in heck we wanted it. Admittedly, it's not usually the first choice among handspinners and textile crafters, although it's available as ready-to-use yarn, as well as finished products, and there's no reason not to play with it. What I like best about Herdwick is how unlikely a fleece it is, and how its qualities push my creativity. (They push industrial creativity, too: Herdwick wool provides the basis for naturally sourced insulation.)

But I need to get back to work, and I want to show some Herdwick first. The fleece Herdwicks grow consists of several types of fiber: a relatively soft, woolly undercoat that keeps the sheep warm (and independent: they live pretty well without much human intervention); a hairy outercoat that repels water (Herdwick wool gets wet more slowly and dries out faster than other wools); heterotype hairs, which change their character depending on the season (warmer in winter, more moisture-resistant in summer); and kemp, that wiry, stiff, twist-resistant fiber that in most other breeds is strictly discriminated against. In Herdwicks, kemp adds texture that just ups the ante on the game; there's enough that it becomes a factor, rather than a hindrance. These fiber types are so scrambled they resist separation, although you can tease them apart if you work at it.

Color, too: kemp is white, and while Herdwicks are born black they quickly begin turning gray and keep up with a steady lightening effect as they age, always tweedy with a range of shades mixed throughout the fleece (no spots).

Herdwick wool is normally quite long: 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) is pretty usual, longer is possible. My samples were 2.5 to 3.5 inches (6.5 to 9 cm), making them a bit harder to handle than a more average fleece would have been. Nonetheless, I had an enjoyable afternoon and came up with a few bits that show the range of Herdwick:


Obviously, the top is a mass of (clean) raw fiber. The tiny medium gray skein on the left is some undercoat, imperfectly removed; it's quite soft, soft enough for a sweater or hat. The larger darker gray skein is the whole caboodle, spun up together. It could be woven into a coat. The light gray bristly skein on the right is mostly kemp and rough hairs, with some of the finer fibers left in to help hold the yarn together. The dimensionality of that yarn gets my idea-mill going.

FANTASTIC texture! And natural color fun. Makes me think of rugs, baskets, hairy bits added to something basically smooth . . . and to wonder how much undercoat I could get out and how it would work up into a sweater. As well as pricking my curiosity about whether the kemp might work in pottery glazing the way horsehair does.

Herdwick sheep heft or heaf to a particular spot of ground, staying put without fencing, and ewes teach lambs where they live. If a piece of land is sold, the sheep go with it. You can't just move another type of sheep onto this landscape because they'd wander all over the place (or need enormous amounts of fencing) and couldn't stand the climate (a few other breeds do well here, but Herdwicks are still outstandingly suited to it). Because of their geographic concentration, the Herdwick population was hard-hit by control efforts for foot-and-mouth disease in 2001.

Herdwicks have a lot to teach us, in many regards: about connection to land, about variety and experimentation, about loyalty and versatility. And about careful stewardship, in many aspects of life.

And now I need to get back to work. Next up is a trip to Kerry Hill (the wool, not the place), which is a totally different spot on the fiber rainbow: all white, just a bit lustrous, crisp but not too crisp, and with quite consistent fibers all in a narrow range of micron counts. . . .


Never a dull moment, although some folks might wonder. . . .


13 thoughts on “Herdwick: like no other sheep, like no other wool”

  1. Reading your post makes me think a lot about the similarities between people and sheep.

    Most are quite happy to be part of a flock, being herded from place to place, having their ownership change hands, and likely happy and unconcerned (and/or unknowing) about living an anonymous existence, then disappearing without notice.

    And then there are us human Herdwicks…. 😉

  2. Thanks for the laugh, from one human Herdwick to another. . . . I have a lovely drawing of a Herdwick on my wall that I got from a young woman named Kelsey Wailes (at Thisteldown Farm), who was selling prints of her work at Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival a couple of years ago–as a high-schooler. I'd link to her website, but it's gone away. She can still be located through Google, but the web link to see her work doesn't seem to exist. Nice Herdwick. 

  3. Cool stuff! (And lots of hard work here that we readers just get to skim over, but you have to do. And do again, and again.) This is going to be an amazing book. And yes, you’ll get to the end of the wool before you starve to death or wear your fingers out. You won’t be able to do everything you want to do, but you’ve got to save something for the next book(s) after all….

  4. Susan, your encouragement is much appreciated. Finishing before I starve to death or wear my fingers out is, indeed, the goal, and nope, I am *not* able to do everything I want to do . . . nothing near it. That went out the window quite a while ago. I just hope I don't make any extreme errors along the way.

    Discovering that the world's expert on sheep, Michael Ryder, was given some mislabeled wool was interesting: it's a challenge to keep this stuff straight, especially when it's almost infinitely variable. My system for once it gets in the house is fine, but I have already gotten one sample where I wrote the source and said, "Are you SURE this is X? For the following reasons, it's extremely atypical for the breed," and got back the answer, after a while, "Oops. No, it's really Y." So we caught that one. . . .

  5. I'm glad you enjoyed it, AnneMarie! I'm not sure how much it takes to be a break from stats, but "refreshing" sounds like something I'm glad to have achieved for you.

  6. Thanks, David! I found your photo a while ago and have it in my bookmarks. I love the picture, which so clearly shows the unique qualities of a lovely Herdwick, along with the write-up about Beatrix Potter's involvement with the sheep and the landscape. It's a terrific page that readers of this post will enjoy a great deal. So glad you added this comment. Thanks, too, for visiting my blog.

  7. Deb, 

    My bet is that you'll finish before you starve to death and/or wear your fingers out, and I know that this book will open doors to new income-producing opportunities, along with opportunities to write more about sheep and wool, so the rest of the material won't go unused. 

    I'm not surprised you've gotten mislabled samples, and it's interesting that Michael Ryder had that experience too. Not everyone understands why it's important to keep track. Good thing you do…. 

    I've taught my last workshop for this trip and now we're on our slow way home from Las Cruces, ETA tomorrow afternoon. Can't wait to be home for a few days!


    "Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet. … When we lose stories, our understanding of the world is less rich, less true."

     –Susan J. Tweit, Walking Nature Home: A Life's Journey, just out from Univ. of Texas Press

    P.O. Box 578

    Salida, CO  81201

    WEB SITE http://susanjtweit.com

    BLOG http://susanjtweit.typepad.com/walkingnaturehome

  8. I really liked your post and wanted to read all the comments–yet I can’t get them to pop up! Is there some setting that’s changed here? Maybe I’m comments-impaired?!

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