South Wales Mountain wool (and kemp)

Most of the time fiber folk look for and exclaim over fine, soft wools, with good reason. They're lovely to work with and they feel really good in our hands and when we wear clothing made from them. Merino is by far the most famous of these wools.

What I have been playing with recently are some wools that are the antithesis of Merino. They mix, in varying proportions, the three types of fiber that can be found in a sheep's fleece:

  • wool, that familiar stuff (which comes in an array of textures all on its own)
  • hair, which is stiff and smooth (think horsehair, or a dog's outer coat)
  • kemp, which is bristly and coarse (pig bristles??? only more irregular? like itty bitty white twigs?)

Merinos, and many other highly developed breeds, have only wool in their fleeces.

Hair and kemp show up in the fleeces of sheep that can handle rough weather: storms, cold, damp. (Hair is also predominant in the body coverings of sheep breeds that can tolerate extremes of heat. Those sheep look a lot like goats.)

One of the breeds I've been spinning is South Wales Mountain. It's a big sheep, with a tough, weather-resistant coat.

Another spinner recently asked me whether this breed's wool is medium or long, and I had to answer that it wasn't really either, in the way we normally think about medium or long wools. The word medium could be applied to breeds like Corriedale and Suffolk and many, many others. Medium is a huge category. When we say longwool we tend to mean the English luster (shiny) longwool breeds, like Cotswold, Lincoln, and Leicester Longwool, as well as the more familiar Romney and the relatively unfamiliar Devon & Cornwall Longwool. In all of these cases—both medium and longwools—the fleece consists of wool, with little or no hair or kemp present.

South Wales Mountain is, then, neither medium nor long as those terms are normally understood. It's one of the mountain breeds, which tells us a bit more about it, but still not enough because there's a good deal of variety in that category as well.


South Wales Mountain fleeces are full of kemp. SERIOUSLY full of kemp. In addition, while most kemp is white
(and all kemp resists being dyed), South Wales Mountain can have
smatterings of red kemp as well.

Here's some of the South Wales Mountain that I've been spinning:


At the bases of the locks, there's a bit of dry scurf or clumping; you can see that in the lock on the left. The easiest way to deal with this is to trim it off, as I've done to the lock on the right.

It's a little hard to see, but the lock is about 50/50 kemp and wool, and the parts are about the same length. I could probably comb the locks and remove the kemp reasonably well, although not perfectly. The process would be tedious and the results questionable. If I tried to card this fiber, I'd end up with an exercise in frustration, with kemp flying all over the place (which it will kind of do no matter what, but this would make it far, far worse) and rolags that would be hard to roll and wouldn't hold their shape and would be misery to draft. Someone else might want to prep these fibers in those ways, and might succeed beautifully at it, but I go both for the path of least resistance and the path that, for me, preserves and ideally highlights the unique character of the breed's fleece.

What I've done isn't something I've seen or learned elsewhere, although I doubt that it's anything new. During spinning, the kemp and wool will tend to draft out at different rates, and my goal is to get them to feed into the twist together, as they are in the lock. So I open out each lock into a kind of rhomboid shape, with a leading edge from which I begin to spin, working my way down the lock and catching a series of tips in progression. As I reach the end of one lock, I add another, similarly prepared.


Kemp resists not only dyeing but twist. The two primary concentration points in spinning this type of fleece are even feeding of the fiber and corralling of the kemp. Some kemp escapes no matter what.


So what's the yarn like?


It's a natural-born novelty yarn, with texture galore. If I dyed this yarn, the kemps would stay whatever color they are (mostly, but not all, white) and the wool context would take the dye's color, increasing the contrast between the types of fiber.

Most South Wales Mountain fleeces become carpet (for us, "rug") yarn. Some can be used in clothing, but not for next-to-the-skin wear! I can easily see a yarn like this used as an accent in a garment, though, used in small amounts at places that won't come in contact with a body. And it could inspire many types of basketry, sculpture, or tapestry constructions . . . all situations that Merino doesn't have the commanding presence to handle.


9 thoughts on “South Wales Mountain wool (and kemp)”

  1. Fascinating. I think even though I have little to no contact with sheep 🙁 I will love your project when it is complete.
    I MISS interacting with critters.
    Cats are nice, but I miss the sheep and cows and horses and miniature goats and emus and buffalo and all the other weirdnesses you can come across in rural Michigan.

  2. That's an excellent question, Ted, and the matter of kemp and dye appears to be complicated. I'd love to get to the bottom of it. My nosing around over time has come up with a few clues to what's happening.

    In part, it may be that kemp *does* take dye, but not in a way that colors it as effectively as the dye colors the surrounding fibers. The American Sheep Industry's chapter on wool in the big sheep production handbook doesn't have a lot to say about kemp (which is not desirable in the flocks that are its readers' primary focus), but is careful to say that kemp fibers "do not appear to accept dyes well." I think that's a key. The dyes may strike, but they may not have the same effect that they do on regular wool fibers.

    I haven't (yet) found anyone who has a definitive answer to what's going on. Here are a couple of notes I've taken: Kemp fibers are opaque, rather than translucent, which may mean that dye taken into the interior of the fiber isn't visible. And because their structure is different from that of the other fibers, they may take up dye in different, less visually effective ways. People who do dyeing for carpet wools have to deal with this. Someone in that world probably knows. I'd be delighted to meet and chat with that person.

  3. I love your explorations! Thanks for sharing a bit of the kempy world with us. Wool from Crete, btw, feels very kempy and coarse. Even the combed wool I spun from a distaff seemed coarse and kempy–but it will last and wear forever, of course.

    I hope your time away is productive and peaceful!

  4. I really enjoyed this post.

    I am knitting socks at the moment from a 100% Swaledale sheep. The sheep comes from the North Yorkshire moors and has a very thick fleece with a lot of kemp in it. I’m told the sheep can eat their fleece if they get stranded in a snowdrift, because of the protein in this kemp! I am interested in this kemp as it seems to be generally considered as a highly undesirable element in a fleece… I wonder if this is because it resists dyes, and so does not produce an even or consistent shade when coloured? For myself and from a tactile point of view I don’t think the presence of kemp in my Swaledale is a bad thing at all!

    My Swaledale yarn has been very well spun by a spinning mill in Sussex, and I think it may even be worsted spun as it is a very dense, even yarn. There are still sticky-out bits like in your photo of the welsh sheep handspun, from where the kemp has resisted getting any twist in it, but I love the varied white that is the result of white wool with kemp of a lighter shade strewn through it.

    I love socks made from the stuff. They do not feel like they will wear through on the heel at the slightest provocation like my 100% merino socks do, they are incredibly warm and they wear in to become very soft. The kemp gives them a life and crispness that is perfect for a walking sock.

    Do you know yet what you might make from your lovely, characterful, kempy handspun? It looks to me like another great contender for strong walking socks!

  5. Does the kemp affect the elasticity? I’m thinking in terms of yarn suitable for weaving – belts, straps, etc, where elasticity wouldn’t be an asset.

  6. A whole lot depends on the amount and type of kemp, which can be more or less coarse, as well as long, short, or medium. Swaledale is, indeed, known for its kemp content! Like the rest of the fibers in a fleece, kemp is protein-based.

    Kemp is not considered desirable for middle-of-the-road functional industrial wool processing. When you put fiber in one end of the supply line and want to get mass-market sweaters and socks out the other end, both kemp and off-color fibers mess up your end product.

    For individual crafters, kemp can be a positive attribute, as you're discovering. For example, Eastern European socks are often "harsher" than folks from some other parts of the world consider appropriate, because they're made from coarser wools that may contain kemp. And you're right: they'll wear well! Some people can tolerate the stronger wools on their feet (or elsewhere). Some can't. Those who *can* get to have more durable socks {grin}.

    I don't have enough of my sample to actually make something. For this project, I get to spin all these small samples and dream about what each might become if it were bigger, and then I have to move on. I'll be interested to see which fleeces I am most drawn to when the project is complete. This one's a charmer.

  7. Kemp is not elastic. Whether it would affect the yarn's elasticity would depend on how much kemp, how coarse, how long, and if it was effectively caught in the yarn's twist.

    The wool within the kemp-containing breeds' fleeces is often lower in crimp (and therefore elasticity). For TRUE stable, inelastic yarns for weaving belts and straps (or for techniques, like cardweaving, that require sturdy yarn), the English longwools or breeds like Karakul would be primo. Kemp is not their thing, but staying where you put 'em is.

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