My friend and collaborator on the Steyning Imprint, Alice keeps a flock of sheep. To me they always seemed like rather strange creatures to be interested in – wonderful as lambs (and very tasty) but rather stupid looking as they got older. But this was before I learned to love wool.
Every summer Alice pays the shearer to shear her sheep to avoid the dreaded ‘fly-strike’ (basically the poor sheep are eaten alive by maggots) and faces with the perennial dilemma of what to do with the wool. One summer we had a huge felting party with the kids and other times Alice uses the wool to wrap around fruit trees, stuff in her attic as insulator – she even used one fleece to fill a cushion…
In all the small villages and hamlets around us in West Sussex there are the clues to this one great English Industry – Cottages with names like Spinners, Woolgatherers, Weavers… My old Vicar is called Graham Woolgar (Wolgatherer). His ancestors are in the graveyard and on the walls of Steyning Town Football Club. But very little of this once great industry remains.
Ofcourse there are still a few craft spinners and fab places like Weald and Downland, Louise Spong at South Down Yarns, Debbie at Plawhatch keeping these valuable skills alive. But the real problem is there is there doesn’t seem to be much market for the local small scale wool being produced around us.
Infact small holders farmers we know are burning their wool because there is nothing else they can do with it. A natural, almost free product with great properties – water proof, hyperalleregnic, carbon neutral, compostable is literally going up in smoke because we no longer have small scale production chains to make the best use of this wonderful local resource.
Inspired by the likes of people like Louise Spong, by Alices’ husbandry and all round ingenuity – last summer we decided to do something about it; stopping using plastic in our cushion pads (that’s what polyester is) and replacing it with wool instead.
We did not know what a labour of love this would be but as well as being a great deal of work it’s also helped me totally fall in love with wool and become alive to it’s many qualities.
To begin with we put the word out that we would be happy to take any unwanted fleeces and Alice’s shed soon filled up…
Processing the masses of the ‘waste’ wool our small valley had to offer from the flocks of people like Ronnie and the Vics at Annington Farm meant that first we had to find somewhere to store it all (sorry Daniel). Then we began by cutting out the worst bits of gunk (you can imagine ) then soaking the wool in a succession of scalding baths to remove the lanolin (the natural product made by sheep to keep them waterproffed – such amazing stuff).
After many of these we use a final bath of lavender water to scent the wool. We then fill pillow cases with the damp wool and leave them on the gentle heat. Then the business of teasing out the wool begins – it’s rather lovely to find crushed between your fingers on a dark winters evening – a summers hay grass…
Most of the the fleeces we were donated were Jacob’s sheep as Ben granny was a spinner and loved Jacob’s for their long staple (the length of the wool fibres). These Jacob’s have gradually made their way down the valley (they are great fence jumpers) and even Alice has a few now.
Somewhere during all these hours working with wool – pulling, tearing, stroking, teasing – I have fallen in love with what is the most amazing natural creation: soft, strong, pliable and resiliant. It makes me feel really happy to think we’ve saved even a small amount of this amazing natural resource and put it to good use.
So if you’re in need our cushion pad or two – do have a look at our cushion pads. They’re available in our standard sizes – 45cm x 45cm and 35cm x 50cm but we’re also really happy to sew up any size cushion you like. We think they’re really reasonably priced and offer a fantastic alternative to plastic polyester pads.
They’re all hand-sewn (by us!) using 100% organic calico.