I've embarked on my own woolly project of exploration and celebration, participating in the Great British Breeds Swatchalong organized by Louise Scollay of Knit British, who is passionate about British wool. Knitters across the UK (and the world actually) are knitting up swatches of either British or local breeds. We have to use single breed and undyed wool, but the stitch pattern is up to the individual knitter.
We then put each swatch through its paces and write up detailed notes at every step. We squish the skein, we note how each yarn feels while knitting, and we observe the characteristics of the unwashed swatch. Then we soak and block it, spend a day wearing it against our skin, rub it for a fuzz and pill test, and then wash and block it a second time. Louise wrote up an excellent set of guidelines and FAQs here. There is no deadline and you can apply the same routine to any wool local to you. It's all about getting to know a local yarn really well, opening your knitting stash to breeds and small, local suppliers you may not have previously considered, and really thinking about where your yarn comes from.
So far I've finished four swatches which are, starting at the top left and working clockwise: Herdwick, North Ronaldsay, Gotland and Norfolk Horn. For my first two swatches, I just knit a random combination of stitches, but then I thought I'd really like to end up with a beautiful blanket of all my swatches, so I'm now trawling stitch design books for inspiration. I love quilt blocks with names that tell a story, so I'm trying to pick designs that either seem to fit the yarn or have some personal meaning for myself, which can be as frivolous and fun as a stitch pattern called "croissants" that I came across recently ( my favourite weekend morning treat with a cuppa and the Guardian - and I think I may have the perfect naturally coloured wool for this!). For the North Ronaldsay swatch, I used a square called " A Little Bit of Scotland", out of the book Knitting Counterpanes by Mary Walker Phillips. This breed live on one of the northern Orkney islands and eat seaweed.
So far, I'm really enjoying this process. I find that the yarns are vastly different, not only in terms of colour and texture and smell, but in how they change (or don't) after blocking. It's also quite fun to try and collect a sample of each breed. Yarndale was a great starting point.
But my bag is now overflowing. I currently have about 25 different breeds which, given that each swatch easily takes a week to fully test, should keep me going for some time.
Many of my balls have come from Blacker Yarns which sells a wide variety of different single breed yarns. But one of the joys of this project is to discover lots of different, indie producers, often just making yarn from their own flock of sheep. At Yarndale I had a great chat with the folk from Gam Farm Rare Breeds and saw one of their Whitefaced Woodland sheep. They are located near Grassington in Yorkshire, where I've gone walking in the past. I love knowing that I've tread the same gorgeous landscape as the sheep whose wool I'm knitting. In many cases it's also the sheep who have made that landscape over generations.
Herdy sheep who roam freely over the Lake District are a favourite of mine, which is why I started with a Herdwick swatch. And while I knew it wasn't going to be the softest of yarns, it definitely wasn't as coarse after washing as I'd anticipated. And it is really strong and sturdy - perfect for a pair of waterproof mitts that I'm planning.
I also discovered Crookabeck Farm near Patterdale in the Lake District. They raise Herdwicks and Angora goats and have combined the two to create a yarn that is 50% Herdy and 50% mohair. I've ordered a skein and will be really interested to see how the mohair softens the wool. The farm also sells yarn from the Red Fox breed originally from Germany. A ball of this has also gone into my bag; even though it's not a British breed, the actual sheep it comes from is raised in the U.K. so I think it counts. Swaledales also hold a place in my sheepy appreciation heart, mostly from the beauty of the Swaledale valley in Yorkshire which we walked through as part of the Coast to Coast walk. In the tiny town of Muker is Swaledale Woollens where you can purchase wool or knitted garments from the Swaledales. And I've also bought a skein of Texel wool from Orkney Wool. I squealed when it was delivered - so squishy and bouncy.
So this is a big and long term project, but one that I'm sure is going to be fascinating and very rewarding. And I should end up with a gorgeous blanket by the end of it. Here's my latest swatch knitted this weekend in Pure Cotswold. Somehow white wool cries out for lace, so I've done some simple repeats of a Twin Leaf pattern.