While working in the city Lesley Nottley from Tavistock Tastes & Textures used to dream about moving to the country and rearing animals. Then 17 years ago she moved to a smallholding in Devon and her flock of sheep gradually grew from four “lawnmowers” to around 30 pedigree Jacobs. As a keen knitter she wanted to use their fleeces to produce quality wool in a range of rich colours, so she sought the help of local woollen mill Natural Fibre Company to spin the yarn, while she dyes it by hand on her farm…
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am fortunate enough to live with my husband Nick on a 17 acre smallholding on the outskirts of the historic market town of Tavistock in Devon. We have two wonderful children, now both at university, who have grown up here and share our passion for the rural life. Before moving to Devon I worked for 10 years in the City of London, so my background is in finance, but I always had a dream of growing my own food and rearing livestock somewhere in the country. Shepherding is in my genes, as my paternal grandfather kept a prize-winning flock of Southdown sheep and my father sheared the champion fleece at the Royal Show one year. So when we moved to Tavistock 17 years ago I was able to realise my dreams, although it wasn’t until 2007 that we bought our first sheep.
We started with four Herdwick ewes to act as lawnmowers in two neglected fields (at that time the rest of the land was rented to a local farmer) but we soon realised that, although very hardy, Herdwicks can be stubbornly independent and have fleece like a brillo pad! So in 2009 we bought four pedigree Jacob ewes and our flock has grown from there – although we still have one remaining Herdwick from the original four. The Jacob sheep provide the meat for our lamb and hogget boxes and the fleece for our wool products, which we send to be commercially spun and then I hand dye to achieve a range of rich, heathery colours.
How many sheep do you have in your flock now, and what are their characteristics?
We have quite a small flock of Jacobs, at present 17 breeding ewes, 11 ewe lambs, a stock ram and a home-bred ram lamb that we will keep until he is proven and can be sold on. Jacob sheep are recognisable by their white and dark brown pied fleeces, which are popular with handspinners but not so much with the British Wool Marketing Board! Jacob Sheep are a traditional breed which produce lean, tender meat and a high-quality fleece. They are fairly slow to mature, so our lambs are usually kept until they are between 12-18 months old. They are then known as shearlings and produce the best quality fleece.
What kind of fleece/wool do they produce?
The fleece quality varies from sheep to sheep, but is generally soft, springy and open with with a good staple length. On the whole, the younger the sheep, the better quality the fleece, lambswool being the best. The yarn is mostly spun to Double Knitting or Aran weights, and is also popular for weaving. Our sheep are usually sheared in June, we then sort the fleeces and “skirt” them to remove vegetation, faeces and any coarse bits. We then take the bags of fleece to be spun by the Natural Fibre Company in Launceston, which we are lucky to have more or less on our doorstep. They sort, scour, card and spin the yarn into hanks ready for dyeing. Previously, we have sent equal quantities of white and black fleece for spinning, this is then blended to give a mid-grey/brown colour, which when over-dyed produces rich, earthy shades. This year we were able to change the ratio to use more white and less dark, the result is a beautiful silver yarn that I’m experimenting with at present. I hope to soon be able to produce a range of lighter, more summery colours, still with the tweedy look of the originals.
We would love to get an insight into the dyeing process. Could you talk us through it?
The yarn is returned from the mill in oiled hanks and needs to be washed to remove the oil before dyeing. I usually do this just before a dyeing session as it needs to be well soaked before adding to the dye bath to achieve an even result. I do all my dyeing in a large stainless steel preserving pan, which I fill two-thirds full with warm water. The dye powder is dissolved in a small amount of boiling water and added to the pan, stirring well. Then I add the yarn and agitate gently to ensure that the dye is evenly spread. It’s important not to stir too vigorously or the yarn will felt, equally, the temperature of the dye bath needs to be raised slowly in order not to “shock” the yarn. Once the required temperature is reached, the pot is left for around 30 minutes (stirring occasionally) until the desired depth of colour is reached. The yarn is the removed from the dye bath and rinsed in warm water to remove any excess dye. At this point the dye has been “exhausted”, although some colours may continue to bleed when laundered, so I would always advise keeping knitted garments separate and using a cool handwash programme. I then rewash it, spin out as much water as possible and hang to dry outside (weather permitting!). As soon as it’s dry it can be wound into balls for easy knitting.
Your dyes are quite ‘earthy’. Are they influenced by your surroundings in Devon?
The dyes I use are called ‘Landscapes’ dyes and they are produced by Kraftkolour of Australia. They are easy to use, consistent and give a professional result. They are known generically as ‘acid’ dyes, named for the mild acid used in the dyeing process and for the types of bonds they form to the fibre. The name sounds scary, but they are non-caustic and safe to use. The colours I have chosen are bright or deep shades which will significantly alter the natural grey/brown fleece. I am often asked why I don’t use natural dyes – the simple answer is that I can’t achieve consistency with them (and who wants a jumper with sleeves a different shade to the body?). The other reasons are that a) the mordants used to ‘fix’ natural dyes are environmentally unfriendly chemicals; b) it is more or less impossible to achieve reds and blues without resorting to imported dried material; and c) the sheer quantity of natural material required for a dye bath is enough to strip all the stinging nettles from our fields several times over! That said, the unpredictability of natural dyeing is quite addictive and I enjoy experimenting for my own use.
Are you a knitter yourself?
Yes, I love knitting and it seemed a logical move to produce my own wool to knit with. For a number of years we disposed of our fleeces (adding them to the compost heap, using them as mulch etc) as it cost more in fuel to take them to a collection point than we would receive in payment. But as the flock grew in numbers, we soon had enough to make up the minimum quantity for spinning, and I felt that this wonderful natural resource was too good to waste. I feel very strongly that we should make better use of this byproduct of the meat industry, however I am aware that the processing costs do make it an expensive product. I have always loved knitting and can honestly say that our wool is a pleasure to work with and gives excellent results.
Can you describe your studio?
I don’t have the luxury of a studio as such – I use a corner of our garage where there is power and a sink. Dyeing is a messy process, so I try to do as much as possible outside. All I need is a small portable electric hob and a supply of hot and cold water, plus space to dry and wind the yarn. I would stress that it’s very important to keep dyeing equipment separate from anything used for cooking!
Finally, how would you spend your perfect day?
Probably dyeing, especially if I had some new colours to experiment with. Also, I’ve recently bought a spinning wheel, so I would love to have some quality time to practise with it.