Following on from our post last week introducing Imogen Di Sapia’s new exhibition and pop up event here at YAK I am thrilled to publish this conversation between Imgoen and Louise. They talk in depth about the wonderful Southdown fleece and Louise gives us a fantastic insight into the journey she took to produce South Downs Yarn, her natural dying process and the people she works with along the way. *******
Brighton, January 2018
Imogen: We both work with the glorious Southdown fleece from our local chalky cliffs and downs, and I’ve found it to be so soft and special, but have been told many times that is a difficult fleece to work with due to its short staple length; talk to me about your experiences of working with this beautiful, tricky fleece and about developing your specialist spin. So far in the first year of work I’ve used freelance spinners to develop my weaving yarn, but this year I have challenged myself to spin my own yarn. Tell me more about your spinning SDY journey.
Louise: My journey with Southdown fleece began because, with the exception of one yarn, I could not find any Southdown wool for sale. My impetus was really straightforward: I wanted to know what the wool from my local sheep breed was like to knit with. From the very beginning I had in mind a commercially spun knitting yarn that celebrated its qualities: creamy, fine, well-crimped and springy. The reason I wanted a commercially spun yarn was twofold. Firstly, I wanted to find out whether it was possible to make a viable yarn from Southdown fleece both in terms of quantity and quality. Secondly, I felt that hand spinning would make the final unit price too high and would also limit the quantity of yarn I was able to produce. This was quite an important consideration because not only do the size of my local Southdown flocks vary, I also knew that I was going to need to work with more than one flock over a number of years. Scale and margins were and continue to be an issue. There is very little scope in wool production for profit, and I knew that I would not be able to pay hand spinners a living wage for their labour.
Even though I am not a spinner and did not intend to have my finished yarn hand-spun, I had to get to know all about the raw material. I started from a position of understanding through reading about the defining characteristics of a typical Southdown fleece. However, I had no previous practical, hands-on experience, and back in 2010 when I started my research there were very few people who were able to share much knowledge of working with this breed, either as spinners or knitters. I joined my local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, and I attended country shows and sheep fairs to look at and compare flocks, I talked with shepherds and purchased what little Southdown fleece and wool was for sale at fairs and niche outlets. All these activities were useful, and helped me to develop the idea of what I might be able to achieve. During this time the majority of hand spinners I talked with whilst interested in spinning with Southdown fleece as part of their spinning exploration, did not see themselves as wanting to dedicate their time to working with just this breed. These conversations confirmed my plan to use a commercial mill. However, at this stage I was still completely naïve about commercial spinning and all the permutations related to it.
Having done the preliminary research which included finding the one mill in the south of England that accommodates short-staple fleeces there were initial conversations with them about what I wanted to achieve, and what they felt they could offer. At this stage it became clear that the only way to really find out whether this idea was any good was to take some fleece down to them and see what happened. I staked my savings and took out a small loan to make it happen.
Imogen: My first hurdle with getting my first shear of 25 fleeces cleaned was that many processors won’t take the short fibre length as it blocks their machinery, and with your help I got it booked in with The Natural Fibre Company; have you encountered any technical hurdles with this fleece?
Louise: Absolutely, yes. Like you, I had wanted to create an end product that I could say was grown and processed in Sussex. Sadly, very early on I discovered this would not be possible. There are very few places left in the UK with the equipment, knowledge, and in my opinion the desire to work with short-stapled fleeces. This is compounded by the fact that in my experience many shepherds in the Southdown community are unwilling or unable to see any value in their fleeces. This is because what market there is pays so little and in most cases doesn’t even cover the shearing cost. I have had a lot of conversations that raised the issue that if wider society does not value fleeces then there is no incentive for shepherds to. This in turn means there has been a lack of demand for processing Southdown fleece. Luckily for me, there are still some shepherds that value the fleece and dual purpose of the Southdown, and it’s these shepherds that I want to support through South Downs Yarn.
Personally, I find this lack of interest a great shame, and it is one of the main reasons why I am always pleased to talk about Southdown wool and its continued relevance. If we don’t value this beautiful and useful native breed’s fleeces and support people with the knowledge and the equipment to process this type of fleece there may well come a time when we won’t be able to card or spin it here in the UK. Wouldn’t it be good if rather than worrying about preserving what expertise there is we had a choice of vibrant, flourishing, competing mills to turn to. When I started talking about how I would make a commercially spun Southdown yarn, many people appeared to have the attitude that short staple somehow meant ‘inferior’, and I think this perception still persists in some quarters.
Whilst an interest in provenance and diversity has unquestionably developed in many areas of consumer purchasing my concern is that if that interest begins to extend beyond the relatively niche communities currently supporting single breed British wool into the general public the skills of those in the mills may have disappeared, the flocks may have been dispersed (it’s not that long ago that the Southdown was on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s watch list), and farmers diversified their activity into other income generating streams. Perhaps this aspect of wool trade should be allowed to fail, but I feel this would be a loss on many levels.
Historically the variety of breeds in the UK meant that these were put to diverse uses because their differing characteristics and qualities were understood. With the concentration and dominance of a few breeds we seem to have lost sight of this. For example, in 2010 when I started to really look at labelling, I could not find a wool yarn label that stated whether it had been worsted or woollen spun. Neither could I discern much conversation outside the hand spinning community about the difference and how the spinning method translates into the finished yarn. When we become interested in the provenance of a natural product we come to value its qualities, every aspect of its creation and the contribution made by all those involved in its production. Even if we don’t want to get too technical, I think many people are bored by a lack of diversity or choice, and uneasy about the waste of once precious raw materials. One fleece does not fit all!
Other technical challenges I faced started in the field. Many shepherds treat their flocks with a chemical treatment to prevent disease and pests. These chemicals are regulated and part of any good flock management plan. The mill also has rules about how soon after a treatment they will accept a shorn fleece because they too have to abide by regulations about levels of chemicals in their wastewater after washing and scouring. I have had to negotiate with shepherds that use these treatments about when this can occur in order to avoid washing the fleeces myself (which I had to do on one occasion before sending them on to the mill). Spray marking sheep is another issue. Whilst some shepherds are told this washes out, the mill automatically discards any fleece with spray marks as they cannot risk contaminating a batch run. However, some shepherds can be spray happy and potentially ruin a beautiful fleece. Simply having enough fleece for a batch run at the mill was also an issue when I first started. Southdown fleece has a high percentage of discard and this was something I had to keep in mind when selecting and weighing fleeces from each flock. All in all it has been a gradual process of learning through doing.
In terms of the actual spinning I wanted to keep the bulkiness of the finished yarn to a minimum. Most of the Southdown woollen yarn I had come across was probably bordering on the DK/aran weight. I wanted something a little more refined. I also wanted to create a fairly loosely spun yarn without compromising its functional integrity. I wanted a yarn that was in harmony with its key features, letting them speak for themselves. I did not want the number of plies or tighter spinning to detract from the natural spring and fineness.
Whilst there are breed characteristics that the Southdown Sheep Society help shepherds to uphold and maintain, fleece is an organic product that varies from year to year, flock to flock and sheep to sheep, with many factors influencing growth and quality. This is something I think needs repeating and celebrating. Whilst commercial mills do produce wool yarn that maintains a set standard for many brands, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that each batch captures a flock’s fleeces in a moment in time. Just as good wine has a vintage, why not wool? In addition I choose to work with different flocks so that I could observe differences within and between them over time. Our latest batch is lambswool which was another challenge. With Southdown fleeces’ short staple, imagine the length of a Southdown lamb’s fleece! Perhaps I am trying to make life difficult? I put my hand up to say that whilst this makes it impossible for me to achieve consistency across our batches, it is one of the things I find most rewarding, although I’m not sure the mill would agree! The mill has to adapt and tweek specifications to each batch and this is where their technical expertise comes into play. I can’t hope to explain how they do that. I like to think there is more than a little bit of magic that happens along the way.
Imogen: Your main focus for South Downs Yarn is a really refined and heritage knitting yarn, it’s absolutely beautiful. Tell me more about your knitting focus and what you look for in a yarn, and what your customers find in SDY. (What I’ve really had to embrace is the springy bounce inherent in the fleece, and adapt my weaving technique accordingly).
Louise: Knitting for me has come to be about understanding the yarn I am working with: what breed or blend of breeds it is made up of, where it has come from – the country, region and hopefully the flock, who the shepherd is and what it may have been dyed with, whether it is woollen or worsted. I like a yarn that has a story, a link to a place or a person or both, that connects me to it through these aspects. I’m not keen on silky smooth yarns, I prefer a bit of crunch. I realise this makes me sound like a bit of a purist. Don’t get me wrong, occasionally I love a good high street brand yarn that leaps into my basket because of a delicious and possibly outrageous colour. Mostly though it is about the provenance. In terms of the yarn itself, it is always great when you pick one up and you get the ‘ah this is a bit different, a bit special’ feeling. I also like yarns that have the potential to be versatile and can be readily used for different garments or accessories and used with various needle sizes without too much worry.
In terms of our customers it spans a whole range of things. From being able to try out a breed and flock specific yarn, being from or having a connection with the South Downs (where the Southdown breed originate and get their name from), a love of woollen spun yarn, plant dyed natural fibres right through to our commitment to ethical practices. I get a lot of positive comments about the shepherds and their flocks, the springiness, and our plant dyed palette.
Imogen: My use of Southdown is as a base for weaving yarn, and I blend it together with highly textured fibres such as linen, seaweed, raw Teeswater locks, and wild silk. I think my blends are around 1/3 Southdowns. This is mainly because I use fleece from a small rescue flock, and really want to include as much of this resource as I can in my work, but also be use the Southdowns adds a beautiful matte texture and shading to the final work that echoes the chalky South Downs landscape. Also it is an incredibly warm and bulky fleece when roughly carded, and makes a very warm blanket! I also tend toward adding colour through blending the fibres to create my colour ranges with limited dying; I know across your range you have favoured beautiful colour palettes using natural dyes and gradient dying, tell me more about your relationship with colour and how you develop your colour ranges, and your approach to dying.
Louise: My relationship with colour is influenced mainly by the natural world. Whether that is my garden, the skyscape, the landscape or the effect of light that I experience day-to-day. I consider myself to be very lucky to live in a county that has both coastline and countryside. I get to walk along the beach every day, gaze at waves, and watch the weather coming in. When I stand on the end of the pier and face north I can see the South Downs and some of our favourite countryside. When I think back at some of my treasured garments I realise many of them were items that were block printed, naturally dyed Indian fabrics where motifs, pattern and palette were in harmony. I think these influenced me greatly as a teenager and have stayed with me. Nature’s shades are not all muted and understated though. They can be bright and vivid. Some of the yellows I have produced using weld are proof of this. What I love about plant dyeing is knowing that I have produced a colour that has come from nature, and somehow all the colours work together and are not discordant.
Whilst there is a science to natural dyeing, there is also alchemy at an individual level. We know what colour range a given plant and its constituent parts (e.g. leaves, bark, root) will yield due to its chemical composition, and what using various methods, modifiers and assists should achieve, I still find there is something magical about having grown or foraged and then processed the raw materials I utilise. This connection and fusion of materials and practice has added another dimension to my appreciation not only of the colours I create, but has also influenced the way I interact with my environment. It’s true that I look at plants, trees and fungi with a whole new perspective!
The diversity of colours and shades I achieve mean that our ‘Shade Card’ is not like most yarn companies. Instead of individual shade names or numbers that are mass-produced and reproduced, I have created five broad ‘Colour Collections’. Within each collection there is great variety as in nature, and each small batch cannot be exactly reproduced. The gradients I produce are the consequence of my practice of exhausting dye baths. Each successive skein that goes into the dye bath is slightly paler as the dye gets used up. It’s such a simple concept and I think it works beautifully. It’s a very slow process and it can take me up to two or three weeks to use up a dye bath. It’s not a business model for the faint hearted or inpatient.
You mentioned the matteness and you are right. However, this is another one of those qualities that I feel has been perceived as something that is inferior when compared with some of the more light reflective woollen fibres. Short-stapled, matt appearance = bad, versus long staple, lustrous = good. If you take one of our undyed skeins you would see that it has a brightness that has depth, it draws the light in rather than reflecting out. With the skeins that I dye because plant-based dyes consist of several dye pigments the colour that is taken up also has a depth to it.
Imogen: I get asked a lot about the source of my wool, the ethical focus and environmental aspects of dye stuffs and vegan-friendly fibres and silk alternatives. I’m really glad people are asking questions and starting to investigate the items they invest in. Can you tell me a bit more about your environmental focus for SDY.
Louise: It is really heartening to me that people are interested and invest their time and money in supporting producers who have an ethical and/or environmental focus. There are many aspects from which I approach the environmental and ethical elements of running South Downs Yarn. In terms of ethics I only work with shepherds that share my values about animal welfare and land stewardship. The flock must be a pedigree flock registered with the Southdown Sheep Society. This is important to me because the Society exists to support flock health and promote breed characteristics. In return, I pay the shepherds above the market value for the fleeces I select, and their name and flock appear on every label. I talk about them and their work at every opportunity because the provenance of our yarn is absolutely integral to my vision of connecting people through materials.
In terms of my dyeing, I only use plant based dyes and grow and salvage most of the dye materials I use. I work to a code of ethics based on the principles developed by Karen Diadick Casselman (you can find out more on the website). When I purchase dyes, I use only reputable sellers. With the exception of indigo and some madder concentrates, I made a decision to avoid wherever possible using dye materials that have accrued a lot of air miles. For me, it is about celebrating the many readily available, beautiful plant based colours that can be grown or found locally. It’s not a business model that can be scaled-up, it is an endeavour of love, creativity and continued learning.
In terms of the environmental aspects, I am really conscious that dyeing is not environmentally friendly. What I do is all about balancing competing interests. On the one hand I love using plants to produce a palette of colours on our wool and I have a fantastic creamy white yarn base that takes the dyes so well. On the other hand I don’t want to waste water or pollute the garden or water system with anything toxic. So, I collect as much rain water as I can, I avoid using mordants unnecessarily or in too large a quantity. I exhaust my dye baths, often combining them to eek out colour. Where I can I undertake solar dyeing, utilising my greenhouse to help with heating up the baths. I am hoping to introduce some solar panels to the dye studio in the future so that I can generate some of our own electricity and heating. Being a small producer also helps because I am in control of all these activities.
Imogen: Having been through one annual cycle of the wool; the shear, the fleece cleaning, carding, spinning, weaving; I really get the sense that there is a very old rhythm beating in the background, that I’m not having to start this whole project from nothing, but rather tune into the pre existing cycle that repeats each year, and that’s a huge comfort and relief. It also means my yearly plan is set to the time of the shear, then all work is planned from that point. Tell me about how you plan your work around the wheel of the wool-year and how you feel about it.
Louise: For me there are two very different rhythms in terms of wool production. The first is the growing and shearing. The second is the processing and selling.
Learning about the first rhythm has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of starting South Downs Yarn. Whilst I have been walking the South Downs and attending Findon sheep fair with my family since I can remember, I think I was only ambiently aware of the shepherding cycle. It wasn’t until I started reading about the history of shepherding on the South Downs and meeting contemporary local Southdown shepherds that I really felt that connection with this aspect of the landscape and its seasons. Now, I get to meet people whose families have been farming for generations, some of whom remember the old shepherds of legend that feature in books like ‘Shepherds of Sussex’ by Barclay Wills, and I get to participate in the important milestones of the shepherds’ calendar.
I try to guard against being nostalgic. I am interested as much in the future of Southdown wool as I am in the past. But the past is a path to where we are now. I have a small and beloved collection old flock books; they tell their own story of the people and flocks that are still in Sussex today. I get a great deal of pleasure knowing that some of our wool can trace its way back to some of the great flocks around at the time of John Ellman of Glynde. For me, there is most definitely a rhythm to that continuity.
As for how I plan my work around the shepherding year, the honest answer is it varies. I am a one-woman business, and the way I work from getting to know the shepherds, to growing my own colour means that South Downs Yarn is very much a ‘slow’ business. This feels to me to be in keeping with the shepherding rhythm and one I feel personally comfortable with.
However, whilst wool growing and processing cannot be hurried (you can’t just phone up the mill and expect your raw fleece to be turned into yarn in a week or even a month), the fashion, textile and yarn worlds are often in a great rush, and there is the constant pressure of novelty. I find it difficult to bridge that dichotomy and find myself and the business straddling two very different and sometimes conflicting interests. I wanted to create a commercial yarn from Southdown wool that could compete in a meaningful way with other more dominant yarn brands in a fast moving market. However, the method by which I achieve the finish objects is labour and time intensive. I appreciate that there is an inherent contradiction in this. To work in a different way would for me be de mauvaise foi. Luckily, our supporters and customers totally understand and this makes sharing the endeavour worth it.
All images in this post were taken from Louise Spong’s Instagram feed.
Imogen & Louise will be showcasing their respective yarns at a special pop-up shop hosted by YAK, Gloucester Rd, Brighton on Saturday March 17th 2018.
Imogen will be exhibiting her handwoven textiles at O N C A Gallery, St George’s Place, Brighton, March 17th-25th 2018.
South Downs Yarn
Bright Moon Weaving Studio
O N C A