In late autumn of 2016 I went to meet Susan Harmer at her family farm in Offham, East Sussex. Offham is just outside the historic county town of Lewes once known for its annual sheep fair and itself a few miles from the village of Glynde where John Ellman first started improving the Southdown breed in the 1790s. The landscape here has not altered much and Susan’s flock continue to graze on the ancient chalk land of the South Downs that Ellman would still recognise today. Susan’s flock is a multiple-award-winning, pedigree Southdown flock. You can read my interview with Susan about how she became a Southdown shepherd, why the flock is called ‘Ridings’, and why she loves farming here.
And now to this very special, limited edition, single flock 2017 crop (the Sussex term for clip or shearing) that South Downs Yarn is releasing this autumn.
After my first visit to see Susan and her sheep, we agreed I would take the best of her February 2017 crop. This meant using wool from lambs aged between 8 and 10 months old. The fleece of Southdowns is known for its short staple and while taking fleece from the lambs, which have had less time to grow theirs was a bit of a gamble, it has paid off. The result, a finer, softer version of the more usual shearling crop. Our tester said “it’s as though you have shorn teddybears: so cosy and bouncy”.
Why Woollen Spun?
Woollen and worsted not only pertain to the weight and/or size of a particular yarn, they are also terms used to describe how the fibre is spun.
Worsted-spun fibres are usually longer and mostly similar in length. They are combed so that all the fibres run parallel to each other (think of brushing your hair). When they are spun there is little or no space between individual fibres and this makes for a stronger, sleeker yarn.
Our wool is woollen spun, because Southdown fleeces, particularly lambs’ fleeces produce fibres of various lengths, and when these are carded (rather than combed) the fibres go in many different directions, creating a fine, fuzzy halo. This method of preparing the fibre for spinning means that there is more space for air between the fibres, making yarn that is extra warm to wear. Though a warning for those sensitive to such things: if you wear this wool next to your skin, you may well feel the “prickle” factor.
As well as being woollen spun, all our yarn is two fold/ply. The additional ply (strand of yarn) adds bulk and strength, and has created a yarn in the region of 13 wraps per inch (WPI). By doing this, we have produced a relatively light, airy yarn that can still sustain wearability.
The Special Qualities
The spinning method, combined with the extra ply and the intrinsic and unique nature of this particular crop, have created a wool that:
Has bounce, springiness and elasticity
Combines softness with fuzziness
Has a deliberately loose and occasional irregular spin
The label explained
I recommend between 2.75mm and 3.25mm (US 2-3) needles for this wool.
10cmx10cm (4”x4”) = 25-28 sts x 37-40 rows
However, I swatched from 2mm to 5mm (US 0-8) to explore the possibilities for you. The loftiness and looseness of the spinning means that this yarn, which can be described as sport weight, will also work well at a denser gauge for 4ply/fingering patterns, and at a looser gauge for drapey DK accessories. A word of caution when using larger needle sizes: the intended irregularity in spinning will be more obvious. We like this fluctuation as it is more in keeping with the artisanal nature of this special edition wool.
Washing, blocking & care
I recommend that you hand wash only. The Ridings flock wool is lambswool, which is fine, soft and loose, and invites you to be extra kind and gentle when washing.
Dry flat. If shaping or reshaping is required, use a blocking board with pins.
Be sure to check your gauge on a blocked swatch, as this wool blooms beautifully during blocking.
Store your finished object flat and away from direct sunlight.
How to make the most of your precious skeins
To help you decide whether your skein is suitable for your intended project I have been swatching and testing the Ridings wool over the past few months.
As this yarn is two fold/ply and woollen spun, it is not suitable for garments that will see a lot of wear and tear. Rather, it is ideal for projects where soft, insulating qualities are required, such as mittens, hats and shawls. If, like me, you enjoy colourwork, this batch works beautifully in combination with the wool from our other single-flock, plant-dyed Southdown wool.
We are delighted that our yarn is featuring in the new knitting book WOODS Making Stories. The beautiful ‘Winterfold’ mitten pattern by Claire Walls combines both our undyed, natural ‘Chalk Path’ and some of our plant dyed wool.
The Ridings flock will only be available in its natural, undyed state, which we call ‘Chalk Path’. I hope you like it!