BREED QUALITIES & CHARACTERISTICS (and a little bit of background)
By the Iron Age there were certainly sheep in the South of England. Remains from Findon dating from the second to fourth century A.D. are believed to have been descended from Romano-British sheep. Skeletal remains also show us that body proportions and horns were also quite different than in today’s sheep. In terms of the variety and changes in wool over time it is understood that selective breeding through the domestication process rather than environmental conditions has led to the significant differences we are familiar with today. According to M L Ryder author of 'Sheep & Man', the polled, dusky faced Southdown as we know them have been on the chalk hills of the South Downs since medieval times.
Gilbert White, a naturalist from Selbourne writing in 1773 also gives us some clear details about Sussex sheep in the mid C18th. He tells us that the river Adur at Shoreham provided a natural boundary between white-faced polled sheep to the west and black-faced polls to the east. The latter is thought to be the forerunner of the Southdown which pushed the white-faced group further west. By 1837 William Youatt regarded this boundary to have ceased to exist, showing that the distribution of the types of sheep across Sussex had changed again. We have drawings of these Southdown ancestors and they most certainly didn’t look like the distinctive ‘teddy-bear’ faced Southdowns we recognise today. The beginning of these changes is credited to one remarkable man from Glynde in East Sussex, namely John Ellman. He was the first person to start to improve the Southdown breed in a systematic way, followed closely by Thomas Coke of Holkham, Norfolk.
Many of the qualities and characteristics that we attribute to Southdown wool have remained fairly consistent with the improvements made to the breed during the late C18th and earl C19th They are:
Southdown wool is one of the finest of the Down wools (in terms of microns between 24-29).
It should be well crimped and creamy white.
The lustre tends to be low to very low which means it is less light reflective and more matt in appearance. I particularly like this quality and find it works well with the shades we achieve through natural dyeing, giving it a depth of colour that isn't flat.
It has a short staple, usually between 4 and 10cm (1.5 and 5 inches).
Creates a lofty, springy yarn with a fine fuzzy halo.
WHAT DOES WOOLLEN SPUN MEAN?
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. Historically, due to the Southdown's relatively short staple, it was woollen spun rather than worsted. I wanted to carry on this tradition so all our yarn is woollen spun.
The difference between woollen and worsted spun yarn is considerable, and I feel an integral part of understanding our wool.
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 produce fibres of various lengths. When they are carded (rather than combed) the fibres go in many different directions. You may notice fine fibres sticking out of the finished yarn sometimes referred to as ‘fuzziness’; this is a natural feature of these yarns. 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 word of 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. Each additional fold or 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 woollen spinning and number of folds means we have not created a tough yarn and they are not suitable for hard wearing garments. Rather they are lofty and springy. They have an incredible warmth when knitted up due to the air trapped between the fibres, and so are perfect for mittens, hats and shawls, particularly if you like to add colour-work features. Why not take a look at our Ravelry profile to see some of the projects we've used our yarn for?
I value the additional bounce and versatility due to the crimp and subsequent loftiness that allows me to work in various gauges without losing stitch definition.
It is vital to note that fleece, and therefore yarn varies from sheep to sheep, flock to flock and year to year. Here at SDY we celebrate that difference and diversity. Whilst breed standards remain and we look out for them in the flocks with which we work, we want to showcase how wool is a dynamic and evolving material influenced by various factors all through the growing and spinning processes.
Details of the gauge and measurements of each yarn are detailed by flock. They all vary. However, they all work well together and I often combine yarn from each flock in a single garment. Whether you stick to one flock or combine them, please be sure to check your gauge on a blocked swatch as this wool blooms beautifully, and just like our wool us knitters are all different too!
Code of ethics
Our yarn is sustainably sourced and geo-traceable.
This means that we work with individual Southdown flocks and shepherds whose sheep graze in their natural habitat, the South Downs and their environs.
We only work with registered, pedigree flocks
We develop a relationship with each and every shepherd and flock
We pay above the market value for the fleeces we select
Our wool is 100% single flock, Southdown wool grown, shorn and dyed in Sussex
It is scoured, carded, and spun in England
There are no air miles in our product before sale