The Shepherd, The Shearer, and me

When Susan Gibbs recently contacted me to ask me if I’d like to be involved in a new project, I already knew I would say yes. I love everything that Susan does at Juniper Moon Farm, and was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with her. But when she explained precisely what this project was, I was totally blown away. Let me explain: the project’s starting point was the shared desire of Susan and her friend and sheep shearer, Emily Chamelin to raise awareness among knitters of the virtues of really good, hard-wearing wool. As you are all no doubt aware, this is the kind of wool I really love; the kind with which you can knit beautiful, classic garments that will last for years, if not generations; and the kind which is unfortunately often sidelined in today’s luxury-yarn dominated market. While buttery-soft merinos and merino-blends may well be lovely to knit with, they are often not the most hard-wearing. And certainly, when used for sweaters and other outdoor garments, the fabric knitted from such yarns has an unfortunate tendency to look ratty really quickly. As shepherds and shearers, Susan and Emily are often outdoors, and what you need for outdoor work is something properly fit for purpose: namely, a good hard-wearing woolly sweater. So Emily and Susan decided to produce this ideal sweater themselves, totally from scratch. They would purchase fleeces from the clients whose sheep Emily shears, prepare and spin yarn to their own specifications, commission a couple of sweater designs, and then enable knitters to become part of the process by producing these ideal sweaters themselves. I am thrilled to have been invited, together with the redoubtable Kirsten Kapur, to create a sweater design for Emily and Susan.

The fact that shepherding and shearing are male-dominated activities is almost too obvious to state. I love how the project’s logo proudly situates Emily and Susan as representatives of these noble professions, and one of the many laudable elements to this project is that a proportion of the profits will go towards establishing a scholarship to support other women to be trained as shearers. Seriously, there are so many things I love about The Shepherd and The Shearer, that I could gush about it for hours, but I am genuinely, truly honoured to be involved in a project whose whole purpose is to celebrate wool, and to value the work of women.

I’ll be posting more about the project and my involvement in it as time goes on. In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about The Shepherd and The Shearer, or fancy signing-up to be a knitterly collaborator (spots are very limited, and open today, I believe) then head over to Juniper Moon Farm, where Susan will tell you all about it.

40 responses

  1. What a wondeful project! I have a regular following of knitting students, who I have tried to educate about the value of knitting with good wool. Wearing my own sweaters to class; which range from new to 20+ yrs old (each class a different sweater) has opened many eyes to how ‘soft’ a sweater can really feel after yrs of care/wear and how long they last. They never thought sweaters could be passed down…

    Many have stopped turning up their noses about ‘scratchy’ (in their opinion) wool. They were amazed at a tale of a Mom (wool store owner I met) who had a sweater come back to her, after each boy wore it to University; then passed it to the next brother down the line (have a piece of home away from home, to get you through the tough bits). It was so lovely and really looked like a newer, well loved piece. Mom now wore it with pride 25 yrs after it came off the needles.

    Kudos to you and Juniper Moon Farm!

  2. Congratulations. What a great project (and love Nancy’s story). I was reflecting on just this issue the other day, as I grew up knitting hard-wearing, lanolin-laced wool, and no longer do that. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. As I’m new to knitting and mainly preoccupied with learning new techniques and stitches and so on, it never occurred to me that there would be such a big issue with yarns. I’ve noticed that a lot of the popular yarns are merino or cashmere but I gravitate towards “woolly” wool because that’s what drew me into knitting in the first place. I find the feel of wool, even if it’s a bit scratchy, pleasing, and I love it’s connotations to nature and demanding working environments. So thanks for this post, I learnt something important today. I’m very impressed by Susan’s jumper’s story.

    But you got me thinking now, would you say that any yarn that is wool and not a luxury yarn, is reasonably hardwearing? Or are there more things I’d have to be aware of when choosing yarn, that sometimes aren’t readily available on the yarn label, like breed and place of origin, or production methods? Would yarns like Jamieson’s or New Lanark for example pass this project’s criteria?

    Looking forward to your design and the evolution of the project!

    • There are several factors involved in whether yarns are hardwearing enough; the level of twist is important… A slubby, gently spun yarn – no matter what breed – will not wear as well as a high twist yarn. Also, the number of plies in a yarn – that is, how many singles or spun lengths are twisted together in the yarn – also has a bearing on its strength.

      We are lucky in the to have a wide selection of hard wearing woollen yarns to work with – my partner wears a pullover I made 3 years ago every single day out of dk shetland spun at blacker yarns. The cuffs are worn but otherwise it is as good as new and hasn’t pilled a bit.

      both New Lanark and Jamieson & Smith produce excellent 100% wool yarns, the new lanark stuff is brilliant for sweaters, and J&S is wonderful for colourwork

      If you can get it, stuff spun by diamond fibres in Sussex is amazing. This is a micro mill so they process small batches of fleece for shepherds and don’t sell directly… But Roger’s spinning methods create instantly recognisable yarns. Shearer girl yarns I think uses Roger (Lydia is a shearer here in the UK)… If you search for diamond fibres and phone up I am sure you could get in touch with some shepherds selling yarn spun by him. Lleyn, Portland, southdown are all nice strong, soft, hardwearing wools but I would use lustre wools like teeswater or wensleydale for luxury items as they are very drapey and silky and better suited to lace… I could go on but will spare you! Yes, there is quite a lot that goes into making a quality wool and discovering it all is a pure joy.

      • Thanks very much for all this information, Felicity. I did a bit of research after posting my comment and realised the answer to my questions wouldn’t be as simple as I thought. I’m hooked now and I’ve found a couple of books on the subject. I do feel lucky to live in the uk with all these yarns with their stories and their ties to the land.

        I’m knitting a pair of socks at the moment and even the generic wendy sock yarn I’m using which I suspect isn’t the greatest quality is giving me joy with its woolly feel and smell.

  4. love these chicks and was so happy to read of emily’s shearing adventures over at wovember — even more do i love a process story, from the back of the sheep to the back of me. so excited you are part of the design process. are these wools, or could they be, waterproof with lanolin? my mother once had such a sweater she wore in the peruvian highlands.
    and, would such wool work for a doggie sweater?

  5. Kate – Thought you might like a quote from Martha Wainwright about her mother, folksinger Kate McGarrigle:
    People close to Kate McGarrigle describe a woman radiant and blunt, and you can see it in those sweaters. “Today people prefer soft wools,” Martha says. “She liked only scratchy Quebec wool. She liked the pain of it. She was always slightly dubious about people who wouldn’t wear scratchy sweaters.”

  6. Well, I for one am ‘over the Moon’, no pun intended!! I am also very excited about this project, about bloody time!! I knit an Aran jumper out of hand spun Jacob’s, not your softest wool!!, for my brother-in-law 25 years ago and he wore it under a jacket for skate sailing and eventually it sort of felted and it shrunk (he grew :) ) and my sister now wears it, like a coat, and invariably EVERY time she wears it someone Wants it. so funny because it is usually a young man. Good on all of you. I just spun some Cotswold that i am very pleased with but it is slightly ‘scratchy’ and am debating it’s use.
    Thank you for participating in this fabulous project.

  7. Glad you are working on this as I love your Shetland based designs (as I am partial to shetland as I raise the lovely critters!) And I am lucky in that Emily is my shearer. The shearing school is a great experience. I met Emily there and learned to shear as well. So wonderful to get more ladies on board. Even if you have a professional shearer it is absolutely essential as a shepherd to know how to shear. I do the lions share of the work on my farm and the more skills you have the better. The acceptance of more breed diverse yarns is important to the survival of small sheep farms too. Thanks for your contribution.

    • Hello, i have 2 churro fleeces, one soft (???) and the other more traditional. When i card the later i put both long and short bits together and it makes for a lovely hard wearing yarn. I love it.

  8. Incredible! Congratulations. What an amazing project to be a part of. I simply love their logo. I have to say you have really changed the way I view yarn in general. While I do love some of the luxury yarns that are out there…I’m much more drawn to hard wearing wool now. In fact, since I’ve been knitting most of my winter wardrobe for the last year…it’s pretty much all I buy. Thank you, Kate, for that gift. Your passion has clearly worn off on me. xo

  9. I love pure hardwearing 100% wool!
    On the other hand, I still haven’t found wool that is as soft as the wool yarn that was sold over 50 years ago and that my grandmother used to make shawls and baby garments that are still in use today…

  10. What a beautiful logo and what a fantastic project! Having knit my fair share of merino-based sweaters which got ratty very quickly, I am all for the hard-wearing wool. I look forward to your design.

  11. Since I began following your blog a couple of years ago I’ve become more and more interested in the wools of which you so passionately write.

    With a copy of Deco in hand I first scoured our local shops for the kind of yarn you recommend then began visiting Blacker in an effort to get the Corriedale used in the original.

    Today, when I saw this project I knew it was the perfect next step in my little journey so I right away ordered one!

    Now how will I manage the waiting?!

  12. I have placed my order over at Juniper Moon Farm! One of the reasons I ordered the package was because you were one of the designers. If you’re looking for inspiration, please know that I intend to knit a choring sweater that I will wear when I milk my cows through Missouri winters. I can’t seem to give up my hand milking, cheese making lifestyle, even though it means we don’t go out to dinner much or see many movies. With a lot of luck, and a new fence, I will also wear it to tend a small flock of sheep. My goal is to replace our gas powered lawnmower with grass powered, wool producing sheep. My husband is worried he will come home in the evenings to find the beasts sleeping on the porch. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

    Thank you for being a part of this project!

  13. I just purchased mine. I certainly hope your mind is leaning toward something with lots of pattern. IT will show off that wool wonderfully. This project came at just the right time for me, as I’ve been looking for hard wearing sweaters—those I can wear without a coat. Yea!

  14. Much as I love proper ‘wool’ I have a problem in that I am allergic to it and come out in itchy spots whenever it comes into contact with my skin. This said I am looking for suitable patterns where I can use wool for garments that don’t come into contact with skin. If anyone has any ideas I would be delighted to hear from you – registerlady@yahoo.co.uk – it’s not as easy as it may sound as I am classed as ‘obese’ which is a horrible word, and I prefer ‘plumptious’, but whichever word you use, I have a 57 inch bust so find it very difficult to find patterns in my size. And I do so love the items that you make, Kate.

  15. I (also from across the pond) am so pleased to see these comments about “good, hard-wearing wool”. Although I only took up knitting in the last several years, this is the wool I remember from girlhood days in upstate New York, where winters were COLD. To this day I love “scratchy wool”, and I protest to its detractors that I don’t find it scratchy, I find it warm!

  16. This all sounds just up my street. I love the thought that the garments I am making will still be around in decades to come – if people look after them of course. What a wonderful project to be part of.

  17. I enjoy being educated about the types of wool, the history and the people who are involved in this world. As I read the postings and the article, it occurred to me how different the pace of life, location and lifestyle forms an individual’s perspective on what we buy, wear and believe we need. The older I get and the more choices available in the market, whether it be plastics, clothing, cars or food…it is apparent the cultivation of a throw away world has gone completely over the edge. When I read your posting today and the replies, it made me a little sad inside to realize how are thirst for new fashion and accumulation of stuff has been the demise of what once was treasured….long-lasting, functional and hand-crafted beautiful clothing or furnishings. I am happy inside to know even though the majority of the population is rushing to keep up with the wannabee’s, there are those like you and The Shepherd and The Shearer who live and love what is closest to the heart. Thank you for your writing, photographs and sharing.

  18. Another exciting project underway, there’s no stopping you !

    This posts somehow brings to mind a fuzzy memory I have of myself (female) shearing (okay, with household scizzors) my sheep “Hazel” (who’s fleeces I’m still spinning!) back in 1990. The event was rather sad, because she died (ate a bunch of oak acorns we think), and with a full fleece on her. This happened on a cold winter’s night and no shearer in a hundred miles for sure, so before digging a grave into clay to bury poor Hazel (with the help of my friend) late at night, I did ‘shear’ her all by myself, with the household scizzors ! Took me a long time too! In closing, I thought I’d also mention that if I were to come across the opportunity again, I am a proud owner now of some proper old-fashioned sheers, which were given to me very recently , found amongst dust and cobwebs, from an old barn.

  19. Wovember, this post as well as your post this summer about design and intellectual property seems to seamlessly weave into the book: Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion by Elisabeth Cline. All of these writings raise the issue: do you know where your clothes come from? For knitters, that maybe an easy answer, but then the questions is: do you know where you wool came from? Maybe it is time for the slow clothes movement. We need to ask: where was this item manufactured? how were the materials sourced? how was waste managed? How are the employees treated? How are the animals treated? How are the dyes managed? Is your process sustainable? How are the designers treated/compensated? While this will make shopping longer and more complicated, the industry will respond when consumers ask the questions.
    Best of luck on your new endeavor, I plan to surf over to Juniper Moon and buy a share.

  20. Such a great idea! And exactly what I’ve been looking for – wool that makes “beautiful, classic garments that will last for years, if not generations”. Thank you for bringing this project to my attention! And, the farm I worked at for awhile, here in Ontario, had a lady shearer and the owner said she was the best he ever had – less nicks and bleeding, good quality work.

  21. Glad to hear your support for “real”, untreated wool. As a designer, I’m not a fan of superwash yarns for a lot of reasons, including the fact that they often don’t hold up well when wet, making them difficult to block to a predictable size and shape. Sadly, many yarn shop owners tell me that they can’t sell non-superwash wool, so I end up having to resort to mail order to get what I want.

  22. I think this is amazing.

    I too love the logo and the ethos of the project, and am delighted to see such a famous and influential team getting behind good, strong, lasting wool.

    I can’t wait to see what you create in the rich context of this project!

  23. this is pretty freakin’ fantastic! i am so stoked for you, kate! so many great patterns, a book coming out (cannot wait!), and now this. how wonderful life turns out to be when you work hard at something and it’s rewarded. congratulations all around on your successes. <3

  24. Well, what timing, since I lamented on my blog today of a dyer with a small environmental footprint that no longer dyes. So glad to hear about this project, and I love scratchy wool … along with luxury fibers. There’s a time and place for both. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this project and your involvement, as well as see the designs. Hooray! :)

  25. So exciting! Can’t wait….I’ve been meaning to check out their CSA for a while…this refreshed my memory :) I just told hubby that I’ve just found the perfect birthday gift…he just needs to pay for it…hahahaaaaaaaa :)

  26. Okay, this is almost too much for me! My creativity now needs to be marshaled to come up with just the right justification to buy myself The Shepherd and the Shearer “package.” And just when I thought I might be able to resist the temptation of more yarn…

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