We chart the origins and story so far of a fascinating initiative in the Northwest of Ireland: a sheep to garment project with the beautiful Blue-Face Leicester breed at its heart.

Like many of us, Albina learned to knit as a child, then abandoned it as a teenager and returned to it in her late 20s. And although it was never her main source of employment, Albina has been knitting for extra income for a good few years, and continued after her move to Ireland from Boston four years ago.

After moving to Ireland Albina found that her customer base became quite different. In the US her typical customer held an office job where they’d be sitting at a desk all day; here in Ireland many of her customers work on their feet outdoors – putting a lot of stress on handknits, especially socks. These hard-wearing customers gave Albina alarmingly mixed feedback about the durability of her socks. Some of the socks would hold up like new, wash after wash, while others would be in horrendous condition within a fairly short time. Naturally she wanted to figure out where this inconsistency in durability was coming from. Albina knew that her knitting method, tension, etc., did not change from one pair of socks to the next. But she was using a variety of different yarns. Could this be yarn related?

After consulting some contacts in the fibre industry, she was advised to acquaint herself with sheep breeds. Her research opened her eyes to the fact that ‘wool’ is not some generic substance, but can refer to fibres with staggeringly varied characteristics. When she checked the labels of the sock yarns she had been using, she noticed something interesting: most of her sock yarns were labelled as either merino, BFL, or simply ‘wool’, blended with 20-25% nylon. By far, the socks she had knitted out of the yarns with BFL content held up best. After more research and experimenting with various blends, Albina gradually developing a strong preference for Blue-Faced Leicester yarns.

The jump from this bombshell to organising a local Sheep-to-Garment project was unintentional, according to Albina. One day in the late Spring 2017 she was riding her bicycle in the Roe Valley, Co. Derry when she noticed, grazing happily in a field, what looked suspiciously like a BFL sheep. She asked the local farmer about it and it turned out that he owned several of them. Because BFLs are a delicate breed that require a sheltered, warm climate, Albina had not expected to see any BFL flocks successfully raised in Ireland, especially in the Northwest. The farmer explained that while this is generally correct, the weather and soil conditions in the Roe Valley make it possible to keep a small flock under careful care. As it happened, his sheep were due to be sheared soon, and curious to see the process, Albina arranged to document the shearing. Not content to leave it there, she purchased the fleeces afterward! And so the project was born.

Albina decided to investigate the practicalities of getting the fleeces processed and spun, so she’s be able to knit something out of a yarn that not only came from her favourite sheep breed, but was locally sourced from a farmer she knew in person. Naturally, she thought that perhaps others might enjoy this yarn as well, and if so, it could be made available in small batches every year. According to Albina’s research there is currently no Irish BFL yarn, a fact that made the project even more compelling. But first things first, she would need to test the yarn and see what it was like to work with – and, no less importantly, what the finished project would be like to wear.

With her idea in mind and some filthy fleeces in hand, Albina approached master spinning wheel builder Johny Shiels, whom she happened to have met the year prior, to ask for advice as to where she might get the fleeces processed. Based in Carndonagh, Co. Donegal., Johny is well known as a third generation builder and repairer of spinning wheels (you can purchase his beautiful creations here (http://www.spinningwheels.ie). When he is not building the wheels, Johny enjoys spinning on them. On hearing Albina’s idea, he offered to process and spin a sweater’s quantity of the yarn for the project himself. They agreed that the yarn should be spun as a sport weight 3-ply.

The wool will be spun undyed, allowing Albina to make decisions about colour once she had ‘met’ the yarn. Earlier this year she had connected with natural dyer Jennifer Leinhard of Woolfinch Studio (also Olann and columnist) in Co. Claire. Jennifer engaged Albina to write some patterns for her yarns, and the collaboration turned quickly into a virtual friendship. Jennifer will be advising Albina on using foraged plants to dye the BFL yarn.

After they dying stage, the yarn should be ready to knit with – as will the design Albina is working on specially for this project. Albina doesn’t want to describe the design just yet, but she has said she hopes to make it special and infused with local significance.

The Sheep-to-Garment project is currently in the spinning stage and the yarn will be dyed and ready to work with by October. We can expect to see the final product before the year’s end and we’re looking forward to that very much.

DETAILS/ PERSONS / LINKS

SHEEP

Purebred BFLs raised and sheared on a small farm in Bellarena, Co. Derry

YARN

Fleece processed and spun into yarn by Johny Shiels, Carndonagh, Co. Donegal

http://www.spinningwheels.ie

DYEING

Natural dyeing in collaboration with Jennifer Leinhard of Woolfinch Studio, Scarriff, Co. Claire

https://www.etsy.com/shop/WoolFinchStudio

 

PATTERN DESIGN & KNITTING

{also PROJECT ORGANISER}

Albina McLaughlin of LB Handknits, Falcarragh Co. Donegal

http://lbhandknits.com

2017-09-11T22:25:11+00:00