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Memento Mori

August 15, 2018

This post is about a sheep, a very special sheep called HRH or Old Leader.

HRH, photo by Nan Bray, used with her permission

In 2016, I had the great fortune to encounter a very lovely fleece from White Gum Wool whilst studying for the Spinning Certificate run by the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria. It was a superfine Saxon Merino fleece around 17 microns. Afterwards, in the course of interviewing Nan Bray for an article in Spin Off, she told me that the fleece was the last fleece of her most important matriarch and that she had died recently. She asked if I might send her a spun sample of HRH.

Sometimes, we get the opportunity to work with fibre from a known animal. Perhaps it is from an animal we’ve raised, that we’ve had pointed out at a farm, sometimes, all we have is a name written on the fleece bag.  Considering the life of sheep in our fibre work is important. They are the source of our materials. They turn grass into warm, renewable, biodegradable clothing for us. Thinking about them as individuals can shift our thoughts from resource consumption to an empathetic comradeship where we are more likely to be concerned about animal welfare, life span and health of the earth.

HRH leading the flock, photo by Nan Bray, used with her permission

I’ve never been in the situation of knowing a specific sheep posthumously through its fleece and it has given me much to think of. Nan spoke so movingly of the importance of HRH to her flock and her own knowledge of Merino behaviour that I thought that a memorial post for HRH might be appropriate and Nan gave her permission.

HRH or Old Leader was 11 years old when she died at the end of 2015. She was a mother and a grandmother. Despite our belief that fleece coarsens over time, even at 11, her fleece is the finest I have yet spun. Not many sheep in commercial flocks get to live until 11, most get sent off to the abattoir at around 5 years old. But Nan has a different perspective on raising sheep and believed that HRH and her other matriarchs had important knowledge on how to graze, where to find the various plants that keep a sheep healthy and how to move as a flock together.

Nan says

HRH aka Old Leader…was pivotal in teaching me many, many important lessons—not just about sheep, but at least as importantly, about myself.

HRH, photo by Nan Bray, used with her permission

In her Yarns from the Farm posts on the White Gum Wool website, you can type in HRH into the search box and find many, many posts about this sheep. In one post, entitled The Power of the Matriarch  in 2014, Nan wrote

So, Old Leader, for whatever set of reasons, is the acknowledged wise woman of the flock. She is the one who decides where and when the flock will move to graze, whether it is safe to move into a new area, when to move to shelter and where that shelter is likely to be, relative to developing weather patterns. And the flock, accepting her leadership, move confidently behind her, and graze more actively as a result of her confidence.

It didn’t seem right just to send a spun sample, even though it was the very best, finest spinning I could do at the time (I am not a lace spinner so it really was the best I could do).  So I knitted a wee memento for Nan, a memento mori, a remembrance of a life passing.


So often we spin and knit from fibre whose origin is a mystery to us. Even though this is normal and everyday, when I think about it, wool that comes from unknown sheep and unknown places has a particular poignancy about it…a kind of anonymous lostness.

I only met HRH through her fleece, but I hope through Nan’s pictures and words, you come to have a sense of her. She was a special sheep. They are all special sheep, with their own knowledge and wisdom of being a sheep, finding food and giving birth. It is good for us to catch ourselves occasionally and to remember how precious their wool really is.

You can find out more about HRH/Old Leader on the White Gum Wool website. You can also find stories about other matriarchs in the flock. If you have any stories about sheep you have known, please share them.