knit | spin

Tuff Socks Naturally: Ryeland the Sheep

February 20, 2018

Thanks for all your encouraging, supportive comments on my last post. Sometimes the gap between what we want to do and what we are able to do is frustratingly wide.

Today’s post is one in a series called Tuff Socks Naturally, an open, collaborative project exploring more sustainable alternatives to superwash and nylon in sock yarn. You can join in on the discussion, share pics and projects on this blog or Local and Bespoke or on Instagram using the hashtag #tuffsocksnaturally.

Meet the Ryeland sheep.

Coloured Ryeland ram, UK, copyright Richard Webb, Wiki Commons

And now meet some fleece, clearly not from the same sheep.

This beautiful looking fleece is grown in south west Victoria on the Hallyluya Stud Farm.  I accidentally discovered Ryeland when I noticed that a crossbreed fleece did not felt. Tuff Socks 1 and Tuff Socks 2 made use of that crossbreed and it was so remarkable, I wanted to try the single breed. As you can see, it is springy, the locks are a little disorganised and have pointy tips.

Ryeland is often grouped together with with Downs sheep like Suffolk and Shropshire because of the felting resistance and crunchy, springy handle of the fibre. However, it has quite different origins and The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook (2009), places the breed quite separately to the Downs sheep. It is one of the oldest of the British sheep breeds, predating the development of the Downs sheep.  In medieval times, (12 century ish), there were long wool sheep and short wool sheep. Ryeland come from the short wool sheep and were at that time, a fine wool sheep, rivaling Spanish Merino. For centuries, Ryeland fleece was used for luxury hosiery. We could assume because it was so fine, soft, elastic and resistant to felting. Sounds amazing doesn’t it? But the Ryeland of the 21C, is not the same sheep. It is relatively fine but nothing like Merino or even a soft Finn, not next-to-the skin. Something happened to the Ryeland sheep breed to change the fleece dramatically.

In his fascinating book Counting Sheep (2014) Philip Walling explores what happened to the Ryeland sheep. The tale had me gripped. In the mid eighteenth century in England, a farmer called Robert Blackwell set about improving his sheep through a radical breeding program. He transformed the medieval wool producing, Leicester longwool sheep into a modern, fast growing, carcass sheep. This sheep was called the Dishley or New Leicester and it was used to ‘improve’ other breeds of sheep. In fact, Walling claims, ‘there is not a breed of sheep in the industrial societies of the Western world that does not have at least a little of the blood of Bakewell’s Dishley Leicester running through its veins’.

The New Leicester was thought to improve almost every breed of sheep it was introduced to, increasing milk production, fecundity, flesh to bone ratio and vigour.  Its descendant, the Border Leicester is still used to improve the lambing rate and meat production of many commercial sheep breeds including Merino. It was a good news story for the industrial farming revolution except for the Ryeland. The crossing turned the Ryeland into a meat sheep at the expense of fineness of the fleece. The loss of the fineness was irrevocable. The loss saddens me, as we try to use technology to transform Merino fibres into something more durable and washable, when we had those qualities right there, in a fine fleece up until about 250 years ago.
James Ward, Ryelands Sheep, The King’s Ram, The King’s Ewe, and Lord Somerville’s Wether, c. 1801-1807

This painting depicts a sheep significantly leaner and finer boned than the modern Ryeland which is interesting as it was probably around this period that the breed would have been ‘improved’. The Lord Somerville mentioned in the title was a prominent sheep breeder and the largest owner of Merino at the time, which makes sense if we consider that Ryeland was formally a fine wool sheep.

So whilst, I won’t be able to use Ryeland to spin stockings Elizabeth I would have favoured, the elasticity and felting resistance are still excellent, useful characteristics for Tuff Socks. As a Rare Breed Sheep in Australia, it is also important that we support the viability of the breed.

In the next post you can see how I prepared the Ryeland fleece for spinning.