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.


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  1. What a wonderful flock you have found at Halleyula Farm. Breeding Ryeland sheep for 57 years…I am wondering how you came across the fleece to spin? You would be holding history in your hands and that has to be a special experience.

    I am looking forward to reading about your spinning…my spinning is rather non-existent at the moment…and the yarn that you have made to knit those pure wool socks.

    Very pleased too that your mojo has gathered itself up again….

    1. Dear Lydia, I found the Halleyluya flock through the Australian Rare Breed Sheep Project, a truly amazing resource which connects spinners and knitters directly to farmers. Despite being rare, these fleeces are cheap to purchase directly. Have a look at the site, it will surely get you spinning again!

  2. I adore your writing, Rebecca. What a lovely and poignant account of this loss. Still more reasons for preserving rare breeds and honour biodiversity, even in domesticated animals

    1. You are right Mary, it really is a very powerful reason to preserve rare breeds of all kinds, veggies, chickens and sheep as well as the extraordinary legacy of indigenous flora and fauna. Species loss of all kinds diminishes us irrevocably.

  3. This is fascinating. Having recently agreed to try and limit the amount of non-natural fibres we bring into our home, my husband and I are avidly reading your posts. My man has even suggested he learn to knit so he can contribute to the sock making fest that will follow. I’m not letting him forget his suggestion.

    1. Gosh, Jane, two sock knitters in a family! That is wonderful news. You two are really multiskilling these days…olive harvestings, veggie growing, art exhibitions and now sock making! You are amazing. So glad to a small part of your big adventure.

  4. “Improve” is such a tricky word isn’t it? It all depends on what your goals, values and priorities are. And there are always tradeoffs.

    I also feel sad for the losses that have happened as we have tried to improve things in our world. And so often we don’t even know what was lost. I am glad that I live when I do and I wouldn’t want to go back to a world 250 years ago but I feel sad that there was a time when wool was so treasured and now most people barely know what is out there.

    Such an important post and project you are doing! I am hanging on every entry…

    1. Dear Bethy, Oh yes, I am with you, I certainly don’t want to go back it time but I do want to preserve the skills, knowledge and genetic diversity of the past against the huge industrial push to homogenize everything. It is definitely the time for a new materialism.

    1. Dear Sue, the ‘improvement’ drive is troubling isn’t. So often all we hear about is a history of productive success but it seems that much is also lost along the way.

  5. Another great history lesson, Rebecca!! Thanks so much for your research. I’m looking forward to your posts about your Ryeland spinning experience. Wishing for great improvements in your health.

  6. I found Counting Sheep a fascinating read too. I don’t think I have ever handled Ryeland, but was very interested in what you said about it not felting well. Good luck with this Tuff sock experiment!

    1. Thanks kayderouge, glad you enjoy Counting Sheep too. It is a cracker read and so much peculiar history that you can’t help but be engaged by it.

  7. Thank you for that great historical ‘dig’. I had wondered what happened to that fleece. I did make a shawl with some, from a farm in Scotland, and it is a little crisp but I adore it.

    1. Crisp is a great word for Ryeland I reckon Susan. I remember that Ryeland fleece you got, you even got a pin up pic of the sheep as I remember!

  8. Hi!

    I am from NSW and have just read your post. Our guild had a Rare Breeds Spinning Project just over a year ago and Ryeland from Hallylulya was one of the breeds we featured. We aldo were surprised at the courseness of the fleece and didn’t inderstand the rave that Elizabeth I gave the socks, which were supposed to be as soft and fine as merino. That was until Katherine Henry gave me a sample of Ryeland that she obtained for her Australian Rare Breed Sheep Project website and it was so soft and fine it was a revelation! So there is still some of the unimproved Ryeland out there. I am sorry that I don’t know where she got it from, but she may be able to tell you if you get in touch with her. We are having a drum carding for socks day next month and I am glad to hear your suggestions which I will pass on to our spinners. Many thanks!

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