This is the first in a series of interviews with farmers/small producers of sheep that we are particularly interested for their fibre as spinners. I'm hoping to create a directory of high quality producers specifically for spinners.
Our first farmer is Sabrina Ross of Heatherlea Black Cheviots who is a vet, originally from Austria . I ordered fibre from Sabrina which came as two rolls of sliver fibre from her white Cheviot Sheep.
Here, Sabrina shares her story
"Having always loved animals and spending all my holidays at my grannies' self sufficient farm, it was inevitable that when given the question of 'What are you going to be when you grow up?' at the tender age of three that my answer was I'm going to be a vet mainly for cattle and sheep with my own farm. Sounds laughable but fast forward 35 years and here I am living the dream. I've already married my amazing husband who shares my love for animals especially our sheep and the rich biodiversity on the croft. My decision to leave the full time vet profession was hard, but the idea of self sufficiency was too tempting to try it out and see how far one can get. The wool is part of the journey and I especially connect to it since I am fortunate to have a mother who is an expert knitter and crocheter. I always loved wearing the finished garments. From her lovingly made socks to pullovers, blankets to couch throws, her woollens have travelled the world with me and lasted a lifetime. We learned knitting at school in Austria and I was not patient enough to appreciate it back then. Little did I know at the time that I would enjoy hand clipping, shearing and find the science of wool fibre very interesting. I have learned a lot about wool and other fibre in the last few years, picking up spinning from local women, taking up knitting and crochet again.
I've tried weaving, founded a knitting group and what shall I say, it is rather addictive! If someone would ask me years ago if I can imagine entering the wool world or let alone producing wool, I would laugh - very loudly! As it turns out I now love it and it connects me mentally both with my mum and grandmother.
What makes you so passionate about this particular breed of sheep's fibre over another - why do you think it's a great fibre for spinners?
That is pretty simple - our North Country Cheviot (NCC) fleece has a medium to long staple, amazing crimp, is springy, soft and durable - a very rare combination. The wool can be used for any garment, from warm durable socks to delicate lace scarves and soft comfy next to the skin pullovers, hats, scarves, mittens, legwarmers...
We have a closed flock: the only new genetics influencing the flock is from bought in males known as tups. We find that sheep with a dense coat, tight crimp and no kemp tend to thrive through our harsh Highland winters. So the tup's fleece is the first thing we look at when making our selection from up to 1000 forward for NCC sales
An unforseen bonus of this genetic selection is that our wool has all the qualities spinners and crafters are looking for including softness, springiness and durability and all without the need to blend with other fibres or flocks.
With the NCC being sought after for it's many other attributes such as conformations, hardiness and longevity, and with the raw fleece price being so low, it appears that wool quality is not prioritised by other shepherds and we can often get the tups we bid on. In my eyes NCC wool is often overlooked because it is not a rare breed but it really does offer what most spinners are looking for,
We hear a lot of reports about farmers and the difficulties they face in terms of the price of fleece. What keeps you motivated?
These days for most farmers and crofters it costs more to shear the sheep that they will get paid for the fleece it provides. Consumers often buy plastic wool which really dumps prices to a bare minimum and even below that . Wool is such an undervalued product. but from my experience, thankfully quality is appreciated by my customers.
Seeing the bigger picture, climate change is very much in the headlines nowadays and wool can play a role in combating the accumulation of microplastics filling our oceans. Wool is versatile, it can even be used as wall insulation or fertiliser in the form of pellets, the list is endless. It is a chance to decrease net carbon emissions and even increase the ridiculously low price for wool that farmers suffer from.
I enjoy that feeling of connection I get when working with the wool and when I do something I love then that helps me immensely in staying motivated.
How do you see the future for your flock? Do you think there is light at the end of the tunnel?
I am very positive. For instance, "the flock" reached out a few years back to buy a big bulk of our fleeces to process in Italy and this year they even increased their order. It is very encouraging that customers giving their good feedback can influence these decisions. I think this kind of organisation who work together with high welfare and sustainable flocks and want to discourage the fast fashion industry is key for the future of wool producers big and small.
Personally, for my flock I am very optimistic that I can continue offering high quality wool for crafters, the environment and my conscience. I am diversifying my range for example by offering not only hand spun wool but also machine spun (made in the UK) some colour wool and even cute felted slipper to reach the needs of different consumers. As with all crofters you have to be a jack of all trades an have multiple avenues. My wool is a reassuring part for our future.
What can we as spinners, weavers, knitters or crocheters do to help out farmers?
What would really help is to check our what products are locally available, respect seasonality, buy at farmers markets, learn that high quality and local supply chains are valuable and worth the expense. There are many high quality products only available locally that are hard to find out about. Get nosy and ask farmers what they offer!
What are you most proud of when it comes to your business?
Working with nature instead of against it. The Highlands are a tough area to live in yet there is so much variety. I am proud that my products use what is already there, it produces a low carbon footprint product and is 100% traceable to my woolly family. The products that I offer are appreciated by spinners, knitters, crochet, weavers and even fibre artist professionals and beginners alike. Seeing a finished garment and a good review never fails to put a smile on my face too
To order yarn click the link https://blackcheviot.com/. Sabrina is happy to chat about fibre suitable for spinners, she is incredibly helpful and will try her best to get exactly what you need
Thanks to Sabrina for her time, knowledge and the work she does to produce her beautiful fibre