As someone who doesn’t have any actual sheep (apart, that is, from Sion), my thoughts about ‘harvesting’, the second Wovember subject, were getting a little stretched. And then I realised that even though my last experience of actual harvesting on a formal scale was leaning on a gate with the other teenaged girls watching muscular New Zealanders working away in vests (sorry, must go and get a glass of water), I could still make a bit of a comment. Because when you live in a sheep-farming area, it’s all about you.
Of course, I could indulge myself in a little really informal harvesting, and no need for a vest either:
but generally wool gleaned like this can be pretty – er, let’s leave it at ‘indifferent’. A woolly friend of mine knows someone who always collects wool for her on his walks; you can tell if he’s been in for tea because her kitchen acquires a certain aroma. Into the compost bin with it.
Then there’s Open Farm Sunday and similar events, where I often end up demonstrating spinning with other like-minded people. Sometimes you can lay your hands on a fleece straight off its original owner,
and I mean ‘straight off’ as you can tell, and this year a couple of my friends got some lovely Romney fleeces this way. I managed to resist, but only because my fleece store has got silly (they’ve spread into the loft, but not as Thermafleece Insulation, just as fleece). It is ridiculous; I haven’t been spinning for that long really. Once the word gets out that you spin and are also interested in fleece – it’s not a given – offers come in. Sometimes you accept them out of politeness while wondering how much fleece one compost bin can process, sometimes you know you’re dealing with someone who is as enthusiastic as you are, and sometimes you pay a relatively high price for a really good fleece. But it’s word of mouth. That’s how it has to be now, because one of our other options is no longer available.
Just before I started spinning, some of us – I was dragged along, I wasn’t interested, I wasn’t going to learn to spin, no way, no time – went to what was then the Wool Board’s grading depot in Porthmadog. Of course, I knew what the building was (damn great sign outside somewhat giving the game away, ho ho), but I’d not been in. I’d seen trailers around Port, laden with bulging wool sacks; I’d even glimpsed inside. But that was it. I bought my wool from wool shops. Sheep lived in fields. So what if I’d grown up surrounded by sheep? That was then.
It was a last-chance visit for the spinners, because the grading depot was about to become a collection point – I’m sure I’m remembering this correctly – and they would no longer be able to go there and buy a fleece. I still can’t quite believe that popping into Port for the supermarket and picking up a fleece or two on the way back was ever an option, but it was. Well, with an appointment it was.
Looking back at that fine afternoon four years ago, I realise that this was the moment at which my resistance to spinning began to slip away. I think it was the smell, so redolent of the sheer sheepyness of much of my childhood. It could have been the textures and colours (look at the locks on this),
and it might just have been – well, I don’t know, maybe I was channelling Betty, my spinning neighbour whose wheel I was eventually to use after her death. Something certainly made me stick my camera in my bag; I wasn’t even blogging at the time.
At this point Porthmadog had the only grading depot in North Wales, and it took in the clip from a huge area; in 2005 it had gone over the two-million kilo mark. We were very lucky indeed to be shown around when there was still a lot of accessible fleece to fondle.
The whole process of grading was explained – up to eighty different grades, sorted by specialist graders who took five years to train – and different fleeces were spread out for us, so we could see and feel for ourselves. We were shown the huge difference between first clip fleeces and older ones, the immense difference in breeds, the more delicate differences between ostensibly similar fleeces from a single breed and a single farm. We were also shown – well, some of us knew already but I didn’t – how to tell a good fleece (among other things, to listen for the ping when you pull a lock taut and pluck it with a finger). I found I gravitated to the bins of coloured fleeces, predominantly Jacobs and Black Welsh Mountains, and I couldn’t resist having a good old scroggle, getting thoroughly lanolined in the process.
And then we came to the point – choosing. Our guide was very helpful; he knew what we would be good for a newbie spinner (not me, I still wasn’t going to spin, right?) and selected a lovely Llyn fleece from a woolly mountain of similar ones.
And a few months later I mystically ended up with half of it. My very first fleece, and one of the last that could be bought from the Porthmadog depot. I still see those heavily laden trailers dropping wool off, and I do wonder what delights (or not) are hidden within. And wool-board quality too – not too much skirting or muck. From my point of view, as a spinner with the willpower of a particularly weak-minded maggot, it’s probably just as well that you can’t stop by and buy one. From all sorts of other points of view, maybe it isn’t.