Who needs dyes? (In praise of coloured sheep)

Last week I met up with someone I haven’t seen for years. We were at college together but our lives have taken different paths – I’ll just say that she works in the City, and leave it at that. After hearing about her perfect life for ages (and mentally adding ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much’) I decided it was time I waxed lyrical about something instead. For some bizarre reason I chose the subject of sheep. I know, I know.

This quickly led to spinning and knitting, of course – when we were at Uni she was a keen knitter, but hasn’t picked up the needles since – and she said something which really surprised me: ‘but sheep are such a boring colour, they’re just cream.’ I’m afraid I just gawped at her, and one of the people on a nearby table turned round too – oh, I should explain we met up in rural Wales, not in some smart City eatery. The fields she had driven past were full of Black Welsh Mountain sheep; I wonder what she thought they were?

Look like sheep to me…


Maybe she thought they were BLack Welsh cattle, just very far away (Father Dougal – or maybe Father Ted – is alive and well, has changed gender and got a job in a bank).

I explained that sheep come in a variety of natural colours, all of which I consider gorgeous, and which are very ancient – in fact, ‘boring cream sheep’ had a lot of variation too, and that their ‘boring cream colour’  was a comparatively late addition to the mix. Then I realised that archaeologist or not, archaeologist who studied domestication for years or not, I didn’t really know that much about coloured sheep. Time to get back to Her Perfect Life before I was exposed. And time to do some research, too.

So the next few posts will be all about coloured sheep and this, below, is why I am so obsessed at the moment. I’ve just turned an unwashed, unsorted heap of not particularly good Shetland moorit fleece into this – er, after about half of it had been consigned to the compost as old, dry and generally unusable,

Shetland skeins

(and the least said about some of that plying the better; I shall plead my hand problems as an alibi), and then into this:

shetland cushion

which I just love. And I even love the fact that I’d failed to spot some colour variation in the one slightly iffy fleece, and that some skeins were darker than others as a result – check out the centre square. It does it on the back, too. But even though the fleece may have been questionable, I still managed to get about 400g of Aran-weight yarn out of it, and no need for a dye pot to get a gorgeous colour. Well, I think it’s gorgeous.

What next? What after I’ve finished spinning up the last of  local farmer’s interesting paler brown crossbreed? Afraid I can’t remember what the cross was, but I think BFL was part of it, given the crimp. I’ve got more shades of brown (a chocolatey Manx Loaghtan and a very dark Hebridean), and grey (a BFL/Texel, and some Gotland) and a deep, lustrous black (a Black Welsh Mountain/Gotland cross). And let’s not forget variegated; I’ve a Jacob in the stash too, as well as some obligatory cream fleeces, of course (Llyn, Teeswater, BFL). But I could have got all of these colours from one breed of sheep:

shetland sheep colours

Thanks to the Shetland Sheep Society for proving my point that not all sheep are cream. I’ve got this framed in the workroom, otherwise known as the spare bedroom – and a part of me thinks I ought to try and get every one – hm…


22 thoughts on “Who needs dyes? (In praise of coloured sheep)

    1. kate Post author

      Doesn’t it? I bought some gloves when I was in Shetland and everyone was surprised that I bypassed the blue and yellow ones and chose natural fleece colours instead… plus they go with everything!

  1. Elaine

    Those Shetland Sheep are such a colorful lot!! Yes, you definitely should have one of each to post with their poster. The cushion is lovely and looks very durable.
    I’ve been on a “natural color” sheep spinning marathon for quite a while. Before that it was fleece I had dyed. It’s summertime here so time to get out the dyes and dyepots and make some pretty yarn for next winter.

    1. kate Post author

      Don’t encourage me (but I think I should, too). I’ve not worked with a dyed fleece yet, though I have got a couple of fleeces I wouldn’t mind dyeing. Now there’s a thought…!

  2. Ellie at Feltabulous

    I have some Black Welsh cross Texel wool which seems to be a different colour every time I felt it! The natural colours are stunning in an understated way and are sometimes just what a project needs. Hoorah for natural colours!
    Best wishes

    1. kate Post author

      I’m always intrigued by how differently the colours come out when the fleece is processed and spun. My first ever coloured fleece was really dark; washed and dyed it was paler, spun up it was a greyish-tawnyish-palish brown colour. Lovely, but not at all like the fleece off the sheep’s back!

    1. kate Post author

      Aren’t they?! There are some Torwen which graze a field I go past regularly, and I often feel like stopping and nipping out – not to grab one and shove it in the back, but to try and spot the farmer. Not tried that yet, no idea what it’s like for spinning. Tough, probably…

    1. kate Post author

      It was just a flying visit, she’s back there now making shedloads of dosh and not knitting anything. Unless her visit to this sheep-beset land has worked its way deep into her soul. Once a knitter, always a knitter?

  3. Lydia

    The cushion looks great – I must knit more cushions too. The poster would be very inspirational too – I have to say I do love monochromatic colour schemes for knitting and all those shades well, we are just spoilt for choice…. Perhaps, you may have prompted me to dust off my spinning wheel and get to it – we shall see.

    1. kate Post author

      Go spin! Hee hee, if you do, bear in mind that many of my horrible hand problems have been caused by a spinning addiction. It’s all this lovely colours (the Manx Loaghtan is next on my target list, I’ve decided)…

  4. Heather James

    I love coloured sheep. It’s pure magic. I just did a shawl in two colours of Gotland sheep. But I now I want a full sweater of it!

    I’m not about to spin my own wool from a full fleece yet. But I love that there are places you can buy it. Blacker yarns has been a total revelation. Looking forward to your next posts!

    1. kate Post author

      Gotland is beautiful stuff, isn’t it? And my Black Welsh x Gotland has the lustre of the Gotland and is blacker than black. It’s going to be a nightmare to knit in the evenings, I may have to give up work or just knit it at the weekends.

      I think the Spinning Fairy is lurking round a corner, waiting for you to pass innocently by – at which point she was leap out and duff you over the head with a heavy spindle. When you wake up you will suddenly feel the need to spin (I know this, it happened to me).

  5. Elaine

    Just another thought, Kate. Do you process your own wool? whole fleece? or just a pound or two? or do you send it out to be processed? Hand processing is a lot of work and may have something to do with sore hands and forearms. After lots of carding my arms start to hurt too.

    1. kate Post author

      I did think that might be a factor – oh, the answer is yes, I do my own processing – but I do divide the fleeces up and process different qualities separately. You are bang on about it being a lot of work and heavy going, and that’s without the help from Next Door’s fleece-aholic Cat.

      When I started processing I was very enthusiastic and wanted it all done NOW, leading to stupid things like whirling a huge wet fleece wrapped in a sheet around my head (spin-drying it). Now I’m much more sensible. I asked the doc why me, why always me, and he said some people are just more prone to tendon and muscle injuries… huh.


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