The Woolly Shepherd

Whilst in Somerset, we spent the day with Val Grainger, the Woolly Shepherd, to learn more about wool making. Val has her own flock of around sixty rare-breed sheep (mostly local Dorset Downs, but also Wensleydales, Shetlands and Ouessants) and a growing wool business, selling high-quality knitting and weaving wool.

Some Dorset Downs sheep.Teddybear-faced Dorset Downs.

The first thing we noticed about her is she oozes energy, talking passionately about what she does, stopping only briefly to answer the phone one-handed and extract some freshly-made rolls from the Aga. The idea for the business came when she realised it was almost impossible to buy locally-produced woollen garments, cloth or artwork, even though the Blackdown Hills area, where she is based, was once the centre of the West Country’s woollen industry.

She began by showing us how she washes the wool herself in the kitchen. Producing a couple of grubby fleeces, greasy with lanolin, she washed them in hot soapy water and rinsed them a couple of times until the water ran clear. Apparently, it’s not the heat that shrinks your woollen jumper in the washing machine but the agitation, which causes the fibres to cling together until eventually you end up with felt!

Val washing some woolVal washing wool at her kitchen sink.

We then followed her to her wool room where the dyeing process takes place (she’s been banished from the kitchen by her family!). Although she does use some synthetic dyes, many of her customers prefer their wool to be naturally coloured or dyed with plant dyes. Val explained how you can get a lovely yellow colour using onion skins!

Her latest order, however, was for a batch of ‘Blue Multi’ (lots of different colours on a blue background) and for this she was using a ready-made powder which she sprinkled onto wet wool she had already dyed blue, before adding more water and ‘cooking’ it in a saucepan for 45 minutes.

Some wool being dyed.The finished product left to drain.

As Val prepared a quick lunch of the aforementioned homemade rolls and her own lamb sausages (yum yum), she explained how she aims to use every part of her sheep… even the ‘baa’. This is a reference to the Sheep Song, in which her flock’s singing voices were sampled!

Next we whizzed off in her yellow car (no doubt a familiar sight on the local roads) and went to check on the sheep. On the way she explained that she is an extensive farmer, but has to market her lamb as ‘naturally reared by Soil Association standards’.

Like most smallholders, it is impossible for her to go organic as, regardless of whether you have one sheep or 5,000, it costs £500 a year to register with the Soil Association and that is just too expensive. Sadly this means, although her lamb is as good as organic, to those who don’t know, it could be seen in the same light as the most intensively reared lamb.

Next stop: the Coldharbour Mill in Uffculme, where Val has just got involved in a new project to provide a place for local wool producers to card their wool (brush it so it is ready for spinning).

Built by Thomas Fox in 1799, the mill closed in 1981, only to reopen a year later as a textile museum. It is now a registered charity that still produces high-quality worsted knitting yarn on its period machinery, as well as letting out space to other businesses, such as interior designer, Roger Oates. Whilst we were there, we saw some of his stair runners and tartan being produced.

A machine for weaving tartan.The tartan-weaving machine.

Whilst Val makes a few things herself, her wool is sold all over the country and also used by local textile artists such as Louise Cottey, who sometimes teaches at the mill and kindly showed us some of her amazing scarves and wraps.

Some handmade knitting.An example of Louise Cottey’s work.

Louise and Val have also teamed up together to organise Fibrefest, a local celebration of fibre which was a great success. For anyone who’s interested, they’ll be holding it again next year at the mill.

Finally, as if she doesn’t do enough already, Val told us her real passion is teaching and she runs courses in everything from smallholding for beginners to ‘dyeing for the terrified’.

You can [try to] keep up with Val’s crazily busy life by reading her blog. Failing that, get in touch with her at val@woollyshepherd.co.uk