Today our EU themed Wovember Words is travelling to Portugal where the word for sheep is ovelha, and the word for wool is lã. We are taking all our inspiration and some of our quotes for this post from Rosa Pomar. Rosa has been documenting and researching the sheep breeds and textile traditions of Portugal for several years and in 2013, published an important book documenting the history of Portuguese knitwear: Malhas Portuguesas. História e prática do tricot em Portugal, com 20 modelos de inspiração tradicional. Through this book and through her online presence, Rosa has raised the profile of Portuguese sheep and wool all over the world. Additionally, her small range of beautiful yarns ensures that a global audience can gain access to these distinctive, regional products. We think her work is hugely inspiring. Not only because she teaches us so much about Portuguese sheep and wool, but also because she embodies a way of closing the gap between producers and consumers of wool: a way of changing the fate of endangered sheep breeds by generating awareness of, and demand for, their very special fleeces. We have illustrated the post with images from Rosa’s amazing instagram feed.
Rosa Pomar has been documenting the wool of Portugal for some years now, and using social media to share her findings. Above are churra do minho sheep, one of the fourteen sheep breeds of Portugal. Another breed is the mondegueiras, about which Rosa writes:
Much of our wool is worth less than the required manpower to shear it (the wool of most of our meat breeds generally fetches less than € 0.25 / kg). Its progressive devaluation over the last fifty years has created a kind of difficult vicious circle to break: the less wool is worth, the less attention the shepherds give towards breeding for quality wool -> not worth choosing and crossing for best quality wool -> the flock of wool worsening from generation to generation -> lack of quality reduces the price of wool -> .
The most interesting feature of the mondegueiras sheep is that it is the only double coated Portuguese sheep breed i.e. it has a fleece composed of two different types of fibers: an extremely coarse outer layer and another next to the skin that is very thin and soft, recalling alpaca fiber. Today the wool of most mondegueiras sheep reminds one of carpets and little else. But how soft could this wool have been three generations ago? And how could it be again?
On my wheel I spun a cob of the churra mondegueira sheep wool that I washed earlier this week. From what I have observed, the fleeces of this breed are composed of three different types of fibers: an outer layer of extremely long, thick and smooth fibers (which when spun by themselves produce a yarn that resembles the sisal rope), an inner layer of fibers that are much shorter, thinner and slightly crimped, and sometimes a type of fiber that is loose in the middle of the others. This third fibre is thick, short and lightly crimped, and I have also seen it in the fleeces of Bordaleira Serra da Estrela sheep.
The yarn that results from this wool is not appropriate for making sweaters, but produces beautiful carpets. I wonder what its current end use is as – despite being bought at very low prices – it is currently purchased for industrial uses. From this roving I think I’ll make an exfoliating glove. The results will be totally free of the abominable micro-plastics that populate synthetic products made for the same purpose.
The story of the sturdy fleece of the churra mondegueira sheep wool is all too familiar and strikes a chord with stories of coarse-woolled sheep everywhere. But the idea of making dish scrubbers or hard wearing carpets from their fleeces is typical of Rosa’s approach; she is always looking to find ways to use and celebrate the wool of native breeds.
At the finer end of the scale, on the labels for Zagal wool, Rosa Pomar writes:
Zagal [which means Shepherd] is a knitting and crochet yarn produced exclusively from the wool of Portuguese Merino sheep, an indigenous breed found in the south of Portugal, especially in the Alentejo. The Merino breed originated in the Iberian Peninsula, possibly before Roman times, and has always been highly prized for its finesse and softness. For centuries this iberian wool was traded all over Europe while Merino sheep were subject to strict laws that kept the sheep exclusive to the peninsula. The Portuguese Merino Breeders Association (ANCORME) verifies the original and quality of the fleece used to produce this yarn.
No dish-scrubbers from this yarn!
latergram of a camouflaged portuguese merino lamb growing next year's #alfeire to get your attention and advice: I'll be in 🇫🇷 Paris next week with my family – what yarns stores and other wool or crafts related places do you recommend? which shop in Paris would be the right choice for carrying #retrosariarosapomar yarns? merci! • #autóctones #woolworks
It is beautiful and heartening to see the many ways in which Rosa inspires people regarding the possibilities for Portuguese wool. About a spinning workshop recently given in the Gulbenkian she writes:
We had wool from three different Portuguese breeds to spin into yarn using the most rudimentary tool possible: a stick. I was inspired to create some whorls such as those found at almost all archaeological sites, and they are quite rough but that they turned our sticks into spindles. Using these tools we made twelve beautiful skeins.
These images celebrate the long heritage and the bright future of Portuguese wool, reaching back to Neolithic times for inspiration for tools, and forward into a moment of collective rediscovery of the pleasures and possibilities of native wool.
It is this last detail which is the most exciting thing for us in reading Rosar’s blog and following her work; she studies the best applications for the different sorts of wool grown by Portuguese sheep in a truly methodical way. Writing of Cobertor yarn, she says:
Cobertor [which means Blanket] is the yarn used for manufacturing the traditional Portuguese papa blankets. It’s spun from the fleece of native long wool sheep breeds. Papa blankets are documented since the mid 16th century and they are used to this day by many shepherds of Guarda. These blankets have a distinctive faux fur look, which is obtained through fulling and teaseling. The dense nap raised on both sides creates an exceptionally warm blanket. This same look and feel can be achieved on knitted garments made with Cobertor yarn by gently teaseling them with a flick carder or a dog brush.
It is thick and does not feel smooth when you touch it in the ball; the texture and twist are reminiscent of the Icelandic yarns used to make Lopi sweaters. Now I dream to see it transformed into coats and other good things to wear in winter…
We are totally inspired by the density of information that Rosa Pomar includes in her products and on her blog about the history of Portuguese sheep and shepherding garments and traditions, and we have only touched the tip of the iceberg here. We have not been sponsored in any way by Rosa Pomar but we really feel that her yarns deserve celebration here for making wool from Portuguese sheep breeds both appealing and accessible to contemporary knitters. In short, we at Wovember feel that the future of Portuguese wool is in very safe hands and that this approach to wool – thorough, specific, detailed, methodical, thoughtful – offers a hopeful model for the ways in which all wool grown around the world might eventually find its purpose, whether that be as a plastic-free dish-scrubber; a glorious soft sweater; or for creating the fuzziest of blankets.
Retrosaria produces and sells yarn made exclusively from Portuguese wool. The yarns are manufactured in collaboration with small factories and breeders associations and small batches of handspun yarns are also commissioned, which are scoured, teased, carded and spun by hand in small villages around Portugal. Since the Retrosaria haberdashery opened in 2008, Rosa Pomar has sought to find and make available to the public yarns produced from Portuguese sheep wool, thus publicising and enhancing a natural and cultural heritage that is not very well known. For the love of wool. You can read Rosa’s blog here, you can follow her on instagram here, and you can see her photos documenting the different sheep breeds of Portugal here.