The Tour of British Fleece

As Wovember 2015 is drawing to a close we are very pleased to bring you a post from Elaine Hill, Fiona Curtis and Sally Antill, who organised and took part in the very first  Tour of British Fleece, this year. 

The conceptual idea for Tour of British Fleece was a seed waiting for the right moment to burst forth. Back in July, at the end of Tour de France, that blissful moment of calm which comes at the end of a challenge was interrupted by a reminder…. Aviva Tour of Britain will be riding through our area in September. A few thoughts were shared between Sally (castlemilk), Fiona (fionacurtis) and Elaine (elainethehill) about how we might celebrate this event,

Lets spin the fleece from sheep originating in the 8 areas the tour rides through! Each day, as the cyclists pedalled, we would treadle the fibres of the sheep in the countryside around them.

We threw out a challenge – Would anyone join us?

We three are passionate about our British Breeds and types and wanted to encourage others to try fleece they may not have considered previously. We realised that for some, sourcing fleece and fibre could in itself be a challenge and perhaps, at this point did not fully appreciate the generosity and camaraderie our fellow spinners would show each other.

Pretty soon Ravelry was buzzing with offers and seekers, swaps and sales were being organised, breeders and suppliers offered fleeces, rovings and samples, spinners and sheepkeepers all over the country shared information (is Kerry Hill from North Wales? Is the Border Leicester from the English or the Scottish side?) and arranged shipments of fibre.

Sally’s living room became Fleece Central – bags of fleece lived in the boot of her car, swaps were done in the street outside spinning events across the North of England.

Particular mention must be made of the wonderful Ellie of the Doulton Flock of Border Leicesters, who gifted us an entire and beautiful fleece to be shared as widely as possible to raise awareness of this lovely fibre. And our friends at Sheepfold, who found us a variety of fibres we would otherwise have missed out on, and generously loaned us display materials to use at the Best of Gilsland display on the day the Tour rode through. And a tip of the hat, too, to the Campaign for Wool, who also came through with some lovely display and educational materials.

Suddenly it was Sunday 6th September and we were off!

Each day, Betsie Czeschin, one of our US participants, began the Ravelry thread for the day with information and pictures about the sheep and fleece types to inspire us for the spinning to come. People put up pictures of their spinning and shared their experiences.

The tour began in Beaumaris on Anglesey and progressed through north Wales. Participants commenced the tour, spinning fleece from a range of Welsh sheep whilst at the Sutton on Trent festival, travelling home on the train, at work, or tucked up at home.

The second day, from Clitheroe to Colne, saw us trying a range of fibres. Many loved spinning coloured Blue Faced Leicester (BFL).

Others sampled Rough Fell, and, proving that fleece from each breed has its own niche, Angela Jenner immediately knitted her sample into a shower scrub.


Fran Rushworth’s Rough Fell
Fran Rushworth’s Rough Fell

A few of us sampled Lonk fleece and fibre for the first time and were very taken by it, despite reports that it “tends more toward the carpet-wool end of the spectrum” (Fleece and Fibre sourcebook, Robson & Ekarius, Storey Publishing 2011). Sally commented that “It would be a crime to bury this beautiful fibre in a carpet. It should all be hand spun, by law!” We’re trying… a couple of us have our name down for a Lonk fleece next year.


Karen Ashely's mule from day two
Karen Ashely’s mule from day two

Day 3, from Cockermouth to Kelso, brought contrasting fleece, from the coarser, kempy Herdwick to the short, blocky, soft Castlemilk Moorit and the long, crimped, lustrous locks of Border Leicester.

Fran Rushworth’s Castlemilk Moorit spun in her garden
Fran Rushworth’s Castlemilk Moorit spun in her garden

Elaine Hill seemed to bond with her Herdwick sample: “You know I swear I could see those cute Herdy eyes peering at me from the fibre as I spun it”, while Betsie Czeschin plied her Herdwick and identified a potential use: “It plied beautifully and smoothly. I think it will make a wonderful basket.”

On day 4, Edinburgh to Blyth, black cheviot from the Mowhaugh flock in the Scottish Borders was spun and described by Gil Hardstone as “very soft; like spinning kittens”.

Gil Hardstone’s spindle spun black cheviot fleece.
Gil Hardstone’s spindle spun black cheviot fleece.

Linda More tried longdraw for the first time with Border Leicester and fell in love: “what a fabulous spin.” Fran Rushworth “started spinning [Border Leicester] from the lock, but… with that bouncy crimp, it seemed wrong not to spin woollen.” Karen Ashley also spun long draw “love it, it wants to spin itself”.

Karen Ashley’s Border Leicester
Karen Ashley’s Border Leicester

Day 5, Prudhoe to Penrith, brought the cycling tour through the region inhabited by the Tour of British Fleece organisers. It seemed only right that they spin on the roadside at Gilsland and cheer the cyclists on!

Sally Antill opted for the North of England Mule, spinning it off the combs: “it was so lustrous I wanted a worsted spin. Love love loved it. And the skein looked and felt beautiful”. Subsequently she had “a very enjoyable spin” with Hexhamshire Blackface, making a “lovely soft yarn with a bit of a sheen”, ideal for a jumper. Meanwhile, Betsie Czeschin spun from a Swaledale batt, finding “it spun like silk – really. It practically spun itself. Drafted smoothly and I just had to keep up.”

Swaledale spun by Tracey Kurr
Swaledale spun by Tracey Kurr

Day 6, Stoke-on-Trent to Nottingham, and heading south brought a fresh set of breeds to sample. White Faced Woodland (WFW) sheep were another breed whose fleece has been described as for carpets. This was challenged by WFW farmer, Peter from High Farndale, and Sally agreed: “very nice to spin, surprisingly soft, and very quick to spin. Really enjoyed it and really like the yarn.” Gil Hardstone also sampled WFW: “flick-carded the tips and butts of the staples with cat brush; used carders to make ploofy rolags. Nice, even, smooth spin. Yarn quite fuzzy, even with smoothing it down as I spun it. Produced a 3ply/heavy laceweight single. Has a slight lustre. I enjoyed this.”

Gil Hardstone’s White-Faced Woodland
Gil Hardstone’s White-Faced Woodland

Sue Routledge enjoyed the Derbyshire Gritstone so much she didn’t want to stop spinning it!

On the penultimate day of the tour, Day 7, Fakenham to Ipswich, we sampled Norfolk Horn and Suffolk fleece. Norfolk Horn, an existing favourite for Sally, soon became a favourite for others too: “a delight to spin, drafted easily from the batt and has made a lovely yarn” (Karen Ashley), “swoon Could. Not. Stop. Spinning. It.” (Gil Hardstone) and “a complete joy from the moment I started washing it. It has an almost translucent quality, a very resilient bounce, and is easy to work with… It was the smoothest spin I’ve had all week… The result feels soft, springy, and strong.” (Angela Jenner).


Day 8 arrived. We were exhausted (well those who hadn’t done all their prep in advance), but very happy! The final day saw the cyclists pedalling round the city of London. We stretched the point a bit, but decided that Romney and Southdown would be suitable breeds. Hazel-purls enjoyed the “squooshy loveliness” of Romney and promised to spin more in future “it’s a delight!”


A number of our participants attended a fabulous long draw workshop with Freyalyn Close–Hainsworth, and Sally managed to hand card and spin a sample of Southdown at the workshop.

Suffolk spun by Kate Knaggs
Suffolk spun by Kate Knaggs

Just in case you think we were all spinning only natural colours, Angela Jenner spun dyed Cheviot from roving, deciding that “it will be on [her] list of fleeces for the future.”

Angela Jenner’s Cheviot
Angela Jenner’s Cheviot

Hazel-purls was also spinning a myriad of colours she’d dyed herself.

| What did we achieve?

We each spun a range of samples from British fleece, many of which we hadn’t spun before.

Liz tuncliffe's

Liz Tunnicliffe’s samples for days 1-7: Suffolk, Whitefaced Woodland, Swaledale, Cheviot, Border Leicester, Herdwick and Black Welsh Mountain.

Kate Knaggs’ samples

Kate Knaggs’ samples: Kerry Hill, Oatmeal BFL, Herdwick, Cheviot, Brown BFL, Leicestershire Longwool, Suffolk and Kent Romney

We learned and achieved a lot in the 8 days of the Tour. Some realised they prefer the softer British breeds, whilst others found uses for the courser fibres. A few breeds surprised us with their wonderfulness (Lonk, Border Leicester, Norfolk Horn, Whitefaced Woodland, Speckle-faced Beulah and black Cheviot in particular.) We tried different methods of preparation and spinning, sometimes for the first time, which allowed comparison with others, and provided ideas for the future. Many identified breeds they want to spin again, and possibly one or two they might not. We all had our favourites, and we now have plans to spend a longer period of time studying some fleeces in more detail. Fiona says she certainly had her preconceptions of some breeds challenged and discovered breeds she hadn’t even heard of.

| What next?

We all know that feeling when a project is finished. Satisfaction, yes, but also a feeling of something missing, of needing something else to do. We had loved the wide variety of breeds sampled during the tour, but wanted more time to explore a smaller number in more detail – to try different preparations and draws.

A suggestion was made to spin Shetland fleece in the New Year. Around the same time, we realised that it was unlikely that the Tour of Britain would visit the Scottish highlands and islands, yet they provide homes to a wide range of sheep, including many rare and primitive breeds which are highly prized by spinners. From this emerged the idea for our next event – the Highlands and Islands Fleece Fling – starting on Burns’ Night. Please join us to discover the delights of Scottish fleece. Of course, we’ll be treadling where they’re pedalling during next year’s Tour of Britain – Tour of British Fleece 2016 too, and we hope you’ll join us for that too. The more the merrier!

To find out more about the Tour of British Fleece and the Highlands and Islands Fleece Fling, join us on Ravelry, comment on our Facebook page, send us a tweet or visit our website.