The arrival of a new flock of sheep led to a thriving enterprise for two sisters, producing hand-dyed wool in a former grain store
In a Warwickshire field, bathed in the spring sunshine, a flock of sheep graze peacefully. Curious, stocky-legged lambs play around their mothers. In among them are two women, checking the flock.
They are sisters Louise Weetman and Emma Price. Louise is the shepherdess, whose husband Charlie’s family have farmed 75 acres near Kenilworth for five generations. She has been tending sheep for 30 years, since she and Charlie received a flock as a wedding present. Today, Louise and her sheep are part of a knitting yarn enterprise called In the Wool Shed, set up five years ago in 2012 by Emma.
Together with keen knitter Helen Lambell, the sisters turn fleece from the sheep into yarn that they then colour with natural dyes. They also produce complementary knitting patterns. These range from smocks and sweaters to hats, welly warmers and egg cosies. Although they all pitch in, each has their own area of expertise. Louise is principally responsible for the sheep, Emma is the driving force behind the dyeing and designs, and Helen focuses on knitting and publicity.
“I had a passion for natural fibres as a little girl,” says Emma. “I remember being in Wales when I was about seven, and looking for the perfect sheepskin rug for my birthday. I love the smell, the humbleness of the fibres, and the fact the fleece took months to grow. I started to spin and dye as a hobby when I was 16.” She ended up with an accountancy job in London, but gave that up to go travelling round India. There, she set up a business producing hand-spun silk yarns. On her return to Britain, she did a fine art degree, which gave her the confidence to put her skills into a new venture.
“I was hand-spinning and dyeing at home. Then, when Louise got a new flock of Lleyn sheep five years ago, I said to her that I would love a wool shed to work in,” she says. “The Lleyn wool is white, so I knew it would be good for dyeing. I imagined a beautiful, wooden-cabin scenario, but she said she had an old container! We painted it up for an open studio event, and the business has grown from there in a slow, organic way.”
Emma did some work in the container, but it was not practical for dyeing. Instead, she moved her studio into the farm’s old grain store. “We made do with whatever was around. That’s what has made it charming, and is why people love it. Our philosophy has been that the work has to wrap around our families. I’m a single mum, and I work at it all the time, while Louise and Helen dip in when they can.”
Flock and fleece
The farm’s 80 ewes produce approximately 90 lambs each April. “They’re great mothers and they lamb easily outside,” says Louise. “Each sheep is different. Some will come up to you, others won’t. You might find one limping, so you have to get them all in to sort out their feet. Next, you have to worm them, then, before you know it, you’re shearing. We get a team in to do that, but we roll and sort the fleeces. I love being outside, at one with nature, rather than being stuck in an office.”
Her sheep provide In The Wool Shed with approximately 70 per cent of its wool. “As the fleeces are coming off, I choose the ones I want,” says Emma. “That’s about 40 per cent of them. Their wool is typically hard and crispy, so it predominantly comes off the lambs that are a just over a year old because that is softer. I’m going for the feel. It’s still too itchy to wear next to the skin, though, so I buy in other British-spun yarn as well, such as wool from bluefaced Leicester sheep, which is much softer and dyes beautifully.”
Dyeing the wool
The upstairs of the dye studio has creaking floorboards, while exposed rafters are stuffed with bits of fleece to keep out the cold and draughts. Skeins of newly dyed wool dry outside under the eaves. Inside, a row of steel pans containing different coloured dyes are lined up on a workbench, each with a gas burner underneath. Storage jars on a shelf contain the raw materials for the dyes, known as the dye stuff.
A sack is stuffed with clumps of raw fleece from last year’s shearing. When she is ready to dye a batch of wool, Emma first washes the fleece in discarded bath water. This cleanses it of residue from chemical sprays, such as fly repellent. It is dried on racks in the studio, then bagged up and sent for spinning to the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall. After a year of spinning the wool herself, she realised that it was too time-consuming to be economically viable.
The spinners wash the wool again to remove the oily lanolin then send it back to the farm in 100g skeins. Sacks of these skeins sit on the floor. Emma re-skeins them more loosely, then soaks them in collected rainwater for 24 hours. Doing this helps them take the dye more evenly.
She works at her dye vats for three days a week, doing approximately 10 skeins a day. Before dyeing the wool, a mordant or bridging agent is created. This is a mix of alum crystals, cream of tartar and hot water, that allows the wool to absorb a dye. The mix ratio depends on the particular dye. The wet wool is put in once the solution is cold so it doesn’t shrink.
It is brought to the boil and simmered for an hour, then left to cool overnight.
Emma uses natural dyes which produce a subtle range of shades within each ball of wool, making each knitted garment unique. By doing this she is continuing a tradition which dates back thousands of years. “The variegated colours are what make natural dyes so beautiful,” says Emma. “They have a depth and character that you don’t get through mass production, and I’m passionate about promoting that.”
She uses six main dyes, all from British suppliers. Logwood is a bark that gives a purple shade. Cochineal, which produces pink, comes from crushed South American insects that need to be soaked, sieved, boiled and strained first. Dried weld, a weed, and fustic, in the form of wood chips, produce different yellow tones. Madder root from the Middle East is used for an orange-red colour. With these five dyes, the dye stuff is mixed with water and strained. The wool from the mordant is then put into the liquid dye and simmered.
The sixth dye, indigo, is used to produce blue. It comes from the leaves of a cabbage-like tropical plant, and is bought in powder form. It behaves differently from other dyes, and doesn’t require the use of a mordant first.
“With indigo, you have to watch the vat the whole time,” says Emma. “Too much heat can affect the colour, so I take it off the burner from time to time. To get a deep blue, I have to dip the wool in about 10 times, the first dip for 15 minutes, then for 10 minutes each time.” When the wool first emerges from the indigo dye, it is green in colour, but quickly changes to blue as it reacts with oxygen.
Dyes can be manipulated to achieve different shades, and Emma enjoys experimenting. Quantities, temperature and length of time in the vat can be varied. Rusty nails can be added to dull a colour. To produce green, wool is dipped in yellow first, then added to the indigo vat. Emma’s stained fingers betray the colour of the dye she has been using.
Once the desired tones are achieved, the dyed wool is hung to dry from the roof beams. Next, it is washed with soap until the colour stops running out, and rinsed three times. Once dry again, it is wound into balls of 100g, 50g and 20g, using a table-mounted hand winder. It is fed onto the winder from a yarn umbrella, a frame that holds the loosened skein and stops it becoming tangled. Some is kept in skeins for larger projects.
The women thrash out pattern ideas round Louise’s kitchen table. “We have different approaches,” says Emma. “Helen is more into frills, and Louise and I like cloth to be straight and drapey. My inspiration is uncut cloth from India. I made a hooded top with pockets, called The Crafter, and it sold well, so that inspired me to make other utility tops. I’ve now made one called The Gardener, a longer tunic with deep pockets.”
Helen came on board after attending one of the sisters’ open studios three years ago. A former journalist who runs a PR business, she has been an enthusiastic knitter since childhood. When she met Emma and Louise, she was making tea cosies for a tea specialist in Edinburgh. “I find knitting very therapeutic,” she says. “I enjoy improvising. I have a rough idea, and see how it goes. Emma does smart utility clothing and I’ll do floaty mohair crop tops. I love texture, colour and natural things. We have a lovely time together, and I’m like a pretend sister.”
Helen’s egg cosy design was the first to be sold in kit form once they realised customers wanted patterns to go with their yarn. “It was coming up to Easter and my sister had eggs on the farm, so we decided egg cosies would be a good, simple idea,” says Emma.
Emma does most of the designing for the patterns. It takes about a month to come up with an idea for a jumper, make the pattern and knit it. “I start off with a rough design in a sketch book, then I make a mock-up of the shape in brown paper. I then knit a tension square to work out the size. That tells you how many stitches and rows you need on a particular size of needle. Then we start knitting, and I write most of the details down afterwards.” The patterns and colourways are then checked by all three of them before being offered for sale.
The container, the original wool shed, now acts as a shop for visitors from knitting groups. Emma also holds spinning workshops in it. Inside, baskets and crates display an inviting jumble of colour-coordinated balls of wool, and there is a hanging rail of sample tops and scarves. The women also exhibit at wool festivals.
“The slowness of what we do is precious,” says Emma. “I can lose myself for days with my dye pots. I have the radio on, and
I dip in and out. The process fascinates me. I love ethical, slow fashion, such as fishermen’s jumpers, which were made of hardy British yarn. People just re-knitted the bits that wore out. At a time when everything gets thrown away, my campaign is to create something that lasts.”
Words Caroline Rees: Photography: Clive Doyles