Introducing our guest blogger Hazel Cook from Georgia, USA. Hazel has been a follower of Skyeskyns for several years, having visited us in the past. You may remember she won our cosy sheepskin corner competition last February.  Over email, we started chatting and realised that she is a lover of all things wool, just like us, and knows A LOT about managing sheep, how to prepare and use wool, and its wide variety of benefits, both in a professional and personal (as a hobby) capacity. 

We asked her to share some of her woolly adventures from her side of the pond in a guest blog and whilst things may not be that different over there, it's a great read on the lifecycle of the wool and how to process. We hope you will enjoy it as much as we didShe has many more stories to tell so we look forward to seeing more of her blogs in the future.

Today is the first dreich day of the season – a welcome relief here in the sweltering southern United States.  It’s a clear sign that autumn is on its way, and that soon my jumpers can be emancipated from their cedar-enshrined slumber.  And so, it is fitting that I am sat here in my fibre studio, writing of my love affair with all things woolen, and dreaming of Scotland.

Like most romances, this one began quite naturally, unexpectedly, creeping up without notice… until I found myself delightfully surrounded, quite literally. 

My parents, both born pre-WWII, held a special reverence for quality natural materials like wool.  While other children of my generation were playing with plastic Barbies, I was given cotton dolls adorned with woolen hair, handmade by aunties.  As a child, my mother taught me to sew and crochet garments for myself, and my bed was draped with a giant wool blanket that the nuns made for my father decades before I came to be.

(Fun side bar: this blanket is still in good nick today, 60+ years later, and is still very much en vogue with its natural colours and chevron pattern)

As I grew older and began a career in the environmental field, I learned the science behind my parents’ preference for natural materials, specifically wool.  Wool is a miracle material, full of properties which are difficult to replicate synthetically.  Not only is wool a more sustainable choice for the planet, being renewable, biodegradable, and grown by livestock that naturally sequester carbon and build healthy soil; but wool’s fibres are also moisture-wicking, odour-absorbing, fire-retardant, UV-shielding, temperature-regulating, wrinkle and stain-resistant, and so much more. 

Think about it: wool is a sheep’s only protection from the harsh sun, driving wind, freezing cold, and soaking rain.  It makes sense that their all-weather gear would be of the highest spec!

All of this nerdiness and childhood reminiscing brings me to today, sitting here in my little studio, surrounded by soft fluff in mid-process and jars of potions from my summer dye garden, with the rain pouring down outside.

For the last few years, I have been on a sheep-to-sweater journey that has redefined my love of this miracle fiber… and my appreciation for the Industrial Revolution.  The journey starts with the shepherdesses raising their flocks restoratively on conservation lands (my day job, but that’s another blog!).  I buy the wool raw as it’s shorn from the cute little land clouds, and take it through various stages, working it by hand into wearable garments.  This labourious process takes months.  Once you’ve done it, you come to understand why people in “the Olden Days” only had a handful of clothes! 

But like all adventures, the joy is in the journey, not just the destination.  I welcome you to join me for a little trip through this wooly wonderland:

STEP 1: SKIRTING

This is the messy bit.  After shearing, a fleece is laid out flat so the not-so-desirable parts like matted wool or “poopy bits” can be removed. That doesn’t mean that these are waste, though.  Oh no!  What you have here is garden gold.  The natural properties of wool make it an excellent companion for growing plants: moisture retention, temperature regulation, weed prevention, and as it breaks down, slow-release fertilizer.  All “skirted” material gets gently teased into fluffy clouds and tucked around tomatoes, peppers, and other veggie plants, keeping their roots cool, moist, and fed all summer long.

(In this picture you can see one of my shepherdess friends helping skirt a particularly large fleece.  The average fleece is 5-7lbs, whereas this monster was nearly 12 pounds!)

STEP 2: PICKING

This is the laborious bit.  Our sheepy friends love a good roll in the heather, hay, or mud – whatever’s available.  Picking through their fleece is akin to an archaeological dig – you never know what you’re going to find!  For every pound of fibre, you can expect to spend two hours picking through the fleece, opening up the fibres, removing grass seeds, twigs, and even cactus quills!  The resulting locks are stacked in neat formation, ready for a good bath.  Any waste from this step joins the skirtings in the garden.

STEP 3: SCOURING

This is the satisfying bit.  Unlike us, sheep don’t shower regularly.  And so, after a year in the pasture, their fleece accumulates lots of lanolin (natural waterproofing), sweat, and dirt from all that rolling around.  The prepared locks are placed in mesh bags and washed with biodegradable soap and water to remove dirt and varying amounts of lanolin, depending on what garments the fleece will become.  Fleece destined for outerwear is more lightly scoured so that the resulting jumpers remain water repellent, whereas next-to-skin garments get a more thorough cleaning.  This is the satisfying bit because what was once a brown tuft of dusty fluff transforms almost instantly into a brilliant white cloud, as if by magic.  The clean fleece is then rinsed and left to dry in the sun, while the scouring liquid goes to fertilize the garden.

STEP 4: DYEING

This is the optional bit.  Sheep produce fleece in a range of natural tones: bright whites, shiny greys, rich browns, and jet blacks.  However, one does on occasion want a splash of colour.  This year, I added Japanese indigo to the dye garden in hopes of achieving that coveted blue hue.  Indigo is a pigment that naturally changes colour as the dye vat matures, not unlike how a sourdough starter’s taste changes.  Here, clean locks were soaked one bundle at a time in a vat made from indigo leaves, water, vinegar, and salt.  As the vat matures over several days, the colour changes from verdant green, through turquoise, sky blue, and eventually indigo and periwinkle.  Again, magic! 

STEP 5: COMBING (OR CARDING)

This is the choosy bit.  Yarns are made in two fundamentally different ways: worsted vs. woolen.  Worsted yarns are strong and dense, resulting in less pilling and better draping fabrics whilst woolen yarns are lofty and light, often with a fuzzy “halo”, resulting in soft, fluffy fabrics. Personally, I’m on “Team Worsted” so I use these spikey combs to align the fibres (meanwhile “Team Woolen” uses multi-pin carders to brush the fibre).  Clean locks are passed back and forth between the combs until all lingering dirt and short fibres are removed, leaving only long straight fibres. These are then pulled into a continuous sliver for spinning, while the short “waste” fibres become stuffing for crocheted toys or are made into dryer balls, which cut down on laundry-day energy consumption.

STEP 6: SPINNING

This is the twisty bit.  In order to make a strong yarn, fibres need to be twisted together.  Remember the old phrase: a three-strand cord isn’t easily broken?  The rule still applies.  Here, the combed sliver is fed through a spinning wheel, powered by climate-friendly foot power, adding twist and winding the resulting single-strand yarn onto the bobbin.  To create a solid yarn, individual “singles” are then plied together to make a three-strand cord (or sometimes two, four, or more, depending on what I’m making).

STEP 7: WORKING UP

This is the meditative bit.  At long last, we have clean, strong skeins of yarn from our sheepy friends, ready to become textiles.  Here I’ve crocheted some lovely merino into a jumper that’s next-to-skin soft and oh so squidgy.  Crocheting is a handicraft that can’t be replicated by machine.  It involves linking a series of slip-knots together into a cohesive web that stretches well in both directions.  It’s a meditative process that’s best completed with a cup of tea, seated in a favourite cozy spot.  Mine is in my fibre studio, sat atop one of my lovely skins from Skyeskyns, surrounded by wooly goodies, fuzzy slippers on my feet, fire crackling in the background.

It’s not quite time for that yet here in toasty Georgia, but I know it is coming.  And so, I use the remaining days of summer to scour and dry my fleeces, dye fibres with harvested colour, and prepare wool in eager anticipation of those cool crisp nights where I can sit, a roaring fire at my feet, enjoying a solid coorie-in surrounded by sustainable, incredible, comfortable, luxurious wool.