Saturday, October 20, 2012

Vacations...and Manx sheep...

Knockaloe Beg Farm, Patrick, Isle of Man

We just got back from our vacation.  As usual, we choose a place that was windy, rainy and required a ferry ride.  This time we headed for the Isle of Man, a relatively unknown island that lies in the Irish Sea between Dublin and Liverpool.  We have friends that live there half the year (she's half Manx) and back in the 1860's, my husbands great-grandfather emigrated from the island. Nowadays it's known both as a tax haven and for it's insane motorbike races in the summer - the TT's.

Maughold Parrish church, IOM - Several preserved Viking heads stones can be found in the church yard.

Historically, IOM is like many of the outer regions of the UK.  It is fiercely independent and nationalistic.  It also has one of the oldest parliaments in the world due to early colonization by the Vikings. And it has some really unusual sheep that have been on the IOM since it's earliest days...the Manx Loghtan (or Loaghtan).

'Holly', the pet Loghtan ewe at Knockaloe Beg Farm
I try not to overwhelm my DH with too many fiber related things on our trips.  To get part of my sheep 'fix', I book us into B&B's on working farms.  Tourism these days is much more lucrative than sheep farming, even when you have 600 head of breeding ewes like the farm we stayed at.  The majority of their ewes were 'mules' this case Scottish Blackface  or Swaledale sheep crossed with Bluefaced Leicesters.  They raise lambs primarily for meat with the wool destined for the carpet wool market.  In the pasture behind the barn were some pet sheep - most were bottle babies.  One was a Loghtan Manx named 'Holly'.

Loghtan ewe and lamb at Cregneash

The Manx Loghtan is an old breed that has been on the IOM for hundreds of year.  It's heritage is not known, but it is thought to be in part related to the Northern Short Tailed sheep that the Vikings left on all of the islands that they visited including Shetland, Faroe and Iceland.  Unlike the Shetland and Icelandic sheep, the Loghtan population dropped to a very small number of animals in the 1950's.  Through a dedicated group of people it is now classified on the watch list of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Loghtan ram at Cregneash

Loghtan is the Manx word for 'mouse brown'.  At one time this breed had primarily white animals with some additional colors, but over the years the moorit or brown color has been selected for.  The males typically have four to six horns while the females can have two or four horns.  The largest flock that we saw was at Cregneash, a folk museum on the south end of IOM.

Loghtan ewe at Cregneash
The wool and yarn that is produced from these animals is not something that you would typically find in your corner yarn store.  It is not particularly soft.  However, the throw that I purchased at Cregneash that was woven from Loghtan wool from the flock of Cilla and George Platt on the north end of IOM, has a wonderful depth of color. The fulling and brushing process done at a Welsh mill produced a really nice hand and character.  It reminded me that we often forget the value and use for fiber that is not ultra soft like merino wool or cashmere.  To be able to market a wool or meat product is often the best insurance in preserving a rare breed of sheep.

Loghtan throw and wool

Lately I have been purchasing breed specific wool yarns, in part to educate myself on the extraordinary variations among sheep breeds.  It's one thing to see the photos of the animals and fiber in books like The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.  It's another thing to actually knit with these fascinating wools. One of my favorite companies is the Cornish company Blacker Yarns .  They do a number of breed specific yarns that are constantly changing.  They also do small lots of yarns for farms in the UK under the name of The Natural Fiber Company.  The skein of Loghtan yarn I purchased from Cregneash was processed by this company.

Help preserve our sheep breed diversity by choosing a wool for your next project that is not merino.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Class Openings for 'Fair Isle for Handspinners'

Just three more weeks until Elizabeth Johnston and Martha Owen arrive to teach 'Fair Isle for Handspinners'.  We have had two students cancel out of the upcoming October 26-28, 2012 class, so we now have two openings available.  If you are interested, check out my March 30, 2012 blog posting and send me an email.  It should be a wonderful class!  All of the wool we will be using is raw Shetland wool that has come from the Wool Brokers in Lerwick!

Martha visiting Elizabeth in Shetland in 2009.