I am a fan of tweed. You might have noticed.
Two years ago I was struck by the fact that although I am surrounded here in Cumbria by Herdwick sheep, I was buying my tweed from Harris. Don't get me wrong, I love Harris tweed and always will, but I wondered whether anyone was making Herdwick tweed locally. I asked around, came across a couple of companies who were using it but hit a stone wall when it came to sourcing the cloth to use myself. No one seemed to sell it or want to tell me where they got theirs from.
Around the same time I was having conversations with friends of mine, James and Helen Rebanks, who own Herdwick sheep about the price of their wool and the fact that it costs more to get someone to clip their sheep than they can sell the fleece for. This is crazy. As their sheep shed filled with rolled up fleeces, a little idea began to take root. Why didn't I just make my own?
I had absolutely no idea how to go about this and thought everyone would think I was crazy, so I mulled it over for a while and then one evening in December I sent Helen a message about this idea I had, that we could make tweed with her fleeces. Instead of thinking I was mad, she replied instantly and said yes, lets do it.
We had to admit that neither of us had the faintest clue about weaving so we booked ourselves onto a one day weaving workshop with Jan Beadle, on the face of it, it was a jolly day out, but actually we were completely sussing her out to see whether she would help us! Fortunately for us, she proved to be not only an amazing weaver, but a totally lovely person who was, and continues to be, incredibly generous with her time and knowledge.
Over the next few weeks I confided in Jan the real reason we had come to her workshop and told her about our plan and last summer we collected fleeces and then ......
... we left them in a corner for a few months! This was never going to be a speedy project.
We needed to get the fleeces washed and spun and eventually found The Halifax Spinning Mill in Yorkshire who would take our 10 or so fleeces. Parcelling them up was interesting ... we picked out as much of the muck as we could and then wrapped them in bin bags and plastic sheeting, tied up with baler twine and an old suitcase strap! Off they went with a courier and we crossed our fingers that they would get to Halifax in tact!
A few months later a cardboard box appeared on my doorstep. I have never been so excited to see a box full of grey wool before. Inside were cones of finely spun Herdwick fleece, washed but still with a very strong aroma of sheep! Herdwick sheep are born black and gradually change colour, through various shades of brown to white. The fleeces we had were all of these colours, but had to be mixed together for spinning because we had such a small quantity processed. The resulting yarn has a fantastic flecked appearance, with white whiskers and a gorgeous grey/brown colour.
I knew from the start that I wanted to keep this natural colour, so that our tweed would be simple and authentic. With something so beautiful, I didn't see the need for dyes at this stage.
When it came to weaving though I was totally in Jan's hands. We discussed what we wanted the cloth to look like and agreed it needed to be modern and elegant and as different as we could get from Harris Tweed! Jan came up with various weave structures that showed off the beauty of the yarn. Whilst it might look like a fairly simple, plain weave, it really isn't! I know this because she showed me a small piece woven in one of the simplest weaves and it looked like a sack. I chose the two weave structures I liked best and Jan disappeared into a frenzy of Herdwick fluff and reappeared a week later clutching two rolls of Herdwick Tweed. Hallelujah!
(Clever and beautiful logo design by Nigel Warren at Mosquito. Thank you so much.)
The result is this. Beautiful, hand crafted cloth. Made from sheep raised in Matterdale, spun in Yorkshire, woven in Carlisle and stitched at Hole House.
And I couldn't be happier.
I am hoping to get some Herdwick Tweed bags and purses into my website shop over the autumn so keep an eye out. Next year I am also planning on running some bag making workshops using the tweed so make sure you are on my workshop mailing list if this appeals to you.
For more Herdwick tweed products you might like these places: