Sheep aren’t probably what Dire Straits had in mind when penning their famous song, but their theme of wrong values came to me the other day when rootling through a bag of fleece I picked up 'for a song’ last summer. It seemed pitiful at the time that the shearer only wanted £2 each for the fleeces. Yes they were full of veg matter and hadn’t been skirted, but having washed a handful of each I seem to have a wonderful - and large - down sheep fleece and an equally beautiful creamy semi-long-locked fleece. How can £2 each possibly even cover the cost of shearing? Let alone make a contribution to the animal’s feed or welfare?
Despite The Campaign for Wool’s activities having increased the farm gate price for fleece, it still seems society is still treating it like a low-grade commodity, instead of a valuable material that helps combat climate change and keeps us warm without over-heating (important to those of us who have our own internal solar flares every once in a while!).
Growing a good fleece is very different from rearing sheep for other purposes, as any medieval monk would have told you. The respect for pasture-land and its maintenance in, for example, parts of the Liber Eliensis, reminds us that you only get out what you put in. A well cared-for wool sheep will give you good quality wool. I’ve done two interviews for my articles with Knit! magazine, to be published in coming months, where my interviewees have highlighted the role of the animal’s health and well-being in the generation of really good fleece that’s worth spinning and making garments from.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones made a comment in 2010 about art “trying to live down its craft heritage”. Is the clothing industry trying to do the same by under-valuing the baseline materials? They’re certainly keen to demonstrate they’re in touch with wool, as Chloé’s autumn/winter collection shows with its arty big knits.
The fashion knitwear designers who’ve kindly lent their precious pictures to this blog most certainly appreciate what we spinners know: that it takes a lot of effort to wash, card, perhaps dye, spin and then knit or weave something to wear. Their ethical stance will stand their businesses in good stead, reputationally and morally. Let’s hope many others will follow their honest lead, even if it means we end up paying a bit more than £2 for a fleece.