Captured by Jim Marsden
Back in the early days of Solidwool, the British Wool Marketing Board asked if we could use Herdwick wool in our material.
Historically used in the UK carpet industry, demand had declined and the wool was considered almost worthless by some, a by-product of sheep farming.
Turns out it was perfect for us.
Found in the British Lake District, Herdwick sheep are hardy and tough. They survive all winter out on some of England’s highest and most exposed fells.
Their wool is coarse, wiry and hard. An itchy scratchy type of wool. Only the hardiest of sheep lovers would choose to wear it against their skin.
Through social media, we had come across a Herdwick sheep farmer that went by the name of @herdyshepherd1. He had built a sizeable following (around 45k at the time, now closer to 70k) through tweeting his everyday shepherds life.
The man behind the account was James Rebanks. His family have lived and farmed in the Lake District for generations. Not your usual farmer, he complemented his daily shepherding job with a best-selling book called The Shepherd’s Life and a part-time job advising UNESCO on the impact of tourism around the world.
At the beginning of July, we made the journey north to Racy Ghyll Farm, on the top edge of the Lake District, just outside Penrith. It was time for the annual clip and we’d asked James if we could visit and get better acquainted with the wool we use.
[Note: Whilst we don’t source our wool directly from James, 95% of the Herdwick sheep population can be found within a 20 mile radius of Coniston Water. Chances are, if we aren’t using his wool, it will be a neighbours. One of the things we are working towards is being able to identify the farms we source our wool from.]
Despite being well into summer, on the day we visit, the weather is changeable. Classic Lake District, all kinds of weather.
We start the day, as James would, out on his morning shepherding rounds.
He talks with an ease that comes with knowing his shepherding craft so well. A natural storyteller, his Cumbrian accent full of warmth and dry wit.
We talk about his life and how book deals don’t mean anything to his local shepherding friends. Many of them haven’t read the book. For it is the quality of your stock and the way you go about your work that gains you respect here.
We discuss rewilding, farming subsidies and land biodiversity. He offers a balanced insight and voice that is often unheard.
We head out onto the open fell, past old sorting gates, into the great open expanse of wilderness.
There are no roads up here, only rough and rutted tracks.
The absence of stone walls is noticeable. For the Herdwick sheep that roam the high fells for most of the year, naturally ‘heft’ themselves to the land. This means they hold on the fell, their instinct keeping them rooted to the place they have always lived. This sense of belonging is taught to them by their mothers in their first summer. It stretches back centuries and has never been broken.
This is a landscape where a quality working dog comes into its own. The ability to cover this open varied land at speed, makes it an invaluable asset to any fell farmer.
The fells are relatively empty at this time of year. The sheep having been rounded up and brought down to the lower fields for clipping. This is a job that couldn’t be done without help and cooperation between all the local fell farmers.
We head back to lower land and to see his prized ‘tups’, more commonly known to us as rams.
Most of the farm’s income comes from the sale of this breeding stock to lowland farms where farmers prize the pure pedigree and hardiness of these hill-farmed sheep.
Building a good breeding stock can be a lifetimes work. It’s clear that James could spend the whole day here watching and admiring their beauty.
One tup stands aside from the rest. This is a clear favourite that James hopes will bring him a good price come the Autumn. He stands proud, almost aware of how good he looks.
Morning duties over, it is time to get onto the main task.
Sheep are brought into the shed. A mix of the Herdwick and Swaledale breeds that are part of the 600 strong flock farmed at Racy Ghyll. The hum of the clippers gets underway.
It's clear from the sweat beading on James' brow that this is far from easy work. He handles the sheep with a care and skill born from years of practice.
We all help as the fleeces begin to pile up.
With a little instruction we learn how to wrap the wool into a tight ball, before tossing into the large wool sacks, which will head off to the BWMB for auction. It becomes a production line. We fall into a rhythm.
James tells us that his Grandad used to pay the annual rent of his two farms on the sale of his wool clip. He reckons he will get around £200 this year. That means, he's lucky if he will recover 40% of the cost of clipping.
Once bagged and all the wool sheared, it gets sent to the BWMB where it will be processed and sent to auction. Set up in 1950, it operates a central marketing system for UK fleece wool. It’s aim is to achieve the best possible return for farmers.
Despite this system, which claims to achieve the best possible price, Herdwick wool sells for the extremely low figure of about 40p per kilo.
We want to change this.
A final move of some sheep from one field to another and our day is done.
What struck us during our day on the farm is the simplicity of the set up. James has two quad bikes, two sheepdogs, a truck and a sheep shed. That is all. He does 80% of the work in the same way it would have been a century ago. Fellow farmers' machinery is loaned or bartered in return for help on their farm. There is a true sense of community, where each farm relies on each other to be able to do the work they do.
The trip to the Lakes has connected the wool in our workshop with its provenance. The land where it has come from.
This insight makes us more inspired than ever to ensure this beautiful natural material is seen as something with value rather than something worthless.
A big thank you to James and Helen for letting us come and stay on their farm. To find out more, we recommend a read of his book — The Shepherd’s Life.
From wool clip to wool chair. It takes the wool from one Herdwick sheep to make a Solidwool chair.