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Wensleydale wool opens up new markets for breeders

The world’s finest lustre wool is produced by Wensleydale sheep – one of the UK’s rarest breeds – and now a new venture launched by a group of southern breeders is proving that the Wensleydale has the potential to be more profitable than many other commercial breeds.

Sussex-based Julia Desch, who owns the Beech Hill flock and Sheila Leech who owns the Oakhill flock, are the driving force behind Woolcraft With Wensleydale (www.woolcraftwithwensleydale.)

There are now four members and two local breeders providing quality fleeces to the group which undertakes its entire operation using local spinning and weaving facilities.

Sheila and Julia share knowledge and encourage and support new Wensleydale breeders through the network which produces around 200kg of Wensleydale wool each year.

”It has been a sharp learning curve over the last eight years and now with our licence from the British Wool Marketing Board we’re ready to enter the luxury yarn and fibre market,” says Julia.

The group, which has an exemption from the Wool Board’s marketing scheme, is using Wensleydale wool to produce an expanding range of knitted, spun and woven goods for retail.

But while farmers’ markets and specialised events for spinners and weavers in the UK are providing a good retail pitch for Woolcraft With Wensleydale products, the group is setting its sights on developing a lucrative market much further afield.

The sheep producing the group’s wool include both white and black Wensleydales. The black-woolled sheep range in colour from black, raisin brown, to silver grey and steel grey. Wool from the entire range of fleece colours forms the basis of the products to be aimed at the luxury global market.

Says Julia Desch:“Given that 50% of yarn sales take place through the Internet we believe we can reach out to a world market which appreciates small scale production, ethical standards and natural colours.

“Japanese customers in particular love the coloured wools, especially anything produced from black wool and I’m fortunate in having the rare silver grey gene present in my flock which produces one of the most subtle colours of all the Wensleydale fleeces.”

The British Wool Marketing Board is giving Woolcraft With Wensleydale its full support. Tim Booth, the BWMB’s product development manager said: “Initiatives like this are to be welcomed and that’s why we’ve licensed this company. We hope the business can be further developed to ensure better returns for producers.”

All the sheep in the group are hand-clipped to ensure the wool is of premium quality. Wool is clipped from some sheep twice a year – not only to boost the annual yield of wool to around 6kg from mature sheep but also to ensure the quality and cleanliness of the wool is maintained.

Sheila Leech, who is an experienced dyer using natural materials, says the group’s aim is to prove the viability of the Wensleydale breed to produce some of the finest wool in the world.

“Wensleydale wool is not only renowned for its texture and fine lustre but also its high tensile strength. The absence of kemp and the fibre structure of the wool means that the uptake of dye is even and vibrant – even with the palest shades. It’s one of the most versatile of all wools either knitted, spun or woven.”

Julia Desch and Sheila Leech co-host courses and open days at Beech Hill Farm to encourage more people to consider setting up a Wensleydale flock - as well as for those who already own the breed. Learning how to make more out of the high-value fleeces is part of the course.

“Good husbandry is essential to produce the best fleeces and nutrition is an important part of that. Achieving the correct balance of minerals in the diet is critical,” says Julia,

But this project has also produced some interesting figures that confirm the potential profitability of Wensleydale sheep – a breed that has fallen out of favour among commercial sheep farmers.

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