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A perfect blend of wool crafts and wildlife conservation in Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 October 2017

Dagna Linton, Avis Strudwick, Mary Richardson, Helen Graham and Kate Grant celebrate some of their summer show awards, alongside a life-size crafted Hebridean sheep and just some of the products now available

Dagna Linton, Avis Strudwick, Mary Richardson, Helen Graham and Kate Grant celebrate some of their summer show awards, alongside a life-size crafted Hebridean sheep and just some of the products now available

Tom Marshall

A group of Yorkshire knitting and craft enthusiasts have turned an unlikely bi-product of wildlife conservation into a range of fundraising products

Hebridean sheep Hebridean sheep

What do you do when the price of wool fleece barely covers the cost of removing them from their previous owners every summer, so the result is a pile of pedigree wool destined for nothing more than eco-friendly compost? That was the dilemma facing Yorkshire Wildlife Trust for their flock of Hebridean sheep. Now, local mills and a group of Yorkshire ladies are putting their own spin – quite literally – on traditional wool crafts, with show-stopping results.

Known as a ‘flying flock’, the conservation charity’s 500-strong team of living lawnmowers travel around the county throughout the year, grazing wildlife meadows and heathlands across more than a third of the Trust’s 100-plus nature reserves.

Their mission is simple; munch through some of the ubiquitous and less desirable grasses and weeds, allowing native flora and the wildlife that makes a home there to thrive; which in some cases may be habitats that have declined by around 97 per cent across the UK.

When summer arrives though, it’s time for a change in attire, and for the Trust this meant a mountain of hundreds of distinctive black or chocolate-brown fleeces – a signature of this small and hardy Scottish breed.

You can leave your hat on � what could be warmer than a Hebridean hat? You can leave your hat on � what could be warmer than a Hebridean hat?

For Trust volunteer and keen knitter Dagna Linton, this was a chance that couldn’t be missed.

‘I’d heard about the Trust’s ‘flying flock’, but it was clear that with so much focus on day-to-day conservation, the more unusual concept of turning a bi-product like fleece into new and innovative products wasn’t necessarily something the staff understandably had time to devote to.’

With the support of grazing officer Ellen Fairbank, and a modest project fund kick-started from cake sales and other contributions, the first year saw a modest quantity of yarn produced.

Along with the York Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, interest was also sparked from a band of home spinners, knitters and bobbin lace makers.

Mary Richardson working a traditional foot-spun wheel the Rosedale Show Mary Richardson working a traditional foot-spun wheel the Rosedale Show

Working with Paul Crookes of Halifax Spinning Mill in Goole, Dagna set about creating a range of commercial wools that could be turned into an array of products from hats to blankets, and bags to gloves – all bearing the original hues of the Hebridean flock, or in some cases blended with Yorkshire alpaca.

‘Traditional crafts remain at the heart of the idea’, adds Dagna. ‘Our Sedburgh Mill blankets from David McDowell are made on original post-war looms at the museum, and we’re proud that the whole process often covers little more than 50 miles from field to final product.’

The passionate team of wool-lovers now visit some of the county’s favourite summer shows to spread the word – including showcasing the range of techniques needed to create a whoolly masterpiece; from felt-making, to hand-spun yarn and drop-spinning, one of the most ancient, and highly-skilled methods still practiced.

Awards have duly followed, and for the team behind the project, a highlight was the presentation of a Hebridean spun blanket to Sir David Attenborough during Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s 70th anniversary in 2015.

YWT director Peter Batchelor (left) joins Paul Crookes of Halifax Spinning Mill to sport this winter’s must-have hat YWT director Peter Batchelor (left) joins Paul Crookes of Halifax Spinning Mill to sport this winter’s must-have hat

‘From that first smell of the wool, it’s all about the story, the fun and the determination for us,’ enthuses Dagna. ‘There’s something magical about the journey of a fleece from the sheep’s back, to someone else’s, and we’re delighted to be part of that.’

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust wool products are available online at ywtshop.org.uk or at their shops at Spurn, Potteric Carr and the Living Seas Centre, Flamborough. All profits are returned to the Trust’s conservation work across the county.

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