I have some grey Herdwick wool top in my spinning supplies basket which I had started to use as ‘practice fibre’ when getting used to a new spinning wheel. I initially saw it as expendable, should the first efforts at spinning on the wheel result in uneven, badly spun yarn. Why did I think it was expendable? Well, I already have copious quantities of grey fleece (so I don’t need any more grey), but also because it’s quite a coarse, hairy and slightly itchy wool, and at the time I couldn’t see what I would want to knit with it.

That the fleece is relatively coarse and hairy is not surprising as the sheep are mostly associated with the Lake District and have adapted to weathering the inclement weather on the high fells. They have a fair amount of kempy (hairy) fibre as you can see from the swatch, but it’s not unattractive, and I think it gives the knitting character.

Herdwick yarn
Handspun Herdwick yarn

I was a little dismissive at first, but luckily a light bulb (metaphorically speaking) appeared above my head one day when I was mulling over knitting some slouch socks for pulling over thinner socks and padding around the house. I have already darned several holes in similar thick-knit socks and thought it would be a good idea to knit some new socks in a hard-wearing yarn. Cue the Herdwick yarn.

This wouldn’t be the best yarn for a scarf as it is slightly itchy against the neck. I stretched the knitted swatch around my ankle to test for itchiness – and, no not a problem. So, there’s itchiness, but not everywhere. Herdwick yarn is renowned for being hard wearing, so what more could I want? Oh warmth of course. Luckily, the swatch has a springy feel to it, and with the hairiness, I figure it will make for a warm knit.

Since trying Herdwick yarn, and knitting this swatch, I’ve come across Herdwick Shepherd (James Rebanks) on Twitter, where you will find regular photos of the distinctive and attractive sheep and the landscape in which they live. Now I’m reading his book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District from where I learn that scientific (genetic) research reveals that ‘they have in them a primitive genome that few other British sheep carry. Their nearest relatives are in Sweden, Finland, Iceland and the northern Islands of Orkney. It is believed that the Herdwicks’ ancestors lived on the islands of the Wadden Sea, near the Frisian Islands, or further north in Scandinavia’. I may be wrong to suggest that their hairy coat has resulted from adapting to the inclement weather of the fells as it may have more to do with their close relations to more primitive sheep, which presumably had kempy, hairy fleeces rather like Soay sheep. Environment or ancestry? There’s a question. This is a ‘must read’ book.

Back to the yarn – I’ve started knitting and now I’m looking forward to long-lived, warm cosy socks.