The following article was misprinted with incorrect imaging. It was entirely our error and we apologise to Dr J. Muddle for the mistake, the correct images are attached below
WENSLEYDALE LONGWOOL FLEECE
Jeanie Muddle B.Sc.Hons.Ph.D.
Originally published in the The Wensleydale World No.4, Millenium Edition 2000, updated 2022
A Wensleydale sheep in full wool always attracts attention; the fleece of long lustrous purls is one of the most attractive and characteristic features of the breed. Wensleydales both black and white, are invariably “show-stoppers” whenever they are exhibited.
Apart from the obvious attraction of the purl and lustre, Wensleydale fleece has a soft handle and for a longwool is exceptionally fine with a Bradford count of 44 to 48 (approximately 33 to 35 micrometers). A shearling fleece will weigh from about 3.5 to 7 kg with staples of even width and an average length of 15 to 30 cm. The Wensleydale fleece is remarkably consistent in quality throughout, showing very little variation from shoulder to britch. These uniquely attractive and desirable qualities have helped to produce a fleece that is widely acknowledged to be “the finest and most valuable lustre longwool in the world”.
This claim to quality is reflected by the current BWMB prices (BritishWool Producer Information and Wool Values 2021) with grades for both black and white Wensleydale achieving some of the highest prices for all British wools. At a time when the wool market is depressed world-wide and many coloured wools have, in BWMB terms, “no value at all”, coloured Wensleydale still attracts a premium.
A Unique Fleece
From just a brief glance at a Wensleydale, it is obvious that it comes with an absolutely unique wrapping; the first and most unusual characteristic is the purl or crimp. As each staple grows it takes the natural form of a corkscrew or ringlet (Figure 1). The characteristic appearance of the fleece of a yearling Wensleydale (Figure 2) or of a shorn ewe (Figure 3) is unmistakable and unique among sheep breeds.
Another prominent characteristic of the fleece is the superb lustre. Lustre is of course simply the reflection of light by the fleece and is due largely to the smoothness of the surface scales, which form the cuticle of the wool fibre. In a fine lustre fleece such as the Wensleydale, the scales are relatively smooth with very few projections. Lustre can only be seen in the staple of the fleece (see Figures 1 and 2), or in worsted-spun tops or yarn in which the wool fibres are aligned, running parallel and in one direction.
Unlike many of the so-called white fleeced breeds, white Wensleydale fleece contains very few coloured fibres and the fleece is truly white. Fleece from the coloured animals comes in a wide range of natural shades. Coloured Wensleydale lambs are born predominantly black or dark charcoal grey in colour but occasional lambs are born pale silver grey. Many “black” sheep exhibit a greying with age, becoming lighter with time, due to the appearance of white fibres among the black. The moorit (brown) gene is not found in the Wensleydale but the natural grey or black fleece colour is often weathered by the sun and rain, the tips of the staples of dark fleece becoming bleached to a deep rusty or golden brown colour (see Figure 2) and the silver greys to a beige or cinnamon colour. (For further information on genetics of colour in Wensleydales, see Muddle, 1994.)
One of the most important characteristics of the fleece is that it is totally kemp free. The Wensleydale should have absolutely no hair, no kemp, just consistently fine wool with fibres of uniform diameter and quality throughout. This consistent fineness of fibre is the result of a phenomenon known as “central checking”, a very important attribute of Wensleydales. Both Wensleydale ewes and rams may have fleece of exceptionally fine quality, unlike most other breeds in which rams invariably develop rather coarse wool, particularly around the britch.
The head and legs of most breeds of sheep are covered with hair; but the head of the Wensleydale has a fine wool covering extending to a tuft on the forehead and around the base of the ears. There should be no hair at all on the head and ears. The legs are also free of coarse hair, the fine wool often extending right down the legs to the hooves.
This attribute is linked directly to an unusual feature of the birth coat of Wensleydale lambs. The central primary wool follicles which in most breeds produce the coarsest kempy fibres, in Wensleydales produce some of the finest fibres. Burns (1967) first described this characteristic as “central checking”.
As a result of central checking, the Wensleydale breed has a uniquely characteristic array of wool follicles producing a completely kemp-free fleece in purebred sheep. Central checking, although believed to be present in other longwool breeds, is most pronounced in Wensleydales and is passed on in high degree to cross-bred offspring; hence the Wensleydale is known as the “kemp-killer” (Burns, 1978). The breed, both black and white, has the remarkable capability of radically improving the quality of wool of crossbred offspring (Burns, 1983). Although long recognised, the breed’s potential as “the supreme wool improver” has yet to be fully exploited. The strong central checking gene is clearly a unique and important attribute of the Wensleydales. It is therefore essential that Wensleydale breeders select against hair when choosing breeding stock in order to preserve within the breed as a whole this potentially economically valuable characteristic.
Uses of the Fleece
Traditionally, Wensleydale wool has been used in the manufacture of high quality lustrous knitting and weaving yarn. The fine and lustrous quality of Wensleydale is still in demand for fine worsted suitings and furnishing fabrics. But due to the comparative rarity of the breed, wool is available in very limited quantities, precluding most of the larger commercial applications. The unique qualities of the wool are now recognised and exploited by a number of small specialist “rare breed” enterprises producing high quality knitwear and clothing.
Wensleydale fleece is very popular with handspinners and handcraft workers. Many Wensleydale breeders sell their fleece direct to spinners and craft workers from where there is a continuous and healthy demand. Although the fleece is a beautiful fine spinning fleece, the unusual purled character of the fleece is lost when it is carded or combed. The curly staples are also utilised in a variety of ways in craftwork, often exploiting the natural purl and lustre of the fleece.
Spinning. The fine even fibres of Wensleydale spin to a soft light yarn. As with all longwools, Wensleydale fleece should ideally be combed not carded and then worsted spun. This ensures that the fibres remain parallel, so retaining the lustre. Wensleydale fleece will spin to an extra fine yarn. Or attractive fancy yarns can be spun incorporating the staple into the finished yarn, so preserving the “curly locks” and character of Wensleydale fleece.
(Handspinners who wish to spin with the natural tendencies of the fleece should examine their fleece carefully as some ringlets lie “S” and some “Z” and it can vary within one fleece!)
Knitting. Knitted Wensleydale garments are soft and have an attractive lustre.
Weaving. Wensleydale yarns can be woven into a range of fabrics from fine suitings to heavyweight novelty
Dyeing. Wensleydale fleece takes dyes very well. Since Wensleydale fleece is made up of uniformly fine fibres, the usual problems of kemp or medullated fibres not taking dye evenly are not encountered.
Tapestry and Embroidery. Tapestry and needlecraft workers often use Wensleydale wool as the wool will dye to a full range of colours and the yarn will retain its attractive lustre.
Felting. Wensleydale can be felted although, like other lustrous longwools is better blended with one of the more traditional felting wools. The fine curly staples can be attractive if incorporated as decorations on felted pieces.
Rugmaking. Many handcraft workers use Wensleydale fleece for rugmaking. A heavyweight Wensleydale yarn or the long staples can be woven into a rug or staples can be hooked or knotted into a backing, the corkscrew staple making an attractive curly pile.
Wigmaking. Staples of Wensleydale fleece are used for dolls wigs. The traditional material mohair is expensive and the long lengths required not always readily available. Wensleydale not only has lustre, a superb purl and a range of natural colours but the shearling staples can be more than 12 inches long.
Sheepskins. The pelt of the Wensleydale, if cured without trimming or combing, retains the unique character of the Wensleydale sheep. They make most attractive garments or rugs, having the appearance of astrakhan.
British Wool Producer Information and Wool Values, 2021
Burns, M .(1967) Trop. Agric. Trin. 44 4 253-274
Burns, M. (1978) Ark V 11 388-390
Burns, M. (1983) Ark X 2 55-61
Muddle, J (1994) Proc. World Congress on Coloured Sheep, York. Ed. Lawrence Alderson 71 – 81
Staples of white and black shearling Wensleydale fleece show the natural purl and lustre.
Coloured shearling Wensleydale fleece opened on the sheep clearly show the natural colour and lustre.
White and coloured Wensleydale ewe fleece photographed on the sheep.