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a skein of Rowan Purelife British Sheep Breeds wool
Rowan Purelife British Sheep Breeds knit up
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Yarn Profile:
Rowan Purelife British Sheep Breeds

First Impressions
Britain's wool industry is legendary. Cathedrals were built from its fortunes, and during Queen Elizabeth's reign nearly 80% of Britain's exports were wool goods. By the 19th century, Yorkshire had become the center of the global wool trade.

Today, with the end of government wool subsidies, the rise of global competition, and a demand for finer fibers, Britain's wool industry has become a shadow of its former self.

In turning to the superfine Merino fibers that Australia produces so readily, the global textile market has left behind dozens upon dozens of other breeds that produce visually intriguing and physically durable fabrics.

I am so happy to report that Rowan has partnered with British farmers and Yorkshire mills to produce a truly British yarn that's fittingly called the British Sheep Breeds collection. It currently consists of five completely undyed "colors" that come from the Bluefaced Leicester, Jacob, Black Welsh, and Suffolk breeds.

The white Bluefaced Leicester is the finest and most lustrous of the collection. If you are supremely sensitive to anything but the finest grade Merino, this is the yarn you'll want to try. The Jacob contains a blend of both the white and brown fibers that grow on this spotted sheep. The Welsh is available in two hues: a rich chocolate brown called "Black Welsh" and a lighter, more heathered hue called "Dark Grey Welsh."

Both the Jacob and Welsh yarns have small amounts of kemp interspersed among the wool fibers. Kemp is a short and wiry fiber that sheep tend to grow in damp conditions (such as England's hills and lowlands) because it directs moisture away from the animal's skin. In these yarns, the kemp should have very little effect on any rugged outerwear garments you might make.

Finally, we have the Suffolk yarn (called "Steel Grey" because it's a mix of light and dark fibers), which I review here. It's a wonderfully dense and springy yarn with low luster and fantastic insulating qualities.

Knitting Up
Knitting with this yarn is an absolute breeze. No snags, no stray lumps, no knots, nothing unusual at all—just smooth, happy knitting at a speedy pace that only such bulky yarn can offer. The yarn is very springy and forgiving.

I did have to modify the way I maintain tension (I hold the yarn in my left hand) to allow the fibers more room to move. Otherwise, the yarn in my left hand would occasionally get kinked up and need to be dangled to release the excess twist.

Swatching with this yarn was such a pleasure that I promptly ordered myself an Ivelet Jacket kit. I can't imagine a more perfect way to combat high heating fuel costs this winter than by wrapping myself in the same fibers that keep sheep warm all winter long.

Blocking / Washing
My swatches surrendered readily to their warm sudsy bath. I could immediately feel the fibers relax and bloom into place, a perception that was validated when I rinsed my swatches and set them out to dry.

The wash water had the faint beige tint of residual oils from the spinning process. After I rinsed and blotted my swatches dry, I marveled at how plump and cohesive the knitted fabric had become. There was absolutely no change in gauge.

Most folks probably won't be knitting a nightgown out of this yarn because Suffolk is not considered a finewool breed. It is not what I'd call a "scratchy" yarn, either. Consider it the yarn equivalent of a robust and somewhat crunchy whole-grain bread.

Suffolk is a relatively strong fiber with the exceptional spring of all Down-type wools. The fiber length is on the short side, averaging 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches, which means you'll have more ends sticking out of each inch of yarn. When subject to abrasion, those ends will gradually find one another, enmesh, and work their way out of the fabric in pills. They are easily removed, and the overall fabric is so dense that you can go for a long, long time before any visible thinning will occur.

I applaud Rowan for rediscovering its British roots and bringing public attention to the unique sheep breeds that still roam the British countryside. From a price perspective, each 120-yard skein currently retails for $13.95. This means that a medium-sized women's sweater with some ribbing (such as that Ivelet jacket) will cost $125. The only pity here is that the project will knit up so quickly, but that means more hours of wearing and enjoying the finished results.

If you're on a budget or simply want to try some of the breeds before you commit to a larger project, you can get a nice warm hat or pair of fingerless mitts out of one skein if you plan properly.

With each skein purchased, we're not just getting a good yarn but we're also helping support sheep farmers in the British hills and millworkers in Yorkshire. Their trades are built upon knowledge and skills that we can't afford to lose.


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