Welcome to our new series of Meet The Maker. Over the coming months, I’ll be chatting to people who not only keep Ouessants or other sheep, but are makers, creating things that are sheep related in some way.
In our first article, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rosie Anderson who makes ‘Felted Sheepskins’. Felted sheepskins are sometimes also known as vegetarian sheepskins, because only the fleece is used.
MM: Hi Rosie. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
RA: I live on the Devon/Cornwall border with my husband Doug, three kids, three dogs and lots of sheep! I grew up in Hatherleigh, Devon and was always hanging around the livestock market, but I didn’t get my own sheep until about 6 years ago.
MM: How did ‘Felted Sheepskins’ come about?
RA: We were visiting family on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. I noticed that on our Aunts’ sofa was the most beautiful felted sheepskin, which she had made herself!
It was a revelation to me because whilst I always loved the look of sheepskins, I hated the idea of having a dead animal on the sofa. Kathleen is an amazing felt artist and the following year in 2003, she made us one for a wedding present. I still have it.
When I finally got my own sheep, I’d always had in the back of my mind to try and make one. A few years ago, Kathleen came to visit us in Devon and taught us the art of making felted sheepskins. Since then we have refined the process and it has developed into a business. I work alongside my mum and employ a few other women during busy periods.
MM: Had anyone in your family ever worked with sheep or wool before you?
RA: My Great Grandfather farmed in North Devon and my family is full of keen knitters and people who love to crotchet. Not me though, I can’t do either!
MM: Tell us about your sheep. Which breeds do you have?
RA: I have a mixed flock, chosen for their wool. Wool varies so much even within breeds. To make a good Felted Sheepskin you need a clean, healthy fleece with no marker on it. When I say clean, I mean free from lots of vegetation. The age and health of the sheep can also make a difference to the wool quality.
I have crossed different breeds to try and get curl, texture and colour. It’s an ongoing process – this year we have introduced a Swiss Valais ram to the flock, so we are looking forward to seeing what qualities that adds to our fleeces.
I initially started out with Dartmoor Whiteface, which has a lovely curl, but the texture is too coarse for rugs. I also have Mashams, Blue Texel, Dartmoor Greyface as well as various crosses. Mashams have gorgeous soft curly white fleeces, but they are wild creatures and I’ve known them to jump five bar gates!
MM: I expect they keep you very busy? They sound like a really mixed bunch.
RA: Well, we bought three lovely ewes lambs a few years ago from a farm a few miles away. It wasn’t until we got home that we realised one was actually not a ewe lamb at all, but a little boy! How did we not spot it?? So we named him Tony after the chap we bought him from, and he keeps our rams company in the orchard. He is a cross breed and has a gorgeous fleece!
MM: So, aside from rugs – do you make anything else with the wool?
RA: We mostly produce rugs using as much as the fleece as we can. However if we have small or bitty fleeces we will make seat pads, squares, cushions or rounds with them.
MM: Do you ever work with fleeces from sheep outside of your own flock? I can imagine that people might want rugs from their own sheep.
RA: Yes we do! We are really happy to make rugs for other people. We just have to make sure the fleece is in a suitable condition, marker free and with little vegetation. We find sheep that spend lots of time on straw have lots of vegetation in their fleece, which is hard to remove.
MM: Is the process of making felted sheepskins environmentally friendly?
RA: It’s really important to us and we are really proud that we can create something so beautiful, without having an impact on the environment. We only use olive oil soap and saved rainwater in the process.
All the fleeces we use are our own or sourced locally. Wool has so many amazing properties and unlike plastic, wool is compostable. These rugs are an investment to keep for life.
I think it’s also important to mention that we farm for wildlife. We don’t over graze and have over half of our land is set aside for species rich wildflower meadows, so no sheep graze on it from March to September. The problem with sheep is that they eat everything, but when they are allowed back on in September they do a good job of stomping the seed into the ground.
MM: Despite 2020 being a year like no other, you have managed to run a few workshops in your studio, where people can come and make fleeces for themselves. Can you tell us a little about what happens on a Felted Sheepskin workshop?
RA: We have really enjoyed running workshops this year. It’s a long day, but everyone gets to make their own rug and take it home. We can provide the fleece, but some people choose to bring their own.
The process involves fleece selection, laying wool backing, then lots of soap, water and felt making. It’s a physical process and involves standing up all day. It’s also messy as you’re working with raw fleece. But even though it is hard work, the results are always worth it.
With Felted Sheepskins you can’t take any shortcuts and they are all unique so they can’t be mass-produced. But that’s what makes them so special.
MM: Have you ever worked with Ouessant fleece before? I have been told they fleece beautifully!
RA: Never. I had never even heard of the breed until my neighbours bought some. I can’t believe how dinky they are! I’d like to get my hands on a fleece to try it though!
On behalf of The Ouessant Times, I’d like to thank Rosie for participating in this interview.
If you’d like to see more
Rosie’s website https://feltedsheepskins.co.uk
A short video of the felting process is below:
DO YOU make any form of art or craft which involves or is inspired by sheep? If you’d like to share your work and a little about your process, please email Michelle Mcillmurray firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Michelle Mcillmurray