Baa Baa Black Sheep come good

BLACK is beautiful although it might be hard to believe judging from the accompanying photograph. We are not spinning a yarn when we tell you that these black Zwartbles sheep are providing the raw material for a new fabric which is already a huge hit around the world. The animals have produced the wool for a new range of products being produced by Cushendale Woollen Mills in Graignamanagh and there is now a waiting list for the finished articles.

BLACK is beautiful although it might be hard to believe judging from the accompanying photograph. We are not spinning a yarn when we tell you that these black Zwartbles sheep are providing the raw material for a new fabric which is already a huge hit around the world. The animals have produced the wool for a new range of products being produced by Cushendale Woollen Mills in Graignamanagh and there is now a waiting list for the finished articles.

The flock belonging to Suzanna Crampton of Maiden Hall, Bennettsbridge has been sheared along with a number of others throughout the country and are currently going through the mill. With the help and skilled workmanship of Philip Cushen and his staff at Cushendale Woollen Mills, a limited number of traditional weight queen sized Zwartbles bed blankets and a limited number of traditional travel rugs will be made from the half tonne of raw wool. There will also be a limited amount of knitting yarn for enthusiastic knitters spread all over the world.

All the wool is from Irish registered Zwartbles breeders both North and South of the border. Suzanna, a grand-daughter of writer, Hubert Butler, hopes to have it cleaned, teased, spun, woven and ready by St Patrick’s Day.

She is confident that the market for the product will grow and if the on-line audience is anything to go by, she is on to a winner. To date she has 2,000 followers on twitter and over 650 on Facebook, not bad for a flock of black sheep munching grass by the Nore.

“My followers seem to be from all over the world, from Japan to Texas, Canada to Argentina, South Africa to Kuwait, with a good few Irish and English people as well.

“We even have knitters and spinners from this sheep’s homeland in the Netherlands. Quite a few of them are waiting for the wool to be processed into knitting yarn, blankets and travel rugs. Via social media I have had to play host to a very nice group of six women sheep farmers who came all the way from Norway to visit the flock having seen them on Facebook,” Suzanne said.

The wool produced is of the highest quality and is in serious demand. After shearing, the Zwartbles wool has to be rinsed twice before being placed in the drying room until it is completely dry. It is brought out in bags and placed on the floor in front of the teasing machine which fluffs the wool up to twice its size and makes it soft. Beforehand, the dry wool is piled up in a square and sprinkled with an emulsion of water and natural sheep oil (lanolin), to return moisture to the fibre. Once all the wool has been teased it must be again collected by hand into big wool sacks which hang from ceiling hooks at the centuries old Cushendale Woollen Mills.

Once the sack is filled with the freshly teased wool it is dragged through the old, narrow corridors of the mill to the basement where the huge carding machine lies in wait for the next step in the wool’s progression to becoming yarn for weaving and knitting.

Suzanne first saw the Zwartble sheep at the National Ploughing Championships in Burnchurch, Kilkenny back in 2008 and fell in love with them having had the idea of promoting a rare breed sewn by a neighbour. She trusted her instincts there and then, and bought three hoggets and one pregnant ewe from Ray Sweeney of Ardee, Co Louth. As luck would have it two of the hoggets happened to be in lamb so she doubled her flock at half the price in no time and it has been onwards and upwards since then. A chance meeting with Kilkenny Arts Officer Mary Butler led to a knitting project involving Philip Cushen and the enterprise has grown since then and a few black sheep certainly have come good for Suzanne and Kilkenny.