We have had quite a few enquiries about sheep breeds, or more specifically the sheep breed that has been chosen to provide our Cambrian Mountains Design and Make Challenge wool.

This is a question that’s a little harder to answer than you might think.

wool bales at the BWMB with 'core holes' in the packing

wool bales at the BWMB with ‘core holes’ in the packing

When wool is delivered to the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB), expert sorters assess each bale by taking samples from a number of places. These sorters have been through several years’ apprenticeship and training to enable them to classify fleece as one of the more than 95 qualities of fleece. The qualities – listed here – are sometimes described by breed and sometimes not.

The key to this, however, is that even if a farmer or smallholder declares their clip to be of a particular breed, the BWMB do not take this information as a basis for their grading. A Bluefaced Leicester for example may be expected to have the qualities that pertain to the Bluefaced Leicester breed standard. However, the fleece of any given flock in any given year may not in practice be assessed as that quality by the sorters. What’s more, it’s perfectly possible in theory for the fleeces of a flock that is not defined as a particular breed to be assessed as being closest in quality to that breed. So extending this example, the wool would be categorised as ‘Bluefaced Leicester’ even though the flock is not described by the farmer as a flock of Bluefaced Leicester sheep.

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to always mentally add the word ‘type’ to the description of the fleece. So using our example of Bluefaced Leicester, if an auction dealer buys a quantity of Bluefaced Leicester wool, grade number 554, in fact (s)he is buying ‘Bluefaced Leicester-type’ wool. It is classified as that type as opposed to any of the other 90 grades that are available to the sorter. As colour, kemp, strength, staple length and other factors enter  the equation, a given bale of white wool has the potential to be categorized as any one of a dozen (or more) grades. There lies the skill of the grader.

So our Cambrian Mountains wool is BWMB grade 432 Fine Mule. Which in all likelihood is wool from Welsh Mules, which are generally a cross between a Bluefaced Leicester sire and a Welsh Mountain ewe.

Once we obtained the fleece, it was subjected to a ‘deep sort’ to separate the finest of the fleece from the less fine so that we are then able to offer various qualities from ‘rug wool’ to knitwear quality yarn. But that process, readers, is for another day …