Herdwick on the grapevine

It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so nice. But then, if they weren’t so nice, it wouldn’t be so good. The pleasure-pressure paradox, that, of working alongside acquaintances who are also indispensable suppliers.

Now in now third year, the tradition here at the workshop of assembling quite big coats with tweed made with the wool of Herdwick sheep thrives on the strengths of such relationships — starting with a farmer in Cumbria, a second farmer in Cumbria, and on to a weaver of distinction in Moray in Scotland. The yearly progress from trench to duffle to, most recently, Ulster, follows lockstep the deepening understanding of and adaptation to an infamously noncompliant material in the successive states of fleece, yarn, and cloth.

It starts, as all great stories, with the shearing of some sheep. Not just any sheep, course, but the hallowed and hirsute Herdwick sheep. The shearing of the Herdwicks not only fires the starting clippers for all that follows, but stands as showcase for the commitment to farming practices ethical and generational and distinctly Cumbrian. Historic, of course, too, what with kings having names like Egbert when the Herdwicks first found the fells.

The journey of the wool from raw fleece to spun yarn is then managed by the second of those farmers in Cumbria, helping navigate the gathered fleeces from the first farm through sorting, washing, combing, and spinning. The variation in the texture, colour, and quality of the fleeces each year — resulting from the genetic makeup, nutritional intake, and general lived experience of the flock — means surely none of this is easy, but, on the upside, imbues the yarn with the life-affirming essences of reason and meaning.

Transitioning this yarn into fabric, the weaver employs her skills in a setting by any measure unconventional: a fully-fledged mill within a boatshed beside the Moray Firth in Scotland. It is here, though, where no one will mind it being said that the magic happens.

Each year’s distinct challenges with the wool are met with innovative manoeuvres executed on cast-iron apparatus dating back to times Victorian, borne from big servings of expertise and experience and a just-as-big shot of force of will. The exact way the tweed is woven, all strength-belying grace and guile, is as unique each year as the material. Here, then, layers of difference are heaped on layers of difference heaped on layers of difference.

This supply chain — the thesaurus is sadly lacking when it comes to synonyms to this term; tweed trail just seems twee — is more than a commercial arrangement. It is testament to the balance necessary when working with friends who are truly one-of-a-kind practitioners. It is a balance struck through clear and honest communication, a common commitment to overcoming the inherent variability of the stuff at hand, and a shared physical dependency on deep inhalations of max-strength lanolin. And thus the Ulster stands as a symbol of what can be achieved when the pleasures of collaboration are navigated alongside the pressures of honouring the efforts of the man or woman prior.

As this work with Herdwick moves onward, it does so with an acknowledgment of natural complexities. That of the sheep involved, yes, but no less that of the people. The Ulster is not just a product of wool, but of a now-annual tradition, championing the unique contributions of the individuals involved — their own heritage and heart. It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so nice, but then wouldn’t be so rewarding, either.