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To mark October’s national Wool Week, journalist and hobby farmer Tim Metcalfe reflects on his efforts to keep an Oxfordshire tradition alive

National Wool Week

To mark October’s national Wool Week, journalist and hobby farmer Tim Metcalfe reflects on his efforts to keep an Oxfordshire tradition alive
National Wool Week takes place 10th-16th October

"With the weight of all this history behind me, I felt compelled to begin tinkering in the textile trade."

For quite a few years now I have been feeling the hand of Victorian businessman Charles Early on my shoulder.

 

The founder of Oxfordshire’s world-famous blanket-weaving empire has been providing inspiration for my bid to add value to the fleeces from my small flock of Ryeland sheep, which graze on pasture with a view of Oxford’s dreaming spires.

In its heyday, Early’s Witney blanket industry employed more than 3,000 people, and its blankets were recognised as the finest in England. The establishment of an overseas trade in the 18th century was a further boost to the industry, especially when the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company in North America began placing regular orders.

The Ryeland is one of the oldest English sheep breeds, going back seven centuries when the monks of Leominster in Herefordshire bred and grazed them on the rye pastures, giving the breed its name. They were considered to have the finest wool of all British breeds of the time.

 

The Early family in Witney dates back to the late 17th century and there were several branches of the family running different businesses in and around the town, often as serious rivals. Charles Early rationalised these various operations, and by the end of the 19th century he had amalgamated all the Early firms into a single business.

Charles Early’s main rival was William Smith & Co, whose founder had, ironically, learned his skills from Edward Early in the 1820s. Smith was an orphan who was born in Witney and raised by his grandfather, Henry, a master tucker in the blanket industry.

The young William’s first job (he started work aged just eight) was as a bobbin winder, but it was not long before his potential was spotted by Edward Early, who offered him a job as an errand boy for the princely sum of four shillings a week. Before long he was in charge of the weighing and packaging of blankets.

Over the next few years Smith experimented in other trades, running first a mop-making business and then a brewery. Both businesses were successful, but by the 1850s he had sold off his assets from the brewery and returned to the blanket trade.

His firm was based at Bridge Street Mill, and was the first to use the steam engine in the manufacture of blankets. His business was particularly prosperous during the late 19th century, when he had regular orders from the Government to supply mops and blankets to the Royal Navy.

The 20th century saw the beginning of the long decline if the market town’s blanket industry, hastened to an untimely end by the growing popularity of the duvet, increased use of central heating and the closure of the railway in Witney in 1970. William Smith & Son underwent several mergers and takeovers from the 1920s onwards, but closed in 1975.

With the weight of all this history behind me, I felt compelled to begin tinkering in the textile trade. At the time, I was amazed at the lack of value put on this glorious and valuable resource — and horrified by tales of fleeces being simply discarded or even burned.

The results of this effort are our throws, scarves and cushion covers - made from our Ryeland wool by an artisan weaver in Wales. Sadly it was impossible to find an Oxfordshire based company who would be willing to deal in the small quantities of wool I am able to supply.

The raw fleeces have to go through several processes before the weaver can work his magic. They have to be washed to remove natural oils, then a mechanical process called ‘carding’ that disentangles, cleans and intermixes fibres to produce a continuous web of wool suitable for spinning and weaving. The word is derived from the Latin carduus meaning thistle – in fact dried teasel seed heads were once used to comb out the raw wool. Once the fleece is carded it is ready to be spun into yarn – only then can the weaver set up his looms and begin to create some unique designs.

Fortunately our versatile Ryeland breed comes in two colours, giving the weaver the opportunity to create beautiful blends of browns and whites.

When the finished products arrived I was delighted by the quality. Our scruffy fleeces had been transformed into beautiful and useful items. There are three sizes of throw, plus scarves and cushion covers in three designs.

I am delighted to say that our products got a good reception from shoppers who visit Oxford’s longest-running farmers’ market held every Sunday in Wolvercote. We have also been able to bring blankets back to Witney at the Fleece Fair held at Cogges Farm, a proud moment.

I hope that our products get the message across about why the Oxfordshire heritage of this wonderful and sustainable resource should be celebrated.

- Tim Metcalfe

For more information about the Fair Close Ryelands and our products visit the website.

For more information about Wool Week (10th-16th October) click here.

 

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