The big plans of a new Sussex company in the Southdowns

PUBLISHED: 11:45 28 November 2013 | UPDATED: 17:17 03 March 2014

Farmer David Burden with his Southdown sheep

Farmer David Burden with his Southdown sheep

Nick Spurling

A Sussex company, that launched during Wool Week last month has big plans for the Southdown sheep, being well on the way to creating the first Sussex tweed.

We owe the character of the South Downs to them, they can take credit for much of New Zealands economic success, and soon the reviving British woolen industry could have them to thank for its first wholly new fabric in a generation.

The Southdown sheep, with its stubborn determination for survival, has clung on to the slopes of what now defines the arc of the National Park through Sussex for nigh on 250 years. Still prized for its thriftiness by farmers, enjoyed for its succulent, sweet-flavoured meat by foodies, the quality of its wool has of recent times been largely overlooked.

Now a new company, launched during Wool Week (14-18 October), is setting out to position Southdown alongside Merino and Shetland as the fibre that any eco-conscious, self-respecting fashionista wants to wear. South Downs Yarn company founder Louise Spong is already on the way to creating the first Sussex tweed, geo-traceable to fleeces grown on sheep whose lives are spent industriously nibbling the chalk sward in the protected landscape above her home. Hard-wearing but softer than Harris and just as sophisticated, 
Sea Tweed could become the county sets must-have look for the next-but-one winter season.

My vision is that Sea Tweed will become synonymous with Sussex, says Louise, who lives in Rustington and whose forebears include a shepherd at West Dean, who would no doubt have folded Southdowns.

I want to celebrate where the Downs meets the sea. I have grown up and lived most of my life nestled between the two and been inspired by the colours and contours of both. I want this to be reflected in the yarn.

Louise became interested in the provenance of wool while living in America where the craze for traditional hand knitting has seen a revival in the use of natural fibres. But she was disappointed to find little, if any, enthusiasm for local yarns among fellow knitters when she returned to Sussex.

So, inspired by a reference in a dusty book to Southdown wool being used, albeit briefly, after the First World War to produce a superior type of tweed, she sought some homespun advice from local farmers on how best to gather the fleeces she needed to produce a yarn that would be traceable back to the farm.

Ive always walked on the Downs and been involved in countryside activities. As a child, I used to go to the Findon Sheep Fair. I wanted to start a business in the historical and geographical land of the breed and build a community of interests of people who were just as passionate about the location as I was, says Louise. I wanted to put Southdown on the knitting map. Not just the breed, but Southdowns from the National Park.

Her quest is as much poetic as it is practical, she says, and it may well be a challenge, not least because having been rescued once from oblivion the Southdown is still not a prolific sheep.

In the late 18th century, when the breed that would go on to become the foundation stock for New Zealands meat industry was formally established by farmer John Ellman of Glynde, around 150,000 of them roamed the escarpment between Shoreham and Eastbourne. Now, even generous estimates put their number at a tiny fraction of that, the population of 5,000 or so breeding ewes propped up mostly by smallholders using them as animated lawnmowers. Just a handful of sizeable flocks remain within the park two of them on the Petworth and Goodwood estates.

Biddable, cute-looking and good doers, perfectly suited over the centuries for turning the mean grazing on which most modern breeds would starve into both meat and wool, the Southdown has rebuilt its reputation for eating quality, enhanced by the enthusiasm of celebrity chefs, such as Rosemary Moon. But their dense, short-staple fleeces, as bouncy as lambs in spring, fail to fetch a premium when the Wool Board gathers them up for auction along with thousands of anonymous sacks of others at the annual clip.

Lifelong breeder and former farm manager David Burden can recall the not-so-distant days when fleeces fetched barely 1 a piece. The 1.50/kg he received this year still barely covered the shearing cost whereas the fleeces of speciality breeds sold privately can fetch three times as much. You can imagine my enthusiasm when Louise said she wanted to sell locally produced wool, says David, who keeps 150 Southdowns at Petworth and would like to see their dual-purpose reputation and numbers restored.

Last month his fleeces became the first to be spun at a speciality mill in Launceston, Cornwall.

Davids enthusiasm, warmth and kindness completely overwhelmed me, says Louise. I was not expecting such a fantastic response. He saw the vision and supported it. We went over to meet him and he agreed there and then to start the project with some of his flock.

The first natural-coloured skeins from South Downs Yarn, marked with the farm of origin in much the same way that farm shops market meat, will be available over the next few months with Sea Tweed ready for the 2014/15 winter season.

Former stockbroker, now mill owner Sue Blacker of The Natural Fibre Company, which spun Davids fleeces, has seen demand for British wool rise steadily as the provenance of what consumers wear to dinner becomes as important as that of the food theyll be eating at it. She credits the Campaign For Wool, backed by Prince Charles, for much of the change in attitude.

Its made a significant impact on peoples perception that wool is a good thing, says Sue, who handles fleeces from the shaggy North Ronaldsay of Orkney to the Devon and Cornwall Longwool and every shape, size and texture of the 60 or so different UK breeds in between.

The Southdown is characteristically the finest of the fleeces of the downland breeds, says Sue. It makes a relatively soft, yet bulky wool. Id use it for warmth, whereas Id use Wensleydale for drape and Blackface for carpets. It weaves and brushes up well into soft throws and blankets.

With the field to catwalk trend continuing even Dior has a startling ready-to-wear crocheted winter wool collection this year Sue believes South Downs Yarn is also emerging on the cusp of a consumer return to investment pieces that satisfy both value and vanity.

Wool is a sustainable product and consumers care a lot about that, says Sue. The recession has also encouraged people to think about value instead of cost now even young people are prepared to buy something that will last.

Louise is determined to rehabilitate the short, stocky Southdown with its teddy-bear face as more than a hobby breed. She sees it rather as a giant among sheep, one that has defined an entire landscape and to which Sussex owes a huge and beautiful debt.

A lot of people still dont realise that we only have a South Downs National Park because we have the Southdown sheep grazing them. If they could see where the wool came from, right down to the Southdown flock, they might even come to see and use the Park.

If interest can be regenerated in the breed and the locality, it would be wonderful to get children involved in that, understanding the process of where materials and fibres come from that would be really fun.

And something, no doubt, of which John Ellman, the father of the Southdowns now resting in Glynde, would approve.

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