By Dace Vare

The Ryeland fleece for the Guild’s Rare Breed Spinning Project to celebrate our 70th anniversary was obtained from Marylyn and Des Stevens at Hallylulya, who have been breeding Ryeland sheep since 1955. In fact, when they got married, Marylyn brought her Ryeland sheep with her, which was the start of their flock. The initial reaction of the packers when we started parcelling up the Ryeland fleece was a bit erky perky. Do not despair! Just wash it and you will have a lovely white, bouncy fibre.

Marylyn holding Buttocks (named because he has such an attractive bottom). I should have taken the photo after she had won a fistful of blue ribbons at the Bendigo Sheep and Wool Show 2016.

Marylyn Stevens holding Buttocks (named because he has such an attractive bottom). Dace wishes she had taken the photo after Marylyn won a fistful of blue ribbons at the Bendigo Sheep and Wool Show 2016.

Ryeland is one of England’s oldest sheep breeds. The earliest reference to Ryeland tell of the Monks of Leominster, Herefordshire trading in Ryeland wool and it has been suggested that they descended from the Spanish Merino, coming to England with the Romans after the conquest. Queen Elizabeth I was given a pair of ‘Lemster’ stockings made from Ryeland wool and she liked them so much, she would never wear any other sort of stocking from then on. Ryeland is a soft, elastic, but fluffy fleece that was thought to be similar to Merino in its softness. This may seem like a wild claim, but it must be remembered that the early Merino was not as fine and soft as the more developed fleece we are familiar with today. Woollen spinning emphasises its loft and lightness, but it can also be spun into a smooth and durable worsted yarn. The Ryeland was first introduced to Australia in 1919 by Mr J.A. Helling of Brecon, Tintinara, South Australia, who had been attracted to the breed while in England during the 1914-1918 war. About the same time, the NSW Dept of Agriculture Experiment Farm at Bathurst imported 8 ewes and 1 ram from England. [taken from unattributed notes from the breeder].

Fibre Preparation

The fleece is best washed before preparing and you will see that it is a lovely white and springy fleece that will make an elastic yarn that is light and soft. As Ryeland is reluctant to felt, it is good for garments that are worn and washed frequently. In theory, it can be machine washed, but test it first.  It is recommended that the fleece be carded into batts or rolags for woollen spinning, as the staple has a fine but disorganized crimp. Traditionally, Ryeland is spun woollen and very fine, hence stockings that are fit for a queen. It can be combed or flicked for worsted spinning if desired. The fleece is said to take dye well, but will have a matte finish.


Well, if socks were good enough for Queen Elizabeth I, then why don’t we try knitting socks as well? As most socks need to be spun worsted with a high twist, 3 ply yarn, you might have to blend your fibre with something else, such as mohair or alpaca for added strength and to make the fibre go further. However, it does seem a shame not to spin Ryeland woollen, which is what the fleece is famous for, so instead of making walking socks, why not try making a pair of bed socks instead. This way you would enjoy the experience of spinning woollen, as well as feeling like a queen wearing them in bed.
As woollen spinning uses less fibre, you will have more yardage in your yarn.

Spiral Socks

Two socks, on one needle with one ball challenge: wind a centre-pull ball on a wool winder and knit from both ends.

Two socks, on one needle with one ball challenge: wind a centre-pull ball on a wool winder and knit from both ends.

A good way to make socks when you don’t know how much yarn you will have is to knit spiral socks. These socks were knitted during World War II for servicemen in the army and navy, so that one size would fit all and would also reduce the wear on the heel. As you are using a slightly thicker yarn, they are excellent to wear inside boots. Just divide your yarn into two equal balls and start knitting. When I mentioned to Katherine Henry that I had just learned to cast on two socks at the same time on a circular needle, she challenged me to wind a centre-pull ball on a wool winder and knit from both ends. This way you not only knit both socks at the same time, but they are exactly the same size. See photo as proof that it can be done! If you run out of yarn and the sock is not long enough, then just knit the toe in a different yarn.

If you don’t think your long spiral socks will stay up, then just turn them into ankle socks or only wear them as bed socks.

Here are some links for spiral socks: Australian Comforts Fund booklet and another version.

Knitting Tips:  To stop the toe opening up if you are not grafting the stitches, run the tail through the remaining stitches twice and then pull tight to close the hole. Fasten the remaining yarn. To avoid laddering between needles when knitting in Magic loop or using double pointed needles our knitting guru, Iris Horoch, recommends that you pull the SECOND stitch tight when starting to knit with a new needle.

Stuffed Animal Patterns

Here is a pattern for knitting cats, but you can also get rabbits, a panda and even B1 dressed as Superman! Another free knitted, stuffed animal site with the advantage that you just need to knit and fold some of them, so not complicated.

Spinner Suggestions

Prue Hill, one of our committee members, is going to spin her fleece and knit it up into pink ski breeches. She plans to spin all her yarns first, dye them pink with cochineal and then knit each part of the breeches in a different breed. We will definitely have to get a photo of her wearing them!

Pam Oakes from Forster is thinking of knitting a scarf using a different stitch for each breed. Another idea along the same line would be to cast on for the length of a shawl and knit rows lengthwise for each breed. If you leave a tail at the end of each row, then you can turn it into a fringe to finish it off.