Transforming an old dairy unit into a dedicated sheep enterprise for wool production, Emma Boyles has unveiled new markets and demand is growing. Sue Scott finds out more.
Emma Boyles’ ambition is to produce the best wool yarn in the UK and for her animals to be recognised for achieving it. The farm’s entire management system is geared towards wool production and has consequently developed its own wool breed, the Stein Fine. Niche it may be, but this is not hobby farming.
A combined total of 400 breeding ewes, comprising 200 Stein Fines and 200 Gotlands run as separate flocks, underpins The Little Grey Sheep Company at Well Manor Farm, Hampshire, making it one of the biggest in the country to farm for fibre.
Emma, a former marketing executive, believes its increasing success proves wool can be a profit centre and not a cost or a headache. She says: “We didn’t come into the industry believing there’s no money in wool production. “I think there’s a tendency for people to put up barriers to ideas because they’ve tried in the past and it’s not worked.”
It is this attitude which has helped make her something of an international cheerleader for the British wool industry as she’s built her business supplying wool to designers and home knitters over the past nine years. It is also something of a surprise since she had no intention of farming when she reluctantly took on 125 hectares (310 acres) and a dilapidated farmhouse in 2004.
“We originally just wanted to buy the farmhouse and 20 acres, but the vendor had insisted it be sold as a farm,” says Emma, whose original intention was to dispose of the former dairy land as quickly as possible. But soon after she, her engineer husband Neil and their three young children moved in, the Wildlife Trust came knocking on the door.
"They asked if they could survey the ancient woodland, populated by woodlarks. The farm was run-down and tired, but getting livestock back into the fields felt the right thing to do.” The child of a long line of seamstresses, spinners, weavers, and knitters, she had grown up on a one-hectare (2.47-acre) smallholding in Pembrokeshire, surrounded by sheep.
“Ecologically, sheep were a necessity for the biodiversity of the farm,” says Emma. Ignoring the advice of a local shepherd, their first mistake was investing in 15 Southdown ewes. A compulsive knitter, Emma intended them to be spun for her own use, not understanding the different characteristics between native wools. “I expected it to come back nice and soft, but it was the texture of an exfoliator.”
After just two lambings, the Southdowns were finished for meat and Emma went in search of a breed which would give her a softer yarn. She found them in a pen at the Malvern Sheep Show. Little, grey Swedish Gotland sheep which eventually gave the company its name. Having researched the best breeders, she bought seven in-lamb ewes.
“I had no idea they were going to be the foundation of a business. I just knew I was going to get the wool I wanted and it was going to be a lot better than the Southdown,” says Emma. The first year her tiny flock yielded 20kg of lustrous skeins. Too much for her to knit, she put her professional background in marketing to good use and set up a display at one of the craft textile shows emerging on the back of a knitting revival.
As the public went mad for her local, undyed yarn, she was overwhelmed in the rush for fashionable fibre with real British provenance. “I could never understand people when they said they ‘fell into’ a business. But then I did it myself as I realised what was happening. “I was so naive at the time. I assumed every farmer would be doing the same as me and more people were farming for fibre.” Susie Parish, the shepherd whose advice Emma had disregarded, was taken on as operations director and together they embarked on a sixyear breed improvement scheme.
“We had a really long, dry summer and Susie knew a chap who had Shetland sheep but no forage, so we decided to take them on. As he didn’t have a ram, we put a Gotland on to the ewes. “The next year we got a soft lustrous wool, but I wanted to improve it further, so we bought two superfine Merino rams from France and it was their progeny which gave us the Stein Fine,” she explains.
They chose to have the Stein Fine worsted spun, a technique well suited to the breed’s long stapled fleece, producing a superior, strong yarn which holds its shape while remaining soft. Now running a flock of pure Stein Fine and a flock of pure Gotland ewes, three lines of Merino rams and six lines of Gotland sires, the farm produces 800kg of wool a year, all of which is hand-sorted and hand-dyed on-farm.
“Rams go in during September/ October and we shear over Christmas and New Year when the Gotland wool is at its prime because it’s doing its utmost to keep the animal warm. Leave them any longer and they tend to felt.” Ewes are fed a grass-only diet until they come in for winter shearing when they have ad lib hay/ haylage with plenty of barley straw.
In-lamb ewes receive 500g of ewe nuts per day, starting six weeks before lambing. They also have access to rock salt all year. “In terms of grassland management, our number one priority is to control thistle and docks as they contaminate the fleece,” says Susie. For the same reason, they do not use overhead racks for hay or throw straw into the pens when bedding up. Close attention is also paid to dagging and there is minimal use of spray markers.
“Farming for fibre rather than meat means you have to change your systems if you want the best.” As flock manager and shearer, Susie is able to ensure the sheep are presented to maximise the quality and value of the wool.
Susie says: “Ideally, the sheep should be in good body condition for shearing to aid the shearer. “You want to shear on empty stomachs, so the shearer’s board stays clean and dry. We also make sure there’s a dry, clean area to hold sheep and we aim to take the fleece off with minimal second cuts. “After shearing, you need a clean area for skirting and rolling the fleece properly.”
While Susie built up the flock, Emma travelled the country finding a supply chain of scourers, spinners, weavers and tanners, simultaneously championing the traditional skills which were fast draining abroad.
Fleeces go to one of the country’s two remaining scourers in West Yorkshire, before being spun at a woollen mill in Devon or made into yarn in Huddersfield. Whole-treated fleeces help keep the last specialist tanners employed and everything is returned to the farm for dispatch.
Emma also began studying the catwalks and following designers to get ahead of the following season’s colour trends. She experimented with chemical wool dyes to produce bespoke batches, making the wool as sought after for its colour as its intrinsic quality, a move which made it the first UK farm to sell yarn which is both home-grown and home-dyed.
This year Emma will promote her wool in Vienna, Denmark and at the Edinburgh International Yarn Festival. And while events stimulate interest from leading designers, her online business is also growing thanks to a move onto the Shopify e-commerce platform last year. The growing international and domestic success has brought Emma’s accidental business to a critical point.
She says: “I was learning so much in the first five or six years I couldn’t have said the business was going anywhere because there was no roadmap. We were making all the mistakes and then fixing them as well every time. “It’s only in the past couple of years I’ve had a vision for where to take it, but this is a whole discipline change, moving from a start-up towards a more commercial product,” she says.
Besides its pure Stein Fine and Gotland wool, the company also sells Hampshire yarn, made from its shorter staples not suited for the finer spun threads and combined with wool collected from elsewhere in the county.
“Susie still shears for small local farmers and she was bringing back a mixed bag of good quality fleeces, which we started to blend with our own,” says Emma. But they have rejected as many as they have bought due to poor quality.
It is a problem which is all too familiar to the British Wool Marketing Board, for whom Susie is a local vice-chairman. Despite poorly presented clip being heavily discounted, just 23 per cent of fleeces made the top grade last season.
With more top designers now seeking out her wool, Emma is excited by the demand for new yarns but knows the business cannot stand still. “The more we create an interesting industry in this country, the more we will get the Americans and Europeans looking to us for product and inspiration. And the great thing is there are lots of niches in wool – everyone can have their space.”