Fernhill Farm is a eutopia, a wooly wonderland on the mendips, an eco farm made up of 3000 sheep, mainly shetlands. We first heard of this farm when we began our research on Native fibres. We admired their variety of products - from the range of native wool and fleeces along with the variety of workshops and events that were happening on the farm. Jen and Andy have a vision to get the UK market to value wool again and to see it not as a meat by-product but an incredibly versatile fibre that we have abundance of. Jen has travelled around the world learning about how other countries process and market their wool from Patagonia, New Zealand to Iceland. Andy and Jen's passion for wool innovation alongside traditional craft, animal welfare, education and wool is evident the minute you step on the farm.
I (Phoebe) had the pleasure of attending a blade shearing day and spinning day which had been on my wish-list for years. It was run by Emma (who represents Fibre Shed South west). Emma is also part of the Bristol Cloth project working with Fernhill to create cloth that has been grown, designed and woven in and around Bristol and then dyed naturally by Babs Behan. Also running the day was Jessica Mason, a wonderful spinner who is exploring and teaching people the art of working with your hands and heart. The day involved a chat between a group of farmers who had been attending the shearing competition the day before, It was fascinating as the same conversations we have had with Indian farmers we were having with the mainly welsh farmers. The farmers need to know that there is a market for their wool, that people are willing to pay more and that it is worth them investing in grading the wool and looking after it. The issue is that this is all an upfront cost - employing people to grade / tables / time to market their products.
Jen has proven that it is all possible, and the farm has made a name for itself for its quality wool and its attention to detail so they are very popular among hand spinners.
Not everyone has the breeds that produce fine wool - but the beauty of wool is that all the different grades have a use. The farm use the wool with dags on for mulching around the vegetables. Wool that isn't good enough for hand spinners can go to commercial spinners and then the loose shorter micron wool can be used for felting. Also very low grace fleece can be used for insulation. The possibilities are endless...
After an inspiring day with some fabulous textile enthusiasts, and having previously done a few nights night lambing for a friend I embarked on a job as part time shepherdess in training on the farm and what an experience it has been so far.
Now lambing has finished I have been learning more about wool grading and hope to have more of a go at blade shearing soon. The benefits of blade shearing is that it is less stressful for the sheep and also you don't get such a close shave but this means that the sheep can be shorn pre lambing as a lot of the wool can be damaged once the sheep are producing milk, the fact that you can regulate the length means that the sheep can stay warm in our temperamental seasons, also the machine shears can strip the lanolin from the fleece due to the heat they can give off.
One of the highlights so far was the visit of Kapil and Medha. Isobel and I were showing Kapil and Medha around fibre projects in the Bristol area. They are friends we met in India on our last research trip. Kapil set up a self auditing organic farmers co-operative in India called the Jatan Trust and is one of the pioneers in India of the organic movement post the green revolution. His daughter Medha works with some of the organic farmers who are part of the Jatan trust to produce her Khadi clothes she retails (weaverbird) and we had the pleasure of visiting some of them along with her whole supply chain earlier this year. It was wonderful to show them the farm and Danni (one of the shepherds) and Allan (a shepherd over from New Zealand who had just competed at the Bath and West) did a blade shearing demonstration and in return Kapil did a cotton spinning demonstration. Jen was able to show lots of their hand woven fabrics and products which are in the sampling stages. It was so exciting for everyone to share their enthusiasm and knowledge and made the world feel so much smaller and like we are all working towards similar goals. It was also lovely as Angela Pearson was there, an inspiring lady who is an avid spinner who took up shearing to help her brother and is now on her 200th sheep. You will not see her without some kind of spinning or braiding device in her hand.
If you have any questions about this very special place or would like to stay there / attend or run a workshop then do get in contact with Fernhill https://fernhillfibre.co.uk/