Geek Notes: Bluefaced Leicester

This sheep breed has to come top in two categories; most popular British fleece and most ridiculous looking sheep. I once joked to a young friend of my son’s as we passed a field of BFL sheep that it was a terrible thing the modern trend for genetic engineering, just fancy they have crossed a sheep with a rabbit. One sheep was gazing soulfully at the sky at the time. As we returned later, he agreed that it was a strange thing indeed.

The Bluefaced Leicester was bred into being in the 19th century in Tyne and Wear Valleys and the hills of east Cumbria from the Leicester Longwools when it was also known as the Hexham Leicester. It was “designed” to be crossed with hardy hill breeds to give a longer larger carcass (sorry but most sheep have been bred for meat since the 1750s). When bred with a Swaledale, Blackface, Welsh Mountain or Cheviot ewe the resulting cross is known as a Mule. The blue tinge to the face is due to a fine covering of white fleece over black skin.  Robert Bakewell created the Dishley Leicester in the eighteenth century to provide a good carcass for the working man. The modern descendants of his rams have been and are still used as a first sire for sheep destined for the table. He was happy to breed for conformation at the sacrifice of fleece quality, a fact I find most amusing as now the Blue Faced Leicester is renowned for its beautiful fleece. A common saying among farmers though when expressing an interest in buying a BFL ram is that they will throw in the shovel for free, as it is well-known that BFL rams even more than other sheep (and that's saying something) are just looking for another way to die!   

A fleece will weigh about 1-2 kilo which isn’t really very much and will be tightly purled. It doesn’t hold together and instead looks like a pile of tightly wound springs. The staple is between 8-15 cm with a micron of 24-26.5 and spinning counts 60s-56s.

The BFL fleece is probably one of the most predictable fleeces in relation to grade, staple length and weight of fleece. It fetches a high price from the British Wool Marketing Board and is often spun with other fleeces to impart softness, drape and lustre. It is a silky, lustrous longwool with no kemp or hair. Although it is soft, it is also hard wearing and takes dye well. It is soft enough to wear next to the skin. Great for all garments.

If you get hold of a raw fleece it will feel almost wet because of the high lanolin content. The locks are springy, slippery and to be honest a bit of a nightmare to prepare. Combing is probably the best way to prepare it for spinning. As you may know by now, I think life is too short to be messing with raw fleece when you can do it the easy way and buy the clean, easy to play with tops. Loosen the fibres before spinning commercial tops and may be put a bit extra twist in to hold the silky fibres in place. As you will have combed it or bought the tops the fibres will be aligned. This is best as to keep the lustre, BFL is best worsted spun. Great fun and mixes well with other fibres. The king of British fleeces!

Good for felting.