With the recent rise of interest in place- and breed-specific yarns, Wensleydale long wool is enjoying some much-deserved attention. But I notice that while knitters are buying Wensleydale, once they have it in hand many don’t quite know what to do with it. And so I thought it might be useful to share my experience.
One of my cold weather staples is a gray Wensleydale sweater, which I knitted a year ago, then wore all through last winter and have just pulled out again now that the weather’s turned cold. This sweater never fails to fascinate fellow knitters, because it looks and feels so unusual no one can work out what yarn it is made of. Guesses from looking tend to include mohair, angora, cashmere, and alpaca. Guesses after touching will usually lean in the direction of “some kind of mohair blend?’
The revelation that the sweater is in fact 100% Wensleydale is unfailingly met with surprise. ‘But isn’t Wensleydale a longwool, kind of like BFL? This looks and feels nothing like BFL!’
Indeed not. And so, if you buy Wensleydale thinking you know what to expect since you have already worked with Blue Faced Leicester, you will be in for a big surprise.
A thoroughly British wool, Wensleydale is spun from the long and curly fleeces of Wensleydale sheep, which originated in Yorkshire. My experience with this yarn so far extends to three different sources: The West Yorkshire Spinners, the Wensleydale Longwool Company, and Laxtons (which mainly supplies undyed blanks to indie dyers). With that in mind, here are my impressions:
. Wensleydale is a very shiny yarn. And while longwool breeds are generally known for their lustre, to my eye the lustre of Wensleydale far exceeds that of, say, BFL, and Border Leicester yarns. In the finished garment it almost looks as if the fabric has a high silk content.
. Wensleydale has a distinct halo, to the extent that some might consider it ‘hairy.’ The combination of the halo and the lustre, is probably why so many tend to mistake my sweater for a mohair-silk blend.
. Perhaps as a result of the halo, Wensleydale does pill. Not nearly as badly as cashmere or merino, but maybe on par with mohair and certainly far more so than BFL. The pills, however, are easy to remove and the fabric does not seem to suffer afterward.
. For most people, I daresay Wensleydale would not be a next-to-skin yarn. To the touch, it can feel simultaneously soft and prickly. If you can imagine blending Icelandic Lopi with cashmere, the effect is not dissimilar.
. Wensleydale has exceptional drape - more in line, I would say, with what you might expect from Alpaca than sheep’s wool. And so when deciding what sorts of things to knit out of it, keep that in mind. Wensleydale fabric is rather amorphous, and does not keep its shape in the same way as the much-crisper BFL. This makes it an excellent choice for flowy oversized sweaters, but not so much for structured fitted ones.
. As a result of its drape and halo, meeting gauge with Wensleydale can be tricky. When worked at the gauge appropriate for its meterage, the fabric can seem a bit gauzy (and it does not bloom/ fill in after blocking). However, tightening up the gauge will result in a very heavy fabric, which will neither look nor feel right. After experimenting with this for a bit, my feeling is that you do need to go with the gauge appropriate for the yarn weight, and accept the slightly open look to the fabric as part of its inherent characteristics.
. Finally, Wensleydale is an exceptionally warm yarn. Warmer than other longwools I have tried, and more on par once again, with the likes of mohair and alpaca. If you life in a cold or damp climate, this is quite handy for winter as it means you can knit a garment that is fine enough to fit under tailored overcoats and light enough to pack away easily, yet still plenty warm.
In summary… My impression of Wensleydale wool, is that it is best suited for ethereal, floaty winter garments, to be worn over baselayers.
The combination of its warmth and its lustre makes this yarn particularly wonderful for achieving that elusive balance of cozy and elegant that one might appreciate in a winter garment.
For a rare breed wool spun in England, it is also quite a reasonably priced yarn, with commercially-dyed options (from the manufacturers linked to earlier) priced at under €10 per 100g.
If you are interested in Wensleydale yarn but uncertain whether you will like it, I suggest purchasing a small quantity, keeping an open mind (rather than expecting it to be a BFL substitute), and swatching/experimenting until you get a handle on its unique properties.
The sweater shown here was made out of the West Yorkshire Spinners ‘Gems’ Wensleydale DK, in the Moonstone colourway, purchased at Row by Roe in Co. Derry, Northern Ireland. The design is my own improvised seamless drop shoulder concoction, with lace edgings.
Have you knitted with Wensleydale yet? Please do share your experience!