It takes guts for an American to move to Australia and start a sheep farm—especially if she is a woman with no prior farming experience. And then she adopts unconventional techniques for sheep farming, techniques that, I might add, appear to be working.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of American “city-slicker” Nan Bray, a former Marine physicist turned wool grower. From her farm in Tasmania she raises some 1,600 Merino sheep using ecologically friendly techniques that include, among other things, no docking of tails to prevent flystrike. If you have a few minutes, you’ll enjoy this brief documentary about Nan and her work.
Today, she is spinning the 18-micron fleece from her flock into some extraordinary yarns under the White Gum Wool label. For those of you not in Australia, take note: She ships.
White Gum Wool comes in several weights of traditionally spun and plied yarn, all of which are smooth, strong, and superb. But I was intrigued by a somewhat unexpected textured offering being marketed as a bouclé. That is what I review here.
Traditional bouclé yarns tend to be made from lustrous, perky fibers such as mohair, or from synthetic fibers that have been manipulated to behave similarly to mohair. They all have prominent loops that produce a highly three-dimensional fabric while also inviting endless snags for needle tips.
Here the term bouclé refers to an unevenly plied yarn, with one thicker strand held snug against a much finer one to produce a zigzagging effect in the final yarn. Knit it up, and that zigzagging yarn formation renders a fuzzy fabric, like a stretchy chenille. Stockinette is blurry yet still your stitches are fundamentally clear.
This yarn construction does much of the work for you. It’s fun and easy to knit, working up super fast and much more easily than the loop-laden bouclé. What’s also remarkable is that you get the easy-knitting pleasure of a textured, dare I mutter the word “novelty” yarn, but with the pure decadence of a 100% natural yarn from superfine Merino.
For a yarn to be labeled “superfine Merino” it must have an average micron of 18, something only 5% of the world’s Merino clip can boast. This particular yarn, in fact, is a special run of Nan’s 15-micron lamb’s wool—which is to say it’s finer than cashmere. The other yarns are her standard 17 microns, still extraordinary.
You will need to pay closer attention to your tension than I did. Where the yarn had been loose in certain areas, row upon row, vertical lines opened up in my fabric. I hoped blocking would help even them out.
Blocking / Washing
My swatch puffed up in the bath like a chenille washcloth. While the label suggests cold water, I used warm. With a decent soaking time, the swatch released a light tint of red to the water, but it rinsed clear. The dried swatch showed no fundamental change in dye saturation, nor was there a change in stitch or row gauge. The vertical lines, alas, remained in place.
At an average of 15 microns, this yarn doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as the word “itch.” It is softness to the core, with the warmth and absorption and flexible friendliness of wool. Your only real concern here would be abrasion resistance, since those are some mighty fine fibers.
This yarn construction is gentler on the wool fibers, obviating the need to comb them into perfect submission. The plus side, it’s puffy and optimally soft. The minus? Less twist holds everything together.
Knit on a US 10 (6mm), the fabric was light and open, the kind of material through which you could easily poke your thumb. For a cowl, no problem. For anything requiring more structure, stability, and strength, I would swatch on smaller needles and see how you like the fabric. Take note. As with chenille yarns, this one has very little actual elasticity, so you’ll want to watch your tension, especially on the cast-on and bind-off rows.
Nan is working to create a wool production system (a fancy word for flock) that works with the ecosystem. This means studying the eating patterns of the sheep, the links between animal and plant behavior, and moving the flock among certain pastures accordingly. She is also running multigenerational flocks, rather than grouping the animals by age, and has some compelling stories about the value of preserving a family social structure among the sheep.
Also very much worth mentioning: She has determined that she can raise a healthy flock without mulesing or docking tails, two controversial but common techniques. Instead, she’s using other methods to prevent flystrike among her animals. For those who wish to use a wool that is as cruelty-free as it’s possible for wool to be, this is your yarn.
Hand wash in cold water, dry flat, medium iron, dry cleanable. [But I don’t recommend it.]