Deb­o­rah Grif­fin has dis­cov­ered a sen­si­tive and sus­tain­able way to turn the fleeces of her flock into lux­u­ri­ous sheep­skins

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by kendra wil­son pho­to­graphs by an­drew mont­gomery

Meet a shep­herd who cre­ates sheep-friendly fleece rugs

The writ­ten di­rec­tions from the lo­cal vil­lage to Deb­o­rah Grif­fin’s Peak Dis­trict farm are rather telling: “Fol­low the road up­hill, then some way into high coun­try­side un­til you reach a pub­lic house. Re­mem­ber where it is, as it’s the only ma­jor build­ing for some dis­tance.” As the car climbs up and up, the land be­comes lone­lier, the air colder. When the old pub looms into view, like the dubious den for ne’er-do-wells in Daphne du Mau­rier’s Ja­maica Inn, it is in­deed clear that this will be the last sign of civil­i­sa­tion for some time.

Af­ter trav­el­ling fur­ther into the rolling hills, even­tu­ally an un­marked track leads over a bridge to an el­e­gant old stone farm­house of warm-coloured brick. In­side, arm­chairs and win­dow seats are invit­ingly draped with thick fleeces. If you found your­self at this re­mote des­ti­na­tion with­out know­ing the story of Deb­o­rah’s busi­ness, The Liv­ing Rug Com­pany, you would prob­a­bly as­sume that these were ex­cep­tion­ally soft and fluffy sheep­skins – but you would be wrong. Re­mark­ably, each one is care­fully hand­crafted by Deb­o­rah her­self, us­ing a tech­nique that doesn’t cost the life of the sheep that pro­vide them.

The process that makes this pos­si­ble in­volves at­tach­ing the fleece to a felt back­ing rather than us­ing the tra­di­tional suede one. To fur­ther their unique sta­tus (there are no oth­ers like these cre­ated in the UK), the rugs are then la­belled with the name of the sheep that do­nated the wool – so you know ex­actly which an­i­mal you have to thank for cosy feet on cold win­ter nights. In re­turn for pro­vid­ing the prover­bial three bags full, Deb­o­rah takes metic­u­lous care of her now 65-strong flock. The sheep are fed twice a day with or­ganic feed and the best hay, are at­tended by a vet and, although the ma­jor­ity of their time is spent roam­ing in the clear Der­byshire air, weather-proof shel­ters are avail­able if they want them.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, this de­light­ful busi­ness model was born out of Deb­o­rah’s high re­gard for one of Bri­tain’s long­est-stand­ing do­mes­tic an­i­mals. Hav­ing raised a fam­ily in nearby Bux­ton, her hus­band Kevin’s com­pany was then bought out, and the cou­ple found them­selves in a po­si­tion to make new choices. Deb­o­rah was al­ready in­ter­ested in keep­ing the two horses she had in a way that suited their nature as flight an­i­mals, and wanted to lib­er­ate them from their sta­bles into a wilder set­ting. So when Kevin bought a sports car for him­self, he also

bought a 40-acre farm for Deb­o­rah. Of the next step, she re­calls, “I had al­ways fan­cied some sheep.”

As a re­sult, eight years ago, Deb­o­rah ac­quired four hardy Herd­wick sheep: Oliver, Billy, Ian and Babe.“i re­ally liked their char­ac­ters and in­stantly fell in love with them.” Next came four res­cue sheep, Blue-faced Le­ices­ter crosses, or ‘mules’, bred for slaugh­ter. She paid the same mar­ket price that any­one buy­ing them for meat would have done. More com­mon-or-gar­den sheep were added steadily un­til three years ago, when Kevin gave her a wed­ding an­niver­sary gift of – yes – more sheep. These were Valais Blac­knose, which re­sem­ble a friendly, four-legged Yeti, and are gen­er­ally seen on the Swiss Alps. Since then, more rare breeds, such as Got­land, Ice­landic and Shet­land – all of which have in­ter­est­ing wool – have joined the flock.

To be­gin with, Deb­o­rah gave the fleeces away, but as their vol­ume in­creased, she be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with other uses for them, such as mak­ing soap and can­dles. How­ever, she soon dis­cov­ered that ‘veg­e­tar­ian sheep­skin rugs’ are hugely pop­u­lar in Hol­land. In­spired and in­trigued, she went over to meet a maker on the is­land of Texel, near Am­s­ter­dam. Not be­liev­ing in her own abil­ity, she had planned to com­mis­sion rugs, but dis­cov­ered that this would leave her £400 out of pocket with each one. The in­ter­net came to her res­cue and she learned from an Amer­i­can on Youtube that, just maybe, she could do this for her­self.

Dur­ing shear­ing, on a good day a sheep’s fleece will come off in one piece. Although Deb­o­rah’s rugs now in­cor­po­rate these in their en­tirety – beau­ti­fully show­cas­ing the nat­u­ral mark­ings – while she was still learn­ing, she found it eas­ier to start with small sec­tions. A sheep’s hide is not al­ways the most prac­ti­cal shape, and smaller pieces are bet­ter suited as run­ners for benches or as foot­stools. “My hus­band has Bert on his foot­stool,” she says. “He’s been putting his feet on him for a cou­ple of years.” The mak­ing process takes place in one of the farm’s sturdy lime­stone out­build­ings. Here, Deb­o­rah com­bines a sheep’s fleece with carded wool (wool that is cleaned and pre­pared for felt­ing or spin­ning). A good fleece is precious, so carded wool is some­times bought in from a lo­cal mill. Deb­o­rah sources com­pat­i­ble ma­te­ri­als, so that a su­per-soft Got­land rug will be made of 100 per cent Got­land wool. She also sends out any of her own fleeces that are not con­sid­ered good enough for rugs to be carded them­selves.

The cre­ation of each rug re­quires care­ful at­ten­tion, as well as plenty of el­bow grease. “I take the washed fleece and lay it out, so I get the shape I want,” Deb­o­rah ex­plains. “Then I place three lay­ers of carded wool on top. I also put net­ting over to hold it all in place dur­ing the felt­ing process.” This is where soap and hot

BE­LOW LEFT The ‘liv­ing rugs’ beau­ti­fully show the nat­u­ral mark­ings and life­style of each an­i­mal BE­LOW RIGHT The re­mote farm is lo­cated 1,300 feet above sea level wa­ter, car­ried across from the farm­house kitchen, come in, plus a sys­tem of gen­tle-but-firm rub­bing. “You are cre­at­ing a skin,” she says. “The feel­ing is sur­pris­ingly ther­a­peu­tic.”

The next stage is phys­i­cally harder. The fleece, along with its back­ing, is wrapped around a tube, which in turn is wrapped in durable plas­tic. This is rolled, and rolled, and rolled. Like pas­try, it needs to be rolled from dif­fer­ent an­gles for an even fin­ish, and to pre­vent it from shrink­ing back. Un­like pas­try, this process takes a few hours. Rolls of fleeces are even dragged along the ground in the yard; a horse has been co-opted for this in the past, but Deb­o­rah has since dis­cov­ered that it’s eas­ier to do it her­self. Un­rolled, a wet fleece does not look promis­ing – but, once dry, soft and springy, it re­veals its beauty, its fi­bres stuck fast to a skin of felt.

Deb­o­rah has now be­gun to lead cour­ses in the alchemy of cre­at­ing felted rugs, while also of­fer­ing busi­ness ad­vice to oth­ers with am­bi­tions of set­ting up small ven­tures like hers. In­deed, her own con­tin­ues to go from strength to strength. Although she uses no for­mal ad­ver­tis­ing, re­ly­ing in­stead on her web­site, In­sta­gram and Face­book, this ap­proach al­lows po­ten­tial buy­ers to get to know each sheep by name (not to men­tion per­son­al­ity). It also of­fers a won­der­ful in­sight into her bu­colic life amid the Peak Dis­trict hills, and it clearly works be­cause, year on year, her rugs sell out. How­ever, she has no plans for large-scale ex­pan­sion: “What­ever money I earn from the sheep goes back to the sheep. I wanted to prove that I could do some­thing af­ter be­ing a house­wife for so many years. If I can just show peo­ple what won­der­ful and use­ful an­i­mals sheep can be, then I will have achieved what I set out to do.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit the­liv­in­grug­com­

is com­bined with the fleece; the long and ar­du­ous job of rolling the fleece will later re­veal glossy re­sults, backed with a layer of felt

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE Each rug is marked with the name of the sheep the fleece came from; com­pat­i­ble carded wool from the flock

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