The Norfolk activist saving sheep fleeces from the bonfire

Some of the beautiful yarns created by Jenn Monahan

Some of the beautiful yarns created by Jenn Monahan - Credit: Jenn Monahan

Kate Blincoe discovers a Norfolk brand of quiet activism from a 'wool obsessive' determined to save unwanted sheep fleeces from the bin or the bonfire.

“Did you know,” asks Jenn Monahan of fibreworkshop in Elsing, Norfolk, “that most British wool is burnt or disposed of?” It’s true. Despite the wonderful properties of sheep’s wool, it has lost all value. Fleeces must still be removed from sheep for welfare purposes, but the cost of transport often makes it more cost-effective to destroy them.  

In a fast-fashion world of petroleum-based polyester and nylon, this beautiful natural fibre is no longer wanted. The pandemic added to the challenges, with remaining demand for wool products vanishing. For example, there was no need to frequently replace expensive wool carpets on cruise liners and in hotels. Even if you’re reading this wearing a knitted wool jumper, from a UK brand, chances are, the wool is imported.  

It is against this backdrop that Jenn, self-confessed wool obsessive, works. She has a simple aim; to bring value to this waste product and to do it sustainably. By producing yarn and other products from wool, she is supporting small scale farmers and restoring interest in an underappreciated material. 

Jenn in her fibreworks studio

Jenn in her fibreworks studio - Credit: Jenn Monahan

It’s a blustery, mild day when I arrive at Jenn’s tiny rural workshop. Jenn shows me the garden, where she grows plants for dyeing the yarn. Nothing is wasted; fleece not suitable for yarn is used as a mulch covering the soil, to reduce weeds, retain moisture and providing nutrients. The smell of lanolin fills the air.  

The workshop is peaceful, containing an array of tonally perfect, naturally dyed yarn. The colours are so desirable I start imagining the blend for my ideal jumper. Fortunately, Jenn welcomes people. She wants to share her knowledge and to help others learn about the whole process. 

Jenn’s background as a scientist, previously working in climate science at the University of East Anglia, means she has the knowledge and desire to work in an ecologically sound way. "My aim,” she explains over a cup of tea in her cottage, which is heated only by wood, “is to produce a traceable, sustainable yarn with zero waste, as well as bringing positive regenerative impacts to this struggling industry.” 

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These are bold claims for such a humble approach, so let’s follow the thread right back to the start of the story.  

The sheep  

Rare breed fleeces are often considered to be less valuable than those from mainstream breeds. Yet Jenn chose to focus on our county’s rare, indigenous sheep breed, the Norfolk Horn. Often flocks are very small, so Jenn works with several local farmers. She selects only those with the highest welfare flocks: those leading very natural, grazing lives with low ecological impact. Jenn explains, “For people, our diet and lifestyle show in our hair and it’s the same for sheep. You can tell a fleece that has come from a healthy sheep because of the quality of the fibres and the feel of the wool. It means happy sheep are vital.”  

Norfolk Horn sheep in the field

Norfolk Horn sheep in the field - Credit: Jenn Monahan

The sheep farmers 

Small-scale farmer Kirstie Perfitt farms in Bramerton, Norfolk with husband Graham and supplies Jenn with fleeces. “We have a flock of 70 sheep,” she tells me. “I fell in love with the breed – they are such characters and surprisingly elegant, like deer. I always think other sheep are boring compared to the Norfolk Horn, which are a bad-mannered, characterful bunch.” 

The flock leads a grass-fed, low stress life and need shearing each year. “Before,” says Kirstie, “we just didn’t know what to do with the fleeces and ended up storing them in the barn. It wasn’t commercial to sell them, but I hated the waste. We were so happy to meet Jenn and be part of her mission.” 

The Perfitts also have a market garden, supplying veggie boxes to local people, and their salad 'Bramerton Leaf' goes into local farm shops and pubs. Plans for a flock of hens brings the promise of eggs and a symbiotic partnership between the sheep and chickens, working for better soil and animal health. As Kirstie explains, “We're massively excited about growing food and wool for local people, while stewarding the land with care and for nature’s benefit. I think that way everyone wins; nature, soil, community and farmers!”  

Jenn Monahan

Some of Jenn Monahan's yarns - Credit: Jenn Monahan

The fair price  

Small producers, with limited resources, can find themselves unable to participate in the UK’s British Wool co-operative market system. As an alternative, Jenn pays well above the British Wool market value for each fleece and ensures that local craftspeople earn more than the living wage.  

Dyeing the yarn - Jenn uses natural dyes to colour the wool

Dyeing the yarn - Jenn uses natural dyes to colour the wool - Credit: Jenn Monahan

The process 

Traditional plants are grown to dye the yarn – from woad for the indigo colour, to chamomile for yellow and madder for reds and pinks. Jenn’s dye garden provides most of what she needs and ensures all dyes are natural and entirely plant-based. There is no waste in the process of dying – leftovers can be composted and remain in the circular system. Jenn believes there is no such thing as waste, only a lack of imagination. The overall carbon footprint is low, with 100% renewable energy used.  

Jenn Monahan, a 'wool obsessive' dedicated to making the best use of unwanted sheep fleeces

Jenn Monahan, a 'wool obsessive' dedicated to making the best use of unwanted sheep fleeces - Credit: Jenn Monahan

The quiet activism 

There’s a quiet magic to Jenn’s brand of gentle activism. At events and in workshops, people are attracted to the beautiful, colourful yarns, but then are drawn into conversations about climate change, the small farming crisis, sustainability waste and microplastics. “In fact, I feel like I’ve done more to change people’s minds than when I used to work as a scientist in climate change. Sometimes a soft approach is best.” 

All natural - Jenn uses woad to dye the wool blue

All natural - Jenn uses woad to dye the wool blue - Credit: Jenn Monahan

There is no denying that this happens on a small-scale that can seem like a mere drop in the ocean compared to the global problems we face. Yet this example of one person making a difference, living thoughtfully in keeping with sustainable values and actually doing something about a problem, whilst sharing the ethos, is inspirational, whatever the scale. After all, no natural resource should be wasted. 

Jenn has many workshops available this year, including a range of options to learn about natural plant dyes, such as indigo from woad, and dyeing with madder, where you’ll work with one dye pot to produce a range of colours and hues. There are a variety of dates, find out more at fibreworkshop.co.uk and follow Jenn on Instagram @fibreworkshop. 

All about the Norfolk Horn  

The Norfolk Horn is a hardy breed with a distinctive black face and strong spiral horns that sweep backwards. It’s a rare breed with an amazing story that has deep roots in Norfolk’s history and culture and is thought to be one of the oldest breeds in Britain. 

The sheep arrived in Anglo-Saxon times and were popular because they were able to thrive on heathland and poor, sandy soil. From this low-grade land, they produced milk, wool, manure and meat, making them a keystone of the unique East Anglian agricultural system. The wool was exclusively used in the famous worsted yarns upon which Norwich’s lucrative worsted textile industry was founded. 

But as livestock breeding was modernised, the Norfolk Horn fell out of favour for more placid, faster growing sheep. By the1940s only 12 remained, and when the last ram died in 1971, it was only thanks to some careful breeding that the breed was saved from extinction. Today, there are more than 2,500 sheep, mainly in Norfolk. Whilst still rare, the Norfolk Horn is now off the critical list. 

Follow Kirstie, Graham and their sheep on Instagram @straightfromthefield. 

Kate Blincoe is an author and nature writer, with a passion for sustainability. On Twitter @Kateblincoe