Wool from neighbouring livestock hill farms at Roughlee in Pendle is being used to create a range of sustainable, ethical and stylish rugs which are shear class. Make sure you don’t simply follow the flock as you prepare your home for autumn.

When you’re looking for stylish finishing touches for your home, it’s important not to simply go with the flock.

And two women whose families farm in Pendle are using wool from their farms to create unique rugs that are proving popular with homeowners – and farmers. It’s also helping to preserve some breeds of sheep whose numbers are in decline.

Great British Life: Claire Milligan and Charlotte Duerden with some of their rugs. Photo: Kirsty ThompsonClaire Milligan and Charlotte Duerden with some of their rugs. Photo: Kirsty Thompson

Claire Milligan from Croft House Farm near Roughlee and Charlotte Duerden whose family also farm livestock at neighbouring Mountain Farm came together during lockdown to research living fleeces.

‘My mum saw something in a magazine about how people were ‘felting’ in Finland to make a living fleece which sparked my interest,’ says Claire. ‘But it wasn’t until lockdown that we found the time to do some proper research into the subject.’

Research included studying You Tube videos showing ancient Mongolian and Scandinavian techniques which Claire and Charlotte adapted to suit UK and rare breed sheep fleeces. After a bit of innovative and fun kitchen table experimentation, they realised the potential for a new product and converted a redundant stable into a workshop/studio. This is now where raw fleece is initially hand washed and picked over and any bits of vegetation and burrs are removed.

Great British Life: Claire and Charlotte want to help preserve sheep breeds that are in decline. Photo: Kirsty ThompsonClaire and Charlotte want to help preserve sheep breeds that are in decline. Photo: Kirsty Thompson

The fleece is then turned upside down and ‘roving’ – short lengths of wool of cotton wool consistency – applied to the back. The next stage involves layering, using hot water and soap to rub into the raw fleece by hand. It grips onto the original fleece and sets into it – you can see on the base where the two have melded together to form the underside of the rug. To end the day-long process, the fleeces are further washed and a little scented natural oil applied before sale (cedar is the latest one). No artificial chemicals are used.

In the UK market, today, wool is very much a by-product of the meat industry but it’s sustainable, beautiful, breathable, ethical and it absorbs heat in the summer and keeps you warm in the winter.

Charlotte says: ‘We thought the idea of creating a beautiful rug of the harvested fleece from a living animal rather than the skin and fleece from a dead sheep had to have real potential.’

Great British Life: One of the finished rugs. Photo: Kirsty ThompsonOne of the finished rugs. Photo: Kirsty Thompson

Research shows that quite a few sheep farmers – particularly small and rare breed ones – don’t have the storage space for wool, and spiraling transport costs mean fleeces are often burned. It costs a farmer about £1.50 to shear an animal and the Wool Board pays an average of 60p per kilo for a fleece – meaning farmers are losing money every time they shear.

Mountain Croft pays farmers in the region of £15 per fleece depending on the size and quality.

Good sheep breeds for living fleeces include Hebridean, Swiss Valais, Icelandics, Gotlands, Herdwick, Jacobs, Mashams and Wensleydale. The wool from shorter fleeced breeds like Suffolk and Texels isn’t suitable for the actual rugs, but can be spun out to create the right texture for the ‘roving’ used in this unusual, and time consuming, hand ‘wet felting’ of the product.

Fleeces are all sourced locally and via shearers who specialise in rare breeds and Mountain Croft delivers all its products in eco-friendly and recyclable packaging and research is ongoing to further to reduce environmental impact.

It takes a day (and a lot of muscle power) for Claire and Charlotte to produce a large living fleece and, as both still work their farms, it is quite a commitment. They only make about 100 rugs every year and because of the nature of the sheep, each fleece is completely original and one-off. These limited-edition pieces sell for between £50 and £300, depending on size and can be bought from their website via Etsy, direct from the farm and at a number of shows; this year they’ll be at Westmorland, Keswick, Trawden and Todmorden as well as Masham Sheep Fair.

Great British Life: Wool is often a by-product of the meat industry, but no sheep were harmed in the making of Mountain Croft products. Photo: Kirsty Thompson Wool is often a by-product of the meat industry, but no sheep were harmed in the making of Mountain Croft products. Photo: Kirsty Thompson

The pair are passionate about their products and are real ‘Wool Ambassadors’ – spreading the word through talks to local groups and explaining the benefits of buying British crafted products.

Charlotte says: ‘It’s great explaining to the public how they’re made and why they’re completely vegetarian and cruelty-free. It’s rather more of an education process than we realised, to be honest. A lot of people still don’t understand how farming actually works.’

For these two small Lancashire farms, the income from the new enterprise is welcome, though not life changing. Both areas are in Stewardship, and the extra income and resulting subtle changes in farming practice has helped improve the environment of the land. There have been tree and hedge planting, the creation of habitats for birds and new wildlife areas created.

The preservation and promotion of rare breed sheep are also at the top of the agenda, says Claire. ‘Breeding and farming rare breed sheep in today’s difficult environment is a labour of love for farmers as they aren’t often commercially viable. So we’re seeing some types of sheep in severe decline in numbers in the UK. Anything we can do to add value to their wool has to be good for the future survival of these important breeds.’

Mountain Croft’s range now includes seasonal craft and knitting kits, sheep-themed bags and beautiful fleece lock collars. Some of the wool is made into woven traditional ‘peg loom’ rugs and Charlotte and Claire are planning workshops later this year to showcase the practical and therapeutic practice of wool crafting.