Meet the former NHS worker who has transformed Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop into a thriving local business

Wensleydale sheep produce some of the finest prized wools and one lady in North Yorkshire is ensuring that the breed, that first came into existence at East Appleton in 1839, capitalises on its strengths.

The breed’s lustre and length of staple have long been recognised for their quality by those involved in the knitting, felting and crocheting world and there are many breeders who have now realised that the Wensleydale Longwool is just as important for its fleece as its breeding quality.

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Kath Hume lives in Reeth and said she took over the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop, now based in Leyburn, five years ago after having bought wool initially to make a baby’s shawl.

Kath has opened a new shop in Leyburn

“I came about it by accident. I had been involved as a practice manager for the NHS at Aldbrough St John and had been very happy there, but the temptation of running a business that combined my love of knitting and where I could see its potential told me that if I didn’t do it and take on the challenge, I would regret it.

“I started knitting when I was four years old when my great aunt taught me and have always been interested in crafts.

“Knitting has had a complete resurgence in the past decade and is hugely popular once again.

“There has always been a market for Wensleydale wool because it makes beautiful, very hard-wearing garments, plus it is great for crocheting and needle felting by such felt artists as Andrea Hunter who uses wet felting to make her works of art.”

Kath with local farmer Bruce Greenwood

Kath commissions the bulk of the wool she requires from British Wool based in Bradford.

“We buy most of what we need through the British Wool Board. I buy the wool washed, scoured and combed. That means I’m only buying what is usable. It is called Wensleydale Combed Tops which by the time I receive it back here in Leyburn has been spun, just outside of Bradford; dyed, in small batches so that we are in control of what colours we have, in Huddersfield; and then balled, in Ossett. It’s a very Yorkshire product.”

Kath also buys local fleeces that she purchases direct from farmers nearby like Bruce Greenwood. She goes through her own process at home in Reeth, assuring her customers of a product grown in Wensleydale and having stayed in the dale right up to going into the shop.

“We process a quantity of homegrown fleeces from nearby in the dale. We wash the bulk of them but there are some that we sell unwashed, to those who want to go through their own process.

Kath Hume sorts fleeces in a local farmer's barn

“We wash and then dry them, which we are grateful of a fine day or two to be able to clean the often clogged-up staple. We then wash and hand-dye the locks in a rainbow of colours.

“The difference between what I buy from British Wool and from local farmers is that whatever price I pay per kilo to the farmer I will lose 30 per cent of what I have paid by the time I have gone through the other processes, as they are costs I then have to bear myself.

“Overall, we now buy around 1.5 tonnes of Wensleydale wool per year, which is made largely into three varieties of wool – Aran weight, double knitting weight and a finer 4-ply.

“It equates to around 500 Wensleydale fleeces per year.”

The revitalisation of the knitting world and of people looking for sustainable produce and avoiding synthetic fabrics has backed up Kath’s decision to invest five years ago.

Kath said that it is not just knitting that is back in vogue but buying locally made produce. “I’ve discovered that people will go anywhere for wool, particularly the specific wool they are looking for. In the shop in Leyburn we get people coming in who say is it British? Is it Wensleydale? And if it is a garment, is it hand knitted?

“There now seems to be a conscience about buying a synthetic fleece jacket and people are actively looking to buy a wool jumper, which is really good to see.

“People want locally produced garments, wool or food and drink, and it doesn’t come much more local than our wool when it is shorn from a Wensleydale Longwool flock, reaches my home in Reeth and ends up here as either a jumper, a ball of wool or wet felting.”

Kath said her relationships with her Wensleydale Longwool sheep farmers is important to her.

“There is a strong sense of personal pride in the breed and the wool it provides.

“The Wensleydale Longwool is a beautiful sheep breed and there is a feeling of ownership when breeders come into the shop.

“We, my husband and I, brought the business into Leyburn five years ago as it had always been based on farms until then and doing so has brought about greater recognition that the breed and its wool deserves. Wensleydale wool is now in great demand.”

Kath said that the online activity has taken off during the various lockdowns and restrictions.

“The lockdowns we’ve had have affected our shop trade as we have had no foreign visitors for two summers, plus some people who may have come are still wary of where they are going, but our online sales have grown massively.

“The pandemic has been a real turning point.”

Kath’s success since taking on Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop, taking it from a farm to the centre of town in Leyburn; attending national knit and stitch shows; coming up with an online presence and her ongoing relationships with Wensleydale breeders has brought about an even greater trade than she had perhaps anticipated.

Kath said she is always on the lookout for more breeders to supply fleeces and she always has work for good knitters to keep up with the orders that come in by the day.

“Our biggest sale is in Wensleydale knitting wool in balls, but we receive orders for Wensleydale garments from all around the world and we need more knitters.”