Em Fountain knew she had cracked one of her most challenging commissions when a neighbouring sheep farmer delivered his verdict on the remarkable life-size Swaledale ram she had crafted from needle felted wool and fleece. Not one to mince his words, he declared: “Looks like one. Feet are a bit big”, which was high praise indeed from someone who knows what he’s talking about.
“I was really pleased because he breeds sheep and he would have told me in no uncertain terms if I hadn’t got it right,” says Em, who has created what is thought to be a world first after agreeing to an unusual request by guest house owner Fiona Gardham Fiona and her husband, Tim, have just completed a major makeover of their newly-bought B&B The House at Hawes and their main priority when planning the interiors was to make people smile while celebrating the property’s Yorkshire heritage.
“I decided that the statement piece should be a life-size Swaledale ram because that’s what this area of the Dales is famous for. The problem was finding someone to make one for me. I almost gave up on the idea but then Em said she would do it.
"She had never made anything as big as this before so it was a learning curve but she has exceeded all my expectations. He is absolutely amazing and looks so life-like you can’t tell him from the real thing,” said Fiona, who has commissioned other artists and makers to create Yorkshire-inspired items for themed rooms in the guest house. They include a chandelier made from a milking cluster by Sheffield-based Frankie Farrar, who trades as Stirring Silver.
She also made a “James Herriot light”, with a base formed by four of the author’s best-selling books and crafted bedside lights from brass cornets. The latter were to honour the Muker silver band and the Reeth brass band, while old sheet music has been used to paper above the picture rail in the guest bedroom. The Gardhams also framed Yorkshire maps and transformed a vintage milk churn they found in the garden into a table.
The ram is the piece de resistance and will have pride of place in the hall where it will greet guests, who will inevitably ask how he was made. The answer is that Em started by observing sheep in a field near her rural Nidderdale home and taking photographs of Swaledales.
How she constructed the skeleton or armature is her trade secret but she does divulge that the coat, head, legs and nether regions are made from a combination of two Swaledale tup fleeces sourced locally and needle felted wool. The latter is made from sheep wool, which is worked and stabbed with a barbed needle to slowly turn it into felt. The startlingly realistic eyes are also felted.
The next questions are likely to be “how much did he cost?” and “where can I get one from?” The answer is that this is a rare investment piece and Fiona got it at less than half the price as it was a prototype for what could well turn into a full felted herd.
“People who make large, life-size felted pieces are few and far between. The ram took weeks to make and is worth £4,500. It has already created interest from the owner of an American distillery who has commissioned me several times before,” says Em who trades as Stab the Fluff from her home at Carlesmoor, where she runs felting courses.
Fiona Gardham adds: “I think B&B guests want something they don’t get at home and they certainly won’t have a ram like this. We love him, especially as he has such a kind face. The only issue is what to call him. If Yorkshire Post readers have any suggestions, they would be very welcome.” Email [email protected]
The Swaledale sheep story
Swaledale sheep originated from the genetic group of horned sheep that also gave us the Blackface and the Rough Fell. Just after the First World War, a group of farmers living within a seven mile radius of Tan Hill Inn near Keld held their first meeting to form the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association.
The Swaledale is known for being a bold, hardy sheep able to endure the hardships and harsh weather on exposed, high lying land. According to the Swaledale Breeders Association: “The ewes proved to be most excellent lamb rearers, with ideal mothering abilities in all conditions. The Swaledale can now be found in both the hills and lowlands of Britain, producing both pure breed and the well known North of England Mule, which is a Blue Faced Leicester cross.”