If you’re anything like us, at one point or another you’ve found yourself lusting after an authentic sheepskin rug for your living room. But the initial lure of these rustic textiles is often accompanied by a tinge of guilt for the sheep who’s supplied it. If that scenario rings any bells, then you’ll love our next artisan interview. From her smallholding and studio on Dartmoor, Rosie Anderson crafts totally unique, cruelty-free ‘sheepskins’. These sensational felted ‘skins’ allow you to nab yourself a gorgeous new throw without feeling *sheepish* about its provenance…
I have a smallholding near St Giles on the Heath, where I make felted sheepskins along with my mum. These look just like real sheepskins but are made only from the shorn fleece, so no animals are harmed in the process. Sometimes people call them ‘vegetarian sheepskins’. I had always loved the look of sheepskins but hated the idea of what they actually are. I was visiting an aunt on the Isle of Arran in Scotland (she is an amazing felt maker) and she had a felted sheepskin that she had made. Several years later, when I finally had my own flock of sheep, I was wondering what I could do to add value to their wool and making felted sheepskins just made sense!
We love to use all different breeds and crossbreeds of sheep; the different textures and colours keep it really interesting. Fleece quality can vary hugely, even within the same breed, so we have to hand-pick all of the fleeces we use. We love to use Masham wool as it has the most amazing curls, and Dartmoors have wonderful texture, but equally we have made beautiful fleeces from the most unexpected cross breeds.
I have around forty sheep on our farm which I keep for wool. We have a really mixed little flock and our most recent edition is a Valais Blacknose ram called Freddy, who will hopefully add interesting quality to our wool. We really believe in farming in a wildlife friendly way, so we have to keep our sheep numbers low because we don’t graze all of our land all of the time. We worked with Devon Wildlife Trust to create species-rich wildflower meadows which are amazing. In the summer they are buzzing with all sorts of insects and butterflies, but the sheep aren’t allowed to graze on them during the growing season.
I’d heard of Rebecca Hosking’s Forever Flock because of her farming technique, which really works in harmony with nature. Over the last few years, we’ve worked a lot with Rebecca and her partner Dave – they know what we are looking for and manage their flock in a way that fits with our ethos, but also in a way that produces really good quality fleece and wool.
We were so lucky to be taught by my aunt. She came all the way to Devon and spent a week with us teaching us the basic techniques. From there, we have adapted and tweaked the method to find a process that works consistently. There’s been lots of trial and error to get to the point we are at now! Felted sheepskins and regular sheepskins are so different that it’s difficult to think of them as a similar product. Ultimately, it comes down to what’s important to you as an individual. Unlike the tanning process of regular sheepskins, our process does not involve any harsh chemicals, as we only use olive oil soap and saved rainwater; this also means what we do is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Another thing to keep in mind is that all real sheepskins are a by-product of the meat industry, and the wonderful thing about felted sheepskins is that the sheep are still happily living their lives!
Each felted sheepskin takes about a day in total to produce. It can very much depend on the fleece we are working with, as some require more time than others. The felting process is wet and messy, and after they’ve dried – which can take several days – the finishing process involves grooming and perfecting the fleece. We do offer a limited number of workshops to learn the techniques. They last a whole day and it’s quite physical work, as you’re on your feet all day, but the great thing about them is you get to take home your very own rug. A felted sheepskin is an investment for life, because felt is incredibly strong and long-lasting. They don’t really require much upkeep – I usually just give mine a shake to fluff them up and a soft brush from time to time.
I love my studio space. It sits at the top of one of our barns and has big windows that overlook the countryside. The studio is stuffed full of fleeces, all stored in paper bags, and I have a big table in the middle where I work. In the corner is an old Butler sink reclaimed from a friend’s garden, and there is always a dog asleep in the corner keeping me company. It also has no internet signal – so when I’m working I can’t be distracted!
I definitely have a favourite sheep! It’s hard not to because some sheep really do make a connection with you. I’d have to choose Ted; he is a Blue Texel ram and is just the friendliest, most chilled out guy you could imagine. He always wants attention and he always gets it. I just adore him. Rebecca from the Forever Flock also knows all of her sheep by name and is a great photographer, so not only does she provide fleeces but also beautiful portraits of their unique characters.
I’d say the best thing about living in Devon is being surrounded by nature and having space. I grew up here, so it feels like the right place to be. I feel lucky every day to live in this part of the world and be raising my kids here. You are never that far from an amazing beach or a beautiful moor. My favourite place in Devon is slap bang in the middle of my wildflower meadows when then are in full bloom, trying to catch crickets with my kids. Also anywhere on the South West Coast Path which is just out of this world.
To learn more about Felted Sheepskins and purchase their products, head to: feltedsheepskins.co.uk