Knitting is a lifelong obsession of mine. As a child, I would rather stay with my grandmother and help tidy her sewing room than go shopping with my Mum and sisters. Nana was a tailor for the big British textile designer Aquascutum, which sounded like my dream job! I begged Nana to teach me how to make these amazing creations and eventually got my way. After just a couple of sewing and knitting lessons, my fascination with wool truly began!
Growing up on a farm meant that a career in farming seemed the natural choice. I went to Shuttleworth Agricultural College in England, where I met my partner Duncan. Together, we took over his family’s beautiful farm in Buckinghamshire and kept beef cows and a flock of cross-bred sheep. Both huge animal lovers, animal welfare has always been a massive priority for Duncan and me – not just for the cows and sheep but also in preserving the natural wildlife on the farm, including the birds, insects and even the trees!
Still, my love of wool never left me. In my twenties I bought a spinning wheel and proudly joined the Oxford Guild of Spinners – safe to say I was the youngest by a good decade or two! I learned so much from the wonderfully talented guild members, and as I got braver, I started to use the wool from my own sheep during guild sessions. People started to notice the quality of my wool and even put in orders. I began to ask myself if our gorgeous wool could be a money-earner for us.
It is well-known that small farms are hard to make a living from. Our son Charlie was born in 1996, and to help with his school fees I used the sewing skills taught by Nana to start a small curtain business, Seamsfine, from my dining table. Twenty-six years later, Seamsfine now employs local people and has graduated from my table to a renovated cowshed on the farm! Though I am very proud of the business, there was still something missing for me: I still wasn’t working with my wool!
In 2018, Duncan took me away for a weekend by the sea for my birthday. Charlie had left home by this point to become a veterinarian, and we were finding a work-life balance hard to achieve. With farming in our blood, we found it impossible to stay away and arranged to see two pedigree Wensleydale sheep flocks while we were there. It was love at first sight for me. I was entranced by the luscious curly locks attached to these uniquely funny, friendly personalities. We came home with ten stunning Wensleydale ewes: the founding members of Chilton Wensleydales.
Within a year, more ewes and a ram soon joined the flock so we could breed from our beloved curly girls. Wool prices to farmers around this time hit rock bottom due to an all-time low on worldwide demand for wool. Despite the retail expense on a pure wool jumper, farmers rarely see more than a fraction of this price for the wool their sheep have produced. Duncan and I were determined to rise to the challenge to make keeping a wool-producing breed of sheep pay.
Wensleydales are a rare English breed with known high-quality wool, and so we quickly sold a few of our fleeces among friends and members at the Oxford Guild of Spinners. However, I knew that the real money maker would be if we could sell our wool in smaller quantities to fellow wool hobbyists. In 2020, we took the plunge and opened an Etsy sales shop for our Wensleydale curls. We started small, selling just our white locks that are naturally rain-washed. We were astounded by both the demand for our locks and positive feedback from our customers. We quickly got braver with the online shop, introducing our extremely rare black and silver Wensleydale curls and even giving hand dying a go! We now send our wool to over 30 countries worldwide. Wensleydales are truly taking over the globe!
After three years of careful breeding and expansion, 2022 has been a breakthrough year for the Chilton Wensleydales. Years of encouragement from friends to take our girls to county shows saw me finally dip a toe in the world of sheep showing, and I entered Wendy, one of our sparkiest white Wensleydales, in the South Suffolk show. To our amazement, Wendy became Supreme inter-breed Champion at South Suffolk and has collected a pile of trophies and prizes across the country this summer! Of course, the price of fame has caused Wendy to develop a bit of a celebrity complex and she now demands more attention and cuddles than the other girls, but we are very proud of our superstar!
Alongside Wendy’s rise to fame, I also fulfilled my lifelong dream of producing a range of yarns from our sheep. I took my time selecting a mill to make sure I found a processor that reflected my values of backing small, independent British farms that champion the magical natural properties of wool. I met my match with The Border Mill on the Scottish Borders, who have helped me to create a range of stunning natural shades and hand-dyed yarns from my very own curly girls. As well as our internet sales, I have just started selling my yarns at local farm shops and fairs, and it has been a dream come true to see people show interest and admire the quality of the wool I have put my time, love and care into for the past three decades. Of course, interest tends to soar when superstar Wendy accompanies me!
In September, I was truly humbled to see a beautiful hand-knitted scarf made with Chilton Wensleydale wool win reserve supreme champion craft at the prestigious Melton Mowbray Craft Show. Wool has been my life since I was a little girl sorting bobbins in Nana’s workshop, and I can’t help but pinch myself when I think what that little girl would say if you told her that one day her very own wool would have such a title.
Diana Bird raises her Wensleydale sheep on Chilton Grounds Farm in Buckinghamshire, England.