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Artist taking part in Cambridge Open Studios breeds rare sheep to get special wool for her felting

When fine artist Annie Brown discovered that she loved to teach needle felting as an alternative to her painting workshops, she couldn’t get enough of the wool she wanted.

The techniques she used meant she wanted to try lots of different wool types from rare breeds of sheep, but some just weren’t available commercially.

Annie with her sheep (12064599)
Annie with her sheep (12064599)

So there was nothing for it - Annie set her heart on getting her own flock, even though she didn't have a field and it meant renting some land.

She says: “Initially I was using wool bought in then we had a really fantastic trip to Wool Fest in Cumbria and we filled the car full of fleeces so I could start to dye the wool myself.

But it was really hard to get hold of the rare wool like Wensleydale, which has quite a tight curl, and I wanted to use that in my work I use it for the detail of grasses and shrubs. my partner, Richard, is a stockman and he said ‘Why don't we get our own? Maybe we could get 10 or 20?’ and almost 3 years later we have 131 sheep. It has just spiralled.

Anemone picture made from wool felt (12064610)
Anemone picture made from wool felt (12064610)

“I discovered it is lovely to work with wool - I love dying it just the right colours. I also wanted to get things from the UK because there are some techniques used in one or two countries that are not best practice for the sheep. ”

Originally from the Kent coast, Annie gained a BA (Hons) in Fine Art from the Kent Institute of Art and Design in Canterbury. She then relocated to Cambridgeshire in the early 2000s where she trained as an Art and Design Teacher at secondary level.

After teaching for a few years, she decided it was time to turn her passion for art into a career as an artist, whilst continuing to teach others through workshops, including volunteering with charities such as Women’s Aid.

As she needed to try out a no-mess therapeutic activity she stumbled across an old Christmas present in her house - a needle felting kit - and her obsession took off from there.

Annie with her sheep (12064601)
Annie with her sheep (12064601)

“I was curious as to whether wool could be used to 'paint' with,” she says. “I started to experiment and tried to get the wool to do the things that I could do with paint. It took the best part of a year to learn how to blend the wool as if I was painting with oil. I was astounded by the beautiful results of my experiments, and as I perfected my wool blending technique my pieces began to look like paintings.”

Annie quickly started breeding the sheep, trying out some new cross breeds in order to get the exact texture of wool that she needed for her art.

“The Shetlands are very soft but also have quite a crimp in the wool and you get a nice textured effect from their fleece. If I sell the wool other people are looking for the same softness as well as the crimp.

I started to dye the wool and found I liked that best because I can dye it to the colours I like and I can choose from the coarseness or softness of the different sheep that we have.

Tree picture made from wool felt (12064603)
Tree picture made from wool felt (12064603)

“We have the Lincoln Long Wool that is coarse but quite shiny and has one of the heaviest fleeces in the world of any sheep and then the Wensleydale has a tighter curl. I sometimes look at the lambs and think I can't wait to see your fleece next year.”

She dyes the wool in huge pots on top of her cooker, adding in the powdered wool and silk dye. Sometimes I do one colour all the way through or add other colours within that to get a variation of each part of the wool. I sometimes I even do it in the microwave.”

“It has completely transformed my life and completely changed direction of where I was going with my painting and also with workshops because people love it so much and it is quite a relaxing and people get successful results.

“And keeping sheep has been wonderful. I get quite apprehensive at lambing time because you are always keen to be there at the right time just in case something goes wrong. We have been up in the middle of the night as a lot of them seem to lamb in the early hours. Close to lambing, we will go out several times a day and last thing at night and make a judgment about whether we think any of them may lamb. They give you signs like they are being fidgety or their tails are up or they pull away from the rest and you make a judgment about whether you don't go to bed.”

Anemone picture mde from wool felt (12064613)
Anemone picture mde from wool felt (12064613)

They don’t eat or sell any of the sheep and know all of them individually. Annie admits they have their favourites, including brown Shetland triplets born this year. She says that after feeding them with a bottle “they all come for a fuss” and “even some of the rams will keep nudging you if you don't fuss them.”

But it has all been worth it, not just for the art but for the new lifestyle. “I never thought my life would head in this direction I always liked the idea of living on a farm and i like the countryside and that is often the inspiration for my work but I never dreamt that I would be having sheep. I will always have them now even if as we get older we have to go for smaller ones. I can't imagine not having sheep and the grandchildren really love them.”

  • Annie is taking part in Cambridge Open Studios over four weekends in July. She will open her workshop to the public free of charge so visitors can see her methods, and maybe even a sheep or two. For more information, visit camopenstudios.co.uk.

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