As photographed by Mary, one of the main uses of Herdwick sheep wool is rug or carpet making. This was an industrious task as can be seen by the hands-on approach taken by the women creating the rugs in the images.
James Rebanks recalls how in the 1960s a neighbour’s flock of Herdwicks became stuck in a snowdrift for more than three months. For any other sheep breed, this would surely have meant the end, but a small bunch of Herdwicks actually managed to survive on moss, algae and their own wool! The reputation of Herdwicks for their hardiness is surely not exaggerated – as Mary wrote in her notes “it is extraordinary how long the Herdwicks can live under a deep drift”. But while their dense, thick wool is perfect to allow them to survive on the high fells all year round in tough conditions, it is less perfect as a resource for their farmers to use or sell.
The coarse texture of their wool, partially seen by the shaggy fleece piled up in the basket above makes them unsuitable for most clothing, and so their wool is mainly reserved for carpets, rugs and, nowadays, loft insulation. The limited use for Herdwick wool has been a concern for years – the question of ‘what to do with the wool?’ being a main worry for the Herdwicks Sheep-Breeders Association and farmers all around.
Rug-making was one of the uses of Herdwick wool and, as is shown in Mary’s photographs, was often a job left to the women of Cumbria. Another blurring of the line between leisure, socialising and work when it concerned the Lakes and sheep, Allan notes how in November women were left to card and spin the wool of the sheep before Christmas celebrations began. There is a notable absence of women in Mary’s other photography of farming and sheep, but it would be a mistake to think women were not involved in sheep farming, as is perfectly illustrated by Beatrix Potter being a respectable sheep farmer of her time and Mary’s involvement in the community. However, these photographs are also useful in highlighting how some women interacted with sheep – in producing and creating from the resources gathered from them – in comparison to the often masculinised activity of shepherding and sheep farming.