Oxford MailWool from Blenheim's rare sheep proves big business (From Oxford Mail)

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Wool from Blenheim's rare sheep proves big business

Oxford Mail: Alex Roper with the flock of rare breed Romney sheep Buy this photo Alex Roper with the flock of rare breed Romney sheep

EVEN staff at stately homes like Blenheim Palace are getting weaving with ideas to bring in extra revenue.

Since 2009, the Woodstock tourist attraction has been part of the Green Business Scheme, improving its environmental and business performance.

It means 120 Romney sheep grazing the park around the palace estate are now earning their keep.

Once known as Romney Marsh sheep, they are a long-wool breed, whose heavy fleece with a longer fibre length is ideal for spinning and weaving.

The estate breeds sheep principally for lamb, of varying types, numbering around 1,500.

Although the wool industry has recently been in decline, the palace is keen to promote locally-produced sustainable goods for their visitors.

Alex Roper runs the palace’s new East Courtyard Shop, which sells a range of ‘Below Stairs’ ranges reflecting the roles of domestic staff, from the kitchens to estate workers.

She has developed a range of wool products from the flock, and said: “Our shepherds presented me with a Romney fleece and then I had to find someone who could turn the fleece into yarn.”

Ms Roper soon discovered that palace guide Anthea MacDonald was the then chairman of the Oxford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

Ms MacDonald put Ms Roper in touch with guild member Suzanne Tucker, who lives in Ramsden, who managed to not only wash a whole fleece but to spin the fibres into yarn, all by hand.

And further research into Witney’s blanket history uncovered an old fabric called horse collar check.

In July, the Blenheim Romneys were shorn, producing just enough wool to be commercially viable.

The fleeces were sent to Yorkshire for scouring, as the county is one of the few which still has the equipment and skills necessary.

Once spun, the wool was delivered to the Scottish isle of Mull for weaving.

The product range for the palace shop is still to be finalised, but ideas include wool skeins for knitting, kits for clothing such as the bobble hats, walking socks and scarves and collar checks.

Ms Roper also found a piece of the tweed traditionally used to make the Blenheim Estate workers’ shooting clothing.

She added: “I have been able to source a design based on our tweed that has been turned into a most attractive and durable blanket.”

About to go on sale, the blankets will sell for £139.

The same fabric also has been used to make a range of bags.

Romney sheep originated on the South Coast in Kent and Sussex.

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