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Julia Marsh: how buying sheep changed my life

Julia Marsh: how buying sheep changed my life

Guest blogger Julia Marsh of Hand Knitted Things shares her experience of knitting and raising sheep in the Scottish Highlands.

Plans for a lifestyle change became a reality in 2011 when we acquired a small croft in a remote part of north-west Scotland - next on the agenda was to purchase some livestock.

I’d already knitted my own small flock of sheep. Now for the real deal, I wanted to choose a hardy, native breed, suited to the adverse climate, with colour variations and fleece-spinning potential. The Shetland breed seemed to fit all the criteria, so we bought a few. Then the fun and games began! Little did I know that other characteristics of the breed included running away very fast, jumping over/through fences, and gnawing the bark off trees.

We had a steep learning curve in the first 12 months. Now the fences and gates are secure, the trees are protected with wire mesh, and the sheep still run very fast - but not always in the opposite direction.

My flock of Shetland sheep

Being in a remote location with extreme weather has its compensations; the landscape and scenery are spectacular, and provide so much inspiration for knitting patterns. I fell in love with the traditional croft houses which feature throughout the landscape. One particular house across the loch from my home has a very distinctive red corrugated metal roof and stunning views of the water.

Red Roof and Autumnal Fern by Ed Duncan

I like the simple, symmetrical structure of these buildings. This was the inspiration for the The Red Roof Croft House knitting pattern. I wanted a Scottish brand of yarn and came across the 100% wool Jamieson’s of Shetland.

The Red Roof Croft House

After discovering the huge range of colours (180 in DK weight!) available, a number of other designs followed, including this Home Sweet Home Tea Cosy with a wee house motif inspired by the Fair Isle method of knitting.

Home Sweet Home Tea Cosy

Fishing is another tradition in the nearby sea loch, and I often pass by a small quay on one of my walks where fishing boats can pull in. I was thinking about how I could use the theme for a design when looking through Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting, when I came across a simple three-row peerie in the pattern library that reminded me of fish scales. This led to the Fair Isle Fish design.

Fair Isle Fish

But back to the sheep. I’ve been keeping my little flock for two years and learned a lot during that time about their health, welfare and behaviour. The flock now has a mixture of different colour fleeces including black, brown, fawn, grey and white. I was recently invited to take part in the Local Life exhibit at the gallery in Torridon, which gives an insight into the Shetland breed and its wool.

Shetland sheep exhibit

After the sheep were sheared last year, the fleeces were sent for spinning. It was thrilling to receive the finished skeins of yarn and start knitting. The Birch Trees Scarf pattern was inspired by the trees around the croft and created for the exhibit of yarn at the gallery.

Keeping the sheep has been a learning experience, and I’m still learning. If I’d known at the begin-ning how much hard work would be involved I might not have taken this path. Now the summer is here again, the grass is green and when I look out and see my sheep grazing, contented and peaceful, I’m glad I took that step into the unknown.

Read more about Julia’s Highland adventures at

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