People In Profile

People In Profile – Suzanna Crampton (9/6/2013)

Suzanna Crampton was born in New York but baptised in Ennisnag in County Kilkenny and has deep family roots in Kilkenny.

Over the years she has been an actor, a photographer and has worked with exotic widlife having studied agriculatural science.

She has returned to Kilkenny and is current farming, blogging and tweeting about her rare Zwartable sheep which has become her life’s work. We’ll let Suzanna fill you in herself:

A friend and neighbour once said to me that I should get involved in a rare breed of pedigree sheep rather then a commercial flock, as I hadn’t the land to make a sustainable living from them. So I went to the Ploughing Championships when they were held just up the road in Burnchurch and spotted these unique chic looking sheep. I bought three hoggets and one pregnant ewe from Ray Sweeny of Ardee. As luck would have it two of the hoggets happened to be in lamb so doubled my flock at half the price in no time. 

 Zwartbles wool is a soft rich dark chocolate brown with sun bleached creamy tips. I loved it and showed it to a fine art felting friend, Caroline Scofield, who also loved it, but she was put off by cleaning out all the natural lanolin from their fleece. 
Walking through Kilkenny City one day I ran into the Arts Officer Mary Butler. She told me about this group of ladies who were loving the knitting project of up-cycling that they were doing in the Arts Office that month & how they all wanted to do something similar again. I suggested she think of doing something from sheep to finished product and she could use my beautiful sheep. She joined forces with another community group & they came up with a plan. The ladies would all come out to see but also take part and learn to shear sheep with my growing flock of 15 Zwartbles. We had a local man Andrew Forristil as well as the All Ireland Shearing Champion George Graham both of whom came and showed the women how to shear. The freshly shorn wool would then be taken to the Cushendale woollen mills in Graig-na-managh. This was my introduction to the mill as I didn’t know a woollen mill existed. This is where the wool would be cleaned and carded into lengths of roving. The ladies would then wet-felt and dry-felt it making felt pillow covers which would then be exhibited at the 2011 Shearing Championships at Cillen Hill. It was a great experience after which I hoped to continue to produce something from this wonderful natural dark rich fiber. 
At this time I got Fintan Blake Kelly to design the logo and website for Zwartbles Ireland . There is also a Facebook page Zwartbles Ireland, Pinterest, You Tube channel where Zwartbles videos can be viewed, and a Twitter account @zwartblesie . We had them up and running in time for the Shearing Championship. I try to upload something every day onto both the twitter and face book accounts. To date I have over 2000 followers on Twitter and over 650 on Facebook, not bad for a flock of black sheep munching in some Irish green fields. My followers seem to be from all over the world, Japan to Texas, Canada to Argentina, South Africa to Kuwait, also many Irish, even knitters and spinners from this sheep’s homeland in the Netherlands. Quite a few of them are waiting for the wool to be processed into knitting yarn, blankets and travel rugs. Via Social Media I played host to a group of 6 women sheep farmers who came all the way from Norway to visit my flock having seen them on Facebook.
Philip Cushen of the woollen mills made a concession to allow the Kilkenny Arts Office wool project to use his mill for a small amount of wool, only 15 fleeces. I asked how much wool he would need to make this continue to work. He said a half ton of wool was as low as he could go. To find a half ton of pure bred Zwartbles wool from a rare breed of sheep was not easy. I had help from the Northern Ireland branch of the Zwartbles Sheep Association and from Ray Sweeny who put me in touch with many breeders. I crossed the length & breadth of Ireland, North and South to collect Zwartbles wool. The next challenge was to get the sheep owners to respect the wool and shear it clean with little or no straw or dirt in it. In Cushendale all the wool is handled and picked through by hand so the dirtier the fleece the slower the work. A fleece too full of straw and dirt tends to be tossed aside as a waste of time and useless. 
I managed to collect over 700 pounds of wool from 11 flocks of Registered Zwartbles Sheep from all over Ireland. Sadly a fifth of the wool had to be tossed aside due to dirty fleece which left me with half a ton, the minimum weight needed. 
With help from the skilled workmanship of Philip Cushen and his staff at Cushendale Woollen Mills, we will produce a limited number of Traditional Weight Queen Sized Zwartbles bed blankets and a limited number of Traditional Travel Rugs. There will also be a limited amount of knitting yarn. All the wool is from Irish registered Zwartbles breeders both North and South. We hope to have it cleaned, teased, spun, woven and ready by Saint Patrick’s day.
Twitter: @zwartblesie


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