Wool from Southern France with a tradition - the origin of our yarn line with the same name
Merino d' Arles is a sheep breed from Southern France, which dates back to 1806. At the end of the 18th century, the French king Louis XVI successfully imported Merino sheep from Spain for the first time. Previously, this was forbidden under death penalty, because the much sought-after Merino wool was a valuable export commodity for the Spanish. The Merinos were allocated to different regions of France where royal sheep farms were established. In most areas, the Spanish sheep were unable to adapt to the new climate, but in the region around Arles there was an old indigenous breed that could easily be crossed with the Merinos and yielded soft wool.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the characteristics of the new independent sheep breed Merino d' Arles were defined. Up to 300,000 animals lived in the region of Provence-Alps-Cotê d' Azur, today there are about half as many. Most of them can be found in winter in the gravel plain of the Crau, a part of the large Rhône delta west of the Côte d' Azur. The medium-sized sheep are adjusted to strong climate fluctuations, move easily in difficult mountain terrain, and can travel well in large flocks. The latter is especially important for the transhumance.
If it gets too hot in the plains in June, the sheep are guided into the mountains where there is still enough grass. At the end of September, the journey goes back before the snow begins to fall in the mountains. Transhumance is the name of the tradition that began in 2500 to 3000 B. C. in Southern France and has continued after the crossbreeding with Merino sheep. While, in former times, the flocks had to walk all the way for weeks, they are now being driven to the Alps over part of the route. Nevertheless, the shepherds often still have to walk for several days until they have reached the highest alpine pastures at over 2000 metres. Big dogs from the Pyrenees protect the sheep there during the summer from being attacked by wolves.
In early summer, there are celebrations in some towns in Southern France to bid farewell to the flocks on their way to the mountains. The Fête de la Transhumance features musicians and jugglers and offers regional products. The highlight is when the flocks of sheep and the shepherds walk through the village.
Merino d' Arles have one of the softest wools in Europe with a fineness of less than 22 microns (in comparison: our Merino wool from Patagonia has 19.5). Each sheep produces about 2 kg of wool, which is sorted by hand after shearing in Southern France and freed from any impurities.
The wool has one of the strongest crimps and therefore looks slightly more puffy than other yarns with a comparable yardage. Until the early 1990s, it was very much sought-after, but then the expanding Chinese textile industry destroyed the market prices of wool. The sheep were ept only for their meat and the quality of the fleece was no longer taken care of during shearing. The wool was pressed into bales and transported to China without being cleaned.
Only a few years ago, some breeders joined forces with traders to found a "Circle de Qualité" to improve quality. There are now rules for keeping sheep, preparing and carrying out shearing, and packing the wool. Through the training of breeders, the wool can be processed in Europe once again and achieve sustainable prices.
For a long time now we have had the dream of finding a pure European sheep wool, which is not only certified according to GOTS organic standards, but can also be spun into wonderfully soft yarn. This seemed almost impossible, because the wool of most of the sheep breeds native to Europe is perceived as rather scratchy. If we found soft wool, it was either not available from controlled organic animal farming or not in sufficient quantity. The search has taken for years. Of course, we were overjoyed when we finally discovered the fine wool of the Merino d' Arles sheep from Southern France.
The Merino d' Arles wool we purchase arrives washed and combed in our spinning mill in England. It is GOTS-certified like all wool we buy. This means that the animals are kept following the approved standards of organic farming, according to the EU organic label.
In England the yarn is spun, twisted and dyed. Together with the designer Melanie Berg, we have spent a long time working on the exact definition of the yarn. Different options with regard to yardage, number of threads and twist had to be tested in order to achieve the optimal result. We finally decided to produce a traditional 2-stranded yarn in Fingering weight. Melanie and Rosy started to work on the colours with a shade palette on paper, then they looked for suitable textile colour samples and sent them to the dyer. At Melanie's place in Bonn, they reviewed the results from England and selected the final colour palette.
It took us two years, from the first discussions to the finished yarn, which we were able to present in November 2017: the first GOTS-certified Merino d' Arles wool.