Coloured sheep

November 2007
Clifton WoolN Things is found in a barn on the historic Otago Peninsula property of Pat and Ian Robertson. For 30 years, it has sold only products originating from their flock of coloured sheep.

Ian Robertsons family has farmed at Clifton since 1863, his grandfather leaving Scotland for the Australian goldfields in 1856, seven years later returning to Scotland where he married, then emigrating to Otago. Many reminders of their ancestors efforts remain on the farm including hand-built stone walls.

Ian and Pat took on the property over 40 years ago, 100 years after it was settled by the family. For 12 years they milked cows on town supply, on the 52 hectare property they still farm today.

The coloured sheep venture has evolved slowly. After quitting the dairy herd the Robertsons farmed Romney sheep, with the first couple of coloured sheep bought in to provide wool to feed Pats interest in spinning.

In 1974, more coloured sheep were bought in to extend the range of wool colours. Pat found herself with surplus fleeces which she began selling from the farm. A breeding up programme dramatically increased the coloured flock.

Over time, Pat did less and less spinning and the focus gradually shifted to supplying others with wool then to developing a shop in the farms old barn (originally a chaff shed). From selling fleeces, she extended into selling black, mid grey and light grey yarn. seven shades are now produced.

Today Clifton Wool N Things stocks 8 and 14 ply knitting yarn spun at Qualityyarns in Milton, garments created by a team of eight knitters and woven items by one handweaaver. Professionally tanned pelts from especially bred distinctively patterned mouflon and badger-face sheep are also sold and natural and carded fleeces are still available.

Pat and Ian favour a medium to fine (around 32 micron) Romney fleece, suited to hand-knitting. Their flock of around 200 ewes plus seven rams now includes a spectrum of colours from white through to grey, fawn, brown, charcoal and black with like mated to like to keep consistency.

While fashions have changed, there has been a constant demand for the traditional crafted wool garments and blankets they sell, says Pat. With young people again taking up knitting, the popularity of yarns is increasing.

The world comes to us, says Pat of their marketing approach of selling products at the gate rather than sending them out to the world. Many customers are en-route to or from Otago Peninsula tourist attractions including Larnach Castle. Others order via their website plus theres a lot of repeat business.

There is plenty of hard work as well as fun involved. Pat and Ian sort all fleeces by colour at shearing; which takes a lot of time and work, they say. Bellies and pieces arent used in their products but are sold in the wool auction system.

This is a small business and a small farm because were not high-flyers. But financially, we do OK, says Pat.

She and Ian enjoy their business and the people they meet through their interest in coloured sheep. Highlights have been presenting papers at two World Congresses of Coloured Sheep, one in York in the UK and one in New Zealand.

Another string to Pats bow is chairing the Poatiri Rural Women New Zealand branch. A recent development is organising a pilot field day for lifestyle block people on Otago Peninsula, to gauge interest in forming a group. The focus will be on animal health.