Friday, as well as being Eldest Son’s 20th birthday – wow! – was my wool course at Le Dorat. It was organised by Laines Locales Réseau Limousin, a group for wool crazy people like me. This particular training day was to do with determining wool quality. I thought I’d give it a go as it was very reasonably priced at €10, sounded interesting and there were no pressing reasons to keep me at home that day.

It was a ghastly drive there through the dark and heavy rain. Ever since the windscreen wipers packed up on me briefly on the autoroute to Limoges in September, I’m a bit of a nervous wreck when driving in the rain. However, they behaved today, but visibility was bad and the N145 is notorious for the vast quantities of lorries on it. It’s one of the relatively few west-east main roads across France and you can see ten lorries in a row, all from different countries. Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Czech, Romanian, Slovakian, German and Latvian seem to dominate. You really know you’re in continental Europe on that road. Because of all the heavy traffic, you’re permanently driving through clouds of spray.

Anyway, I made it to Le Dorat in one piece in about an hour and a half. I couldn’t find the venue to start with but happily spent ten minutes wandering around the centre of the town, watching as the market was setting up. Then I worked where to go and found the hall about quarter of an hour later. I wasn’t last, of course, this being France!

Maxime was presenting the course. He was a young guy and had spent several years working in Chile as a fleece quality assessor. He was here to tell us about the wool market in general and then to explain about a new method of assessing fleece quality called Soft Rolling Skin. This actually involves assessing the skin of an animal after shearing rather than examining the fleece itself. All rather intriguing.

We learned that wool accounts for just 3% of the world’s textile market. Cotton makes up 38%, other natural fibres (e.g. silk, alpaca, bamboo) 2% and synthetics the remaining 57%. Of the wool market, France contributes 1% which isn’t bad going really. Australia provides 27%, New Zealand 12% and Argentina 3%. The rest of the world supplies the remaining 57% with India, China and Turkey as the major contributors.

We looked at wool prices (currently falling) and saw that the wool for indoor textiles (e.g. carpets) is much steadier than that for clothing. Indoor textile wool is generally coarser with a larger micron count and comes from sheep such as White Suffolks and Karaculs.

Then things got slightly tricky. Actually, I got the hang of it but a lot of people didn’t and it got a bit boggy. We started investigating follicles. There are two types, primary and secondary. Basically, the more secondary follicles an animal has, the finer and denser the wool produced. A Merino sheep, for example, has 65 follicles per squared mm of skin and the wool is 20 microns in diameter, whereas a Lincoln with far fewer follicles has wool with a diameter of 36 microns.

Age, gender, nutrition and environment all affect wool quality. Generally, wool gets thinner during winter so I must be sure to feed our Suffolks and alpacas up during the cold weather! I don’t want any wimpy wool which will break when I’m spinning with it, should the day ever dawn when I get round to it.

Wool is classified by considering its fineness (using the naked eye and some kind of technical method such as laser scanning), its length, its strength, its colour, its softness, how much of the whole fleece is usable and a final factor is médulation, which I think is how hollow it is. Yellowness is quite a critical issue too. I confess I got a bit lost here as there were factors X, Y and Z, and I’m not entirely sure what they were, sorry, but you had to add them together and ideally get a negative number as the result.

It was lunchtime. I went to take some photos of the magnificent Collegiale that pretty much takes up all of Le Dorat. Scottish missionaries back in 950 AD gave Le Dorat the slightly unfortunate name of Scotorum and founded a Church there. This was destroyed by fire and in 1060 the amazing Collegiale was constructed in its place. There has been an awful lot of fighting in and around Le Dorat over the centuries, involving the Black Prince, John the Good, William the Hermit, Charles V, Huguenots and Catholics, Henry III and Charles IX and this only takes us to 1561. Claude de la Pouge (what a great name!) was active, and a relative, Catherine Pidoux, of the famous fablist Jean de la Fontaine made an appearance. (Ruadhri spent a year having to memorise zillions of Jean de la Fontaine’s cautionary tales which have titles like the Hare and the Tortoise (not very original!), the Cricket and the Ant, the Sun and the Frogs and the Aardvark and the Vaccuum Cleaner. OK, I made that last one up but the fables were all equally highly improbable, tediously dull and interminably long.) Sister Pidoux, way ahead of her time,  founded a free and public school for Le Dorat in 1656 which continued until the Revolution shut it down in 1792.

OK, enough of the history lesson. The Collegiale is well worth a visit as I hope the photos show.

During my walk I decided I’d had enough of follicles, fascinating as they are. I was incredibly tired as my insomnia is back and I’d hardly slept the night before. I also didn’t fancy staying until 6pm and then driving home in the dark again. So I called it a day. I don’t like wussing out of things but the course wasn’t proving to be as relevant as I’d hoped and frankly it was all rather slow going. The lecturer was very good and clear but a lot of folks just weren’t getting it and kept asking annoying questions. I’m not a patient person! So sadly I didn’t find out fully about the Soft Rolling Skin method, but I’ve got the basics.

I got home in the daylight, had a snooze and pottered round. I picked Rors up from school and then took Caiti to judo. We were delighted to see Boussac’s Christmas lights blazing out into the night. There are some interesting new ones. They are definitely Christmas moustaches, no two ways about it! And that gives my blog its Christmassy touch!

A final word about the birthday boy. In his 20 years, Benjamin Christopher Dagg has lived in seven different houses in three different countries. He’s mastered four languages (English, Gaelic, French and German) and is currently tackling a fifth (Mandarin). He’s been to two primary schools, two secondary schools, one lycée and is now at Uni. He’s done a lot of travelling and had plenty of fun on the way. He’s a great guy so let’s hope the next twenty years are just as eventful for him, and that somewhere or other they’ll include him taking his driving test. That’s a hint, Benj!