Using Nature’s Offer: From Sheep to Woven Fabric

Margrit Zimmermann and Amanda Imhof – two determined women native to the Binntal − have recently joined forces to design a new project: “From Sheep’s Wool to Finished Fabric.” Both women are keen to share their expertise to preserve a legacy that has value for this region.

The two women hope to see a concept they envision take hold as part of the Landschaftspark Binntal’s offer to the public. Firstly, it would call awareness to an indigenous breed of sheep as a unique − but endangered − native species; and secondly, the project would demonstrate all the steps towards making a finished product from a valuable raw material − shearing, washing, carding, dying, spinning and weaving the sheep’s wool being skills whose rich local legacy otherwise threatens to be lost.

For some two decades, Amanda raised and tended Walliser Blacknose Sheep (the Schwarznaseschaff), animals whose light woolly coats, horns, and distinctive black patches − on nose, eyes, ears, knees, hocks and feet − make them unmistakable. The Blacknose is known for its fine meat, but it also has wool of a hard consistency that is ideally suited to felting, carpets, and insulation. While no longer an active shepherdess, Amanda uses the wool to make uniquely durable and warm articles of clothing, as well as select decorative items.

Margrit, on the other hand, is an expert weaver. Having had an interest in handicrafts from an early age, she learned her craft − in a course since discontinued − from the Catholic sisters at a Klosterschule in nearby Brig. “Nowadays,” she says, “nobody’s interested much in weaving; everything has to be produced so fast.” Nevertheless, convinced that hers was a craft worth preserving, Margrit persisted at it, and the items she produces − whether runner, tablecloth, or hand woven throw rug − have the appealing surface of a hand-crafted article in subtle and earthy colors.

With their ambitious project “From Sheep to Woven Fabric,” the two women want to call attention to the Blacknose breed because the sheep’s numbers are gravely threatened. While once well established here in Wallis − on whose stony alpine heights the sheep typically graze − only as few as 2,500 of the breed may be extant worldwide today. There are a few breeders in the UK, Germany and the US, but the sheep’s very survival here in Switzerland is at risk, given the recent return of the wolf; in recent years, close to 100 Blacknose, in fact, have been attacked and killed by those hungry predators.

But the project also has another major angle. Targeted at families, groups of children, and more “foreign” visitors to the Binntal, the hands-on approach to all the stages of the fabric-making process will show the challenges and benefits of using Nature’s local offer, and likely carry long-term resonance. For both Margrit and Amanda believe that understanding the role that each specialist part plays in a comprehensive process can, in its own right, be a valuable lesson for any age group.

Ernen, 18 July, 2015, by Sarah Batschelet