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CHOCOLATE FISH MERINO LLP, Reg. Office: 26 Regent Avenue, Leeds LS18 4NJ, West Yorkshire, UK.  
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Superfine Merino -  where did it all start?

Actually, it started here in Horsforth, in the Aire Valley!  A man called Samuel Marsden is credited with starting the Australian and New Zealand sheep industry. Sam was born across the Aire valley from us in Farsley in 1764, and developed his interest in sheep and sheep-breeding after first serving his apprenticeship here with his uncle, a farmer and blacksmith.  

Sam then became a clergyman and in March 1794 arrived in Port Jackson, Australia, to minister to the convicts.  He was also a magistrate and in New South Wales his harsh views of prisoners earned him the name "The Flogging Parson". What a nice man!


Despite his apparent lack of sympathy with the convicts, Sam Marsden was regarded as a good family man and even better sheep farmer.  In 1797 he managed to acquire some very valuable Merinos - which had only just become available outside Spain.  Before the 18th century the export of merinos from Spain was a crime punishable with death because of their fine fleece. Little is known about these Merinos, but it is believed they were Escurials, from the royal flock of the King of Spain.

Sam began to breed for wool and build up flocks, first in Australia, then later in New Zealand. Sam's lasting legacy is some of the finest sheep breeds and strains in the world, of which the New Zealand Merino has to be king. A plaque in the grounds of premises on Bachelor Lane, Horsforth records his activities here and there are still some old buildings that were part of his uncle's forge and farm.

So, from Sam Marsden going out from Leeds to New Zealand in the early 19th century and breeding sheep, Chocolate Fish is bringing their wool back in the form of versatile, superfine, easy-care, eco-friendly outdoor clothes in the early 21st century.  Strange to say, despite all the efforts of the petro-chemical industry to develop synthetic fabrics that do what merino does naturally, none have succeeded.  Merino, the miracle fibre of the 19th century is still a miracle fibre in terms of its performance today.


Once thought of purely in fashion terms, Merino's high-performance characteristics makes it the fabric of choice by professional expedition leaders and scientists in the Arctic and Antarctic, by mountaineers, skiers, snow boarders, scuba divers, round-the-world yachts- people, climbers, mountain bikers, horse riders, and cyclists.  It keeps wearers warm in winter and cool in summer - it's the original - and unbeaten - "smart fibre".

More woolly history!

To those of us familiar with the amazing properties of wool, the findings of Professor Rose, who examined and tested the clothing found on Mallory's body, are not surprising.  For generations fishing communities in particular throughout the northern hemisphere have always used wool for making clothing that protects as well as covers.  Socks, leggings, mittens, ganseys, even breeches, were all made from homespun yarn and knitted.

In Nova Scotia, an area settled predominantly by Scottish crofters displaced during the Highland Clearances, the knitting tradition continued right into the 20th century. Clothing was knitted in raw wool and to double the size, then washed in cold salt water.  The washing process shrank and matted the wool so that it was almost impermeable to water.  The men knitted their own breeches, which they wore in winter.  Families were so proud of the men's work that breeches were often handed down as family heirlooms!  

Similarly, all round the coast of Britain fishing communities produced knitted woollen smocks, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland.  These were called "Ganseys", a word of Scandinavian origin meaning "tunic".  Although it is commonly believed that the Channel Island of Guernsey gave it's name to the garment, as with "Jersey", it may in  fact be the opposite way round, especially as the word "ganser" or "gansey" was in common use prior to the name "Guernsey" being given to the Channel Island.  The Lenur Islands (as the Channel Islands were originally called) comprised of Sarnia (Sark), Lisia (Guernsey) and Angia (Jersey).


In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603) it was thought necessary to encourage industry in the Islands to protect them against annexation by France. Guernsey's commercial knitting industry dates back to this period and the Island's name may well have changed as a result.

The Gansey was, and still is, a hard-wearing, warm and comfortable garment, essential in any seafaring man's wardrobe and the skills acquired in Guernsey's stocking industry were adapted to produce just such an item which we now call the traditional "Guernsey" - the French pronunciation of the English word "Gansey". During Sir Walter Raleigh's Governorship of Jersey from 1600 to 1603, a substantial trade connection was established between the Channel Islands and Newfoundland and, in consequence, "Guernseys" found favor abroad. The tightly knitted fabric was particularly suitable for those who, by occupation, were exposed to the elements.

Whilst the modern commercial "Guernsey" of today is plain, and with sewn seams, the traditional fisherman's Gansey of the British Isles is knitted "in the round" and have patterns so distinct that it was possible to identify a seafarer's origin by the pattern of his "guernsey." Each community would not only have their own patterns, but the knitter would knit the wearer's initials into the garment, usually in the arm gusset.  A pretty idea - except that it served a very practical purpose.  If a sailor was lot at sea, the gansey would survive long after the body ceased to be recognisable.  If the body was eventually washed ashore, it could be recognised and given proper burial.*

Another piece of woollen clothing that has proved it's worth against bad weather over many years is the Duffle Coat.  The area of Malines and Duffelzandhoven, now in part a suburb of Antwerp, is believed to be the origin of the name Duffle. Clothes were made here from a traditional thick felted woollen weatherproof cloth produced in that region. The British Royal Navy issued a camel-coloured variant of the Duffle coat as an item of warm clothing during World War I, and a slightly modified design continued to be issued during World War II.

Versions of the duffle coat have been recorded throughout Europe since Roman times.  In more recent times a version was worn by both European  and Native trappers, woodsmen and traders in Canada from as early as the 17th century.  Their "capote" (a term introduced by the French), was a hooded coat made from a thick wool felted blanket material (and later from blankets themselves). Again, as with the duffle, the Nova Scotia knitwear, and modern milled merino, the fabric proved warm, and both wind and shower-resistant.


*for anyone interested in having a go at knitting a traditional Gansey, Gladys Thompson's definitive book "Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans - Fishermen's sweaters from the British Isles", pub. by Dover Books and first published in 1969, is still in print.