Wales has a glorious tradition of producing garments made from wool and the fur of other animals such as weasels and badgers. These animals became particularly important during the great sheep blight of the 1710s when the wool of the sheep became unusable for clothing because the lanolin content was almost nil.
However, there were a number of problems using weasels and badgers as substitutes. The first was that weasels and badgers are wild animals and are hard to catch humanely. Secondly, they are rather attached to their coats and put up a huge fight when someone tries to shear them. Thirdly, you have to be able to knit a useable garment from the fur quickly and easily.
Out of these problems arose the Shearing and Knitting festival of Llandrindod Wells, which stretches back to 1726. The festival is held in early July so that the animals won’t get too cold at night after being sheared. Indeed, in years when there’s an abundance of wool replacement coats are provided for those animals who have been sheared. Walkers in this part of Wales are sometimes surprised to see weasels wearing wool socks during their hikes across country.
On the first day of the festival the Hunt the Badger and Weasel contest takes place. Teams of three roam the hills and valleys trying to catch the animals using only their bare hands. No traps, weapons, or animals may be used. Five points are awarded for each badger that’s caught and three points per weasel.
The animals must be captured alive. This rule was introduced in 1872 when Ebenezer Davies was found to have stolen half the exhibits from the Natural History section of the Shrewsbury Museum with the intention of using them in the contest. Although being stuffed made them easier to shear the judges felt that this idea went against the spirit of the contest and handed Davies over to Shropshire Police.
The record haul for animals caught was 242 points in 1907 by the Jenkins family from Port Talbot, though rumours abounded that many weasels had been brought from South Wales by other family members and accidentally dropped in the path of the Jenkins boys as they searched for animals.
The shearing takes place on the second day of the festival. Badgers make a fearful noise when being sheared, like someone drowning in their own blood, so contestants have to wear ear protectors. The winner of the badger shearing is the person who can produce the largest unbroken pelt. If even a speck of blood is seen by the judges, the shearer is disqualified.
Weasels are more difficult to shear and have very sharp teeth, so the contestants usually place a toothpick between those teeth for the animal to bite on. The scissors from a Swiss Army knife are the best implement to use for shearing weasels as they are sharp and easy to use around the delicate parts of the creature. Fur from 20 weasels can make a sweater for a small boy, making weasel fur the most expensive in the world.
The knitting on the third day is the most keenly contested part of the three days. There are many sections: the badger wool and weasel fur is divided up between the contestants who then have to create a man’s sweater in four hours using their wool or fur and combining it with sheep’s wool where appropriate. Design and knitting skills are both required to win this contest. Betty Evans won 14 times between 1954 – 1997 chiefly because her designs always incorporated the words, Wales, English, Now, and Leave in some order. It’s thought that her designs hit a chord with the Welsh-speaking judges from the Plaid Cymru party.
Another knitting contest was the “direct from the sheep” knitting contest where the knitters created their items directly from the animal without spinning the wool first. This involves incredible patience – knot-making skills of the highest order are required given the flimsiness of the wool. An animal psychologist is also on hand to ensure that the sheep endures no mental cruelty during the contest. It’s believed that some sheep feel as though they are being unravelled and become concerned about their future.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker