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In July, I visited Sotheby’s in London to see Lady Diana Spencer’s iconic “Black Sheep” sweater by Warm & Wonderful. As I watched a steady stream of visitors pause to take pictures, I wondered what is it about those intarsia white sheep and that one black one on a field of cherry red stockinette stitches that holds so much power?

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Back in 1980, newly-engaged Lady Diana Spencer wore the sweater to Prince Charles’ polo match. Not long after, she tore the right cuff and her private secretary sent it to Warm & Wonderful founders Joanna Osborne and Sally Muir to ask if it could be repaired.

The recent newspaper photograph of Diana wearing the Black Sheep sweater meant Osborne and Muir were swamped with orders and had no time to repair it. So, they sent Diana a replacement. This past spring, they found Diana’s original torn sweater wrapped up in a cotton bedspread in a box.

In the early eighties, on the strength of Black Sheep sweater sales, Warm & Wonderful were able to move into a shop with sack-loads of mail arriving each day from people writing to find out how they could buy the sweater.

No one knew then that the message of that sweater—a rebel standing apart from the crowd, but also being the odd one out—would come to define Diana’s place in the royal family and that she would ultimately turn her outsider status into one of global icon. 

Enter Emma Corrin who plays Diana in Season 4 of The Crown wearing a reproduction Black Sheep sweater. On the original, the black sheep stands near Diana’s middle. In the series version, the black sheep stands near Corrin’s face emphasizing Diana’s outlier position. This is fashion saying more than dialogue can.

And Diana was known for using fashion to say things which were difficult or forbidden to express in words. Interviewed in British Vogue, designer Jasper Conran commented, “Whenever the Princess discussed her clothes with me, part of it was always, ‘What message will I be giving out if I wear this?’ For her, that became the real language of clothes.”

So, what about that black sheep?

Many of us remember the nursery rhyme “Bah Bah Black Sheep.” The British Library holds the earliest surviving version in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744:

Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,
Have you any Wool,
Yes merry have I,
Three Bags full,
One for my Master,
One for my Dame,
One for my little Boy
That lives in the lane.

The dividing up of wool nods to the fact that down through history the massive profits from the British wool trade went mainly to the crown and the landowners with only a pittance left for the shepherds, spinners, weavers, and their families. It was this obsession with the market value of wool which fed into the often conflicting symbolism of the black sheep.

Some argue that the black sheep was an outcast in a flock because its fleece couldn’t be dyed, so was commercially worthless. Others argue that the black sheep’s fleece was prized because it was a way to get (nearly) black wool. For shepherds in Derbyshire, Kent, Sussex, and Somerset, a black sheep in the flock meant good luck. In northern Scotland, it meant just the opposite. And then there’s the deep rabbit hole of the Bible and Genesis. Whether Jacob’s sheep were black or spotted or both, or were actually cows (!), they made him immensely rich.

What can be agreed is that a black sheep is notable because it is rare—it is in fact the result of a recessive gene—and people often feel the need to decipher rareness. Even with science by our side, we still struggle to interpret and accept rareness in humans, animals, and nature.

The Black Sheep sweater worn by Lady Diana Spencer together with letters from Buckingham Palace are estimated to sell at Sotheby’s Fashion Icons auction in New York in September for more than $50,000.  Forty-one years after she was last photographed wearing it, Diana’s sweater still carries that aura of celebrity, tragedy, and rarity, but also a message:

When words fail or seem cheap, when silence is demanded by circumstances or smiles required by occasion, sometimes a little black knitted sheep is all we need to say it all.

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About The Author

Jeni Hankins is an American performing artist, writer, and maker living in London and Lancashire. Since 2008, she’s toured extensively throughout the USA, Canada, and the UK. Find her recordings on Bandcamp and catch up with her musings on Substack.


  • Fascinating article. Thank-you!

    • Thanks so much, Rosanne! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Excellent article! It fed this Anglophile’s love of fashion soul. Thank you.

    • I know what you mean, Lou! I loved England so much that I moved here! I’m glad that you enjoyed my article.

  • Love this history of Lady Di, her sweater and black sheep.

  • I actually made myself a black sheep sweater in the 1980s (mine was blue instead of red). If I remember correctly, the pattern was published in a women’s magazine. My mother-in-law referred to al the little bobbins of white yarn on my work in progress as “unborn lambs.”

    • I have that pattern. I think it was in Woman’s Day magazine. Kept it all these years, although I never made the sweater.

      • I also have this pattern and have not made it because of the size 1 needle used. My daughter actually had one of these sweaters given to her by a friend’s mother but, now regrets giving it away because it was too big. She tracked down the pattern for me to knit in her size. Maybe just maybe…

        • HI Robin, I realized it was Ann who wrote the article about knitting a fine-gauge sweater and here is a link. Lots of smiles to you!

        • Hi Robin, I love that your daughter had the sweater! I know what you mean about the tiny needle size. Kay recently wrote an article about the pleasure of knitting a garment with a small needle and I found it very persuasive. I did the swatch test for the Diana pattern and I’ll have to either change to a slightly thicker wool or a slightly larger needle because I was getting 35 stitches to 4 inches. But I am keen to make it. Good luck and let us know how you get along if you decide to take the plunge and knit one for your daughter!

  • Intarsia sweaters with animals and flowers were very fashionable in the early 1980’s and my mother knitted me several ( although sadly not the Lady Diana Black Sheep one). I’d still like one now ( and I could make it myself now) if anyone can track down the pattern.

    • I just Google “knit pattern for Diana’s black sheep sweater”, and found it on Ravelry, by Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne. It’s from the January 1984 Mc Calls Magazine. I downloaded the pattern for free.

      • Thank you so much for letting us know about the pattern being available on Ravelry. Way back I had the magazine and my then husband threw it out.

        • I had a husband who did things like that. I threw him out.

      • I just downloaded it! I think the pattern now belongs to Doctors Without Borders.

    • Julia Farwell-Clay’s Welcome to the Flock is a baby sweater with sheep on it. You could add sheep to a favorite pattern using her sheep.

  • Wonderful article! I also wish I could track down a pattern.

  • Bravo MDK and collaborators! You never fail to entertain, educate and stimulate. Keep ‘em coming.

    • Thanks very much, Suzanne!! I really enjoyed writing this article. It was so exciting to see people lined up to look at this sweater. Knitwear party.

  • I visited London December 1980 of my yarn purchases a black sheep sweater with a powder blue background. How much fun I had wearing it.

  • Terrific article. I love MDK and coffee!

  • Tracking down the history behind fashion, and this historic government is phenomenal. Very well written article! Thank you kindly.

    • Thank you so much for reading!

  • “Animal sweaters” became quite popular at the time. I knitted from a kit from Harrods a sweater very like Diana’s though it was navy blue with pink pigs, blue chickens, yellow ducks, and white sheep. A good exercise in color work. The yarn was fingering weight as I think the black sheep sweater was a well and the spacing and proportions of the animals around the sweater very similar. I still have the sweater though I knitted it for my then 11 year old daughter who wanted a Diana sweater for which I would not pay knowing she would outgrow in a year or two.

    • How wonderful to read that you actually made the sweater back in the day!

  • I had a sweater made by a machine knitter of that sweater with just one row of sheep, with one black one of course! It was my favorite sweater.

  • Wonderful article, I felt an instant recognition on seeing the iconic sweater and remembering Diana wearing it. Amazing that the original sweater was stored away and recovered. I remember the children’s rhyme from youth but we said “Yes sir, yes sir” for the third line instead of “ Yes merry have I”, interesting to read the original.

  • Love this article. Wish the pattern was still available.

  • Excelente artículo,con estas publicaciones he aprendido mucho,los felicito y gracias por compartir,saludos desde Costa Rica

    • Always loved this sweater. Diana looks so sassy in it. I wonder how hard it would be to make it

  • “When words fail or seem cheap, when silence is demanded by circumstances or smiles required by occasion, sometimes a little black knitted sheep is all we need to say it all.”

    Thank you so much for posting this. I remember this sweater quite vividly and even at the time I understood that there was so much of her in that sweater. It is a bit heart wrenching to see the longing to belong on her face and her discomfort in her situation. I

    • It’s great to read that you, too, felt what Diana was saying with that sweater and so much of what she wore.

  • I have always loved this sweater, and its message! Thank you for sharing!

  • The pattern for this sweater and the one with the koala appeared in McCalls magazine in the early 80s. I loved them both but decided to knit the koala for my daughter.

    A rancher once told me that they put one black sheep in the flock for every hundred white sheep. Made counting easier.

    • I, too, have heard the idea of putting one black sheep for every hundred and think that’s brilliant. Thanks so much for reading!

  • I still have the pattern tucked away in a box. It was published in a popular “women’s” magazine in the ‘80s and I didn’t think my knitting skills were quite up to it at the time so I carefully tore it out of the magazine and tucked it away for later. Hmmm… Now which box marked crafts is it in…

  • Is there a knitting pattern available for this sweater?

  • Delightful read, lots to consider. Many thanks MDK, Jeni, and the readers who pointed to Rav, Diana Black SheepSweater. By donation. Perfect.

  • great article! has no one recreated this pattern – to have and knit???

  • Thank you for the article on Princess Diana’s iconic black sheep sweater. She was so lovely and timeless and she has made this sweater timeless as well. I didn’t realize that the pattern is still available.

  • These jumpers were very popular in the UK in the 80s. My eye was caught by the black and white photo of Sally Muir and Joanne Osborne. The tall distinguished looking man standing between them wearing the sweater is Frank Muir CBE, Sally’s father and a well known, much beloved writer, TV and radio personality.

    • Frank Muir — of “My Word!” Loved that broadcast, although I’ll bet it was in reply by the time I heard it. Like him all the more for his knitting connection.

      • I also loved listening to “My Word” and “My Music” with Frank Muir and Denis Norden. Thanks, Lorraine, for remembering why I knew that name!

  • What a wonderful article that makes one think what does my clothes say about me- hmmm , food for thought.

  • Gosh, I never heard of this sweater or even heard of it. Wonderful story. Thank you. Diana was an inspiration.

  • Here’s the link to the pattern info at Ravelry.

  • I loved reading this. I have always been interested in how fashion mirrors the world.

  • Great article. so interesting and telling. I knitted baby blanket with sheep on a gray background One row of sheep faced one way , one the other. The yarn for the sheep was a loopy one and it was a fun knit. I always thought the thought the message the blanket was, “where ever you go, you are loved.”

  • Interesting article. However, the “sheep” are really not sheep depicted but goats. Goats always have those tails lifted and sheep don’t. The sheep on that sweater have their tailed lifted. Has anyone else ever noticed that?

    • My Leicester sheep always lifted their tails to “do their business” so perhaps they’ve all been caught short

  • So interesting to know the history… love the Baa black historical meaning! Documentary on the Cotswolds mentioned the money wool merchants accrued….

  • Somewhere, I have the pattern and the yarn to make that sweater. If only I could find it…

  • Love this article. I have a favorite black sheep sweater but neither the sweater or me is famous. Mine is a cardigan from Talbots in the 90s. I do love the comments I get when I wear it and alas I had to do my own repairs. Live on black sheep! ❤️

  • Wonderfully written and so interesting

  • The black sheep in the magazine pic is facing one direction while the black sheep in the sweater is facing the opposite??? Different sweater?

  • I had one of these! I absolutely adored this sweater! What a memory…

  • Fantastic! I got the pattern for the sweater after King Charles’s coronation. Have been disgusted by “Queen Camilla” ‘s elevation to sainthood; therefore my choice to honor The People’s Princess by knitting the rebellious black sheep. But I live in Mississippi, so mine will be a vest!

  • Knitters demanded a hand knitting pattern, so a magazine (maybe Vogue Magazine?) printed one shortly after Diana wore hers.

  • Fascinating!

  • Love this article!

  • Hi all, Thanks so much for your generous comments about my article! I really felt fortunate to arrive back in London from the USA just in time to see the Black Sheep sweater before Sotheby’s sent it to New York for the auction. As of 11:36 GMT on Sept 5, 2023, the current bid for the sweater is $60,000 at the online auction. Many of you have asked about the pattern and you can find the link by scrolling down through the comments. It’s offered free on ravelry with a suggestion by the pattern designers that makers donate to Doctors Without Borders. If you’re feeling that the fine gauge is more than you want to tackle (though Ann wrote a very persuasive article about knitting garments in a fine gauge recently) both Warm & Wonderful and a USA company Rowing Blazers are offering a reproduction version of the sweater in cotton or Shetland wood respectively. I’ve been working out the gauge in the free pattern by knitting swatches and haven’t quite landed on a yarn that has the best cherry red color with the right gauge. Let me know if you have any recommendations. Thanks again for all of the kind comments! Jeni

  • Great post! Thanks!

  • (speaking as a sheep farmer) a black sheep was traditionally included in a flock to enable the shepherd to spot deficiencies in the flock’s diet. If the black sheep turned silver it indicated a copper deficiency, in which case the wool would become harsh and scratchy…much less easier to spot in white sheep because they don’t chance colour. The situation was fairly easily remedied by offering salt licks (with the necessary added minerals). I noted on a visit to Harris before the plague that many of the sheep there could have benefited from such an addition to their diet…the hentilagets (I’m borrowing the poetic Shetland word for found locks of wool) I gathered were quite brittle.
    These days though black fibres are frowned upon in a white clip, so most Australian sheep farmers only keep white-woolled sheep.

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