The strangeness of sheep

Rattling around, researching sheep and wool and incidentally realising that a very ancient, fully functioning economy was partly based on wool long before the invention of coinage, I’ve been ferretting all sort of strange sheep things out.

Given that humans have been living in proximity to sheep for a very long time – written records mention sheep as soon as written records exist, as it were; they’re mentioned in the legend of Gilgamesh, and that’s very old, maybe from about 2750 BC – it’s not surprising that they’ve accumulated a wealth of … associations. Of odd facts and snippets, which I feel the need to share. They’re mostly historical, because that’s what I’ve been researching, but some are older than others and some are just plain weird.

dressing a woundFirst, let’s get medical.

To cure toothache, put a ball of wool in your ear. Presumably a small one, rather than a 100g ball complete with ball band. Buy why in your ear?

If you’ve got pneumonia, you should tie a sheep’s lung on to your feet, because it will draw the illness down. What you do when you’ve finally got all that pneumonia in the feet (!), I do not know, but it must have got rid of unwanted visitors rather quickly.

Going right back, Hippocrates advocated the use of ‘greasy wool’ as a compress in dressing wounds. Smelly, but it’s just possible that this could have worked – the theory is that the wool would promote clotting, the lanolin would control drying, and other ‘complex substances’ would help the growth of new tissue.

You should be grateful not to have been alive and suffering from measles or smallpox in the nineteenth-century USA. For many reasons, of course, but principally this one: the fine but startling tradition of ‘sheep nanny tea’, or just plain ‘nanny tea’. It was – and I sincerely hope the past tense is right here – an infusion of sheep dung in water, often sweetened with sugar, and was supposed to cure both diseases. Presumably by making patients so worried in anticipation of someone coming in with a teapot that they cured themselves spontaneously. (Dung is used in lots of cures, incidentally; maybe I shouldn’t skirt my fleeces too thoroughly? No, I think I will.)

ram mummyNext, into ancient history.

Egyptian mummies are well known, and many people are also aware of mummified cats. But how about mummified sheep? Sheep – rams rather – were sacred to Amun, and that’s why they were sometimes mummified. However, they were not mummified like people. Generally, the sheep bones were ‘bundled together’ in a papyrus basket. Then the skull and neck bones were fixed to the basket in such a way that the whole thing looked like a sheep sitting down. And then it could be bandaged – and adorned, if necessary.

weaving_vaseIn Ancient Greece, a piece of woollen cloth was put over the house door when a baby girl was born, possibly because weaving was women’s work. It was also notably prostitutes’ work, as I’ve wittered on about before, in Spinning for Pleasure.

Wool was really important in many cultures, with an importance we spinners and knitters can appreciate but which can come as a surprise to others. The quality of fleeces was obviously critical to the quality of the final cloth, and great care could be taken when producing the very finest. In Ancient Rome, Varro tells us that finely woolled sheep – when freshly shorn – were smeared with a mixture of wine and oil, to which some people added wax and lard. The sheep would then be dressed in ‘jackets’, so covering precious fleeces is nothing new. Except they’re no longer destined for the Imperial Court, but for discriminating spinners.

Let’s get a bit more recent.

sheep grazing USI didn’t realise that there had been huge sheep drives in the nineteenth-century US, though how I thought flocks were transported from one side of the continent to the other, I don’t know. Westerns should evidently feature sheepboys rather than cowboys: ‘Cowboys provided the drama, but the sheepmen laid the economic foundation of the west.’ The flocks were driven no more than ten miles a day and it was difficult to find routes in some places. It was equally difficult to get suitably trained drovers, who lived in covered wagons, moving with the flocks. They generally marched early in the day, halting at noon at appropriate eating places.  This system lasted for about thirty years until the growth of rail transport, and millions of sheep were moved in this way. And then there were the sheep wars.

le moutonSheep aren’t just used for their fleece and their meat, either. Obviously the meat has been important for a very long time, but the old adage about pigs – that you can eat everything except the squeal – is almost true about sheep. Except I’d say ‘use’ rather than eat, of course. Don’t try eating fleece.

Cooking vessels? Yes – a sheep’s paunch, thoroughly soaked and suspended over a fire, makes a container which actually works. It takes a couple of hours to cook grain to the point at which it is edible, apparently.

Clothing? Not just from the processed wool, that is: of course. Shepherds have often worn whole sheepskins as rough and ready cloaks and still do, in some parts of the world. Fishermen in the North Sea used oiled sheepskin garments for protection and waterproofing, and sheepskin has been used to make footwear and bags for time out of mind. And weapons – slings.

Musical instruments? Of course. Stretched hide was used to cover drums. There’s evidence for that from as long as ago as 2000BC, in Ancient Egypt again – and I’m sure Egypt wouldn’t be unique; it’s just that the level of preservation there is so very good. Bones can be used to make pipes and whistles, and they survive from all over.

And then there are the bagpipes. There’s a bagpipe museum in Morpeth and they used to have – not sure if they still do – a set of Bulgarian pipes made out of the entire skin of a small sheep. The wool’s on the inside; the chanter is bound into the neck opening, the mouthpiece into one foreleg opening and the single long drone into the other. In Eastern Europe, gaida or gajde pipes are commonly made with either sheep or goat skins, and there’s a somewhat disturbing online video of a man playing a goat some, er, goat pipes. No, I’m not providing a link! (You can get pipes made to look like Shaun the Sheep, but that is definitely NOT what I’m talking about here.)

And all of this is without plumbing the British folk tradition, too.

Staffordshire sheepletIf you are going on a journey by horseback, or if you work with horses, you should suspend a strip of sheepskin from your horse’s collar. It averts the evil eye, but probably only in Lincolnshire.

And if you are going on a journey, it’s lucky to meet a flock of sheep – which I hope will placate the tourists held up today by a small one, a flockette really, which climbed a wall and ran up and down the road to Barmouth for a bit. And if you own a lovely little Staffordshire sheep, like the one above, you’re already very lucky. That’s because you got to the antique shop in Machynlleth before I did. Rats.

And back to sheep

I think I’ve got my woolly mojo back. The garden is – um – vaguely tamed; the hands are a bit better; a cardigan is still not sewn up but it’s not cold enough to worry about that… yes, I think I have. It is strange, the way you hit a slack patch sometimes. It can last for ages, but at least I knew what was causing mine. Too much research. It’s the coloured sheep thing. It’s fascinating. No, it is.

Time to get away from books and academic papers and people talking about the whys and wherefores and history and rationale of coloured sheep – and actually meet some.

ma and lamb

Through various contacts (friend > cousin > cousin’s husband) I spent part of last Monday surrounded by some extremely beautiful sheep and lambs. They were Gotlands or Gotland crosses, with the occasional ewe of another breed for the cross. Like this rather nattily dreadlocked Cotswold lady,

Cotswold and crosses

whom I could not resist photographing (you should see her run; her dreadlocks fly around madly but laughing meant I couldn’t hold the camera steady). Anyway, I think she’s chic and I want my hair like that.

Ahem.

The fleeces are absolutely beautiful. I’d encountered Gotland fleece before so I knew what to expect, plus I’d read, for instance, that it was fine Gotland wool which was used to make the Elvish cloaks in the Lord of the Rings movies, fleece from the Stanborough flock in New Zealand. But fondling some at Wonderwool and dealing with a sheared fleece are one thing. Running your fingers through the most perfect, silky, curly, lustrous fleece on a friendly ram lamb’s back is another.

baa

The ram lambs are less nervous than the ewes, and one spent some time leaning against my fellow spinner like a medium-sized dog while she stroked and patted him. But we were there not just there to admire the flock, but to choose some fleeces – literally on the hoof.

Oh, the choice, the choice:

sheep colours

Gotland sheep naturally come in a range of colours – pale silvery grey/fawn to almost black – plus this flock also include some interesting crosses. I have already had a couple of Gotland x Black Welsh Mountain fleeces from them, and I wanted another, but when I was faced by this embarrassment of riches, I went a bit bonkers. Essentially, I wanted the lot.

happy sheep

No. No way.

The farmer has a lovely new Gotland ram (even the rams are friendly – well, friendly and, er,  enthusiastic, ahem, to varying degrees), and that should have an interesting impact on the range of fleeces next year. The variability can be quite surprising, even so, and these two lambs eyeing each other up prior to a little light head butting are actually twins…

lamb stand off

which must make lambing time even more interesting. What are you going to get? Who knows…  and of course the presence of the crosses gives even more variety. Some crosses are being bred out, though; the Shetland strain is being reduced, for instance (horns are an issue – get them under something and you can do exciting things like lift gates off their hinges and get at the ewes when you shouldn’t, waaa hey).

Gotlands are a Swedish sheep originally, and owe their delicious colours to the fact that the modern breed was developed there from a primitive sheep, the Goth (aka Gutefår). Primitive sheep, early sheep, whatever you want to call them, are dark in colour; the cream or white fleece which many people think is the ‘normal sheep colour’ is actually a result of selective breeding. Goth sheep are generally dark, but they are also very variable – light and dark grey, even piebald (see above image, perhaps, for traces of this coming through), some with white bellies, some even with tan fibres in the fleeces.

Apparently there’s a legend in Sweden that the original Goth sheep actually came from the Black Sea area after Viking raids, but that’s as maybe. These Gotlands come from North Wales and I was not there to buy fleeces from the entire flock. I mean, there are seventy-five, and that’s a bit much even for me. Fortunately the ewes had been shorn and their fleeces sold at Woolfest.

happy sheep 2

I was only looking for one, a really black one, a Gotland x Black Welsh Mountain. That’s him, above, dressed, as it were. But somehow I seem to have ordered a couple more. At least it’s only two. And they are all going to be off the animals as well, which I think is very restrained. The neighbours already think I’m mad, but having a small flock of Gotlands in the garden would probably not go down well. And it would just add another level of distraction…

From one solstice to another…

My researches into coloured sheep continue apace, and I think my stupid hand is recovering  – a little. Typical: you improve enormously, go to the wonderful specialist physio, she says ‘great, carry on what you’re doing and I’ll discharge you’, and then you **** up by doing too much because your hand doesn’t hurt like it did, grumble, grumble…

So let’s have a non-woolly post until I can write properly and start droning on about sheep again (hee hee). There is an upside – I’ve been enjoying the amazing weather, and I hope everyone else has been similarly blessed. Though if the Weather Gods are listening, I wouldn’t mind a little rain, preferably at night, to fill up the water butts. OK? (And if the Style Gods are listening, perhaps they could do something about the enormously hairy fat man shopping in Barmouth Co-op’s fresh veg section in teeny weeny trunks and flip-flops and nothing else? Quite put me off my salad. Plus at first I thought he was naaaked...)

What a contrast to the December solstice, when we were buffeted by rain, storms, winds, floods and general meteorological mayhem,

brrrr

up to and including hurricane-force winds, though at least people kept their clothes on while shopping for food. Now I like storms – used to climb on the roof of the croft when I was a kid to get closer to them – but that was scary. In contrast the summer solstice was marked by cloudless skies, warm – even hot – weather, and seas you can swim in (presumably the reason for the teeny trunks). In Snowdonia. This early in the year.

Not me, mind, I’m not that mad. But I did have a paddle.

We went down to the beach to celebrate the solstice by marvelling at the weather (all of us), watching dauntless swimmers in amazement and horror (all of us), and eating crunchy sausages so hot from the barbecue that they got dropped (just me, and dropping not eating, that is). It was beautiful:

mountains

Perfect.

So here’s a quick summer solstice (just-click-on-one-for-a) slideshow. The beach is Llandanwg near Harlech, the rounded hill is called Moelfre which means ‘baldy’, basically, and I’ve no idea who the man with a surfboard for a head is. If it’s you and you mind, I was only on holiday here and I really live in Ulan Bator…

Oh, I have to add something woolly. Imagine a Fair Isle in the sunset colours… yes, please! Wonder what I’ve got in the stash?

Intermission…. dee deee doo doooo

I’m still distracted. At the moment I have been mostly doing housework. No, I’ve not lost my mind, but my hands are almost behaving so I can do the hoovering, plus the dust is so thick that I can make little dustcastles out of it and I don’t particularly want to turn into Quentin Crisp (‘There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.’).

This means that I have another splendid opportunity for distraction, and I’ve found some late 1980s French pattern mags again. Hid behind sofa for a while in the realisation that I knitted some things from them. And wore them in public. The saving grace is that I was always really rubbish at intarsia, so I didn’t go down that route…

But it’s really sunny, and I’m feeling the need to cast on, nevertheless:

no

Question: do you think the shoulder pads were knitted as well?

 

Distractions, distractions

I am easily distracted from the path of righteousness, one of making inroads on the stash or doing what I’m supposed to be doing. There’s so much else to do.

Distraction No. 1: the lure of research.

great heap of booksI realised recently how little I knew about the colours of fleece, and decided to look into it. I know I said I’d devote the next few posts to coloured fleece, but I’m still looking into it… That’s because I’ve been diverted down QI-like side alleys, full of eccentricity and wonder and odd bits of information.

Did you, for instance, realise that Alpine sheep bells came in different tones, deep ram bells (redoun) and higher-pitched ones for ewes (sounnaioun) and each flock had a different mix of tones, thus identifying it at a distance? Or that Merino sheep were introduced to Mexico as early as 1540? I just thought of the Conquistadors as bloodthirsty looters and spreaders of smallpox at that time… and, incidentally, they took sheep to Peru for food rather than for wool; that was provided by alpacas and llamas. Then there are some fabulous breed names, like the Barbados Blackbelly. See? Easily distracted. I’ll get back on topic soon, but the memory of the Barbados Blackbelly may take some time to fade (they’re rather odd-looking sheep, with a sort of dangling chest wig). Ahem.

Distraction No. 2: work. Let’s zoom over that one, at speed.

Distraction No. 3: the garden.

Oh boydog-free zone. It’s gone bonkers; it always does at this time of year but it takes me by surprise nonetheless. Everything is burgeoning. Especially weeds, and P’s dog/overgrown puppy who spends a lot of her time here digging parts of it up while looking for the chafer grubs she can hear moving under the grass, and for dahlia tubers she can’t hear do any damn thing, but which she digs up anyway. Grrr. See? Distracting.

Distraction No. 4: food and cooking.

broad beansThis is sort of part of No. 2, in that I often write about food and cooking, and not just on my work-related blog; I’m working on cold soups at the mo, for instance. I get paid for it (eventually), and have just been allowed into the Guild of Food Writers. But I also enjoy cooking enormously, and it’s related to No. 3 right now – in that I have to eat what remains of last year’s produce and empty the freezers before this year’s insanely over-optimistic, somewhat hysterical, let’s admit it, plain-and-simple overproduction kicks in. I like beans but I’ve still got about two kilos left from last year. I’m growing enough spuds for a family of six. I can’t even fit the courgettes in, so they’re going to have to wait in large pots for the garlic to be harvested. Why do I do this?

Distraction No. 5: I am literally ‘woolwinding’ at the moment.

woolwinding

I bought three vast skeins of Hebridean yarn at Wonderwool and am turning them into something a little more manageable. They need washing, after which they will fluff up and – hopefully – stop smelling quite so attractively of machine oil and lanolin, but in order to be washed properly they need to be in something smaller than a minimum-500g skein. I have several potential pieces of kit which should have helped but, entirely due to the bulky vastness of the MegaSkeins, they all proved useless. After several botched experiments and a nasty tangling incident or three, I resorted to the old expedient of two chairs back to back. Happily I have a great Ashford skein winder, thus removing the need to nail anyone to the floor for several days – I can’t do too much at once or my hands give way. At least this distraction is woolly, unlike…

Distraction No. 6: other crafts…

threadsShh. Whisper it low. I’m attracted to saori weaving, but I haven’t done anything about it yet (a rare instance of being sensible?). Instead I started going through all my threads – while sorting out the spare room, aka sewing room – and then my patterns, dumping most of them as being dated and/or crap or both. Then, tipped off by a friend who should know better, I discovered indie pattern designers. Yippee! I’ve just bought Tilly’s Coco dress/top. When am I going to sew this? Hm?

Distractions No. 7–10: walking…

Walking in the woods, in the hills, on the beach and in the woods again, doing a Plantlife wildflower survey. I’m lucky enough to live in Snowdonia, so this is an ever-present temptation. I spent a lot of years in London because of work, and I loved it at the time, but London can’t beat this:

IMG_9226

I mean, dur

It’s not my fault, this easily distracted thing. I’m blaming my parents.

They were avid crossword solvers. My father used to start at 1 across, worry away at it until he’d got it, then move on to the next clue across. My mother would pick off all the words she could get, anywhere on the grid, and only then work out the more problematic clues armed with letters from the words she’d already completed. Dad would then accuse her – she inevitably finished well before he did, despite the fact that they were both very quick – of having a ‘butterfly mind’. I have clearly inherited this tendency. See? Not my fault.

Of course, it doesn’t help that I have the willpower of a maggot.

 

Who needs dyes? (In praise of coloured sheep)

Last week I met up with someone I haven’t seen for years. We were at college together but our lives have taken different paths – I’ll just say that she works in the City, and leave it at that. After hearing about her perfect life for ages (and mentally adding ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much’) I decided it was time I waxed lyrical about something instead. For some bizarre reason I chose the subject of sheep. I know, I know.

This quickly led to spinning and knitting, of course – when we were at Uni she was a keen knitter, but hasn’t picked up the needles since – and she said something which really surprised me: ‘but sheep are such a boring colour, they’re just cream.’ I’m afraid I just gawped at her, and one of the people on a nearby table turned round too – oh, I should explain we met up in rural Wales, not in some smart City eatery. The fields she had driven past were full of Black Welsh Mountain sheep; I wonder what she thought they were?

Look like sheep to me…

BWMs

Maybe she thought they were BLack Welsh cattle, just very far away (Father Dougal – or maybe Father Ted – is alive and well, has changed gender and got a job in a bank).

I explained that sheep come in a variety of natural colours, all of which I consider gorgeous, and which are very ancient – in fact, ‘boring cream sheep’ had a lot of variation too, and that their ‘boring cream colour’  was a comparatively late addition to the mix. Then I realised that archaeologist or not, archaeologist who studied domestication for years or not, I didn’t really know that much about coloured sheep. Time to get back to Her Perfect Life before I was exposed. And time to do some research, too.

So the next few posts will be all about coloured sheep and this, below, is why I am so obsessed at the moment. I’ve just turned an unwashed, unsorted heap of not particularly good Shetland moorit fleece into this – er, after about half of it had been consigned to the compost as old, dry and generally unusable,

Shetland skeins

(and the least said about some of that plying the better; I shall plead my hand problems as an alibi), and then into this:

shetland cushion

which I just love. And I even love the fact that I’d failed to spot some colour variation in the one slightly iffy fleece, and that some skeins were darker than others as a result – check out the centre square. It does it on the back, too. But even though the fleece may have been questionable, I still managed to get about 400g of Aran-weight yarn out of it, and no need for a dye pot to get a gorgeous colour. Well, I think it’s gorgeous.

What next? What after I’ve finished spinning up the last of  local farmer’s interesting paler brown crossbreed? Afraid I can’t remember what the cross was, but I think BFL was part of it, given the crimp. I’ve got more shades of brown (a chocolatey Manx Loaghtan and a very dark Hebridean), and grey (a BFL/Texel, and some Gotland) and a deep, lustrous black (a Black Welsh Mountain/Gotland cross). And let’s not forget variegated; I’ve a Jacob in the stash too, as well as some obligatory cream fleeces, of course (Llyn, Teeswater, BFL). But I could have got all of these colours from one breed of sheep:

shetland sheep colours

Thanks to the Shetland Sheep Society for proving my point that not all sheep are cream. I’ve got this framed in the workroom, otherwise known as the spare bedroom – and a part of me thinks I ought to try and get every one – hm…

Wonderwool: I came, I saw, I screamed a bit…

and, and, AND I bought stuff – but I stayed on budget!

I’m not quite sure how that happened, but it did. Evidently I’m quite good at walking past things I want when I know there’s going to be an immense bill – no, that won’t do it justice, it will be a William – from the garage two days later. But it was an excellent Wonderwool Wales, nevertheless.

knitted dragon

(Loved the giant knitted dragon, and the almost equally tall knitted books.)

The excitement started early, leaving the house at 6.35 in rain and meeting my friends 45 minutes later for the long drive south. The car was full but the roads were empty and we arrived in plenty of time – time enough to scream at someone we knew in the next-door queue: the WW magic had started. Unfortunately so had the drizzle, and we were allowed in a few minutes shy of 10 a.m. The first thing I resisted buying was indeed a sheep, but I don’t think Woolyknits would have sold her to me.

Doris

This is Doris, and I want her. I consoled myself for the fact that she wasn’t for sale by buying an immense quantity of almost-black Hebridean DK yarn here, three giant hanks of about 500g each. Lovely, needs a wash as good wool does – bit lanolin-y – and when I asked how come such a good bargain I was told that they’d just got fed up looking at it in the mill.

yarnHere it is. Not the easiest thing to photograph, but hey.

The next thing I had to do was resist the urge to buy a small loom. A couple of my friends (and WW companions) have just got into saori weaving and, having seen the work they’re producing, I am also hooked. Ever seen something new and thought ‘I have to do that?” I had to have several espressos (!) in order to calm down. Garage bill. Garage bill.

yumBut then I saw something I couldn’t walk past, the balls of faroese yarn on Namolio’s stand. I’ve seen these knitted into shawls, and the effect is wonderful. I could feel my entire knitting group hovering invisibly over my shoulder as I reached for one in black, purple and green and picked up one in blues instead. But of course I had to go back for the Goth one too – and en route I bought a skein of Manos’s silk blend in colours which seemed to merge the two. That will make a little short-row scarf. Plus it was only a fiver.

yum squaredI’d been practising resisting Oliver Twists’ stall several times before I was eventually dragged in – think the Millennium Falcon being hauled inevitably into the maw of the Death Star. The only difference, really, is that Han Solo and the gang found themselves in a garbage dump, not rootling about in plastic bins full of silk. OK, I wasn’t disguised as a storm trooper either, but hey.

What else did I get? Some pressies, which I can’t show; some bits and bobs which do not an exciting photo make (T-pins for blocking, notably).

All in all – great. For the first time the show had expanded into a third giant hall, which made it a much more pleasant experience all round. Ok, there were still some stalls where an electric cattle-prod would have come in handy (as it would occasionally when walking around), but the last time I went – in the deeply scarring cold of Wonderwool 2012 – it was almost impossible to move at all by 11.30. The catering was also much better, and much better organised – even if I was so excited that all I managed was a Scotch egg and a tart from Love Patisseries, grabbed on the go. I took about 48,000 shots as well; here are just a few. Click on one for a slideshow.