The season of the toecover

(Or what NOT to knit for Christmas.)

I’ve been sent a couple of things to review recently which I’m not going to mention. Sometimes I do this because they are inappropriate. OK, sometimes they are terrible (in which case I give feedback directly, but not here), but sometimes they are just plain wrong. And this is the season for it: the run up to Christmas. If I see another book inviting me to knit / crochet / weave / felt something – stockings / candy canes / decorations / skirts for Christmas trees / strange small gift items – I am going to scream. Or strangle / incinerate / shred / rip the offending object into small pieces.

These books are toecover production manuals, and they should be ignored at all costs.

AGH!

This is a budgie cover, but it is also – most emphatically – a clear type of toecover.

Not come across ‘toecover’ before? It was part of our family vernacular, for as long as I can remember, and now I forget that it’s not universal. But it should be. It has nothing to do with sports equipment or anything medical, and everything to do with, um, ‘handicrafts’. Unfortunately.

It comes from the wonderful Betty MacDonald, and her book from the 1940s, The Plague and I, detailing her year in a TB sanatorium (doesn’t sound funny, but it’s a hoot). ‘Toecover,’ she writes, ‘is a family name for a useless gift. A crocheted napkin ring is a toe cover. So are embroidered book marks … pincushion covers done in french knots … cross-stitched pictures of lumpy brown houses…’

agh 2

She waxes lyrical for a long paragraph, but you get the picture. Those are toecovers. It’s easy to imagine that the toecover died out sometime around 1970, when everybody was too busy getting off of their heads to bother about making attractive napkin rings out of leather scraps and left-over yarn, but evidently not:

?

Thank you, Golden Hands.

And they still live and flourish today.

Think about it. What else are knitted iPhone covers, crocheted tree garlands that look as though the cat’s been sick, twee dolls for adults, wine-bottle cozies in moss stitch (or, indeed, any stitch), and most take-away coffee cup holders, especially those with hands? And in case you think I’m exaggerating, a quick search for ‘knitted gifts’ on Pinterest revealed the existence of what can only be described as a completely un-ironic frilly dress for a decanter. NO!

Magazines are the natural habitat of the toecover, especially at this time of year. Take the latest issue of Landscape, for instance, a relatively recent addition to the ‘I want that lifestyle’ area of magazine publishing. The latest edition, based around Christmas, features some things called ‘table stockings’. (I can’t photograph it, because I’d be breaking copyright and I’m being rude enough without tempting fate.) They’re not for the table legs – we’re not Victorians, honestly – but they are little socks, knitted in red with a cable pattern and a white cuff. You put your cutlery in them at the table. Apparently they ‘bring a light-hearted touch to the dinner table’. I knew that.

Surely those of us who do knit presents for our nearest and dearest are already bogged down making scarves, hats, gloves, socks, even the occasional definitely ironic sweater with a reindeer on it (check out this Rav project page for an, er, interesting take on the reindeer motif – but not if you’re easily offended), to bother about making tiny socks for spoons? Surely? Surely?

Posy Simmonds had a series of cartoon strips in the 1980s Guardian called Mrs Webber’s Diary; there were several incarnations with slightly different titles, but they were some of the most pertinent pieces of observation I’ve ever come across. In one, a daughter had called her mother to say that she had just been unsuccessful in a job application. It’s seen from the mother’s POV, and she suggests that at least missing out on the job would mean her daughter had time to care for her family – ‘you’ll have time to do it all properly … I was only joking, Jane’. She then says ‘…you’ll find something to do … look at me, I did…’ and puts the phone down. The last frame says it all:

AGH3 This is a toecover factory.

Do not fall into this trap. Do not knit bulky bookmarks, tiny hats to use as Christmas tree decorations, strange naked deformed dolls which are supposed to be cute, little house-shaped key rings which double up as key tidies or – the oddest one I found in a quick search – a strange chicken with something hanging out of its mouth, possibly a worm, possibly its entrails. It will end badly.

But if you do have spare time, knit socks - and give them to me. My nephew has just requested socks and I do not knit socks. Rats.

PS: I popped into (and out of) a little craft fair yesterday, and discovered a toecover nest. Here are a few extras, not all knitting:

  • Earmuffs, knitted in eyelash yarn, but with dangly legs (why?).
  • A crocheted heart with ‘I [heart] my teacher’ embroidered on it. No scented stuffing or anything like that, just a heart-shaped thing.
  • A wooden circle, with ‘a round tuit’ pyrographed on – so someone could get a round to it (ho ho ho)
  • A decoupage box for holding those small packs of paper hankies… there were also several of these knitted or crocheted, too; I think this village must be prone to bad colds.
  • A fake nose. I need to explain this one: made out of pink felt, I think it was supposed to be a pig’s snout. It had elastic so it would stay on, clearly designed for a small child. Childline need to be advised.
  • A pile of blocks of wood or cardboard covered alternately in fabric or crochet, with embroidered titles. They were not real books – I mean, who’d want real books in their house when they could have a pile of fake ones?

HELP!

Archaeology and clothing (or maybe not)

Hee hee… I was down in the basement the other day when I came across a small stash of Ladybird books among all my files. For anyone not familiar with these, they were – and to some extent still are, though they’re not the same – a British series of books for children. The non-fiction ones were intellectually respectable, and they were much beloved by middle-class parents of a certain type. A type which definitely included my own parents.

Ladybird archaeologyLadybird books’ golden age was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. My mother used to hunt them out in second-hand bookshops so some of mine are quite old, and the pics are fab. One thing that is quite noticeable is the fact that I held onto those featuring dress (like Clothes and Costume) or archaeology (such as Stone Age Man in Britain, yup, ‘Man’). The whole reason why I went on to read Archaeology may, indeed, have had something to do with my desire to stand around on sites in a white headscarf and yellow top, while an Indiana Jones type peered at pots (not that Indiana Jones had even been thought of when this was painted).

I just have to share some of the illustrations, so here are a few which really focus on what people are wearing.

Ladybird arch 2Skins, generally, it does have to be said. Often curiously fitted skins, sometimes daringly off-the-shoulder skins, but almost always skins.

Here we see two prehistoric bods actually making up their clothing (I can’t help feeling that cowboy movies may have had some sort of influence here). Note the apparent crudeness of the stitching – quite possibly using gut or sinew as thread, since they’ve evidently not progressed to the cord stage – but also note the interesting fact that he has managed to shave efficiently and she has successfully dealt with any underarm hair, so they were evidently more skilled than the stitching suggests. Her fringe is pretty cool, too. Unlike the hut roof, which I can’t help feeling would have blown straight off if anyone had so much as breathed on it.

Ladybird arch 4And here we have preparing the skins. I clearly remember this one, because I wanted to wear skins and prepare them like this (why, I do not know). Now, of course, my first thought on looking at the clothing is to wonder about the impact that entirely accurate historical epic One Million Years BC, featuring Racquel Welch in a skin bikini, had on the illustrator. Clearly it’s toned down for an audience of children, but I can’t help feeling there’s a certain reminiscent something in the tailoring.

I also remember asking my father what it would have been like to wear skins – I may have imagined that someone of such immense age (he must have been 37 or so) would actually know. He looked at the picture closely and said ‘draughty’. I caused a major diplomatic incident by complaining to my mother about this flippant response, but maybe it was better that he didn’t give me the practical demonstration I was demanding.

Ladybird arch 5Moving on a little, in actual Ladybird years, comes this contribution from the book on food and cooking, which must have been from the 1970s, given the dreadlocks.  I have an friend who was brought up on a hippy commune in Dorset – and looking at this, it’s all I can think of. Bare-arsed kids strolling about, cooking on a bakestone over an open fire, living in something that could almost be a bender, stereotypical roles ever so firmly entrenched… you can almost smell the fumes of a Camberwell Carrot carrying on the breeze.

There is one difference, though: cleanliness. Here, not there.

ladybird archaeology 6We do eventually move away from the skin clothing, and now we are in about 500BC. I know that, because this is from The Story of Clothes and Costume (originally published in 1964), which was clearly written for older children, and the text gives me some real information. As well as giving a rough date, it also informs me that this illustration is based on actual clothes from the period found in Denmark, and indeed some are clearly derived from garments discovered in bogs which come from about this time, like the Tollund Man‘s cap.

The female clothing, I’m less certain about; garments retrieved from Danish bogs tend to be full length and these dresses are more like something bought in Chelsea Girl, which may be where the artist found them. (It’s probably just as well that the artist did not use the Egtved girl’s clothing from the - much - earlier Bronze Age as inspiration, something which I wittered on about in my very first post on this blog, because there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the girl wore anything under – or, for that matter, over – her string mini skirt.) I’m also intrigued by the colours, since much of what I manage to produce with natural dyes is… well, khaki or, as my mother once unforgettably put it, ‘shades of shite’. But then I don’t suppose that would have made a very fetching illustration.

But I’m not sneering, I really am not. These books captivated me, and did so to such an extent that I spent years up to my knees in mud or marking up bones in some breezy finds hut / tent / old outside toilet / broken caravan. There is something wonderfully atmospheric about some of the illustrations, and you can almost crouch over a guttering fire with a hunter as he tries to keep himself warm on a snowy day in the Neolithic, or walk up towards an Iron Age village on the downs in autumn:

Ladybird archaeology 7It was many years later that I learned the truth of Bettany Hughes statement that ‘just because you feel you can reach out and touch the past, don’t presume you can describe its face’. I’m quite glad, because you have to start somewhere, and being fascinated by a standing loom leaning against an Iron Age hut is certainly somewhere. Now where did I put my fluff?

More general sheep strangeness

I wrote a post a while ago, before I got bogged down in work and distracted by creepy stalker person, about the apparently odd things that have cropped up in the long, long relationship between people and sheep. No, not that sort of relationship – for heaven’s sake. Ahem. It’s also taken me a while to recover from the idea of nanny tea. Bleagh.

Bodleian sheep(And if nanny tea had left you traumatised too, be grateful I didn’t share some medieval contraceptive advice: drink sheep pee. Mind you, that pales into insignificance when compared to the alternatives, such as you won’t get pregnant if you wear weasel testicles on your thigh or hang the amputated foot of a live weasel round your neck. I bet you won’t. Couldn’t find pic of this, so settled for some lovely sheep from the Bodleian.)

A lot of the uses and significance of sheep are only strange to us, now, at this point in time and place. Had we, for instance, been fishing in the North Sea in previous centuries, we might have been wearing clothing made from oiled sheepskin; doesn’t seem too unreasonable. Coracles could be covered in cured hides, too (and inflated skins have been used to make rafts, especially in central Asia).

Further back we’d probably have cooked using a sheep’s paunch. Not cooked the paunch - can’t imagine what that would be like - but cooked in it. You suspend the paunch over a fire and fill it with water, which heats up and also prevents the paunch from igniting. You pop some hot stones in which keeps the temperature up - or maybe you don’t; in experiments there wasn’t much difference between cooking with the stones in and without - and then you add whatever you want to cook. Grain was found to be edible within a couple of hours.

mediaeval sheepWe have a tendency to think of sheep as a source of either meat or wool, but there’s milk as well. Perhaps we’re more likely to consider that now than we might have been, say, 20 years ago, but in earlier times it was a perfectly normal consideration. Take one Medieval example: villeins on the Templar estates in Wiltshire had to send a women to milk the sheep every day, and she got half the whey or buttermilk for her labours.

(Of course, until the Industrial Revolution every single thread used in every single piece of cloth was handspun. We spin for pleasure, by and large. Our ancestors did not; they spun because they had to.)

Sheep milk was considered the most important product in Medieval England, in fact. It ranked above wool and well above meat… and between wool and meat in the hierarchy of importance came dung. It wasn’t just useful as a manure, though it was common practice to put a flock on a field which needed some extra oomph. It was used for fuel, along with cow dung (horse droppings and those of other non-ruminants are not much good), and in Ireland was also used to scour wool (which seems a bit counter-productive to those of us who spend ages trying to get sheep shit out of raw fleeces). Basically, a sheep was much more useful alive than dead. Lamb – well, eating that was a terrible waste. Mutton was better.

Once a sheep was dead, nothing was wasted; the guts were incredibly useful, and gut-dressing was a specialist trade. It probably wasn’t quite so specialist in the Bronze Age (when most people would have done many different things), and it’s been suggested that the cord decoration on some BA pots was probably made with sheep gut. Sheep guts have also been used to make fishing lines, strings for bows and musical instruments – and that use goes way back; a bow with a string of sheep gut is mentioned in the Odyssey.

Skin – well, that had all sorts of uses from the boats and clothing mentioned above to becoming parchment, especially in Medieval France (calf and goat skins were also used). It was soaked and limed, and then stretched and dried. Finally, the skin would be treated to make a better writing surface for the scribes; parchment is very resilient and can be re-treated and re-used; it is often possible to see hints - or even read - what was there before. In Greece, cured skins were used to store wine and olive oil.

Bones, especially the astralagus, the ankle bones, could be used in divination. All sorts of bones have been used in this way, for millennia, but these almost cuboid bones are still used in some places; they’re known as ‘shagai’ in Mongolia (photo from Wikimedia Commons):

Shagai

and are sometimes painted in bright colours. If you want to know the future, or get an answer to a question, you roll four on the ground. The two more convex sides, known as horse and sheep, are lucky (horse is the luckiest – this is a Mongolian thing, after all, and horses are inseparable from the traditional Mongolian way of life). The concave sides, called goat and camel, are the opposite: unlucky. They’re also used for loads of games, in much the same way as dice could be used.

girls playing with sheep bonesThere are records of these bones being used in Greece to foretell who a girl would marry, and they were certainly used for playing games there, too, in more ancient times (these two girls playing ‘knucklebones’ come from the British Museum, and about 330BC). It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were other incidences of their use, for either fun (they’re also used to set the position of the strings in a traditional Kazakh musical instrument) or fortune; they’re such a convenient shape. Anyone know of any others?

It’s not surprising that sheep have accumulated such a wealth of apparent oddness. They’ve been significant for so long; something strange is bound to stick. And it’s not surprising, really, that there are signs of sheep being worshipped, or venerated at the very least. It’s not just the ancient Egyptians with their sheep mummies; at Catalhoyuk, a very early settlement in Anatolia, skulls of rams were given the same respectful treatment as those of bulls, which seemed to be the main focus of the people’s religious life. There are many other incidences, but I draw the line at worshipping Madam, the ex-pet lamb and now escapologist ewe from up the hill, whom I found in the garden again this morning… Knucklebones seems like a good game, my lady - you are warned.

Book Review – The Knowledgeable Knitter

jacketA little while ago I was sent a great book to review on circular knitting by Margaret Radcliffe, which I really enjoyed and have found useful. I’ve now been asked to look at another book by her, The Knowledgeable Knitter.

I’ve got several basic instructional books, from a battered copy of Mary Thomas which belonged to my mother and possibly to her mother, to June Hemmons Hiatt’s massive and exhaustive Principles of Knitting. What, I wondered, might this new book have to offer that was different? Then I thought again – perhaps, with my somewhat mangled collection, I’m not actually the target audience. Maybe this is designed for relatively new knitters.

And then I opened it and began to work my way through it, and my assumptions were wrong. It will be brilliant for those people who have recently picked up the sticks and string, but it’s got something in there for every knitter. I’m convinced of it, in fact.

But don’t just believe me… time for a look inside.

page1

The comparisons of various approaches to particular situations, as here (looking at corded edges on the left and decreases at the very edge on the right), are particularly useful. It’s not often you get to see options spread out in this way. Come to think of it, short of knitting a shedload of samples, I don’t think I’ve seen it done so well before.

I’m currently working up a pattern for a big cowl knitted in two skeins of Colinette Prism, for instance, and I need a neat edge. I normally always use the very old method on everything - a garter-stitch edge (knitting the first and last stitches of every row). However, I wasn’t sure I wanted the nobbly edge which that produces, so I tried several of the options here. OK, I couldn’t find what I needed when I looked up ‘selvedge’, but I just looked up ‘edges’ instead. Then I went to my other books – and this is by far the clearest.

Let’s try another double page spread, this time part of the section on cast offs (aka bind offs, of course – this is an American book).

page 3

On the left are some suggestions for stretchy cast-offs, including my favourite, the yarn-over cast off (the detailed drawings are at the back of the book, in the appendix, and are very clear). On the right are some embellishments and a look at applied edgings. I have yet to come across an apparently ‘basic’ book that covers this. Hang on, I’m just checking… yup. There’s a bit in Montse Stanley’s brilliant Handknitter’s Handbook from 1986, but I have to say that those are very 70s – tassels, bobbles… The examples here are rather more relevant. And photographic.

Basic? Nah (there’s a section – a good section – on steeking, for instance, and plenty of info on design and adapting patterns).

Some of the best parts for me are those on design and adapting. Here’s a page on circular shaping in pattern stitches, in the section on shaping and fitting.

yokes

I know from my own experience that this often confuses even experienced knitters (well, it certainly confuses me sometimes). And the illustrations are wonderful – really clear. The photographs inspire you, and it is so good to see what an end result actually looks like when you are contemplating the technique illustrations at the back. Basic? No, I really don’t think so.

And what about some practical advice on amendments? How about ‘reshaping armholes’? Adjusting sleeve caps? Both recently relevant. And I was very pleased to see a small part on weaving in colours along seams, long a bugbear of mine. Margaret Radcliffe is very methodical, exactly as I was taught to be with Fair Isle – great (I was taught in threes: one along, one across one way, one across the other way; she goes every other stitch, one up and one down, repeated on both sides of the seam for four ends, or for French braiding).

OK, I’m not going to refer to the part about understanding knitting patterns very often – though, having said that, it might help me get over my blind spot about charted cable patterns – but there is a ton of stuff in here for me, and for most of us.

A stuck blog post… and an unstuck knit

I’m not the only one suffering from stuck-blog-itis, it seems – just checking out some of my favourites this morning, and I find Knitsofacto is similarly afflicted. Unlike Annie, though, I’m stuck because of the nature of the previous post, not because something just needs to be shoved in even though it doesn’t ‘fit’ (which brings me on to the fact that there is no such thing as the Blog Police).

I evidently need a break before I get back onto the path of weird sheep behaviour – actually weird human behaviour; sheep just do their thing – and general woolliness through time. So now for a quick review of my latest finished thing. It’s taken ages because of the hand problems, but I’m really pleased with it.

finished!

Not the best pic in the world, but hey ho.

It was an attempt to use up stash – some brown Hunters of Brora tweed left over from my favourite great big sweater of all time, now gone to the compost heap of doom as it wore out, boy, did it wear out; some grey ditto, left over from a big cardigan; and some blue tweedy stuff bought in one of my ‘Wonderwool is just closing, I must buy something else even though there isn’t enough to do anything sensible with it’ moments. The pattern is an old Rowan one.

Love the yarn.

wrong sideFell in love with the ‘wrong’ side and nearly decided to go for reverse stocking stitch instead. However, I stuck to the path of righteousness and obeying the pattern. There’s a first time for everything.

This, predictably, did not last – but the changes were (initially) minimal. I started the pieces with a cast-on in a contrast colour (I forgot to do the neck when casting off, but could always go back and just pick up a row, then cast it straight off; I had to do that with button bands):

edge

I got all the pieces blocked and beautiful (and ignored the giant finishing off task for the moment):

blocked, with ends

Then I made it up. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR. And double GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

Sleeve caps didn’t fit. Nowhere near, though stripe matched and all instructions had been followed. Growled a bit and said bad words in mixture of languages. Got out ruler. Gauge bang on, even if not using right yarn. Sleeve cap still out by inches (had failed to magically correct itself). Checked Ravelry for other knitters’ reactions. Was not alone. Enlisted help of friend with wool shop, vast amounts of experience and maths degree. Sat down with squared paper and red wine and chocolate and worked out new sleeve cap which also matched stripe. Frogged sleeve caps.

Now have new sleeve caps.

They fit!

matches!

So does the cardigan, though I have reservations about the neckline. I then had to work in the 13,563,289 ends. Did it. And without murdering anyone.

Am wearing it constantly. This does not look so odd now that the temperatures are about right for October, though I did got odd glances in the Co-op when everyone else was in stringy-strap T-shirts. Downside? Hands bad again. Can you knit with a hook instead of a hand? If so, pass the bread knife, I’m sure there’s a hook in the shed…

Woooooooo – what to do?

OK, I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m coming clean. There’s another reason why I’ve not been posting much lately and, at the risk of sounding like a 1980s pop song (thanks, Rockwell), ‘I always feel like someone’s watching me / and I have no privacy…’

Tarkovsky

Yup, and homage to Tarkovsky, his moustache and his extraordinary 1979 film Stalker – I’ve got one. A cyber stalker, which is making life difficult. (I’m going to break the rules of grammar and use the third person plural to refer to this person - I haven’t lost my editorial mind, BTW – but their gender is, thankfully, not relevant here.)

In all fairness, I think X is fairly harmless. It’s not a question of a maniac ex-partner, but of someone I knew years ago with problems, and with whom I have had little or minimal contact for over ten years. I don’t think it’s much more than (faintly) innocent obsessive behaviour, but it is creepy and it is getting worse. This person – thankfully – lives hundreds of miles from me, and I honestly don’t believe that they even think of what they are doing as ‘stalking’. To them it’s probably what friends do. No, they don’t. But it is what stalkers do, so let’s name it for what it is.

Following what someone else does online in an obsessive way – rather than in a ‘you’re my mate/relative and I’m interested in what you’re doing and want to intact with you as I do in the real world’ way – is a form of stalking. ‘Liking’ their every post or share or comment on Facebook is stalking. Trying to ‘friend’ their contacts is stalking. Retweeting their every tweet is another form of stalking. In short, it’s all stalking.

I’ve been talking to people about it, but the online community might understand the situation differently, so what do you think? Anyone had the same experience? (This is an iffy area, so I’m monitoring all comments on this post, BTW, as opposed to just new ones so you can say what you want about your own stalking experiences. Absolutely nothing will be published without my approval whether you’ve commented here before or not, and I will close comments after a week. Please say in your response whether you wish your comment to be published, and if not I’ll reply direct rather than in the comments.)

Right, this is what I’ve been advised to do so far, and what I’ve done.

I’ve been ignoring it – advice #1.
This has not worked. Yes, doing anything else gives X ‘the oxygen of publicity’, the attention they want and an importance they do not deserve, but ignoring the situation permits them to continue as though I hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. Yesterday I spent a long time on social media, building my business presence, and I could actually ‘see’ X tracking what I was doing, across several profiles. My friends do not need X’s attention, and my clients certainly do not, so I did a bit of blocking and tailoring of my profiles and tweaking the level of access on certain sites. I cannot completely block X from everything, because that’s not the way the world works in practice, not when you’re trying to work online and build a decent business profile for new and existing clients. Also, I am beginning to despise myself for not confronting the issue (but see #3, below). I feel that unless those of us who experience this sort of behaviour do call it out, creepy people have a licence to carry on doing what they’re doing. They’re getting away with it.

Another suggestion is to make myself anonymous or effectively leave t’internet, advice #2.
First, why should I? I enjoy my online life. And how could I? My work is online. I cannot – as another victim of this person’s unwanted attention did – take myself offline. Nor can I simply return to online life under another name (as the other person did). It’s a long-standing problem, and I did take myself off Facebook years ago because of it, but the world has changed, and so has my business. At that time I effectively built several different online personas – this is one – in order to give myself a bit of privacy, but I don’t see that lasting. And I can’t use them for my work.

Advice #3 is to confront X.
The problem here is that I feel that doing this really would be giving X what they want – actual contact, direct contact. Also X definitely has, and evidently always did have, some sort of mental health problem – but it’s not my problem and I don’t want to make it so. Someone who knows us both from years ago (neither of us have actually seen X for over a decade) said ‘don’t get dragged into X World again’ – and I’m not going to. I’ve been there before, trying to help, and it’s not a good place. That’s another reason for protecting my clients and some of my friends from contact with X (some friends will be fine - they’ll just ignore it - but some will not, and I did lose a major client last time; that’s not happening again).

Part of me believes that if X knew how other people saw their behaviour - maybe that their cover had been blown, that what they were doing was indeed stalking, and that they weren’t just a respectable person with a high-powered job but were also going so far online that they fell into the sleazeball category - they would be appalled. And that’s in part why I’m writing this now. The other reason is that people don’t talk about it. We should. My stalker is, I am certain, innocuous if unsettling and rudely intrusive. Other people’s stalkers may be much more serious.

COMMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED ON THIS POST – thank you, everyone, for your support!

Book review: The Spinner’s Book of Fleece

book coverI suppose it’s highly appropriate, really, that I should get a copy of this book by Beth Smith just at the right time. It’s the right time because I’m celebrating the return of summer – or summer’s last flourish, perhaps – by washing fleece. Up to my arms in sheepy water while also baking bread and working. You’ve got to make the most of the weather at this time of year, and in my book that means washing the fleece of the biggest Lleyn lamb on the surface of the planet. Heaven only knows how large the animal was; or maybe it was tiny, but in a huge fleece.

I already have the magisterial Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, which I use a lot, so I wasn’t entirely sure what Beth Smith’s book would add. The answer was detail, and for me that’s extremely useful. It doesn’t have the same range of breeds as the F&FSB, but then it doesn’t intend to. This book looks at how to get your fibre choices right, and for me that’s vital: I’m a sloppy spinner and could do with being a whole lot more considered.

fleece parts

I could also have done with this double-page spread before I sorted my Lleyn. (It took me ages to work out – once unrolled on the lawn, and once Next Door’s Cat had been removed from it – that I was actually looking at it sideways, but I digress.)

Smith looks at twenty-one different breeds (as she says, ‘my choices were also determined by what breeds were available to me’). My first reaction, a hasty one, was that there were too many which I was unlikely to encounter, living this side of the Atlantic. In fact, there are probably only three or four - Polypay, American Karakul, California Red - and, the spinning world being what it is, I could doubtless get hold of some to sample if I wished to do so.

However, to some extent the breeds don’t matter: what matters is the categorisation. Let me quote again: ‘You don’t have to spin the actual breeds I am talking about. You can compare the characteristics of the fleece you have to a similar breed covered here and feel confident that you can successfully work with it using a similar approach.’

Baaa

Fleeces are divided into four basic types. These are fine wools (Merino, for instance), longwools like BFL and Wensleydale, downs and down-type breeds (that pensive Black Welsh Mountain fits in here) and multicoated breeds like Shetlands. There’s also a catch-all ‘other breeds’ group, which includes Jacob.

Each is treated differently for the best effect, and there’s a good basic introduction to sorting and scouring, too. There’s some coverage of tools and terminology which is good for people who are newish spinners or just plain lazy (that would be me), and there’s a very useful part on buying a fleece. Note the ‘buying’: free fleeces, as I have learned, are usually free for a reason

I’d not really thought about what I wanted to do with a fleece before I spun it; I just spun it. But look at these two illustrations from the part about spinning for lace knitting:

compare and contrast

They’ve been spun in the same way, and the pattern is also the same. On the left is a Lincoln, a longwool, and on the right a Suffolk, a down. I’d just thought of lace spinning as spinning very finely, not particularly in terms of exploiting the characteristics of – or even considering – a particular type of fleece. Dur.

And then there’s the processing, even down to using different washing techniques for different types to achieve the best results (my ‘shove it in very hot water with green Fairy Liquid and wait until the flies go away’ method doesn’t feature, surprisingly, though it is remarkably similar to her ‘bulk washing process’ for longwools). My Lleyn – though it doesn’t feature either – is, I think, almost a mixture between a down-type and a longwool (the staple length is great, and there’s good crimp), so I think I’m doing the right thing so far.

BWM samples

As a down-type, she recommends carding – hand- or drum-carding – something like a Lleyn; if I were to treat it as a longwool, she would prefer me to use combs. That’s tough, because I’ve not got combs – but when I see the difference they make, I think I ought to invest in some even though I am currently swearing that I will never, ever process a raw fleece again.

But of course I will. Look, for instance, at the appearance of these two BWM samples (definitely a down type, so there are no hard and fast rules). They’re both beautiful, but the bottom one has been combed. Plus I’ve a Teeswater waiting for processing and, boy, is that a longwool.

So, what do I think, overall?

Well, I think This book is a worthwhile addition to any spinner’s library and, for new spinners, the sections on fleece prep are invaluable. I wish I’d had something like this when I first got up to my elbows in fleece straight off the (mucky) sheep’s back. I relied on telephone calls to friends, blog posts from other spinners, and an old book – a very good old book, but one without illustrations apart from a small line drawing of a fleece which looked nothing like the skanky object I’d just unrolled in the garden. As it is for me now, The Spinner’s Book of Fleece will persuade me to be a whole lot more thoughtful about how I choose and prepare fleece. It may also cost me a large amount of money, because of course I now need a set of wool combs. Of course I do.