A farewell to fleece (sort of)

I’m feeling guilty. Not (for once) because of the gap between posts, but because of a decision I have recently made. I’ve had enough. A straw has broken this camel’s back. Well, not so much a straw as chunks of gorse, miscellaneous pieces of dried vegetable matter, things I believe to be dried sheep shit, and – ergh – scurf. Lots and lots of scurf. Did I mention scurf?

It’s not the fault of sheep. I still like sheep, don’t get me wrong.

Let me explain. I’ve been an advocate here, repeatedly, and elsewhere, also repeatedly, for the use of fleeces in spinning. And particularly local fleeces. I have waxed lyrical on the subject of wool miles. I have been and chosen fleeces on the hoof. Hoof? Well, yes:

I’ll have that one, and that one, and how about that one? When they’re sheared, in six months… I’ve visited farms, learned about how one sheep ate the stock book, how another chased tourists begging for sandwiches, how another taught all her lambs how to squeeze under the gate on the lane by apparently making themselves two-dimensional. I always had respect for sheep (having early acquaintance with a feisty Scottish Blackface x Suffolk flock helped), and I have developed a deep respect for the history of their long association with humans. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is the amount of time I am prepared to devote to this:

The appearance of flexible garden thugs – er, trugs, thank you, autocarrot – made an immense difference to my fleece washing days, but still… ergh. And there’s time and energy to be considered. Lots of both. Time, energy and a huge amount of splashing of sheep-shit-diluted water, that is.

And then there’s this:

The drying stage. Again, helped enormously by the purchase of two sweater-drying racks from eBay, and immeasurably by sunshine and a certain amount of wind. This is Wales. West Wales. Wind is not usually a problem… sunshine? Well, that depends.

But, if I ended up with something like this:

a Teeswater, otherwise known as the Golden Fleece, or this,

I was well pleased, and I still would be. However…

Sometimes I did not. Sometimes I ended up with a fleece which still had a lot of gorse, bracken, or moss. Fair enough, some of that’s my fault or a dodgy choice of fleece, and it largely comes out in the carding anyway. But that, recently, has not been the end of it. Every single fleece I have recently processed has been scurfy and full of second cuts. One – this should probably be behind a spoiler for the faint of heart and/or easily nauseated – was full of dead fleas. Bugs. Dead whatevers.

OK, free fleeces are always a risk. I learned that early on in my spinning career, with the free Zwartbles of Doom. Zwartbles have dark fleeces. This was was liberally sprinkled with white, quite a lot of which fell on the floor when I unrolled it. In fact, given just how much ended up decorating the floor, that fleece should have been clear. It was not. Scurf. Sheep dandruff. Compost bin. And the last few fleeces I’ve been working with harked back to this unpleasant start. Even though they’d not been free.

I recently pulled out a Jacob’s fleece I’d bought. Gigantic, nice and local, beautifully coloured, and I’d split the fleece into colours when I processed it. Should have looked more closely. This time the problem was lots of short second cuts (SUCH a badly-sheared fleece), and noils. These, for the uninitiated, are very, very short bits of fibre, tangled into small lumps. Sometimes they’re the result of bad carding, but this fleece hadn’t yet been carded – so they were down to weakness in the fleece. A ‘tender’ fleece.

I began working on it.

Gently. Sorting it, discarding the worst bits. Carding it, flicking noils out on the carder with a double-ended needle, and hoping most of the short cuts would fall out. (Many did – the mountain of crap accumulating underneath the carder was unbelievable.) I plugged on, determined to get some useable yarn out of this fleece. I’d paid good money for it, I knew its provenance, it was local, I was going to have enough for a jumper because it was just so huge. A colourwork jumper, given how careful I had been about keeping the differently coloured parts of the fleece separate.

No, I wasn’t.

I might get a hat. A smallish hat.

That’s it. That’s all that was useable. It will improve with washing, but it sure as hell won’t increase in quantity.

And that is most definitely it. Producing this small amount took a ridiculous amount of time, a hell of a lot of energy, and almost all the interesting swear words I could make up.

So from now on I am going to be buying roving. Single breed undyed roving is comparatively easy to find, and not that expensive. Not at all expensive when you consider the time, energy, scurf, bracken, spines of gorse and need to invent expressions like pissdongle, flangewhacker and spadwallet. Dear sheep, I still love your fleeces. Honestly, I do. But, in the balancing wool miles against the keeping-my-sanity stakes, I’m coming down on the side of sanity. Or what passes for it.

(And it’s not just sheep. Alpaca. Mites. Ergh.)

Woah – time, flying, etc…

I cannot believe how long it is since I have posted here. And yes, I have been feeling guilty about it… but not guilty enough to get my act together and research a fascinating post about the history of fulling in Wales / the logwood trade and retired pirates / the use of the colour orange. And anyway I’ve covered that lot in the past.

I’ve been busy on a big, time-consuming, personal project totally unconnected with knitting, fleeces, the colour orange or even piracy. In between working on that I’ve been editing like a maniac to ensure I can, you know, eat and pay the bills. Admittedly some of those bills are for yarn, but hey. All in all, I’ve spent far too ling staring at screens and have therefore  been spending my remaining time staring at the garden / next door’s cat (don’t you DARE do that in the courgettes) / my knitting.

Ah, but has the knitting been worth staring at? It’s the colours, I think.

They lift you up, and so does visiting a fibre show like Wonderwool. So here’s a quick zoom over some past projects (and no, the Sweater of Doom has not put me off; it was worth reworking and I have worn it consistently throughout the winter).

Necky things – shawls, cowls and scarves – have been made. The shawl above was destined for a friend who had been making vague noises about wanting something in LGBT+ colours, and this Kureyon Sock yarn seemed to fit the bill. And I fell in love with the graphic qualities of this cowl pattern:

similar, but more subtle, is this two-coloured scarf from the same designer, Stitchnerds (Susan Ashcroft), in which I used some of my early handspun – the cream is Teeswater, and please murder me if I ever show signs of wanting to process another longwool fleece. The multicoloured is another ball of a Kureyon Sock.  It isn’t the best spinning, but it is fabulously warm.

Fair Isle was also accomplished. My big project grew (and is still growing), but some simple cowls got finished. The pattern is from the Shetland Wool Week annual, and I have started making up my own now.

And felting has also taken place, both of knitted things in the washing machine:

And, rarely for me with my legacy of hand damage, wet felting outside it:

No, I don’t know what it is either. It’s a thing, one on a string of things, OK?

And then there was a Wonderwool. I wasn’t going to go this year, really I wasn’t, no I was not. Absolutely. No way. Been there, done that, been barely able to walk because I was carrying too much stuff – full-size Shetland skein winder, that sort of stuff. Nah, not going.


That’s the John Arbon stand. One skein. Namolio was next door. One skein.

Triskelion Yarns stand. Two skeins. They were in a sale bin, right?

And this is what I didn’t buy, because I wasn’t there. Anyone who saw me, I was a hologram. Right?

And I had to go because I said I’d pick up the John Arbon Annual on the stand. Happy knitting. And spinning.

Well, FECK (sorry).

Sorry, not sorry. ‘Feck’ is mild compared to some of the things I’ve been saying. But, nonetheless, language warning.

I should know by now, but I clearly do not. I should know my size. I should know that I don’t need to add a few extra centimetres ‘for luck’. I should recognise that a fitted garment is meant to, you know, fit. I should know not to add a bit just to make sure that the yarn substitution – which is, after all, carefully measured from accurate gauge squares – works. This:

is supposed to be fitted. Now, I am quite happy to wear loose garments, and big soft oversized tunic-y things have been a staple of my knitted wardrobe for years. This is not that thing. This should be, you know, fitted.

OK, it’s too long. That’s fine, I can pull it down or bunch it up, though the latter does give me a strange marsupial-like appearance at the front. What I cannot, could not, cope with is/was the fact that I had a loose tunic-like garment with a fitted hourglass shape. Extra bulk at the front is one thing; looking as though you’ve got extra hips flapping about on each side is another. Think elephant ears, but unusually low down.

Time for action. That is, once I’d ruled out it being time to sell it. Who to? Nobody is that shape. I was tempted to unravel the whole thing, but was persuaded not to, given that the shoulders / neck / sleeves / upper body were all fine provided I wanted loose. Also it had been knitted in sport weight yarn, so 3.5mm needles: fine. No, what I had to do was get rid of the surplus hip thing and then I’d have something loose but acceptable. As opposed to loose but very, very silly (I’ve not worn such an odd garment since I was an extra in the York Mystery Plays aged 15, in a bizarre sacking garment which gave me an attractive third breast – cue the Eccentrica Galumbits* references).

So I began. First, the lifeline. I didn’t want to get carried away. Then revised my first thing: undo the sides, you dozy besom. First thing done, with some swearing. Knitting black yarn is bad enough. Trying to unpick the seaming on the fecker is much, much, worse. Especially when it’s a rather splitty yarn with a high silk content. Second thing, now. Lifeline inserted, on both front and back.

Garment tried on to judge correct revised length on grounds might as well deal with both problems.

I thought undoing the seams was bad. I was wrong. Trying to unpick the rib was infinitely worse. Eventually I emitted a high screaming sound that should have set off all the dogs in the village and grabbed the scissors.

In the manner of Jane Eyre, but slightly amended, ‘Reader, I cut the fecker’. I did. I make no apologies. I cut it. Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie, it was me. (Validation? You think?) Mind you, I still had to unravel the stocking stitch, and that was horrible too. Splitty yarn. Splitty, splitty yarn. Of which I fortunately had another seven balls. So I kept cutting.

And then I threaded a fine needle through and reached the lifeline and began knitting downwards towards the bottom. I’ve done this before, I know it makes no difference.

Well, now. That depends on the yarn.

I did mention it had a high silk content, didn’t I? You know how light reflects off silk? Can I see the line where I picked up the stitches and began knitting in the opposite direction? Could people in the International Space Station see the fecking line?

Yes. Feck. Feck squared. Cubed, even.

(Any suggestions for disguising the change gratefully received. Will probably just settle for simply wearing the fecker now, mind. I won’t notice a damn thing once I’ve drunk a bucket of gin.)

*’The triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6, of course, for those who do not have their Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy to hand.



Why do we choose the colours we do?

I have been cogitating. Well, I should have been working, but I suppose cogitating counts. Hm, it does if it’s thinking about the editing project on which I am working, but not if it’s about knitting.

However, I’ve just finished a big slouchy sweater (on small needles, ouch), and that always leads to speculation about what next… this is, apart from the other two WiPs. Of course, what to knit next could – and doubtless should – include finishing the Fair Isle of Fate, but I need something I can knit in front of the TV. An already complex Fair Isle which you have adapted the hell out of just for the hell of it – well, that is not it. So I went diving into my stash. I know no fear:

And I did survive. But I still haven’t made up my mind. However the odds are that whatever the next garment is, it will essentially, be green. To give you some idea of why, take a look at three randomly selected stash photos:

This has got me thinking about colour. And editing, just in case one of my publishers is reading this. Editing (and writing, cough, cough, deadline, what deadline?) first and foremost. So why do we choose the colours we do?

First, there’s habit. Time after time I find I’ve bought yet another variation on green. Or, for a brief moment of insanity, scarlet. (BMoI caused by being told I looked good in red. Good, maybe; uncomfortable, yes.) This habit can, of course, be unconscious; the choices that led me to decide these would be great colours for my new glasses a couple of years ago also evidently led me to this yarn, a skein of fabulousness from Wonderwool this year. (This year! And I’m knitting with it already!) And I’m not the only one who defaults to habitual choices.

Then there’s – well, let’s be honest about it – fear. A large wool shop knows to order more of a colourway if the main (previously the only) photograph uses it. Model in a pink version? Order more pink. I say ‘previously’ because some magazines, some yarn companies, are waking up to this one and illustrating alternatives. But I have had customers say to me, even in my limited time, my half-day helping in a wool shop, ‘I like the pattern but I’d never knit it because it’s purple/ brown/red/pink [delete what does not apply] and it doesn’t suit me’.

This raises the question of how knitters managed when patterns were not illustrated in colour.

Take the two fair Isles, for instance. One, the vest, specifies the colours inside – and incidentally includes an early example of a chart, evidently hand drawn (click on the image for a larger view).

The other simply divides the two colours into ‘lighter’ and ‘darker’ shades – easier, though, because there are only two colours involved. And look at the instructions…

I can’t quite believe that I once – and not that long ago, thank you – knitted Fair Isle from instructions like these.

But there’s much more to colour choices than habit or temerity. Alison Lurie highlights some of these in her 1981 book, The Language of Clothes (worth digging out, and surprisingly undated). She looks at many other things than colour – in fact, the chapter on colour is quite late on. She stresses that some ‘aspects of the language of clothes can be read by anyone’, and says that the ‘first and most important one’ is colour. Lots of serious work has been done on the psychological effects and impact of colour (though some of it is decidedly monocultural), and Lurie illustrates some of these by citing opposites: consider, for instance, a male stockbroker in a pink satin suit or a bride in a black dress – I can’t be the only one thinking ‘Morticia’:

The messages are quite different. Of course one of the main messages is ‘sod stereotypes’… But convention does come into play. It may suggest, or even specify, certain colours: black for a barrister; dull hues for an office worker, who will probably not wear them with rainbow 14-hole DMs. The office worker in her navy suit may either cling to the colour away from work or rebel against it; the barrister might find she naturally gravitates towards monochrome in her leisure time.

Then there are our beliefs. We might avoid a colour because we think (or know) that t makes us look terrible, the way that a particular shade of grey-lavender which I love actually makes me look like a long-dead corpse. You can take the whole Goth thing too far. And of course there’s my scarlet. I’ve been told it looks good, but I ‘know’ that it doesn’t. Pity these are also in my stash, then.

I’ll give them a go, honestly I will.

Then there are trends provoking colour choices, as well: orange for this autumn and winter, apparently, and indigo (here are Pantone’s highly influential predictions, now a reality in many shops). If you can afford it, and if you can’t there’s always Primark, you can simply follow a colour trend. If you want something different, it could be problematic. I remember searching the shops for green when I was a teenager and being forced to fall back on black. Again.

How about weather? In summer, with its harsher light and high – well, this year anyway, and maybe many more – temperatures, pale colours look good on many people. Better at least than they do in winter, when they can drain any colour of skin of its tones. The net result of wearing pale colours in winter is that you can look more fragile and delicate than you might want… or maybe you might. Just putting that thought out there. And it might not necessarily apply to this trio. Or it might.

But these are summer suits, after all, and would therefore have been put away once September was over.

Oh yes, and don’t forget that colour isn’t a standalone thing. Well, most of the time. It’s influenced by the colours around it too. In my case, whether they will work with black. Black is summarised by Lurie as connoting ‘gloom, guilt and sophistication’. Hm. I’m not quite sure how that squared with the five-year-old me demanding to be made a black party dress (fair play to my mother, I got one with black in it), but I’ll go with the sophistication part. Or it could just mean that you’re an unreconstructed Goth.

Want to have a quick look at the completed sweater? Don’t hold your breath…



Summer fun. No, really.

It’s been a busy summer. Nothing wrong with that; what with work and trying to stop the garden from turning into the Gobi Desert, I’ve been rushed off my feet. It was quite a relief to find myself spending three weeks with friends in a craft pop-up in Harlech. In the building behind the bunting.

(It was once a library, but one non-visitor announced loudly ‘I’m not going in there, it smells of old chapels’. A: no, it doesn’t, and B: what had terrified him so much about old chapels? The writer in me nearly dashed out and asked.)

I always take my spinning wheel, a good reference book on sheep, and some samples of differently coloured fleece. If nothing else, it gives me something else to do when we’re quiet (knitting all the time would just lead to more hand trouble, must vary my craft, must vary my craft, must… you get the picture).

So many people are fascinated by the process, and most of them have never seen anyone spinning before, though I did – to our mutual surprise – encounter another Louet user, a delightful Dutch visitor. The fleeces are particularly fascinating to children (so soft, and they are all washed, of course), and thrilled a couple from Chicago who had been wondering what ‘all the small black animals in the fields were’. Zwartbles, often, now, but some are Black Welsh Mountains. If I’d spent my life in Chicago I’d not expect black sheep, either. Lake-effect snow, yes; getting your scarf frozen to your face in the few blocks between where you are staying and the Art Institute where you’re working, yes; seeing commuters skiing in the street, yes. Black sheep, no, not necessarily.

But I don’t necessarily spin fleece, though. It’s the idea of prepping it; I’d never have enough for a day’s spinning – part of a day spinning, ahem – without prepping it on site, as it were, and the thought of what a determined  nine-year-old boy could do to his younger brother with a drum carder makes my blood run cold. They’re bad enough with an unsupervised spinning wheel. So I take fluff. And this year I had some mystery fluff (I’d inherited it) which turned out to be Wingham’s cashmere and silk blend. All 700g of it. Spun like a dream, too.

As you might expect. Sigh. Plied wonderfully as well.

Now, of course, the question is what to knit with it. I intended to keep it DK weight, but it turned out more 4 ply or sport weight equivalent; it wanted to be fine. I had also intended to dye it, possibly with madder, but I’m loving the natural cream’n’gleam effect of the undyed fibre. I can feel a shawl coming on.

When I’ve finished the sweater on the needles at the mo. And the other shawl on the other needles. Oh yes, and when I’ve finished spinning the last 100g.

On felting, bags and oops

I love making felted bags. I made my first one in Noro Kureyon – a beautiful 100% wool single – ages and ages ago, and loved it, little knowing it would be the start of an addiction. Then I made another, a bit more complex, using the same yarn and a spot of Jamieson’s Shetland Chunky for contrast:

and I was even more pleased with the result (it’s based on the Booga Bag – Ravelry link). I still use it, a lot, and no it isn’t for sale. Not at any price. Well, probably at any price if that price is well into five figures, but otherwise – nope.

I made one from a Rowan pattern, this time embroidered:

Apologies for the quality of that shot – what was I thinking?

Each bag taught me something. That one taught me to take better photos before parting with a bag, and that an unlined felted strap will stretch like Stretchy McStretchyThing, so you have to line it. I line the bags, generally, though some don’t necessarily need it.

Then I started thinking ‘why not make one to your own pattern? I came up with one and made another bag, using handspun and hand-dyed scraps, and everyone wanted to buy it. But it was mine, all mine! I used it. Boy, did I use it. The handles have stretched because I’ve been doing silly things like carrying heavy books and my iPad in it.

The one in the front probably wasn’t felted enough and the handles are too wide, but you learn…

Inevitably, I made more. They often ended up on my stall at craft fairs and in the summer pop-up shop, and they always sold. And with each one, I continued to learn. I learned to do a felting test first, knitting a swatch then shoving it in the washing machine and seeing how and how much it shrank.

Some handspun Jacobs felted hardly at all, for instance, so that was out. And the degree of shrinkage was always greater vertically than horizontally: I might lose 10% of the knitted width, for example, but 33% of the depth. I could then knit the unfelted piece accordingly. This worked really well:

and my felting became much more predictable.

Predictably, I got sloppy. Some Malabrigo Worsted came to live with me, and it clearly wanted to felt, so I let it. I knitted myself a replacement bag for the scrappy one, shoved it in the washing machine and kept my fingers crossed. Boy, did it shrink: to just the right size to carry my circular needles, but that is it. So, with a ball of yarn for scale:

Cute, but hm. However, it had felted (logically) into a really solid fabric which needed no lining and which pleased me enormously. So, bearing in mind the shrinkage, I knitted another. I knitted everything I still had. It worked, but it’s still not as tall as I’d wish…


and after:

And the finished bag:

I love it. Definitely holds more than my circular needles…

So, a few tips:

  • Always knit a test piece, and always remember to note the measurements of this piece before you wash it (ahem). Make it big enough to allow for interesting developments.
  • Not all 100% wool will felt in the same way or to the same degree. Another reason why you need that test piece.
  • Knit on needles at least a couple of sizes larger than you would normally use for the yarn. It will look terrible (see the ‘before’ pics) but you need to give the piece room to felt.
  • If you’re knitting a bag with a rectangular base, put a stitch marker at each corner. That helps with working out where the handle goes, and also ensures you end with a full round rather than a partial one.
  • Washing something you are felting with a pair of old jeans for company may provide enough friction for the felting. Trainers work too. But you may still need to felt more than once to get the solidity you require.
  • Lining is easy. I line mine as though I was making a tote bag (many, many tutorials online) and cut off the excess on the base. Note, though, that because the knitted/felted fabric of the bag is flexible, the lining should be too – a couple of soft pleats will do the trick. It will need hand stitching into place; machine stitching can be difficult because of bulk, and can also be too assertive. Unless that’s what you want.
  • Have fun!
  • Oh yes – do not use a felted bag for carrying bricks.

Sheep and people

Some time ago I was beyond chuffed to have found a copy of M L Ryder’s huge tome Sheep and Man (I know, I know, but it was published in 1983 when you could get away with that sort of thing – when nobody even questioned it, much of the time).

What with one thing and another – mostly work – I’ve not done more than dip into it occasionally. But I’ve just sat myself down with a glass of wine and had an hour of browsing. And I’ve learned all sorts of things. I thought I knew about sheep. I now know that I know about 0.00005% of the stuff there is to know about sheep. Or as one of my visitors put it once, ‘those white fluffy things up there’. I thought she meant clouds, but no. She meant sheep. What she was pointing to were actually wild goats, but hey.

It’s a work of its time, of course: how could it be anything else? In the section on transhumance in Romania, for instance, Ryder talks about ‘the best features of traditional shepherding being incorporated into the collective system’ which (largely) ended in Eastern Europe with the fall of communism, but it is still fascinating. Do, I wonder, Romanian shepherds still wear the ankle-length sheepskin coat?

They did in 1982, when this photograph was taken.

Sheep and Man is full of fascinating facts and snippets. Let’s have a few:

  • Shepherds in Maramures (Romania) regard the sheep as being holy, and say that it makes the sign of the cross on the ground before going to sleep.
  • In Babylonia, sacrificial sheep were not wasted (the same was doubtless true elsewhere, but there is documentation in the form of some of the earliest written records here), but their meat was shared out: tails for metalworkers, breasts for the goldsmiths, ribs for the weavers, etc. The hind leg, the gigot, was the prime cut then too, and that was reserved for the god. Exact records were kept.
  • In Ancient Rome, cheese from the evening milk should be taken to town by the shepherd the next morning. There were two kinds of sheep’s milk cheese, one very fresh (like this) and one salted and intended to last.
  • And on the theme of keeping things to last: in 1840, one traveller in Afghanistan witnessed an ambush when some sheep were caught. They were killed and buried so that the raiding party would have something to eat on their return journey (gag).

OK, how about wool, then?

No, these two Frenchmen are not torturing the sheep (or doing anything suspect which might involve an early form of welly). They are washing the fleece in a flume and, quite frankly, I wish more farmers would take this up. Or even revive the art of washing sheep in the streams and rivers, as used to be traditional round here. Covering the garden (and myself, Next Door’s Cat and any passing visitors) in skanky fleece and sheep poo is one reason why I am contemplating never working with raw fleece again. OK, rant over.

  • As early as Roman times, wool was sometimes washed off the animal, being scoured in a tub (presumably not a green plastic garden trug such as the one I use, ahem). Soapwort roots were used to remove the lanolin, and it was ‘reserved for use as a medicament’.
  • The first shears are Iron Age in date; prior to that sheep were ‘rooed’: plucked; the sheep still moulted naturally as some ‘primitive’ breeds do today. On St Kilda a knife was used before shears were introduced, and Ryder speculates that this might have been the case in the more remote past.
  • But there is no evidence of hand cards before the Middle Ages. I know ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ but what did they use? Intriguing. Maybe nothing – rooing would have removed some of the coarser fibres – but combing is more likely. Carding may have developed as wool became finer and matted more easily, which would have made it more difficult to comb.
  • Wool, along with hair, has been used as a binder in plaster and paper making.


  • Sheep’s foot oil was (still is?) used to grease violin strings
  • Hippocrates advocated the use of greasy sheep’s wool as a wound dressing. (Not bonkers: it might encourage clotting, the lanolin would stop a wound drying out, and ‘some of the complex substances it contains may promote growth of new tissue’ – ‘Some secretions of sheepskin are bactericidal’.)
  • One cure for sickness was to wrap the patient in a freshly removed sheepskin – and a ‘tea’ made from droppings could be used to treat all sorts of things from measles to whooping cough. So glad I did not know this when I had whooping cough a year ago.
  • Many English village names bear testimony to the importance of sheep. Watch out for sceap derivates such as skip, ship, shap, or shep in the names: Shepton Mallet, Skipton, Shipley…

Ok, now I want to investigate old Californian mission brands. Or winter feeding in Mediaeval Italy. Or the reluctance of many settler families to appreciate the value of merino sheep in Australia. Or sheep-milk butter making. Or wool in Persian carpets. Or the ways in which sheep have been restrained (no, ye dirty-minded pups, ye) such as hobbling, yokes, and various tethers including a ‘sheep bow’. Or the use of wool threads in sorcery and witchcraft. Or healing: George III was given black wool stockings for his rheumatism… I can’t stop. Yes, I can: my wine is getting warm.

Let’s have some pretty sheep to finish. Gotland crosses. Local.

The Knit Nurse returns (with sketchbooks)

I’m at a – well, I suppose it’s a sort-of craft fair – at the weekend. It’s the Fibre and Fabric Fair in Harlech (harlechcraftfair.com), where nine local ‘designer-makers’ (sorry about that) will be demonstrating and selling and letting people have a go at whatever it is they do. There are three very different weavers, a spinner and dyer, a printmaker, an embroiderer, a ‘sewist’ (sorry about that too) who recycles beautiful old fabric, a felter – and us. A friend and I are running a knitting hospital. I keep saying ‘the knitting doctor is in’; she keeps referring to herself as the knit nurse…

The last Fair, I took along my sketchbooks and people seemed to find them very interesting. Er, interesting, anyway. So I’ve been digging them out, tidying them up (i.e. picking up about 85,623,890 ancient ball bands which fell out, then sticking them in place)

and making them look vaguely respectable. I then put a pic of one on Instagram, saying that I wasn’t sure whether or not to take it, as I didn’t feel it was very exciting:

and I got one comment saying that I should, definitely, to demonstrate that there’s more to the maths in knitting than counting rows and stitches. Hm. Personally, I think that might be more more likely to put people off, but I’ll probably take it.

I’m certainly taking the big sketchbook which relates to my latest Fair Isle WiP:

and probably the notes which relate to it, as well as a finished (must block it) piece.

But the whole thing got me thinking, after a chat with the embroiderer. How many of us who work with textiles keep sketchbooks, I wonder? Or notebooks, or whatever we like to call them? As the embroiderer said, a sketchbook doesn’t have to involve paints or pencils or pens… Oh, well, enough speculation – must go and block the hell out of that Fair Isle. Wish me and the Knit Nurse luck!

Customer service, shops and woolly fairs…

I think that title about covers it.

I said in my last post that I was looking forward to visiting Loop when I was down in London (and living virtually next door), as I’d previously been a bit ‘meh’ about it. Well. I went in, with a list of things I wanted to look at – and most probably buy, given that I’d checked them out on Rav. A couple of issues of Laine magazine, some of Jared Flood’s books, Marie Wallin’s Shetland. Probably would have come to about £100.

Did I buy any of them? I did not. Could I find them? Some, yes. Did anyone show any interest in serving me? No, they did not. Speaking to me? Nope. I know I wasn’t wearing an invisibility cloak because one of the five people who seemed to be members of staff said ‘bye’ as I left. Still, that meant I had more to spend at Wonderwool on Sunday.

And I did. That fine strip of blackness was a completely unnecessary purchase which was down to brilliant customer service.

It’s a wrist tape measure. It’s fifteen inches long, is measured off in both inches and centimetres, and goes round your wrist twice where it fastens securely. It’s leather, and it was – well, let’s just say ‘not cheap’. An unbought issue of Laine magazine not cheap. I was merely intrigued, but the woman on the stand took me through the logic (indisputable: my friend had been doing tension squares in the wine bar the night before without a ruler – I know, I know – which led to some speculation on accurate guessing, length and much coarse laughter), and the available options. Obviously I was attracted by the almost-black one – very popular in Scandinavia, apparently – but I resisted. I went back twice before I gave in. But I gave in. And each time I had fabulous service.

Then there’s this:

This, my lovelies, is Colinette Banyan. Colinette! Colinette who went out of business a couple of years ago! And it was on sale! I also bought the five balls of bright red Juniper Moon Zooey from this stand – in part, again, because of brilliant, informative, friendly customer service. Even though the stall was heaving with people.

John Arbon got my money for some fibre (the orange) even though I swore I wasn’t buying fibre – and guess what one of the factors was? Yup. And the people on the stall who sold me the silvery blue were great too. In the teeth of a freezing cold and very busy Wonderwool Wales.

Customer service: it costs nothing. It doesn’t even cost your pride. When I was a baby bookseller I was once told ‘don’t grovel, don’t be snotty, just treat your customers as you would want to be treated,’ and I think that just about sums it up.

Oh, and IMO a good local yarn store in a provincial (or market or small) town can knock socks off one with a high opinion of itself in central London. It’s not just customer service where the LYS can easily win (why annoy people who might turn into regulars?), it’s range as well (you have to cater for the baby wool market, as well as the addicts who will pay £35 for a single skein). Enthusiasm – that’s another factor. Encouragement. Inspiration. Even help. Yes, there are exceptions, but there are more who match. There. I’ve said it. And as someone who lived in London for 20 years, I never thought I would. Yay for great wool shops in the provinces. They can win. And often do.

As a footnote: the eight balls of Shetland DK were brought down to Wales specifically for me to collect at the show by Jamieson’s. From Lerwick. Customer service!

What makes a good wool shop?

I’ve been considering this – and I’d better fess up, because I work in one, half a day a week, to get me a) out of the house, b) working with all sorts of yarn fabulousness, and c) to give me an excuse to make the most enormous fuss of the individual who really runs Knit one… in Dolgellau, the lovely and somewhat bossy imperious Bramble:

I’m abandoning North Wales briefly next week, as I have a meeting in London. Conveniently close to Loop. I mean, it would be silly not to investigate, wouldn’t it? Even though I have been before?

So, what does constitute a good wool – for wool, read yarn – shop?

First, I suppose, that it exists. There are not as many wool shops as there once were, but I do think the ones which have made it through are an enormous improvement in terms of quality. The first wool shop I remember was a dark cavern of a place in York, where my mother took me in despair when she saw the ‘easy’ object I had picked as my first garment to knit. It was beige. It was a tank top. It was super chunky. I have no idea why, and neither did she. After one horrified look, she stuffed me in the car and drove to a then-notorious area where, in a brutalist block of shops, stood a wool shop. It was stuffed. Stuffed. You couldn’t see in (or out). Ma showed the woman behind the counter what I had been knitting and they both became slightly hysterical. I was allowed to leave, eventually, with a cardigan pattern and some mohair in peacock and jade and purple. I loved that cardigan.

That leads on to the second point: inspiration. Inspiration and colour. Here is Jamieson’s in Lerwick:

and I defy anyone not to be inspired by this. I certainly could not resist, which led to the most complex of my (many, ahem) WiPs, a Fair Isle cardigan, colours chosen to reflect the landscape of Shetland. I am amazed that I managed to restrict myself to enough wool for just one, really.

Texture is part of this as well: you need to be able to fondle those balls (ooo, matron). Even if it is just to stroke them, as on the Oliver Twist stand at Wonderwool Wales:

Which reminds me, it’s Wonderwool next weekend. I will be there, or be square and deprived of yarn, on the Sunday. I have to go, no really I do, because Jamieson’s will be there and I have to collect some more of the yarn for the cardigan. Forced to go, basically. Life is hard.

Next, and maybe it should be right at the top, comes customer service.

I remember a wool shop, now unsurprisingly closed, where the owner spent all her time leaning on the counter and moaning. About the tourists (her bread and butter); about parking; about the weather; about how hard it was to run a wool shop because people would keep coming in wanting to buy stuff (not to worry – they soon went elsewhere); about politics (anyone to the left of Attila the Hun); about the bad service she had received elsewhere – the woman had no sense of irony – and about how the people who went to the local knit and natter groups failed to buy all their yarn from her. Really? You surprise me.

There’s another, too, I’ve encountered. In this one the problem wasn’t lackadaisical service but rather the opposite: you WILL knit this, and you WILL knit it in this yarn. What do you mean, you want to make your own mind up?

Ideally, the service should be just at the right level, and that means being aware of what customers are happy with – some people want to chat, some people want to look in silence (and some people come to see the cat rather than the yarn, but that’s fine). I think it should also involve help where necessary and if required:

(like me being taught magic loop, yet again, yes, I know, I’m blaming my hand surgery). Though there is a fine line between providing help and people who expect you to finish their knitting…

So where, I wonder, will Loop fit in? I’ve not been wildly impressed so far, but I’ve been there with non-knitters – which doesn’t really give you the chance to get a proper impression. We will see. If nothing else, I’m going to enjoy the pattern books. Laine magazine particularly.

And, as a final note, look what we found on the inside of a Zauberball label:

They’re not wrong.