I’ve been a bit quiet…

… and this is why:


Even I realise this needs some explanation. This, incidentally, is Belinda and he is modelling a bias cowl knitted in a yarn I wouldn’t normally go for but which is one of the best ‘fake fur’ yarns I’ve come across, Sirdar’s Touch.

OK, the elephant in the room. Or perhaps the cross-gender bear on the bed.

I’ve no idea why he’s called Belinda but he is definitely male. Not sure how I knew, I just did. I think I wanted a brother when I was given Belinda (a year or so later I experienced the reality and, let me tell you, it was not what I’d imagined) and that may account for my certainty, but why Belinda? I didn’t know any Belindas. I knew a Chloe and a Jean-Louis and a Gerald and a Simon and a Didier and a Susan, but I didn’t know a Belinda. Anyway, Belinda it is and he’s not changing it now.


I’ve been busy because of this (well, and work, natch):

a4 craft fair christmas poster 2015

of which I am one of the organisers. And ‘organising’ is probably not the best word, because organising craftspeople, and I class myself in this, is an art right up there with herding kittens and trying to rearrange clouds. And now I’m trying to prepare myself for the inevitable – the lovely customers, the fellow knitters, are a joy – of course. But there’s also the ‘I can make one of these myself, so can you let me have it cheaper?’ / ‘you can get these in Asda for £2.50’ brigade. Sigh.

Will be back once next weekend is over. Possibly traumatised.

Hello sheepies!

Sorry about that. It’s how my brother used to greet the day when he was about, oh, five. Er, after he’d woken the whole house up at silly o’clock shouting that he’d ‘finis’ sleepin’ – which inevitably got the grumbling response of ‘well, we haven’t’. Anyway, it stuck, passing into family slang, so ‘hello sheepies!’ it is.


Over on my gardening blog I’ve been tree following every month. This doesn’t involve waiting for ents to lumber over the hill (though it easily could, round here); it involves – er, tree following. Reporting on a specific tree once a month, and watching changes, wildlife, etc. I’ve been ‘following’ a hawthorn and I’ve been reporting on archaeology – it’s next to a dolmen – the weather, the fact the someone appears to have been casting a circle up there, and sheep. Oh, I’ve had wild goats as well. One wild goat, much lower down than is usual.

The tree is in a stunning landscape:


one which has been cultivated for time out of mind: some of the field systems are neolithic, as is the dolmen, of course. In high summer there are generally a few cows up here, but there’s not that much sign of the sheep – they go higher up. In spring they’re here, with their lambs once they’re not brand spanking new, and then they take themselves off. Or perhaps that should be ‘are allowed to take themselves off’, but the Scottish sheep I knew would take themselves off. Even over cattle grids (they rolled). That’s why the cattle grids needed gates too.

Now it’s the reappearance of the sheep that means the year is turning, whatever the temperature (they are moved even lower when snow looks likely – or definite, rather).

baaaa 2, ok 3

When I started paying my regular visits, the sheep would take one look at me and flee, bleating madly – perhaps they knew I was mentally dissing their fleeces (they’re Welsh Mountains: coarse, good for carpets, not garments, unless you’re very lucky). Or maybe not. Now they check me out and carry on.

I think they’ve become accustomed to me and realise I’m no threat. That’s not daft: sheep are a) brighter than you might think if you’ve not read any recent research or lived with them, and b) can recognise and remember for a couple of years about fifty human faces, as that research has shown. I’m pretty sure that this lot have got used to me because while I was talking these shots two hikers walked along the track above me. They were quiet, nothing unusual or scary about them – and the sheep scattered, returning once they’d gone.

(incidentally, research has also shown that sheep self-medicate. If they’ve eaten something that has made them unwell, they’ll find and eat something which makes them better – which, for instance, addresses constipation or indigestion. Shepherds and people who lived closely with sheep have known this for thousands of years, but it’s scientifically proven now, so that’s OK.)


Very fine knees, this sheep.

And now the weather has turned, and all the sheep are sheltering in the shadow of walls, dolmens, Iron Age hut circles, gorse, hawthorns, etcetera, etcetera. It’s ridiculously mild, but also ridiculously wet and ridiculously windy (Irish Sea: southwesterly gale force 9, decreasing gale force 8, imminent). So to reassure myself that it’s not always like this, I’m ending with a picture which has nothing to do with sheep, wool, knitting or anything else. Castell Harlech in the sunset, a few evenings ago. Couldn’t resist…

Castell Harlech

It’ll stop raining soon. And these colours just have to end up in a sweater.

(Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa is the conical mountain in the middle, not looking that high really. But it is. Please do not even think about climbing it in flip-flops. Really. Or plimsolls.)


The continuing story of a sweater…

Way, way back in the early days of this blog (it’s nearly five), I wrote a post about a much-beloved sweater. Days are getting gradually colder – and so is my neck – and  thoughts turn to big, cuddly, and above all warm, knitwear. Actually, I don’t think mine ever really turn away. I like big sweaters. What am I saying? I love big sweaters.

The sweater in question has long since joined the big woolly cloud in the sky – or rather been transformed into the stuffing for a draught excluder. It developed holes. Some holes can be mended, and this one had already been reknitted from the wrists up,

sweater repair

but other repairs are impossible. One friend suggested patches, but withdrew the suggestion after I pointed out that if I added tassels to the patches I’d be able to pass as a somewhat unusual form of exotic dancer. One in a big sweater. With patches as well as tassels. Myself, I couldn’t see the sweater working with towering platform soles, big hair and a g-string, but I guess there are all sorts of – um, points of view – out there.

That perfect sweater had been knitted in wool from – sob – the defunct Hunters mill in Brora, bought in 1998 but not knitted up until 2005. It was incredibly warm (there’d been a lot of lanolin in the wool when I washed it out in the croft kitchen, which caused a bit of an, er, argument, and I think some of it remained, though given the state of the sink I cannot think how). It was a great substitute for a coat. The colours in the tweedy yarn allowed me to accessorise it with almost anything, though generally that meant walking boots – when it didn’t mean wellies.

I knew I wanted to replace it, so my first attempt was in wool from New Lanark, bought at Wonderwool Wales. Lovely colour – red – but made me look like a corpse. I guess the red had too much blue in it, really. And I wasn’t that impressed by the wool either; it tended to go a bit thick and thin and I actually felted it slightly to correct that. So it’s been sold.

Still needed a replacement.

Life moved on, and I found myself standing in Jamieson’s Lerwick shop on my trip to Shetland four years ago. Wool was calling to me, delicious wool, green wool. Bought it, knitted it up into a replacement for the Sweater.


And it’s lovely. But it’s not for me. Not quite sure why, mind: it’s warm, the colour suits me, it reminds me of Shetland. But it may be the design; there’s just something about it that doesn’t really suit me any more, and I’ve not changed that much. Or maybe it’s the combination of colour and design, or maybe it’s just the fact that it means I’d be wearing a whole garment in – shhhh – colour.

Still needed a replacement.

I turned to some more Jamieson’s wool, this time bought at Jamieson’s Mill in Sandness from a giant cardboard box with ‘£2 a ball’ written on it (well, you just HAVE to). Chunky, though, and in black. Well, in Mirrie Dancers:

Mirrie Dancers

But I was radical – I chose another design. By now I was messing with designs instead of following patterns obediently, and I messed with Erika Knight’s Felted Sweater, adjusting the sleeves so they had at least some shaping, and reworking it so I could use my wool at the best tension.

I love it. I live in it, and it’s just come out again – it’s like seeing an old friend. Again, it’s so warm, it’s so wonderful, and I wear it constantly. But this time I’m doing some scenario planning (sorry; I’m writing a business book at the moment). Or maybe – shudder – that should be succession planning?

In yet another move charting my changing history with wool, I’ve seen the sheep. I’ve chosen the fleece. I’ve washed the fleece:


and it’s ready to spin (Gotland x Black Welsh Mountain – great colour, great lustre, quite a short staple, for all you spinners out there). I’m not quite ready to spin it, mind – I’ve got the the end of a Manx Loaghtan and a Teeswater (spinning up beautifully) to get through. But I think my big sweater will do another couple of winters. Fingers crossed!

I find the whole thing fascinating – how one garment can chart seventeen years. From skeins drying outside a croft in Sutherland, to my very first visit to Wonderwool Wales, to Shetland, to a farm in North Wales with Gotland sheep running around the place being pointed at by a couple of spinners – ‘Can I have that one? And that one? How about that one? When are you shearing?’. And it charts skills too: from following a pattern (and having to borrow my first ever circular needle from a neighbour so I could pick up the neck bands) to adapting patterns and then spinning the wool. And I’d not realised, either, that all the wool was British, or – to come over all Nicola Sturgeon – largely Scottish. Oh, I know that the New Lanark red was probably from the Falklands, but at lest it was New Lanark.

If I wanted to come over all anthropological, I could talk about signifiers and objects carrying meaning, but let’s not go there. It’s bad enough that I talked about succession planning…


The wisdom (and occasional oddness) of shepherds

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about shepherds, and not just because I’ve been re-reading James Rebanks’ excellent book The Shepherd’s Life. It’s was the contrast between the role of the shepherd (as opposed to those farmers and crofters who are simultaneously their own shepherds) as both farm servant and independent individual which initially interested me. And then I got distracted…

Shepherds have always been among the most trusted and respected people on a farm; in nineteenth-century Scotland, for instance, they were often the most important of farm servants, living an independent life and frequently running their own sheep with the main flock, as they also did in Sussex. Many of the old shepherds spoke of ‘my sheep’ in interviews, and the weren’t just referring to those (if any) that actually belonged to them. Shepherds were on their own for long periods of time, often without supervision or oversight. They had to be trusted.

Sheep and Shepherd, by James Walsham; courtesy of Baldock Bassetlaw District Council

As George Ewart Evans says about Suffolk in Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, ‘a farmer would have to be sure of his man before entrusting to him a flock of sheep whose welfare depended solely on the skill and trustworthiness of the shepherd and his occasional assistant’. There’s trustworthy and trustworthy, mind – pick your definition – because trustworthiness and confidence didn’t mean that shepherds were necessarily well rewarded.

35_5184Generally, in fact, they were not: poaching and (in some areas) smuggling were almost necessary for survival. The long interior pockets in a traditional smock were useful for the first activity: they could easily hold a couple of rabbits (but they weren’t big enough to hide a hare). One ninteenth-centrury Suffolk shepherd – Liney Richardson – chose the latter option: he both helped the smugglers land and hide the cargo, and then would drive his flock over any traces of nocturnal traffic.

But, looking back from the perspective of the present, some shepherding traditions and beliefs can seem a little strange – however, they are generally anything but.

Take sheep and memory. Since, oh, biblical time (and doubtless longer, but there are no records, prehistory being just that, pre-written-history) shepherds have known that sheep can recognise different people and have quite efficient memories. Scientific research has been carried out into sheep memory and – surprise, surprise – has established that sheep do, in fact, have quite good memories.

Less logically, perhaps, in some areas it’s bad luck for a shepherd to count the animals in the flock. Apparently this is also done by wolves, so humans must not even think about it (and there are several potential posts to be had on the language of sheep counting – yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp*, that sort of thing – but it’s too huge a subject, and I’m not sure I’m linguistically qualified to do so anyway). In Mediaeval France sheep were specifically given bells when grazing near woods because of wolves – allegedly this was to scare them off, but I don’t imagine a determined and hungry wolf would be much scared by a bell. But I’m probably wrong in this assumption: in Sheep and Man, Ryder mentions ‘one South Dakota herder’ who recently [1977] put bells on his flock to ‘deter coyotes’. I don’t imagine he would have done that unless there had been good reason for it.

(Interestingly, the bells were not worn – or sounded – all the time. In some places they were muffled with grass in the run up to Easter or when a shepherd was ill, and might be muffled or removed completely when moving a flock through a town or village at night. They were also removed during mourning, so presumably the wolves respected the dead as well.)

A collection of animal bells – cow, sheep and goat

There is something incredibly evocative about the sound of bells on animals – now most frequently heard on goats in places like southern Spain (there are some clips on YouTube of belled sheep in Sardinia). But it’s a sound that would have rung out across huge parts of the world in the past, and it was common in Britain too.

One area in East Anglia had four or five flocks that used the same piece of common land. Each flock’s lead sheep had a bell and each bell had a different note – probably because they were a different size, though this is not explicit, but the most common iron bells could not be tuned – meaning that flocks could be distinguished in the dark or in fog, of course. In Suffolk the lead sheep was called the ‘cosset’ – it had probably been hand-reared by the shepherd as it was one which was particularly attached to him – and the cosset would follow the shepherd, the flock would follow the cosset and the dog would bring up the rear and keep tabs on any stragglers.

Shepherd’s crooks go right back. Biblical shepherds used a long straight staff plus a rod, which was also useful for self-defence; in ancient Greece, shepherds seem to have used something more curved. Jean de Brie, writing in 1379, said that ‘the shepherd adorned with his crook is as noble as a bishop with his crozier’ – itself modelled on the shepherd’s crook. The hockey-stick type was common in Medieval England,

Tending sheep

and in eastern Europe, quite recently, the wooden heads might be carved into things like dragons, snakes and ram’s heads, and were generally carried across the shoulders. In nineteenth century Britain crooks were often made of iron – ‘made from the barrel of an old muzzle-loading gun’ says Ewart Evans. One old shepherd interviewed by him dismissed shop-bought crooks as ‘only good for shepherd-girls in a play’. They had to be custom made, of course – to suit the particular sheep they were intended for.

Incidentally, most shepherds, all over the world, do seem to have been male – but not exclusively. Sometimes shepherding was a communal, family task, especially in nomadic societies, and sometimes – in the Balkans, for instance – many shepherds were female. I don’t imagine for a minute that they were like ‘shepherd-girls in a play’…

Eugene Verboeckhoven, A Shepherdess with her Flock

I’d just like to end by mentioning my favourite shepherd, albeit a fictional one: Granny Aching, in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. OK, she’s dead before the narrative of the first one – The Wee Free Men – takes place, but she’s left a powerful memory:

‘…Granny Aching’s light, weaving slowly across the downs on freezing, sparkly nights or in storms like a raging war, saving lambs from the creeping frost or rams from the precipice. She froze and struggled and tramped through the night for idiot sheep that never said thank you and would probably be just as stupid tomorrow, and get into the same trouble again. And she did it because not doing it was unthinkable.’

* yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp – one, two, three, four, five. It’s often stated that these are Welsh. Not quite: in Welsh, which like French has masculine and feminine genders, it’s un, dai (m) / dwy (f), tri (m) / tair (f), pedwar (m) / pedair (f), pump. Admittedly ‘pump’ is pronounced ‘pimp’, but there you go. And there are all sorts of regional variations from northern Britain – that’s one I’ve known for ever – and there’s an interesting (if unverified) summary on Wikipedia.

Book reviews: three to think about

I’ve been so busy that a small pile-ette of books to review has built up. Oh, OK, there are three. And I have to say that they are all quite distinct. One is wonderful, one is inspiring, and one is – well, for me, a bit meh. So let’s start with the first one…

IMG_3726The Essential Guide to Color Knitting Techniques, by Margaret Radcliffe.

I love Margaret Radcliffe’s books on technique, and have reviewed several of them. When I heard this one was on the cards, I was actually quite excited (I know, times have changed, once it was men, now it’s books about stranded knitting, but I know which has the more lasting impact). And it does not disappoint.

There’s all sorts of general information about colour – differentiating tone and hue, for instance, balancing – or not – colours, and about colour selection.

DPS colour

I find this very useful indeed – as I’ve been messing about with colour selection for a Fair Isle knit this winter, I’ve been debating many of the issues here (with myself, admittedly). It’s good to find them in one place instead of in a variety of sources, and to find them well illustrated.

There’s the usual mix of specific advice and step-by-step help; the very practical section at the back is clear, and there is a wealth of stitch patterns included, thematically arranged (I’m already finding the ‘stripes’ section useful in my preparations for next season’s craft fairs). But for me the stand-out section discusses something I’d not seen covered in such depth before: working with variegated yarns. Fascinating. And there are many colour techniques described too, from the familiar – stranded knitting and intarsia, for example – to the less well known, such as twining and helix knitting. And how about using maths and colour – knitting a fibonacci sequence, for example, or knitting in a colour code…?


Fortunately Color Knitting Techniques is very well bound. It’s going to need to be.

The inspirational book – not that the Radcliffe isn’t; I just suspect that this next one will be looked at more than actually used – is Knitting Fabric Rugs by Karen Tiede.

fabric rugsThese are not, in the classic sense, rag rugs. They are made from strips of fabric (and there are some very clever ways of cutting this to get the maximum lengths, clearly described), and are knitted in garter stitch, not prodded through a backing cloth.

Why garter stitch? Well, the strips are difficult to purl on the large needles (I can vouch for that – tried it, though I’ve to gone so far as to knit more than a couple of rows and cannot vouch for the patterns working or the hands holding out*), but garter stitch also gives a flat fabric. It also, apparently, makes for ‘springier’ rugs – ones that are much more comfortable to walk on.

Again, there’s an emphasis on colour, and on collecting colour (I went to a rag rug workshop where the tutor described herself as ‘being on a mission to save colours’, and I get the impression that this is very much the same). There’s also a strong ethical dimension, which I really like – it’s classic recycling, making do and mending. This makes it sound like a rather brown and gritty, knit your own yoghurt, child of the seventies thing. It’s not.

It’s stylish.

fabric rugs

I’ve already found myself thinking about making one of these for the bathroom – smart stripes of peacock and jade, with perhaps some darker colours to… wonder what else is in my rag bag…

(*Incidentally, Karen Tiede does put an emphasis on comfort – and physical safety – while assembling the materials and knitting these rugs. Among other things, she states that if your hands are beginning to hurt, it’s an indication that the needle size is wrong. And you knit strips and piece them together; you don’t have half a ton of fabric on the needles. Almost, but not quite.)

‘Stylish’ can be said about some of the patterns in the third book. Some.

babyNo, I’m being unfair – we all have different taste, and there’s something in One-Skein Wonders for Babies (edited, as usual in the One Skein series, by Judith Durant) for everybody.

Some of the patterns are highly traditional (I have photographs of myself as a baby wearing things which are more modern), and some are – er, idiosyncratic. Knitted bibs? Masticated rusk and garter stitch?

However, there are also some which are really rather funky, and I have fallen completely in love with a hat (the hat section is good):

hat I want

It’s ‘yarn dependent’ – but I love it. I want it. If that baby had a bigger head, and happened to be in Snowdonia, I’d have that hat off its curly little head.

(I must mention here that whatever I may think of some of the patterns, the photography is excellent.) IMG_3722I also rather liked these ‘sleeveless baby vests’ – the vests are sleeveless, mind, not the babies – though I would never have been able to pull one over the head of most babies I’ve known.

Even more impractical – IMO – is the ruffled ‘bumper’, over-nappy knickers, basically. One of those sudden upwards-and-downwards exploding nappies and this would be dust. Or something. And on another, anyone who knits in Noro for a baby has probably won the lottery, because there’s no way Noro’s going anywhere near a washing machine. Mashed banana a) gets everywhere, even before it’s been through the baby, and b) sticks worse than Agent Orange, and a gentle soak in Euclan will not do the business. I know this. But out of 101 patterns there are bound to be some you don’t like and some you do.

Time to up-size that hat. Now that would work in Noro.
For me.


Earworms and felted bags

I need to apologise for this, but just in case you thought I was getting a bit sensible… and I accept no responsibility for the consequences, by the way.

I clicked onto Facebook yesterday, and a friend of mine who lives inland was lamenting the presence of an earworm – she’d popped out to feed her hens, seen that the Moelwyns were looking spectacularly blue in the early light, and started channelling Laurel and Hardy with a slight adaptation – ‘In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Ffestiniog / in the shade of the lonesome pine…’. All. Day.

I felt (ouch – wait for it) for her, because I’d also been suffering. Only I’d been channelling Gilbert and Sullivan, and I don’t even like Gilbert and Sullivan. And I’d been singing to some cute felted bags I’ve been making for a commission. At least she’d been singing to something animated: her hens.

Think Mikado, OK?


Three little bags from Wales are we,
Fat as a felted bag can be,
We’re really sweet, not ‘ach a fi’,
Three little bags from Wales…


Three little bags which slightly vary,
Due to the kemp we are still quite hairy,
Even so, we are soft not scary,
Three little bags from Wales,
Three little bags from Wales…


There is more, but personally I would like to get through the day without conjuring up visions of dancing bags in Japanese wigs (though it is worth clicking on the YouTube rendition of ‘Three Little Maids’ which involves Lily Savage, who is surprisingly restrained but a good antidote to the cod geishas which populate amateur versions – and some professional ones – of The Mikado).

Oh, and ‘ach a fi’ (‘fi’ is a ‘vee’, not ‘fee’ sound), in case you didn’t know, is a Welsh expression of disgust. Quite.

So. Small bags knitted in a 100% pure wool – Hebridean, in this case, with a stripe in some left-over New Lanark Falklands wool – and felted. Stuffed with newspaper,


which you can just see here, to give them a nice rounded shape, then dried on a radiator during a brief period (soon to be back) when the heating clicked on. Buttons added, labelled, packaged and delivered, all to the accompaniment of fecking Gilbert and fecking fecking Sullivan. And if WordPress changes ‘fecking’ to ‘decking’ once more I will hunt them down and sing to them.

(I haven’t been this irritated by an earworm since the time slugs drove me to rewrite the national anthem. They did, honest.)

The Woolwinding Eyelet Shawl is born…

Actually, it’s something of a toddler now, as it was ‘born’ in 2012, but I’ve only just got round to putting the pattern on Ravelry. I know, I know, I’ve been saying for ages ‘I must put this on Ravelry’, and doling out photocopies and printouts all over the place, but I have finally done it.

It’s up (or will be very shortly, as soon as approved – yup, it’s here). And it’s a free download if you’re on Rav. All you need are one skein of sock wool, or something similar, and 3.75 needles. Or needle, rather: it needs a circular after the start.

And it’s called the Woolwinding Eyelet Shawl.

woolwinding shawl 1

Sorry it’s not called something more exciting, imaginative or creative, but it’s what it is. It’s an eyelet shawl and it comes from Woolwinding. I did think about finding another name for it, but my mind went completely blank and – apart from silly suggestions, including almost anything you could think of in Welsh including ‘ffwlbart’ (polecat – gee, thanks) – I couldn’t come up with anything reasonable.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t been called names, mind. This year in Shetland two of us were knitting it and, boy, did it get called names. Basically you need to concentrate at the very start for the pattern set up, not chat / order tea and cakes in the Peerie Cafe / get distracted by what your neighbour is knitting / watch an exciting DVD.

woolwinding 2

But once you’re off, you’re off. You knit on until you either run out of yarn or lose the will to live (something common to almost all shawls, I have found). Then you block it – and there are instructions on the pattern, which is written so that novices to lace / shawl knitting can follow it, as well as more experienced knitters. I tend to block it so that the two end points of the triangle curve upwards, as I find that makes it more wearable – and the lace pattern is designed to allow for this.

And then  you wear it. Or rather Doris wears it:

woolwinding 3

and, more sensibly from the back,

woolwinding 4

These two are in Noro Kureyon Sock, and the top one is a skein of hand-dyed loveliness from Mam a Mi; I’ve often knitted it in Araucania’s Ranco Sock (the last image is another hand-dyed yarn).

I’m getting quite used to seeing it around now, as it’s been available through Knit One in Dolgellau for some time. A couple of weeks ago I sat behind one at the garden club, and another won the knitting section in the village show last year. Copies have been used by members of the the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers I go to, and this next one is by one of them. It uses all the bits and pieces from the Guild’s dyeing picnic:

Mary's woolwinding

The cast off has been a little unfamiliar to some people, but It’s worth persisting as it’s very elastic and also gives a lovely finish, especially with a variegated yarn:

Woolwinding 5

It’s really simple, honest: right side facing and with a slightly larger size needle, knit two together. Slip the resulting stitch from the right needle back onto the left needle and repeat.

Anyway, there you go: tah dah, the Woolwinding Eyelet Shawl. And if you’re not on Ravelry, then do join – it’s fantastic. What a resource. Even if you don’t use the forums, and many people don’t, it’s so useful for pattern ideas, yarn information, storing a record of your stash or your patterns – and of course finding lots and lots and lots of patterns. Like this one…