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…

Life is learning (and sometimes swearing)

One of the kicks I get from knitting is learning something new. Last week, for instance, we had a visitor at our knit and natter (we love having visitors) who showed us a knitting mill – a sort-of hand-powered knitting dolly for producing fine i-cord. I need one, and I need it now. But the big plus for me this week has been the provisional cast on.

OK, I can hear the gales of laughter now. I know, everyone can do this. Yeah, maybe everyone can – but the people I know who could actually show me use a crochet provisional cast on and, as almost everyone on the surface of the planet knows, I do not crochet. OK?

I’ve been knitting cowls for the various fairs and pop-ups I’ve been involved with this summer (it’s a testament to the sort of summer we’ve been having that big cowls have been flying out) and have also developed a little bias-knitted cowl-stroke-necklace which uses one skein of Louisa Harding’s fabulous – and about-to-be discontinued – mulberry silk:

neck warmer

I’ll pop the pattern on Ravelry just as soon as the mad rush is over, and as soon as I’ve come up with a catchy name for it. But the whole point is that even my fine-stitched seam is a little too untidy – for me, that is, nobody else seems (ho ho, did ya see what I did there?) bothered by it. So out came the books, including the wonderful Cast on, Bind Off, and out also came the bad language and the evil temper. But I did glean one thing – use smooth thread, like cotton, which can be pulled out easily.

Or, indeed, frequently.

However, I’ve got it now.

tah dah

Tah, as they say, dah.

This is entirely due to YouTube, though perhaps not quite in the way you’d expect. There are plenty of vids on there of people doing a provional cast on, some of which are clear but which I am too daft to follow, but many are either too fast or too badly filmed to follow (well, for me, anyway). Every time I hit pause in my attempts to flipping follow I dropped my knitting; cue more swearing.

But then I fiddled about and thought about what I was doing, or rather trying to do: wrap live stitches round a string. And I started from exactly the opposite point as the YT vids I’d been watching and the instructional books I found – I began with the working yarn at the bottom as opposed to the top and ZIP! It was like Audrey Hepburn being sung (or rather shouted) at by Rex Harrison playing Professor Higgins: by George, she’s got it!

the start

So here is the working yarn (the orange silk) and a short-but-long-enough length (too much is silly and leads to more bad language) of the waste yarn knotted together like this, with the needle on top of the yarns and in the middle. Oh, and using a circular needle is not easy. I know this. You just end up with a mystery third ‘yarn’ which inexplicably has a needle tip attached, and a lot more swearing.

I then take the needle under the working yarn from the top and lift it over the waste yarn, keeping the two threads to the left of the needle separated by the thumb of my left hand. Then I  take the needle and yarn and pass them under both threads (don’t worry about following this…) and pop them through the middle. Really don’t worry about following this.

ker zap

It looked a bit messy, but as you can see I had achieved live stitches wrapping round string. I went back for the next row and half the stitches fell off, so the next time I did it – after I’d chanted ‘under yarn, over waste, under both, through the gap’ as a mantra several times as I redid the cast on – I knitted into the back of alternate stitches carefully. And it worked!

I couldn’t quite believe that I’d got it. I pulled it out and did it again, still chanting the provisional cast on mantra. It still worked.

I couldn’t quite believe that I’d invented something new, solved a problem that surely must have affected more people than just me, but I did seem to have done so. Now I often have difficulties following knitting etc instructions others take for granted, and I suspect that’s because I am one of those naturally left-handed people whose handedness was changed from babyhood by parents who carefully made me use my right hand all the time – my instincts really came to the fore when I had surgery on my left hand (I’m a left-handed spinner, which is why I damaged that hand through being overenthusiastic/stupid) and found life really difficult, even when it came to simple things like pouring water from a kettle. I’m not alone in this. I know, I thought, such depth of insight for us ‘not actually southpaws but who ought to be’ lot should be on YouTube.

Er, it already is. I should have looked further.

Or possibly I should just have clicked on the first one that came up.

I’d run out of bad words by then, so I just shrugged. But hey, at least it’s there, and nobody will have to look at my nail varnish (or not) instead…

The Fair Isle, finalised.

(I originally entitled this post ‘the final Fair Isle’, and then I realised that made it sound as though I was never, ever going to knit another; who knows, that may well be the case, but let’s not make any rash assumptions.)

So, having been through all my Shetland shots and all the wool I bought in Jamieson’s wonderfully refurbished shop in Lerwick,

Colour matching

that’s this lot, I have made some decisions. At last… I know, I know, that doesn’t look much like wool but bear with me.

It’s been fiddly. For one thing, I  could have chose to approximate the colours in the original pattern (Orkney, by Rowan), but I didn’t because I didn’t particularly like them, and I wanted to echo Shetland colours anyway.

I sorted my colours into earthy, leafy, land-based tones:

earthy, woody tones

and the sometimes astonishing colours of the coast:

coastal colours

and, finally, the monochromes:


And I have managed to use all the colours I bought (happily the pattern uses 13 different ones, though I was prepared to rework that), and I’m pleased with what I’ve got. And I could have chosen a more trad pattern, one which used the same colour repeat on arms and body. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play with tradition instead.

So the first step was to work out from the original pattern charts which colours were placed together in Rowan’s colour way (no image here, but boring lists do not an interesting photo make). Then I began sketching to see how my colours worked with each other – and that’s the chart at the start of the post. Then I got the actual wool out to check that they worked in reality in much the same way as they had on paper, and they did.

My work on listing all the colours had thrown up one break with tradition that I wasn’t happy with, however. It’s an accepted convention that there are only two colours to a row in Fair Isle knitting, and I think that’s ‘accepted’ for a reason: more colours mean much more bulk. There was one band of pattern which used three, and which also carried the colours across a large number of stitches (another complication I felt I could live with out – yes, I’d be weaving them in, but that would just add even more bulk to something already bulkier than the rest). So I decided to find an alternative pattern.

The pencil sketch on the left-hand page is the original, the others are possibilities:

notebook 2

I went into my stitch library – various old books on Fair Isles – and found several compatible and comparable patterns which also ran across 9 rows and 16 stitches. The middle one on the right-hand page above was quite like the one I was replacing, and because it runs over the same number of rows and stitches, it will be quite straightforward to substitute. I won’t need to mess with the shaping provided I start it in the same position.

Then came the really fun bit – working out the colours for the new panel:


That’s them, done. Due to the rather funky variation in colour between sleeves and body I had to do this twice, but I am happy with what I’ve finally got. The sleeve pattern, in the original, is brighter and so will mine be; plus, I love the Jamieson’s colour ‘ruby’, and my new pattern will give it extra prominence on the body. And I won’t have that extra bulk just where I don’t need it – I forgot to add that this thicker panel would have come right across the boobage.

Now I can knit my tension square – and I’m going to do it using the new pattern. Just to see if I’ve got it right…

(You’re probably thinking that I’ve lost my mind, and wondering why I can’t just knit a pattern as given. I don’t know, but I’m not good at doing that; it’s part of the reason why I knit. And I know that this will be truly original – there’ll never be another. Possibly because no-one else would be so daft. Which reminds me, one of my fellow attendees at a Fibre and Fabric Fair this weekend just posted a comment – that adding ‘and shit’ to a phrase like ‘I do crochet’ makes it sound so much more, er, street. So I do Fair Isle and shit, right?)

Intermissione… is that a word?

In any language? Probably not, but this is one. Ar hintermission. I will get back on the decision I made about Fair Isle colours, but for the moment I am frantically trying to finish an editing job. Well, I need the work to pay for more wool, sillie billies!

(And food. And bills. That sort of thing.)

And, for variety, I’ve entered the Tour de Fleece. Yes, there is such a thing – if you don’t know already – and the idea is to set yourself a spinning challenge and spin your wheel each day the riders of the Tour de France spin theirs (only – happily – wearing lycra, pissing in your pants, and not just pissing*, is not involved).


It’s been ages since I could spin properly, and I seem to have lost the knack. Time to get it back. So I’m allowed to spin for ten minutes a day – twenty if my hands behave – and no more. The aim was to use a chocolate-brown Manx Loaghtan fleece I’ve had kicking around since pre-hand-injury days. I got it out, I prepped it, it was disgusting, I put most of it in the compost.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t that I’d left it unwashed for three years. That would be an ERGH almost comparable with what happens to some of the Tour riders when they get caught short. But it was full of second cuts and straw and scurf and it was not pleasant. So I’m using what I prepped before I became too nauseated by sheep dandruff, and am going to ply it together with some white Lleyn which is much, much nicer.


Except with all the typing I now need to rest my hands again, and with root canal work I also need massive painkillers (I love dentists). Never mind, it will get done – and I’m much heartened by my progress. On all fronts!

*Really. Croyez-moi. I’m a bit of Tour nerd – and ERGH. Double ERGH. Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to cycle behind some people.