Not so full of it?

Or maybe not quite full enough. Oh, I’m sorry, enough with the terrible puns. Yet again, life has got between me and blogging, but it’s not just life. I got ever so slightly obsessed with fulling. Fulling cloth, that is. Processing it to close up the threads and make it more solidly useable.

I have been diverted from the ways of righteousness by research, partly started by Mary Beard pretending to be a Roman fuller and having a jolly old time assuring us that the slaves who did it probably had a jolly old time too (there may be reports of them singing as they fulled, but I’m not sure that singing the occasional song equals being an ecstatically happy bunny, totally thrilled with your lot). And then there are fulling mills all around me, too – no longer, generally, in use as fulling mills. But astonishingly there were thirty established in Meirionydd – where I live – between 1700 and 1810, and they joined the ‘at least’ thirty-eight already in existence.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. We have the raw materials (baaaaaaa), the skills (spinners and weavers abounded), and of course something else was abundant and necessary:

Ysgethin

No, not moss. Water: fast-flowing streams, although admittedly the Ysgethin doesn’t always flow this fast. The old walls here show attempts to control and channel the river in spate, and they are there because the Ysgethin Inn, which is downstream of this, was – you guessed it – once a fulling mill.

So excuse me while I carry on a bit more musing and thinking and investigating the past of local hostelries. I won’t be long. Apart from anything else, Mary Beard’s magnum opus is due back at the library soon…

Back to Wonderwool – wonderful – Wales, 2016

I have had a mixed relationship with Wonderwool Wales. It’s varied from wild excitement (the very first time I went) to slight irritation (the next time, when there seemed to be nothing but one indie dyer after another, which must have been annoying for them too) and to suffering from near frostbite (the Very Cold Year, when stallholders wore their stock and I thought my feet were going to fall off despite wearing walking boots with thick socks). Last year I decided I couldn’t be bothered and, apart from a slight pang, I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss the huge crowds, the not being able to get on a stand, the half-hour queue for coffee and the lack of a seat once you’d got it, the inability to get anywhere near a food outlet for lunch…

This year I went. And I went on the Sunday, though I feel I should be keeping quiet about this as too much attention may kill the thing, rather as tourists destroy what they come to see if they come in enough numbers (my old Paris, I’m talking to you).

It was fab.

Heeeeeeeeee heeeeee:

Wonderwool haul 2016

We have: undyed DK for natural dyeing and some dye material (old man’s beard lichen for pink, barberry bark for green, dyers’ broom for a yellow – I’ll probably get khaki for all three), some Rowan cocoon at a stonking price which I couldn’t ignore, a single skein which I said I wasn’t going to buy but somehow did (‘that would be the fairies’), and some fluff. It’s all fab. So are/were the scotch eggs. And the meringues.

We started the sensible way, which is possible on the Sunday: with coffee and cakes and the show schedule:

planning

and worked out where we wanted to go, where we had to go and where we’d better avoid (temptation cannot be easily resisted before lunch), and then we set off. We bumped into friends, visited a particular stallholder, separated, bumped into more friends, took the scotch eggs back to the car, bumped into each other, bumped into someone else, bumped into a stall or two, bumped into a sheep or two,

sheepy

(this splendidly Roman-nosed job from Home Farm Wensleydales is wearing a rather pretty collar, which could easily have been missed – well, it’s the old daisy/sheep connection, Father Ted), bumped into another friend, separated again, did a quick whip-round all the halls, including Hall 3 with its amazing exhibit/artwork,

lovely!

bumped into more friends, managed to miss out completely on greeting some others because their stall was wonderfully far too busy, looked up and saw the decorations,

bunting

bumped into more friends but managed to miss the part of the sleepwalk in which someone else we knew was modelling (a human, purrrlease, not a sheep), bought stuff, went back to the car to change out of a heavy sweater into something less hot, bumped into more people…

What a fabulous day. I am so glad I went back. And now I need to track down that skein of yarn which I didn’t buy (because I wasn’t buying single skeins, ok, and, yes, I am aware of the fact that I did actually buy one) but which was the most glorious, incandescent, emerald green. If I could sum up the day in one word it would be ‘colour’. Yes, that’s about right. Colour, scotch eggs and meringues. And friends. Colour, scotch eggs, meringues and friends – in no particular order. And yarn: colour, scotch eggs, meringues, friends and yarn. Lots of yarn. One word? How could that be possible?

Here’s a gallery of delights; just click on an image for a slideshow, with captions. How on earth did I manage to choose?

And, amazingly, I stayed in budget, even allowing for the scotch eggs, meringues and delicious pirog I grabbed for lunch. In fact, I was under budget by £20. Wonder if I can track down the sellers of the emerald green skein?

A lesson learned?

Hm. A lesson learned is a a lesson which will probably be forgotten. But maybe not, who can tell?

I am now in the first period without a scary work deadline or three that I have had since, oh, September last year. I don’t want the Freelance Gods to think I’m complaining, because I’m not, but it has been a bit hairy in parts. To start the days off and to try and keep some sort of perspective, I decided to work on my spinning for a minimum of half an hour each day as well.

haunui spun

My hands are a whole lot better, but my spinning was not: too out of practice. So I settled down, spun a few small quantities of fluff I had in my stash and then, when I felt confident that things had indeed improved, I settled down to a big project. Replacing the giant sweater.

giant sweater detail

Anyone who knows me in the real, as opposed to the virtual, world also knows that during winters I am seldom seen without this huge, snuggly, comforting, impossible-to-photograph garment. I love it, and it loves me back. To such an extent that it has even been injured in the course of its duties (and let me just say that it’s a good job it’s reversible).

I know, I thought, I’ve got a shedload of Haunui fibre that I bought from Winghams a million years ago (2013); I’ll use that. It’s gorgeous, soft, soft, soft; lovely natural dark-chocolate colour, and the sheep – specific to one farm on New Zealand’s South Island – are bred and farmed to give a wonderful fibre for spinning. And, boy, is it wonderful; really, really special.

Went to spare room aka stash store, dug out fibre, smooshed it considerably, then spun up and plied 200g at roughly worsted weight (that’s it, above). Nice. Went back to stash, got out next 200g, realised only had about 500g left. Not enough.

Called Winghams. They’re not carrying it any more. Called friend. She is no friend at all and refused to give up her stash, for some reason. Huh. Asked on Ravelry if anyone much nicer had any they were willing to part with; they didn’t. Lots of helpful people did refer me to a UK importer who is even relatively local, but she imports finer fibre, and I needed to match what I’d got. Then, out of the Ravelry blue, I was contacted by the wonderful people on the farm. That’s right: all the way from a remote farm on one side of the world to a remote (no, it isn’t, except according to various couriers) village on the other. A few deliberations, some discussion of whether a complete match could be made (it could), whether the economics would work out, given carriage and duty (they would, especially after another friend who also failed to buy enough became involved), and we were on.

Soon a parcel arrived (after more discussions, this side of the world, about delivery times and exactly where they were going and no, they couldn’t rely on their sat nav and no, there wasn’t a house number and yes, they had been here before). It was surprisingly small, but bound about with lots of tape. I managed, very carefully, to cut the tape and it began to expand…

fibre

So I carried it to the bench and allowed it do do its thing:

woooooo

and finally revealed two kilos of the most wonderful fibre:

perfect!

I know what I’m going to be doing for the next few weeks!

And the next time I think I might be spinning for a garment, I’ll do some advance planning, honestly I will. Really. Oh yes, and I’m not buying any fibre at Wonderwool Wales tomorrow. Nothing. Dim (byd). Rud. Rien. Niente. Nowt. I have enough fibre now, and by next winter I might just have a new big sweater.

Massive thanks to Fiona and John at Taranui Farm; to their postman and to the delivery man at this end, who didn’t bat an eyelid when I came over all excited about receiving a parcel full of fleece. It’s been a real pleasure.

Oh Rowan, Rowan, wherefore art thou Rowan?

I help in a wool shop on Saturday afternoons, and when I turned up a couple of weeks ago I found my friend, the owner, in a state of shock. She’d just had an email from her Rowan rep with some devastating news: about 70% of the range was going. Either entire yarn ranges were being discontinued, or great swathes of colours were disappearing in many of those that were staying.

Rowan mill offices

This is not, perhaps, unexpected when you know that they’ve recently been taken over and perhaps it’s also not unexpected because there’s a certain feeling that they’ve taken their foot off the pedal a bit in recent years (perhaps rather like Colinette). But I’ve got one thing in Rowan yarn on the needles at the mo, and it made me think.

I’ve a bit of a love-hate relationship with Rowan. I’ve been to workshops Rowan have organised both at retailers and at the mill (above), and they’ve varied between extremely good and somewhat disappointing. Mind you, they were always interesting, if not always for the tutor, then for the other participants among whom I recognised some people who could only be described as Rowan groupies (I once heretically mentioned Noro, hsssssss…).

The same applies to the yarns, in my opinion. When they’re good, they’re very very good,

Cotton glace

like Cotton Glace (staying, but with colours reduced as far as I can recall), but when they are a bit gimmicky they can be horrid (and I’m not naming names, because this is just my opinion and just because X sheds or Y knits up like shite for me doesn’t mean they’ll misbehave for everyone). And they’re not cheap, either, though – generally – you do get good yardage for your money. But some are just exquisite: Lima, for instance, that delicious blend of baby alpaca and merino with a bit of nylon for strength. That’s going. So I bought three balls and am currently knitting it up into a shawl.

I think I know what’s happening. Of course I may be completely wrong or partly right, but with my business-management-before-being-a-full-time-freelance-hack head on – and I still write in the business area now – I think it’s a case of newbroomitis. New owner, complete overhaul.

Rowan mags

(The Rowan mag is changing, too. From this summer’s issue – the one already out – it’s going down to two stories, not three. Just as well I’ve got a stash of old ones, and am quite happy substituting yarns.)

As I said, Rowan had, I feel, lost its way a bit, with loads of novelty or seasonal yarns, however lovely – Panama, Cotton Lustre, both going. I had a slight feeling that they’d taken their corporate eyes off the ball somewhat. Oh, sorry about the creeping metaphors. I did say I’ve been working on business books, didn’t I?

Ahem. Back to Rowan, though I could run a few ideas up the pole and see who salutes them. Or, to borrow from the winner of Fast Company‘s most objectionable use of jargon in 2015 competition, ‘open the kimono’. Stop it. Now.

Anyway, I suspect that this meant heavy stockholding, and that where economic – i.e. wherever the stock was high but not so high that it absolutely must be kept on and pushed – there just had to be some culling. And I also think that some yarns, while worth keeping, had probably reached such a low stockholding that the expensive option of spinning more meant that, economically, they weren’t worth keeping on the list (possibly British Sheep Breeds – which seems counter-intuitive, given the rise in yarns with distinct provenance). And I also suspect that a lot of this has more to do with the American market than anything else.

But I’ll mourn some which will be no more (the Felted range, Pure Linen), and be relieved that others (Felted Tweed, Kid Classic – below) are staying. Above all, though, I’ll mourn the colour changes. It looks – and I’ve been through the catalogues, looking at the colours which are vanishing – as though the choices are becoming somewhat predictable. Not what Rowan is known for, at all.

Kid classic

And my friend with the wool shop? Well, she’s already expanding her range of British yarns. She’s seeing this as a splendid opportunity to get some lovely new things in (hello, West Yorkshire Spinners, Baa Ram Ewe, Jamiesons)…

 

A new addiction?

Weaving coverGiven the nature of my last two posts, in which I was blown away by the National Wool Museum, perhaps it’s fortuitous that I was sent a great book to review: Inventive Weaving on a Little Loom, by Syne Mitchell.

It looked interesting to me, with a great mixture of basic advice and more adventurous techniques, but I’m not a weaver.

OK, I was sent it a bit ago, but I knew we had a weaving day coming up at the Llyn Guild, so I wanted to run it past some of our experts – because, as I say, I’m not a weaver.

Yet.

As soon as I produced it, several people pounced. One, a great weaver, already had it and pronounced it ‘excellent and inspirational’. The others went through it, checking various techniques, and then agreed. Then they asked that I could kindly donate my copy to the Guild library because, as they pointed out, I’m not a weaver.

We’ll see about that, because somehow it fell open at this:

fate?

It could be fate.

My first experience of weaving was at school, where our incredibly hearty RE teacher also taught weaving. (I’ve been trying to remember if she also wore sandals and socks and tie-dyed clothing, but I’m not sure about all of that. Sandals, yes, certainly – because I remember that she had very hairy toes and that I vaguely supposed she might be a hobbit. She also boomed like an ent.) I escaped the RE – my militantly ‘laïque’ father was quite willing to write me any kind of ‘daughter can’t possibly do that, we’e atheists / Jewish / pagans / blue with green spots’ letter that I requested – but was very keen on the weaving. Unfortunately it stopped too soon, almost as soon as the headmistress noticed, in the interests of more academic pursuits.

We did produce scarves, though not any as lovely as these:

and reading this book has made me remember how much I enjoyed the classes, tutorial booming and hairy feet aside. We were disciplined, though, made to weave organised checks or stripes, and improvisation was not allowed. But then, we were learning, so I suppose that’s fair enough. Now, of course, I wouldn’t have to be bound by such constraints. And neither is this book:

wild weaving

I’m open to its influence at the moment, because some of my friends are into Saori weaving and I just love the textures and colours and forms that they achieve. At last year’s Fibre and Fabric Fair in Harlech I was next to Rosie Green of Saorimor in Bangor, and was able to have a go (maybe I’ll be next to her at this year’s Fair too, but I might just give in before the end of July anyway). But something tells me that if I do succumb, I’ll need the pages in this devoted to troubleshooting:

book 3

so it probably won’t end up in the Guild library. But if it doesn’t, they are going to have to get one, because this is good. Very good.

Woolly Wales, part the second

Hey ho, I dunno; you have a heavy workload and then when it eases off a bit you get ill – flaming contact dermatitis from synthetic fleece taking forever to shift. Not too ill, thank heavens, though I am off to the GP this morning and may well come back with bubonic plague, surgeries being what they are at this time of year. Ahem. Back to fleece. The real stuff this time, which is just as well.

Before I get myself all distracted by the history and politics of the wool industry in Wales (first-ever mail order retailer, riots, involvement of the Chartists, etc), I thought it might be a good idea to have a further whip round the National Wool Museum. If you’re careful and not like me, the route takes you round the process in a systematic way. If you are like me, you zoom from one area to another crying ‘I’ve got a modern one of those!’

wool museum again

(see that skein winder?) and ‘I never knew that!’ and playing with an interactive model of sheep shearing designed for seven-year-olds.

I was much taken with the light in some areas, noticeably on the spinning floor,

spinners

where the mule takes up considerably more room than the various great wheels they also have displayed (and no, you can’t use them). I’d love to see the mule working – which it does – but we weren’t there at the right time. Once I pitched up at Brynkir mill near me when their amazing (1905, I think I remember being told) mule was running, and it was astonishing: so smooth, so hypnotic. Bet it wasn’t so astonishing once you’d been spinning for a while, mind. You’d probably have started in the mill where your parents worked at about the age of 10, and would most likely have been on the carders. You’d have been poor (generally, except during the first-world-war boom, and even then you’d still have been pretty poor) and, as one commentator put it ‘weavers marry young and die young’.

More in another post, ahem…

Some pieces of kit called to me, not just the various great wheels (‘a piece of equipment that could be constructed by any competent country carpenter’). Also in the same room as the spinning mule is this, a machine for ‘raising the nap’ of the woven cloth with teasels:

teasels

This ‘teasel gig’ contained 3000 prickly seed heads and was electrically powered, which seems like a curious – no, that’s not the right word, interesting is better – combination of the the traditional method of working and the modern. I wonder how long it continued in use? Our helpful guide was chatting to other people by this stage, but the next time I go I will make sure to ask.

Along the way, I fell in love with flannel. Really. Astonishing fabric. Everyone knows and loves the Welsh double-weave ‘tapestries’, but flannel strikes me as their somewhat overlooked little sister, and not so little. It’s been going for much longer (as far as anyone can tell) and it kept the mills going too, for decades. It clothed miners, soldiers, ordinary people; it even saw off the last invasion of Britain – the French mistook the red flannel of the women’s clothing for soldiers’ uniforms and fled. At least that’s the story; personally I think they’d probably run across irate Welsh women before (try barging into a queue for tea) and were being circumspect.

weaving red flannel

It’s beautiful stuff, good flannel is (and yes, a flannel loom is narrower than what we’ve all come to think of as a ‘normal’ loom). Incidentally, the weaving sheds also had to be light enough for the weavers to see what they were doing – but the windows are opaque up to a certain height,  so they couldn’t also see what was going on outside. Keep your eyes on your work, you!

The tenter area, where the cloth was finished, isn’t quite so light, and the tenter box – the blue-walled structure – barely needs light at all:

tenter area

Right at the end of the museum, if you’re organised and progress as you should instead of going back to front, is a sewing shop and the reconstruction of a market stall, and an exhibition gallery. Here, even though the light is very subdued, you can just see the fact that some of the blankets have been woven on narrow looms, something which would be much more practical for a handloom weaver in a domestic context. Rather like the taatit rugs of Shetland, they’ve been made in two halves and sewn together down the middle.

fabrics

It’s hard to see, but in the second section from the left, for instance, the fourth blanket up is like that. In the middle section there’s another, the one immediately above the red and white geometric one: the check doesn’t quite match up at the join. I don’t care; I want the lot.

How soon can I go back, I wonder?

Woolly Wales, part the first

A gap between deadlines – I’m not complaining about work, I like to eat, buy food, that sort of thing – saw me and a friend head off on a two-hour drive to get into Foreign Lands (well, deepest Ceredigion, so far south that you’re on the edge of Camarthenshire / Sir Gaerfyrddin, so it’s foreign when you live in North Wales*). In the fog. We only got lost once, mind. I know how to enjoy myself.

Seriously, I do – because we ended up at the National Wool Museum, in Dre-fach Felindre. And it is FAB. I know I like mills – I’ve written about this inclination before, and not just the once – but it is genuinely fascinating.

loom

Now, I was with a non-woolly person, my mate S. But she is a) a blue badge tour guide, b) indisputably Welsh, c) fascinated by all social history, so it wasn’t going to be a hardship trip for her, plus the cafe have good cakes. And there was even a mini-loom set up so that I could demonstrate the over-and-under process of weaving (not that I’m any good at it, but I was – amazingly – taught to weave at school).

But one of the very best bits was that it was quite quiet, and that we therefore had a lot of attention from a volunteer guide, Glanmor, an ex-weaver, who was fascinating to talk to. We learned all about practicalities, like this hole in the floor.

wool museum 2

It was cut so that the spinners on the first floor could hand bobbins down to the looms below without walking the long way round and negotiating a tight staircase. I’d never have noticed it without our helpful guide, and it’s details like that which bring somewhere alive for me.

We also learned about nasty accidents, especially with the willower (which teases out the scoured / cleaned wool prior to carding),

wool museum 3

the carders and shirt sleeves. You don’t want to know, but ERGH.

But we also learned about the industry as a whole, about how central the wool industry was to large areas of Wales – and yet how limited it was by assorted factors, from the outdated machinery (Welsh mills would take machines that were being discarded – nearly a pun there, sorry – by the mills in Yorkshire) to the whole social structure. It really got me started on heaps of research on everything from nursing shawls to non-resident mill owners and the negative effects of their attitudes. You’ve been warned.

Trefriw

(This old photograph is of the mill at Trefriw, and is from the National Archives.)

*Seriously, it is foreign. The language is different in subtle but meaningful ways – even the words for something as basic as milk differ: llefrith around me, and llaeth further south – and there’s a genetic difference too: a native North Walian (a Gog) has more in common, genetically, with someone who is native to northern England / southern Scotland than with a native-born Hwntw (that’s a South Walian, in case you didn’t know it).