Strange sheepy things – read on with care…

… and circumspection, and not if you’re easily shocked (!). I honestly didn’t know what to call this post – family planning for sheep? Google ‘sheep contraceptives’ and you get some surprising results, most of which are not what I’m thinking about at all. At all!

Luttrell psalterI’ve been doing some research on historic shepherding and, as you do when you are possessed of what my father called a ‘grasshopper mind’, you get diverted. This time I’ve strayed into the occasionally frequently rather strange world of controlling sheep breeding in the past (and not always the past). And this definitely fits into the series of ‘strangeness of sheep’ posts.

Sheep, generally and nowadays, have their lambs in the spring when there is plenty of grass for them, and a good growing season before winter sets in. The ewes come into season in autumn, triggered (it is believed) by shortening day length, and the lambs have five months’ gestation. We just take this pattern for granted – well, unless we know something about breeds that don’t follow the pattern, like British Dorset Horn. They can breed at almost any time – unless controlled.

Lambing is insane, and anyone who follows Herdy Shepherd on Twitter or who has read his wonderful book The Shepherd’s Life knows this. Despite this it makes sense to concentrate it over a period of time when you can give the sheep close attention at all times and also protect them when they are at their most vulnerable. I suspect that this is how the seasonality gradually developed, ages and ages ago, during the long process of domestication.

ramBreeding also needs to be relatively controlled – or very controlled – to improve the stock, or at least keep them healthy. It can be controlled by not allowing the rams access to the sheep until you want them to do the business, but in the past (and in nomadic societies) rams often ran with the flock. So what do you do then?

You have to stop your ram doing what a ram does, basically.

Curiously, York Castle Museum have chosen not to illustrate their catalogue entry for what they call a ‘ram preventer': ‘a pair of studded wooden balls, suspended from a length of chain, used to prevent a ram from mating’. In Sheep and Man M L Ryder says ‘it was put around the neck but to what extent it was used or successful is unclear’. Possibly just as well.

Then there were knickers. Well, sort of.

Really. Knickers for sheep. And, no, I have been unable to find any sensible illustrations of those either, but knickers is what they essentially are. Various, er, ‘apron-like’ devices are actually strapped to a ram to stop him from mating. Ewes have also been made to wear odd things – the Romans would put a rush basket on the ewe’s rump – and they have often been ‘bound with canvas’. It was especially used on common land to prevent uncontrolled mating by roaming rams (think lads on the pull), apparently.

The Ruskin Museum in Cumbria – I love local/folk museums – talks about a practice known as ‘bratting’, which it says (2015) is still used by some farmers as a ‘form of contraception for younger female sheep':

Herdwicks are smaller than the average sheep, and a ewe can die or become poor and stunted in growth if she lambs at too young an age. A ‘TWINTER ‘is a sheep approaching her second birthday; a ‘THRINTER’ her third. Some twinters are ‘BRATTED’ or ‘CLOUTED’, whereby a piece of clout or a brat is sewn over their bottoms as a form of contraception. A brat is local dialect for a stout apron made of coarse, heavy-duty cloth (clout). This brat would remain in place from mid-November until February.’

I’ve also found evidence of a similar thing happening in Scotland, where it was called ‘breeking’, as in breeks / breeches, presumably.

They were more like a thong than full-waist pants, apparently – a strip wide enough to cover the ewe’s lady bits was passed under the tail and sewn on to the fleece on each hip. Modern photographs of Cumbrian sheep (check out the photos on Crookabeck Herdwick’s twitter feed for a rather natty one in purple) show the patch sewn over the tail, holding the tail down and impeding access that way – rather like an equivalent to the way the Roman basket worked, presumably. It looks oddly as though a real animal is being slowly transformed into a patchwork one.

And now I’ve managed to conjure up such a vision that I’m going to have to go and do something completely different – like defrost the fridge or have an argument with BT about our still-temperamental broadband. Sheep in thongs or patchwork pants indeed.

I think we’d better have a completely un-thonged illustration to end with:

David Cox, Counting the Flock

David Cox, Counting the Flock; (c) Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sheep in thongs… please do not try this at home!

Lambs and keeping things crossed

Hee hee, there’s no connection really (despite the preponderance of sheep / Wales jokes, which I consider grounds for immediate independence and strict border controls – ‘Have you ever laughed at a joke about Welshmen and sheep? Yes? To the mines with you, bach’) but it looks as though my broadband is behaving itself again. I’m so excited. Ok, I’m quite excited.

However, my next post was going to be one of my longer, researched, historical/bizarre posts and I have to confess that it’s not ready. So here, as holding images, are some of the people (OK…) who have making the air round here very noisy indeed in the last couple of months. Bless.

Some things aren't edible

Some things just aren’t particularly edible, even for sheep. You’ll learn.


and you know I’m no threat whatsoever, don’t you?


It’s not a shadow, it’s a black lamb (remember an earlier post about coloured sheep? They happen quite spontaneously). And it’s very cute.


Finally, just to give you an idea of the sort of environment these tough little Welsh Mountain lambs live in – I know it’s not a brilliant shot but it was windy, all right? And when I say windy, I mean WINDY- here’s a pair of twins below Moelfre (trans: bald place), which is the very recognisable hill above our village, and which is all shattered rock at the top and looks like Mordor. Lovely. Really.

BTW, The lambs may be tough, and the ewes certainly are, but there’s one thing they have a real problem with. Dogs.

I have had several ‘discussions’ with walkers who have had their dogs off their leads while near sheep this lambing season. In one instance the dog owner told me her dog was very good, perfectly under control – and before her sentence was even finished the dog had rushed off like a mad thing in search (I think) of a squirrel that had rustled in the bushes. It wouldn’t come back. She did eventually manage to grab it, getting thoroughly blackthorned in the process, and was putting it on its lead as I walked on – but for how long? Most dogs – well, 99.9% – will chase things given half a chance, and there’ve been some nasty pics on Twitter… please, please keep dogs on leads.

Silence is golden… and my broadband is irritating

Apologies for the lack of activity, but the fact is that since before Easter our broadband has been abominable. Partly this is down to the massive population explosion – all with phones and tablets and laptops and even smart TVs in their caravans – that Snowdonia experiences in any holiday season, and partly this is down to ancient cabling.

I’ve been largely reliant on free broadband in cafés – and pleasant though this may be, it’s not really an environment conducive to peaceful, thoughtful, incisive blogging about sheep. You get comments, apart from anything else. But on Monday the road is being excavated on behalf of BT Broadband for new ducting and ‘improvements’. This is essentially happening because there are some new houses being built, but I’m hoping there’ll be an upside for the rest of us. We shall see.

In the meanwhile, this is me and Rumplestiltskin waiting for a site to load:

Rumpelstiltskin / BTI suppose I could do some housework.

Normal service will be resumed shortly… gobeithio (extremely useful Welsh word, meaning ‘hopefully’). Hopefully.

(And as an indication, it has just taken me nearly an hour to post this, and that’s without searching for the image; I had it in my files. AGH!)

We are allowed to make mistakes…

Oh yes we are. We all are.

I’ve been knitting for AHEM years, and I’ve just managed to produce a cardigan with one front longer than the other, not something I noticed until it had been made up (how is this even possible?). There are the same number of rows, but it’s longer – has to be down to needle size. A combination of me and (principally) my mate Angharad have come up with a classically bodged solution but it’s going to be tricky. Given that I’ve woven in all the ends, done the button bands and even sewn on the buttons.

Oh, and it’s in Noro.

Noro disaster

It’s lovely – when viewed as individual parts. (This is me picking up exactly the same number of stitches on the left side as I had on the right, and yet somehow failing to notice that I really needed to pick up another, oh, 20 or so to make the band match the extra-long piece. This is the stage at which disaster could have been averted, at which I could have reknitted the offending front. But I did not.) And it’s in Noro. You know, Noro. Second mortgage time. A whole garment. In NORO.

That’s the difference between the mistakes I made as a baby knitter and the mistakes I make now. Then, I made mistakes in cheap acrylic and laughed as I threw away the sweater which gave me a third boob, the tank top (?!) which made me look dead, the purple ‘mohair’ sweater which made me look as though I weighed 24 stone when I was borderline anorexic, and the Unlined Skirt We Do Not Mention But Which We Could See Straight Through. Now, I buy 10 balls of Noro Silk Garden Lite and screw them up instead.

It was at roughly this point that I found the ‘for the love of Ravelry‘ forum on Ravelry, and the ‘Your ugliest FO?’ thread (FO: finished object). If, like me, you don’t know about this, do check it out, and specifically select posts with images – but, unlike me, make sure you are not drinking a cup of tea at the time (an iPad is surprisingly resistant to being sprayed with acai and goji berry tea, is all I can say – and do join if you’re not on Rav; it’s free and fab).

There are some things which only the knitter considers hideous, but there are many others which are – um, challenging. There are distorted and psychotic toys, immense sweaters, far too many things in eyelash yarn, shawls which look as though they’ve been knitted in vomit, socks with heels halfway down the foot or halfway up the leg, trapezoidal blankets, a pink glove which one member commented on quite accurately: ‘oh my god, you knitted an udder‘…

You are only allowed to post your own disasters, and I am waiting to see what can be done about the Noro No-No before putting it on. But my Nipple Hat of Innuendo had to be there:

hat disaster

It’s handspun. What possessed me to add a perky little, er, bobble to the top of a red hat, I do not know, but at least I realised and turned it inside pretty quickly. That doesn’t alter the fact that the hat is so big that it’s reached the tip of my nose in this pic, and that’s after being felted twice.

I’m so glad I found that forum thread. It’s so reassuring. And now I must go and add one of my Colinette Catastrophes: the sweater in Tagilatelle which has grown and grown and grown and grown and which would now make a passable tent. Hey ho….

Cool, man (look what I found!)

When I go shopping, I like to splash out. I like to spend, flash the cash, put my hand in my wallet,  undo the purse strings, give my last penny, spend money like water, blow everything, waste my inheritance – and anything else that Roget’s Thesaurus can come up with.

In this case, I splashed out all of 50p.


Well, it had been marked down from £1 – how could I walk away?

This book is a gem. I wasn’t knitting when it was published, so somehow it passed me by, but I do remember Jackie magazine – not that my mother would let me have Jackie, oh dear no, far too silly, I had to borrow it from school friends on the quiet – and I think they used the same illustrator:

old knitting book

It’s the incidental details that get me – love the chairs – and what the heck is that black-clad old lady doing? The 1976 equivalent of Shreddies’ offensive knitting nanas?  Mind you, the way she’s drawn, she could be some refugee from a hippy commune.

I like ‘visiting the woolshop’ (and as an editor, I’m intrigued by the early running together of ‘wool’ and ‘shop’ – oh, it’s Patons, by the way; I think they must have had something to do with this publication), and the trip on the tube to get there:

old knitting book madness

Note the concession to multiculturalism, though I bet it wasn’t called that then, just eight years after Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech (don’t just get distracted by the bobble cap). Oh, maybe the Sun sponsored this book in conjunction with Patons?

But it is very easy to be distracted by details, like phones and decor:

old knitting book 2

Don’t do it, Maggie! Have you never heard the saying about not knitting anything for a man until you’ve got his ring on your finger (highly apt for the time, I think)? And you don’t want that; in a later frame he’s puffing away on – a pipe. Plus, what about the magic word, you sexist git? Yes, you can make one for him, Maggie, but will you? Haven’t you heard of feminism? Don’t just say ‘certainly’!

And what about that decor? Some unsettling motifs keep cropping up throughout the book. I must draw your attention to the strange doll-type harlequin-clown thing hanging from the shelves here. Hanging…?

old knitting book

It appears in several frames, sometimes without any apparent support. Or context. Also, who’s ‘Buck’? Is this all in code? Perhaps this book isn’t really about knitting, perhaps it’s actually about some weird sinister-doll-worsphipping cult. (The teddy is migratory too, but doesn’t have the doll’s force of personality.)

There are sections, named to tempt you in: Woolly Waistcoats, anyone? Jaunty Jackets? Tank Tops? (The sub evidently couldn’t think of an alliterative terms to go with tank tops, having sensibly rejected ‘terrible’.) No actual patterns, mind, just named sections.

They knit on the beach:

old knitting bookwhich personally I’d have thought a little sandy (this is a beach, honest, it’s clearer in other frames), and take bags of knitting on picnics. Oh come on, we’ve all been there. Admittedly probably not in a maxi-skirt and strange shapeless waistcoat, but hey. (And if she hadn’t stitched the shoulders together, wasn’t it a bit risky holding up as though she had, over a beach full of sand?)

It’s easy to sneer, and I know I’ve indulged myself a bit. But hidden inside here are some pretty clear technical instructions, like these for splicing wool,


and mattress stitch:

mattress stitch

and I’ve just found some buttonhole instructions which remind me of the very neat way my mother taught me, and which I have managed to forget in the (good heavens, that long?) fifteen years since she died.

Where are my needles? Not to mention my stripy kaftan and devil doll…


Women’s work…

Today, of course, is International Women’s Day and instead of indulging in a seasonal rant like last year, I decided to reflect on how lucky I am – how lucky we are, we women who choose to work with textiles. Instead of having to do so, that is.

Think on’t – for many centuries, we’d have had little or no choice. For many millennia, even. If we wanted fabric, we’d have had to produce it, going right back to working with basic cords. We’d have had to spin every single thread, from the ones used to knit a shawl for a baby to those being woven into sails for a ship. Everything. Oh, men would have been involved too, at some stages, inevitably, but we do know that the bulk of the textile work often fell upon women – ‘keep the maids at their spinning’.

s[pinning woman

So here, because I’m still coughing for Wales and have a head almost entirely full of menthol and eucalyptus, are some images of women working with textiles which have served to make me think on’t, as it were.

These images are by the early twentieth century American photographer Lewis Hine:

Let’s not forget that children were so useful, and girls were so much more reliable.

The smaller girls have to stand on boxes to allow them to work.

Child workers, 1910

This child – from 1910 – is a little taller, but no matter. And no matter how attractive the photograph, it’s still not right. And it’s not in the past, of course. Just in the past – mostly – in the ‘developed’ world. Hrrumpf.

The production of fine knitted items on Shetland was not industrialised as such, but was just as oppressive – I went into this in some depth after I was in Shetland a couple of years ago, in a post called ‘knitting for tea‘ – salutary.

knitter with kishie of peats

(Photograph courtesy Shetland Museum and Archives)

Hard work. You’ve got to keep at the knitting when you’re doing other things, or you don’t – essentially – eat.

And finally, just because I had an argument about voting  (do it; people have died for the right to vote, I don’t care if nothing changes, just ****** vote, or maybe spoil your ballot paper because they do take note of those), and political action with a couple of women yesterday, note these two redoubtable women from the textile industry:


They were on a picket line during the huge US garment workers’ strike in 1910 (love the hat, by the way; no to donkey jackets; yes to big hats). Yo!

Knitting Wales – for Dewi Sant

Well, I’m still coughing, so no singing of the national anthem today (a great relief to all and sundry, I’m sure). But as it is St David’s Day, aka Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant, I am dressed as a giant leek. This makes a change from being dressed as a dragon* or a Welsh cake, of course.

Oh, OK, I’m not. But I am dressed like this:

Dyce painting

Courtesy National Museum of Wales

Thank you William Dyce, for Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting, which I rather like. I’m the one in the red. Dyce, incidentally, was a Scot. He came here for his health, apparently. Just as well that was in 1860. If he’d come here now he wouldn’t have lasted very long. Cough.

*Many years ago a rugby-mad friend went to Twickenham for a match with some mates. One was arrested for, ahem, public nuisance – the only one who had dressed (entirely) as a dragon, except for his DMs. He had nothing else to wear and so appeared in court in full rig, to much hilarity. Asked afterwards to comment he said ‘I don’t know why they picked on me, I don’t think I was that obvious, there were four of us doing it.’