Book review: Yarnitecture

YarnitectureI’m often sent books to review, and I find myself thinking ‘nooooo’. Many don’t make it onto Woolwinding; they are either inappropriate or just uninspiring, or maybe they are reinventing a wheel which doesn’t need redevelopment – or maybe they are just dire. But sometimes I open a parcel and find myself doing a little dance round the room. This is one of the latter occasions.

Excuse me. Ahem.

What can I say about this gem by Jillian Moreno? it is a spinning book written, hooray, from a knitter’s perspective. It focuses on spinning ‘a yarn that fulfils a purpose’: one that works its best for whatever knitted project you have in mind.

Once upon a recent time, handspinning was almost an end in itself, and it still can be, of course. Once upon a recent time, it was assumed in books about spinning that the spinners were inevitably dealing exclusively with fleece. Raw fleece. Fleece possibly from their own sheep. And, also of course, some people do work exclusively with fleece (I love it myself, except on days like today when the wind suddenly gets up and blows most of my freshly washed Cheviot x BFL fleece away, possibly taking it as far as England). But many of us are not purists: we buy prepared fibre, maybe hand-dyed, delicious fibre; maybe undyed but fully processed and still delicious fibre. And some people – I know several – actively dislike working with anything else. Very many of us spin fibre in order to knit with it, to produce something unique, something we control from (almost) start to finish. This is our book.

It starts with a basic vision; goes through fibre breeds and the impact choice there can have; explores prep, drafting, plying, working with colour, finishing… and, ta dah, knitting with handspun. It’s beautifully illustrated. And it even has some patterns.

Ok, let’s have a look inside. Take this page: it illustrates the different effects you can get by blending colours at plying or blending those colours before spinning:

colour spinning

It is often good to do things intentionally, instead of accidentally. Intentional, and you can get the same effect again, should you want to do so. Accidental? You might be lucky…

Or take finishing a spun yarn. I almost always whack my finished yarn to set the twist (I find it helpful; I can imagine I am whacking the person at the Fibre Fair who said ‘I could do that, but I wouldn’t want to, it’s so boring’). But what about the alternatives? There’s snapping, swirling it around like a cowboy with a lasso, even fulling it. What difference would a different process make, and what impact would it have on a particular yarn?


Here four different yarns are compared – merino, corriedale, BFL and silk – after having undergone eight different approaches (menaced, incidentally, doesn’t mean you sitting in front of the yarn like Michael Corleone confronting the men who tried to kill his father; it means felting it deliberately).

And how about ply affecting what you want to knit?


That’s covered at length; above focuses on singles, but there are equally detailed examinations of two- and three-ply yarns. It’s excellent, and the ‘knitting with your handspun’ section is invaluable, covering things like ensuring you will have enough yarn (been there), and simply planning a project from a pattern which specifies a commercial yarn.

Finally, there are twelve patterns. There are two cardigans, a moebius cowl / shawl, four more varied but normally constructed shawls (of which this, by Romi, is one),


socks, two sweaters, a necklace and a pair of mitts.

I have been waiting for a book like this – thank you, Jill Moreno!


Fulling cloth: stamping and stocks in Wales

We have a lot of water in Wales. I know it’s a cliché, but we do. Everywhere in the west of a northern continent does, whether it’s Seattle or Bangor; rainfall is a given. Mostly. It certainly is round here, and that means that there are lots of useful streams or small rivers:


roaring down from the hills, just begging to be used.

It’s not surprising that fulling cloth was done away from the house while other textile processes stayed at home, given one of the easiest and cheapest raw materials to obtain for fulling was stale urine, but it’s the sheer number of fulling mills that leaps out at you in Wales, once you know what you’re looking for.

I’d not realised it, but my house almost equidistant between two fulling mills, and that’s two even in my small area, two within three miles of my home. Well, they were fulling mills once; one is now a private house, and the other is a pub. The river in the shot above, the Ysgethin, is the one which flows (or roars, rather worryingly) close by the latter, and which provided power for the fulling stocks which were once there. The other was part of a smaller operation but was again situated next to a mountain stream – where cloth would once have been ‘walked’ – though there was evidence of two pits, possibly used for treading cloth, before the house was developed. The giveaway can be an element in a name: a pandy is a fulling mill (pl. pandai) – as in Tonypandy, for instance – but watch out for the mutation which changes the initial letter in some circumstances to a b, so you get ‘bandy‘ instead. In the case of the pub, the giveaway was some large information boards. I managed to walk past them several times without taking them in…

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There were hundreds of small fulling mills; every district had one, and many had several. In his magisterial book, The History of Wales / Hanes Cymru, John Davies notes that 111 were established in the country during the fourteenth century. They spread north and east from the south and, despite the upheaval of the rising of Owain Glyn Dwr, a further 62 were built before 1500. (Flemish weavers settling in Pembrokeshire have been credited with spearheading their development, but it’s not certain how significant their role actually was; moving fulling out of the house would have been a logical process.)

In my neck of the woods, Meirionydd, the first reference to a fulling mill is from 1545, when Maes y Pandy (note the name) near Dolgellau crops up in a legal document. Between then and 1700, there are records of a further 38 being established, and  another 30 between 1700 and 1810.

fulling mill

Many fullers, like that fuller from Pompeii in the previous post, were part-timers: in this case, they were part-time farmers, with the pandy one of the farm buildings. And sometimes fulling mills were developed with existing corn mills, and the same person looked after both processes (as at Coed Trewernau in Powys, where a fulling mill and corn mill are recorded together in the 1630s). The domestic cloth trade was particularly important in Meirionydd as, incidentally, was sock and stocking knitting: ‘Almost every little farmer makes webs, and few cottages in these parts are without a loom’ wrote Arthur Aikin in 1797.

It’s not surprising that fulling was the ‘first woollen process to be mechanised’. The introduction of fulling stocks must have been generally welcomed: fulling using the feet was time-consuming, unpleasant, exhausting and damaging to the health. But it wasn’t a process from the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, oh no: this mechanisation goes back as far as 1135 in Britain, with records of water-powered mills in Cumbria. Stocks went on to be in use until the twentieth century, and there is a film of some rather basic ones in use which can be seen at the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre.

Fulling mill

They all work on the same basic principle. Cloth is put in the ‘box’ – you can just see it behind the stocks (D) in the picture above – and is pounded alternately by a pair of hammers, powered by the energy from water. The back of the hammers is shaped in such a way that the cloth is constantly turned, ensuring that it is completely fulled.

It’s not at all surprising that many fulling mills later developed into full-scale industrial enterprises. First fulling moved away from the home and into the mills, then prepping the fleece. This can be seen in the history of many. Take a mill at Cwmpengraig: carders, water-driven, were introduced into a building which had been in use as a fulling mill. In the 1820s, when it was known as Coedmor, a spinning jack of 40 spindles was added. It continued as a carding, spinning and fulling mill until 1878 when it was rebuilt as a ‘fully comprehensive mill’. It no longer exists as a mill, having been burnt down twice, most recently in 1951. (Fire was a constant threat; lots of grease from the wool and the machines; lots of timber in the buildings.) Trefriw, near Betws-y-Coed in North Wales, is another example – but one which is happily thriving.

And what of fulling stocks? Well, they were gradually replaced by rotary machines in which the cloth, ends sewn together to make an endless loop, passed between weighted rollers. The ‘rotary mill’ was patented in 1833, increased production and ensured more control over the process. But that didn’t necessarily mean that all fulling was a hugely industrial operation, as illustrated by this last image, from the county archives:


Meirionnydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives Service

The box in the foreground is the rotary milling machine, and the man is William Edwards, who was the fuller at Pandy Gwylan in Maentwrog: another fulling mill just a hair’s breadth from where I live. And this one is recorded as also having a ‘dye house’. That’s a whole other story!

Fulling cloth: smells and stamping in Rome

I’ve had an astonishingly ‘crafty’ summer. Plus, there’s work (bechod) and, what with one thing and another, blogging has taken a bit of a back seat. But I’ve still been brooding on fulling. I realise lots of people will know all about this, but I didn’t. Well, I knew bits, but only bits. I didn’t realise, for instance, that urine had ever been taxed and, quite apart from why, how? I have to admit that I still don’t understand the fiscal process. How on earth do you tax pee?

Ahem. Fulling cloth – kneading the woven cloth until the fabric thickens as the threads felt and close together, while also cleaning it – was one of the earliest cloth-making processes to be mechanised, but that wasn’t until the early middle ages. Before that it was largely down to feet.

fullingRoman fulleries had their slaves treading away in booth-like structures, and similar processes – often called ‘walking’ (Ireland and Wales) and ‘waulking’ (particularly in the Hebrides) – have persisted as part of a commercial process almost into the present.

There can seem to have been an excess of fullers in some Roman towns, but that’s probably down to a form of sampling bias. A fuller’s workroom / shop is one of the easiest places to recognise, which may make them seem more prominent than they might have been at the time. Maybe. Probably not, though: Romans did not wash their clothes (or anything else made of cloth) at home. Fulleries are completely distinctive, with their booths, vats and large sinks.

Few trades leave clearer traces behind them:

fullery in Pompeii

Fullers (preparing cloth before it went into use) and laundries (not just cleaning cloth but often refurbishing it too) generally seem to have been the same place. Fullers, with common Roman snobbery towards the ‘working classes’, were a source of amusement to the elite, and Cicero’s detractors often teased him with being the son of a laundry owner. Fullers might also have been part-timers; one piece of Pompeiian construction graffiti states that ‘Mustius the fuller did the whitewashing’ – so he clearly had a sideline, or maybe he was moonlighting to make ends meet. Also in Pompeii is a house with an ‘oversized’ dining room which had a lot of graffiti celebrating fullers; Mary Beard has suggested (in Pompeii) that it might have been where they went for after-work drinks, and why not?

It was a smelly trade, though, which makes the fact that fulleries could be next to elegant houses rather surprising, to us. It was pongy because of the importance of pee in the cleansing process, and that is why the emperor Vespasian taxed human urine – it was a levy on the textile industry, and specifically on the fullers; nicely stale urine was a source of ammonium salts which helped to whiten the cloth. It was collected in large clay pots which were placed in strategic locations – outside shops, public urinals, road intersections (!) – though the fullers deliberately avoided some, notably the pots outside inns. That’s because post-piss-up pee is lower in nitrogen and not so effective. The things you learn.

First, the fabric was soaked in a heated mixture of old urine and water in a fulling stall, and then the fullers – or more likely the slaves – would go into the stall, rest their hands on the sides and start stamping. Once the fulling process was complete the fabric was thoroughly rinsed (thank heavens), wrung out (took at least two people; a toga could be nearly 7 metres long) and then spread out over frames to dry. Once dry, the nap was raised by using thistle heads, and then trimmed to a constant height using ‘cropping shears’, which are often represented on gravestones.

Fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus, Pompeii

Incidentally, there is evidence that any dyeing often took place before weaving the cloth, which is probably not surprising given how throughly the finished fabric was worked afterwards. The effectiveness of the fulling process can be seen in reports of the spotless white togas of senators; they were woollen, and – naturally – subject to this process for cleaning as well as finishing the cloth in the first place.

If you were of more humble status your clothes were more likely to be dull and brownish rather than white, largely because they would not be so expensively produced or laundered. Harriet Fowler (in Women of the Roman Republic) thinks they may have been produced / cleaned separately, probably in different establishments, which seems highly likely to me – you’d probably be using less of the taxed constituents, maybe watering them down more, if you were doing it for people who couldn’t afford much. There were different types of fulleries: broadly, small local ones, often near market places, and huge imposing ones which clearly had many more workers / slaves. Bigger, smarter places for those who could afford them? Also highly likely, I think. (The parallels between the Roman world and our own just get stronger and stronger – for instance, they had their celebrity chefs and obscure equivalents of things like birch-sap reductions too). And, just as a final note, the slaves who did the treadling did so in bare feet.

stained glass franceMoving on, rather hastily, to Wales, though the stained glass with a fuller treading away at top left comes from France. The other panels are the next stages of cloth finishing, too.

It may seem that Ancient Rome and Mediaeval Wales have not got that much in common (apart from some vocabulary the Romans left behind, now preserved in the Welsh language), but fulling, as elsewhere, is one thing: the fact that it was almost the only part of the textile production process which not done at home. Prepping fibre, spinning, weaving: yes, all done in your home (or in the home in which you worked as a domestic servant). Fulling: nah. Not surprising, really, even when Fuller’s Earth was being more frequently used. Fulling still involved a lot of stamping about in – well – stale piss. Or it did, for a considerable time. And then came fulling stocks, which must have been a relief….

Main source for Rome: Miko Flohr, The World of the Fullo, OUP, 2013. Wales next (and this time without a gap of several weeks!)

Spin it!

There’s this thing, you see. It’s this big cycling race thing. This insane thing called the Tour de France, to which I am slightly addicted. And then there’s this other insane thing: the Tour de Fleece. Really.

It’s a Ravelry thing, and I joined it last year but got swept up by the spinny equivalent of the voiture balai, the broom wagon, and had to give up as my hands didn’t let me carry on. Not this year. This year I may not be wearing a spotty jersey, a green jersey or a yellow one (I am, in fact, wearing a black polo-neck as the weather is pretending it’s October), but I am spinning or plying every day:

on the bobbin

I’m doing at least 30 minutes every morning, before work, while my porridge is cooking and cooling (yup, it’s porridge weather; should be croissants or a tartine but I need something warming).

Right, so what is the Tour de Fleece?

Apologies if you already know, or indeed if you are already participating… essentially it’s a challenge for spinners. You spin every day the Tour riders ride; you can have rest days as the Tour does – there are two – and you can also do something especially demanding on the challenge days, if you wish. You can join one of the main Rav teams, or you can join what’s known as a ‘wildcard’ team, and some of them are pretty wild. You share what you’ve done, either just with your team or on the various stage posts in the Tour de Fleece group. It can be really inspiring, and really motivating, and if you’re stuck with your spinning, it’s a great way to get going again.

I needed, for instance, to press on with the lovely Haunui I’ve got. Judging by the current weather – my heating has clicked on; this is JULY, for heaven’s sake – my need for the big sweater replacement will hit sooner rather than later, so I need to stop being distracted by colour. I’ve got about 900g which needs spinning up now, and though I know it won’t all get done before the Tour ends, I will be able to make a serious dent in it. First two bobbins of my Tour:

bobbins and mag

which, after taking things carefully for once (I swear I can feel the voiture balai behind me after last year), turned into these:


Spinning a consistent yarn for a garment is interesting – I think I’m getting there; I’ve got my little sample tied to the wheel, and keep stopping to pull the thread back on itself to see what it will look like when plied. Of course, if I’d taken better notes in a Guild workshop on ‘spinning to the crimp’ I’d probably have a better, more methodical way of doing it – but then again, maybe I wouldn’t: the workshop presumed you’d know the fleece in its unwashed state. Anyway, it is a thickish DK or a fine Aran, in most places – sport weight, in fact. Yup, I’m sharing the passion, as the poster says. Only not the unpleasant habits (really – my last year TdF, with details, ergh).

TdF route

And the Tour rides on. In glorious weather. Hrrumpf. Wouldn’t mind sharing a bit of that.

Three for the bookshelf?

Right, that’s it. No more long projects until at least September. I know I suffer from Freelance Disorder – a tendency to accept any job you are offered, on the grounds that it might be the last job you are offered – but I’ve got a summer full of craft pop-ups and fairs and I do not want to be nailed down in front of the laptop. And while I’ve been bogged down in editing books, I’ve also been sent some to review. But these are on woolly matters.

Cable bookThe first, Cable Left, Cable Right by Judith Durant, is a real winner. As it happened, it landed on my doorstep as I was doing some cabling (fingerless mitts, for sale), so the timing couldn’t have been more appropriate.

I do have stitch pattern books which include cables along with other things, generally. But I don’t have anything which purely concentrates on cables apart from one book which also has patterns for garments. In that book the cable patterns are often very elaborate and on a large scale; here there are everything from the simplest rope cables to elaborate banded cables in two colours. Like the other books in this series (which I also rate), this does not include any patterns for finished things – and that, to my mind, is an asset. First, I often don’t like the patterns for the garments / cushions / strange unidentifiable things which come with the selection of stitch patterns; second, just concentrating on the the stitch patterns gives much more depth.

It allows you to look at the basics clearly and in more detail,

pages 1

and to then understand things properly when you get to more complicated issues:

pages 2

And that highlights another point. This book uses charts, not written instructions. Writing these instructions out would have taken pages; the chart is clear and quick. And in case anyone isn’t used to charts for cables (I am one who generally prefers written instructions), there are full and clear directions, and plenty of help. I think I’m converted.

(Someone said to me that she had problems working out which row she was on with charts. I looked at her pattern – written out, complex cables – and she was using a clip-on ruler thingy as a marker. I use something like that for lace charts, which I’m perfectly comfortable with, so why not these? I am a convert.) Yup. A definite recommendation, as is the next one.

IMG_5184Just a quickie; a little book on spinning, How to Spin, by Beth Smith.

It’s basic, it’s clear, it’s not photographic but there are line drawings to clarify things from basic drafting and attaching fibre to the leader to other issues like making a woollen-style join. Beth Smith is the author of The Spinners’ Book of Fleece, and both knows her stuff and has the ability to explain what she’s talking about. I recently sold a wheel to someone who was completely new to spinning, and I wish I’d had a copy of this at the time (it’s OK, she’s near a mutual friend who’s a very good spinner, so she’ll get help there). But this would be very useful for anyone in that position – and I’ve found it useful myself!

page 3Ah yes, the third book. I nearly didn’t review this, but patterns are a matter of personal taste. Also, I do not crochet. But had I ever felt like crocheting – and I might, given that there are some amazing crochet patterns and projects out there to inspire me – then the Crochet One-Skein Wonders for Babies book would put me right off. Incidentally, it had the same effect on some of the expert crocheters who saw it, too.

This elephant is cute, I’ll give it that. And there are a couple of hats and some bootees that I like. And, of course it comes down to the question I raised right at the start, of personal taste in patterns. But a diaper cover with a flower decoration on the bum? A vest which is quite rightly described as ‘unforgettable’? The Zucchini sleep sack and cap? Yup, it’s a bag shaped like a courgette in which you stick your baby.

Ok, there are some nice blankets; if you’re into crochet baby blankets, then it might be worth having a serious look at this. But the majority of the patterns look so old-fashioned beside some of the things people are crocheting now, and many of them are deeply impractical (and frightening, in the case of the more surreal toys). This book tries hard to be cute (‘little bottoms’), but maybe it just isn’t one for the somewhat cynical British market. Or the somewhat cynical me.

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:


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:


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,


(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,


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,


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?