Category Archives: Fibre

Summer fun. No, really.

It’s been a busy summer. Nothing wrong with that; what with work and trying to stop the garden from turning into the Gobi Desert, I’ve been rushed off my feet. It was quite a relief to find myself spending three weeks with friends in a craft pop-up in Harlech. In the building behind the bunting.

(It was once a library, but one non-visitor announced loudly ‘I’m not going in there, it smells of old chapels’. A: no, it doesn’t, and B: what had terrified him so much about old chapels? The writer in me nearly dashed out and asked.)

I always take my spinning wheel, a good reference book on sheep, and some samples of differently coloured fleece. If nothing else, it gives me something else to do when we’re quiet (knitting all the time would just lead to more hand trouble, must vary my craft, must vary my craft, must… you get the picture).

So many people are fascinated by the process, and most of them have never seen anyone spinning before, though I did – to our mutual surprise – encounter another Louet user, a delightful Dutch visitor. The fleeces are particularly fascinating to children (so soft, and they are all washed, of course), and thrilled a couple from Chicago who had been wondering what ‘all the small black animals in the fields were’. Zwartbles, often, now, but some are Black Welsh Mountains. If I’d spent my life in Chicago I’d not expect black sheep, either. Lake-effect snow, yes; getting your scarf frozen to your face in the few blocks between where you are staying and the Art Institute where you’re working, yes; seeing commuters skiing in the street, yes. Black sheep, no, not necessarily.

But I don’t necessarily spin fleece, though. It’s the idea of prepping it; I’d never have enough for a day’s spinning – part of a day spinning, ahem – without prepping it on site, as it were, and the thought of what a determined  nine-year-old boy could do to his younger brother with a drum carder makes my blood run cold. They’re bad enough with an unsupervised spinning wheel. So I take fluff. And this year I had some mystery fluff (I’d inherited it) which turned out to be Wingham’s cashmere and silk blend. All 700g of it. Spun like a dream, too.

As you might expect. Sigh. Plied wonderfully as well.

Now, of course, the question is what to knit with it. I intended to keep it DK weight, but it turned out more 4 ply or sport weight equivalent; it wanted to be fine. I had also intended to dye it, possibly with madder, but I’m loving the natural cream’n’gleam effect of the undyed fibre. I can feel a shawl coming on.

When I’ve finished the sweater on the needles at the mo. And the other shawl on the other needles. Oh yes, and when I’ve finished spinning the last 100g.


Sheep and people

Some time ago I was beyond chuffed to have found a copy of M L Ryder’s huge tome Sheep and Man (I know, I know, but it was published in 1983 when you could get away with that sort of thing – when nobody even questioned it, much of the time).

What with one thing and another – mostly work – I’ve not done more than dip into it occasionally. But I’ve just sat myself down with a glass of wine and had an hour of browsing. And I’ve learned all sorts of things. I thought I knew about sheep. I now know that I know about 0.00005% of the stuff there is to know about sheep. Or as one of my visitors put it once, ‘those white fluffy things up there’. I thought she meant clouds, but no. She meant sheep. What she was pointing to were actually wild goats, but hey.

It’s a work of its time, of course: how could it be anything else? In the section on transhumance in Romania, for instance, Ryder talks about ‘the best features of traditional shepherding being incorporated into the collective system’ which (largely) ended in Eastern Europe with the fall of communism, but it is still fascinating. Do, I wonder, Romanian shepherds still wear the ankle-length sheepskin coat?

They did in 1982, when this photograph was taken.

Sheep and Man is full of fascinating facts and snippets. Let’s have a few:

  • Shepherds in Maramures (Romania) regard the sheep as being holy, and say that it makes the sign of the cross on the ground before going to sleep.
  • In Babylonia, sacrificial sheep were not wasted (the same was doubtless true elsewhere, but there is documentation in the form of some of the earliest written records here), but their meat was shared out: tails for metalworkers, breasts for the goldsmiths, ribs for the weavers, etc. The hind leg, the gigot, was the prime cut then too, and that was reserved for the god. Exact records were kept.
  • In Ancient Rome, cheese from the evening milk should be taken to town by the shepherd the next morning. There were two kinds of sheep’s milk cheese, one very fresh (like this) and one salted and intended to last.
  • And on the theme of keeping things to last: in 1840, one traveller in Afghanistan witnessed an ambush when some sheep were caught. They were killed and buried so that the raiding party would have something to eat on their return journey (gag).

OK, how about wool, then?

No, these two Frenchmen are not torturing the sheep (or doing anything suspect which might involve an early form of welly). They are washing the fleece in a flume and, quite frankly, I wish more farmers would take this up. Or even revive the art of washing sheep in the streams and rivers, as used to be traditional round here. Covering the garden (and myself, Next Door’s Cat and any passing visitors) in skanky fleece and sheep poo is one reason why I am contemplating never working with raw fleece again. OK, rant over.

  • As early as Roman times, wool was sometimes washed off the animal, being scoured in a tub (presumably not a green plastic garden trug such as the one I use, ahem). Soapwort roots were used to remove the lanolin, and it was ‘reserved for use as a medicament’.
  • The first shears are Iron Age in date; prior to that sheep were ‘rooed’: plucked; the sheep still moulted naturally as some ‘primitive’ breeds do today. On St Kilda a knife was used before shears were introduced, and Ryder speculates that this might have been the case in the more remote past.
  • But there is no evidence of hand cards before the Middle Ages. I know ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ but what did they use? Intriguing. Maybe nothing – rooing would have removed some of the coarser fibres – but combing is more likely. Carding may have developed as wool became finer and matted more easily, which would have made it more difficult to comb.
  • Wool, along with hair, has been used as a binder in plaster and paper making.


  • Sheep’s foot oil was (still is?) used to grease violin strings
  • Hippocrates advocated the use of greasy sheep’s wool as a wound dressing. (Not bonkers: it might encourage clotting, the lanolin would stop a wound drying out, and ‘some of the complex substances it contains may promote growth of new tissue’ – ‘Some secretions of sheepskin are bactericidal’.)
  • One cure for sickness was to wrap the patient in a freshly removed sheepskin – and a ‘tea’ made from droppings could be used to treat all sorts of things from measles to whooping cough. So glad I did not know this when I had whooping cough a year ago.
  • Many English village names bear testimony to the importance of sheep. Watch out for sceap derivates such as skip, ship, shap, or shep in the names: Shepton Mallet, Skipton, Shipley…

Ok, now I want to investigate old Californian mission brands. Or winter feeding in Mediaeval Italy. Or the reluctance of many settler families to appreciate the value of merino sheep in Australia. Or sheep-milk butter making. Or wool in Persian carpets. Or the ways in which sheep have been restrained (no, ye dirty-minded pups, ye) such as hobbling, yokes, and various tethers including a ‘sheep bow’. Or the use of wool threads in sorcery and witchcraft. Or healing: George III was given black wool stockings for his rheumatism… I can’t stop. Yes, I can: my wine is getting warm.

Let’s have some pretty sheep to finish. Gotland crosses. Local.

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.

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…


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


and finally revealed two kilos of the most wonderful fibre:


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.

The strangeness of coloured sheep (I don’t think)…

Sheep, as I was establishing in a post or two towards the end of last year, have all sorts of strangeness attached to them. Given that you can foretell the future by using sheep bones or stop yourself from becoming pregnant by drinking sheep pee*, it should come as no surprise that coloured sheep have some specific strangenesses attached to them. But they’ve also got a lot of normal history attached to them, too, something which tends to fade into the background.

odysseusSometimes they have Greek heroes attached as well. This particular coloured-sheep attachment is Odysseus, escaping from Cyclops. He clung beneath the belly of a ‘well- bred, thick-fleeced ram, a fine big animal with a coat of black wool’. It must indeed have been a ‘fine big animal’, or maybe Odysseus was small, or maybe Cyclops’ one eye failed to notice the legs sticking out at the end. Not to mention the sword sticking out at the front.

(In the classical world, white sheep were sacrificed to the celestial gods, and black sheep to the gods of the underworld – male to gods, female to goddesses. Natch.)

But why coloured sheep at all?


Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

That’s because coloured sheep came first. The wild ancestors of domesticated sheep – probably mouflons, or mouflon-like animals – had dark coats. Dark, hairy coats, as do some wild sheep today, and some primitive breeds.

It’s been suggested that an increased desire for paler colours went along with the discovery of dyeing. If you want a white cloth, then you obviously don’t want to have to use coloured wool. And if you want to dye your cloth whatever colour you please, or dye your wool before spinning or weaving, then you don’t particularly want coloured fleece either. White fleece just is better for dyeing (not necessarily more interesting, of course) as the pigment in coloured fleeces interferes with dyeing, often in unpredictable ways.

So whiteness is a deliberately created feature of fleece, one bred for over millennia from occasional white- or paler-fleeced animals. Genetic modification, if you like. From right back, white fleeces have been premium products, and I mean right back. Some of the earliest written records in existence from the city of Ur – dating to about 2100BP – list grades of wool. The best was called the ‘property of the moon god’. Then came ‘royal’, and then, finally, the rest: ‘mixed, fine sheep neck, black wool, dead wool [sic], and wool combed from the third.’

There have always been throwbacks, the sudden appearance of a black sheep in a white flock, just as there would have been the odd pale sheep in a generally dark flock. They crop up quite often in Mediaeval manuscripts and books of hours. Check out the flock in the February illustration from the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:

tres riches heures sheep(but don’t look at the peasants warming their bits if you’re easily shocked).

IMG_9054And here are some more, from another book of hours. A much more mixed flock, this one, as is the one in the background. Specifically black sheep are also written about in Mediaeval chronicles, and not in a metaphorical sense either. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) visited Ireland in the twelfth century and wrote that since the sheep ‘over there’ were black, the monks all wore black woollen robes – so he must have seen flocks that were largely composed of dark sheep. (They’ve also been mentioned more recently in Irish literature: in J M Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon is given ‘a coat of the blackest shearings for miles around’.)

That was a bit of an aside…

In some places in Classical Greece, water was said to determine lamb colour – for instance, if ewes drank from the river Psychrus in Thrace just before being mated, they would have black lambs. Aristotle contradicted that, saying that the colour of the veins under the tongue determined the colour, and Virgil repeated this (‘reject any ram, however pure and white his wool / if the tongue beneath his moist palate is black, for he’ll breed / lambs with black-spotted fleeces…’). Interestingly, there’s been some twentieth-century research confirming this, at least in Karakul and Gotland sheep.

gotland goodnessIn other places, the shepherds clearly knew what they were doing (I suspect they did anyway, and fed the posh gits from Athens a line about rivers). Strabo described breeds of sheep from Laodicea as being noted for their soft wool but also for their ‘dark or raven colour’, and adding that the combination had to be selected for.

I’ve got some soft wool with a ‘dark or raven colour’ to deal with, myself – my stash of Gotland x Black Welsh Mountain fleeces, selected from their original owners’ backs last July. I got them just before Christmas so they’re being washed, bit by bit, in the bath (it’s a bit cold out there). Doubtless this will mean a blocked pipe but I can deal with that; frostbite, I’m not so keen on. So I’m going to go and deal with the latest chunk and then dig out some really strange things about coloured wool and black sheep…

*Allegedly. This may not work. Just saying, as a disclaimer. Don’t come round here with prams full of children blaming me for the fact that the sheep pee didn’t work.

Wovember: working with wool

Now for what is probably my favourite of the five Wovember subjects, and probably the last one I’m going to write about this year – working with wool. Not ‘wool still walking round the fields and bleating wool’ or ‘wool fresh off the sheep’s back wool’ this time, but the wool well and truly off it, and – phew – washed.

Nice and clean, without any extra bracken, daggy bits, dried poo, semi-dried mud, huge thorns, strange unidentifiable lumps (ergh) or traces of reddle,


like this delicious Teeswater. Too beautiful to use, though maybe it would make a good prop in a fantasy / historical drama, for someone called Jason to steal. Golden it most certainly is. Working with wool like this is wonderful, but as I’ve been going through all my photos, I’ve realised something else. Something really obvious, when you think about it. And that’s the fact that working with woolly people is even more wonderful.

One of the things I appreciate most about the Woolly World is just how collaborative it is, and not only virtually, on sites like Ravelry. Take knitters. They, I decided some time ago, are just naturally sociable. Here’s our knit and natter group, scrutinising each others’ patterns (note Colours of Shetland and one of Jamieson’s US pattern books; don’t know about the source of the orange baby but I think it’s either a) stuffed, b) seriously drugged or c) a doll):


It has been going for some time now; we meet in a local pub and are just following a fine old Welsh tradition, the noswaith weu. We used to clear the bar, with the darts team retreating to the snug in fear and trembling, but they’ve got used to us and our potentially dangerous implements. In fact we’ve been challenged to a match – darts not dpns, though learning to use them is allegedly the penalty they pay if they lose – a challenge which was made at the village’s Beer Festival last year and which has yet to be played out. Elegant, refayned, ‘ladylike’ knitters, we’re not. Mind you, that photo’s not so much working with wool as being prepared to work with wool. As are we, after we’ve had our first drink and a chat.

It’s not just knitters who gather together in groups, of course – spinners, I think, are even more sociable (and again there’s local tradition to back us up – communal spinning of an evening around the fire was common in many farmsteads). But when it comes to really getting down to it and actually working with wool, the Sunday Market Spinners are much more disciplined than the Every Other Monday Knitters.


Er, once we’ve had coffee, possibly a bacon sarny (we meet in a cafe, in their upper floor gallery), been to the farmers’ market and loaded up with eggs, honey, wild mushrooms, cracked black pepper sausages, goat’s cheese – oh, yes, and chocolate. But when we start, we do get a lot done. Really. And it’s very encouraging, as well as inspiring, to see what other people are up to. The SMSes are an informal group, but some of us belong to branches of the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers as well (good for workshops and wonders like Winghams’ sampling days). Whatever the setting, whatever the circumstances, we learn a lot from other wool addicts, whether that’s mastering flick carding,


(here working on a very crimpy BFL cross) or helping a new spinner who has inherited her mother’s wheel, but who had never used it.

helping hands

An essential part of spinning groups, whatever type they are and at least as far as I am concerned, is spreading the word. Whether that means convincing gobsmacked coffee-shop customers that an ancient craft is still going strong, or bolstering the ‘British wool is best’ message of an open-farm day,

sunny sunday spin

(spot the matching wheels), doing our thing in public is vital. Spinning doesn’t just belong in a Disney-cartoon, Rumplestiltskin, fairytale world, or in the past. It belongs right now, and nobody has to wear national dress while doing it. Unless that’s their thing, of course: spinners are also, generally, remarkably tolerant of people doing whatever works for them (in my case, that would be dodgy technique and absolutely not a stovepipe hat).

But it’s not just fibre production. Dyeing wool, for instance, is something I enjoy doing with other people. I love seeing what everyone else does, what the effect of dyes is on different yarns – overdying a coloured fleece, for instance. Yes, it’s interesting doing it by yourself, but it’s great fun to share the experience. Again, the sharing might be through an organised event, like our Guild’s annual dyeing picnic which gives us an opportunity to play with many different possibilities, even dye baths which look like, well, boiled-up boots:

not stew. dyebaths

Or it could be a more impromptu gathering of three or four friends over a primus stove on a summer’s day. There is something about deliberately changing the colour of wool which I find even more satisfying if it’s been shared, and other people’s preferences are so interesting, and can affect what you yourself do (or not, ahem). Take one day a couple of summers ago; there were three of us. One, a very experienced indie dyer, was taking the chance to experiment with some unusual space dyeing combinations. Another was dyeing enough for garments, being systematic and having a clear aim in view.

And me? Well, I was – completely unconsciously, honest – channelling my inner Goth:

a vampire does some dyeing

apart from the skeins of indigo dyed wool, which (nterestingly and possibly not surprisingly) are still awaiting a use. Soooo predictable. I even managed to produce a good black, though it has bleached out somewhat in the washing. Not so much Dracula’s black as Victorian pauper trying to do their best with third-hand mourning from the shonky shop black. Oh well.

But when it comes down to it, whatever you do, and however many people you do it with, it’s getting the stuff on the needles that provides the ultimate satisfaction:


A cold evening outside; inside, closed blinds, a good DVD, a happy wood stove and a happy knitter. Here working with some hand dyed handspun, making up a long wrap-it-right-round-and-strangle-yourself cowl which she’s just finished. Right in time for what the Daily Express assures us is ‘killer snow’. Bet it doesn’t happen, but if it does, I’m ready. Thanks, sheepies!

Opening the mystery parcel…

I went out yesterday, and when I got back there was a big box sitting on the floor. I approached it with caution and a pocket knife, trying not to squeal in anticipation.

Is it a (wooden) bird?


Is it a (strange sort of) plane?


Is it an excellent way of putting off doing my tax return?


Oh, YES!

When I started spinning about three years ago, a friend and I bought a second-hand Ashford drum carder from a nearby farmer’s wife, and coincidentally the purveyor of fine BFL-cross fleeces to the discriminating local spinner. It had been used, well used. But it worked and was great. But then I was unfaithful. I used a Classic Carder belonging to a friend.

I was led away from the path of abstemious righteousness and was tempted by sleek lines, good looks, and downright efficiency. (It’s a pattern – or that should be was a pattern – though a) not always applied to drum carders, in fact never before, generally to men; and b) the efficiency thing has tended to be somewhat optional when applied to blokes.)

You should always give in to temptation:


And that reminds me, I’m supposed to be doing my tax return. Yeah right…