Category Archives: Verging on miscellaneous

I aten’t dead!

In the immortal (literally) words of Pratchett’s fabulous witch Granny Weatherwax, I aten’t dead. I am still here, but have been rushed off my silly feet. Plus my stupid stalker evidently didn’t have enough to do around the festive period and was back tracking me over social media, which isn’t exactly encouraging. However said stalker now appears to be back in their box (I haven’t abandoned my love of grammar and correct use of pronouns, I just refuse to grant ss even the tiniest level of respect). So I should be back, posting away. And I will be, once my lovely MacBookPro comes back from having loads more memory put in it, and a consequent upgrade to the OS.

So in the meanwhile, here’s what I’ve just finished:


A scarf in a mix of Noro and Rowan’s Kidsilk Haze. I didn’t even start the new year by making use of the stash (which I certainly should have done), as this was something I unravelled. And I didn’t get round to making a pussyhat (which I should also have done), partly because I didn’t have any pink other than this and I wasn’t unravelling it again, and also because I was working and not travelling to London to march. Best intentions, etc. But I shall carry on channelling Granny Weatherwax anyway.


Ouch ti pouch ti

First, let me apologise. ‘Ouch ti pouch ti’ is family slang – but essentially it just means ‘ow’. And ‘ow’ is something I’ve been saying quite a bit lately (along with a few other things), because I developed contact dermatitis. No, I’ve not been near poison ivy because we don’t have it this side of the pond; I’ve not suddenly developed a sensitivity to the cat; I’ve not sprayed myself with cleaning fluid.

I cuddled a fleece cushion.

I pulled a muscle in my right shoulder, and almost the only way I could be comfortable when lying down was if my arm was supported – hence the cushion. Small, convenient, not filled with feathers so it held its shape: perfect. Except for the consequences, that is.

I didn’t realise anything was amiss until I woke with the cushion almost sticking to me and the beginnings of an angry rash (no, there won’t be any photographs, so anyone who blog-surfs at breakfast can carry on eating). This rapidly deteriorated – I didn’t expect it to hurt quite as much as it did – but it’s finally responding to the steroids. Now the swelling has gone down somewhat the culprit is even more clearly defined: I have a clear zipper mark where the fleece didn’t come into direct contact with my skin. My doctor had never heard of a link before, so I hit the internet and discovered that I’m not alone. This not-uncommon reaction has been blamed on polar fleece being treated with fire retardant (possibly the case with my cushion), on the way it is manufactured, on the fact that it can get very hot. It all got me thinking: how much did I know about polar fleece? Not a lot, it turned out.

polar fleece 1We’ve all got fleeces, I bet. I have – had – a fleece throw which went on the bed when it got cold. I’ve got a couple of hats, gloves I wear when scraping ice off the car, a crappy garden fleece, a walking fleece, an almost smart fleece – and that’s even though I’m a knitter and spinner. They’re handy. I keep one by the door, chuck it on when I go to get logs. And not as bulky as a big sweater, either. Nice and light. But what are they made of?


Really. Oil. They’re polyester, which is made by reacting one petroleum derivative (terephthlic acid) with another (ethylene glycol, aka antifreeze). These create a polymer, which becomes thick and syrupy as it cools. It’s forced through tiny holes in a ‘spinneret’ – a metal disk – forming strands and, as these come into contact with air, they harden. The chemical name for this polymer is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET – yes, that’s the same stuff that is formed into plastic for soft drink bottles. And that’s how come some fleeces are made today from recycled bottles, and many more have at least an element of recycled material.

polar fleece 2The fibres are spun together, and collected onto huge spools. They are then mechanically knitted on a circular knitting machine into an enormous tube. Fleece is, of course, fuzzy. That’s because the resulting material is then fed through a ‘napper’ which raises the surface, and then to a shearing machine, which cuts the fibres – as in the manufacture of, say, velvets. The resulting fabric is then finished (if necessary), which can involve spraying it with waterproofing or fire retardant or something to set the texture. This could have been the source of my dermatitis.

But that’s not the end of the story. So fleece can be green with its recycled content, even though it’s made from petroleum derivatives and we might be better off using what oil we have as a source of power? Er, no, not really. The Guardian described synthetic microplastic as ‘the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of’ in a 2014 piece. It’s worth clicking on the link but, very briefly, the problem is fibres.

Mark Browne, a ecologist researching shoreline sediments, noticed something incredibly common: lots and lots of tiny synthetic fibres. Everywhere. He found them in the largest quantities near sewage outlets, so the source was clear: human activity. (It’s OK, you can go back to your croissants: washing machine waste water goes into the sewage system too.) They were ‘microplastics’, used in clothing. And further sampling showed that around 1,900 fibres can be washed off a single garment in a single wash. Of course, they don’t just sit there doing nothing. They can find their way into the food chain…

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with all my fleeces now. I do know one thing, though: after a rather reckless experiment involving a fleece scarf, I’m not going to be wearing any of them any time soon.

Hello sheepies!

Sorry about that. It’s how my brother used to greet the day when he was about, oh, five. Er, after he’d woken the whole house up at silly o’clock shouting that he’d ‘finis’ sleepin’ – which inevitably got the grumbling response of ‘well, we haven’t’. Anyway, it stuck, passing into family slang, so ‘hello sheepies!’ it is.


Over on my gardening blog I’ve been tree following every month. This doesn’t involve waiting for ents to lumber over the hill (though it easily could, round here); it involves – er, tree following. Reporting on a specific tree once a month, and watching changes, wildlife, etc. I’ve been ‘following’ a hawthorn and I’ve been reporting on archaeology – it’s next to a dolmen – the weather, the fact the someone appears to have been casting a circle up there, and sheep. Oh, I’ve had wild goats as well. One wild goat, much lower down than is usual.

The tree is in a stunning landscape:


one which has been cultivated for time out of mind: some of the field systems are neolithic, as is the dolmen, of course. In high summer there are generally a few cows up here, but there’s not that much sign of the sheep – they go higher up. In spring they’re here, with their lambs once they’re not brand spanking new, and then they take themselves off. Or perhaps that should be ‘are allowed to take themselves off’, but the Scottish sheep I knew would take themselves off. Even over cattle grids (they rolled). That’s why the cattle grids needed gates too.

Now it’s the reappearance of the sheep that means the year is turning, whatever the temperature (they are moved even lower when snow looks likely – or definite, rather).

baaaa 2, ok 3

When I started paying my regular visits, the sheep would take one look at me and flee, bleating madly – perhaps they knew I was mentally dissing their fleeces (they’re Welsh Mountains: coarse, good for carpets, not garments, unless you’re very lucky). Or maybe not. Now they check me out and carry on.

I think they’ve become accustomed to me and realise I’m no threat. That’s not daft: sheep are a) brighter than you might think if you’ve not read any recent research or lived with them, and b) can recognise and remember for a couple of years about fifty human faces, as that research has shown. I’m pretty sure that this lot have got used to me because while I was talking these shots two hikers walked along the track above me. They were quiet, nothing unusual or scary about them – and the sheep scattered, returning once they’d gone.

(incidentally, research has also shown that sheep self-medicate. If they’ve eaten something that has made them unwell, they’ll find and eat something which makes them better – which, for instance, addresses constipation or indigestion. Shepherds and people who lived closely with sheep have known this for thousands of years, but it’s scientifically proven now, so that’s OK.)


Very fine knees, this sheep.

And now the weather has turned, and all the sheep are sheltering in the shadow of walls, dolmens, Iron Age hut circles, gorse, hawthorns, etcetera, etcetera. It’s ridiculously mild, but also ridiculously wet and ridiculously windy (Irish Sea: southwesterly gale force 9, decreasing gale force 8, imminent). So to reassure myself that it’s not always like this, I’m ending with a picture which has nothing to do with sheep, wool, knitting or anything else. Castell Harlech in the sunset, a few evenings ago. Couldn’t resist…

Castell Harlech

It’ll stop raining soon. And these colours just have to end up in a sweater.

(Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa is the conical mountain in the middle, not looking that high really. But it is. Please do not even think about climbing it in flip-flops. Really. Or plimsolls.)


Nearly, nearly!

This time next week I’ll be somewhere else. That somewhere else will probably be the M6 northbound, but I’m heading further.

There will be boats:


There’ll be places for boats to tie up:


That’s because there’ll be rather a lot of sea:


There will be a fair amount of archaeology:


There will be, I expect, quite a lot of this sort of thing:

eating in the car

and this sort of thing:

sunsetThough the sunsets are going to happen very late at night indeed.

Guessed yet?

There will, undoubtedly, be an awful lot of weather, and when I say ‘weather’ I mean weather, and that’s weather with knobs on, from mist to rain to howling gales to bright sun and back to mist, all in one day:


The place where a calm day is a day ‘between weathers’…

Noss and Bressay


I’m going back to Shetland, I’m going back to Shetland, nah nah, nah nah… (dances round room). It’s OK, I’ll calm down soon. The M6 will probably dissipate a lot of my enthusiasm.

Pics, from the top: Leebitton; Hamnavoe; St Ninian’s Isle; Jarlshof; a pit stop at Frankies, the best fish and chop shop in the known universe and also Brae; sunset looking north from Leebitton; the Drongs; and the sea with Bressay and Noss on the horizon. And, incidentally, the matriarch on the blog header was photographed near Hamnavoe, between Meal beach and Hamnavoe.

And I must not buy too much wool. Or fluff. Or books about wool. Or books about fluff.

(Define how much is too much…)

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.

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…