Tag Archives: Fleece

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.

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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.

More:

  • 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.

A lesson learned?

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

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

haunui spun

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

giant sweater detail

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

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

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

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

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

fibre

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

woooooo

and finally revealed two kilos of the most wonderful fibre:

perfect!

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

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

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

Intermissione… is that a word?

In any language? Probably not, but this is one. Ar hintermission. I will get back on the decision I made about Fair Isle colours, but for the moment I am frantically trying to finish an editing job. Well, I need the work to pay for more wool, sillie billies!

(And food. And bills. That sort of thing.)

And, for variety, I’ve entered the Tour de Fleece. Yes, there is such a thing – if you don’t know already – and the idea is to set yourself a spinning challenge and spin your wheel each day the riders of the Tour de France spin theirs (only – happily – wearing lycra, pissing in your pants, and not just pissing*, is not involved).

wheel

It’s been ages since I could spin properly, and I seem to have lost the knack. Time to get it back. So I’m allowed to spin for ten minutes a day – twenty if my hands behave – and no more. The aim was to use a chocolate-brown Manx Loaghtan fleece I’ve had kicking around since pre-hand-injury days. I got it out, I prepped it, it was disgusting, I put most of it in the compost.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t that I’d left it unwashed for three years. That would be an ERGH almost comparable with what happens to some of the Tour riders when they get caught short. But it was full of second cuts and straw and scurf and it was not pleasant. So I’m using what I prepped before I became too nauseated by sheep dandruff, and am going to ply it together with some white Lleyn which is much, much nicer.

IMG_2949

Except with all the typing I now need to rest my hands again, and with root canal work I also need massive painkillers (I love dentists). Never mind, it will get done – and I’m much heartened by my progress. On all fronts!

*Really. Croyez-moi. I’m a bit of Tour nerd – and ERGH. Double ERGH. Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to cycle behind some people.

The Strangeness of Coloured Sheep, 2

(The one without Keanu Reeves, or indeed anyone you recognise from The Strangeness of Coloured Sheep 1. Of course It needs a portentous subtitle, like ‘Return of the Wool or ‘The Wool Strikes Back’… and the more high-flown the subtitle, the worse the film. Ahem.)

Sorry about that. Time, now, for some surprising facts specifically about coloured – generally described as ‘black’ – sheep. The first is really timely, so get out into the lambing sheds.

shepherds watchingIt’s very lucky if the first lamb you see in spring is black (but what if you breed Black Welsh Mountains or Zwartbles or Ouessants? Are you always lucky? And does it work if you’re watching Lambing Live on the telly?)

Anyway, if you see a black lamb before any white ones, you should make a wish immediately. This is particularly true in Scotland, where naturally coloured wool was valued because it was used in the shepherd’s plaid. It’s absolutely not true in Shropshire; in fact, it’s the opposite: extremely unlucky if the first lamb born in a flock is black, and even more so if it’s black twins (but black twins are also bad news in Scotland). And here’s another negative one: if the black lamb is the first one, the farm will be in mourning before the season’s out.

The ‘throwback’ effect gives the occasional black sheep quite naturally, of course. This can happen in the other direction: on Ouessant, for example, where the native sheep have been bred selectively for their black fleeces, there can be the occasional white animal.

In Sussex it was a good thing to have one of these surprising black lambs in a flock – very propitious. But only one; more than that and you might as well be in Shropshire. And yet all the Mediaeval shepherds in Books of Hours with their multi-coloured flocks seem to have been extremely lucky, given that angels chose to appear to them – so the specific superstition can’t go back that far. Or can it?

The bad luck thing – it’s also present in some parts of the Highlands – is probably where the ‘black sheep of the family’ expression originates; it could also come from a mis-transcription of an early Bible in English. However, it’s so widespread that it can’t be specifically that: the ‘black sheep’ idiom for a wayward member of a group is present in many different languages (le mouton noir, for example), not just in English.

Black wool, of course, was less valuable because it couldn’t be dyed. In the eighteenth century it was even seen in some places as being the mark of the Devil. And yet it often appears in traditional cures (mind you, I suppose that could be why it was associated with all things devilish). Wind a black thread round a limb which is sprained or broken and it will heal, and George III was given black stockings to help his rheumatism on the same basis. Using coloured threads like this goes back at least to Roman times, and links in to votive offerings of cloth at springs, something which I have seen in places as far apart as County Clare and the Caucasus.

Charles Jones painting

On the Hills of Scotland, Winter by Charles Jones; courtesy Royal Institution of Cornwall

Scottish seers – local fortunetellers who sometimes gained a wider reputation, like the Brahan Seer – sometimes used the blade bone of a black sheep for seeing the future. It had to be prepared properly, though, with all the flesh removed without touching iron or steel. How it was used varied from region to region; on Lewis, it was held by the seer in a line along the length of the island, as it were. In other places an assistant would hold the blade bone up over the left shoulder, and the seer would look through the thin, flared out part. The whole iron thing ties it in to very old superstitions and reaches right back into prehistory. Black sheep were also used in some parts of Africa, where the fat of a black sheep was effective against evil.

Let’s have some more positivity. Black sheep were very useful for ranchers in the US, at one time, and not that long ago. In the West, black sheep were used as markers when counting sheep – one for every hundred, making counting a flock much easier. A 1940s description of life on a Montana sheep ranch noted that it was impossible to count the entire flock on the range, but the black sheep could be counted and any missing ones would indicate that some white sheep had also gone astray (Call, Golden Fleece, 1942). They do give a nice bit of contrast to a landscape, anywhere.

Ayrshire Landscape

Ayrshire Landscape by George Houston; courtesy Glasgow Museums

I suppose the closest many people come to black sheep is when they are children, so let’s just think about ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’…

220px-BaaBaaBlackSheepMGMYou may think it’s just a nursery rhyme, but it’s turned into quite a contentious issue (as have many nursery rhymes, of course). Baa Baa Black Sheep is generally believed to be eighteenth century, but it may be older. Some people think it commemorates an ancient wool tax and some believe it’s linked to the abolition of slavery (but most scholars don’t). I don’t care, really – it’s another positive, or at the very least neutral, reflection of the glory and long history of coloured sheep. Yo!

 

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?

Moufflon

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.

The year of the sheep (natch)

2015 is, in Chinese astrology, the year of the sheep. Er, otherwise known as the ram or even the goat, but let’s forget about the alternatives and settle for sheep.

sunny sheep

Of course, we’re still in the old Chinese year – the horse – but only just. (Next year is my year; I’m a monkey. As my parents often perceptibly said. And as a monkey I need to avoid bungee jumping in June or July this year, or so I’ve been told. Seriously. No problems there.)

So here, in celebration of the Year of the Sheep and marking the fact that I’ve just got to go and quickly sort through – grammar police, are you watching? – my patterns before heading off to a yarn sale (!), are some shots of sheep to celebrate their year, sheep in my local landscape.

sheep on cliffs

This also gives me a great opportunity for some shots of Ardudwy, my part of paradise. That’s the Llyn Peninsula in the distance, and the sea is Cardigan Bay. Ardudwy is the piece of west Wales between two estuaries, essentially between Dolgellau and Penrhyndeudraeth, and between the mountains and the sea. Gerald of Wales, the twelfth-century chronicler, described it as ‘the wildest part of Wales’. That was then, though parts of my garden probably fit that description at the moment. Ahem.

Sheep – aka, to some of my friends whose garden they have recently invaded, those feckin’ woolly maggots – are everywhere. They’re on the hills, in the woods, browsing on top of cliffs, hanging around on the fringes of the dunes. Sometimes they are curious, looking up to check what’s going on, and sometimes they pretend to be boulders. Sometimes they pose. Lambs, I’ve found, are particularly good at this – when they’re not doing something else like bouncing, seeing if you can eat fence posts, escaping under gates, or just shouting their silly heads off.

Sometimes there’s just one sheep

sheep streambut you know that the rest of them are round the corner. This is probably a scout (‘you go and see what they’re doing’, ‘no, you go, s’not my turn.’).

They are almost always there, except when you want to find a good shot for some specific purpose – then they vanish. People think sheep are stupid, but I think they’re in tune with the infinite and are out to deliberately annoy – oh, OK, I don’t. But they’re not stupid. They’re flock animals (tell me humans are not – look, for instance, at the way teenage girls conform and follow a leader), and if you get a bright lead sheep you’re stuffed.

But by and large, they’re not generally that interested.

not talking

They’re quite happy to ignore you and get on with doing sheepy things. As long, that is, as you haven’t got a dog with you, because all dogs are wolves.

So may everyone have a good year of the sheep,

sheep in dunes

when it actually, officially, starts, that is. But I reckon it’s here already. The office / basement (its an office when it’s a bit warmer) is full of unwashed Gotland fleeces which I’ll have to move or wash if I want to do my tax return. It’s probably a sign.

Yes, of having the willpower of a maggot when it comes to fleeces. Sigh. Now where are my patterns?