Rachael Matthews on Working with Wool

WOVEMBER readers may have heard of Rachael Matthews as we have written here about the haberdashery that she runs – Prick Your Finger – and last year we wrote about the project in which she and Louise Harries created a temporary wool mill in a contemporary art gallery. One particular conversation I had with Rachael back in 2007 was a starting point for me in learning to think differently about wool, and we thought it would be appropriate to revisit that here, in order to pass on Rachael’s infectious love of itchy wool. All content and photos unless otherwise stated © Rachael Matthews and published here with her kind permission

WOVEMBER: Hello Rachael! I wondered if we could talk about ITCHY WOOL today. I will never forget being in your shop for the first time in 2007 and talking to you about wool. If I remember rightly, I said that I didn’t like knitting with wool because I found it scratchy, and you looked like you felt a bit sorry for me and said “Oh, I really like working with the really scratchy wool“. You said it with such appreciation and longing that I felt like I was missing out on something! I left the shop with a ball of hand-spun Rough Fell yarn that you were stocking then, and the rest is history.

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Rough Fell sheep, photographed at WOOLFEST, © Felicity Ford

That rough little ball of yarn had more character than anything I’d ever knit with before; it had flecks of gold and cream and ivory and beige and slivers of bright white kemp in it, and I made a wash cloth from it which I used for years to wash potatoes with. It was perfect! Finding that ball of yarn after a couple of years of working with acrylic and microfibre was like finding Stilton after only eating cheddar. It was amazing. That Rough Fell experience was the start of my discovery that we have many different sheep breeds and that they all produce wool of a different character. I’ve gone on to develop massive appreciation for the character and texture of fleeces from all sorts of different sheep since, and I know you do, too, but for me there is a strong association between you and Herdwick wool. Can you tell us why Herdwick has become important to you as an artist and wool lover?

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Rachael Matthews rowing on Lake Windermere, photo © Felicity Ford, 2009

Rachael: I grew up in the Lake District, in a family which founded a steamboat museum. This meant that we often got wet, working outside on the lake in winter, and we spent a lot of time chopping wood to raise the steam. Our playground was woodland, lake shore or damp docks. At home our heat came from one fireplace. There were other rooms, but to save fuel, they were left cold. My childhood was incredibly rich, creative and stimulating, but in order to survive it, we had to wear two layers of wool in winter. The inner layer was a soft jersey, but the outer layer was Herdwick or Swaledale. My mother dressed us in these because it was the only local, practical material, to suit our lifestyle.

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Warm in wool on Windermere, photo © Felicity Ford, 2009

When Herdwick is worn in sheet mist, or rains that only the Lake District can provide, to begin with the water rolls off the coarse fibres. Once it soaks in, the ‘wetsuit’ effect starts, where the wet wool continues to act as an insulator, and you really don’t feel the cold. When we went climbing in the mountains, the herdwick would keep us toasty warm on the ice cold snow-capped peaks, but would also let our bodies ‘breathe’ as we worked up a sweat on the way up! This meant we didn’t need gore-tex or any of those other flashy jackets with zips, which as children we really wanted!

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Snow-capped mountain inspired Herdwick Jumper with softer wool used at the neck and wrists, designed and knitted by Rachael Matthews

My memories of Herdwick are my Dad’s prickly cuddles that smell of lanolin combined with sawdust, and happily working in a room so cold that you can see your breath. Painting and decorating with the windows open, digging in the garden, or lifting prickly logs – these are all jobs that the herdwick can handle. Beatrix Potter was a great advert for itchy wool, as she spun and wove Herwick for her skirted suits, which she wore whilst farming her small holding in poor weathers.

WOVEMBER: I always think that Prick Your Finger is both a haberdashery and an outreach/art project about British sheep and wool; when you and Louise Harries opened the shop, it was the first yarn shop I’d been in where there were photos of different sheep breeds on the yarn labels, and you used to run an amazing “sheep of the week” feature on the blog. One of the things I most admire is how you yourself creatively use the yarns you stock, both in your art projects, and in more prosaic ways, such as your use of Rough Fell for crocheting the shop sign. You also do wonderful things with carpet yarn, which I think probably qualifies as a scratchy yarn… I wondered if you could tell us about some of these projects which specifically utilise scratchy wool?

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Walking in wool in the Lake District, photo © Felicity Ford

Rachael: While I was walking in the Lakes, I noticed that the stone can sometimes resemble the Herdwick. Herdwick’s unique quality is that whether it is light, medium or dark, it has flecks of white or black fibres, making it vibrant. Minerals in the stone have the same effect. Herdwick never looks flat, and you can look deep into its texture as you can with stone. Its toughness and feltability makes it great for sculpting so I started pretending I was a stone carver whilst knitting. The flecky texture takes dying in unexpected ways, and the natural colours enhance anything you put next to it – especially bright things.

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Closeups of Relics in progress, © Felicity Ford

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Relics in progress, shown at Love is Awesome, Reading

Somehow Herdwick never sits still. Its history of surviving all weathers is evident in the yarn. Most customers leap a mile from it, but every now and then, you see someone drawn into its depth, and they start asking curious questions.

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Relics at Wonder of Wool exhibition, Rheged

Spinning Rough Fell is also very inspiring. It’s so rough and itchy, you have no fear of abusing or wasting it. This makes it perfect for throwing back out into the elements to see what happens. Our Rough Fell shop sign repelled London dirt for over a year!

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The kempy carpet yarns are great for upholstery, draft exclusion, pet blankets, or anything that you want to treat roughly. These yarns age beautifully, and I enjoy letting them get scuffed, and repeatedly darned.

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Amazing giant crocheted pencils worked in Carpet yarn, photo © Felicity Ford

WOVEMBER: A few months ago we had a lovely exchange on Facebook because you were on a quest to get some Rough Fell fleece from Cecilia; I wondered if you would be able to tell WOVEMBER readers a bit about what you are planning to do with this Rough Fell fleece?

Rachael: My ‘knitting like a stone carver’ era, has led me to knitting collections of ‘relics’ in my revivalist museology project. I am interested in the way that textile history is often lost because it corrodes more easily that stone, metal or wood. I therefore see an opportunity to re-knit history. I recently exhibited my relics in a show with painter Celia Ward. The show was about our economic history and future. I became interested in the life and death of St. Thomas Beckett, his relationship to the church, the economy, his murder, his relics and the subsequent pilgrim trips. Evidence suggests that pilgrims purchased bottles of ‘Holy water’ dyed pink, representing the continuous blood flowing from his tomb, and contaminating the waters.

Thomas Beckett was known to be wearing a hair shirt (and possibly underpants) when he died. I see no reason why there wouldn’t have been a high demand from pilgrim tourists, for itchy souvenir pants as an aid to religious devotion and subsequent miracles. Mass producing the pants in human hair was costly, so there is evidence to suggest the cheapest, itchiest fibre, was probably the fleece of the Rough Fell, from the northern fells. I called Cecilia Hewett, who knows the quality and availability of most local sheep in the north, and she located a particularly poor quality, un-processed Rough Fell fleece with bugs in.

From this fleece I spun a DK weight yarn, which took the blood red dye beautifully. I knitted a fragment of underpants with buttress / battlement design, embroidered with roman numerals of miracles experienced by the wearer. As a result of further evidence, there will soon be a design of repeating axes.

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It’s early days for my Museology project, but collecting ideas like these only roots me further into the history of our homeland, and fuels me with reasons to make the world a better place. We can learn much from history, and studying textures can help us make un-expected connections. I could rant at length about how textures of wool connect us to our landscape, but it would only be my experience. I have plenty of memories of soft wools but I have chosen to remember the itchy aspects of my childhood as happy ones.

In the summer I had a visit from a playwright, Deborah Nash, who was writing a play on knitting. She wanted a tour around Prick Your Finger’s selection of UK based yarns as part of her research. Saturday last I had the pleasure of seeing the play. ‘Knitting Pattern’ was a beautiful piece of prose between 4 women, about all the different aspects of knitting. The prose would break into chorus of ‘*3oz light, 3oz dark, rep.’ and explored Messy vs Neat knitters, the chaos of perfecting technique, and of course the Itchy vs Soft debate, which was personified beautifully through two sisters each with different tastes in texture.

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Images of ‘Knitting Pattern’ © John Watts

The play confirms that the craft of knitting attracts many different types of human being. Groups of knitters gather for ever evolving reasons, and individuals knit in their own special way. As a tribe we have trends and myths, clichés and in-jokes, and we enjoy knitting disaster stories alongside our love of tradition and classic design. There is no correct way of teaching knitting, because everyone engages with it in different ways. All these ideas make our choice of yarn even more interesting.

WOVEMBER: What have you found in your years of research are some of the best uses for scratchy wool? What can they do which soft wool cannot? We hear a lot about the value and virtue of soft wool, but after my Rough Fell experience I feel that we don’t hear enough about the value and virtue of scratchy wool!

Rachael: Itchy wool’s role is to enhance our freedom of what we can do. Itchy wool can make things that the soft wools can’t, and if that thing, is the thing you really want to make, then that itchy rough wool is valuable to you. I would like to take this opportunity to thank sheep breeders throughout the last few thousand years, who bred every colour and texture they possibly could, for our use.

I pray that this generation of makers can dodge the hypnotic, high street virus of softness, build up their cotton and lambswool under layers, pile on the armour of rough stuff, turn down the central heating, and feel rich and rewarded by the totality of what our country lovingly produces.

PS. Warning, itchy wool can also make you sneeze.

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Herdwicks, Swaledale and Rough Fell sheep, all photographed by and © Felicity Ford

Thank you so much Rachael, this was really inspiring, and I hope that others – like I once was – will be lured by this post towards trying some of THE ROUGH STUFF!

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This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

3 thoughts on “Rachael Matthews on Working with Wool

  1. It is rare I’m inspired to spin Rough Fell, but I think I have another fleece in the barn and I might just have to bring it in to the spinning wheel! Fabulous!

  2. The sheep pictures were wonderful as are all the Wovember posts…….which is why I am NOT getting anything done!!!!! fine yarn is great but I do have an Large place in my spinning and knitting ‘heart’ for wool like Rough Fell.
    Thank you again!

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