Clara Parkes on Describing Wool

Earlier today we heard some of the words that participants in the KnitBritish Breed Swatch KAL have found for describing wool from different sheep breeds. This evening we continue that theme in an article by seasoned swatcher and yarn critic, Clara Parkes. Author of many treasured tomes and the wondrous Knitter’s Review newsletter, Clara is an expert in the art of the yarn review. We asked if she would write about finding words for WOOL when she is swatching and reviewing different yarns and she sent us this lovely piece.

A heap of swatches travelled

A heap of swatches travelled

Knitting with wool gives us a rare opportunity to travel the world, to see and smell and feel its very essence within our fingers. A few quiet moments with a new skein, a new breed, an unexpected twist, can show us not just how fibers work but how vast and beautiful the world really is.

Having reviewed yarns for 15 years, my virtual passport is now chock full of stamps from woolly visits to faraway places—with more and more destinations patiently waiting in line for their turn on the needles.

Swatching with Clara Yarn

Swatching with Clara Yarn

Sheep have always been expert travelers, with an exceptional gift for adapting to every climate in which we’ve placed them. Altitude, temperature, humidity, diet, sunshine, even the mineral contents of the water they drink, all can reflect an even greater terroir in flesh and fleece than they ever could in grapes and wine.

All too often, these subtle and exquisite variances get lost beneath the black-and-white cloak of “soft” versus “scratchy.” While I’m all for a succulent, tender Cormo once in a while, I don’t believe we can thrive on a diet of only that—for much the same reasons we shouldn’t exist solely on candy and croissants. When we step up to the buffet and give other breeds a try, a universe of tastes, textures, and sensory experiences awaits us.

Cormo Clara Yarn

Cormo Clara Yarn

Our yarn review begins with a single skein, acquired with the sole intention of bettering our skills and broadening our horizons. What you knit with it? That’s up to you. I prefer the humble swatch, an aimless rectangle that offers the ultimate empty page for our experiential doodle. Depending on the size of the skein, you might even have a fabulous scarf when you’re done.

Swatching Cormo Clara Yarn

Swatching Cormo Clara Yarn

Our fingers will immediately start to pick up on the nuances as they wrap and twist and tug. Perhaps an unexpected springiness or buoyancy, a brisk crispness, a languid fluidity, a need to be squeezed, a desire to flow freely.

Some wools are like exuberant puppies, while others remain stoic, confident in their ability to deliver whatever you ask. Occasionally, we may even stumble upon a wool that has been so badly mistreated it has nothing left to give. Spend time with a skein and you’ll soon discern its personality.

A skein of Ryeland from Garthenor...

A skein of Ryeland from Garthenor… different from a skein of Teeswater from Darrell and Freda Pilkington

…so different to a skein of Teeswater from Darrell and Freda Pilkington

While our hands and eyes take on the bulk of the knitting experience, our ears play a vital role too. Listen closely and you’ll start to hear notes. Don’t believe me? Just ask any string player. The best of bows are made from the hair of a horse’s tail, with fine white fibers often reserved for the higher-noted violins, the thicker, “grabbier” dark fibers preferred by low-noted bass players.

So, too, do the fibers of wool perform differently when drawn across the needle. The tone of wool changes from breed to breed, with each fiber diameter, crimp pattern, and microscopic scale structure impacting the note it plays. Switch needles, from a slow-moving bamboo to a slick aluminum, and the note changes yet again. Close your eyes and listen closely. You’ll hear it.

Next comes the moment we drop our finished swatch in a warm sudsy bath. The fibers may giggle or sigh or gasp with surprise. Some dive right into the deep end, others dip just a toe, taking their time getting in. Can you feel the fibers relax and bloom? Is there movement within the fabric itself? Or do your stitches emerge exactly as they went in, sopping wet and hoping for a towel? And what, pray tell, do they leave behind? Are they tidy bathers, or do they transmit a hint of milky tea into the water?

Dirty wash water

Dirty wash water

Wool saves its biggest miracle for last, as our swatch goes from waterlogged to dry, from languid to perky. We’ve washed away the last vestiges of the mill, we’ve given the wool fibers the necessary ingredients for relaxation and cohesion (namely warmth and moisture). As the fibers dry, their underlying crimp pattern is once again allowed to express itself. Some swatches won’t change at all, others will show a dramatic shift, revealing not just the fibers’ character but also how they were prepared for spinning, whether a tousled jumble or combed smooth and slick.

In the end, this little knitted square has taken you on a magic carpet ride through stitch and twist, people and place. You may have even touched traces of our collective past, from early Vikings to Wild West cowboys and Tasmanian sheep farmers. It’s all there, waiting for you to explore.

Shetland Clara Yarn, finding its way to becoming lace

Shetland Clara Yarn, finding its way to becoming lace

Thanks so much to Clara Parkes for this inspiring and thoughtful insight into reviewing yarn. All words and pictures © Clara Parkes and used with kind permission. The yarn featured in the images is Clara Yarn Cormo, Shetland, and CVM. The Teeswater is from Darrell and Freda Pilkington, and the Ryeland is from Garthenor.

Daily Photo: Festivals 2

Part of the Daily Photo series of photos taken and curated by Jeni Reid especially for WOVEMBER. For the WEARING WOOL phase of WOVEMBER we are delving into the joy of WOOL FESTIVALS – surely some of the best places to see WOOL being worn, and also some of the best places to see how we collectively wear WOOL as a cultural meeting point!

This is just a small selection of the sights I saw when attending festivals over 2015. I went to Edinburgh Yarn Festival, Woolfest in Cumbria, Shetland Wool Week and the In the Loop conference. Other festivals are available and I hope to go to all of them one day.


Herdwicks at Woolfest. I love their quiet sweetness.

photo and text © Jeni Reid and used here with kind permission.
You can see Jeni’s photos by following her on instagram here

Wovember words: Breed swatch-along – the feel of the ball of wool

Louise is here with some fabulously descriptive words from the Breed swatch-along. 

I am just loving the Breed Swatch-along and really enjoying watching how everyone taking part is exploring wool is a slightly new and different way. Of course, one of the main reasons I wanted to host the Swatch-along was to get people thinking beyond words like scratchy and rough and challenge them to chose words carefully to describe the feel of the ball of yarn and of the knitted fabric.

I have been reading the swatch-in-progress notes (SWIPs) and looking at the finished items and there is such a lot of great describing words. I wanted to share these with you and today I want to focus on the words for the feel of the ball of wool.

| What does the wool in the ball feel like?

Mazknitter’s Foula Wool: Soft, much smoother than I would have expected for a Shetland wool.

Weejo’s Grey Troender wool: rough, crisp, hairy, firm when squished, but is slightly airy. Very sheepy smell – I love it!

weejo’s Grey Troender swatch


PinkPeking’s Soay wool: light, airy, fuzzy and crisp

Needleandspindle’s Corriedale wool: The yarn feels firm and robust but bouncy.

needleandspindle’s corriedale swatch

Isla111’s Romney wool : Soft, silky, firm (firm might not be the right word), really visible twist, lustrous.

Isla111’s Romney swatch.


Montymouse’s Torddu wool : rustic and slightly coarse but on the other hand it also feels like it is going to be durable and warm.

Montymouse’s Torrdu badger face swatch


After the squishing of the yarn ball we move on to knit and feel the fabric once it has been washed, blocked and worn – we shall look at those words another day!


Click on the images for project information. All images belong to the knitters as stated.

Rachel Atkinson on Working with Wool

This evening on the cusp of Working with Wool and Wearing Wool, we hear from Rachel Atkinson whom many of you may know through her blog, My Life in Knitwear. Today she writes about the role that sheep have played in her life and her plans to spin fleece from her father’s flock into a hand knitting yarn.

Rachel Atkinson for Wovember 2015

For as long as I can remember there have been dogs in my life. Dad originally kept German Shepherds – there was Danny followed by Karl – whom he trained for police agility and recall events. After a growling incident in the back garden, Karl popped off and it wasn’t long before Dad came home with another dog to train, this time a Border Collie. We called her Beth and she was the first in a long line of sheepdogs to pass through our gates. With the Border Collies came the sheep and so my sister and I spent our early childhoods playing in fields watching Dad run the dogs and tend to his flock of Suffolks.

Rachel and Beth

Rachel and Beth

This all sounds very idyllic doesn’t it? What you probably don’t know, and what I think is quite unique about all of this, is that we have never lived on a farm. Home was a four-bed detached house on a new build estate in a Yorkshire mining village, and for his day job, Dad wholesaled his own line of ladies underwear and Mum sold houses. The animals were very much a hobby that paid for itself.

In exchange for grazing, Dad would move the sheep from field to field – Council owned land and waterworks treatment centres were the most memorable. With Spring came the lambs and every now and then he would breed a litter of pups who were kept under pig lamps in a brand-spanking new shed down the side of the house. More often than not lambing season would bring an orphaned lamb home to spend time in our back garden whilst it grew stronger. One lamb in particular – we named her Susie – became a pet and stayed with us at the house. Dropping her at the field to spend time with other animals was part of the morning school run; Mum driving, me and my sister on the back seat, and Susie sitting up front in the passenger seat of the old Mini.

The sheep were canny beggars and notorious for escaping at the most inopportune moment. This usually happened when Mum and Dad were dressed for a night on the tiles, or just as we were leaving to go out for the day or on special occasions such as Christmas morning. The phone would ring; “John, sheep are out”. More than once Dad was spotted herding his flock down the main street of the village, and I also seem to remember waking up one morning to find most of the flock in the garden grazing their way through the Mums flower borders. Never a dull moment!

Mum was always knitting – as a teenager she had a Saturday job in a wool shop and whilst we had the sheep and unrestricted access to a lot of raw fleece, I only ever remember her once spinning and knitting a sweater from it. If I recall correctly, she loathed every single minute of it and the finished jumper was so heavy and stiff that I don’t think Dad wore it. Both Mum and Grandma taught me to knit and after several years churning out 1980’s ‘mohair’ sweaters as I moved into my teenage years I left knitting behind. Mum and Dad had split up by this stage and the sheep had gone with him leaving just our old faithful dog Beth and us.

Fast-forward 25 years and I am fully immersed in the yarn world and Dad continues to breed and train Border Collies which have been sold as far afield as Norway, America, Canada and Japan. In addition to the dogs, he is now employed as a shepherd just outside York looking after a flock of Hebrideans raised and kept for conservation grazing.

The flock now.

The flock now.

These hardy sheep recognisable by their dark brown fleeces, fairly diminutive size and beautifully curled horns, are just coming off the rare breed list having almost vanished in the 1970s.

Beautifully curled horns!

Beautifully curled horns!

Shepherding is hard work and you are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I spent last weekend at Dad’s and as a reminder of days gone by, just as we are leaving the house to go to a dog trial, the phone rings with a report of a sheep stuck in a fence which needs attending to. As we arrive home after the trial there is a knock on the door and a report of a dog attack on a sheep, so off Dad goes again to sort it out. This is the seventh sheep (along with a deer) to be attacked in two weeks, and whilst this time the sheep is thankfully not too badly injured, some of the attacks are just horrific. Other fatal accidents he has had to deal with have been caused by gates being left open, leaving the sheep to wander out into the road. It’s simple countryside code, keep your dogs on leads around grazing flocks – the dog is never ‘just playing’ – and close the gate behind you.

The Hebridean sheep

The Hebridean sheep

The fleeces from the flock, which is now over 300 strong, last year raised a grand total of £9.40 from the British Wool Board, and with this ringing in my ears I took the decision to embark on a flock to yarn journey and see just what we could do with the fleeces. The Fleeced project launched in October to a rather fantastically overwhelming response and last week we delivered the sacks to the scourers marking the start of the spinning process.

Fleece ready for scouring and spinning

Fleece ready for scouring and spinning

After years in London leading a thoroughly ‘city life’, it feels slightly surreal and strange yet very, very right to have returned to the sheep and make them part of my life in knitwear once again.

All words and pictures © Rachel Atkinson and used here with permission. To follow the story of the Hebridean fleece becoming yarn, subscribe to My Life in Knitwear here.

Daily Photo: Festivals 1

Part of the Daily Photo series of photos taken and curated by Jeni Reid especially for WOVEMBER. For the WEARING WOOL phase of WOVEMBER we are delving into the joy of WOOL FESTIVALS – surely some of the best places to see WOOL being worn, and also some of the best places to see how we collectively wear WOOL as a cultural meeting point!

This is just a small selection of the sights I saw when attending festivals over 2015. I went to Edinburgh Yarn Festival, Woolfest in Cumbria, Shetland Wool Week and the In the Loop conference. Other festivals are available and I hope to go to all of them one day.


A sheepy welcome at Edinburgh Yarn Festival. This is one of my favourite photographs of the year.

photo and text © Jeni Reid and used here with kind permission.
You can see Jeni’s photos by following her on instagram here

Wovember Words: Cloak, Suba, Kepe…

Today’s WOVEMBER WORDS explores different regional cloaks traditionally made from 100% WOOL to protect Shepherds from the elements. Wearing Wool has historically been very important for Growing Wool!

Cape, or suba, a traditional garment of Hungarian shepherds; image found here Credit: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Museum Expedition 1920 & 1921, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 1921

Cape, or suba, a traditional garment of Hungarian shepherds; image found here Credit: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Museum Expedition 1920 & 1921, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 1921

This suba is a traditional garment of Hungarian shepherds. The suba is awe-inspiring with its use of sheepskin in the body of the garment as well as the full black lamb pelt draped over the shoulders. The dense foliate embroidery and leather appliqués are characteristically Hungarian. Despite their grand appearance, subas served more than just festival purposes. For shepherds working outside they provided protection from weather, as well a seat or bed. The suba also served as a surface for eating or drying meat.

– quoted from this webpage published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Sarică or bituşca, a garment traditionally worn by Romanian shepherds; image found here

Sarică or bituşca, a garment traditionally worn by Romanian shepherds; image found here

Sarică, Bituşca
Shepherds cloaks (sarică or bituşca) are worn by shepherds in the Southern Carpathians. These are made of three or four sheepskins and are worn fleece outside in Romania. Sarice can be calf or ankle length and are either sleeveless or have long sleeves, which are left free and are used by the shepherd as a pillow when sleeping outside. These can also be made of woollen material with long tufts of wool. This type is worn around Făgăraş. Similar sheepskin cloaks were found in Hungary but were usually worn fleece inside with the outside being decorated with embroidery and appliqué leather.

– quoted from this webpage published by Liz Mellish and Nick Green, London, UK

Kepenek (shepherd's Cloak), 2008. wool. Gift of Christine Martens. 2009-33-1, image found here

Kepenek (shepherd’s Cloak), 2008. wool. Gift of Christine Martens. 2009-33-1, image found here

This is a Kepenek (shepherd’s cloak). It is dated 2008 and we acquired it in 2009. Its medium is wool and its technique is felted. It is a part of the Textiles department.

There is no scholarly consensus on the earliest use of the kepenek, or shepherd’s cloak, but Veronika Gervers of the Royal Ontario Museum, who wrote extensively on both traditional felt-making practices and the coats, mantles and cloaks of Central Asia, suggests that the form has been in use since at least the Middle Ages.
Felt is considered to be the earliest man-made fabric, and was critical to the survival of many early communities. There are regional variations of the kepenek: cloaks of the coastal region of Turkey have hoods, and some have sleeves; in Iran, the coats are made with the vestigial sleeves typical of Persian ceremonial garments. Historically, colored markings on the front of the typically white cloak included the symbol of the local felt-maker’s guild, along with the weight of wool used in making the piece to indicate its quality. Later, as the guilds were disbanded, individual felt-makers embedded their names and sometimes the name of the person commissioning the garment. Today, one often sees a more decorative use of once-meaningful motifs.
This piece, made in 2008 by Kececi Osman, a felt-maker in the Taurus Mountains near Konya, Turkey, has a form typical of the region in which it was made. The felted wool cloak has broadly rounded shoulders in natural wool white, with a pattern band down each side front in black, and an opening in the center front. The piece was commissioned for an exhibition by Mehmet Girgiç, a well-known felt carpet-maker in Istanbul.
As a collection or exhibition object, the kepenek tells a rich story about the development of felt making alongside the early domestication of animals in Central Asia, the daily life of nomadic herders and, most importantly, the role of textile architecture among nomadic communities, as this unfitted garment can serve as a portable, wearable tent.

– quoted from this webpage published by the Cooper Hewitt Collection, New York, USA

Other words for a shepherd’s cloak from around the world include:
yamurlok, opandzhak, kepeBulgaria

Please tell WOVEMBER of any other types of shepherd’s cloaks of which you know so that we can keep adding to the collection! It’s exciting to trace the influence of these traditional garments on contemporary designs such as The Lookerer’s Cloak by Nazare Soares and garments hailing from the Burel* factory in Portugal.

*Burel is an artisanal Portugese Fabric, traditionally used to make shepherd cloaks

Ange Sewell: why British wool is important to me

ANGE SEWELL is a weaver from West Kilbride – Scotland’s craft town. She describes herself as a weaver of Scottish weather, Ange creates handwoven cloth, clothing and furnishings at her studio, Weft Blown, and teaches classes in weaving and spinning too.  Ange will also be writing about her favourite British yarns to weave with but here she writes about why using the wool resources from the UK means so much to her and her work.

Whilst I was a student at Edinburgh University in the nineties I shared a flat with a couple of vets for the summer. On the toilet door to cover up the glass was a big poster showing all the different sheep breeds of the British Isles. This poster fascinated me as I’d never before really appreciated how many different types of sheep we had roaming the landscape. It also made me laugh as it was amazing how well hung these males of the breeds were hung.

Having grown up as a country girl and always loved seeing the sheep roaming the hills I hadn’t fully realised how diverse sheep breeds were. It wasn’t until a good 10 years or so after seeing this poster that I started to get interested again in different sheep breeds. The reason for this was I had discovered knitting, and then weaving and spinning and I started to appreciate the differences in colour and texture you can get from the fibre and yarn of these various breeds.

Ange 2

Over the past couple of years I have switched to using British yarn and fibre as much as I can in my work. My weaving is inspired by the weather and the effects it has on the surrounding environment. When I think of the weather blowing over the hills I always think of the sheep out there with their protective woolly coats protecting them from the worst that mother nature can throw at them. This makes wool the perfect yarn type for me to use for my weaving as I can’t think of anything that is more exposed to the elements than the sheep of the British Isles.

I have been shifting towards using British wool, and occasionally European wool, but only from companies that can prove the provenance of where the fibre has come from. Having lived in rural areas for most of my life it is important to me that I support farmers who produce British wool from all breeds of sheep to ensure that it is viable for them to continue farming, and in turn helping to support rural communities. Rural areas have delicate economies and having lived in areas that have been decimated by closures of mines and mills many years beforehand, keeping the farming community going is important as they can give stable jobs in such.

ange 3

The other main factor I use British wool is that Britain has lots of sheep! As a lot of these sheep are of different varieties in beautiful natural colours and a range of textures. In the past the breeds that produced the softest wools were exported and the main sheep breeds left were bred for meat instead of their fleece. Thankfully there has been a shift over recent years and smallholders and farmers are starting to realise that there is a growing demand for British wool to be used by the growing numbers of knitters, spinners and weavers and are making a concerted effort to keep the diversity of breeds going. It is one of the nicest things about teaching spinning and weaving in that I am meeting more smallholders who have started small flocks of rare breed sheep and want to know how to turn their fleece into yarn and cloth.

Over the next year I am looking to extend my source of wool for my woven products and I am starting to look at small producers of yarns to help showcase what great quality British woollen yarn we have in this country. For me it is important to keep the demand up for British wool as we have a fantastic resource for yarn on our doorstep which we need to support to keep it thriving.

Photos © Ange Sewell 2015

Louise Spong and Jenny Dean on Natural Dyeing

Last night we heard from Louise Spong about The South Downs, Southdown sheep, and South Downs Yarn. You may have seen a few glimpses of the beautiful palette that the yarn is available in. Louise only uses natural dyes, and she is indepted to Jenny Dean, who is her mentor and partner in crime in front of the dye pot.

Louise Spong and Jenny Dean Southdown Yarn drying

Louise Spong (left) and Jenny Dean make a great team of dyers; image copyright: South Downs Yarn

Tom: the palette of your colours is beautiful. Why have you chosen to use plant-based dyes only? What does this mean for your customers?

Louise: we use natural, plant-based dyes for a number of reasons. I was adamant from the beginning that I wanted the environmental footprint of the company as a whole to be as low as possible. On an aesthetic and personal level I love the range of colours and the diversity of hues that can be achieved with natural dyes and I didn’t want to outsource that element of creativity to someone else. I am also drawn to the small batch idea. We can and do dye to order if a customer wants a particular amount by weight of a single colour, but the idea is that each batch should be genuinely unique. We can reproduce the same range of colours. However, each small batch is never the same again as there are so many things that can influence the dye bath results. I love this aspect of our work and it is something that I get a lot of positive feedback about from our customers.

Although as an adult I developed an interest in natural dyeing I had only ever done a couple of day courses. I had tentatively sown some dye plants but I wasn’t harvesting them, they had turned into purely decorative plants in my garden. By the time the wool had been processed, I was surrounded by sacks of Southdown skeins and I still didn’t have a plan about how I was going to dye them. I kept thinking ‘something will come to me’. I thought it would be an idea, I didn’t know then it was going to be a person! A few months later Jenny Dean reached out to me having been elected as the Chair of our local Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers. I was helping out with the website and she wanted to update the committee details. We got chatting about all things woolly. It was amazing to find that Jenny and I share an enthusiasm for so many things including our local landscape, sustainable living, local wool and growing and harvesting our own plants to dye with. Thanks to Jenny my garden is now productive as well as pretty. I realise I have been so fortunate to find such a friend and mentor right here on my doorstep.

Jenny: there is something very special in making colours following the same methods and using the same dye plants that have been used for centuries by generations before us. We know from archaeological evidence that textile production was probably carried out on Cissbury Ring in the Iron Age, and living and working her in Findon at the foot of the Cissbury Ring I feel we are continuing a very ancient tradition. The Natural History Museum’s post code register of plants [author’s note: this is no longer available on-line] native to this area means we can also use native plants that would have grown here in the Iron Age and earlier. These are then augmented by plants that grow here in my garden, or can be harvested locally.

Unlike synthetic dyes, each plant-based dye consists of several dye pigments, so as the yarn catches the light the colour is subtle and never flat. For me there is interest and pleasure to be found in the methods of creation of colour, not only in the end result. There is real magic and satisfaction in starting with the raw materials and going through all the processes involved in creating colour.

Dyed skeins of Southdown Yarn

Some of the wide colour range of South Downs Yarn; all achieved with plant-based dyes; image copyright: South Downs Yarn

Tom: natural dyes have, undeservedly, a reputation of being fugitive and murky of hue. Can you prove those naysayers wrong?

Jenny: we only use dyes and methods that have stood the test of time and are known to produce reliable, fast colours. Why waste one’s time using plants that are not true dye plants and give only fugitive colours? That seems to me not only to be utterly pointless, but it also brings natural dyeing into disrepute. Anyone telling me that “natural dyes fade and only give pale, dull colours” is likely to have to listen to a very long lecture from me!

Tom: I’m assuming that using plant-based dyes has a lower environmental impact, is this true?

Jenny: my basic concept is “rooted in the earth” and we only use environmentally-friendly dyes and methods. To quote Michele Wipplinger from Earthues: what comes from the earth shall not harm the earth. What this means is that we only use substances that are non-toxic and safe to handle, and we re-use mordant and dye baths until they are exhausted. They can then be safely discarded. We use mainly plants we grow or gather locally, and plant remains are put in the compost bin.

I would like to thank Louise, Jenny, and Graham for showing me what South Downs Yarn is all about. Rooted in the earth, made from a sheep breed rooted to this part of the world, and dyed with plants that are also, literally, rooted to this part of the world. Roots that grow all the way back to the Iron Age.

Daily Photo: Making 6

Part of the Daily Photo series of photos taken and curated by Jeni Reid especially for WOVEMBER, this photo is part of a series documenting beautiful things Jeni Reid has made with WOOL in celebration of for the WORKING WITH WOOL phase of WOVEMBER.

This is from a selection of my own woolly endeavours. Some knitted, some spun, some a bit of both.


Mitts. This is a pattern called Weeds by Lynn Manderville, aka Fidlstix. I was lucky enough to be a test-knitter for the pattern and even luckier to be in Shetland when I ran out of yarn. Jamieson and Smith came to the rescue and the mitts were finished. Modelled here by the hands of Felix. It’s fair to say that she didn’t want to give them back.

photo and text © Jeni Reid and used here with kind permission.
You can see Jeni’s photos by following her on instagram here

Wovember Words: KnitBritish

Today’s WOVEMBER WORDS post explores the term KnitBritish as it appears in Louise Scollay’s Knit British Breed Swatch KAL. To tie in with yesterday’s post by Tom, the yarn featured in this post is from South Downs Yarn.


| What are we doing?
Using British breed wool, or wool from our local area, we will be knitting a square swatch and noting observances each stage of the knitting process from fibre, where applicable, from skein to square. This swatchalong is about celebrating the natural textures, colours and characteristics of single breed wool.

| What are the rules?
– Your wool needs to be British breed wool from the British isles (KnitBritish)


– any breed wool that is local to you, including British breeds which are located outside the British isles (KnitLocal)

– definitions taken from the KnitBritish website here


Several folks have asked recently whether WOVEMBER is only about British Wool because we do tend to feature more producers and mills from the UK than anywhere else! Rest assured, Wovember is about celebrating ALL wool and certainly not just wool from the UK. However, integral to our annual celebration is a deep foray into the supply chain behind this magnificent textile. We are interested in the cultural history of the wool trade and the many stages of processing and manufacture between its life as the fleece of a sheep and a textile with which we can work. You can see the evidence for this in the many pieces that we have individually created over the years by going to mills, meeting farmers, photographing sheep for ourselves and visiting suppliers and interviewing them face to face.

Feeding a Wensleydale lamb at the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre, Sussex, 2009

Feeding a Wensleydale lamb at the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre, Sussex, 2009

When trying to understand the supply chain from sheep to shoulders, the immediate environment is most accessible and affordable for curious adventures and investigations! To understand the provenance of wool, nothing really beats fieldwork. Meeting the sheep from which it came, walking the hills on which they grew, touring the mills in which their fleeces are spun etc. etc. you get the idea. And currently all of TEAM WOVEMBER reside in the UK which explains the bias of our articles towards the history of British wool. Why focus on supply chains which we cannot explore for ourselves when there is such a wealth of woolly goodness right here on the doorstep?

However when we write about British Wool we certainly do not mean for the focus to seem exclusionary to wool production in other countries. Instead, we hope to model a level of passion and curiosity that can be practiced anywhere in the world where there are sheep and a related wool trade.

As a resident of the UK, this is where I live and knitting with wool grown and spun in the British Isles from UK sheep means tapping into textiles that are locally available. That is what it means to me to KnitBritish.

The KnitBritish Breed Swatch KAL

When comrade Louise announced the Breed Swatch KAL I was really excited. I love swatching breed specific yarns and learning about the characteristics of different breed-specific yarns, and Louise has a real knack for bringing folk together in joyous woolly endeavours. What could be better than swatching with wool and sharing my discoveries with comrades through instagram, Ravelry and other online channels?

Then I heard Louise Spong speaking about South Downs Yarn in an interview on the Playful Day podcast and knew at once that this must be my first yarn with which to swatch, KnitBritish style.

SHEEP - keep dogs on a lead on the Downs!

SHEEP – keep dogs on a lead on the Downs!

Sussex – the county from which the Southdown sheep breed hails – is close to my heart.

I grew up in Croydon on the outskirts of London and the southeast coast was a popular destination for our family of six with our dogs. We went to Sussex and the neighbouring county of Kent for many day trips, camping adventures, and long walks on the beach. (Often in the rain.) I love this area.

As an adult, when I began seriously investigating the provenance of textiles, Sussex was one of the first places to which I traveled… I was drawn to the rolling hills of the Downs, the spectacular chalky cliffs of the coastline, and the story of the special sheep that graze there.

Southdown sheep photographed at the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre, Sussex, 2009

Southdown sheep photographed at the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre, Sussex, 2009

I wrote about my adventures in Sussex and the neighbouring county of Kent for Twist Collective in a piece called “The Knitting Tourist“, but at the time when I was researching that piece, it was difficult to find yarn from the Southdown breed with which to knit.

A dew pond near Ditchling, Sussex. (Dew ponds are specially constructed ponds used for watering livestock.)

A dew pond near Ditchling, Sussex. (Dew ponds are specially constructed ponds used for watering livestock.)

Happily thanks to Louise Spong of South Downs Yarn and the shepherd with whom she works – David Burden – that is no longer the case. So this autumn I have been revisiting my memories of Sussex by knitting with yarn from sheep which, like me, have strong ties to this particular geography.

Breed Swatch and yarn from South Downs Yarn

Breed Swatch and yarn from South Downs Yarn

The first thing I noticed about this woolly yarn was its distinctive matt appearance and apposite name: chalk path. The yarn is the colour of clotted cream, a non-uniform golden white, with superb stitch definition and an ultra-matt finish.

The Seven Sisters cliffs, Sussex

The Seven Sisters cliffs, Sussex

It reminds me of the cliffs that stretch out ahead along the south coast path.

chalky white Southdown goodness

chalky white Southdown goodness

Crisp and bouncy at first touch, squishing a ball of it in my hands gave an instant impression of warmth and substance. There is air trapped in those lofty plies, but the wool itself has a solidity. There is a pleasant crunchiness that speaks of grasslands battered by sea air, and sheep sturdy enough to graze there.

The Southdowns, Sussex

The South Downs, Sussex

I worked this yarn at a gauge of 31sts /45rows over 10cm x 10cm / 4” x 4” square stocking stitch. At this gauge South Downs Yarn produces a lovely firm fabric. I found it a little toothy on my fingers whilst knitting but this was not an unpleasant sensation and when I blocked my swatch, a pleasing bloom of tiny little kinks and curls formed over its surface. I’ve written a full review of the yarn here but generally I feel this yarn would be superb for small, fine items that see a lot of wear and that need to improve with age. Socks, gloves, mittens, hats and cardigans would all benefit from the fantastic stitch-definition of the yarn; I can see such garments wearing smooth with time just like the well-worn paths after which it is named.

South Downs Yarn - the ball and the swatch

South Downs Yarn – the ball and the swatch

There is also something really inspiring in the colourways that Louise has produced for South Downs Yarn using natural dyestuffs. The colourway names and the plants relate back to the context of the wool itself: to the land and the sheep and the shepherding history from which it comes. I love the cohesiveness of the vision for this yarn. South Downs Yarn represents a really careful piecing together of place and wool and I am thrilled to have discovered it through the KnitBritish Breed Swatch KAL.

Thanks to Louise for organising the Breed Swatch KAL and to The Playful Day Podcast for bringing South Downs Yarn to my attention. All photos and words © Felicity Ford.


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