Good evening WOVEMBERITES! This evening we continue to build on yesterday’s Organic Wool theme, presenting a Q&A between WOVEMBER and Juliet Morris, the Shepherd behind Ystrad Organics. Tomorrow, we shall continue ‘Working with Wool’ in a related Q&A with Sue James, who is the Knitwear Designer at Llynfi, and who is working with Juliet on the Organic Wool Wales project. Juliet and Sue are working together from different ends of the Wool Industry to make the very best of their amazing local product: Organic Welsh Wool. All content © Juliet Morris and used with kind permission.
WOVEMBER: I wondered if you could tell WOVEMBER readers a little bit about your organic farm in Carmarthenshire, the type of sheep you have, and their relationship to the specific environment there?
Juliet: The farm’s Welsh name, Ystrad, describe its setting perfectly: a bowl shaped valley that runs east to west, on the north side, it’s ancient woodland and coniferous forests, on the south, it’s classic Welsh uplands and panoramic views. Poor farm land by modern agricultural standards, its real wealth lies in its natural habitats. For me, this relationship between production and nature is fundamental.
The animals that do best on the old traditional pastures at Ystrad are the old traditional, now rare, breeds. And, because you really need more than one species to manage healthy organic grassland, I farm Irish Moiled cattle along with my sheep – pedigree Hill Radnors, black and white Wensleydale sheep, and their exceptionally fleecy cross-bred lambs.
WOVEMBER: I love the title “Shear Waste” of your amazing report; it suggests that at the moment the full potential of organic fleece is not being maximised. Could you say a few words about how your fleeces have historically been used and how you feel they could be better used in the future?
Juliet: By law and apart from a few exceptions, anyone with more than 4 sheep has to sell their wool to the Wool Marketing Board and, until a few years ago, it had no means of keeping organically farmed fleece separate from conventional. That meant that there was no such thing as certified organic wool from the UK.
The Board has now developed clear processes for keeping organic wool separate but only a fraction of organic farmers use the system. The Board is still not getting organic fleece through in sufficient volume to value it as anything different from conventionally farmed fleece or to attract the attention of the big wool buyers. Of the organic wool that is sold onto the world market, the price is no different from conventional and there are no systems in place to allow us to see where it goes or what becomes of it. Whilst certified organic wool from the UK now exists, it remains largely invisible.
The lack of traceability, combined with the lack of financial return in the British Wool system, make it nigh on impossible for farmers to maintain any sense of pride or purpose in what happens to their hard work. It’s heart breaking that such a precious, natural, home grown, organic resource is ‘lost’. It is why I secured permission from the Board, a number of years ago, to retain the 500kg or so fleece that I produce every year in order to process and sell it direct.
WOVEMBER: Obviously your farm is an organic farm and you are looking towards developing an organic certified sheep to shoulder production chain. In the world of organic food production, one of the things that seems to have really taken off is product differentiation, and also increased consumer awareness regarding different types of breeds, provenance, etc. I wondered if you feel this model is applicable to wool growers and indeed whether looking at the organic food market has played a role in your decision to move towards organic wool production?
Juliet: Organic production is a whole system thing. The values and principles define the way in which we do everything – from the soil up, literally. They’re about the inter-connectedness of everything we do and our impact on the planet. I would farm organically, whatever I was growing.
Your observation about the food market is a good one. The last decade has seen the rise and rise of consumer choice and a whole wave of ‘differentiation techniques’ in food, many of which are based on values and ethics – traceability, locality, provenance, tradition, heritage, animal welfare, the environment, fair trade, food miles. And the best of these are about breaking down the barriers between producer and consumer, allowing and encouraging us to start thinking a little more deeply about where things come from, how they are produced and processed, and whether the journey from farm to fork, or sheep to shoulder, is marked by a simple vapour trail across the sky – or a whole tonnage of newly released carbon into the atmosphere.
The textiles sector is still somewhere off shore, so vast and so intrinsically global that it is proving an incredibly slow tanker to turn. But there are some strong tidal forces – organic, fair trade cotton has gone mainstream, wool is resuming its platform as a fibre of choice and ‘made in Britain’ has real brand value. They combine to suggest that the best of what has happened in food is becoming increasingly evident in textiles and fashion.
WOVEMBER: What are the positive benefits involved in switching to organic production for the wool-grower?
Juliet: Just as farmers seeking financial return from organic farming over conventional and consumers applying a ‘better taste test’ to organic food are likely to be disappointing, organic wool is unlikely to look or feel any different from conventional. Given the strict chemical prohibitions in the organic textiles processing standards, a residue test might discover an awful lot more in your conventionally produced woollen goods than you’d bargained for!
‘Isn’t all wool organic?’ is my most often asked question. For clarity, I’m talking ‘certified organic’ – a set of standards that define, not so much the thing itself, but the way in which it has been produced, and processed. They specify cost-neutral demands on the plant with optimal health and welfare of the people and animals involved.
For everyone involved in the organic chain – from producer to processor to consumer – commitment is everything. It’s hard! But the organic standards give me a tried and tested framework of methods and knowledge that set out everything I do and should be doing – from building fertility in the soil to managing clean, productive pasture to ensuring the health and wellbeing of my animals and the wildlife around us.
The organic standards are like a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ and ‘can use and can’t’. Occasionally they restrict you to the point of fury. More usually, they offer solutions to problems that you might not have considered. They always challenge you to keep thinking about underlying whys and wherefores, and sustainable, long term practice and implications, rather than short-term, quick-win measures. You can see where the tensions lie!
Ultimately, the (nightmarish, I have to say) inspection process and paper-based bureaucracy that you are tasked with providing, gives me absolute confidence that I am farming using as sustainable, environmentally sensitive and welfare-friendly a system as possible. And, when you’re farming, a reason to hold your head high, and a slight sense of smugness, go a very long way.
WOVEMBER: Beyond the administration-heavy side of things on the farm, what are some of the key challenges involved in establishing a sheep to shoulders process that is certified organic?
Juliet: The wool textiles journey from ‘sheep to shoulder’ has a lot of very different steps along the way and organic certification covers every one – from the muck that’s used on the grass that feeds the pregnant organic ewe to the approved detergents and machine oils that are used in the organic fabric finishing process. Accessing the certified processing chain is a challenge in itself – although I hope ‘Shear Waste’ has helped – and being confident that everyone who says they are ‘organic’ has a certificate to prove it.
For me, as a practical person, the hardest thing is the ‘audit trail’. Not only does everything have to be done to organic standards, you must be capable of proving it has been done to organic standards. The entire production and processing journey must be fully traceable with a clear record of every input – from muck spread on fields to hay fed to ewes to detergents used in fabric finishing – and every movement – from the birth of the lamb to the date of shearing to the journey from spinner to weaver. The certification process anchors the integrity of organic wool and textiles. For me personally, it very often feels like a triumph of bureaucracy over getting a life!
WOVEMBER: As a wool grower you have become very engaged with what happens to your wool once it leaves your farm; what are the advantages in getting more involved in what happens to wool once it leaves your farm?
Juliet: There is little romance about shepherding. It’s a business that is entirely reliant on natural and market forces totally outside your control. Sheep farming is hard. The weather, the environment and the sheep determine the health and productivity of a farm, and can never be relied upon. The value of breeding stock, meat animals and wool rise and regularly fall, whilst feed, medication, machinery and contractor costs only ever go up. The connection between what my sheep produce, the creativity it inspires in makers and enjoyment or users and wearers gives me and my flock a profound sense of purpose – it’s why we do what we do.
But my involvement ‘beyond the fleece’ also gives me intelligence that I can use to change and improve what I do. As farmers, we have significant control over the quality of the fleece we produce – from our choice of breed stock to the standards of health and welfare we achieve to the way in which we manage wool ‘on the hoof’ and off. The way in which it is processed can be its making, or its ruination. My relationship with spinners, weavers and makers is as critical as my relationship with my sheep and their wool – though not as daily an obsession!
The farm is the start of a continuum of woolly activity. Tweak anywhere along the line and you influence the end results – and the ultimate arbiters are my end users. A direct connection to them, and an engagement in the entire process, from farm to yarn to fabric, allows me to learn from their feedback, to adjust they way it’s produced or processed, and evolve what is done in response.
Thank you so much, Juliet, for telling us a bit more about Organic Wool production in Wales, and for your insights into working through the whole sheep-to-shoulders process organically! Join us tomorrow to hear what Sue has to say about working directly with Organic Wool as knitwear designer for Llynfi, and to hear about the joint venture Organic Wool Wales which Juliet and Sue are working on together.
More Wovember Words from “The Wool Pack” by Cynthia Harnett. It’s aimed at young adult readers and was published in 1951. So do forgive its traditional thoughts on the division of labour, because clearly the fun of spinning with a spindle hadn’t escaped this young man. It is set in 1493 in The Cotswolds when the British Mediaeval Wool Trade is in full force.
Nicholas left the fields just where the muddy road ended, and the cobbles of Witney Street began. The fine spring evening had bought all the women to the doors of their cottages, each with a distaff tucked under her arm, busily dropping, twisting and winding up a spindle as she gossiped. Some of the well-to-do possessed new-fangled spinning wheels; but spinning wheels were heavy cumbersome things, and, wheel or no wheel, every good wife carried the old-fashioned distaff and spindle with her always. There were odd moments all through the day when she had at least one hand free, and every spool of spun yarn was of value. Nicholas would not for worlds have admitted it, but he loved a spindle. Meg had taught him to use one when he was young. He liked dropping it on the end of a length of rough wool drawn from the distaff, and watching it twiddle round and round, winding the wool into a firm thread. It was fun catching it again at the exact moment before it began to untwist, just as much fun as whipping a peg top in the market place, but because it was woman’s work, he never dared to confess that he liked it.
Cecilia Hewett dropping her spindle on a crag, just the kind of thing I could see Nicholas doing. Image ©Cecilia Hewett
Pete Glanville is the secretary of ShetlandOrganics, a Community Interest Company in Shetland, dedicated to the production of Organic Shetland wool; he has a lovely flock of organic, coloured Shetland sheep which he and Linda Glanville shepherd in Tingwall. Here they are!
The ShetlandOrganics Community Interest Group includes several other shepherds, who – like Pete and Linda – are growing organic Shetland wool in Shetland. There are quite a few shepherds who have begun to concentrate on a certified organic production system here in the UK in recent years, and we thought you might be interested to read more about what is involved in taking the organic route as a yarn producer. Therefore this evening Pete Glanville has very kindly provided us with a Q&A about ShetlandOrganics. All the words are © Pete Glanville, while the photos are © Felicity Ford. All the sheep shown belong to Pete and Linda Glanville while all the textiles have been produced by different artists and makers using ShetlandOrganics wool, and were displayed at Vaila Fine Art during Shetland Wool Week in a glorious sheepy celebration of what can be done with this distinctive textile
WOVEMBER: Could you tell WOVEMBER readers a little bit about Shetland Organics and the different shepherds and sheep involved?
Pete: ShetlandOrganics Community Interest Company was set up in 2008 out of a desire by Shetland Organic Producers’ Group (SOPG) to form a trading arm. SOPG was formed in September 2001, with ten organically certified sheep producers among its membership at that time. There are now eleven organic certified producers and processors that include six sheep producers. These organic units vary in size from a croft of just 40 ha to a farm of 700 ha.
WOVEMBER: In the world of organic food production, one of the things that seems to have really taken off is product differentiation, and also increased consumer awareness regarding different types of breeds, provenance, etc. I wondered if you feel this model could be useful at all for wool growers and indeed whether looking at the ideas surrounding organic food market played a role in the decision for you and the other shepherds involved to move to organic wool production?
Pete: Only one of our members is marketing organic lamb, but three or four units supply him with lambs for that market. The Native Shetland sheep is renowned for the special nature of the meat, both lamb and mutton, and this equally applies to the fleeces from this breed. Prices obtained for fleeces at the time we first formed SOPG were very poor, and there was little interest in the coloured fleeces in particular.
ShetlandOrganics decided that there had to be a way of improving on that situation, and now its members concentrate on the native breed in the production and processing of yarns from natural coloured fleeces. Some organic certified dyed yarns are also produced. ShetlandOrganics CIC has concentrated on product development utilising only pure 100% Organic Native Shetland Wool, and placing it at the top end market, emphasising the unique variety of colours and shades available from this native breed.
WOVEMBER: What are the positive benefits involved in switching to organic production for the wool-grower?
Pete: The description ‘organic’ is the only one that is subject to EU and national regulation. ‘Organic’ production means working with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them, as is often the case in intensive farming systems, and to minimise the use of animal medicines and non-renewable natural resources such as the fossil fuels used in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides. However, once the producer accepts these principles and can comply with the certifying authority’s requirements regarding record keeping etc., it is possible to benefit from an improved financial return on the products, whether that be meat or fibre.
WOVEMBER: What are some of the challenges involved in establishing a sheep to shoulders process that is certified organic?
Pete: Under an organic system, animals are kept in ways that minimise the need for medicines and other chemical treatments. There are strict regulations controlling the use of all treatments, and animal welfare is of utmost importance. Therefore, if an animal is sick it is essential that the correct treatment be employed under the direction of a veterinary practitioner. However, normal withdrawal periods for medicines, including dips are increased by 100%. Should the ailment entail special treatment, derogation from the Organic Standards has to be obtained from the Certifying Authority. Under certain circumstances this might not be permissible, and the organic status of that animal could be lost.
In addition to the producer’s organic certificate and before a fleece can be utilised in the production of organic textiles, a Livestock Veterinary Treatment Declaration detailing the courses of veterinary treatments for external parasite control administered to each animal has to be provided. These days there is a general awareness that there may be traces of residues from fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides in finished food products, and this also applies to the fleeces of sheep. No external treatments should have been administered within 3 months prior to the date of clipping. The processing of the fleeces into yarn has to be carried out by a spinning mill that also has organic status. In the UK that means Soil Association Certification Ltd. (SA), who also certifies ShetlandOrganics for the handling of the raw fleeces, carrying out the manufacturing of garments and the marketing and packaging of the final product. Currently there are just two spinning mills in the UK with such certification: The Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall and New Lanark, Scotland. Therefore all organic fleeces produced in Shetland have to be sent to UK mainland for processing.
WOVEMBER: You yourself have a small flock of organic Shetland sheep; could you say something about them and the land that they live on?
Pete: Linda and I own a small croft of 40 hectares in Tingwall, in the Central Mainland of Shetland. This comprises about 35 ha of rough hill ground and the remainder permanent grassland in-bye. We have a flock of 10 pure-bred Shetland ewes that produce on average 10 lambs each year plus 2 gimmers. We do not carry our own ram, but get one from our organic neighbour in December for tupping. Generally this is a tup lamb, the colour of which we alter, depending on the predominating colour of the off-spring each year, in order to maintain a good variety of colours in the flock. Most of the year, the sheep are kept on the hill, but come down for lambing and later to graze the aftermath following the cutting of silage.
WOVEMBER: What are the highlights for you in the shepherding year?
Pete: There is no doubt that Linda’s favourite time is lambing in May, when they are brought in-bye. I on the other hand am content to see the flock doing their own thing on the hill!
WOVEMBER: Processing organic wool presents several complexities which readers of WOVEMBER might not be aware of; would you be able to outline these here? Obviously one of the things that is amazing about producing a small, niche product such as Organic Shetland Wool is that it has a very specific cachet value. However, are there any problems associated with protecting that cachet value, and how does dealing with small quantities of wool work when it comes to negotiating with spinning mills?
Pete: Because of the small scale of production and high level of ‘hands-on’ intervention required this becomes one of the first opportunities for the consumer to obtain full traceability from croft to finished product. ShetlandOrganics CIC is a registered Trade Mark for organic yarns, garments etc. made in Shetland. The two spinning mills mentioned above are quite different in terms of the quantity of material they are able to process; while Natural Fibres have a minimum batch size of 20 kg of fleeces, New Lanark will only accept 500 kg per batch. The other difference to note is Natural Fibres has on-site scouring (washing), while fleeces for New Lanark first have to go to an outside organic certified scourer.
WOVEMBER: Have you got any advice for other wool producers maybe considering pursuing an organic wool route?
Pete: Our advice would be first to look at the market opportunities, and processes from flock to yarn, and consider whether you want to sell the finished product as processed yarn or as fleeces for hand-spinning or machine-spun to be sold by others. For the former route, you have to obtain full certification by Soil Association, complying with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). There is no doubt that there is a revival in the use of natural fibres, and home-knitting in particular; so the opportunity is out there for the (dedicated) entrepreneur.
WOVEMBER: Could you say a few words about dealing with multiple mills and multiple yarn types?
Pete: Since we started processing yarns, we have used the services of five different spinning mills. For one reason or the other three of these have dropped their certification. Each one had a distinct product, and so, as we have a small stock of yarns from each, there is an inconsistency about the weights; some being finer or softer than others. This has to be highlighted when dealing with customers, as each batch might well vary in colour as well as texture.
WOVEMBER: Finally, for WOVEMBER readers, what will your sheep be up to this Wovember?
Pete: At present, the flock are enjoying the last of the grass along with the two Shetland cattle, but soon they will be put back to the hill, with the lambs taken off. Two of these will be kept in-bye as replacement gimmers for next season.
THANK YOU Pete, for telling us a bit more about some of what is involved in the production of organic Shetland wool! At Vaila Fine Art this year during Shetland Wool Week there was an extraordinary display of different things created using your yarn, including work by Sheila Fowlie, Andrea Williamson, Helen Whitham, Mati Ventrillon and Sue White. Di Gilpin has also worked with your yarn has of course fellow WOVEMBERIST, Kate Davies!
Here is a selection of some of the wonderful things spotted at Vaila Fine Art during Shetland Wool Week, all created in organic Shetland wool and conveying some of the lovely things that can be created out of this special, traceable product.
The last week of Wovember Words! Today’s Wovember Words come from ”The Wool Pack” by Cynthia Harnett, which was published in 1951, a book aimed at a younger audience (I guess we would call them teenagers now.) The opening paragraph for the book immediately sets the scene for a context in which ALL WOOL is deeply valued; this is 1493 in The Cotswolds when the British Mediaeval Wool Trade is in full force!
It is always amazing to discover the different ways in which people are working with wool to make life better, and today WOVEMBER is delighted to introduce Vanessa Bracewell of Knit Quit Kits, who is producing kits that use 100% WOOL, designed to help smokers quit. I smoked as a teenager and in my early twenties, and picking up my knitting was one of many strategies that I adopted whilst trying to give it up. I am happy to say that I have avoided smoking since 2004 and don’t miss cigarettes at all. Indeed with hindsight I realise I may have given up much earlier if I had developed the healthy WOOL HABIT which now utilises the time I once spent smoking! It took me the best part of a decade to move from cigarette smoke to wool fumes, but luckily, if you are a smoker and wish to quit, you don’t have to wait that long! Simple patterns for knitting comforting objects in Bluefaced Leicester Wool are here to help. And here to explain Knit Quit Kits is Vanessa, who has kindly agreed to do a Q&A for WOVEMBER. All content and photos © Vanessa Bracewell and used with kind permission.
WOVEMBER: When I was giving up smoking, one of the things that helped was understanding what I enjoyed about the habit and finding healthier alternatives. Having something to do with my hands and a talking point for when meeting strangers were things I liked about smoking; I’m happy to say that knitting has provided wonderful replacements for these. When I am waiting for a train or a bus I can get on with my knitting rather than smoking, and when I meet people for the first time, my knitting makes a great social talking point! Does any of this resonate with your own experience, and how has knitting helped you quit? What was the first thing that you knitted when you were giving up smoking?
Vanessa: Over the years there seemed to be an increasing list of activities I could accomplish quite fluently with a cigarette on the go; thankfully knitting isn’t one of them! In retrospect I certainly wasted a great deal of money and a large amount of my precious time whilst actually smoking. In the beginning the most difficult thing about not smoking was having nothing to do with my hands. Although my Mum and Granny were both fluent knitters and keen for me to learn the practical pastime, as a child, the quiet, sedative nature of the activity never did appeal to me. However those qualities have now become my salvation and given me a fascinating new and productive interest. Taking up knitting again has also encouraged me to share my success – of knitting instead of smoking – with others who want to be rid of the addiction.
My first knitted item (six months ago, when I quit smoking) was a poor attempt at a sweet little mouse for my cat to play with. I had tried following patterns but couldn’t really apply myself to learning complicated stitches and keeping track of my rows and stitches. Using the basic knit stitch I ad-libbed the design and produced my first knitted keepsake.
WOVEMBER: Your kits contain three patterns: ‘Bill the Owl’ Keyring (to offer wisdom in moments of stress); Best Friends Together Bracelets (one for you and one for your quitting-smoking helper); and a practical drawstring bag for stashing money that would otherwise have been spent on cigarettes! These ideas are lovely, and the kits are suitable for beginner knitters, as well as being stylish and fun. Could you say a bit about how you have gone about designing Knit Quit Kits with someone who is trying to quit smoking in mind?
Vanessa: Wanting to design something both practical yet simple to knit, ‘Bill The Owl’ came to mind initially, symbolising the wisdom of my efforts to become a non smoker. I kept that to the fore of my mind whilst knitting in those early difficult days when I was really desperate to kick the habit and still felt vulnerable. It seemed a natural progression from the owl to the drawstring bag which represented somewhere to keep the savings I was making. It does hold quite a number of £5 notes and it became pleasing to see them increase in number! The bracelets were useful objects to wear as a reminder of what I was trying to achieve, so that each morning when I put them on I was pleased to remind myself that another non-smoking day had passed and I was heading nearer to my goal.
WOVEMBER: Of course of key interest to WOVEMBER readers will be the fact that you have chosen to use pure wool for your Knit Quit Kits and that you officially support the Campaign for Wool. It took me ages to discover wool when I got back into knitting; like most people, I started out being obsessed with softness and colour, and knew nothing about the provenance of what I was knitting with. It seems that you have discovered the wonders of working with pure wool far quicker than I did; what was it that made you decide the Knit Quit Kits should be made of pure wool and not something cheaper like acrylic?
Vanessa: It was an easy decision about what yarn to use. Initially I tried acrylic for cheapness but hated the feel of it – particularly the way it caught on the needles, and because it made me cringe, (like fingernails scraping along a blackboard ). I recalled that in my childhood my mother only ever knit with pure wool.
Her contention was that if she was going to spend so much time creating garments like, for example, Aran sweaters for my sister and me, then she was only going to knit with the best yarns. We lived on the Yorkshire border, over which she went to buy hanks of wool that I held whilst she wound the balls. Since I stopped smoking my sense of smell is keen and the wonderful country odour of the wool is very pleasing to me now and very reminiscent of snuggling into those warm and comfortable garments.
WOVEMBER: You have specifically chosen Bluefaced Leicester Wool for these kits; I wondered if you could talk a little bit about this yarn in particular – where it is spun; why you chose it; – and what you feel the benefits are of working with British Wool?
Vanessa: I first came across the Bluefaced Leicester sheep in my fell walking days as a teenager although at the time I saw many breeds of sheep without knowing anything about their wool. I have begun to recognise the different breeds more since I made a study of their yarns for the purpose of producing my Knitting Kits, and when I decided I wanted to use British wool for its feel and quality I tested various 100% British Wool Yarns. For me, the gorgeous Bluefaced Leicester is the softest and most rewarding wool to knit with and all the yarns we use in the Knitting Kits are spun in Yorkshire Mills. We use various suppliers of British Bluefaced Wool because the colour options are quite important to me and can’t all be obtained from the same source – which may seem a little fussy for a basic ‘learn to knit kit’ but I feel that if you have stopped smoking and new to knitting – why not use the best? You’re worth it.
The various yarns are now available to buy on our website at www.knitquitkits.co.uk
WOVEMBER: Where can folk who are trying to quit smoking find your kits to buy and is there any way in which WOVEMBER readers can help support Knit Quit Kits?
Vanessa: After a great deal of testing, knitting, re-testing, knitting and enlisting the help of many volunteer knitters including family, friends, knitting groups and two wonderful review knitters found through the Ravelry website, our Knit Quit Knitting Kit is now ready for sale:
They are available on our new website at www.knitquitkits.co.uk , priced £16.99 each.
You can also follow us on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/knitquit, or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KnitQuit
You can also see some beginner-knitter tutorials on some of the techniques used in the kits on the Knit Quit Knitting Kits YouTube channel here.
Thank you very much Vanessa for sharing your story here with WOVEMBER readers. We were thrilled to see that you have also been joining in with the WOVEMBER WAL! We love the photo of your knitting, cat and fire, and hope that you are having a wonderfully warm and woolly WOVEMBER without cigarettes and WITH your WOOL!
As announced back at the start of WOVEMBER, this year we have been running a WAL – a Wool-a-long, in which you are all very warmly invited to share progress on your work with wool! For a quick recap on the rules:
If you want to join the WOVEMBER WAL simply select your proposed 100% WOOL project and set a timescale for the month. You could:
The point of the WAL is to celebrate the diversity of what we can do with WOOL, to share what we discover about this amazing textile as we work with it, and to encourage each other as we go.
We thought that in addition to sharing THE JOY OF WOOL, we could also showcase a range of WIPs + comments in the “Working with Wool” section of the Wovember.
This is how you participate in the WOVEMBER WAL:
Please note, if you are currently part way through a 100% WOOL project, you can also use the WAL as an incentive to finish it.
As we are now past the 15th WOVEMBER, here is a collection of some of the wonderful WAL projects in progress which have been emailed in to WOVEMBER. We hope this is inspiring to everyone who is part-way through their WAL; we have added photos of inspiring things relating to your WAL projects, and can’t wait for the full showcase on 30th WOVEMBER of your work with wool!!! Do email us your finished WAL objects so that we can all see the amazing stuff you have been doing with this peerless textile.
‘My name is Birte Kurth. I am working on a cardigan, the ‘Clarity’ on Ravelry and since it’s with 100% wool I thought I can also join the WAL and that way feel more ‘pressure’ to finish it this year (I doubt that I will be able to finish it this November). Here is the photo with the cardigan knitted from the top to almost the bottom edge: the arms and the cowl are still missing.
My problem will be that the wool I use, 100% Xisqueta, a Spanish breed from the Pyrenees, is quite coarse so I don’t want it for the cowl. But I don’t have a matching colour yet: I am thinking of spinning some Cormo or Polwarth for the cowl and dyeing it with Koolaid. But to be able to spin it, I have to finish the Ouessant first which I have on my bobbins. You see, I am quite short on time…
Sorry, I couldn’t say all this in one sentence…’
WOVEMBER says: This looks amazing, Birte! We aren’t quite sure which yarn she used, but Rachael solved the problem of needing a softer wool for the cuffs and neck of her own coarse-wool sweater by creating the impression that the mountains were made of stony Herdwick, and the cuffs and neck were made of soft snow!
This approach probably won’t work with your design because of the stripes, but your approach with koolaid and softer yarns for the sensitive areas sounds wonderful! GOOD LUCK with it!
I’ve decided to dig out my knitting needles for the first time in years, inspired to try knitting something with my own yarn (not least so I can answer questions from all those knitters out there!). I really don’t know what I’m doing and it doesn’t help when the knitting instructions are incorrect, but I’ve so far managed to knit about 25″ of what I intend to be a scarf.
I’m trying a Shetland Lace pattern – Print O The Wave. It’s only 47 stitches wide (two repeats) but it takes me an hour to knit 16 rows (as I said, I’m a novice knitter and apparently I hold the needles all wrong but I can’t get along with any other method – I originally learned when I was 6, sitting opposite my knitting-sensation of a granny and copying what she did. She could talk, listen to the radio, look at a newspaper and knit complicated cables all at the same time. I’m left handed and she was right handed and I now have no idea if I knit one way or the other but whichever way it is it’s all a bit cack-handed!). Anyway, I came across this lovely pattern when I was researching lace on-line with a view to weaving some lacy scarves. Still haven’t worked out how to do something like this on the loom (another work in progress) so I decided to knit it instead. Lo and behold, up comes a book at our local guild on Shetland Lace knitting – The Art of Shetland Lace by Sarah Don – so I grabbed it…
It’s a lovely book, all in black and white, with instructions on lots of different patterns and a photo of what the pattern is supposed to look like. The reason I chose this pattern is because I can while away many hours staring at the sea whenever I get the chance, which isn’t often enough, and I find water patterns on sand endlessly fascinating. I find being by the sea as calming and soothing as I do weaving. Can’t say the same for knitting just yet!
Turns out these instructions aren’t quite right but if a novice like me can do the maths then anyone can! If anyone knows where I can get a copy of this book let me know as I have to give this one back. I’ll be back in touch with me hopefully wearing the finished article at the end of November!
P.S. I’m knitting with my own yarn – a lovely silvery-grey blend of Bluefaced Leicester & Black Welsh Mountain singles wool spun to a count of 14 yorkshire skeins weight (now there’s another story for you!) It needs a good wash in a machine followed by a little tumble to bring out its best qualities.
WOVEMBER says: this looks completely amazing, Laura. It’s very exciting to see how your beautiful yarns will behave as lace, when we have all seen how well they work when used in woven textiles! We met some of the Bluefaced Leicesters in your yarn last year during WOVEMBER, how nice to think that soon their wool will become a classic lace garment. Thank you for sharing your progress so far, and GOOD LUCK with finishing it for the 30th!
Some of the Bluefaced Leicester’s whose fleeces Laura uses in her amazing work
I’m exploring six sheep breeds (Finn, Kainuu Grey, Åland sheep, Swedish Finullsheep, Gotland sheep, Värmland sheep). My progress so far: sample skeins of Kainuu Grey, Värmland, brown Finull, black Finull, black Finn on the bobbin, rolags from Finull and silk (I hope the silk is OK).
Thank you so much for Wovember! It really lightens up this very dark month – Barbro Heikinmatti
WOVEMBER says: Barbro, that looks like a wonderful experiment in exploring different sorts of sheeps’ wools plus some spun fibre from the silk worm! We are excited to hear back about the character of different wool from these particular breeds; your blog already has some lovely notes on this! I once met Finn and Åland sheep on Joel and Julika’s wool farm in Estonia, and found the Åland wool to have a lovely lustre and a very rich mixture of whites, creams and ivories in it! For anyone who has not checked out Barbro’s ‘Fiber Studies‘ on Ravelry, I suggest you go there at once as it is truly a place of woolly joy. Here is one of the sheep I met at Jaani Talu; I think she is a Finull Sheep? GOOD LUCK with the spinning and do let us know how you’ve got on with all these exciting wool types at the end of the month!
I’m going to spin up the last of my really local fleeces. The farmers who had a thing for special sheep have now retired, and the interesting breeds and crosses are being absorbed into the main flock by their son, so I won’t be able to get any more of this lovely BFL cross: Mind you, I’ve no idea what it was crossed with. Maybe a Welsh Mountain but it’s quite soft, so my bet is on their Texel ram being responsible (records got a bit confused before retirement).
WOVEMBER says: that wool looks lovely, Kate! And your WOVEMBER blog postings have been absolutely gorgeous. For anyone who’s not read them, do pop over to Woolwinding for some wonderful inspiration! We all remember your gorgeous postings from last year; thank you for reminding us about the sheep that graze near to you and what their fleeces mean to you, and GOOD LUCK with your spinning plans!
Because I always wear 100% WOOL socks and spend a lot of my life in wellies, which aren’t really very good for socks, I’ve decided my WOVEMBER WAL should be Sock Maintenance! I’ll be doing a little of this every day, either darning the socks or spinning wool to use for darning.
WOVEMBER says: Cecilia, we are so excited about this special spinning/darning project for WOVEMBER 2013! How marvelous that you have the skills to design exactly the right sort of yarns required for mending, and how inspiring to see that you are giving your old socks new meaning with extra patches, darns and additions! We are reminded of the wonderful work of Celia Pym and of course fellow WOVEMBERIST, Tom van Deijnen AKA tomofholland! GOOD LUCK with the darning and we can’t wait to see the amassed SOCK MAINTENANCE at the end of the month!
Here’s what I’ve done in the first four days of Wovember:
The dark wheel-spun is Wensleydale; the light spindle-spun is Romeldale. I deliberately spun the latter thicker because my first attempt with Romeldale felt like skinny twine, which is a shame, because the roving is cushy and squishy.
WOVEMBER says: This handspun looks beautiful, what a contrast between the sheen on the Wensleydale and that soft, relaxed Romeldale! Here is a lovely coloured Wensleydale Sheep from Julia Desch’s Woolcraft With Wensleydale flock; good luck with the rest of your spinning!
Speaking of spinning, the WOVEMBER WAL on Ravelry has revealed an exciting type of spindle which was new to many of us: a Basque spindle! You can see it in action here in this YouTube video, kindly shared by Ariette.
There are many other projects in progress which can be seen in the WOVEMBER WAL Ravelry thread, and for some of the most inspiring reading this WOVEMBER you could try checking out some of the blogs maintained by people who are WAL-ing: SO MUCH SHEEP & WOOL ACTION!
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you all are making, but we hope that reviewing some of the WAL action is inspiring to all who are participating; further inspirations can be found in our wonderful gallery! Thank you to everyone who has emailed WIPS in to WOVEMBER, and to everyone who is joining the celebration of WOOL this month, you make WOVEMBER amazing. x
In WOVEMBER 2012 we were thrilled to hear about the “Shepherd & Shearer” project when it was announced by Susan Gibbs and Emily Chamelin. A year on, we delighted in sharing Emily’s story of how the wool for this amazing project was harvested. Today we continue to explore the wonderful story of this project by hearing from some of the knitters knitting up the designs by Kate Davies and Kirsten Kapur created especially for this special crop of wool. All of the reports have been sent in by wonderful ‘Aunties’ from the Juniper Moon Farm group on Ravelry, and the words and images are © of each of the individual contributors and used with kind permission!
As soon as I read Susan’s post about the Shepherd and the Shearer project, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Her words resonated with me on such a powerful level. I have long had a love of woolly sweaters, and started knitting about ten years ago because, after having purchased a (very expensive) hand-knitted aran sweater from Ireland, I decided I wanted to make one like it myself. Why not, I asked? Ten years later, I have developed the skills to make that sweater, and have made many lovely, soft, (and now pilly) sweaters, but have not been able to find suitable yarn for that heirloom quality, hard-wearing sweater in any stores in my area. Upon entering said stores, and asking for a sturdy and strong yarn, I’m met with blank stares. Hence, when I found out about TSATS, I knew I had to try this yarn. One year later, I am so happy I did. I am part way through making Kate Davies’ Shepherd Hoodie, and loving every minute of it.
The yarn is wonderful to work with: a beautiful, warm, creamy colour; a lovely, sturdy, lanolin-infused texture which makes my feel hands soft and pampered; and a comforting, slightly sheepy scent, reminding me of its origin. It has a beautiful halo, yet excellent stitch-definition to make all those sinuous cables stand out. I honestly find it tragic to think that the fibre from which this yarn was spun is generally headed for the trash, as Emily said in her recent Wovember post. I sincerely hope that the interest and excitement which this project has engendered will alert everyone who works with sheep to the demand for this sort of fibre, and the beautiful, warm, and functional garments which it can become.
Best Wovember wishes,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
I’m knitting The Shearer, although not from The Shepherd and The Shearer yarn. I’m making mine from that *other* great American yarn – Bartlettsyarn. Fisherman, to be more specific.
I love me a good, honest, hard-wearing yarn. Others can squee over merino or cashmere or whatever is the flavor of the moment. I love the heritage sheep, the hardy ones that have survived the years without AI or breedlines.
Anywho, attached pic is where I have gotten in my sweater. I’ve finished the front and back and am ready to start the sleeves. I’ve modified the pattern to knit the body in the round, and will be doing set-in sleeves.
Gail (Luckydog on Ravelry)
I feel extremely privileged to have the opportunity to work with this yarn! My interest in learning more about different breeds of sheep and the wool they produce has stemmed completely from my experiences as a Juniper Moon shareholder over the last five years. When I read about this project, I was so excited!
I think harder wearing wools often get short shrift among knitters (and even more so among less discerning wearers of wool who aren’t craftspeople). In my non-knitting life, I’m a historian, so it totally makes sense to me to create garments that will have a long life. As a knitter, I’m really enjoying working with this wool because it is so different from most of the wool I have access to: clearly connected to real sheep, farmers, shearers, and spinners. I would love to see more wool yarns like this one available to knitters! Supporting small farms and producers is also really important to me, and something which drew me to this project. I’m lucky to live in a place that has a pretty excellent wool and fiber producing culture nearby – Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
Aside from how smitten I am with the yarn (which feels amazing, smells amazing, and is knitting up gorgeously), I’m head over heels for the pattern, too. I’m knitting the hoodie pattern, The Shepherd, and it’s totally perfect for me as a garment AND as a knitting experience. I love cardigans, and I really love cables, and these cables are so special and soothing! I’ll be sad when the knitting part is over, but excited to finally be able to wear it.
My name is Sarah, I live in Victoria, BC (Canada), and I’m blogging about my Shepherd sweater over at Barf Green Is Best.
All the best, and thanks for making Wovember great!
I have cast on my own Shepherd Hoody, but have been a tad busy blogging for a little website about wool (you might have heard of it?) and thus don’t have any good photos of it yet! It is an amazing project and one which I am proud to be a part of; maybe I’ll share my own story of knitting fellow WOVEMBERIST Kate’s pattern with this special yarn next year in WOVEMBER? Thanks to Gail, Valerie and Sarah for sharing your progress so far, and READERS! Stay tuned for further adventures in WOOL for this evening, when we shall reveal some of the WAL projects that folk have been undertaking this WOVEMBER!
WOVEMBER readers are already well acquainted with Lesley Prior of Devon Fine Fibres and may remember her from previous posts, and also from the wonderful snippets we shared of life on her farm during ‘Growing Wool‘ earlier this month. This second batch of posts cropped from Lesley’s superb blog is all about the different sorts of work that Lesley does with wool.
Lesley’s Bowmont Merinos outside the Royal Academy, representing fine British Wool during Wool Week 2013, part of the Campaign for Wool
I’ve tried here to get a good cross-section across the different sorts of work that Lesley does with wool (we have already explored some of the work involved in growing it) which involves hosting students at her farm; making public appearances with her sheep; and participating in events like ‘Wool House’ designed to promote and celebrate the value and wonder of wool. There is a single question and answer after each one, so that WOVEMBER readers have the latest updates on the tuition of Sustainable Textiles in Fashion; the genius of the Solidwool chair made by Justin Floyd and spotted at Wool House; and what birds do with the fibres Lesley grows! Unless otherwise stated, all photos and content © Lesley Prior and used here with kind permission
January 30, 2013 – Textile students, help yourselves!
I’m sure I’m not the only supplier of niche, high quality British yarns and fibres who gets inundated with requests from students doing their Final Year Collections. It’s a regular annual event:
These sentences show the APPALLING ignorance of fashion students.
“Can you send me samples of your wool cloth please? On cones?”
“How much do I want? Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t a clue and there’s no one at College I could ask.”
“What type of yarn? Are there different types then?”
All absolutely genuine!!!
It’s very clear that students are not always being taught the basics of type and production of natural fibres and the yarns they make. Nor are they being taught cutting skills, apparently – all that is left to an ageing band of Technicians taught in the Old Days while the students spend time designing round their computer screens.
To my mind, designing ANYTHING without a fundamental grasp of the raw material you will make it with is a nonsense and does nobody any good. The student, who may be an amazing talent, will be working blind, not knowing what he could technically do with the material, and the supplier may be blamed for supplying yarns/fibres/cloth which don’t do the job they are being asked to do.
However just occasionally I get one who asks for specific things relevant to my range i.e. Bowmont Merino yarn, Cashmere yarn or the raw material of both. They will tell me WHY they want MY stuff and what its value will be within their collection.
These students I will bend over backwards to help, offering them what I have and often at a discount even though I cannot really afford to do so. Students are the future, and the bright, innovative ones who have thought about WHAT and WHY they want certain fibres and yarns and have done their research properly are to be encouraged at every turn. They give glimmers of hope for the future!
WOVEMBER: I sympathise with your frustrations at textile students apparently being taught very little about WOOL in fashion college; surely some of the mis-labelled and mis-described garments which WOVEMBER campaigns against arise out of a culture in which these aspects of textile production are not being explored in enough depth in education? One of the reasons we have established WOVEMBER is to guard against the widespread ignorance surrounding this amazing textile and all of the different possibilities that it offers. Particularly inspiring for WOVEMBER are situations when people write to say that they have learnt something new about wool or been inspired to try something else with this amazing textile on account of reading something we’ve assembled here… I wondered if you have any stories where textile students visiting your farm have obviously learned loads or been particularly inspired by seeing the source of textiles in the landscape, and whether you could tell us about one such occasion?
Lesley: The visit from the group of students from the University of Colorado has to stand out. They were on a European tour and specifically asked to come and see me. Huge honour and a pleasure. They were doing a specific degree entitled Sustainable Textiles in Fashion and although they knew a huge amount of theory (probably more than UK Fashion and Texitle students would know at undergrad level) they had no real understanding of the reality of wool production and how sheep fit into the landscape. Lots of questions arose from that and I think they learned a lot. A great visit and huge fun.
March 18, 2013 – Wool Triumphant
I spent Tuesday to Saturday at Somerset House in London helping to run Wool House, (on until 24th March so go along!) the major Campaign For Wool event of the year. Well, what can I say? I was absolutely blown away by the room sets, the carpets we walked on, the fashion and tailoring etc.
You might expect me to say that but it’s true. Even I, as a fully paid up member of the Wool Lovers Club was truly astonished at the versatility of wool. From solid, fibreglass-substitute chairs and acoustic noise baffling wall panels to the finest, most exquisite and complex woven cloth for suiting, it was a revelation.
On top of that we had marvellous craft exhibits – Jason Collingwood weaving incredible rugs, masterclasses in Shetland Lace and Fairisle knitting, all helped along by a team of great spinners I had organised.
Visitors came from all over the world. I had arranged to meet Australian Sheep Farmer of the Year Michael Blake there and show him my wool which I’m delighted to say he thought was great – excuse the little cock-a-doodle-do of joy! He was not the only Australian there and visitors from Uruguay, all places in Europe and the USA have signed our visitors’ book so far.
Their comments have been lovely. “Amazing, unbelievable, inspiring, thought-provoking, etc”.
WOVEMBER: I loved your infectiously celebratory report on WOOL HOUSE! In your work with ‘Growing Wool’ you obviously are breeding for quality and fineness of wool, and to continue the work established by the Macaulay Instititute. The Bowmont wool you are focussed on growing has very specific applications and puts you firmly into the world of fine woollen textile production. However there are many other types of wool with many other types of applications; what was the most surprising and/or inspiring use of wool that you have spotted in WOOL HOUSE?
Lesley: Definitely Justin Floyd’s Solidwool chair. He had approached me for help developing the project and I managed to get him a spot in Wool House to show it off – recognising that this has huge potential when it comes to using poorer quality wools that can be difficult to sell otherwise. I’m looking forward to seeing him go great places with this.
The Hembury Chair from Solidwool photo © Justin Floyd and used with kind permission
June 18, 2013 – A Working Life
I looked on my windowsill in my work area just now and thought how neatly the collection of objects there summed up the working life of this place.
Combs in the centre top – note the complete absence of cards of any kind – raw cashmere behind them from a young goat, a cone winder, my microscope – out permanently now the animals have been grazing for a while to allow me to check for worm eggs as pictured next to the scope. To the left of that are my Health Certificates for MV/CAE and Scrapie and some info leaflets about my animals. On top are skeins of my cashmere and, to the left, some of my raw Bowmont Merino left over from a sample sent off for testing. To the left is a small ball of dyed cashmere – a sample done while completing an order for someone. Further left is a 20ml syringe, used commonly when treating the goats or sheep for worms – we never use drenching guns here.
In front of all of them is a my collapsed skein winder – faithful friend during long hours of winding off interminable lengths of yarn for various orders and then, at the top left, is a little cashmere lined Long Tailed Tit’s nest – reminding me constantly that we and our animals are not the only creatures living here.
All in all, a neat summation of the life of this place and the rounded nature of the work I do. How lucky can one person be?
WOVEMBER: You mention a lovely thing in this post about your working life – a bird’s nest lined with fibres taken from your very special flock of animals! I wondered if you could tell us about when you found the nest, and what it was like to discover that the birds in the area around your farm are using the fibres you grow in their own lives?
Lesley: The nest was found under a conifer tree on our driveway. It had clearly fallen out perhaps after a windy day. Yes it was lovely to think the birds were making use of the fibres. Puts our valuation of luxury firmly in its place. Birds see these precious fibres simply as nesting material. It’s us that puts the high price on them.
WOVEMBER: I am reminded by the nest and your thoughts on it of a lovely post that you wrote featuring photos of foxes and badgers taken by your son. This post reflects beautifully on the relationship that you and your farm animals have with the indigenous wildlife on your farm; I’ll close with a lovely quote from that piece, and with the gorgeous Fox Cub photo that you sent in, because for me this perfectly summarises that ‘Working with Wool’ can be done in time and in harmony with the natural world; Thank you, Lesley.
When we see photos like these, taken in “our” woods, we are even more conscious of our true place here on the farm. We are temporary residents. Our 10 years here is as nothing to the age-old eco-system which exists, and has existed here since just after the last Ice Age when the Ancient Woodland became established. It has survived past episodes of global warming and cooling, predation by man and wolves and everything the modern age can throw at it – so far. It is up to us to ensure we pass on this precious inheritance for the generations who will follow us as stewards of this land.
Today’s Wovember Words must be one of my personal favourites so far. It’s a oral history record from the Tobar an Dualchais Archives. It was originally brought to my attention by Felicity, who had this to say about it:
This amazing song by Rosabel Blance was one of my first really magical discoveries in the Tobar an Dualchais archives… I love it for so many reasons. I love the fact that the reporter, Tom Anderson, tries to draw a sort of lengthy, poetic description from her about the song, which she answers with an amazingly practical and straightforward description… but that then there is so much poetry in the song itself, in the sound of the wheel… in the way Rosabel can perfectly mimick the sound of her own spinning wheel. You can only do a sound like that if you know it really well.
To my surprise and delight, I found the words to Rosabel Blance’s song written out in Shetland Textiles, 800BC to the Present, edited by Sarah Laurenson, who gave me permission to reproduce the words here. You might need to refer back to John J Graham’s online Shetland Dictionary to look up some of the words. You can listen to the recording on the Tobar an Dualchais website by following this link.
words and music by Rosabel Blance
Roo da boannie oo fae da haet sheep’s back;
Roo da boannie oo at we’ll spin an mak,
Da auld spinning-wheel ‘ill hae wark to dö
Fir we’ll hae foo bags ere we laeve da crö
Da dirl o da wheel gyings hurr-in hurr-in,
Da whip-tree clicks as da wheel gyings roond.
Da whirr o da flicht gyings murrin, murrin,
Da sang o da wheel is a weel-kyent soond.
Taese da Shetlan oo till it’s clear an fine,
Lyin laek a clood wi a silver shine,
Dan shak ower it oil, laek bricht draps o dew,
Ower a wib i’da hill whin da mön is foo.
Da dirl o da wheel etc.
Tak doon da cairds noo apo your lap,
An turn oot da rower wi a quick saft flap.
Da risk o da teeth, as ye caird da oo,
Keeps da time o da sang at we’re singin noo.
Da dirl o da wheel etc.
Reck oot your haand fir da spinning-wheel;
Lay on da treed noo, an lay it weel.
Da rower rins oot as da treed rins in,
Wi da fit-board clappin, as da oo ye spin.
Da dirl o da wheel etc.
Shetland spinny – image ©Elizabeth Johnston
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.
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?
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Established in November 2011, Wovember is both a celebration of wool and a campaign for clearer labelling and descriptions of garments. Team Wovember comprises Kate Davies, Felicity Ford and Tom van Deijnen.
You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wovember is about showing our collective appreciation of wool by wearing as much of this fabulous fibre as possible, and by celebrating its unique qualities in stories and pictures throughout the month of November. Through our enthusiasm and creativity we can raise awareness of what makes wool different, and jointly create a force for wool appreciation strong enough to effect changes in how garments and textiles are described and marketed.
The copyright for all the content held here on the Wovember site lies with the original content creators. Therefore every post has a separate copyright holder - always attributed in the text - and the posts which are not specifically attributed to an individual were created by one of the members of Team Wovember: Kate Davies, Felicity Ford or Tom van Deijnen. For information on reusing any content found on this site, please email email@example.com.