Wovember Words: sounds and lost sounds

As WOVEMBERSISTS know, I am passionate about how sounds can be used to connect us to the landscapes, people and animals that are ultimately the source of WOOL. I was therefore thrilled to discover that Cathy Lane – composer, artist and one of my PhD examiners – has also been exploring these connections. Cathy Lane produced a wonderful audio release last year exploring the landscape and sounds of the outer Hebrides*. Harris Tweed specifically comes from this special landscape and Cathy Lane’s audio release gives a special sense of place and context to that wondrous textile and the place from which it comes.

In an excellent collection of texts, images, sounds etc. released by CRiSAP in 2007, Cathy Lane wrote about some of the sounds that have historically played a key role in cultural life on the outer Hebrides. WOOL is in there in a list of sounds and lost sounds, and the writing which precedes the list gives a rich sense of its key role in the life of the islands. Cathy opens her piece with the important question, “what is a landscape but a map of human activity past and present?”

The Hebrides - map taken from archive.org creative commons flickr stream

The Hebrides – map taken from archive.org creative commons flickr stream

sounds and lost sounds

Horse drawn cart and sled
Knitting while walking along
Wool sheared/washed/dried/dyed outside near lock on open fire
Bent grass growing on the machair
Horsehair and hay made into rope
Creel made to carry peat
Peat cutting
Seabirds – Wildfowling St. Kilda, puffin rod and fulmar
Milk churns
Blackhouses – sounds inside and outside – peat fire, chickens, cows, dogs, knitting, carding and spinning – women with spinning wheel or by hand
Houses with thatched and tin roofs
Pipe smoking
Mary or Molluca bean used for snuff – sneezing
Hobnail boots
Spinning songs, waulking, weaving
Heather, rush or bent grass used on floors inside
LIghting cruisie lamp – reeds
Un-metalled roads – when were they tarmaced?
Herring gutting
Whale carcasses in St. Kilda bay
Kelp gathering on the beach
Eating raw dulse
“A good ford to you” crossing from island to island by horse and cart
Gathering cockles
Emigrating from Lochboisdale
Fishing and fish farming
Clearances and sheep

– Cathy Lane, Sounds, History, Memory In: Autumn Leaves – Sound and the Envrironment in Artistic Practice, Edited by Angus Carlyle, published by Double Entendre, in assn. w. CRiSAP, Paris, 2007.

spinning in the Hebrides - image taken from archive.org creative commons flickr stream

spinning in the Hebrides – image taken from archive.org creative commons flickr stream

*I reviewed Cathy Lane’s album in KNITSONIK 05 – Sitting by the Fire and Dreaming of the Sea.

WAL entries 2014

Thank you for the wondrous entries you have sent in for the WAL (wool-a-long). If anyone else has got special 100% WOOL projects to share with WOVEMBER, you have until our new extended deadline of WEDS DECEMBER 3RD to get them in! In the meantime, here are some of the wondrous 100% WOOL projects produced in WOVEMBER by WOVEMBERISTS! Winners will be announced by the middle of next week.

This year for Wovember 2014, I used up some Foula Wool from a Kate Davies “Tea Jenny” kit to make myself a hat. This was my first try at a corrugated ribbing, and I found that I loved doing it.

hat made from foula wool

hat made from foula wool

This tunic is made with artisan spun New Zealand wool that I found on eBay a few years ago. The pattern for this tee is my own. I can’t seem to stop knitting the feather & fans pattern. It goes well with any kind of yarn from lace to the bulkiest. The tunic took me just 4 days to knit up. I still need to wash and block it, but I’m happy with how it turned out.

tunic made from new zealand wool

tunic made from new zealand wool

– hat and tunic by Kathy Burnett

I designed this Loon hat last year using Quince and Co American wool, and am looking forward to knitting several more.

hat worked in Quince and Co American wool

hat worked in Quince and Co American wool

This the first half of a pair of mittens that I am making. The yarn in this mitten is from Icelandic sheep wool raised in Denmark. I bought the yarn directly from the farmer at a festival in Roskilde, Denmark in 2013. I also got to meet a few members of the flock! I associate this wool with my memories of an especially wonderful day, and am exciting about wearing my mittens this winter. More information is on my Ravelry Project page (http://www.ravelry.com/projects/ErinJoelle/viking-mittens).

mitten worked in Icelandic sheep wool raised in Denmark

mitten worked in Icelandic sheep wool raised in Denmark

– hat and mitten by Erin Redding

Inside Castle Fraser (Aberdeenshire, Scotland) is a little room, with a woodcarving of a standard-bearer sheep in a recess on the wall. Of French origins, the Fraser family descends from continental settlers, as part of the Norman infiltration in the 12th century. The Scottish standard-bearer sheep is strangely similar to the emblem of a large city in Normandy, France.

These cosy mittens link both sheep, as they face each other and proudly stand on the back of the hand.
Stranded throughout, with a thin knitted lining, The Woodcarving mittens are worked with Shetland wool, as a nod to the French standard-bearer sheep, symbol of the guild of drapers and woollen cloth traders.

The Woodcarving, by Aurelie Colas (pattern to be published early December 2014 – using Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift in 12 colours for the outer shell, and Jamieson’s Ultra for the lining)

mittens worked in Jamiesons shetland wool

mittens worked in Jamieson’s Shetland wool

– mittens by Aurelie Colas

I have nearly finished making a rug from a Blue Texel fleece and I shall call it Dappled Thing.

This has been a huge pleasure of headlong spinning and never mind the lumps, yarn fatter or thinner as the mood of the evening took me; crocheted to go with the flow of a skein, it holds my glory in a landscape plotted and pieced – for anyone else, it’s a bathmat.

I will be completing it tonight and blogging about the process this Friday on wooltribulations.blogspot.com

bathmat worked in handspun and crocheted wool

bathmat worked in handspun and crocheted wool

– bathmat by Frances Thomas

Hand spun Shetland wool knit in to squares to make blanket. Using natural colours of Shetland wool.
Great experience as only started spinning in February.

– blanket by Liz Fraser

Soft Fell sheep and their fleece #3 : logistics and finances

In the last week of WOVEMBER we received some amazing contributions which were just too good not to share which is why WOVEMBER will be continuing until Friday. This is therefore not the last post of WOVEMBER! Though the month has run out of days there was just too much good content for us to either turn down or attempt to cram into a handful of days. This evening for 30th WOVEMBER we welcome back Sally Antill with the third part of her series on the unique Soft Fell sheep flock that she and her partner, Michael Baxter, breed in Cumbria.

For my last post this Wovember, I thought it would be interesting to look at the logistics and finances of a commercial (meat sheep) farm making fleeces available for hand-spinning.

By shearing-time, we generally have between 240 and 280 adult sheep to clip. About 30 of these will be the hoggs, that is ewe lambs born the previous year, who will enter the breeding flock in the coming autumn and who have not yet been clipped at all.

We clip the hoggs first, usually around the end of May but sometimes earlier, depending on the weather and when their fleeces are ready.

With that size of a group, we get just one shearer, so sorting out nice fleeces as he clips isn’t such a problem.
When we move onto clipping the rest of the flock, it is two or three madly busy frenetic days and it is not practical to keep every individual fleece back for further assessment.

It’s usually about a month later that the rest of the flock is ready. When we do the rest of the flock, this is how it goes.

We’ll get two shearers, each of whom will take around 2 minutes to clip a sheep. So there are fleeces coming off the platform at a rate of one a minute.

We’ll generally do the bulk, maybe 2/3 of the flock on one day, and the other smaller lot on the second. So with around 250 sheep to clip, we probably have around 150 fleeces to handle on one day and 100 or so on the next.

The shearers are paid per sheep, and have all their customers clamouring at once to get their sheep clipped. So quite understandably, they want to get the job done as quickly as possible, get packed up and on to the next farm.
Sheep about to be clipped get ‘shedded’ off from their lambs; it’s dangerous for lambs in the clipping pens and race, so it’s better to keep them separate until their mums are clipped. We shed in the pens, so each group about to be clipped goes through the pens to be shedded, the ewes go down to the clipping area and the lambs get any attention they need – usually a worm dose.

Once the clipping holding pen is full of sheep, one sheep is chased up to the end of the clippers’ race, and held in a neck lock. Seeing another sheep’s bottom up there attracts the other sheep to trot up the ramp and along the race, from where the clippers can fetch one out through a sliding door when they are ready for their next customer.
The loader’s job is to keep that race full of sheep, so there is always one there for the clippers to fetch out. A good loader gets the sheep moving up there of their own free will, rather than having to manhandle or chase them up, so that they are calm and settled when the shearers get them. A calm sheep is much easier to clip.

On the other side of the shearers’ platform, the wrapping team await. As each shearer finishes a fleece, a wrapper needs to remove it from under his feet so he can get on with his next customer.

Without the complication of selecting fleeces for hand-spinners, the wrapper would then throw the fleece onto a clean surface, cut side down for our kind of sheep (hill sheep’s fleeces are wrapped outside-out, all others are wrapped with the cut side out), and skirt off any truly dreadful daggings. Then wrap the fleece for the Wool Board, which is starting at the back end, fold the sides in and roll – tightly, like a sleeping bag – up to the shoulders. Then make a rope of the neck wool by twisting it, and bring that around the roll, find a natural hole in the fleece and stuff the end of the neck rope in there, to make a secure, tight bundle.

The bundle is put in the ‘sheet’ (humongous sack the size of a super-king size luxury thickness bed.) When the sheet is full, it is stitched up and a new sheet is put in the frame which holds it open to catch the fleeces. We get around 30 of our fleeces in one sheet; on the moorland farm we used to get about 50 Swaledale fleeces in a sack. The wrapper will have to get into the sheet and tread the fleeces down at least twice before it’s full – rather like treading grapes!

With two shearers, it is barely possible for even a very fast wrapper to keep pace. However, with batches of 20-30, they have a breather to catch up a bit as a new batch is brought down and penned, and the race filled ready to start again.

If we have only one wrapper, our only way of selecting fleeces for hand-spinners is for the loader (usually me), the shearer or the wrapper to identify in just a few seconds as that sheep or fleece goes by that it may be a nice one. Our No. 1 shearer is getting pretty good at this now; I rarely reject one that he has picked. However, he doesn’t (yet) spot all the ones that will be nice. And his co-shearer is just beginning to develop a feel for it himself. We are grateful to have shearers who are interested in fleece, and find this whole hand-spinning malarkey interesting, and so are willing to take a bit of time to learn what we are looking for, and also a little bit of extra time and care when clipping when they know it will be a hand-spinner’s fleece.

It was in a way harder this year as actually most of the fleeces could have been candidates. And there is no way it is practical to make heaps of all of the fleeces and go through them one by one later – although that option is one that I will explore for future years.

Some sheep clearly have good fleeces, and yes, could be identified earlier in the season. However… how to mark them? Not any kind of ear tag; tagging their ears in summer just begs for the flies to bother them. And spinners don’t like marks on the fleece! Paints don’t persist on non-wooled areas like heads or legs.

Some fleeces look good on the sheep, but when you have the cut face in front of you, it’s not so nice. Or it looks and feels nice, but when you test a lock it has a weakness. Or when you draw some fibres apart – pre-drafting – they are grabby and don’t want to part.

Some sheep gave lovely fleeces last year, but this year their fleece is not so nice. And some really nice fleeces come off sheep you don’t expect. I kept two from the moorland-bred Beltex x Mules this time – I only know they are from those sheep because I made a note at the time; in a pile of fleeces I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from most of the 3rd generation home bred fleeces. Have I not noticed that they had nice fleeces in previous years? Or are their fleeces just particularly nice this year for some reason? I don’t know!

So, when a fleece is identified as a potential for hand-spinning, then the wrapper throws it on the pile to be sorted through later. If I am on the wrapping side and there is anything identifiable about the sheep, I pop a note on top of the fleece. For instance ‘moorland Beltex’, ‘Charlie1’, ‘mad ewe’, ‘DT x’ (Dutch Texel x). If I am loading, or fetching and taking sheep, then there are no notes, of course.

One thing I shall try to introduce for next year is a pile of old cotton sheets to put between each fleece. The fleeces can be so cobweb-like that it can be tricky to piece together just the next fleece to take it off the pile to have a proper look at. An alternative is to roll the fleeces, but loosely, so that each is completely separate. However, again with the fleeces being so cobwebby, there is a limit to how many times you can roll and unroll a fleece before it starts to lose cohesion.

For non-hand-spinning readers, it is probably as well to explain that the lace-curtain cobwebby type fleece is the most appealing for hand-spinning. The fact that the fibres are falling away from each other clearly indicates that fibres will ‘draft’ well, that is, they will glide readily over each other as the spinner’s fingers draw them out into yarn. It is helpful, however, if the fleece remains ‘sheep-shaped’ as you start to process it, so that the tips (dirty, weathered ends) and butts (cut, clean ends) are correctly oriented, and so that the harsher fibres will broadly be found around the rear end (where she has turned her back to the wind and rain) and the better, softer fibres around the shoulders and neck.

And now, the finances.

As is clear from the above, in order to select out potential fleeces for hand-spinners on clipping day, we need extra labour. Thereafter, a second assessment will reduce the piles as fleeces with too much paint or dirt, or fleeces with weak fibres or too much felting are removed. Those making the grade are then skirted (unspinnable fleece removed; industrial processing can clean up fleece that a hand-spinner cannot, so additional fibre is removed when the fleece is destined for hand-spinning.) From the start of this second assessment, it takes an average of 15 minutes per retained fleece to grade, select, skirt, roll, bag and label the fleeces that are suitable for hand-spinning.

Our sheep have nice fleece, and we generally get an average of around £3.50 per fleece from the Wool Board. Michael points out that it is the better fleeces I am removing for spinning, so they would fetch above that average if they went to the Wool Board.

I hasten to add that we don’t in any way resent the time and effort to make our fleeces available to hand-spinners. We, like many farmers, love to know our fleeces are nice to spin, and love to see them used and giving pleasure.

Sally Antill by Jeni Reid

Sally Antill by Jeni Reid

Team WOVEMBER would like to extend huge, warm thanks to Sally for her contributions about the Soft Fell breed. It had been fascinating to learn about the breed, it’s genesis, evolution, the care and maintenance of it and it’s wondrous wool.

Text content © Sally Antill; high resolution photos © Neil Worthington and used with kind permission.

I love it still


‘One of my first handspun projects made from merino tops and spun on a drop spindle. This is a wrap knitted in a slip stitch pattern to show off the changes in the colours. I was aiming for something which looked like Noro yarn. It took forever to make and I love it still.’ – Jeni Reid

This concludes the FLEECE IN FOCUS series from guest contributor, Jeni Reid. We love the sense of a life steeped in wool and the play and compassion which define Jeni’s photographic style. Thanks for adding these wondrous daily WOOL boosters to the WOVEMBER 2014 festivities, Jeni and please keep sending us your amazing photos of wool. They are wonderful reminders of all the different ways in which this peerless textile can play a part in daily life.

The Golden Hoof

While writing out the words of my song the other day I went on one of my sporadic quests to locate an image of an actual Berkshire Nott. I am obsessed with this sheep breed because it is the one that was locally important where I now live in Reading, Berkshire. It is now extinct and just as I state in my song, its genes are now present in the Hampshire Downs sheep breed. If anybody knows of an image of a Berkshire Nott – a paint or a print which features the Berkshire Nott – I would be most grateful to see it! In the meantime, let me share with you my discovery of a wondrous sheep-related agricultural practice entitled ‘The Golden Hoof’, discovered in a brilliant booklet by Nigel Wardell of the East Ilsley Local History Society. Also, just as an aside, we have received so much extra and worthwhile and wonderful material at the eleventh hour that WOVEMBER will continue until Friday, so the woolly wonderment is not over JUST yet and there are more WOVEMBER WORDS to come before we truly bow out for 2014.

In the 18th century, the local sheep was the Berkshire Nott, described as “useful and handsome, well adapted for folding, strong and agile, weighing up to 30 lb per quarter at 30 months. Their wool not very good but a thrifty breed, congenial with the soil”. Berkshire Notts were big sheep, tall with Roman noses, black face and legs and coarse wool. Notts were particularly good for folding on fallow land to manure the ground, but declined drastically during the early part of the 19th century (possibly because improvements in agriculture overcame the need for such a hardy breed in the area). The breed is believed to have disappeared by 1860. By 1918, the Hampshire Downs sheep was most common locally; this was a cross between Berkshire, Wiltshire and Southdown Sheep.

The practice of ‘folding’ sheep was an old one that lasted well into the 20th century. Even in the 1930s, sheep roamed across the thin downloand turf during the day, their bells identifying their whereabouts, and were brought back to the hurdle fold in the evening by the shepherd and his dog. There, the sheep fed on the clover, sainfoin, turnips, swede, rape or kale, and manured on the land that was intended for cash crops in later years (a practice known by farmers as the Golden Hoof).

– Nigel Wardell, “Far famed for sheep and wool” – a history of East Illsley’s markets and fairs”, East Ilslely Local History Society, Sigma Books, 2006. You can buy your own copy of this absolutely wonderful little publication here.

Huntley & Palmers biscuits image, featuring sheep!

Huntley & Palmers biscuits image, featuring sheep!

Whilst on the subject of Reading and its sheep, I couldn’t resist sharing this advertising card from the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory. It seems to be an advertising card for this once great Reading-based firm, announcing awards won at the Expositions Universelles Internationales de Paris in 1878 and 1900 for ‘fabricants de biscuits’. It is one of the only images I could find while searching for “Reading, sheep, 1800s” though I am pretty sure that from the description these are not Berkshire Notts!

Silkworms: a tale of provenance

I know we normally only write about WOOL on this blog and that WOOL is the key focus for WOVEMBER, so you may be forgiven for wondering what on earth a post about SILK is doing here! But bear with us, dear WOVEMBERISTS, for this is a story of provenance; of trying to understand where things come from. This is the story of how I grew silk this summer, and what I learnt on the way: it belongs here, but it is a long story so you will need tea.

When I started writing and researching for WOVEMBER several years ago, I was principally interested in the special provenance of WOOL: I wanted to differentiate this textile from all others and to show its origins in the landscape and the amazing people, animals and labour behind it. There is nothing like WOOL: it is still my favourite no. 1 textile and researching its production and history is as close as I will ever get to having a spiritual calling in my life: I believe in WOOL.

beautiful shetland ram, progenitor of wool

beautiful shetland ram, progenitor of wool

However the richness of investigating WOOL’s origins has inevitably sparked new curiosities; the deeper I get into WOOL the more I want to know about other textiles and for that matter other materials used in daily life. To that end this year I have learnt to make beer and cheese, I have grown vegetables, and I have continued in my efforts to be more conscious of the things I use, eat and wear, and the labour and skill entailed in their production. Working on WOVEMBER has made me realise that we are divorced from many of the things we use and need, but also that for me reconnecting with those things is both possible and necessary.

If you know of my work as an artist, you will know that I use sounds in ways that reflect this philosophy. I think it’s powerful to hear the wort for our beer bubbling in the garden; to listen to the sounds in the garage where our cheeses mature and to hear the sheep whose wool I am hand knitting. I use sounds to take my work on WOVEMBER forward into other aspects of life; to remake connections between people and places, objects and landscapes, to uncover the extraordinary stories of ordinary things.

So when TATE Modern commissioned me to work on a set of sounds to accompany a Richard Tuttle exhibit my first question was “what is the exhibit made of?”

It was to be a large textile installation comprised largely of silk and viscose. The bespoke fabric used in the installation was woven in India at Garden Silk Mills Ltd. Since there was not enough money in the budget to enable me to travel and explore where that fabric was made, I began to think of other ways I could draw listeners into the textiles through sound. I started creating a special soundtrack connecting the fabrics in Tuttle’s work with their origins in laboratories (viscose) and silkworms (silk). You can hear what I produced here.

All of this is a preamble to explain why I ended up with approximately one hundred and twenty silkworms living in my home this summer.

a few days old, see how many fit on a mulberry leaf

a few days old, see how many fit on a mulberry leaf

I learnt that our beloved black mulberry tree – one we planted several years ago to mark an anniversary – would provide an acceptable food source. Though they prefer white mulberry leaves (they are thinner) once silkworms are a few days old and their jaws are developed, they can handle the thicker leaves of the black mulberry tree.

This was good; the silkworms would turn the leaves of our tree into silk! I could have pants edged with silk from my own tree, via silkworms!

just a few days later the worms had almost doubled in size

just a few days after I got them the worms had almost doubled in size

Silkworms have been domesticated for over 5,000 years with a singular focus on the quality of their cocoons. They have no innate vigour or survival instinct and exist now at this point purely to supply the demands of the global silk market or – in the case of the worms I purchased online – as food for exotic pets. The moths that silkworms ultimately become cannot really fly; the worms can’t find food that is more than a few centimentres from their faces and they die in the face of being too warm, too hot, too dry, too wet or too hungry. They are the Goldilocks of fibre-producing beasts.

Freshly picked leaves must be washed and dried to avoid exposing the silkworms to germs, and plastic containers must be regularly bleached and cleaned to avoid any possibility for mould to build up. This involves lifting all the silkworms out of their container and cleaning it, then replacing the worms and topping them up with fresh leaves.

This daily maintenance took about an hour an evening at the start of the adventure.

bigger again - around one week after they first arrived with me

bigger again – around one week after they first arrived with me

I fed them several times a day and for the first week or so they munched and you could faintly hear the sound; a little bit like light rain.

bigger and bigger

bigger and bigger

By the second week or so I’d realised that one container was not going to be big enough, and that one morning and evening feed was insufficient for the voracious appetites of my wormbuddies.

I discovered that they shed their skins several times in stages called “instars”. You must not disturb a silkworm that is having its instar; it stands very still after attaching itself to the floor with a little silk pad. After many hours the skin splits and the silkworm walks out of it, bigger and better and extremely hungry, leaving its old skin on the bottom of the container like a discarded shoe. If you disturb a silkworm that is having its instar you can cause it to get stuck and a silkworm that gets stuck in a too-small skin is a dead silkworm.

I read up on factoids like this and kept an eye on my wee charges. Picking, washing and drying their leaves and cleaning out their boxes each night, I carefully swabbed around worms that were mid-instar.

As the worms grew, it started to take two hours to clean out all the boxes every night.

silk worm poo!

silk worm poo!

The more the silkworms ate, the more they pooed. The poos got bigger in proportion to the silkworms and their meals, and I felt good about returning the neat stacks of silkworm poo – “frass” – to the compost bin where it would ultimately return to the tree that had supplied the leaves. (Our mulberry tree is right next to our compost bin). All part of the circle of life, I told myself.

The circle of life.

The circle of life.

By the third week the worms were getting enormous; I was now feeding them five or six times throughout the day and even so would often find them standing amidst a pile of denuded leaf veins and stalks, their wee heads swaying from side to side, looking for more food. I began to fear for our tree. It’s eight feet tall and the same around, but it was starting to look a bit naked. I worried about killing the tree. I worried about the worms starving.

I was by now picking, washing, drying the leaves throughout the day and spending three hours each night cleaning out their boxes. I invested in a stack of A4 size plastic crates with holes drilled in the sides; it was the only way to create sufficient space for the worms in our modest size house!

the beautiful black mulberry tree

the beautiful black mulberry tree

I went online: did anyone have a mulberry tree with which I could feed my worms? Luckily a nice lady a fifteen minute drive away did indeed have a huge white mulberry tree and so driving over there several times a week became another task associated with the maintenance of my colony.

They grew. I ran around finding leaves for them.

Three to four weeks old the silkworms were the size of my little finger!

Three to four weeks old the silkworms were the size of my little finger!

Silkworms have three pairs of true legs and then these little sucker pads called claspers which help them to grip things. If you lift up a silkworm, it will hug your finger with its claspers. They have very soft skin that is cool and extremely smooth to the touch. I will admit I was proud of these wondrous creatures onto which I had lavished so much time and effort and whose ways and habits and needs I had worked so hard to understand. I admired their delicate anatomy, their wee faces, they sweet claspers and the sounds of their munching, now more like heavy rain than light rain.

optimistic toilet roll placement

optimistic toilet roll placement

They were looking large and ready enough to perhaps begin cocooning and so I optimstically arranged toilet rolls cut in half all around their boxes. Silkworms like a little close space in which to make their cocoon, and their instinct is to go up; I wanted to get it right.

And now we get to the tricky part: what would I do with the silkworms once they had cocooned? I wanted to do as industry does and to stifle (kill) the pupae and then reel off the silk. This is how most commercially produced silk is made and silkworm pupae are eaten in many silk producing countries, so nothing is wasted. Though I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to eat the pupae, I did want to harvest the silk as it is harvested in industry – as the silk used in the Richard Tuttle exhibit was undoubtedly made – and to face the realities of how the silk I wear was made.

But then my silkworms got poorly. The temperature dropped ever so slightly – perhaps not even a whole degree – and they started to leak fluid, lie on their sides, and vomit a kind of yucky yellow liquid. Any feeling I had of being grossed out (and it was admittedly gross) was quickly replaced by a desire to understand and fix these symptoms; the prospect of imminent worm death was awful, and I felt an enormous loss when remembering the wholesome worms of the previous week. I felt responsible for this suffering and did not know how to make my silkworms better.

poorly silkworms

poorly silkworms

I ended up actually crying quite a lot and reading everything I could find about how to restore health to the colony. I was sad every time I had to put worms into the compost bin. I got a sense for the difference between a worm that has truly given up the ghost and one that is still fighting to live. I did everything I could to save the healthy ones, and the poorly ones had to be separated out to try and stave off mass infection throughout the colony.

I separated the leisureplex into four storeys: well worms, well-ish worms, sick-bay and hospice. The worms were organised according to their likelihood to survive and I tended them around the clock. Evenings became a vigil; I was now spending four hours a night cleaning the boxes out and checking the silkworms over and ensuring that they had the best circumstances for recovery. Meanwhile, I was working hard on my book. It was all a bit much; the project was way more work and heartache than I’d imagined. By this stage I had recorded all the sounds I needed for the TATE Modern project, but I was committed.

four-storey silkworm leisureplex: well worms, well-ish worms, sick bay and hospice.

four-storey silkworm leisureplex: well worms, well-ish worms, sick bay and hospice.

Then I was supposed to go away for a weekend.

My plan was to drive to Milton Keynes on Friday night, drive home Saturday morning, tend worms, return to Milton Keynes, return home on the evening, tend worms etc. This scheme would have involved around twelve hours of driving over the course of one weekend and even then I was sure many worms would die from neglect. I considered cancelling my trip but then Nic – the extraordinary Art & Production manager for the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook – went above and beyond and agreed to worm-sit for me. Her and her husband Russell took in my comrades and Russell – on finding a science paper on the subject – applied the worms to lots of wonderful heat treatment. At the end of the weekend, though some worms had spiraled off this mortal coil, many had returned to the full bloom of health.

To say I was grateful is an epic understatement! The worms were well! I took them home and set them up with a heater to continue blasting them with warmth, and then watched in wonder as they began to cocoon.

silkworm making a cocoon.

silkworm making a cocoon.

The whole poorly worms incident had been so grim that I couldn’t bring myself to stifle any pupae that made it to cocooning. I said “anyone who makes it lives to the end!!!”



After about a week most of the silkworms had made cocoons though several more had died.

After about a fortnight, I met my first silkmoths.

silkmoth funtimes

silkmoth funtimes

The first one to hatch was a male who waited patiently until a female moth turned up; then he buzzed around excitedly and they spent a couple of days hanging out like this. She covered the plastic box with eggs and then a second female moth hatched and the same thing happened. Then all three moths died. None of the other sixty or so cocoons hatched; I don’t know why. I have frozen them and when I feel ready, I will reel off the silk and then ply it with some soft wool to make a 2-ply laceweight yarn with which to knit lace edgings for pants and vests.

I will have lingerie from my mulberry tree – via silkworms – and, in the meantime, the sounds of my small worm buddies have been immortalised for TATE Modern and will hopefully be heard by many people who have not yet made the connections between the churning jaws of the silkworm and luxury silk textiles.

Silk will never seem the same to me after undertaking this project; I have enjoyed joining the dots between the insects from which silk comes and the finished cloth, and it has given me a deeper appreciation for why it is expensive. It seems to me to be an amazing luxury substance entailing vast costs in animal life, human labour and mulberry leaves. The plantations of mulberry trees grown commercially for silk production must be enormous and the hours involved in tending to huge colonies must be eye-wateringly long when I think of the hours I poured into looking after my comparatively tiny colony of one hundred and twenty silkworms.

Watching the silkworm buddies grow, eat, poop, pupate gave me conflicted feelings about what it means to domesticate animals and to be responsible for them. I loved it when it was going well, but the sense of culpability when it was not was horrible.

This brings me back to the preferred subject of this blog: WOOL.

Ultimately growing silk gave me a renewed appreciation for WOOL. I felt a deep affinity with my silkworms and their tiny dependent bodies, and – through these experiences – can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be reponsible for an animal into whose eyes you can properly look – like a SHEEP. And in my sentimental decision not to stifle the cocoons, I feel I gained the very slightest insight into what it is like to save a lamb when all good farming sense says it should go for slaughter.

I know a silkworm and a sheep are miles – species – apart and I genuinely hope nobody will take offence at my attempts to draw parallels: I’m not saying that growing silk and growing wool are the same thing at all! But having animals in one’s care and of growing them for our own ends are related. The sense of work involving a lot of poo, daily feeds and complex resource management are related. Wishing to understand the provenance of textiles is related to both the keeping of the silkworms and the keeping of sheep. The silkworms were a feasible project for me to get a taste of what it means to grow my own fibre at home… it is all part of understanding what is involved.

I don’t think I would have approached my commission for TATE Modern in the way I did had it not been for WOVEMBER; writing and researching here for the last few years about where WOOL has come has fed my curiosity for the provenance of all things. I am full of awe for fibre producers everywhere; it is sobering to investigate where things come from and I think that getting my hands dirty is an inevitable and amazing part of that process.

RIP turbo silk buddies, RIP. You were awesome.





Valais Blacknose sheep


‘A close up of one of the Valais Blacknose sheep from Tommintoul. That’s my hand with the watch giving the sheep a scratch. They are an incredibly friendly breed.’ – Jeni Reid

Something Blue: My Not So Secret Yarn Crush on Bluefaced Leicester

Victoria Magnus is an independent hand dyer and knitwear designer, and the woman behind Eden Cottage Yarns. Based in Yorkshire, Victoria is inspired by nature and her surroundings, and hand dyes all her yarns in her home kitchen. Stocked worldwide, Eden Cottage Yarns specialise in high quality natural fibres, dyed to a relaxing and understated palette, to allow the beauty to shine through in your projects.

Image Copyright Eden Cottage Yarns

Image Copyright Eden Cottage Yarns

When you’re an independent hand dyer by trade, and you’re exposed to a wide range of yarn bases, from the exotic to the workhorse, choosing one of them is a little like choosing a favourite child. We all know we shouldn’t really do it, but we do. Secretly. And, unlike children, it is sort of ok to have a favourite yarn. Something that offers that perfect mix of qualities, both as a canvas for dyeing, in my case, and as a material for creating beautiful projects. So I don’t mind putting my neck on the line and saying it out loud. For me, it’s all about Bluefaced Leicester.

The Bluefaced Leicester sheep, as a breed, was developed as a result of a breeding scheme in the 1700s to develop a longwool sheep. Primarily concentrated in the North of England for a long time, there are now also many flocks in Wales and Scotland. But the Bluefaced blood goes further than that – BFL rams are have sired over half the UK’s breeding mules.

“But what about the yarn?” I hear you cry. Well, like the sheep it comes from, I consider BFL to be the perfect all rounder. Here’s why.

Image Copyright Eden Cottage Yarns

Image Copyright Eden Cottage Yarns


BFL, even by itself and without spinning it in with other fibres to create this effect, has a beautiful lustre that adds depth and interest to the final knitted fabric.

Hard wearing

BFL, by far and away, wears better than merino and stands up to quite a bit of abuse, whilst still looking as good as the day you knit it. When you spend so long creating a garment, you want it to look its best for as long as possible. BFL offers this property in abundance.

Low pilling

The BFL in my hand dyed range (BFL Sock and Bowland DK) is worsted spun by the mill, which adds to the hardwearing properties mentioned above. Crucially, this spinning method also helps to reduce the amount of pilling in garments made from these yarns. Nobody wants to spend ages removing tatty pills, we want to be out showing our knitwear off. Unlike merino, you’ll spend little time with a pill remover on this yarn.

Glowing colours

As a dyer, my heart sings at the way that colours glow when dyed onto this yarn base. The lustre of the fibres means that the yarn develops a wonderful shimmer too.

Can be superwashed

As if the other features mentioned above weren’t enough, this yarn also takes superwash treatment very well, making it easy to clean and care for. What more can we ask for?

Image Copyright Eden Cottage Yarns

Image Copyright Eden Cottage Yarns

To be honest, I could go on and on about the reasons why this yarn will remain my number one crush for some time to come, and I totally understand why it has surged in popularity in recent years. You simply cannot go wrong with the blend of qualities BFL brings to the table, no matter what type of item you’re looking to create. Garmets, accessories, socks, shawls – this yarn can do it all in spectacular style!

Thanks so much. Victoria. At WOVEMBER we love to revel in wool appreciation. Who else feels the need to go and pet all the BFL in their stash now?!

Wovember Words: Shetland Wool Pinafore Dress

Our finely honed appreciation for wool can bring such joy, especially when we can create something from fleece to finish. Sarah Howard wrote to WOVEMBER to tell us about her own favourite high wool content item.

I love spinning Shetland fleece and every year I head for the fleece sales at Woolfest to choose another one, particularly the coloured fleeces. I usually spin them in their natural colours but this time I decided to do some rainbow dyeing and just loved the results.

The lime green wool and silk warp provided a good strong colour base for the mixed colours of the fleece and was easy to set up on a 12” Ashford rigid heddle loom. It was woven with Shetland singles, spun on a Louet wheel after being very lightly carded to open up the fibres but not to overblend the colours.

A lovely breezy day was perfect for drying the fabric once it was off the loom. I made a six panel pinafore dress with godets to give a bit more flare to the hemline and side button bands for some waist shaping.
I love making clothes with my handwoven fabric- using narrow looms has never been a drawback and with careful seaming it’s possible to make your whole wardrobe.

Happy Weaving.

Thanks so much to Sarah for sharing her images and the process of creating her wondrous dress. You can read Sarah’s blog at www.creativeweaving.co.uk 

Friday night vi-EWE-ing: Bert & Ernie’s blanket

This evening’s Friday night vi-EWE-ing is a recommendation from Wovemberist Joanne Seiff which she has dubbed “wool for the younger set”. This brilliant bit of vi-EWE-ing fun is a wondrous sketch from Sesame Street in which a chorus of sheep serenade Bert about the origins and provenance of his marvelous blanket. Thanks so much for sending it in, we challenge you all not to be singing this for the rest of WOVEMBER!


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