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Dyeing with onion skins

It’s March Meet The Maker over on Instagram and today’s prompt is How It’s Made. I’m making a gorgeous crochet sweater with some Bluefaced Leicester wool which I’ve dyed with onion skins, so I thought I’d explain how to dye your own wool with onion skins.

The first step is to collect your onion skins. I use the onions with the golden skins rather than the ones with the red or white skins. It’s difficult to say how many you will need but I generally find, when it comes to plant material for dyeing, more is more!

When you have an ample amount of onion skins, pop them in some cold water and slowly heat. Don’t be tempted to give it lots of heat to try to speed up the process. You’ll end up with brown. I test how hot the water is getting by holding my hand against the side of the pan. If it’s too hot to do that, you need to turn off the heat. After gently heating for an hour or two, I turn off the heat, wrap the pan in towels to keep in the heat and leave it for 24 hours.

The next day, I assess the colour I’ve extracted. If I think there is more colour in the skins I repeat the slow heating process and leave the dye pan for another day. Once I think the colour is ready, I pour the mixture through a nylon sieve to remove the soggy onion skins. Leave the skins to drain over the dye pan for a few minutes to catch every last precious drop of colour.

In the meantime, soak your wool in some water for at least a couple of hours. I have slightly acidic water so add a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda to the water to make it slightly alkaline. I also add the bicarbonate of soda to the dye water.

Then I mordant the yarn. This is a step you could skip at home as onion skins produce tanin which acts as a natural mordant. However, as I’m dyeing to sell, rather than my own use, and I want to make sure the colour really lasts, I use alum at around 7-8%. This means 7-8 grams of mordant to 100g of yarn.

Once your yarn is thoroughly wetted, add it to the dye mixture in the dye pan and gently heat again and leave to absorb for 24 hours. If you are using a non super wash yarn, be very careful about moving the yarn about in the warm water as it might felt. You can be more confident once the water has cooled again. You might need to repeat this process a few times to get a good colour. Bear in mind a goodly amount of the colour might run out when you rinse.

Once you are happy with the colour on the yarn, rinse in cool water and leave to dry out of direct sunlight. Then enjoy your natural colour!

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Workspace

Today’s prompt for March Meet The Maker is Workspace Tidy/Mess. I don’t currently have a dedicated workspace but I have plans!

Our house is old. It’s adjacent to the mill race in the heart of the old village on the river Pang in Bradfield, Berkshire. There were three mills mentioned in Bradfield in the Doomsday book in 1086, so there has been continuous habitation on the site for at least a millennium, but probably much longer.

The house has a timber frame (so lots of beams especially the further up the house you go) and it now has a brick skin. It has big Georgian sash windows at the front (facing east. Brrrr!) but you can see from the brickwork that these aren’t the original windows. We don’t know much about the house before it was the miller’s residence in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the start of the 20th Century, the house was a bakery and beer shop. It was around this time that our two stall stable, cart house and tack room were built. By 1955 the house was the general village store and a cafe. The shop closed in 1984 and the house became a private residence. We’ve lived here since 2009

We did a lot of work to the house when we first moved here. Think rising damp to head height and nests of slugs, woodlice and rats and you won’t be too far from reality. Thankfully, that’s all long gone. The house is listed but most of the original features had been swept away in a sea of concrete subfloors and modern plaster. All that had to go.  In came a new limecrete subfloor with underfloor heating and more lime was used to replaster the walls (together with miles and miles of split chestnut lathes).

We now have clay paint on the walls and a mix of oak boards and flagstones on the floors. As the house is old, it has mostly small cosy rooms. The kitchen and dining room is the one exception to this. A small oak frame and glass extension added when renovating gives us a lovely view of the garden from the dining table and great entertaining space.

So far as my workspace goes, last summer I was out in the stables. The window faces southwest so has gorgeous afternoon light. However, the roof sprung a leak this winter and we are currently waiting on listed building consent to sort that out, so I’ve moved into the house. My dye pots are in the utility room, the wool is dried in the cupboard which houses the hot water tank and the underfloor heating manifold, undyed wool is in plastic crates in the study, dyed wool is in plastic crates in the dining room. So, yes, it’s kind of taking over the house. Fortunately, I have a very tolerant husband.

Most of my “dry” work is done at the dining room table. This is where I pack my orders, wind my wool and generally do my admin. This table is also the centre of our family’s life; it is where we eat, where the children do their homework, colouring, make models, Christmas and birthday cards and roll out play dough. So, there is a lot of tidying up between activities, which, when I’m trying to work, is less than ideal. Also it makes working quite chaotic during the school holidays when we are all wanting to use the table at the same time.

So plans are afoot! One of our cosy rooms is a  “study” which currently houses my husband’s computer, the piano and myriad of other stuff that doesn’t seem to have a home anywhere else in the house. My husband has a huge antique desk with a beautiful tooled leather top, but we’ve both come to the conclusion that it is far too big for the little room. So, in the next day or two it will go up for sale. We are planning a long slim table along the full length of the wall opposite the window which will provide a place for me to pack orders, and will house my wool winder and swift, as well as my sewing machine and overlocker.

However, these grand plans involve us moving the piano. As you may be aware, moving a piano is not a casual undertaking. I’ll keep you posted as to how that goes.

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Sheep Farming: the Stratified system

In my last blog post, I promised you some detail on the stratified (layered) system employed by sheep farmers in Britain. The vast majority of wool grown in Britain grows as a by-product (or, too often, sadly, as a waste product) of the meat industry. So this post is less about wool production and more about meat production, but it’s useful as a basis for understanding why we have so many different sheep breeds in Britain. The stratified system is vital for keeping British farming productive and efficient, as it enables all the nation’s land to be used in meat (and consequently, wool) production.

It is a system more or less unique to Britain and derives from our small geographic size, varied climate and the terrain, broadly broken down into three levels; hill, uplands and lowlands.

Hill

Hill areas have harsh climates, short growing seasons, relatively poor quality of soil and long winters. Think of areas such as the highlands and islands of Scotland, and the mountain areas of Wales.

The sheep who live on the hills are incredibly hardy and thick-coated. They are excellent mothers (often lambing outside without assistance, attentive and devoted to their lambs, rich in milk etc), and are generally well adapted to living in the harsh hill conditions.

Examples of these breeds include Swaledale, Scottish Blackface, Cheviots, Rough Fell, Dalesbred, Derbyshire Gritstone, and Herdwick.

On the hills, these sheep are pure breeding stock. That is to say, Swaledale ewes are only bred with Swaledale tups, producing 100% Swaledale lambs. Female lambs who are not being kept for breeding and wether (castrated male) lambs live on the hills until the grass stops growing in autumn and are then sold on to upland and lowland farms to be fattened up for meat.

The ewes kept on the hills for breeding usually lamb for the first time when they are 2 years old. They will usually have a single lamb each year for the next 3 to 4 years. At this point, if they are kept on the hills, their reproductive ability generally declines. However, if they are moved to better land, off the hills, where the climate is less harsh and the grazing is a bit more nutritious, such as the upland areas, they will often grow bigger and have plenty of breeding life left. The improved nutrition enables them to produce twins and sometimes triplets, rather than the singleton lambs they produced on the hills.

Uplands

So, as I said, conditions on the uplands are less harsh than on the hills. However, while the land and soil do produce more nutritious grass than on the hills, it is still not hugely productive. The uplands include areas of Northern England, such as The Pennines and Lake District, and also in the South West, on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

Our pure bred hill ewes will be bred with a Longwool tup, such as Bluefaced Leicester, Border Leicester, Teeswater, Wensleydale, and Devon & Cornwall Longwool. For each breed of Hill sheep there is a preferred Longwool crossing tup. For example, Swaledale ewes are generally crossed with a Bluefaced Leicester tup. Their resultant off spring are known as Mules or half breeds.

These Mules inherit hardiness, milking and mothering abilities from their mothers and fecundity (the ability to produce an abundance of lambs), larger size and conformity (shape of the carcass), and lustrous wool from their fathers.

It is interesting to note that lambs with Longwool mothers and Hill sires do not make good Mules, often possessing neither good maternal attributes nor good size or conformity.

Once they are weaned, ewe Mule lambs are transferred to lowland farms for breeding and male Mule lambs are reared for meat production, either in the uplands or on a lowland farm.

Lowlands

The lowlands are, not surprisingly, the low lying areas of Wales and England, mostly in central and eastern England where soil is far more productive than on the hills of the uplands, and therefore mostly turned over to arable (crop) farming. Sheep are part of arable field rotations, where fields that have grown crops for a number of years are sown with grass to help improve the soil, aided by sheep poop. This is the landscape I live in.

Our Mule ewes will be bred with what is known as a lowland terminal sire breed. Terminal because this is the last breeding in the stratified system. Lowland terminal sire breeds include Texel, Suffolk. Charollais, Clun Forest, Romney, and Oxford, Hampshire and Dorset Down.

Mule ewes generally reliably produce two lambs each year, but triplets are common and quads are not unusual. These lambs grow fast on their mother’s rich milk and, once they are weaned, the easier terrain and conditions, better grass growth and their larger frame inherited from the terminal sire, mean that these lambs grow faster and produce more meat in less time.

Fattened up

I’ve mentioned the fattening up of the lambs a few times in this post so I thought it was worth quickly explaining what this term means. The word fat here doesn’t refer to fat but actually means the point at which the muscle on the animal is fully formed. It is the muscle which is valuable in the meat industry.

A sheep carrying fat in addition to its muscle isn’t a good thing for a farmer because, generally, they’ll be less successful in breeding.

I hope this has provided an insight into why we have such a large number of sheep breeds in Britain. In writing this blog post I’ve relied on information from the National Sheep Association and from the excellent book Counting SheepA Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain by Philip Walling. I will be taking a more detailed look at some of the breeds mentioned in this post in future blog posts so, do follow the blog so you don’t miss them.

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‘I can’t wear wool, I can only wear merino”

“I can’t wear wool, I can only wear merino”

You’d be surprised how often I hear this sort of statement. I always really, really want to ask the person making the statement what manner of material they think merino is. But I am usually too polite to do this and just say something like “Oh that’s a shame”.

I do understand. I really do. I totally get it that if you live in a centrally heated house, and are going to wear your sweater, like the magazine and pattern models do, next to your bare torso, you’ll need it to be knitted with something that doesn’t constantly prickle you. I get that. I was a child in the 1970s so I know the torment of 100% wool polo neck sweaters from those days.

But the reason why I think “oh that’s a shame” when someone tells me they can only wear merino, is that I believe they are missing out. We have such a rich heritage of wool in Britain, bourn out of a temperate climate and varied landscape (72 different breeds of sheep!), that it’s a pity they can only wear a product almost entirely imported from the Southern Hemisphere.

Whilst there are a very small number of Merino sheep in the UK, the odds are, any merino you currently have in your wardrobe, comes from Australia (circa 80% of global production comes from this country), South Africa (c10%), South America (c7% of which the majority is from Argentina) and New Zealand (c3%). British merino doesn’t even feature in global merino production statistics. In short, British Merino is a very rare thing indeed.

So, what of our rich wool producing heritage? Why does it matter that we have a temperate climate and varied landscape? Simply put, sheep breeds are specially adapted to survive in the varied climatic conditions found throughout the UK; the hardy hill sheep is a very different animal to the pampered lowland sheep. I’m intending to write a blog post explaining the stratified system of sheep farming and how efficient it is in terms of land management and when I do you’ll find it here. Those climate and landscape adaptations are reflected in the wool the animal produces, with some wools being much warmer than others; Ryeland, for example, is particularly toasty. Some wool, like Dorset Horn, has springiness so is good for hats and socks where a degree of natural elasticity is a boon. Some, like Blue Faced Leicester and Wensleydale have a beautiful lustrous, almost silk like, quality to their wool and drape beautifully. Some, like Shetland, have a natural toothiness (where the fibres cling together), which makes it excellent for colour work. Some, like Jacob, are incredibly hard wearing, without being rough, meaning you’ll get years of use from any garment knitted in such a fibre. Jacob is excellent for things that are not going to be treated kindly, like Dad and Brother hats (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m referring to my relatives here. Your male relative may well be much more concerned for their apparel than mine).

Wool craft, at its most elemental, is about taking a natural resource, and turning it into a useful garment. Choosing a wool with appropriate qualities for the garment in question is as essential an element to its success as picking the correct weight of yarn and achieving the correct tension, but this aspect is so often overlooked. If, for example, you choose Merino for your socks, without the addition of nylon, you are going to find them fairly short lived. But Blue Faced Leicester is still smooth enough to be worn by most people against the skin and when it is spun with a high twist, it will cope with wear very well, without needing nylon. And for tougher socks, like walking boot socks, or welly boot socks, why not consider a Dorset Horn or Jacob.

Once you understand this, the idea that you would only ever consider using one type of wool for all garments seems nonsensical.

* * *

So, if you’ve only ever knitted with merino, but want to explore further and enhance your knitting experience, what do you do?

My advice is always to first try Blue Faced Leicester. This is the softest of our British breed wools and isn’t a huge challenge if you’re used to Merino. If you are ok with that, then next, maybe try a Cheviot, or a Ryeland wool.

When you are at a wool show, don’t be overly guided by how the wool feels in the skein. How the wool feels when it’s in the skein is almost irrelevant (unless your thing is just to adorn yourself with the skeins, and then who am I to judge?). The important thing is how it feels when it’s been worked, so ask to feel a sample of the knitted or crocheted fabric. Hold the sample against your skin to warm it up. Even if there is an initial sensation, it usually passes after a minute or two once the fibre has warmed. And believe me, yarn dyers would much rather you rubbed your make up all over the sample than all over a skein, if you are wanting to test irritability!

Don’t get too fixated on knitting a garment with a new to you breed or dyer. Maybe just buy a single skein and knit a swatch. Then wash, block and wear the swatch (under your bra strap or in the waist band of your skirt, on your hip, or under your jumper on your wrist), then wash block and wear again. It’s only after repeated washing and wearing that you’ll know how your skin reacts to the wool. Louise Scollay at Knit British has an excellent regular Wool Exploration section on her podcast and this is an abbreviated version of the method she suggests. Check out the Wool Exploration episode from 30th December 2018 for a detailed explanation.

Once you know how the wool works for you and how it feels texture wise after washing and wearing, you’ll know what sort of garment it is suited to, and can then invest in a suitable pattern and quantity of yarn.

Finally, you might also like to check out The Woolist for more information of all the different breed woods. Zoe’s story really is rather wonderful and her online database of sheep and fleece is an amazing resource. You also really need one of her sheep breed tea towels in your kitchen.

And with that, I’m off to do some swatching!

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Unravel 2019

A week from today, I will be showing my yarn, for the first time, at Unravel, at The Maltings in Farnham.

I can’t tell you how excited I am. For the last few months, I have been naturally dyeing up a storm in my cottage kitchen, trying new to me colours, new to me techniques, endlessly experimenting and learning. I have just one indigo vat to go and I’m ready.

I have also designed three hats to compliment the special qualities of my Saucy Dorset Horn DK yarn (300m/100g) and these patterns will be launched at the show. All three patterns are inspired by my west Cornish ancestry and our family visits to Sennen Cove, a small fishing village about a mile up the coast from Land’s End.

The first of the hats is Gommon, which takes name and its inspiration from the seaweed, thrown up onto the sandy beach, by the wild seas of winter. My children just love the curious, other worldly, shapes of the seaweed. The stitch used in the hat is a super stretchy mix of knit and purl, and an initially nerve wracking, but quickly satisfying, yarn over and drop stitch repeating pattern, ideally suited to the grippy quality of Dorset Horn wool.

The second of the hats is named Hasen (the Cornish word for seed) and is named for the myriad dried seed heads found, in late summer, in the sand dunes above the beach by the tiny hamlet of Vellandreath, about a mile along the sandy bay from Sennen Cove. My ancestors and wider family, lived in three of the seven small cottages at Vellandreath for generations. My mother, when she was alive, told me vivid stories of visiting her great grandparents there, so it’s a very special place for me. It’s wonderful to linger in the dunes, toes in the soft sand, looking for snail shells and listening to the sounds of busy insects and the gentle breeze rustling the dried seed heads. Hasen is a super stretchy rib hat, with an easily memorised twist, and a pretty bobble brim.

Finally, on the cliff path from Sennen Cove to Land’s End, where the land meets the sea, magnificent cliffs of granite endure against the wind and salt spray of the pounding Atlantic waves. These cliffs, and the submerged rocks nearby, have claimed many ships, and are the inspiration for Kleger, the last hat in this short series, which combines simple knit and purl stitches to create a super stretchy, cosy hug of a hat.

If you are visiting the show, I’d be thrilled if you came to say hello. I will be upstairs, in the Barley room. I look forward to meeting you.