Last week, I was talking to a very experienced knitter about different breeds of wool and I casually made a comment about the characteristics of a particular breed wool. She asked me what I meant, so I explained, but at the same time it occurred to me that I’ve done very little to record my knowledge on the different characteristics of each of the breed yarns I stock, and that this knowledge might actually be helpful to other knitters.
So I’ve resolved to do a little write up for each of the breed wools I stock. This is the first one.
Jacob sheep have a very distinctive fleece with patches or spots of dark coloured wool on a white wool background. The breed is thought to be one (or at least related to one) of the oldest breeds, probably originating in The Middle East around 4,000 years ago. There are examples of spotted sheep in ancient Egyptian art and there is also a bible story which attempts to explain how the distinctive coloured fleece came into being.
The breed first came to Britain in the 17th century as an ornamental sheep to graze in the deer parks surrounding stately homes, and consequently they don’t form part of the U.K. stratified sheep farming system (more on this to come in a future post) but with the changes to society after the First World War, many flocks disappeared and by the 1960s, there were very few Jacob sheep left in the UK. However, a small number of dedicated breeders and enthusiasts formed the Jacob Sheep Society in 1969 and saved the breed from extinction.
Their fleece makes Jacob sheep one of the most easily recognisable breeds of sheep. They always have horns, either two on top of the head, or four as worn by this formidable fellow.
They make good mother’s, who have a high lambing rate (commonly having twins) and generally easy births. They are also hardy and long lived, so they easily over winter outside and attract few disease problems. Their good health means they can rear lambs for a long time; 7 years or more is not uncommon.
As I’ve already mentioned, Jacob sheep have a variety of colours in their coat, from creamy white through to dark brown/black. The colours appear in well defined patches so it’s possible to sort the fleece into light and dark, and also to blend the yarn to give graduated shades of the natural yarn.
The individual fibres of the fleece are quite thick, with a good degree of springiness and a staple length of between 75mm to 180mm (3 inches to 7 inches) . The micron count varies from 25 to 27.5 for fine fleece to 30 -33 for regular fleece.
The thicker individual fibres mean the fleece isn’t generally suitable to be spun into lace weight yarn but it works particularly well spun into a double knit or aran weight yarn. It is these two weights which I stock in my shop.
Jacob’s wool takes the dye beautifully with the potential for a nice tone and a good depth of colour. The wool is crisp, but not scratchy, and smooth rather than fluffy. These characteristics make the yarn very versatile and it can be knitted and crocheted into a wide variety of items, from blankets, to sweaters and hats. I have a sweater in Jacob wool and find it very comfortable and warm. I don’t tend to wear my sweaters next to my skin (preferring a layer underneath) but I don’t notice any discomfort around my neck or wrists where the wool touches bare skin.
I’ve heard it said that it probably isn’t suited to baby clothes and I’d tend to agree with this. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to use my Jacob base for my children’s clothes, especially if it’s not intended to be worn next to the skin, for example sweaters etc.
Fabric produced in Jacob’s wool is hardwearing with very little piling. Additionally the garments retain their shape when hand washed and dried flat (no stretching or shrinking). These qualities mean that any garment made from Jacob’s wool will be long lasting, which is a quality I’m especially keen on as larger garments generally take a lot of knitting, so I’d like them to last, more or less, forever.
It’s extremely difficult to felt Jacob’s wool, which is a commendable feature, should your hand knits inadvertently end up in the washing machine, as mine do from time to time. However this does mean the wool wouldn’t be useful for items that require a degree of felting such as slippers or bags.
I have also found that it holds its shape well whilst being knitted, so if your needle should accidentally slip out of a few stitches, they tend to stay in place awaiting the needle again, rather than running away down the fabric. The wool also takes frogging and reknitting well. This makes it a good learners wool.
My Jacob’s wool base is called Brazen and is available in both double knit and aran weight here.
So I caught a TV program a couple of weeks ago, on BBC1 called Drowning In Plastic (see here). Everyone I know who has seen it has been shocked. I think what surprised me most is the potential for micro plastics to enter the human food chain; a report out this week shows this is already happening (see here). Government advice is currently that adults should eat at least two portions of fish each week. If that fish contains tiny particles of plastic, and plastic gives off some nasty chemicals, so that’s a problem (see here, for example, for the effect on sperm counts). As is the potential for micro plastics in our drinking water.
So I wanted to write about what I’ve been doing to minimise my own plastic consumption, and maybe inspire you to do a bit more. I’ve long been a supporter of buying my fruit, vegetables and meat from places other than supermarkets (our local butcher, farm shop and a veg box scheme do a great job here) and I have used reusable shopping bags for almost two decades, so I was almost entirely unaffected when the 5p charge was introduced in the UK, but I was glad of it, nonetheless.
What actually started me thinking about plastic again was our holiday in Sennen Cove, in Cornwall, this summer. There is a noticeboard near the beach explaining how plastic damages sea life and the children got into a conversation about it, the result of which was us doing a daily 2 minute beach clean (see here for this initiative). Sennen Cove is a beautiful beach, and, at first glance looks pristine. But our daily beach cleans showed it was full of hidden litter, most of which was plastic. This is a typical example of the litter we found on just one day. And everyday we found a similar quantity and mix.
So then I started looking around on the internet and I came across the Plastic Free July initiative. The aim of this was to look at giving up single-use plastic. The initiative suggests you start by saving all your plastic waste for a week and then look into ways to reduce that. So that’s what I did.
Milk and More
Now I thought I’d be pretty pleased with the small amounts we used but, no. By the end of the week, it was a veritable mountain of bottles and wrappers. Most of those bottles were milk bottles. I have small children and we are fond of rice pudding and custard so we get through a lot of milk in our house. And this is bourn out by the knowledge that I was seemingly continually just popping to the shops to drag home another plastic wrapped 4 pinter. I’m old enough to remember glass milk bottles delivered by a milkman – I’m guessing I was well into my teens when my mother switched to buying it in plastic bottles from the supermarket. And I was unconsciously aware that milkmen had mostly gone the way of greengrocers and butchers when supermarkets took over, i.e. out of business except in niche areas. But, given it is a 13 mile round trip to our nearest supermarket (that’s what you get from living in the sticks), whilst I was keen to give up the necessity of frequent trips, I really didn’t think I’d be able to get a delivery out here (pizza and Indian restaurant businesses, please also take note!). So I Googled “milkman near me” and to my surprise the company Milk and More delivered in my area. So now I have a milkman. His name is Ricky and he delivers, like a super stealthy ninja, early in the morning on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. I also get orange and apple juice in glass bottles from Ricky, and organic eggs, and dry goods like porridge, and also luxuries like scrummy artisan bakery meringues.
There is a cost to this. My milk definitely costs more than it does when I buy it in the supermarket. This is because milk is generally sold at a loss making price in the supermarkets because the stores recognise that the continual need for milk brings customers into the store (and have you ever noticed how far back into the store the refrigerators for milk are!?) and when they are in the store, customers pop lots of other things in their baskets and trolleys, on impulse, which is where the stores actually make all their money. And this is the thing. because I’m not constantly in the shops buying milk, I’m also not constantly in the shops buy lots of other snack foods and impulse buys. So I’m actually not spending as much money as I did and am doing a lot less driving about in the car.
There is also a much underrated feel good factor around having milk delivered by a milkman. I get a small glow of happiness when I put my empty milk bottles out on the step the night before a delivery and the children are delighted by getting the milk in from the doorstep in the morning. But its more than that. The fact is, milkmen provide a vital service to more elderly or infirm folk who can’t always get to the shops. And consequently a milkman could be the first person to spot that the previous day’s milk hasn’t be brought in and that the elderly or infirm person might be in need of help. By supporting my milkman, I’m also supporting this part of his service.
So, with milk ticked off the list, the next generator of plastic in my house was kitchen cleanser, soaps and laundry liquid. As I’ve said, I have small children and the sticky fingerprints are legion. I’ve long used Ecover products, because of the worry around liberally spraying chemicals near my children, so my next move wasn’t as big a leap as it might be for some people. I have recently read the book No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein. In that book, when talking about protesters joining indigenous peoples in an encampment near a proposed pipeline route, she mentions the use of sage as an antibacterial cleanser.
This got me thinking, and after some (more) google research I found this recipe for making your own kitchen spray. So I waited until I used up my current kitchen spray and instead of putting the spray bottle in the recycling I made my own cleaning fluid and reused the spray bottle. The cleaning fluid doesn’t have any particular odour so I fragranced it with a couple of drops of eucalyptus essential oil and it is as effective as other cleaners at cleaning my work surfaces. Just about the only thing to get over is the brown colour of the liquid. And as sage grows like a weed in my garden, at a much faster rate than I can make stuffing with, it’s totally free. And because I’m reusing the bottle, that one less piece of plastic in the system.
So I also mentioned soap above and I’d previously always bought liquid hand soap, more or less by default. Again, liquid hand soap wasn’t a thing when I was a child but my mum had switched to it when it started to become popular and I’d just followed what she did without giving it a thought. And liquid hand soap comes in plastic bottles. So after some (yet more) googling I ended up buy some books on soap making and had some fun making my own Lavender and Camomile soap. Although I was desperate to try it, it actually takes around 6 weeks to cure so I had to be patient. But I can now report, it is lovely. It’s novelty factor also means my children are suddenly keen to wash their hands, although I doubt the phenomenon will last. I will definitely be making some more for Christmas presents, maybe with some other fragrances too.
Lastly was laundry liquid. Again, I already use Ecover but the plastic bottles it comes in was an issue for me. I can get the bottle refilled at a hardware store a few miles away, but they don’t have the concentrated liquid so this would still mean lots of extra car journeys. However, the alternatives like soap nuts also came with ethical problems that I couldn’t quite square off. So I put it to the back of my mind.
But recently, I posted on my Instagram Stories about it being conker season (conker season is a BIG thing when you have 7 year olds) and one of my IG friends told me you can make your own laundry liquid from conkers. Yes, you heard me. Laundry liquid from conkers. There is a great how to in this article on Wasteland Rebel.
So in the interests of intrepid reporting (or as intrepid as its possible to be within the confines of your own kitchen), I whizzed up some conkers in my food processor (and my goodness they do make a racket!), added some water, and 24 hours later had a small supply of laundry liquid. And it works surprisingly well; at least as well as the Ecover I’d been using. I fragranced it with a few drops of lavender essential oil but it doesn’t really need it. It was particularly lovely in my woollen wash where it made everything super soft. If you also have small children and consequently, a supply of conkers in your house at the moment, I’d really recommend you try it.
Plastic free business
And lastly, I wanted to let you know what I’d been doing in my yarn dyeing business to reduce my use of plastics. I always take pride in the fact that my business is basically creating a valuable resource from something which is an undervalued by-product of the British meat industry. And now I’m dyeing it more and more with plant materials, and often waste plant materials like avocado pits and onion skins, it is pretty low on any planetary impact scale. But there is always room for improvement. So, I’ve taken the decision to stop stocking wool/nylon blends. I’d pretty much come to the conclusion that its not really necessary anyway – I only stocked it in yarn intended for socks and it’s much better to use a wool with natural properties appropriate for the job of socks than to try to make inappropriate wool fit for the task by adding nylon. There are a very few skeins left in the shop but, once they are used up, I won’t be restocking it.
I’ve also sourced paper postal bags and packaging. These took their own sweet time to arrive (maybe the manufacturer had been inundated with orders? I hope so!) and while I was waiting, I used brown paper to package up parcels. Now the paper postal bags have arrived, I’m thrilled with them. I’ve carried out some durability tests (including mailing yarn to myself and then leaving the parcel out on the doorstep in the rain) and am very pleased with how they perform.
All these things taken individually are tiny actions, but together they make a big difference to the amount of plastic our family produces. But, I’m sure there is more I can do, so, if you have any suggestions, please do share them by commenting below.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but not really daring too. It flies in the face of so much of what I see on social media. Silk is almost universally adored for its lustre and softness. It takes a dye beautifully and for that reason is much beloved of hand dyers. And was much beloved of me too for a long time. But then I learned how silk was produced and I no longer see it as desirable.
So, a quick history lesson:
According to Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi (there are multiple spellings of her name), was the first person to discover silk as wearable fibre. There are several variations of this legend, all on a theme. But they generally go like this; the Empress was drinking tea under a mulberry tree, and a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. Or she saw a silk worm spinning it’s cocoon whilst out walking in the palace gardens and thought it would be wonderful to be attired in such a fibre. You get the idea.
What is certain is that someone or a group of someones, three thousand ish years ago, discovered the fibre produced by the Bombyx mori silkworm found living on the white mulberry, and developed what is known as Sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom.
Initially, silk was worn exclusively by Chinese royalty, but silk cloth spread gradually throughout the China and then into Asia and Europe. Demand for silk in Europe eventually created the trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wool to the East.
The Chinese wished to maintain their monopoly on this lucrative industry and travellers were searched thoroughly at border crossings with anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons, silkworms or even mulberry seeds out of the country were summarily executed. However, eventually silk production did spread, first to Korea, then to India, Japan and Persia. And silk spinning and weaving became widespread throughout Europe. There is an old silk mill quite near to my home although it is currently closed (reopening August 2018).
Silk is a remarkable fibre. In spite of its delicate appearance, silk is relatively hard wearing. Its smooth surface resists dirt and odours. It is wrinkle and tear resistant, and it dries quickly. It is also a surprisingly good insulator so is great added to wool for winter garments and it can be worn as a second layer underneath to warm without being bulky. It can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp so will absorb perspiration while letting your skin breathe, which makes it great for summer garments too. It’s also the most hypoallergenic of all the natural fabrics thanks to its unique structure.
But the real oooh factor for silk is its unique sheen, which means colours radiate and assume a luminescence.
So what is my issue?
I’ll admit it. So far, this post has sounded like an advert for the silk industry. And this is as far as most people want to go when thinking about silk. But my discomfort comes from the way the silk is made. It’s time for a bit of biology. If you can remember back to your school days, and your lessons on the life cycle of the butterfly, the silk worm is very similar, in that, left to its own devices, the silkworm goes through 4 stages.
The first stage is the egg. The female silkworm will lay up to 400 eggs in clusters on mulberry leaves. The female dies after egg laying. The eggs hatch into larvae in around 11 days. This larval stage is the second stage. The larvae eat the mulberry leaves and moult 4 times, growing bigger each time they moult. After the final moult, the larva spins a protective cocoon of silk around itself and turns into a pupa. This is the third stage. Nothing appears to happen at this stage but inside the pupa, the worm is undergoing massive changes called metamorphosis, which change the silkworm larvae into the moth. The moth breaks out of the cocoon and flies off to mate and, in the females’ case, lay more eggs and so repeat the cycle.
However, silk production rudely interrupts the cycle at the third stage, when the silkworm is a pupa. If the silkworm is allowed to hatch out of the cocoon, the silk on the cocoon will be broken into short lengths rather than unwinding in a long single strand. This is not helpful when spinning silk. So, the silkworm farmers, kill the silkworm at this stage by placing the cocoons in boiling water. The heat kills the pupae and, happily for the silk spinners, makes the silk fibre easier to unravel. It is said that the silkworms can then be eaten but I have been unable to find much evidence that they actually are eaten other than out of desperation or as a ‘delicacy’ sold to tourists (although if you are a regular consumer of silkworms, I would LOVE to hear from you.)
So, silk production is terminal to silkworms. And this does not sit well with me. I’m not a vegan, or even vegetarian. But, I don’t eat meat everyday and when I do eat meat it is always high welfare and organic, if I can get it. I also use as much of the meat as I can, making stock for soup and risotto from bones and using up all leftovers. I acknowledge that animals have to die so I can eat meat. This does not make me feel warm and fuzzy inside (how could it?) but it’s something I think about, talk to my children about, and keep under constant review. But, I just cannot get comfortable with the idea that an animal had to die in order to give me a lovely lustrous garment, so I can look good. I just can’t look at silk garments and think they are gorgeous. I look at silk garments and see dead silkworms.
Ah, but what about peace silk? Peace silk (sometimes called Ahimsa silk) is produced from cocoons that are collected after the moths have emerged naturally. This all sound soothingly natural and happily non fatal to the silkworm. However, there are no certification authorities for peace silk and it’s entirely possible for conventional silk producers to label their products as peace silk. Additionally there are no welfare standards for peace silk so the silkworms are still potentially subject to mistreatment, by, for example, being forced from their cocoons too early, or forcing the female moths to lay their eggs on trays rather than on mulberry leaves, and putting males into a refrigerator, bringing them out occasionally to mate and then throwing them away when they were no longer able to mate. In my experience, where there is money to be made and no authorities to check, abuses inevitably follow.
My feelings also apply to recycled silk. This is basically the remnants of conventional silk left over from sari manufacture. It’s a nice way to make sure all the silk is used and not wasted but silkworms still died in order to produce it.
So where does this leave me? Well, here is the thing, in relation to woollen garments, I don’t even need silk. In the last few years, silk has been increasingly blended with that most common of breed wools, Merino, because, despite its supreme softness, Merino doesn’t bear much lustre or strength, and silk gives it both of these. This is how I purchased most of my silk (before I felt out of love with Merino – but that’s a post for another day) and I do own a couple of hand knit sweaters in this blend. But, lately, I found myself wondering why I even need my hand knits to be shiny? What’s that all about? In any event, you only need to look to a breed like Wensleydale for softness and lustre.
So, given I don’t need to wear silk, I’m happy to state that I’m not going to stock it in my shop. You will never see me dye pure silk or a silk blend. No more silkworms will die on my account!
So, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been trying out natural plant dyes. And it’s been really good fun. There is something amazing about watching the dye seep out of plant matter and then see it transfer onto your wool.
I’ve tried to do this before – without much success but following a chat with Rita from Hedgeknits at Flockfest, I decided to give it another go. Rita recommended I buy some litmus papers so I could test the pH of my tap water. We live in a hardish water area and have a water softener and it hadn’t occurred to me this would have an impact on my dyeing result, but, low and behold, it did.
What’s your pH?
So, for most plant based dyes, a gentle alkaline medium is best. If I’ve totally thrown you by that statement, panic not! Your water can be made acidic, neutral or alkaline, depending on what is added to it. So first up, fill a pan with water and test it with litmus paper. Litmus paper comes in little strips and you simply dip a strip in your water and it changes colour to tell you the pH. You compare the colour to the chart that comes with the papers. My litmus paper was yellow (it comes in other colours) and so, yellow is neutral, orange through to red is acidic, and green through to blue is alkaline. You are aiming for mid green.
Now it’s time to raid the larder. If your water is acidic or neutral, you’ll need to add bicarbonate of soda to make it more alkaline. If its much too alkaline, then you need to add white vinegar or citric acid, to bring it back more towards neutral. My water is only very slightly alkaline and this probably accounted for my previous natural dyeing failures, so I added some bicarbonate of soda, a spoonful at a time, testing after each spoonful, until I got a good green on the litmus paper.
Making the dye solution
Once you have a gentle alkaline ph, pop in your plant material. In my case, I used avocado pits and skins. I’d been saving these up for a while – each time we ate an avocado, I’d wash the stone and skins in cold water to get any remaining flesh off , leave them to dry, split the stone with a heavy sharp knife (keeping fingers and thumbs well out of way) and then pop it all in the freezer. Once I had the stones and skins of 6 or 7 avocados, and was ready to dye, I took the box out of the freezer to defrost. Once defrosted, I added the stones and skins to my water and gently heated it on the hob. Pretty quickly the stones began to exude the most gorgeous pink colouring. I simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes, then left it for a couple of hours to cool. Then I strained the dye solution, discarded the stone and pits and put the dye solution back in the pan.
Soaking the wool
Meanwhile I soaked my wool in some more water until it was thoroughly saturated. I also soaked some wool in some water with added bicarbonate of soda (remember my tap water isn’t very alkaline) and this did result in a slightly stronger uptake of colour.
The very great advantage with dyeing with avocados is that you don’t need to mordant your fibre before you dye. This is because are high in tannin. A mordant is just a chemical agent that helps the dye stick to the fibre.
To dye, I simply placed the wool into the pan containing the dye solution (making sure there was enough liquid to cover the wool), gently heated again to simmering point, turn off the heat and leave to cool (leave over night for a deeper colour, if you have the patience), rinse the wool and Voilà!
After my avocado success, I repeated the process with dock leaves. These produce the most wonderful bright yellows through to golden browns depending on heat, pH and whether or not I’d mordanted the wool with alum or just soaked it in water.
I’d say a willingness to experiment and allowing in some serendipity – not having a shade or tone fixed in your mind – are key to successful natural dyeing. It’s better to love what you produce rather than feel dissatisfied when your results don’t match your expectations.
There is also a beautiful subtle quality to the colour of naturally dyed yarn. Because the tone is generally more muted than those produced from acid dyeing with synthetic dye (see my blog post here about starting to acid dye) they seem to naturally co-ordinate with each other. I can see that there will be lots more natural dyeing in my future.
I think I’ll try nettles next (but I need rubber gloves and some copper sulphate first), then coffee, rose, and onion skins, and lots, lots more!
I’ve opened an etsy shop selling my hand dyed wool, and as you can probably tell, I’m a little bit thrilled about it.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but it’s a big leap from wanting to do something to summoning the courage and actually taking the plunge.
But I’ve done it.
I’ve been a big supporter of British food for a very long time, shopping small and local, at farmers’ markets, and at the farm gate, as much as I can. And I made a decision at the end of last year, to further support British farmers, by only buying British wool in 2018. I had a passing thought that this might have the added benefit of curbing the growth of my stash. I assumed there would be limited choice. I now realise just how naive I was. Buying British has opened my eyes to the enormous choice and variety in British wool. And its all just so wonderful, and I’ve been having so much fun dyeing all the different breed yarns, seeing how it responds to the dye, trying out different techniques, that I wanted to share.
I’ve started with two bases, Brazen DK which is 100% Jacob, and Audacious DK which is 100% Wensleydale. Both grown and spun in the UK and all hand dyed in my kitchen in rural West Berkshire. In addition to the 100g skeins, I’ve also dyed some 20g mini skeins in these two bases. These are just about the cutest thing ever. I adore them.
I’ll be introducing new bases and weights over the next few weeks; the ever popular Blue Faced Leicester, and after that, I have plans for Dorset Horn, British Falkland Island’s Merino, then Cheviot, Corriedale and ….. the list goes on and on. I think we are going to have a lot of fun exploring all the different breeds.
So pop over to the shop and have a browse, and let me know what you think. Are there any colours you’d especially like to see? Or any breeds you like me to stock? Please do let me know.