I’m not sure I’ve shared this here before. It’s the Sennen Cove gansey from the book Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks by Mary Wright. I started it last year on my way down to Cornwall on holiday and it’s been a loooong knit.
I’ve wanted to knit a gansey for ages but it seemed particularly timely to start it when I did because we lost my mum last year and it’s through her I get my Cornishness. My ancestors lived at Vellandreath; the men fished out of Sennen Cove for generations, and, amongst much else, including raising squads of children, the women would have earned money by knitting gansies.
Mine has been languishing at the bottom of my wip basket, awaiting its second sleeve (second sleeve syndrome, like second sock syndrome, is definitely a thing, right?), but, I realised with mild panic last week, that it isn’t long until we will are down in Sennen Cove again and I’d planned to wear my gansey on any bad weather days, to property put it through its paces. So I’ve had to get a wiggle on.
Knitting this has given me such a huge amount of respect for my ancestors. Those women were tough! Never before have I felt I might not be able to finish a piece of knitting. I don’t mean that I was bored and might give it up. But, the actual knitting was so physically demanding, I didn’t think I could do it. My poor hands have really suffered. It’s knitted on 2.25mm needles and I haven’t been able to find any that could take the weight of the garment and not wear through my finger tip, including the traditional steel needles. There have been callouses galore, blood, and a good deal of swearing. I now need to wrap a plaster around the top of my index finger on my left hand before I even think about picking up the needles, or else, I haven’t done 20 stitches before my finger tip has a painful split in it.
The knitting has also made my hands ache. I’ve never suffered from sore hands, no matter how long I’ve knit. And there have been occasional weeks, where pretty much all I’ve done is knit. But now I understand what it’s like to get sore hands when you knit. And I’m over it.
Anyhow, like I said. Respect. Heaps and heaps of it.
So, I’m about half way down the second sleeve now and I’m really motoring. There are quite a lot of ends to deal with and I doubt I’ll have time to soak and block it. It’s so dense, I’m not sure it will dry out if I were to block it the way I normally do – pinned onto a towel laid on my bedroom carpet. I’m thinking I need one of those sweater blockers you see used for Shetland knits but given I’m unlikely to ever knit another gansey, that’s quite an indulgence.
So blocking aside, with luck it will be finished before we go on holiday. I look forward to sharing pics of me modelling it in front of fishing boats, in due course!
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 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.
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.
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.
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 Sheep – A 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.
At this point every year, I start to experience feelings of sadness at the passing of a year, but excitement at the prospect of the start of a new one. This is, of course, ridiculous, as very little will change at midnight in the 31st December. Despite any resolutions I may make, I will still wake up on 1st January 2019 as fundamentally the same person I was in 2018. So will everybody else.
I realise that this might not be a popular view point and I might be on the receiving end of a few Bah Humbug! comments for saying this but, most of what we do, is done habitually, and habits take lots of time and attention to change, and so, no matter what I resolve, I’m strongly suspecting I won’t be much different in February 2019 than I was in November 2018.
It seems to me, the making (and breaking) of New Year’s resolutions has become just another opportunity to spend money. In recent days, I have been urged to join gyms, start expensive diet plans and even “get my workout wardrobe in shape”.
This last one is particularly ludicrous. I seriously question why anyone would want to buy a lot of expensive gym wear before starting a new exercise regime. Yes, I know it can be confidence boosting to have nice new things. But it’s unlikely that you are going to be half way through your exercise session and desperate to take a rest but think “No! I must not stop. My workout wardrobe is in shape…”.
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So 2018 was a very mixed year for me. My family ended 2017 to the news that my Mum, after many years fighting against an incurable cancer, was at the end of her life. Her bone marrow had failed and whilst the wonderful NHS would do all they could with blood transfusions and antibiotics to keep her going, she wasn’t going to stage a miraculous recovery. So we all knew that 2017 was going to be her last Christmas with us and, whilst we tried to keep to the same family traditions, it was all unbearably sad.
She hung on, weary and in pain, with ever increasing amounts of time in bed and in hospital, until April. It was horrible to see her, once so vibrant and such a force within our family, become so diminished. The end, when it finally came, was, mercifully, very quick.
I miss her greatly. I always will.
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It’s hard to go from that to an upbeat “Yay! I launched my yarn dyeing business” announcement but that is basically what happened. I’d been wanting to do it for a while, and I talked about my plans with Mum, but then put life on hold while she was really unwell. In a peculiar way, her passing was just the boot up the bum I needed to get on with it. Life is dismayingly short, so do more of what you love, has become my motto of sorts.
I’ve been lucky enough to have the time to learn how to naturally dye with plants. Even though I know it is really only chemistry (and, for the first time ever, I really do wish I’d paid more attention in ‘O’ level chemistry), it feels like there is something magical about dyeing wool with plant colour, using some of the same techniques our ancestors did for thousands of years (see here for my post about dyeing with woad). I love the slow mindfulness of the process; growing or foraging for plant material, extracting the dye from it, sometimes over many days, and then encouraging that colour to stick onto the wool, with just enough heat, but not too much. Some of my most beautiful colours were achieved during the heat of the summer, when I just left the dye pot out in the heat on our patio, for the whole day. Serendipity has a big part to play in the process, and I’ve learned to embrace and love it.
And this has changed me more than any resolution I have ever made. Years spent as an accountant, in thrall to a timesheet and billing, meant I used to be all about getting to the end point as quickly as possible. The end product was the most important thing. The process was just something to be got through or endured. But, being forced by nature to wait for results, has made me enjoy the process so much more. And not just with my yarn dyeing but with my knitting, baking, and even, dare I say it, chores too.
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Those of you who follow me on Instagram or Facebook may know that I’m exhibiting my wares at Unravel in February (for details, see here). As a newbie, I’m very grateful to them for affording me the opportunity to come along. Planning for this has been in full swing for ages. as it takes a long time to prepare for a big show using natural dyes, and especially when you have just one (overworked!) dye pot, so I’m hoping I can do justice to the opportunity. Please do come and say hi if you visit the show.
So, I’m starting 2019 both excited and nervous about Unravel and not really able to think about much beyond it. So, I shan’t be making any resolutions at this stage. I’ve planned a period of quiet assessment at the end of February, and that’s as far as I can go with my head as full as it currently is.
And, this is my point (and, if you are still reading, well done for hanging on in there!), you don’t need it to be 1st January to make changes. Clear a tiny bit of head space, identify the things you love, and do more of them. Do them with care. Enjoy the process of the doing.
And please don’t, even for a moment, think you need to get your workout wardrobe in shape.
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!
Eep! How can it be the second week of May and I still haven’t shown you my March and April makes? To be fair to myself, I’ve had a lot to process emotionally. I’ll tell you all about it in time, I’m just not ready to share it quite yet.
But I will share my makes. First up was my Siri Cardigan. I just adore this. Knitting the textured yoke was hard on the hands but once that was done, it was a speedy knit. I love the patten so much, I’m planning a Siri sweater for next year. The yarn was from Skein Queen but, alas, has been discontinued.
Next to be finished were some socks in my Dad’s team colours (Brentford F.C. Go Bees!) in a fun self striping merino/nylon mix from Devon Sun Yarn. My Dad’s circulation isn’t great due to a long term disability so he was delighted with hand knit socks.
Also finished in March was a hat of my own design for my brother in Ryeland wool. I knew as soon as I cast on with this yarn, that it wanted to be a hat. It’s such a naturally stretchy wool that it’s great for things that need some negative ease. I dyed the hat, after I knitted it and the one consolation to a late Spring was that my brother was able to get some wear out of his hat straight away. He has declared it very warm which is another plus for Ryeland.
I knitted the first of what has now become several Sweater Bunts for my hand dyed yarn business. They are so cute, I love knitting them. This one is in my Brazen DK base which is British Jacob Wool and would make a great full size sweater. You can visit my shop here.
My final finished item in April was my Stronachlachar sleeveless sweater by Kate Davies Designs knitted in Brune by Daughter of a Shepherd. This was the first garment I’d knitted in naturally dark coloured wool and it is lovely; properly sheepy. However, the combination of darker yarn and a pattern that required concentration right to the end meant it wasn’t a particularly easy evening knit.
In April I also cast on a Flukra hap by Gudrun Johnston. In a burst of madness that I can only blame on my overly emotional state, I decided to make the hap square instead of triangular, as in the pattern. Being a novice hap maker, this has meant lots of head scratching and frogging but I’m onto the lace now so I’m hoping it will be relatively straightforward from here on in. I’m knitting it in a Teeswater lace weight yarn. It’s the first thing I have ever knit in lace weight yarn, so on reflection my pattern choice and it’s subsequent adaption now seems even more crazy. It’s slow progress but it’s mindful process knitting (I’m averaging 2 to 3 rows each evening) rather than speedy product knitting. Although I’d be fibbing if I denied doing the mental maths to see how long I will be knitting this for. I’m guessing it will take me until at least the end of May. But the Teeswater is gorgeous with a lovely lustre so it is hardly a chore!
I also don’t have a travel project on the go at the moment so must remedy that by casting on soon. I’m thinking socks. But am in a quandary over which pattern to choose. There are just so many beautiful ones. I have a high twist beautiful Blue Faced Leicester/Nylon mix in a peach shade already balled up. Which sock pattern is your go to favourite for an easy knit?
Unravel is my local yarn festival as it’s only about 40 minutes from my house and I go almost every year, but I missed last year due to my husband’s big birthday celebrations occurring on the same weekend. So I was super excited to go this year, especially as I was going with my lovely friends, the Possiwools.
This was the first yarn festival I’d attended since I resolved to only buy yarn grown, spun and dyed in the UK, and I think, when I made this resolution, I was expecting this would be a big limiting factor on my purchasing and that I might actually reduce my stash over the course of 2018. How wrong I was.
We all met up over coffee and by 10.30am had hit the Great Hall, and the first vendor I saw was The Little Grey Sheep who are based about 20 minutes from my home, so are very local to me and consequently hit all my buying local buttons. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would want to make in their yarn until I saw their samples of the Raven sweater by Marie Wallin and was smitten. Emma really knows her colours so I was happy to let her guide me and very quickly came away with a sweater quantity of yarn in my bag. And it felt really good knowing I was supporting a small local business.
Then a good squish of yarns at John Arbon and New Forest Mohair, and a lot of admiration of Jon’s fabulous Dashounds Through The Snow Christmas Jumper at Easy Knits, and I purchased Alison Ellen’s great book, Knitting Colour, Structure and Design (expect to see entrelac in my future) and Rachel Coopey’s Socks Yeah! book because her gussets are just so gorgeous (not a sentiment you can generally express publicly without attracting strange looks, unless it’s within a group of knitters).
My next yarn purchase was from Daughter of a Shepherd. I just love her story and it was reading her blog, after listening to a Knit British podcast, about how little farmers are paid for their fleece and that it’s often not worth the transportation cost to market, so they bury it, use it as compost or burn it, that made up my mind to buy British. I’m so pleased she and her father took the decision to have their yarn spun because it is a beautiful product. I bought 400g of Brune, a double knit weight yarn with the idea of making a Bavaria shawl by Isabell Kraemer.
Next up was a squeeze of the yarn at Baa Ram Ewe in the Cellar Bar before we left the festival and took a short walk to a cafe in the town for lunch. Returning to the festival, we proceeded upstairs. In the Barley Room I discovered the Cambrian Mountain Wool CIC, who are a community interest company developing fine yarns from Welsh wool, and I was so impressed with their shearling yarn I bought a sweater quality with the idea I would dye it and make something gorgeous. Also in the Barley Room was Whistlebare whose mohair goats are just the cutest thing ever. They have a new no nylon sock yarn called Cuthbert’s Sock which I was keen to try and I managed to grab a skein in their Monk’s Journey colourway with a contrasting mini skein for toes and heels. A couple more skeins of 4ply may have also “fallen” into my bag, just because…
Into the Tindle Studio and I couldn’t miss the Garthenor stand. Even if you ignore the yarn, it’s a lovely display and it makes buying their yarn very easy. Each row corresponds to a yarn weigh from lace weight at the top through to chunky at the bottom. I bought 3 50g skeins of their 4ply yarn (although at 135 metres per 50g, it’s almost a sport weight), without a project in mind. Pattern suggestions gratefully received.
Just off the Tindle Studio is the Courtyard Kiln where I had a lovely chat with the ladies from the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop and saw the difference in loftiness between the ecru and darker natural Wensleydale yarn. I purchased a couple of balls of the dark undyed double knit, again, without a project in mind but I do have some cream undyed Wensleydale DK in my stash so this might become a monochrome fairisle project in the fullness of time.
Next up was Bigwigs Angora (oh those bunnies are soooo soft) and Hill View Farm who are on my list to buy from just as soon as some equilibrium has been restored to my bank balance (they have a peach colourway that I MUST have). Then a quick scoot through the Tannery to say hi to the guys at A Yarn Story and admire the incredible needle felt sculptures of Jenny Barnett (maybe next year I will try my hand at needle felting) before it was time to say goodbye to my wool buddies and head back to the car, bags bulging, slightly foot sore but very, very happy.