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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like a lot of people, I knitted when I was a child, and, maybe slightly more unusually, I continued well into my twenties, but, the closure of our local yarn store when the proprietress retired and with the cost of good quality yarn being beyond my, then, meagre resources (and I really couldn’t be persuaded to make any more garments from acrylic), I gradually stopped knitting. That’s not to say I stopped crafting. But I did stop knitting. Or at least knitting regularly.
Then after ages and ages, two things happened. The first was that I had my children. For the benefit of those readers who haven’t had a peek at my “about me” page, I have 5 year old twins, a boy and a girl, and I was (and remain) astonished at how exhausting parenting is. For a period of about 6 months, in order to cope with my 4am starts, I would fall asleep on the couch by eight o’clock each evening. And so, it was in an effort to stay awake (and remember who my husband was) that I came to the conclusion if I was doing something with my hands, it would be harder for me to nod off in the evenings. So I bought some yarn and patterns, and picked up some needles and started knitting. I made a cardi for my daughter and a couple of sleeveless pullovers for my little boy and was generally pretty pleased with them.
Then, three months later, I realised these garments were getting a bit snug, then about a month after that, they were definitely too small. At this point, it dawned on me that babies grow really fast. So, if I was going to knit their clothes, I was going to have to knit a size up so they would get a decent amount of wear from them. But it takes longer to knit a bigger garment so it was a couple more months before I finished the next cardi for my daughter. By this point, she had learnt the word NO! and refused to wear any form of knitted garment. I persevered for a while but attempting to put her little arm into any knitwear lead to tears and tantrums. Then summer arrived, and I surrendered the battle and the needles (but not the war -although that is a subject worthy of a post all on its own),
Then the second thing happened; my very good school friend Gail taught herself to crochet. I loved the things she was making and, I was missing yarn, so she set me up with a crochet hook and got me started on granny squares. For the whole of that Autumn and Winter, I made blankets. I made them with such a fervour, my husband started to fear for my sanity. We soon had more blankets than beds but I couldn’t stop. I started blanket after blanket. Bought yarn pack after yarn pack. Joined Facebook group after Facebook group. And then I discovered hand dyed yarn.
And here is the thing. Until that point in my life I’d never heard of sock weight yarn. Obviously I’d heard it called by its other name -4ply – but not sock weight. And then I had a conversation in my head that went something like “this is called sock weight. Does that mean you can knit socks with it? Wait, socks are knitted? I could knit socks!”
And so I did. A mini obsession was born. I made lots and lots of socks and was supremely happy with every pair. But that was a while ago now and it’s funny how these mini obsessions go in cycles. The sock phase was superseded by a shawl phase (as these are also often knitted with sock weight yarn) which, in turn, was superseded by my recent, and still continuing, hat phase.
I mention this now because, yesterday, I noticed that my most favourite watermelon socks (pictured above), made from fabulous hand dyed yarn from Abi Grasso, have a hole in the sole. Whilst I’ve done some other forms of mending, I have never darned anything and will admit to feel a bit daunted by the prospect. So, if you need me, I’ll be watching sock darning videos over on YouTube and wondering whether to invest in a darning mushroom.
I ended my last post with the words “even I can manage an egg”. And really, how challenging can it be to produce a faceless vaguely oval shaped crochet object? As it turns out, for me, quite challenging.
The first challenge to overcome was pattern selection. This necessitated a good deal of time scouring Ravelry (for my non knitting crocheting readers, it’s a website containing hundreds of thousands of patterns for everything you’d ever want to knit or hook). The trouble with Ravelry is that it’s very easy to get distracted. You start with the best of intentions, type in the word “egg” and press the search button and before you realise what has happened, an hour has passed, you are perusing shawl patterns and are nowhere near having an egg pattern selected. So, I buckled down and eventually picked a pattern.
Pattern selected, the next decision was yarn. Clearly, I don’t want to buy any more yarn just to crochet a couple of Easter eggs (although as excuses go, I’ve used some which have been much more feeble than this) so I looked in my stash. Some time later, I realised I’d been horribly distracted again, by squeezing and squishing all my beautiful colourful hand dyed yarn, and so eventually settled on 2 shades of Stylecraft Special DK, an acrylic which I don’t especially love but I have loads left over from a previous Attic 24 blanket obsession, and a hand-dyed yellow from Cuddlebums, which I’d been saving for some daffodil brooches but thought I could probably spare an egg’s worth.
So, on to the pattern. It assured me an egg would take about an hour to make, and it is true to say, the second and third ones were much quicker than that. The first one however took me the better part of an evening. It turns out that one of the reasons I’m not very good at amigurumi is that I can’t count. At least, not reliably, when there is good TV to watch.
And counting, it turns out is the key to producing an object that looks at least a little bit like the pattern. About the first 10 attempts were frogged (translation for the benefit of non crafting folk: to unravel your work, or “rip it, rip it” back) or simply abandoned, when I decided that reusing yarn that had been previously crocheted wasn’t helping my cause.
Eventually, and after a good deal of sighing, I did manage three egg shaped objects and I do have to say, I think they look really sweet. Now I’ve mastered (ahem!) the pattern, I may make some more but I think the Easter bunnies will need to wait until next year. However, I am now thinking surely all eggs need a nest? So, I’m off to have a scroll through Ravelry….