We are the Ovaltinies

I’m feeling very smug. I’ve just finished my latest knit and I love it.

IMG_20170728_111309

The pullover is based on a Patricia Roberts pattern, Ovaltinie (Patricia Roberts Second Knitting Book p.72).

IMG_0103_small2

I had been gifted a beautiful set of gradient mini batts in the colours of a Blue Tit by the lovely Mrs Biker(team mate in Spinzilla). These had been sat in the work shop waiting for that special moment of inspiration. I tend to act on impulse and am quite happy to wait for said moments of inspiration no matter how long. I have materials stashed that I have had for my entire adult life, and I am sure that I am not alone in this habit. I have learnt that forcing things creatively doesn’t often lead to good results. I digress. In one of those moments I was rifling through my book stash and remembered this pattern. I wasn’t enamoured of the colours used, totally 80’s clashtastic, but appreciated the design. I wanted to see how the fair isle design would work with more subtle colours. Keeping in with the Blue Tit theme I paired the colour work with a soft grey to act as the base.

I began the project on April 9th and finished it today.  80 days.  I could have gone around the world in that time.

I kept a visual diary of the process and thought you might appreciate it if I shared.

IMG_20170410_144122663
April 9th fibre preparation

The batts were merino (hateful stuff but I worked through my ) and the grey was provided by the delightful Arabella who is a rare lady indeed, a beautiful black Romney.  For speediness the fibre was spun long draw from carded batts.  The original yarn is long gone, and I guessed the tension gauge of the yarn to be an old fashioned 3-ply or heavy lace weight.  I think a good modern substitute would be Jamiesons & Smith Shetland Heritage. I rushed it, so it’s came out a bit thick and thin but meh! Who cares it usually averages out ok in the end.

IMG_20170425_173834
April 24th spinning complete

I was also bit nervous that I would have enough of each of the colours as some of the skeins had more metrage than others. We will revisit this thought a bit later…

The pattern called for 1 main colour and 8 colours for the stranded colour work. I only had six plus the main. And this is what really slowed me up.  Whilst I wanted a subtle pattern I wanted the pattern to be visible.

I first worked out a rough colour arrangement for each of the separate design bands. Once I was happy with them I checked out that the colour values would also work. I was a bit suspicious that the values were a bit samey and the pattern would be a lost.

Here is probably the best tip I can every give for colour work: I always find it really useful to render the original design image and my chosen coloured yarns into black and white/greyscale. Working with colour value, rather than colours themselves, may seem a bit abstract. But trust me, it really helps. Particularly if you are using subtle colour shifts.

IMG_20170425_173616
original image in greyscale

This was a tip I had read about in Deb Menzes book Color in Spinning. There is also a wealth of resources out there. I recommend this excellent blog post by Jared Flood.

As you can see, I didn’t have a large range of colour values to work with.  This was particularly noticeable with the blues and the dark green (top left). I did wonder about including black but chucked it out of the mix as it was too jarring.  So, with fewer colours, little contrast and low range in colour value, I knew that this was going to be a complex challenge.

Even with the planning, some of my initial choices did not work out. There was lot of frogging and swearing. I reckon I knit a garment at least three times over by the time it’s done.

I also modified the pattern.  I like a nice deep rib.  I don’t like a deep armhole. And I wanted higher V neck – did not want boiling spuds if I wasn’t wearing a top underneath. And I only wanted one work through of the chart.  Fortunately, the row tension of my hand spun was bang on so I did not have to mess around with the chart repeats.

I calculated that if I doubled the rib length and increased the main grey colour banding to 4 rows then the single chart repeat would fit. It didn’t. I was about 5 cms too short at the shoulders. To overcome this, I repeated the first four rows of the chart and accepted that there would be a bit of a deep band of grey at the shoulders. It gave a nice symmetry to the pattern and closed it well.

What else? The original was knitted in two pieces flat. I wanted to knit the main body in the round. Knitting stranded colour work in the round is so much easier when following charts. My brain has difficulty ‘seeing’ the pattern on the purl rows. I didn’t use steeks but maybe next time I might, not sure if this would save any time.

Also, remember at the start, I was a bit nervous that I didn’t have enough of a couple of the colours…Top tip:  listen to your inner voice. Yup. I ran out of two of the colours…

Why do I always do this!

Luckily, two things. First I got the fronts finished and ran out on the back shoulder. Who cares about that – I can’t see it! Second, I had just bought in a lucky dip bag of mixed tops from Wingham Woolworks for a workshop I was running and it had a few colours that I could blend to get a sort of match as I only needed a teeny tiny bit. Result! Don’t you love it when the universe shines its happy face your way?

It took an age to knit. 80 days.  I had forgotten how much you have to concentrate when knitting stranded colour work. Let your attention slip and its abstract pattern time where everything goes on the huh. Frogging and swearing. So, I haven’t got a clue what was on TV for the past 80 days. Which is cool as it means I have the perfect excuse to re-watch American Gods and season 2 of Preacher all over again.

I am having a break from stranded colour work for a while. Give me something simple.

Suggestions welcome.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Me and The Norfolk Horn sheep

IMG_20170325_115955
Norfolk Horn Ewe. One of Olivers in Elsing, Norfolk (Image: J. Monahan)

Look at her, isn’t she magnificent.

She is a Norfolk Horn. Medium sized, hardy breed  with a distinctive black face. Long in the body and limb with alert, bright, inquisitive eyes. And those magnificent strong open spiral horns sweeping backwards found on both ewes and rams.

I have been developing something of an obsession with the Norfolk Horn.

Me and the Norfolk Horn have history. It was the first fleece I worked from start to finish. From scratch. It took a year. It was not a good year. It was the year I hit a wall and something inside me shattered and broke. I’m not going to dwell on why it happened, that is another story, but I guess some explanation is required. It occurred after a protracted period that began with the death of a parent after a period to watching them dissolve over Skype from Motor Neurons Disease, we emigrated to New Zealand, then came back again, picking up the old life as best we could, renovating a house whilst burying myself in work (over the subsequent three years I wrote my PhD thesis in 18 months, co-authored a book, started working as a lecturer as well as taking on three research contracts). I was sleeping 3- 4 hours a night. And then the crying started. My brain felt like it had literally broken. Snapped. I could barely string a sentence together. I could not work anymore. I was just functioning. Everything went monochrome and tasted like cardboard.

Working the small, dense, very greasy, crimpy fleece saved me. Is that too dramatic? Scouring it, carefully combing it and dizzing it into rovings. At this time I only had two dog combs and a vice with a button for a diz. Spinning it. Dyeing it. Designing a pattern and knitting it up. I think that through this slow, slow, oh so very slow process I was mending myself. I’m alright now, different, but doing ok.  This year I have rediscovered sleep.  Its wonderful.

Anyway…

Suffice to say, I have a deep personal affection for these mad looking wee beasties. The more I find out about them the more questions I seem to have. Their story is an extraordinary one that I can only summarise for you here.

Rare, now found mostly in or around East Anglia, the Norfolk’s story is one of abundance, decline to near extinction and, tenuously, back from the brink.

It is thought to be one of the oldest breeds in Britain. It is currently thought that they came to Britain with the Saxons. It can trace its ancestry back to the Saxon Black faced heath sheep that once roamed over Northern Europe from the Netherlands to Russia.[1].

The Norfolk Sheep a portrait P Nursey 1846pcf0867
The Norfolk Sheep – a portrait P Nursey 1846 (image courtesy of Norfolk Museum Collection service)

It was the breed that was found everywhere across East Anglia from the Anglo-Saxon period through to the C18th. The Norfolk was a tough hardy breed. Small, feral and deer like, well suited to life ranging on the relatively poor Heathlands found in the region. It thrived on the poor sandy soils in the Brecklands and North-West Norfolk. Excelling at converting the low-grade heath pastures into milk, wool, manure and meat under the fold-course agricultural system unique to East Anglia [2].

SALLE CHURCH. NORFOLK, UK.    PICTURE: JAMES BASS PHOTOGRAPHY
St Peter and St Paul Church, Salle, Norfolk. My favourite church and a fine example of a Wool Church, built to impress by merchants grown very rich indeed on the proceeds of wool.

 

Its wool is said to be the wool that created the wealth that built Norfolk’s numerous and ostentatiously over-large wool churches that pepper the county. It produced the wool that was exclusively used in the famous worsted yarns upon which Norwich’s medieval worsted textile industry was founded.

SirThomasCokeandhis southdownsheep1807
Thomas William Coke of Norfolk Inspecting his Southdown Sheep, 1808 (Thomas Weaver). Thomas Coke, the 1st Earl of Leicester at Holkham, a keen advocate of agricultural modernisation.

Later, the Norfolk Horn found itself at the heart of the modernisation of livestock breeding during the C18th. Ironically, acting as the agent of its own demise. It was the crossing of The Norfolk Horn with the Southdown during the 18th Century that produced the Suffolk. Why is this important? Today, the Suffolk is the ram most used to produce the British Lamb that you will find on your plate.

By the mid C19th the Norfolk Horn was deeply unfashionable, considered a poor and troublesome breed by the Agricultural reformers. Their feisty, wild nature and inability to remain where they were put – leaping fences to keep roaming – made them ‘difficult’ to manage. They were replaced by these heavier docile Norfolk/Southdown crosses which were held as superior in every way. The number of Norfolk Horns declined.

PrinceFrederickinhat
Prince Frederick Duleep Singh

There was a small Antiquarian revival lead by gentleman farmers such as Prince Duleep Singh at Old Buckenham, and (another ironic twist) Lord Leicester at Holkham. But this was over by the start of the First World War. By 1917 there were no Norfolk’s left in Norfolk and just one flock remained.

The survival of the breed is down to one man, Mr J. D. Sayer. JD Sayer kept the only flock known in existence from 1895 until 1947. At this time the flock of 13 surviving Norfolk’s were moved to the Cambridge Animal Research station, later the remnants of this flock became the nucleus of what would become the Gene Bank at Whipsnade Zoo. Over the next 20 years The Norfolk’s situation went from bad to disastrous. By the late 1960s all that remained of the breed were 14 badly interbred individuals. The breed was on the brink of extinction.

The last Norfolk ram died in November 1971. This has me welling up, it is so sad.

It isn’t the end though, clearly.

In yet another ironic twist of fate, to preserve what was left of the Norfolk’s genetics and to increase the genetic diversity of the breed, Joe Henson and his daughter Libby at their then recently opened Cotswold Farm Park in 1969 and in subsequent years, in an extraordinary act of foresight outcrossed one of the final surviving Norfolk rams with some of their Suffolk’s. Outcrossing with the Suffolk was continued in the early 1970s ensuring the survival of the breed.

It is at this point in the Norfolk’s story that it finds itself at the centre of the fledgling Rare Breeds Movement story as the Gene Bank Project was closed down in the late 1960’s. It was the desperate situation of the Norfolk Horn breed that led to the awareness of the need for genetic conservation of traditional farm animals. The Norfolk was the most at risk of all the breeds identified at the formation of the Rare Breed Survival Trust in 1973.

Through dedicated and careful stewardship by a number of people the breed survived and by 1994 The Norfolk Horn Breeders Group was established. By this time were less than 300 registered breeding ewes. By 2005 RBST moved the breed to Category 4 ‘At risk ‘on their watch list.

Today, there are more than 2500 sheep dispersed between 79 flocks, predominantly in its ancestral home of Norfolk. The Norfolk Horn is now off the critical list and is a Category 5 – minority on the RBST watch list.

I don’t know how the modern Norfolk Horn compares with the Old Norfolk. They look stockier, less agile and less wild. But they have a certain way about them, in the same way that Irish Wolf Hounds do. A rough raggedy regalness in the way they carry themselves. And I love them for it.

If you want to know more about the Norfolk Horn story the best reference I have found is Peter Wade Martins book. Black Faces: A History of East Anglian Sheep Breeds.

In the next post I will blog about the fleecey aspects and talk about the fibre side of life.

[1] Ryder, M. L. (1983). Sheep and man. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. . Wade-Martins, P., & Martins, S. W. (1993). Black Faces: A History of East Anglian Sheep Breeds. Norfolk Museums Service.

[2] Fold-course or Sheep-Corn system is unique to East Anglia. Under this distinctive form of agricultural management flocks were run on the open heaths during the day time and then folded (penned) on a set field area overnight to tathe (manure) the fields and feed on the crop residues.  See Allison, K. J. (1955). The wool supply and the worsted cloth industry in Norfolk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Doctoral dissertation, University of Leeds).