If you are familiar with the fibreworkshop instagram feed you will have spotted that I’ve been doing quite a bit of messing about with colour this summer. In particular natural dyes and the colours of the plants that grow abundantly in Beckland – this is the historic stomping ground of the Norfolk Horn after all.
Norfolk horn yarn has a lovely creamy milk colour that is infused with subtle flecks of darker fibres like really good vanilla ice cream. At first I couldn’t bring myself to dye it but…well never say never. I wanted to keep that special Norfolkishness. Early experiments with my usual acid dyes were disappointing, too uniform too harsh too cold. The Norfolk sort of got lost. It just had to be natural dyes from plants that have a tradition here abouts. I will write about my summer of dye school later on when I get time.
First it had to be woad, glorious beautiful wonderful magical woad. I’m lucky to have the Woad centre at Beetley, just up the road from Gressenhall (incidentally where much of the fleece that went into the 2018 yarn came from). Sadly the centre is now closed and Woad production has ceased. Ian Howard was a mine of information and helped me with the science of woad, providing pigment to start me off and some seed to begin cultivating my own. I’m now self sufficient – although getting some weird looks and comments at the allotment but I’m used to that…Blues from the colour of Boudicas body painted warriors to pale icy baby blues.
Then came the yellows. An odd absence of Weld in the countryside lead me to use Golden Rod, the next best thing, until the crop at the allotment was ready. I’m taking my first harvest and its drying at the moment. Yellows and golds gorgeous!
A bit of colour theory overdying the yellows of golde rod and weld with woad gives the citrusy chartreusy greens that are my favourite (its a bit of signature colour of mine)
And the final in the classic triptych Madder. If you have ever been to Norwich you will have been through Madder Market, named for the medieval market where the Madder was traded. Rich rusted reds, pumpkin and tangerine oranges. Like flaming autumn leaves.
And finally I wanted a good neutral that would balance with the norfolkishness. this came in the form of a crop of walnuts traded with some of our hops with my friend Jane. Gorgeous warm and dark chocolatey brown.
I also wanted a colour palette that was vibrant, colourful, modern and warm. I think I’ve acheived this. They make me so happy!
So without further a do please let me introduce you to the new Norfolk horn hand dyed yarns colour range:
If you would like some of this rarer than rare Norfolk Horn yarn please contact me (email jenn@fibreworkshop)
Skeins are 25g approx 70m and are £5.00 per skein. Postage is UK £3.40 (royal mail 2nd class – I will ship signed for UK £4.40 specify if you prefer this option). I will ship globally but will quote shipping cost when you order. At the moment payment is via PayPal or bank transfer. To place an order please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org with how many skeins you would like and we can take it from there.
I will get that proper shop up and running soon, I promise…its on the list…but the list wont get shorter…
Its been a frantically busy time since I last wrote introducing this lovely Norfolk Horn yarn. June is always horrendously busy. This year more so than normal.
In between getting out out and about giving a hand with shearing and sorting fleeces for this years clip I’ve also been carrying out more research into the Norfolks history – more on this exciting project as the next few months go by. All this squeezed in between the usual events, craft fairs and festivals that seem to run back to back from May till now. Introducing my lovely yarn to its public in addition to my usual hand dyed fibres and hand spun yarns has been great. I’ve met so many interesting people and gained new contacts. The network grows. Its been overwhelming at times.
Family life has also taken a busy turn in the past month or so. With children returning home as adults (a memorable day trip to Lockerbie for lunch and bringing home a kayak). At the same time Sean’s mum is transitioning to live with her children. A busy time indeed.
But now things have slacked off and I have had time to play in the workshop with this lovely Norfolk Horn yarn. Putting it through its paces and seeing what it can do well. I hope these swatches will give you an idea of the sorts of textures and patterns that it will work well with.
I’ve tried it out in plain, eyelet and cables. Its giving really good stitch definition and a nice handle. Its the best of sheepy yarn: bouncy, soft and not too tickly. The following swatches were all knitted on 3.5mm needles.
Cables. 3.5mm needles gauge 29 stitches 42 rows to 10cm
Its has a delicate pearly shimmer to it. And I’m really liking the oatmeally and the peppering of dark dusty flecks of colour in it.
I am experimenting with dyeing it. Its going to take some time as I really don’t want to loose that special shimmering colouration that is so Norfolkish.
I’ve also been working on some one skein wonder patterns, these I will publish on Ravelry as I finish them to the point where I am happy with them. I am learning to accept that these things can not be rushed.
If you wish to get you hands on some don’t wait too long, its going fast. Full details on the yarn and how to buy it can be found here.
Ok, so the whole online shop thing is taking me a wee bit longer than I’d planned. Doesn’t everything? So many choices and decisions. And charges! Boy do those one stop shop easy peasy e-commerce providers hide their charges! Any way I think I’ve found my perfect (for now) solution based in the UK, transparent annual charges and carbon neutral. Perfect.
So I’ve decided to take the plunge any way and debut my ladies.
Drum roll please…
Launching today some very lovely and extremely rare limited edition 2017 norfolk horn yarn.
Squishy, sheepy and softer than you imagine.
Yay! I cannot quite believe I’ve got my act together enough to get to this point. But here we are.
If you are itching to get your hands on some and cannot possibly wait any longer then read on.
The totally professional (cough cough) handspun approach to online e-commerce…
Here’s the important stuff:
£8.00 per skein
Skeins are 50g approx 160m
Knits to 4-ply
(photos show all info on label)
Postage UK £3.40 (royal mail 2nd class – I will ship signed for UK £4.40 specify if you prefer this option)
I will ship globally but will quote shipping cost when you order.
Payment will be via PayPal
To place an order please email me (jennatfibreworkshop.co.uk) with how many skeins you would like and we can take it from there.
I’ve been preoccupied with the labelling for this delicious Norfolk Horn yarn. Honestly, I am so excited by this project its ridiculous. My preoccupation with tiny details is knowing no limits. I really am sweating over the small stuff.
My current preoccupation is labelling. What do I want you to think and know when you see, squish, sniff and work with this precious yarn?
This has meant getting to grips with new software. Once upon a time it felt like the computer ruled my every waking moment. Its overwhelming hunger for the production of data to be analysed in spreadsheets, databases, powerpoints and the words. The words. The terrifying enormous volume of words. So much guff!
It took a while before I could spend any length of time with a computer or device of any kind. I did anything to avoid it. The thought of it gave me the heeby geebies. I would get this clenching in the gut just thinking about it. As time has gone by I have been able, bit by bit to rationalise those away. And, for the first time in a long while, I lost some hours working on a borrowed computer teaching myself to use graphics software so I could produce a logo and the labelling for this limited edition Norfolk Horn yarn. I had forgotten how much fun it was loosing yourself in the creative process of representing ideas and concepts visually. Not just the creativity of it but also the challenges of learning the skills to make them.
This is one of Olivers lovely ladies from down the road. She contributed her fleece to the 2017 clip. She was my starting point.
I think she is a perfect example of her breed. I love her blackface, those slim long black silk stockinged legs, the swept back open horns and that slightly wild-eyed look. I knew that the logo had to be a representation of the physical characteristics of the Norfolk. But I also wanted it to convey their character. A little bit wild, a wry intelligence and quirky in a sort of just off left of centre way.
It is to be simple, direct, and unfussy. A bit like the Norfolk Horn. In other words, I see more than just a rare breed of sheep. The Norfolk represents so much more to me. The Norfolk horn personifies its place and its people. In other words, everything that I wanted the yarn to encapsulate and express.
This is she:
Sean thinks she’s a wee bit devilish, but I like her. What do you think?
And the other side:
Just in case you are interested its printed on 100% recycled, unbleached, unlaminated white card printed with environmentally friendly inks at a printers that actually has an environmental policy. I like companies that sweat over the small stuff . It means that you and I don’t have to…
The yarn has arrived safe and sound. It was a surprisingly emotional moment. I confess I did well up a bit. Silly, but it was a bit of a moment for me.
No you can’t see it yet. I’m being quite possessive. Its not ready for its debut yet. I want everything to be perfect. It deserves it.
It is exactly what I had hoped for. The care and effort taken at each step of the way was well worth it. In the husbandry of the shepherds, the shearing by the shearers, my fussiness in sorting only the best of the fleece before taking it to the mill, and the exceptional milling by The Natural Fibre Co.
Just to tease you: It is so soft, bouncy and fluffy as tufts of clouds and just a bit tickly. A proper sheepy yarn.
But I am only half way there. There is an extraordinary amount of stuff that needs to be done to get a yarn to market. I think I may have just done the easy bit. I have a budget so low it’s almost non-existent so buying in expertise is not an option. This is going to be a one woman operation. Production – me. Marketing – me. Admin – me. Sales – me. Do I have any experience of these things? No. This is going to be interesting.
For example, labelling. How will it be labelled. Tags or bands? What information needs to go on it. Whos going to print it? On what paperstock? What size? So many questions that need answers. My head might just explode.
But what has been exercising me most is how to minimise the environmental impacts of what I am doing. If you know me or have read my blog, you will probably have noted that these things are important to me. I try to do less evil wherever I am able to. So for me all the packaging for this project has to be as low impact as possible.
Paper? Have you ever thought about swing tags, you know those attractive tags that you will pull of your yarn and then chuck in the recycling/bin/compost. These are the choices that need to be made in producing it: Paper stock: 100% virgin woodpulp from sustainably managed forests or 100% recycled paper? Either kraft (unbleached brown) or if white then chlorine bleached or can I get unbleached? Laminated with plastic for that shiny smooth professional look or unlaminated? That’s an easy one. And then there’s the inks and how it’s printed. And the list goes on. And then there’s finding a printer that not only offers these choices but also has the environment embedded in their own practise and thinks the same as me.
Packaging? This is another huge (and very topical) issue. FFS we’ve been recycling since the late 1980’s so you would think we would have this thing sorted by now. I hate those plastic postal bags. I’ve taken the decision to be as plastic free as possible with packaging. My customers should be able to throw their packaging straight on the compost heap where it will biodegrade. Luckily there are now a huge choice of recycled card options. I’ve even sourced a 100% recycled paper parcel tape that is completely biodegradable as it uses latex based adhesive to seal my parcels with. How good is that.
In the meantime. Me and the Norfolk Yarn are having a cosy time of ‘getting to know you’. As you can imagine, lots of squishing and sniffing and lots of swatching. I’ve been testing out different needle sizes, different stitches, lace, cables, textures.
More on this soon. I’m not ready to share yet. When she is ready for the big reveal you will be the first to know…
Its ready! My Norfolk Horn yarn is finished. It will be wending its way to me very soon.
Gulp. Golly, shit just got real! I’m having a bit of a panic attack. What have I done? Is this project going to do what I want it too?
Its been a long journey already. Beginning in the winter of 2015 when the first itching of wanting to do something for these regal wonderful sheep who helped me out so much.
The itch would not go away. I knew from my spinning life that many small holders have nowhere for their fleece to go aside from the odd one to spinners like me. Most talk of using them for mulch or compost or worse still burning. This lead to more research into what happens to wool in the UK. Phone calls with the wool board. The prices paid. Conversations with local sheep farmers, small holders and their shearers. The appalling situation that people who keep small flocks of rare breed sheep face when it comes to their fleeces made me more convinced to do something. I wrote up what I found in a post on the issue here . Rachel Atkinson (Daughter of a Shepherd) wrote a particularly impassioned blog post : fleeced in her blog My life in Knitwear. Recounting how her father received less than £10 for his entire clip of Herdwicks from the Wool Board, roughly 3 pence a fleece. I was convinced that this was absolutely a good thing to do.
More research. How exactly did you get fleece turned into yarn? Is it possible to produce a yarn from Norfolk Horn that would be beautiful and economically viable? Who would spin it? It had to be done properly. And by properly I meant not just spinning the breed to its best but also with care to the environmental impacts from this process. If you know me you know I live my life trying to do less evil so this is a non negotiable part of it. The Natural Fibre Company had answers to all my questions.
It was a fun spring and summer finding the people who keep Norfolk horns that would sell me their fleeces. People like Oliver in the village with his tiny flock. The team of volunteers and Richard the farm manager at Gressenhall Museum of Rural life who gave me their entire clip. Waiting on people who turned out not to be able to help me. The weird and the wonderful. I’m not a sociable type, so for me this was well out of my comfort zone. But it was good for me to have something to focus on.
Another question was how do I raise the funds to pay for it all? This project had to stand on its on its own. No funding. No raiding the pension fund. No savings to draw on. I spent the summer at local events with The Fibre Workshop squirrelling every penny into to the Norfolk Horn Project fund. So thank you to every one that bought a mini batt, handyed roving, spindles, fleece and felted nicnaks. I could not have done this without you.
And, in October 2017 I took my tiny crop of 3 bags full to the mill. You can read about that adventure here.
These are my first ever attempts at dying with natural dyes. I have to say I really like the results.
I’ve been feeling the first twitches of wanting to learn more about dyeing with natural dyes for a while but have resisted the urge. As if I don’t have enough to do. But its been creeping into my conciousness. On Sunday I went on a natural dyeing workshop with Janet Major and the Norfolk Smallholders training group.
For the workshop we had to bring along 60g pre-mordanted fibre and a plant dye bath of our own making. Of course I used Norfolk Horn. I had a 50g ball of Kentwell Halls 4-ply (gifted me by the lovely Erica Eckles) and some of my own hand spun lace weight.
I have been saving up onion skins all year and had accumulated quite a lot, about 500g of mostly white onion but also a few redskins and some garlic as well as the stalky plaits. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity to make use of them.
I’m not good at preparation – I’m working on it – I only started prepping for the workshop 3 days before. Ooops, supposed to soak dye material for a few days. Not enough time. I figured that if I made the skins into smaller bits a larger surface area would get more chance of getting the dye out in a shorter time. I blitzed them in the food processor with plenty of water. I put the chopped up mush in a slow cooker that I use for dyeing. Topping up with more water to the maximum fill level. Brought it to the boil and left to simmer for about an hour. I left it to cool overnight and strained off the liquid the following day. Smelt pleasantly of rhubarb.
The mordant, Alum, on the other hand, proved to be a bit trickier. I do not recommend trying to source a chemical of any kind on the high street the day you need it. I thought it would be relatively easy to get on the high street. That was a mistake. Chemists and Pharmacies are not what they used to be – the folks at my local Lloyds pharmacy blinked looked at me strangely and gave me that ‘uh oh! I’ve got a live one!’ look before saying ‘What was that Alan? Nooo, never ‘eard of it. No we don’t do that’. I got pretty much the same response in Boots and in the local hardware store. If I was more organised I would have bought some on-line weeks ago. But that would make me a whole different person and would not be nearly as exciting or fun.
I have a copy of Jenny Deans ‘Wild Colour’ and in it I remembered reading about using Rhubarb leaves to make a mordant. This appealed to me as I have limited (no) income at the moment and it also makes use of something that is usually discarded. I had a pleasant walk up to the village allotments. Whilst I was there I er herm cough cough ‘borrowed’ some leaves. Not the stalks, as that would be theft and a bad thing. But I eased my conscience with the knowledge that no one was going to miss a leaf or two. I gathered 1kg leaves. Jenny Dean writes that 500g of mordant should treat up to 1 kg fibres. So I had more than enough. I heartily recommend both the book and Jennys blog here: Jenny Dean
The leaves were chopped and put into the slow cooker. Again topping up to maximum fill level. Bring to the boil and cooked for an hour. Left to cool in the pan overnight then strained out the liquid.
To mordant the fibres (already scoured, clean and damp) pop the fibres into the mordant solution bring the liquid up to simmer and cook for half an hour or so. Leave to cool, then rinse. It did colour the fibres a gingernuty yellow:
The all the pre-mordanted skeins were dyed in the onion dye bath for about an hour. Then we experimented with modifiers. I choose iron and copper. The copper didn’t have a strong effect but did enriched the colour to a vibrant gingernut. The iron on the other hand did. I used a small amount (5ml) on one and a larger amount (15ml) on another. it really darkened the brown taking out the gingery tones.
The final skein I dipped in an indigo dye bath for one minute. I knew it would be a khaki type green given the gingery base:
I was surprised that the different fibres took the dye differently. My own handspun was paler and more golden than the millspun. What struck me most was the intensity of the colours achieved. When it comes to colour I’m not a pastel wishy washy person. Colour needs to sing. I think this may be one of the myths’ that has kept me from experimenting with plant dyes. The outcome of this experiment has definitely encouraged me to do more.
I’m waiting for some alum and will repeat using that as a mordant for the same dye bath. I want to know if the rhubarb mordant had an influence on the colours I achieved. I also want to test the colour fastness so I’ve left these little beauties on the table in the workshop. I will let you know the results when I get round to it.
So there you are, six different shades from the same dye bath using materials that I have to hand. Whats not to like…
I am still waiting for the Norfolk horn to come back from the mill all spun up into what I hope is some wonderful sproingy feisty sheepy yarn. I am so anxious, its taking a very long time. But the delay has given me lot of time to keep on with research into the Breeds history.
A fact that I keep coming across in my Norfolk Horn research is that its fleece is difficult to felt. It was this characteristic that made it not particularly desirable for the making of woollen cloths and probably went some way to explaining why it was the cheapest wool on the markets during the Medieval Wool Boom.
After weaving, woollen cloths are fulled. Fulling is a controlled process where the cloth is purposefully felted to shrink it slightly pulling the weave together to make a warm soft and light cloth. Clearly to make this process as economic as possible you would want a wool that felted with some degree of ease.
In contrast Worsted cloths are not fulled. They are cleaned and pressed to give a smooth silky surface that keeps any textural details that were woven in.
It is this resistance to felting that gave it its low price and is what made the Norfolk Horn so desirable to Norfolks Worsted cloth industry. If you have access to a plentiful supply of a cheap raw material you would be a bit of a dufus if you couldn’t come up with the perfect use for it. Wouldn’t you? It made perfect sense to make the best of what you had.
But just how felt resistant is Norfolk Horn wool? Obviously this is another one of those not quite scientific investigations – we have no idea of what the ancestors of the modern Norfolk were like but we can surmise that the wool characteristics would not have been too dissimilar.
Now, I was quite fussy about what I sent off to be processed by the mill. I really want this yarn to be the best it can be. So as you can imagine I have had quite a bit of reject ‘waste’ fleece left over. The stuff sprayed in various dayglo shades of orange, lime green and blue, the coarse stuff and daggy bits. That has been sat around under the eaves of the shed since last summer.
The really poopy nasty stuff I used as a mulch on the veg patch. The remainder is still useful and I had this in mind for insulating my workshop. When we built the workshop it was on a limited budget (is no budget a limited budget?). Running out of money when it came to things such as a window and a door. Luckily Sean acquired a large sliding patio door that would fill the gap until I had saved enough to finish the job. Which is now. Yay! Bit late as the cold is now past.
I didn’t want to spend ages cleaning the fleece and as I wasn’t going to spin it. I thought I would experiment a bit and test out that felt resistance characteristic. Actually that is a bit of a white lie, as you will find out as I recount this story.
I wondered what would happen if I shoved it through the washing machine. Normally I would carefully soak and hand wash to preserve the lock structure and blah de blah. But who has time for that if its not going to be spun.
After an overnight soak in rain water from the butt the fleece was drained on a rack for a bit before putting it through a 40oC wool wash cycle.
And it was amazing! Fluffly, clean, unfelted. I could actually work with this and spin it!
The second batch was again put in the butt water overnight, drained and then…
Sean “ do you want me to put this through the wash?”
Me, from the garden “yes please that would be great. Put it on 40oC”
Should I have mentioned that would be a Wool wash cycle? It was fairly self-evident it was wool, wasn’t it?
Well apparently not. This is what happened on the normal 40oC cycle:
So what are the magic three things you need to felt wool? Heat, soap and agitation.
The results of this suggest that yes Norfolk Horn is indeed resistant to felting. But it is not entirely immune.
Not to worry, I have the felted fleece dried and bagged. I’m sure I can find a use for it somewhere. Ideas welcome.
This all began with Spinzilla 2017. The fantastic Freyalyn dyed up some shetland fibre for the team. The colours were so good, glorious golds/pumpkin/turmeric/greens/purples. I really liked the colours and wanted to keep them intact in the yarn. I had in mind another colourwork experiment. This time with quite long colour sequences for a larger piece. I had a perfect neutral base to pair it with, a cone of unknown brown in the about the right weight (one of my charity shop finds). Another stranded colour work tank top with a sequence of large floral motifs in distinct bands.
I always find it easier if I have a finished design or end object in mind before I start any project. I am very in awe of creative folk who can just start on something with no particular end in mind. I’m perhaps being deluded here as I don’t think this is entirely possible. I find that if I am just noodling about with no particular aim it doesn’t go well. Its that blank page thing. I get crippling fright, feel a bit useless, it makes me unconfident in my abilities and anxious. Particularly when I start looking for inspiration on Pinterest or worse still Instagram…how on earth would anything I make ever be as good as that?
Once I knew what it was going to be I then knew what yarn I needed and how I needed to spin it. A 4-ply (worsted) weight. I had learnt from the Robin Pincushion project from the year before that trying to spin two plies to get a colour sequence was hard work! To keep my life simple it was going to be chain plied (3-ply). I could spin away to my hearts content without the bother of trying to hard to keep consistency. Plus this was going to be during spinzilla so I could spin using my default thin thin thin = fast fast fast!
And as it was spinzilla and speed was required it would be longdraw which meant rolags.
I split the tops into two. Working my down the snakes I hand carded rolags placing each one in series next to its predecessor working my way:
I span these rolags long draw onto two bobbins. Making sure that I kept the sequence in order and numbered the bobbins 1 and 2.
I chain plied 2 first and then 1.
I knitted a test peice as a swatch, a neckwarmer:
Then spent some time working out the design. Major headache with getting stitch counts and pattern to work. I have learnt the value of the swatch. More on this in a moment.
I also had a major conundrum with keeping the colour sequence right and how to split for the upper body. Oh my god! I was going make a tough choice. Did I want to mess up the thickness of my colour transition by working upper front and back flat? Or, if I wanted it to stay right I WAS GOING TO HAVE TO STEEK. CUT MY HANDSPUN YARN. CUT IT???
My weirdness won out. I couldn’t live with it if the colour sequence went off at the top. No, really, I am that obsessive over the details. Drives me nuts if things are not right or balanced.
The knitting went smoothly, fairly straight forward:
I’ve never worked a steek before. I knew in theory what to do. So I had to do a bit of research. Starting with the words of the wise, my fairisle bible (Alice Starmores Book of Fairisle knitting) and Elizabeth Zimmerman. Meg Swainson wrote a really useful article for Vogue knitting here I remembered Kate Davies covered the topic with some good visuals over a series of blog posts resulting in what she called a steek sandwich. And the lovely and wonderous Hazel Tindall.
This is the neck steek. I used stitch markers and held the bottom stitch on asafety pin. It was difficult to see the cutting stitch in the plain brown.
So armed to the teeth with the book learning I knew that I was not going to be happy with cut seams and loose ends. I crochet a binding on the V-neck and armholes:
It was difficult as I do this in the evening and the light is not so good particularly with the dark brown yarn being so dark. I would definitely do this steeking in really good daylight tomake sure that one is working with the right stitches.
Cutting the knitting:
Was not so bad once I’d got over it.
And then watched in horror as little wriggly worms of cut ends started to worm their way out of the beautifully worked crochet binding. Horror horror. I’ve already mentioned swatching. Well wise words were given by Hazel Tindall “did you cut your swatch to see if it would steek ok?”… erm nope…. but I will next time….maybe…
However, always have a plan B to bodge things back into order! Out with the sewing machine:
I have a theory that it does take 10 years to master any skill. Because this is how long it takes to make enough mistakes to learn enough bodges to make it look like you know what you are doing…
I’m really pleased with it. I like the flow of colour through the stranded colour work. Definitely will be repeating this at some point in the future. As I hate the trauma of choosing colours in colourwork…analysis paralysis…
My Norfolk Horn obsession is taking me to places I didn’t know I wanted to go but now I’m there I am loving it. I have followed the Norfolks trail to Norfolks medieval and early modern textile industry.
England dominated the international textile trade, booms and busts notwithstanding, and Norfolk was the world centre for Worsted textiles. Textiles that were only possible to make due the production of vast amounts of yarn produced on what must have been an epic scale.
This is an extraordinary feat when you consider that until the introduction of powered spinning machines in the 1750’s, all yarn was spun by hand either on a spindle or on a wheel. And spun almost exclusively by women.
In the early medieval period spinning with a spindle and distaff was a ubiquitous activity of all women that transcended all classes. For many women it the only way for them to provide their households with textiles. Spinning was so prevalent that it was not thought of as a skill or a craft that could be mastered but as some kind of natural ability inherent her gender. The spear side and the distaff side were terms to distinguish male inheritance from female inheritance. Spinster is still used today to describe an unmarried women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath cites a proverb that holds that the natural endowments of women as ‘Deceit, weeping, spinning, God hath given to women kindly, while they may live.’
There are many contemporary images showing women spinning, or carrying her equipment, spindle and distaff visibly prominent as she carries out her other tasks, as a visual representation of her productiveness and positive wifely attributes.
My favourite is The Lutrell Psalter,an 14thC manuscript with illuminations showing depictions of everyday life on a manor through the year. Its wonderful, go take a look here. In it most of the depictions of women show them either directly engaged in spinning or undertaking other activities with distaff and spindle visible ready to whip out at a moments notice.
In this image a women looms above a cowering man brandishing her distaff with her spindle flying like a flail. I can’t help but wonder what his crime was. Depictions of irate women brandishing distaff and spindle occurs alot. Misericords in Malvern and Westminster also show husbands being chased by irate wives with raised distaffs.
And one of my personal favourites:
Women must have had their spindles and distaffs about them at all times, ready to whip out and put to use at every opportunity. It must have been an incessant unrelenting and all pervasive activity.
In Norfolk, doing different seems to have been a consistent thread through time. Whilst the spinning wheel was widely adopted elsewhere, in Norfolk, spinning ‘on the rock’ (as spindle spinning was known) persisted more or less until mechanisation replaced hand-spinning from the mid 1700’s on.
The simple reason for this technical. A great wheel cannot spin a worsted yarn (I wont bore you with the technicalities of worsted and woollen – that is whole chapter all on its own). As a consequence, in Norfolk all the worsted yarn, for which its spinners were famed, used in the worsted textile industry were spun on the rock.
Yes, on a weighted stick.
Whilst she got on with doing everything else as well. Hmm.
This got me curious about the time it might have taken and the quantities involved. So I did a very rough back of the envelope calculation. And please note this took about 10 minutes and I have very limited weaving knowledge. I would be really interested if anyone out there would like to put this to the test and work up some real data.
It’s easy for us to underestimate just how good the quality of English textiles being produced at that time were. We don’t have museum archives stuffed with bolts of cloth or clothing or household draperies to examine. But we are lucky that a few precious fragments have survived. These range in quality from coarse rough cloth woven from uneven yarns to very fine worsted that must have looked like silk.
So, M’lady wants a new dress.
Assuming she’s a bit of dandy and wants a reasonably priced good quality cloth and this cloth had an even number of warp and wefts . Analysis of contemporary textile fragments show that the numbers of threads ranged from approximately 8 – 28 threads per cm.
So let’s assume our worsted cloth had a count of 20 threads for every cm. So, 1cm2 would need: 20 + 20 = 40cm of yarn. If our fabric was 1m wide, each meter of woven cloth would need: 0.40 x 10,000 = 4km of thread.
A women’s dress may have required between 3 -5 m of fabric, depending upon her status, size and cut. There would also have been wastage from the weaving process and shrinkage.
So if we assume 5m of cloth. This would require at least: 4 x 5 = 20km of yarn.
Geez! How long would that take to spin?
It is impossible to say how productive a medieval spinner was. She was likely to be very well practised and competent at her craft. I’m not a well-practiced spindler so I can’t really use my output for this. I do know that a competent spindler can spin between 35 – 50 m in 15 minutes competitively. I don’t think we’ve evolved much since the 12th Century so I think it is safe to assume this is a good match for your average medieval spinster. This output equates to between 140 to 200m an hour.
It would take over 20hours to make enough yarn to weave a single meter of fabric.
Therefore, to spin enough for m’ladies dress would take over 100 hours.
This is in addition to the time taken to wash and prepare the fleece before spinning.
In addition to all the other tasks the household required.
This goes some considerable way to understanding just how precious textiles were, given the amount of labour it took to produce them.
So there may well be a grain of truth in the statement I keep coming across that it took seven spinners to keep one Worsted weaver going. Without them Norfolks wealth and power would not have been possible. But these women made it happen. Sadly though, these women remain unrecorded, unrecognised and, mostly, invisible.
 Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., & Staniland, K. (1992). Textiles and Clothing c. 1150—1450 [Volume 4 in Medieval Finds from Excavations in London].
 Warp threads are the threads the loom is dressed with and run vertically. Weft threads are the threads the weaver inserts horizontally running over and under the warps)