Dutch Ganseys at the Sheringham Museum

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I took myself of the The Stella Ruhe Dutch Gansey Exhibition at the Sheringham Museum yesterday.

The exhibition is the result of research by Stella Ruhe in to the heritage and history of Dutch fishing communities and the ganseys worn by these men. It’s a travelling exhibition of over 60 ganseys reproducing old patterns in modern yarns. The exhibition also includes a few Sheringham Ganseys.

What is a gansey? It’s a close fitting, usually seamless, sweater traditionally worn by fishermen along much of the North Sea coastline of Britain and the Netherlands. Designed to be a very practical item of work wear. Hardwearing, windproof, waterproof. Tough. A tough garment for a tough environment worn by people who had tough lives. I think you get the point.  Ganseys were the work horses of knitwear. Hardcore knitwear.

Everything about them was practical and honed to achieve a windproof, waterproof, hard wearing easily mended long lived garment. From a technical point of view Ganseys were perfect for their function. A simple construction. A basic T shape. Knitted seamless in the round on fine 5 double pointed needles (14 – 17 imperial or less than 2mm) to create a dense windproof textile. Tight fitting, with little ease, often with an underarm gusset for movement. The sleeves a little on the short side to keep the hands and lower arms free. Cuffs knitted after thought to make repairs easy.

Traditionally knitted in dark blue in 5-ply worsted yarn. Although research is turning up all sorts of colours, greys, pale blues, black and red. Decorated with textured patterns round the upper torso, possibly to increase thickness for extra warmth.

Working ganseys were also rarely, if ever, washed and were worn next to the skin. The oils, dirt and grime all adding to the weatherproofing. I can’t help wondering what they would have felt and smelt like. Savoury?

What I find fascinating about ganseys is that despite the practicality of the gansey as work wear space was found for the knitter to express her art and craft in the decoration.  Ganseys were, by and large, knitted by women for their menfolk. Their sons, husbands and fathers.  The stitch patterns (all in simple combinations of knit and purl) were passed along by word of mouth down generations from mother to daughter and transmitted around the coastal communities of the North Sea. Each community developing its own unique pattern and stitch ‘library’. Rich in traditions and heritage, the stitch patterns symbolised everyday life: tools, harvest, landscape and weather. Stitch patterns include ridges and furrows, waves, anchors, diamonds, cables, lightening, ropes and ladders. The textural patterns are clean, linear, abstract and look modern.

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This is a wonderful example knitted by Esther Nurse of Sheringham in 1950. Its the Norfolk II Sheringham in Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Ganseys by Gladys Thompson. It used a 4-ply yarn knitted to a tension of 12 stitches and 20 rows to the inch. Her father died wearing a gansey of this pattern, it apparently fitted so snugly that it had to be cut off. The pattern shows the 3 ridges around the chest common to most Norfolk ganseys. What I really like is the unrepaired hole. I am wondering if its wear and tear of if moths may have been the culprit.

A gansey was much more than just a practical uniform for work. Fishermen wore their ganseys at all times, even having a Sunday best Gansey for Church, weddings high days and holidays. And it is thanks to this that we have some scanty records of these beautifully crafted garments.

As an item of workwear produced by women and worn by working men ganseys are overlooked and largely unrecorded. There are surviving records of boys and men posing in their best ganseys in rare (and expensive) studio photographs or documented at their work by photographers such as Olive Edis.

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Just how fine is this knitting? I love fine knitting. I assumed it was hand knit. It was so beautifully even, crisp and precise and fine. I can appreciate the time this garment took to make, if it was by hand and not machine. It’s truly amazing. A testament to the art and craft of the knitter. I wish I knew the women that made this.

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Mending and repairs. Definitely not a disposable item these were precious garments to be mended and maintained. Or just worn to destruction. There is a lovely picture in the Fishermans Heritage Centre , just around the corner from the Sheringham Mo, showing a lifeboat man at work in a much worn and frayed gansey. The yarn curling and unravelling out from a hole at the cuff. I didn’t note the name of the gentleman pictured, and excuse to go back…

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Pompoms and tassels. These confused me. Would having cord around your neck with fluffy balls on the end not be something of an accident waiting to happen on a working fishing boat? This is a question I hope I can get answered at the 2 day Symposium being held at the end of September.

I ended the visit with chips on the beach watching the world and his dog go by and trying to imagine quieter days before ‘holidays’ were invented.

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You can visit the exhibition from now until the end of September. The Gansey Symposium 2017 is from 29th September to Sunday 1st October.

 

We are the Ovaltinies

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Me and The Norfolk Horn sheep

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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].

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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].

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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.

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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.

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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).

Saori and me

I recently spent a very happy few hours playing in a Saori Weaving Sessions with Kim at the Saori Shed.

I confess I am not a weaver. As a craft it has never really appealed to me. I don’t know why.  It has always seemed so complex, all that talk of ends, so much jargon and all those rules. Too many rules. Too many conventions. Too controlled.  Too complicated.

Saori (pronounced Sa-Ori) promotes freestyle weaving with no rules or restrictions. Saori is an art form in which the weaver can express their true self in weaving. There are no mistakes, no patterns to follow. Weavers just weave what they want to with complete freedom and creativity. This resonates with me and my approach to making.

I first met Kim a couple of years ago when she gave a talk and demonstration to my Guild (Mid Norfolk Guild of weavers, spinners and dyers). Kim weaves some extraordinary, breathtakingly beautiful textiles from handspun yarns using wool, natural and local fibres and recycled materials. She combines her woven fabrics with knitwear to create garments that can be worn in many ways. A very talented lady indeed.

I spin and I knit. I don’t weave.  Aside from keeping me sane I spin for two reasons. Firstly, to make yarn to feed my knitting. A knitting addiction that could quite quickly drain my very limited funds dry. The second is for pleasure. I gain huge satisfaction from dipping into bags of fibre, locks, threads, random found things and creating textured arty yarns.

These yarns are fragile and delicate. Whimsical and decorative. Beautiful but limited in practical application. They are Divas of the yarn world. They make great accents in garments, beautiful cowls, wonderful cuffs, collars and cushions. But, unless they are given enough freedom in the knitted fabric to really strut their stuff they become trapped, caged animals. Loosing something of their wild, unconventional ballsy nature.

I have often heard spinners of textured art yarns recommend weaving with them. Somehow, trapping them in a woven fabric keeps their character. I was curious but also as someone who sells their yarns I really ought to know the process and how my yarns behaved so I could talk about my experience to my customers.  And this curiosity is how I came to spend a couple of hours with Kim at the Saori Shed clutching a skein of my handspun.

I had quickly thrown together a single skein in a grey Romney with some mohair locks in pastel candy shades the day before and bought it along to try out.

Firstly Kim took me through the origins and philosophy that underpins Saori. Then we were introduced to the looms.  The looms were already warped up ready to start weaving. So no time wasted for warping, an art in itself.  We began by raiding the ‘Wall of wool’. An amazing resource.  Coned yarns in different textures, colours and weights and baskets of brightly coloured fibres, locks and an assortment of objects. I went for grey and dark purple for the base colours with a bright citrusy green and pale lilac for accents.  With some locks and roving.

I found it difficult getting the gist of the rhythm. A dance of beat, feet, hands, repeat. I can understand why weavers find it meditative and restful. But for me the dance did not come naturally.  Maybe I have no innate rhythm?  Or maybe it was just new and needed time to get ingrained into muscle memory to achieve that restful meditative state as I do when I spin and knit.

Keeping the grey I introduced the hand spun.

The thickness and texture meant it was slower going but faster growing. I interspersed my yarn with some of the coned grey, wondering if it would blend with the first section. It didn’t.  The handspun fabric was thicker but softer. Weaving was most definitely faster than knitting.  It was amazing to see the fabric grow so quickly.

I’m undecided as to what this cloth will become.  At the moment I am just enjoying looking at it.  It will tell me what it needs to be when the time is right.

I had a great time with Kim but, I know in my bones a weaver I will never be. However, I also know myself well enough to know never say never…

 

Diary of a handspun cardigan: Part 2

I have finally got it together to finish writing the pattern and here it is:  Blakeney. A simple cardigan with a raglan sleeve and modern tapered fit designed for knitting with handspun yarn (weight 12-14 WPI (alternatively a commercial DK weight yarn).  Handsomely modelled here by Sean.

I wanted it to have a clean silhouette, with a tapering to the waist for a contemporary fit. With an unfussy plain knit fabric, I think the yarn should be the star here and not fancy-pancy technique or stitch-craftery.

It is knitted using a seamless construction, worked from the bottom up, with the body knitted in one piece. The sleeves are knitted in the round and assembled with the body for knitting onwards through the raglan. The button holes and a neat I-chord edge are knitted as the garment is worked. Thus avoiding any tedious after bands.  Which always take me at least 3 attempts before I get it right- and I have knitted many…you would think I would be whizz at them by now… but no.  I also spent some time playing with different buttonhole methods. but that is a whole subject in itself. So maybe a topic for a later post.  I finished it with a tape which gave the garment a very nice drape and handle. Hard to describe what I mean, but it really gave it a quality finish.

I worked on this design whilst I was knitting a particularly complex Patricia Roberts textured pattern, so I am wondering if the simplicity of stitch and construction was an antidote to this.

The yarn, a subtle marled 2-ply, in shifting blues and grey tones was inspired by the shallow seas of the North Norfolk Coast. I wrote of this in a previous post here.

In particular the pattern is named after Blakeney, one of my favourite parts of the coast.  Once a thriving port, Blakeney also had a colourful reputation for piracy, smuggling and general lawlessness. I’m not sure of the veracity of the claims but there are records of the men of Blakeney boarding ships, bringing them to harbour and stripping them of their cargo. As well as incidents of Merchant Ships resting in the harbour and finding their cargos mysteriously vanishing. Indeed the residents refused to supply a ship for the battle against the Spanish Armada. So it seems fitting with the Spinzilla Team HSNs Pirate theme.

I found writing the pattern out an odd process.  The act of writing and planning was a more rigorous approach than I am used to.  My normal approach is quite instinctive, usually involving a great deal of trial and error, much swearing and ripping and reknitting till I get the perfect finish I have in my mind.  Over time I have got better so there is less trial and error. Grading was also a new skill that I had not any experience of. hopefully I have it right (ish).  If you do have a bash at this pattern (and thank you so much if you do) let me know your experience of it, feedback is very welcome.

Pattern is now available in on Ravelry here.  10% of all pattern sales will be donated to MND Association.

The pattern is in 4 sizes: Small, medium, large, x-large (105 [108, 112, 115] cm (40[42, 44, 45] inches).  Shown modelled by Sean, wearing the large size.

Handspun isn’t to everyones taste nor accessible if you are not a spinner. I suggest a millspun alternative would be something woollen with a soft to medium handle.  The pattern would need a Double knit (DK) (US no 4 Medium) with a gauge of between 21-24sts over 10cm. Just a suggestion but something like Blacker Pure Shetland DK knitting yarn would do well.

Diary of a handspun cardigan

Have you noticed how awful mens knitwear is?  Tragic!  Absolutely gopping! I live in a houseful of menfolk. None of whom wear knitwear. Is this the reason why? Who on earth thinks that men should wear these awful shapeless ugly patterned hideous body boxes?   So in a weak attempt to be bang on trend I wanted the perfect man’s cardigan.

This was in June 2016 by the way. It’s now finished. It is mid February 2017.  It is worth it. It will be with him until he leaves the house feet first.  Slow fashion?  Indeed.  Which is why I am often asked ‘seems like a lot of work.  Why don’t you just buy one?’  Which misses the point entirely.  Through the ‘work’ comes the pleasure.  It is pleasing to sink hands into beautiful lanolin rich pungent fleece, to prepare it and to spin it into yarn.  It is pleasing to think about the wearing during the knitting and the wearing or the gifting once it is done. And to remember those moments when the garment is in your hands over the years that follow.  So, my response is ‘why would you buy one.  Where is the pleasure in that?’

So, I thought you might be interested to see the process by which a hand spun cardigan is born.

For me it starts with the idea.  I find it difficult to spin for the sheer joy of spinning. I typically have a very clear idea in my head for a design.  In this case it was for a simple, fuss free, fitted cardigan in response to the sheer ugliness of mens knitting patterns out there.

The muse looks good in blue but I hate solid slabs of bright colour (especially blue).  I am reminded of those makeover programmes where ‘She doesn’t like orange’ so everything gets done in orange…Anyhoo, the answer was a marled yarn, in blues with a neutral base.  Grey is currently my favourite.  Or deep rich chocolate brown.  I digress…

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The tropical blue Top came from John Arbon Textiles. As a nice digression that I think you will like, John Arbon Textiles blended up a new top called Spin Fresh in honour of Spinzilla Team HSN 2016 Pirate theme, they donated some fibre to the team and made the remainder available for purchase exclusively at Fibre East 2016. I bumped up my Team HSN batch.  It is a glorious blend of 55% dyed Merino/33%Perendale/12%Zwartbles in the colours of a really tropical Caribbean blue sea. I send a big huge hug of thanks to the guys as John Arbon Textiles. I can honestly say it was just beautiful to spin.

For the grey base I used a natural grey whitefaced woodland/Jacobs fleece that I purchased at Ickworth Wool Fair – the result of a happy accident – happy for the Jacobs Ram less so for the Shepherd…I scoured, sorted and carded this in September.  About 6 hours work altogether.

John Arbon Top and hand processed grey batts ready to spin
John Arbon Top and hand processed grey batts ready to spin

The yarn was spun during Spinzilla October 2016. All  the fibres were spun separately and then plied to give the marled yarn.

Full bobbins ready to ply
Full bobbins ready to ply
Plied hanks of finished yarn
Plied hanks of finished yarn

Just over 1000m of plied yarn. The spinning took just over 10 hours altogether.  Lovely speedy longdraw.

Next, tedious yet vitally important – swatching. What can I say – don’t be lazy SWATCH! This was a happy couple of hours in front of the TV.

One of many swatches
One of many swatches

The first draft of the pattern followed from the gauge in the swatch. This was tested in the the knitting… and the frogging…and the knitting again.  Roughly 3 weeks of evenings (christmas came and went) and a few lunch times.img_20170112_140808756The finishing took about 2 hours. And here is a sneeky peek of the finished article.

img_20170215_151457624The pattern will be coming soon. Watch this space.  But these things can’t be rushed…

Buying the perfect fleece for handspinning

All the fleeces cleaned, bagged and ready to do
All the fleeces cleaned, bagged and ready to do

All my fleece buying for this year is now done. I have 10 fleeces all clean, bagged and ready for processing into whatever they will become over the autumn and winter.

2 Jacob (from Jason the Shearer)

1 White faced woodland x Jacob (from Ickworth, Suffolk)

3 Norfolk horns (gifted from Oliver in the village, one of which I have gifted on),

1 Shetland (moorit – ginger – not my favourite but it does dye really nice muted autumny shades, from Paulines Norfolk friend at Guild)

1 black Romney (the lovely Arabella)

1 Wensleydale (bought from Marion in Acle)

1 Massam (gifted from the lovely Lorraine)

1 BFL mule (ditto)

1 unknown lawn mower meat fleece (bought on a whim as it’s very soft and very beautiful and more than a little Shetland like)

1 kid alpaca (bartered for a discount on a couple of leather armchairs I sold)

Do you think I have enough?

I think they are all very fine fleeces, each one beautiful in its own way.

But it causes me to reflect on what exactly is the perfect hand spinning fleece and the mistakes I have made. For a spinner the perfect fleece is clean, uncontaminated by pests and vfm, well skirted, few second cuts, is sound, and not discoloured. It has the right fineness and the perfect staple length for its purpose. It is open and just falls onto the card or combs, taking but a moment to prepare it to spin. Heck it is so open and clean that it can be spun straight from the fleece with nothing more than a quick flick. In short one that comes from a sheep that has been kept in good health, in a good environment and sheared well.

Sadly, these wondrous beauties seem to come along quite rarely. But since I bought my first raw fleece five years ago my lucky strike rate does seem to have improved.  I’ve become one of those very picky, awkward customers. I am no longer embarrassed or afraid to say no thank you to a generous offer if the fleece is less than desirable. I am quite prepared to get stuck in and open out a fleece pull it to bits and then reject it, bundling it back up as I found it. Non spinners have a belief that all sheep fleece is spinnable. In a way they are right but… most spinners do not have the time to rescue a bad fleece that will spin up into a bad, rough, just plain nasty yarn. Unless of course that is what they wanted.

I have made just about every mistake there is.

There are 5 questions I now know to ask of a fleece and to ignore at my peril. These are:

Is it matted?

Is it sound?

Is it clean?

Does is have any staining or strange colouring?

How good was the shearing?

The first thing I do is to open out the fleece as much as I can. Matting or cotting is fairly easy to spot. Does that fleece want to fall apart or does it already look like it’s halfway towards a good felted sheepskin rug? I have paid good money for fleeces that gave me blisters and made me weep tears of frustration trying to tear them apart to be able to card the fibre before giving up on them. They did however make very nice sheepskins by felting the backs, sewing up the weak spots and dyeing them. I now sit on one when I spin.

Massam felted on the back and stitched to make a rug
Massam felted on the back and stitched to make a rug

By soundness I am talking about structural weakness in the fibres. For soundness test by giving a random staple or two the tug test. Take a staple and hold it firmly at each end. Then give it a firm steady substantial pull, do this by your ear as well to hear any tell-tale snap, crackle and pop of breaking fibres. If the fibres break then walk away. If the fibres randomly break along the shaft then the fleece is ‘tender’. If it is tender you will hear the snap, crackle and pop. If the break happens across the staple at the same point then this is a ‘Break’. A break is caused by some type of trauma such as diet, weather, illness or shock of some kind.

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An unsound fleece is not good for spinning. Carding or combing will break the fibres, the yarn will be lumpy, bumpy and will pill. However, all is not lost if you have one like this. It can make great felt or stuffing or insulation, rugs whatever. Just not great yarn.

felted collar (wool, silk and wensleydale locks)
felted collar (wool, silk and wensleydale locks)

All fleeces will have a certain amount of contamination of vegetable matter, bits of seeds, grass, insects, burdocks, and thistles whatever. This is the dreaded vfm. But some will have more than others. VFM means more work in preparing. Work is time. How much time do you have? How picky are you? Most of my yarns will have a bit of the field in them. It’s all character to me. But some are so contaminated that the more you do to get it out the worse it gets as the vfm breaks down into every smaller fragments. My advice. Walk away. I once watched in horror as someone shook out a lovely chocolate brown alpaca fleece onto an unclean stable floor. The stray, sawdust, hay, feed dust and just about every other particle of crap on the floor seemed to be attracted to the fleece like metal fillings to a magnet. I still took it, I was too embarrassed not to.  (Will add a picture when I can find one as I don’t have any in my stock)

Staining or discolouration, such as the yellow ‘yolk’ or ‘canary’ stains found towards the base of the staple, can be due to many different factors.  Staining or discolouration is not a problem if you plan to dye the fibre at some point. If you want a uniform colour then walk away as the discolouration will not wash out and is a characteristic of that fleece. For me I tend to ignore them. What I don’t ignore is the spray can of blue or fluorescent green or red that has been painted all over the fleece. This stuff will not wash out and will come through when dyeing. These I will walk away from if the shepherd has painted his sheep like it was a wall in a dulux ad. (again will add a picture when I can get one as I don’t have one in stock, unless you have one you would like to share)

Which brings me on to my final check. Badly shorn fleece. Second cuts. I once bought a fleece that looked ok. I did all the tests.  But when I got it home I shook it out and the thing peeled apart like 2 slices of bread where the fleece had been cut first halfway up the staple and then the shearer had gone back in to finish the job. Second cuts will make a bad yarn in the same way that breaks will. All fleeces will have some second cuts. But some will have more than others.  The one I bought was good for nothing but mulching the veg patch and lining my baskets…

My luck has improved with experience.  But I am not complacent or smug about it. Even now I make mistakes. That lawn mower fleece. Its feels like the one Jason and his Argonauts ought to be searching for. It’s so soft, open and glows with a lustrous golden light to it. I did do the tug test, honest, but I ignored my gut feeling. It really is very pretty fleece. But yes, it does have a break. So very sad. However it has meant that I am playing with wet felting and it is making the most wonderful felted things.

shredded cobweb felt scarf made with unsound fleece, silk and wensleydale locks
shredded cobweb felt scarf made with unsound fleece, silk and wensleydale locks

So what I have learnt over the years is that every fleece has its uses. Mistakes aren’t really that, just that you have the right fleece but for the wrong job.

Hope this helps you get lucky when it comes to finding that elusive perfect fleece.

I would love to do a follow up post with some of your horror stories so please get in contact and share…