Me: its your birthday in soon, what would you like?
Sean, looks into the distance for a few moments: You know those fishermans jumpers in that exhibition. One of those.
He is referring to a gansey and the exhibition was The Dutch Gansey exhibition at Sheringham Museum.
I blink and do a quick calendar roll in my head. That’s four weeks. To order the yarn and knit a mansize gansey. I sort of physically recoil. Blink. Gulp. And say in a quakey small voice: Ok.
I give him the Stella Ruhe book and tell him to show me what he likes. And then in a mad panic get myself online and order 2 cones of Frangipani yarn in traditional blue. Which thankfully arrived the next day. Thank you Gorgeous Yarns!
It’s not the first time I’ve done this. Setting myself a seemingly knit mission impossible. I do it all the time. If there is a special event I will always want a knit up the perfect shawl, wrap, cardigan, and jumper whatever. In the least time possible. Sometimes I pull it off. More often than not this will involve working later into the night that I ought to or getting up stupid early. On the bright side it’s about the only time when I’m grateful if I am having an insomniatic episode. I find myself getting a bit stressy with those I live with. And tears. Yes there are usually tears and tantrums.
It’s not just spinning and knitting projects, I do it to myself all the time. Inventing a huge list of chores that need to be completed, or decorating/DIY project to be finished in time for a visitor or some other deadline. None of these things are actually important or even necessary. The world will not end. The sun will still rise and set. No one will think badly of me. No one will judge me a failure. Only me.
Does this sound familiar?
I don’t think I am alone here.
There are times when setting and accomplishing small stupid tasks can seem just as overwhelming. When the black dog dogs me getting dressed, leaving the house, making a phone call or sending an email can seem to be too big to deal with.
But by setting a seemingly unachievable goal – even the trivial ones – will stretch me. And this is, generally, a good thing. Just trying to achieve that one thing can, if you pull it off, bring such a good feeling that is more positive than the self-defeating one of not even trying. Even if it does not go according to plan.
I won’t mention those over achievers that make the rest of us feel bad. They are just ridiculous.
Goals that stretch are good. Failure to reach them is OK. Not trying is not OK. Why are we afraid to fail? How do we learn or grow ourselves if we are so afraid to fail that we don’t even try.
But I’m only talking about knitting. How silly. Or am I?
This is the progress after day 5:
I have set myself a completely unachievable mission. A knit mission impossible. But I will give it my best shot. And if it’s not finished in time then so be it. I will be posting updates through September on my Instagram if you want to follow my progress. And please give me encouragement. I think I am going to need it…
As promised, a second post on the Norfolk Horn. In this post I want to tell you a bit about its wonderful woolly fleece.
Facts first. Todays Norfolk horn is a medium sized, hardy sheep. With its distinctive black face, alert bright eyes, with magnificent strong open spiral horns. Both rams and ewes have horns. Long black legs and a belly that is free from fleece. It is intelligent, inquisitive and friendly, and, relative to its ancestors, fairly docile. Its docility is thought to be owed to the Suffolk part of the modern Norfolks genetic heritage.
If you can get your hands on a Norfolk horn fleece you will find it is a creamy coloured, down land type, with flecks of dark fibres, the amount of dark fibre will vary between fleeces.
The British Wool Marketing Board classifies its fibre as fine, with a given micron range of 32 – 34. So not so fine. But bear with me. It does have a soft to medium handle. It has a staple length of 7 – 10 cm. The lock structure varies from a longish pointed staple in Shearling fleeces to a short thick more blocky staple in older sheep.
The fleeces are quite small weighing in between 1.25 – 2.25 kg. But the belly and legs are not fleeced. I have found that their fleeces tend to need little skirting so don’t generate too much waste. But they are greasy. Very greasy.
Another factor in their favour, it is incredibly reluctant to felt. So best avoided if you want a woollen yarn to full if you’re a weaver or felter. But great if you are a bit on the heavy/careless side with your finishing and washing. That’s not say they are impossible to felt…Here’s something from my research into the Norfolk breeds history: The poor felting of the Norfolk breed was one of the reasons why Norfolk developed a thriving Worsted yarn and cloth industry during the middle ages.
Surprisingly the lovely soft chocolatey brown fleece in this photo is Norfolk Horn. The Lambs are born with dark fleece and this gradually grows through to white with time. If you are lucky enough to get lambswool like this, the fleeces are a beautiful, short stapled but very fine and wonderfully soft. You’ll find shades ranging from salt and pepper grey through to dark rich chocolatey brown/black. The black fades out over time but some adults keep some dark fibres which gives an interesting colouring when it’s spun.
It is a great fibre to spin giving a bouncy lively yarn. The medium staple length and crimpiness make it a very tolerant fibre perfect for new spinners. It is not slick and slippery like over processed merino. It sort of sticks together and lets the spinner focus on keeping the wheel/spindle turning, whilst drafting the fibre and letting it feed in without having to concentrate too hard on keeping the drafted fibre.
I have found it spins up much softer than its fibres suggest it ought. But it is definitely a tickly sheepy yarn with bounce and life. The yarn seems to carry the character of the breed it comes from.
In general I card Norfolk horn on a drum carder. I used to painstakingly comb locks before feeding on. Took for ever. My hands raw, sore and blistering from combing. I don’t do this now. Now I pick up the locks, pull out any offending neps, noils, second cuts and other reject bits. Lay the lock perpendicular to the licker in and then feed it onto the drum sideways. Yes sideways. No. Not tip first. Not butt first. Sideways. Brilliant. I promise you try this once and you will be amazed at how speedier this whole boring slow boring and tedious process becomes. I will then split these once carded batts and then card them another couple of times. Picking out nasty bits as I go.
In general a woollen or semi-woollen spinning suits the fine character of the Norfolk the most.
This swatch was spun longdraw from the batt as strips that I’ve pulled into slivers. Its about 15 wpi and knitted on 3mm needles.
I’m useless at hand carding rolags, always seems to be full of neps and lumps and bumps. The yarn is light,airy and bouncy. It has a much softer hand than expected but is definitely tickly. Don’t mock the quality of my spinning, I can never seem to get enough ply twist!
The longer staples make a great worsted yarn. Unlike the sample in this picture, which is not my best. It spun denser than the woollen sample, at about 13 – 14 wpi and is knitted on 3mm needles.
When combed and spun worsted the resulting yarn has a lovely lustre and an amazing memory. Although it has a crisper handle the stuff is like elastic! It just keeps springing back to shape. It makes a perfect sock yarn. I’ve wondered about adding blending in some mohair for a harder wearing sock yarn. Haven’t got around to it yet. Although you will also lose a lot of fibre through combing but this can be carded and spun into a lovely textured woollen yarn. This swatch is spun worsted short draw. Sort of. I may have drifted of at points and forgot to keep with the inch worm…its firmer and a little harder hand that the woollen spun.
This cardigan is Norfolk horn.
I was in a silk phase so everything was being blended with silk. Didn’t need it. The brown pattern work is Alpaca. Despite being light its incredibly warm.
Heres another example. These are socks are Norfolk horn. I knitted them from a two ply worsted yarn spun from combed top and then dyed. They never, ever sag or bag. And I really like the lustre and good stitch definition. They have also more than a few trips through the washing machine at regular 40oC cycle. Did not felt. Amazing. The pattern, if you are wondering is Sunshine by Cookie A. Love love love her socks….
To sum up, its sheepy, bouncy, a full of life, versatile, dyes well and is virtually a natural superwash fibre.
Hopefully that’s what you need to know. Go find some if you can and give it a go. I would love to know how you find it.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
You can visit the exhibition from now until the end of September. The Gansey Symposium 2017 is from 29th September to Sunday 1st October.
I’m feeling very smug. I’ve just finished my latest knit and I love it.
The pullover is based on a Patricia Roberts pattern, Ovaltinie (Patricia Roberts Second Knitting Book p.72).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
I’ve been playing in the workshop and having a massive art attack with the Shetland top from our trip to Howarths. What do you think? Oh so very very pretty.
I really love playing with colours. The whole process from mixing up dyes, experimenting with different techniques in dyeing the fibre to exploring how the dyes mix and blend in rovings. Then using the drum carder to ‘paint’ with the different colours and textures.
Its not until the whole lot was thrown together that there is definitely a Fibre Workshop house style. Aside form the oft’ mentioned acid and chartreuse greens that seem to find their way into most of my work, I also can’t seem to avoid strokes of shine and a wee bit of bling. Silks (both natural and increasingly synthetic) and sparkley accents with trilobal and Angelina seem to find their way in to the mix more often than not.
When spun into yarn and knitted or woven into fabric or used in felting the silks and sparkles give the piece a beautiful accent that is very pleasing on both the eye and the hand. But don’t just take this from me. I’ve been taking these fibrous sweeties out into the world at both Guild and during makers month at the Forum as a bit of a consumer product testing exercise. Blimey its scary showing the world your wares and asking for criticism. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and included some very kind complements and extremely helpful advice from spinners, felters and fibre artists that bought them and have used them. They are quite small and manageable at 25 grammes per batt.
Do you think you might like some? Watch this space.
In the meantime these squooshy beautiful lovelies are now being stocked by Norfolk Yarn in Norwich. So if you are in Norwich pop in to the best yarn and fibre art shop in the region and go give the Fibre Workshop batts a squeeze and I bet you you wont be able to resist…
On Friday I was extremely honoured and privileged to join the Team HSN UK Spinzilla team on our visit to Howarth Scouring Co Ltd in Bradford at the very kind invitation or Martin and Adam Curtis (of Curtis Wools Direct one of our proud Team HSN UK sponsors).
It wasn’t quite the relaxing trip we had planned (original intention was a nice couple of days in the Peaks – not that I had planned a few trips to places such as Wingham Wool Works for a spend up – however something came up with the OH that could not be cancelled so we decided to do Bradford and back in one day. Knackering. The A47 was quiet – no Lorries or caravans creeping along at 40 miles an hour causing everyone else behind to white knuckle grip the steering wheel in frustration and developing a rage related embolism.
It was great to see people and put faces to the Ravelry code names. Martin was the best host and was extremely candid about his business and the future.
The tour around the Scouring and combing plants was fascinating. Kate Davies gave a splendid and informative post on her blog describing the process from a non-technical perspective here.
What struck me most was that it is exactly the same process we use at home in preparing our fleece. Just with machines, probably a whole lot more consistent and well regulated (in terms of pH, temperature, water and detergents) and on a massively different scale. And without the odd felting related mishaps as well. Hmm learning experiences. Well I would hope so anyway. Imagine felting up on that scale.
Raw fleece arrives at the factory baled. Curtis Wools buy approximately 50% of the BWMB annual clip in addition to fibre for other clients from around the world. We saw some amazing fleeces stained orange by desert sands and some beautiful fleeces in browns and tans from Egypt. Very strong fibre but wonderful colours.
The bales are unpacked and fed onto the conveyor. The smell was unmistakeable. Shit and sheep and lanolin. Glorious. It smelt like my cupboard in the workshop where I keep the raw stuff I can’t decide what to do with. And the dust. It was so dusty.
The conveyor moves the unpacked fleece into the first machine that opens out the fleeces. The conveyor then moves the opened out fleece through a long scouring line of a series of washes. Each one steadily cleaner. The fleece still contained a lot of vfm and other unidentified foreign articles.
At the end of the scouring line is a giant dryer.
The fibre then moves up the conveyor and is picked over as it passes through into the baling plant.
The dry scoured fibre is blown into large containers where it was stored until it was fed through into the balers. Martin opened up a full container, the fluffy clean fleece spilled out and caused minor chaos amongst the team as all were transfixed by sight and unable to stop themselves rushing forward.
The scoured bales are then transported across the road to the combing plant. Here the fibres are first carded into sliver, still lumpy and neppy, with some vfm in it.
The carded sliver was then passed through the combing line. These machines were mesmerising as the sliver pulsed its way into the combers and out the other side forming rhythmic and amazing shapes like a curious white unending snake. And the noise was indescribable. The final combed top is quite beautiful. The shapes are amazing as it coils out into the bumps. My photos do not do these justice.
Did consider if this would fit in the back of the Fiesta:
The whole process is the most efficient in the UK if not the world. This makes it a very clean process. In attempting to minimise ‘waste’ (thinking no such thing as waste, just lack of imagination and will in what to do with it) the plant also producers an amazing array of co-products. The combing waste (nepps) is sold on for uses including mattress stuffing. The lanolin is sold on into the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. The residual solid matter (other greases, particulates and dirty bits) is used as a soil improver. Also the treatment chemicals are specified and used efficiently to reduce the toxicity of the effluent stream. For example, the detergents used are specified specifically because they breakdown in the effluent treatment. We were also introduced to the EnCo testing team. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to have a conversation about the environmental side of things that interest me. However, I got the business card and will be contacting them with all my questions in due course.
We were also joined on the day by the fabulous Ellis Stokeld who owns the Doulton Flock of Border Leicesters.
This is the largest flock in the UK. You can find Ellie and The Doulton Flock on Ravelry (The Doulton Border Leicester Fleece group). She bought along some samples of her spun fleece. Including a skein of handspun. This was hands down the best skein compared with the mill spun skeins. It was glorious. Hats of to her spinner, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in some time. But then again I would say that wouldn’t I (no?). The 4-ply mill-spun had a wonderful lustre and drape to it. Looked like it would knit up with a great stitch definition. You can find The Doulton Flock Border Leicester yarns in a 4-ply and DK at Blacker Yarns.
The trip closed with a treat – a fibre retail opportunity. I came away with some more Shetland top in natural and two colours, grey and oatmeal. I’m planning on having an art attack with some of it dyeing it up and carding into some painterly batts. The remainder I think I may spin up for a colour worked piece. Traditional Shetland/Fairisle stranded work? Hmmm. So many ideas so little time.
All in all a very happy day. Ended up home by 9pm with a beer, a curry, feet up on the sofa and ‘Shetland’ on the TV. Perfect end to a perfect day. My thanks to Jan, Martin and Adam for making it all possible.
The The Forum Norwich is holding its first Makers Month from Monday 1st February to Saturday 27th February. Golly that’s next week! I am going to be there with the guys from the Mid-Norfolk Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers on Friday 5th, Saturday 6th, Thursday 11th, Friday 12th and Saturday 13th. The first two weeks are fibre focussed: week 1 Yarn; week 2 Fabric. There will be spinning with all the Norfolk Guilds represented, weaving with Kim from The Saori Shed and a plethora of other activities and crafts people. The following two weeks are paint and paper focussed if thats your thing.
Makers Month is for curious beginners and more experienced crafts people and master craftsmen to meet and share skills, ideas and enthusiasm for our craft. For absolute beginners to have a go. It should be really fun and exciting. I’m really looking forward to talking with other fibre obsessives to my hearts content!
I’m also looking forward to a fine talk and exhibition on the Norwich Shawl with Joy Evitt from the Costume & Textile Association on Friday 12th February.
So if you are in Norwich on those dates, come and find me and say hello.