The concept is simple – it’s based on consequences, the parlour game. You know, one person writes ‘[person A]’ on a piece of paper, folds it to hide what they’ve written, and passes it on to someone who writes ‘met [person B]’, and it gets passed on with the next person, who adds the next thing that happens in the story. At the end the papers are unfolded and the stories read out, often with hilarious results. We used to play a picture version: the first person draws a head and folds it over, the next person draws the torso, and so on until an entire mutant creature is created.
So goes the game, and so will go this project. We are going to make a cowl in two-colour stranded colourwork – I have cast on and will start with a band of a motif that I design. I’ll then pass it on to Aleks for her to add some rows of her own. Obviously we can’t really hide what’s been done so far, but there will be no plan and the only rule for the next section is that it has to fit into the correct number of stitches. We’ll pass back and forth until we run out of yarn!
Talking of yarn, a few weeks ago we went on a little trip to visit Emma Boyles at The Little Grey Sheep, as Aleks is designing some beautiful fingerless mitts using their yarn. We decided this was the perfect time to pick out a couple of colours for our little game.
Slightly overwhelmed by choice of amazing bases and gorgeous colours, we finally picked a dark brown-grey called Chocolate Mud Cake, and a beautiful deep orange, perfectly named Marmalade. The base is British Gotland 4Ply, a naturally coloured wool with beautiful lustre. It’s a somewhat ‘hairy’ yarn that is almost like mohair to work with, with not much stretch, a lovely little halo and colours that glow. These colours aren’t going to give a really strong contrast, but there will be enough that the motifs we create should show up.
Sound like something you’d enjoy? Then play along! You just need at least one other person (probably someone who’s comfortable with stranded knitting) and you can start!
Aleks and I are in the same city and regularly meet up so it’s easy for us to pass the project back and forth, but don’t let that be a limitation! Maybe you have a friend across the country, even internationally, and you could post the project to each other with hand-written letters!
If you’re not quite confident enough to make your own colourwork charts, you can use them from books or patterns you’ve bought. You just need to make sure that the pattern multiplies correctly to make your total stitch count.
A note on needles: Aleks has slightly tighter gauge than me (I’m a floppy-tension person, always have been), so I’m using 3mm needles and she’s using 3.25mm. We’re using interchangeable circulars so it’s really easy to swap over! My love for interchangeable needles is boundless.
If you decide to play, we’d love to see how it’s going! On Instagram we’re using #colourworkconsequences (n.b. British English spelling) to post our progress – feel free to use the hashtag and tag @marinaskua and @a_blackbyrd in your photos. We’ll occasionally share your photos on Instagram and maybe in a future blog post (and will always ask your permission). If there is lots of enthusiasm, we might put together a prize draw for participants!
Think you know someone who might enjoy this idea? Send them a link to this post or tag them in one of my photos on Instagram!
As we’ve had some sunny days here in the UK recently, I’ve begun to think about projects for warmer weather and the fibres that are suitable for them.
A trip to the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds are a lovely hilled area of southern England that stretches up north-eastwards from Bath. They’re a haven of green landscapes, thatched stone cottages and villages that time seems to have left well alone. Tucked away in this rural idyll is Flaxland, where Ann and Simon Cooper grow a small field of flax and run educational courses about the fibre. I went to visit in mid-August last year.
Out in the fields are flax plants that have grown tall and already gone to seed. They are harvested at this stage when the fibres are long and strong, before the weather gets too wet. The plants have shallow roots and are easily pulled up in bundles by hand. These bundles are then laid on their side in the field to be retted.
Retting and drying in the field
Retting is the process of using moisture to break down the brittle outer ‘bark’ of the stems to be able to easily separate it from the straight, vertical inner fibres that run the length of the stalk.
When the retting is complete, the plants are stacked upright in large bundles leaning against each other. This helps air circulate and allows them to dry out. There’s an art to stacking these little ricks perfectly so that they aren’t constantly blown over when it’s windy!
Breaking, scutching and hackling
Flax that is ready to work is brought in to be processed. The aim is for fine, long, perfectly smooth fibres that are strong and free of coarse material. Once work begins, the flax releases the most beautiful scent of fresh hay, which makes a refreshing change from the smell of wool!
Despite the name, the length of the useable fibre doesn't actually snap and only the woody outside breaks.
Again the handful of flax is grasped tightly, and pulled through a literal bed of nails – the hackle – at speed to comb it out. Ever wondered why a dogs hackles are named so? This is why!
The flax is drawn through sets of progressively finer hackles, resulting eventually in a beautifully soft, glossy bundle of long, grey-beige fibres.
Spinning flax fibre into linen yarn
The distinctive thing about flax as a fibre is that – compared to wool, alpaca, mohair, cotton etc. – the staple is incredibly long. This is why linen fabric is so very strong. However, it necessitates a different approach to spinning, to ensure that all the fibres are aligned with no bumps and bends.
The distaff is then turned upright and the flax gently tied on with ribbon to hold it in place. For spinning, the fibres can then be drawn from the base of the distaff, and it’s possible to spin incredibly finely, only twisting a couple of staples together.
I loved learning about this process and am so glad to have found somewhere quite near to me where I can source locally grown flax!
How about you? Have you worked with flax/linen in your craft work? I’d love to hear about how you’ve used it and your opinions in the comments below!
Anyone who has done a knitting project or two will know that you almost inevitably end up stockpiling lots of small quantities of left-over yarn – often not enough to use for a new project on their own.
As a knitter, spinner and weaver, I have a lot of these mini balls and skeins saved up. Every so often, I like to pull them out and see which ones play nicely together. When it feels like I have a great colour and texture scheme, I decide what kind of project I’d like to make.
I’m planning on doing a few posts each showing a way to use these odds and ends – some with lots of little bits on their own, and some combining them with other yarns that you might have a skein or two of. There will be knitting, some weaving, and even a bit of spinning! Sound good? Great!
So today we’re talking jumbo knitting. Jumbo yarn has been – do forgive me – big for quite a while now. To the extent that the Craft Yarn Council added a whole new category for it! But we’re not going to be using jumbo yarn; we’re simply going to work with a lot of lighter-weight yarns held together for some large-scale texture.
As with any project, the amount of yarn you have will dictate what kind of item you can make – I'm going to assume you'll be able to judge this yourself. For small amounts you could make a hat or cowl, or if you have years' worth of scraps you could make a big chunky blanket!
Start with a number of yarn strands and make a ball; you can use as few as two strands, or combine six, or ten, or twenty! Generally the more strands you use, the thicker and warmer your knitted fabric will be – you just need to make sure you'll have the correct size needles (or knitting loom, or crochet hook, or arms) for the combined yarn you're making. When deciding how many strands I need, I like to very quickly knit a swatch of literally a few stitches and rows to check how the multi-yarn works up, then unravel it and carry on.
Keep winding your ball until you have run out of yarn or you have enough for whatever you're planning to make! This isn't an exact science; we're all about freestyling here. Once you've got your giant ball of combined yarn, you can work it up into your item of choice. I loom-knitted a couple of very quick cowls with my combo-yarn, and love the warmth and depth of texture!
Are you inspired to start combining your yarns to make chunky projects? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!
Also, keep an eye out for more posts in the upcoming weeks showing different ways you can put your scraps to good use.
I wanted to design a knitting pattern that took inspiration from the landscape up on the Mendip Hills and captured the ambience of the outdoors. Thus the Fernhill Hat was born – the stranded colourwork design echoes the plants found on the farm and in its logo.
The pattern is designed for knitters with some familiarity with knitting in the round and stranded colourwork, but would also be great as a first try at these techniques for more adventurous beginners!
The photos of the finished hat being worn were taken up on the farm, and feature farm owner Jen and wonderful shepherd Danny. It would have been lovely to get some photos in the impressive amounts of snow we’ve had lately, but the roads were impassable even for 4x4s, let alone my tiny little car!
The yarn is available in one dyed and two natural colours, and the pattern is written in three teen/adult sizes.
The pattern is available digitally on Ravelry, and printed copies on Folksy, shippable to anywhere in the European Union.
Rejecting fast fashion
Probably in response to ‘fast fashion’ – the wasteful and damaging trends in cheap clothing – the term ‘slow fashion’ is cropping up a lot more frequently. As someone who has sewn clothes for years and, more recently, has gained an appreciation for the number of processes involved in textile creation, I’ve become a lot more conscientious about the clothing I consume.
I prefer to buy second-hand, and will only buy new from companies with ethical credentials. I purchase clothes I intend to keep until I wear them out. I generally avoid synthetic fabrics. Of course I have to make compromises – I don’t have the limitless time and budget required to put together an ethically irreproachable wardrobe. But wherever possible I try to make informed, considered choices.
Partly because of this and partly thanks to hands that always want to be creating, I now have the skills and equipment to take raw fibre and turn it into something wearable. As I briefly wrote about in a previous blog post, I decided I could scrape together the self-discipline to make a whole me-sized jumper from raw fleece.
Choosing natural fibres
The fibre blend is two parts wool to one part alpaca. I used wool from Fernhill Farm – a beautiful dark grey Bluefaced Leicester x Shetland/Romney fleece. The alpaca is a lovely fawn colour, acquired from the lady who owns the barn where my Grandma goes weaving each week in Devon. I like to have connections with the sources of my materials!
The natural colour and texture of fibres needed to be the main focus of the yarn and finished jumper. The dark colours blended to make a beautifully soft, warm-brown, and I deliberately left inconsistencies in the texture of the yarn for a rustic tweed effect.
The processes to make the yarn are very similar to those I wrote about for my Peak District scavenged yarn so I’m including a few photos of the various stages of fibre preparation and spinning and leaving it at that. I love talking about fibre processing so you're welcome to ask questions if you're interested in the details!
Knitting pattern adaptation
When it came to knitting, I immediately had a problem with the combination of the yarn and pattern I’d chosen. As a thorough and sensible knitter (cough) who has learned through harsh experience, I always knit a swatch to check my gauge before starting a size-specific project. I’m fairly sure the people who don’t swatch have never had a project turn out unexpectedly and hilariously enormous or teeny. Maybe they just have really even tension and don’t make ridiculous yarn substitutions. I know I have loose tension and, as this jumper proves, definitely believe in pushing the envelope where yarn choice is concerned.
Fortunately, as a tech editor and designer, grading a new size for the jumper to accommodate my much bulkier yarn was straightforward. I never expected my knitting to involve so many numbers and calculations when I started out years ago!
When I started working on the jumper last summer I was quite sanctimonious about it being a slow, no-pressure project. I did so well – for a while. I put it aside. I worked on other things. I’ve finished a few items since then, including another jumper start to finish. And suddenly I was left with a dearth of projects on the needles. This and one more were left. The annoying, irresistible voice at the back of my head that gives me unreasonably ambitious ideas said ‘you should definitely have a hand-knit jumper to wear to Unravel at the weekend’. I had thought I’d wear the other – finished – jumper. But that one’s a test knit and still has to be kept somewhat secret.
So, less than halfway through the body, with only a couple of small skeins of yarn spare and three days to go, I picked it up again. All guns blazing, I knitted and scoured and carded and spun and knitted and spun some more. I stayed up irresponsibly late and watched motivational Youtube videos and listened to inspiring podcasts and got through most of the Star Wars films. With a few hours to spare (not really spare – they needed to be full of sleeping) I finished it.
It fits me perfectly, the fabric is lovely. It gives me the warm and fuzzies, both in the literal and emotionally metaphorical sense. As someone at Unravel said, after I instructed them to stroke my arm – completely acceptable at knitting events – ‘that’s like wearing a hug!’. Yes, fellow knitter, you’re exactly right. And I’ve been wearing that hug every day since I finished it on Friday (technically Saturday but it doesn’t count as the next day until you’ve gone to bed).
So here it is, an end-to-end completely hand-made jumper. The sense of pride is overwhelming.
The pattern I used is Soiree by Emily Foden for Pom Pom Quarterly Issue 21.
The wool is from Fernhill Farm, and eco-farm on the Mendip Hills (full disclosure, I now work for the farm but that wasn’t the case when I bought the fleece!).
For a fascinating insight into the depressing implications of the fast fashion industry check out the documentary The True Cost.
I seem to have become one of those ‘always busy’ people, somehow. Multiple projects are in various stages of progress around my workroom; endless scrap paper to-do lists litter my desk in the space not currently occupied by the loom and laptop. Trying to scrape together the focus to complete these projects to deadlines – self-imposed or otherwise – in the remaining time around the day job can lead to unnecessary exhaustion.
I’m not alone in this. The creative community I love being part of is full of people juggling priorities, trying to fit the work we love into the gaps life allows. There is never enough time, and that can be overwhelming.
I create not only because I love the process, but because I yearn for the sense of achievement. Having completed a project and having a tangible result from my work is satisfying, but it’s so easy to end up chasing the finished object – the tick on the to-do list – that we forget the joy of the process.
Enter the ‘no-pressure project’. Obviously there will always be work with deadlines and things that need to be done. But the no-pressure project is there purely for enjoyment, for something to work on when hands want activity with no stress attached. I’ve ignored all notions of weather-appropriate knitting, and started work on a big warm jumper in July.
A while ago I thought of a yarn I wanted to make (yes, my brain sometimes designs yarn when it’s in ‘idle’ mode). I have some beautifully soft, coloured wool and some very fine dark fawn alpaca, which I wanted to blend to make a soft, airy, undyed yarn with texture and a little drape. I needed the perfect pattern before committing to make a whole jumper’s quantity of yarn from raw fleece. There’s no denying that it’s a big project. I needed a design that had a good balance of being interesting without being too complicated, so I don’t get bored, but also won’t lose my place if I put it away for a while. Emily Foden’s Soirée Pullover from Pom Pom Quarterly Issue 21 immediately caught my eye and I knew this was the pattern.
I was excited to start. I began washing and carding the fleece immediately. But not all at once. I carded a bit, enough to start me off. Then I spun that up and knitted the first couple of inches. I then felt like spinning, so did a little more carding and spinning. This has been going on while I work on other things. In lunch breaks, when I need a little escapism. On trains, when my fingers need something to keep them occupied. In the late evening, when I want to wind down and relax a little. No pressure.
There’s no hurry; it’s still summer. Well, English summer. I won’t need the jumper for a few months, and if it’s not done by then, I have other cosy jumpers I’ll be glad to be re-acquainted with first. I’m not desperate to get it off the needles so I can wear it and feel that ‘I made a thing!’ feeling. I’m just happy to let it be something I’m knitting, which will eventually be a jumper I’ll love.
Determinedly green hills, tumbling stone walls, beaten exposed rock and indispensible pubs – a short break in the Peak District was just what I needed last month. The heather was beginning to put out buds, the sun managed to fight through the clouds sporadically, and the sheep were mostly yet to be sheared.
When I was little I always hated seeing wool lying on the ground in fields and caught on barbed wire. It seemed like a waste. I always wanted to collect it, hoarder that I am. Parents, relations, whoever was forcing me out on a walk, never let me. What would I do with it? I couldn’t use it for anything, and it was smelly and dirty.
Oh, how different things are now. The wool is still smelly and dirty, still caught in the thistles like forgotten little drifts of snow. But now I know how to clean it, to card and spin it, to make it into something useful. And there’s nothing to stop me gathering as much as I like! (Except for the limited size of the designated wool pocket in the backpack…)
So our hiking trip was punctuated by meandering runs towards little white patches that looked promising. A lot of the wool had far too much kemp (brittle, weak hairs that do not take dye) for it to be useable. Some (as in the photo below) was far too coarse and hair-like. But some of the wool I found was beautiful. Some snowy white, long and lustrous, some distinctive Bluefaced Leicester finely crimped locks. I kept these, as well as some slightly shorter wool with kemp in it for some texture. Though the kemp adds no strength to yarn, in small amounts it can add a tweedy effect.
Carefully stashed in my bag and brought home, the wool first needed cleaning before it could be made into yarn. I picked out as much grass, moss and leaf as possible, and, as there was only a small amount, washed it in a single batch in the sink. First I used hot water with Unicorn Power Scour, which came recommended by everyone I know who had used it, then rinsed with hot water. When working with whole fleeces it's often necessary to wash and rinse another time, but I had selected cleaner wool when gathering, and the small quantity helped.
Turning the handle on the side of the carder feeds the wool under the smaller front drum. It is then pulled up between the two drums, where the teeth separate the fibres. Any waste, including vegetable matter (small pieces of straw, leaves etc.), too-short and clumped sections of wool mostly ends up on the front drum, while on the back drum the useful fibre gradually builds into a batt.
When the large drum is full, the batt is peeled upwards off the teeth, forming a large rectangle of wool. At this stage batts are useable, and can be spun into yarn or felted. However, I mixed different types of wool, and some fibres have not fully separated and blended, so I tear the two batts I made into smaller pieces and feed them through the carder again. I do this twice to ensure the batts have a relatively uniform texture and composition.
The plied yarn is then wound onto a niddy-noddy (by far my favourite word) to make a skein. In this form the yarn can be washed and, if desired, dyed. I like to beat up my hand-spun a little when washing it. The hot water and friction set the twist and make the fibres stick together slightly, which helps prevent the yarn from splitting or unravelling.
Recently a lot of my textiles work has centred around scarves. I've always loved scarves as an accessory; they can add interest to an otherwise low-key look, and add some much-needed warmth. I've certainly been appreciating mine this winter, spending most days in a chilly office!
The above scarf is the first I wove on the new loom. The yarn is all hand-spun, mostly wool and alpaca with a small amount of soy. The dark grey-brown is undyed wool from one of the fleeces shown in my last post, which I carded quickly, leaving in the scorched tips and slubby bits for a beautiful heathery tweed look. It's quite thick and very warm, but is surprisingly lightweight, thanks to the woollen-spun yarn.
I love the subtle shifts in colour and texture in this super-soft scarf. I'm not even sure how to describe the colour; there are definitely flecks of turquoise in there; the rest moves between teal, grey and brown. The fibres were a delight to work with; the warp is my hand-dyed BFL Fingering, and the weft alternates between merino–silk–alpaca and merino–baby llama–silk. Oh my, so luxurious. I could happily cocoon myself in there.
To finish, I am now working with two heddles on the loom so am able to weave more interesting patterns. I'll be experimenting further in the next couple of months! Here's a look at what I currently have in progress.
I can't wait to see how this one drapes when it's finished.
Do you have a favourite scarf, or one with a story? If you'd like to share, please leave a comment!
Things have been very busy lately; I’ve just moved house to a completely new area, and now have my own teeny studio at home! It’s so nice to have a dedicated space to contain the fluff!
Before the move, amongst all the panic of packing and transport arrangements, I was working on some custom dyeing for Fernhill Farm, who I love working with. They are an eco farm on the Mendips in Somerset and focus on sustainable farming, as well as producing some of the loveliest wool. I bought my first fleece from them earlier in the year, and was hooked!
This order was to dye up a mountain of their beautiful white combed tops in ten solid colours they chose, plus a few variegated colour ways I created for them. This was such a great learning experience for me; coming up with specific colour recipes to make repeatable colours, seeing how the fibres take colour differently and can sometimes give unexpected results. The testing stage is always brilliant fun, working out the specific amounts required of each dye colour and keeping notes in my dye-splashed notebook.
I love how these colours came out! So rich and vibrant.
With all the wool dyed up I went down to the farm to drop it off and have a little look around, seeing the farmyard, some of the accommodation on site and the area that’s used for festivals in the summer. I would have loved to take photos, but my camera was left at home packed in a box somewhere.
Of course I had to see the shearing shed and play around with some of the amazing fleeces! I came away with two fleeces; one white Shetland x Teeswater, and one dark grey-brown Sheltand/Bluefaced Leicester/Romney.
I’ve been working with Teeswater for a while (as written about in my last blog post), and while I love the lustrous curls, I sometimes wish it were a little softer. This is! It has the beautiful texture of Shetland, with the lovely curls characteristic of Teeswater. Perfection! Soon I’ll be separating out some locks from this fleece to dye up – I can’t wait!
I’ve only worked with white sheep fleece so far (though I work with grey and fawn alpcaca), and am really excited to see how this fleece will dye, card and spin. I have washed a small section and plan to try spinning straight from the fleece; something I’ve not tried before. It’s all about trying new things and experimenting!
It’s been really special to visit the place the wool comes from; it’s so easy to become disconnected from the origins of the materials we use and forget about the sheep that grow the wool, tended by hardworking farmers. I’m trying to maintain and nurture that connection, in my own small way.
Have you ever visited a fibre farm, or seen wool you've used at its source? I'd love to hear about it.
I recently visited my grandparents in Devon and whilst there my grandma took me to her weaving group, which gathers at a studio on a small farm. It was lovely to meet the group and be able to discuss fibre and textiles with knowledgeable and interesting people, all with their own style and differing experience. Also on the farm was a small mixed flock of sheep; recently sheared, with some of their fleeces waiting in bags in the barn.
I picked a beautiful raw Teeswater fleece (a breed prized for their long, curly fleece) – very greasy and full of vegetable matter and dirt. It smelled as if I’d brought the whole sheep home with me! The fibre is beautiful, and I’ve begun work separating individual locks from the fleece and dyeing them in small batches; these are often used in spinning art yarn and creative felt making. I’m going to give a little overview on how I prepare the locks for dyeing, as it’s surprisingly time-intensive but very rewarding.
As the fleece is very long, the fibre gets slightly matted together about a third of the way from the bottom. First I pull a small section from the fleece and, working with a large piece of fabric or sheet of plastic on my lap, I separate the locks by very gently teasing apart the fibres, always ensuring that the curls at the tips remain intact. This has to be done delicately to make sure that as much of the fibre remains parallel as possible, to reduce fuzziness.
At this stage I also remove larger pieces of vegetable mater; any strands of grass or straw. I am then left with individual, but still quite dirty locks.
This fleece has a lot of lanolin (the ‘grease’ produced by sheep), which affects the texture, smell, and colour of the fibre, making it stiff, oily and yellow. To remove this I first do a couple of batch washes.
For the first wash I add the locks to a pan of plain warm water, and gradually heat to a high simmer over about half an hour. This is then left to cool, then drained in a colander (one reserved especially for wool!). For the second wash I use a wool scouring product in the water, again putting the locks in the pan and gradually heating to a simmer. Again it is then left to cool and drain. At this stage most of the lanolin is gone, but there is still some vegetable matter and fine grit left in the locks, as well as scouring agent, which must be removed.
I then fill the sink with hot water (as hot as I can comfortably put my hands in), and take the locks one by one and rinse out any leftover cleaning product and dirt. I gently separate the fibres in the water to allow the dirt to fall out, and change the water when it becomes too cool or dirty.
Once this is done the locks can be left to dry and then be used as they are, or dyed. I like to dye mine, as I love the way the colours turn out! I dye the locks in a pan on the hob, using one colour for the tips and one for the tails, creating a lovely gradient. You can see all the locks I have available here.
Have you used long wool locks in any of your fibre work? I'd love to hear about how you use them, and whether you prefer to buy them ready to use, or prepare them yourself!