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!
Recently I’ve been conducting a series of very un-scientific experiments, dyeing and spinning a variety of plant fibres into yarn. These have really brought out the fibre-nerd in me – I promise not all of my posts will be this specific!
So far I’ve focused my dyeing efforts quite strongly on animal fibres (mostly wool, and some alpaca of late), preferring synthetic dyes for their controllable results and colour-fastness. I decided to branch out and try some more exotic fibres to perhaps include in exciting new blends, and used a couple of natural dyes, enabling me to dye both protein and cellulose fibres in the same dye bath. When using synthetic dyes, protein fibres (e.g. wool, silk, soybean) require an acidic dye bath and heat to set the colour; for cellulose fibres (e.g. cotton, linen) mildly alkaline soda ash and a cold dye bath are usually used. The process for natural dye is a little different; alum is probably the most common mordant (used to set the colour), and is used for protein and cellulose fibres.
The plant fibres I chose to try out were ramie (a type of nettle, apparently!), banana, corn, and soybean. I bought these as tops ready for spinning, and dyed them with turmeric (with alum as a mordant) and/or avocado (with no added mordant, as the tannin in avocado stones acts as its own mordant). I also dyed some Shetland tops, humbug Bluefaced Leicester tops, and grey Alpaca fleece to blend with the plant fibres.
1: Shetland wool (avocado dye). 2: Shetland wool (turmeric dye). 3: Humbug Bluefaced Leicester wool (avocado). 4: Grey alpaca fleece (avocado). 5: Grey alpaca fleece (turmeric). 6: Soybean (avocado). 7: Banana (Avocado and turmeric). 8: Corn (turmeric). 9: Ramie (turmeric)
I didn’t weigh out any of the fibres, and blended them at whatever ratio felt right, and spun them to whatever thickness the fibre wanted to be without too much attempt at consistency. I like a rather gung-ho, instinctive attitude when trying out new things; in this case this approach allowed me to get a nice feel for the fibre.
Ramie: Dyed with turmeric, and came out a beautiful, deep, golden yellow. The fibre is a bit stiff and un-obliging to spin; it has a fair bit of friction to it. This was the first one I blended on the drum carder, and for subsequent fibres I made sure to properly separate out the strands to avoid clumping and tangling, and ensure a nice smooth spin.
Banana: Dyed with avocado, with some turmeric accents. A very strong-feeling fibre, with a bold lustre almost like Wensleydale wool when spun up. I blended this with Bluefaced Leicester, and was surprised how easily it spun up. I suspect this is partly due to the lovely smoothness of the Bluefaced Leicester, and will have to try blending it with another fibre to see if the experience is different.
Corn: Dyed with turmeric, with some areas left white. This is a weird fibre! It’s also the only plant fibre that had a noticeable smell, and is very lightweight and a little weak. It can be very puffy and fluffy, which is rather nice, but is quite breakable. It fought quite hard against being spun to a consistent thickness
Soy: Dyed with avocado; it started off a very pale yellowy-cream colour. What can I say? I’m in love! The soy fibre shares a lot of properties with silk. It’s fine, smooth, drapey and yielding, lovely to touch, with a beautiful sheen. This really pleases me, as I love silk and have really wanted to work with it in my spinning, but can’t quite get over the disturbing amount of silkworm-death involved in its production. The soy took on the gentle pink tones from the avocado beautifully, and was just a delight to work with. I’m definitely adding this to my list of preferred fibres, and will be making an appearance in lots of hand-spun yarns soon! I did a little extra research on soy fibre, because if I’m going to use a fibre in large quantities I want to check that it aligns with my values of sustainability. It’s produced as a by-product of soya in the food industry, processed from the bean husks that are usually discarded when making tofu. It’s generally touted as being an eco-friendly fibre, which really pleases me. As well as using it in my blends for spinning I’m going to try getting hold of some woven soy fabric to see how it handles and dyes.
My lovely drum carder (purchased from Wingham Wool Work). Blending can be done by hand with hand carders, but I found it to be too time-consuming for the volume of carding and blending I need to do. At the bottom of the above image you can see where the fibre goes in to be blended: looking back now I know why I had so much trouble with my first batch of ramie. I definitely should have separated out those fibres a lot more!
The fibre comes off the drum carder in a rectangular batt. I then roll this lengthways to make a fat tube, then gently pull this to make the tube longer and thinner, and keep pulling it to ensure consistent thickness until I end up with one nice continuous length, which is a kind of faux tops (real tops is made with combs, not a carder, but it's close enough). I then wind this into a ball round my hand, then spin from one end.
1: Shetland and soy. 2: Alpaca and soy (so soft and lovely!). 3: Bluefaced Leicester and banana. 4: Shetland and ramie. 5: Alpaca and corn (for some reason I find the colour of this one deeply unsettling). 6: Shetland and corn. 7: Shetland and ramie.
I love the variety I have here! With just two different dyes, and utilising naturally coloured fibres, there is a huge range of colours and textures. I wish you could feel all of these, to feel the difference between the smooth, drapey alpaca/soy blend and a firm, bouncy ramie/Shetland blend. Of course, there are still plenty more combinations of these fibres that I’m going to try. I think I’ll use these in contrast for a couple of finished pieces; the softer yarns for a hand-knit neck-warmer, and some of the stronger ones for amazing structural detail in a woven wall-hanging. I’m considering putting together some sets of smaller skeins of yarn, incorporating interesting blends, for people to try knitting or weaving with these fibres. I’d love to hear if there would be any interest in this!
Spinners, have you tried any of these plant fibres? I haven’t really seen them used in commercial yarns, but it would be great to hear from any yarn-lovers who have come across them!
I say beginnings; this isn't the beginning. It is one of many, some of which have happened already, with hopefully many more to come.
The website is new and swishy, and I want to make it more than just a showcase of my wares. I hope to give some insight into the way I work, and some of the processes involved in working with fibre. Fingers crossed you'll find something of interest and will say hello, ask questions, and let me know your thoughts. The fibre community is an incredibly strong and supportive one. I've found so much inspiration and knowledge through blogs, Instagram and podcasts that I'd like to contribute a little, though it may be the teeniest drop in the widest and fluffiest of oceans.
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