This post is about a sheep, a very special sheep called HRH or Old Leader.
HRH, photo by Nan Bray, used with her permission
In 2016, I had the great fortune to encounter a very lovely fleece from White Gum Wool whilst studying for the Spinning Certificate run by the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria. It was a superfine Saxon Merino fleece around 17 microns. Afterwards, in the course of interviewing Nan Bray for an article in Spin Off, she told me that the fleece was the last fleece of her most important matriarch and that she had died recently. She asked if I might send her a spun sample of HRH.
Sometimes, we get the opportunity to work with fibre from a known animal. Perhaps it is from an animal we’ve raised, that we’ve had pointed out at a farm, sometimes, all we have is a name written on the fleece bag. Considering the life of sheep in our fibre work is important. They are the source of our materials. They turn grass into warm, renewable, biodegradable clothing for us. Thinking about them as individuals can shift our thoughts from resource consumption to an empathetic comradeship where we are more likely to be concerned about animal welfare, life span and health of the earth.
HRH leading the flock, photo by Nan Bray, used with her permission
I’ve never been in the situation of knowing a specific sheep posthumously through its fleece and it has given me much to think of. Nan spoke so movingly of the importance of HRH to her flock and her own knowledge of Merino behaviour that I thought that a memorial post for HRH might be appropriate and Nan gave her permission.
HRH or Old Leader was 11 years old when she died at the end of 2015. She was a mother and a grandmother. Despite our belief that fleece coarsens over time, even at 11, her fleece is the finest I have yet spun. Not many sheep in commercial flocks get to live until 11, most get sent off to the abattoir at around 5 years old. But Nan has a different perspective on raising sheep and believed that HRH and her other matriarchs had important knowledge on how to graze, where to find the various plants that keep a sheep healthy and how to move as a flock together.
HRH aka Old Leader…was pivotal in teaching me many, many important lessons—not just about sheep, but at least as importantly, about myself.
HRH, photo by Nan Bray, used with her permission
In her Yarns from the Farm posts on the White Gum Wool website, you can type in HRH into the search box and find many, many posts about this sheep. In one post, entitled The Power of the Matriarch in 2014, Nan wrote
So, Old Leader, for whatever set of reasons, is the acknowledged wise woman of the flock. She is the one who decides where and when the flock will move to graze, whether it is safe to move into a new area, when to move to shelter and where that shelter is likely to be, relative to developing weather patterns. And the flock, accepting her leadership, move confidently behind her, and graze more actively as a result of her confidence.
It didn’t seem right just to send a spun sample, even though it was the very best, finest spinning I could do at the time (I am not a lace spinner so it really was the best I could do). So I knitted a wee memento for Nan, a memento mori, a remembrance of a life passing.
So often we spin and knit from fibre whose origin is a mystery to us. Even though this is normal and everyday, when I think about it, wool that comes from unknown sheep and unknown places has a particular poignancy about it…a kind of anonymous lostness.
I only met HRH through her fleece, but I hope through Nan’s pictures and words, you come to have a sense of her. She was a special sheep. They are all special sheep, with their own knowledge and wisdom of being a sheep, finding food and giving birth. It is good for us to catch ourselves occasionally and to remember how precious their wool really is.
You can find out more about HRH/Old Leader on the White Gum Wool website. You can also find stories about other matriarchs in the flock. If you have any stories about sheep you have known, please share them.
This is a wonderful, fascinating book.
The patterns are extraordinary and require lots of gazing upon and wondering at.
But this is the bit that truly amazes me. Have a look at these knitting symbols.
Now consider these words from the introduction.
Unlike other stitch pattern charts you may have seen, Japanese charts do not provide a key for how to work the symbols. The symbols are standardized, and every Japanese publisher uses the same symbol set. A Japanese knitter is expected to know them.
Crikey bananas! Japanese knitters must the Übermensch of the knitting world, or more appropriately the Überstrickennen. The level of knitting expertise and knowledge that is assumed in Japan is awe inspiring. Fortunately for those of us who are not Überstrickennen, Hitomi Shida’s Japanese Knitting Stitch Bible (2015) explains every symbol. Phew!
There are even wonderful explorations of how patterns might be rearranged or altered. It is a rare insight into an designer’s mind space. Even if you never knitted from this book, it would still change your knitting life.
The Artisans Textile Festival, part of the Australian Sheep and Wool Show extravaganza was almost two weeks ago now and it was a great success! The Bendigo Bowls Club was packed to the rafters, warm as toast and buzzing with energy. I was there on the Saturday, staffing the My Spin on Things stall which included my Natural Gradient Alpaca Shawl kits and dyed English Leicester locks. The day was a whirl, and I talked to lots and lots of interesting folks about spinning and fibre and learned so much.
It was a wonderful day and though I managed very well for most of it, afterwards my body reasserted its demands for rest and so things have been very quiet here at Needle and Spindle. Whilst there is a fantastic energy at a fibre festival, I am probably not at the stage of recovery where I could manage that kind of thing very often…but with the success of my products perhaps an online store is in my future. Food for thought indeed.
Right now, there are slow, cold walks in beautiful Ballarat, some spinning and some knitting and of course all the everyday family palaver.
I recently finished these socks, Tuff Socks Naturally #5. The picture was taken freshly after dog walking. I really notice their warmth in comparison to my superwash merino socks. They are in super high rotation at the moment as all my other Tuff Socks Naturally socks have been off on a research adventure. Hopefully they will be back soon.
The socks are knitted from a high grist 2 ply in Ryeland fleece from Hallyluya Farm near Hamilton in Victoria. They were dyed in the fleece after scouring using Earth Palette cold dyes. Only the tips dyed so they have a lovely heather quality to them. The disorganised locks were drum carded then spun off the worsted end of the batt. The yarn moves from a dense fingering weight to a light sportsweight towards the end of the skein so I need to improve my consistency. But they knit up just fine, into a hearty, bouncy pair of socks using Anne Hansen’s Almondine design from Ann Budd, Sock Knitting Master Class (2011) Interweave Press. My only modification was to stop the lace pattern at the ankle as I prefer a smooth sock bottom in my boots. I also dropped down a needle size for the heels and toes rather than using any extra reinforcing fibres.
Thank you dear readers for your enthusiastic support of the latest endeavours at Needle and Spindle, and now…a little more news.
Along with the Natural Gradient Alpaca Shawl Kits, I will have also been preparing English Leicester locks for sale at the Artisans Textile Festival next weekend in Bendigo. For a long time, I have been fascinated with English Leicester fleece. I made it my focus in Waysides: Local Colour from our Home Grounds and used it in both the Waysides Shawl and the Waysides Yoke.
English Leicester has interested me for many reasons: its rare breed status, the legacy of Ethel Stephenson’s work to preserve the breed in Australia, her hand in the breeding program at Collingwood Children’s Farm and the waterways connecting my home ground to the English Leicester flock there. But over and above all these reasons, my fascination lies in the profound difference of English Leicester to the kind of wool that dominates Australian paddocks and yarn stores. It was once the most numerous of all sheep in England but there as here, it is now critically endangered. It is immensely lustrous. Its long staples are a preindustrial legacy not lending themselves to mill spinning and though strong, it can be so soft in the handle. It can be used for durable homewares and yet make a wonderful shawl. English Leicester is both curious and precious.
I am always trying to find uses for English Leicester, and I have a particular soft spot for the English Leicester fleeces from Collingwood Children’s Farm. They come to me dirty and full of hay for they are not kept for their fleeces but for their genetic and educative qualities and the children do rather throw the hay at the sheep during feeding time. But these fleeces, with a little love and care, reveal their glorious beauty to all.
To compliment Janet Day’s wonderful art yarn batts on sale at the My Spin on Things stand, I have dyed batches of English Leicester lamb locks and adult locks with solar dyes. Whilst these are synthetic dyes, they use much less water and energy than conventional stove-top synthetic dyes and the English Leicester locks just shine.
The locks are available in 25 g packets and are perfect for tail spinning or core spinning as feature locks. Art yarns have capacity to help us see wool in a different way. Art yarns can get us to focus on the aesthetics of fleece and consider the beauty of individual locks for their own sake, separate to their utilitarian applications. I find myself lost in reverie sometimes gazing at English Leicester in an art yarn. The lamb locks are the last from Collingwood Children’s Farm as they have decided to focus their breeding program on the rare breed Shropshire sheep, no more English Leicester babies.
The English Leicester fleece is also particularly suited to Judith Mackenzie’s Wolf Yarn technique, which produces a light airy, single that is balanced, strong and durable enough to be the warp in weaving.
So if, you’ve got the time, come into the Artisans Textile Festival, to the My Spin on Things stall and be beguiled by these English Leicester dyed locks.
The Artisans Textile Festival runs over the Australian Sheep and Wool Show weekend 20th – 22nd July at the North Bendigo Bowls Club.
For some time now, quietly and slowly, I’ve been developing a series of spinning kits that I hope will make local fibres more accessible to spinners. I will be releasing my first kit at the Artisans Textile Festival in Bendigo 20-22 July.
The Natural Gradient Alpaca Shawl Kit celebrates the wonderful natural colours of local alpaca. This kit contains all the fibre you need to make a beautiful ombre shawl. The fibre has been picked, washed, weighed, blended and drum carded to create five graded batts from rusty chocolate to soft almond, with nothing left to do except enjoy your spinning.
One of things that can put spinners off alpaca is the giant bags of fleece that you can end up with. If you want to work with colour, there are multiple bags and voluminous amounts of fleece to contend with plus significant wastage, washing and sorting. It can be overwhelming for someone who just wants to give alpaca a try. It is my hope that kits such as these can enable spinners to try a variety of local fibres in a supported, accessible way.
To guide your spinning efforts and ensure you end up with a useful yarn, the kit is accompanied by a handy booklet that contains information about alpaca fibre, provenance, spinning tips and even a guide to choosing the perfect knitting pattern.
There’s space to write down notes about your yarn so you can remember what you did for next time. There are simple guidelines for spinning the alpaca as well as specific technical information about the yarn I spun, so whether you are an intuitive spinner or a tech nerd, you will find your sweet spot with this kit.
I knit up a small sample with only 100g but the kit contains more fibre, so the shawl would be bigger too. I used Evelyn Clark’s Shetland Triangle with the alpaca spun into a 2 ply woollen fingering weight. The drape, the slow fade and the open lace are just scrumptious. Details of the shawl are also on Ravelry.
If you are a maker concerned about your environmental impact, please be assured that all the alpaca in these kits is local to Victoria, has been processed in-house (literally!) in Ballarat and and contains no dyes/bleach/treatments of any kind other than biodegradable, earth-safe detergent. All the fibre waste from these kits is recycled into dog beds by another maker. The carbon footprint is low.
The Artisans Textile Festival runs in conjunction with the Australian Sheep and Wool Show weekend. It’s located at the North Bendigo Bowls Club, just a couple of minutes away from the Showground itself, with a host of textile vendors. You will find my kits on the My Spin on Things stall, a wonderland of fibre supplies. I will be there in person on the Saturday.
Perhaps I will see you there?
Thank you so very much for the marvellous response to my post last week. As I said, it wasn’t a post I expected to write and now I am so glad I did, as you really got me thinking and I am grateful for that.
Over the last week, I’ve been tending to our knitwear. I am always struck by our emphasis in the making world on acts of creation. Our use of the acronym FO for Finished Object suggests that once we have cast off and blocked our knits or pressed our sewing, the item is done, finished, over. In fact, as we all know really, that is just the beginning. The garments we make have lives, they wear out and must be repaired, our bodies or preferences change and garments must be adjusted or perhaps we were never entirely happy with how the garment fitted, looked or worked in the first place and changes must be made.
I have talked here about remaking where we transform one or several garments into something significantly different but reknitting is something less transformative. It is the minor adjustment, the tweak, the repair.
Several years ago, I made Stephen West’s Enchanted Mesa with some handspun and some local millspun yarn. I made it initially without the cowl neck (thinking I knew better than the designer…oops), thinking it really needed a more open look. And perhaps it does, but what I didn’t realise then is that the assymetric dropped armhole construction creates a tendency for the one shoulder to runch every time you use that particular arm. This effect has been magnified by me becoming somewhat wider since the initial making. The cowl neck obscures the runching and means you don’t always have to be pulling your jumper down, it can do its own thing.
Fortunately I still had some handspun Finn left over from knitting that sweater so it was easy to pick up the stitches from around the neck and knit up the cowl collar. Hopefully I will get a lot more wear from this sweater now.
Despite making the Helm sweater pictured below to the specifications suggested by the wearer, it turns out, he would prefer it to be two inches longer at the hem. Since this sweater was knitted from the bottom up in pieces, I was a little concerned about this request. For those who are non knitters, it is easy to unravel knitting from the top of one’s knitting but impossible to unravel from the bottom. Top down sweaters make hem adjustments simple but not so, the bottom up sweaters.
I didn’t want the sweater languishing for want of two inches, so I decided to get the scissors out, cut off the hem and reknit the hemmed edge from the top down. It was a surprisingly easy fix and once its been block again to relax the new hem, I don’t reckon anyone could tell it’s been reknit.
It’s not glamorous or exciting but tending to the knits (or any of our clothes) is a vital part of our making clothes last a long time. It makes us feel competent too, knowing that we can adjust our jumpers in case of zombie apocalypse.
Well, I am back dear readers…well, sort of. My children have been taking turns in being home sick and between that and a few family administration sagas, my limited energy has prevented me from returning to this place as regularly as I would wish. One of the most frustrating things about ME/CFS is the limitations it imposes on everyday life. Despite being so much better that I was, I still don’t have enough energy to do everything I would wish to and have to prioritise constantly: a trip to the doctor’s OR the grocery shopping, sorting out insurance OR writing a blog post, being functional for the kids OR formal paid work. I don’t want to choose, I don’t want to pace myself, I want to do everything. I want to run, I want to dance, I want to scream my head off.
I listened recently to Kate Davies TED talk about her forthcoming book Handywoman (2018) which describes building a creative life after stroke. She talked about having been a fast paced Hare in academia before her stroke and finding herself transformed into a slow, considered Tortoise post-stroke. She spoke about how she now valued the perspective and opportunities which had arisen from her Tortoise position. She sounded so wise and content. She made being a Tortoise look rewarding and nourishing.
Without comparing my experience to someone recovering from stroke, her metaphor of the Hare and the Tortoise resonated with my own experience of illness.
In the months before I got sick, I could sort out breakfasts, lunches and the school run, do classroom reading and ride 40 minutes to university to give a paper, ride home again euphoric, pick up the kids, do the swimming run, cook a meal and sort out bed time, then have a quiet wind down with knitting and partner before going to sleep. There were no physical consequences for such a day and I had a clear pathway to rewarding, stimulating work.
In the first six months of illness, the most I could manage was getting the kids sorted for school, well sort of. My partner would make their lunches the night before and I just had to assemble them and the kids got their own breakfast as I struggled to understand how to turn the grill on or what came next after pouring the cereal. I had to stay so calm in order to concentrate through all the noise. After another mother walked them to school, I would need to rest, exhausted from the mental and physical efforts of the morning.
My personality still clings to being the Hare but my brain and body sit firmly inside the Tortoise. Now, there is more mental and physical energy to draw upon, but it is a world of limits and choices and growing frustration. A little voice inside still says, ‘But I don’t want to be the Tortoise. I didn’t choose this’. Sometimes, the sense of claustrophobia overwhelms me.
But then I remember what it was like when I was really sick, or someone kind reminds me gently what it used to be like. And I never need to look far, to be utterly humbled by someone’s else’s courageous journey with ME/CFS under much more harrowing circumstances than I have ever had to contend with. Then, I can feel more at peace with where I am right now. I can feel thankful for my growing capacity, my ability to be so much more part of our family life. I can be creative in finding flexible, paid work opportunities. I can sometimes even glimpse the power and value which lie in the Way of Tortoise.
But I’d still rather be the Hare.
P.S. This is not the post, I set out to write today but somehow it wrote itself. I hope it resonates with other readers who struggle with chronic illness. May we all dance wildly with the Hares some day.
The doldrums: an equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms, and light unpredictable winds that has come to mean a period of stagnation or depression.
Sometimes we get stuck, the wind goes out of our sails and we lose impetus and direction in our crafting. I often feel like this during a long project, when the excitement of new ideas has passed and the execution is feeling a little tired. I also know that this is no time to leave a project, as completion brings its own rewards but in past I’ve tended to just push on regardless of waning enthusiasm, driving myself forward to the end. If there is anything that a chronic fatigue condition has taught me is that there is another way, a kinder way forward that attends both to the long term goal and the dispirited self.
I have learned that having a rest and exploring something else for a while is both restorative and actually helps me get back to the project with renewed interest and perhaps slightly different perspective. I recently encountered the doledrums with Tuff Socks Naturally when the repetition of fleece preparation, spinning, knitting and testing had begun to feel grueling rather than intriguing. Instead of pushing through, I tried my new approach: I stopped and cast on something just for me, just for fun, just for play.
I turned to two balls of alpaca which had been enticing me since I received them more than a year ago, all the way from Northumberland in the UK. They hadn’t even made it into stash, as I knew I wanted them close at hand. I was quite sick at the time I received them and I couldn’t get my brain sorted to work out how to use them. So they waited comfortingly on the bookshelf in my room until the right moment. Then, after a wander through Mary Jane Mucklestone’s 150 Scandinavian Knitting Designs (2013), I spontaneously took up the yarn and cast on a cowl.
I used the motif on page 51 and 5 mm needles and just had a play. It was the most delightful knitting, the yarn was buttery soft but with a robust twist and the colourwork motif worked its compelling magic upon me. In next to no time, I had a lovely warm cowl, a head full of ideas and the energy I needed to keep going with socks. It keeps me warm on the walks to and from school as the temperature drops and the wind picks up for winter in Ballarat.
So when you find yourself in the doldrums, in knitting or in life, I hope you find something kind you can turn to till the wind fills your sails once more.
Dearest readers, I want to let you know about some crafty events coming up in my home state.
Many of you will know about The Craft Sessions retreat that happens every September in the Yarra Valley. Felicia Semple has connected with many sewists and knitters with her thoughtful reflections on skill and creativity and her ongoing Stash Less project. The Craft Sessions retreat is a space to explore a range of crafts from sewing and embroidery to wood carving and mending. I will teaching there with my good friend Adele Moon. We’ll be introducing folks to the amazing world of spinning and the variety of wonderful sheep breeds and fleeces that can be found in Victoria.
You can check out all the amazing teachers at The Craft Sessions here. And this year Mary Jane Mucklestone will be in residence and taking classes! Imagine being introduced to colourwork knitting with a teacher like that! Registrations are now open.
The same organisers are also hosting the inaugural Soul Craft Festival down in Melbourne on June 9 and 10. There are master classes covering a range of craft practices, talks on sustainable fashion and creativity and a marketplace. I have booked a day ticket for Saturday, and am looking forward to hearing some inspiring talks and having a wander. Let me know if you are planning a visit also. Tickets are still available for both days and some Master Classes.
Then, on February 22-24, another dear friend of mine, Janet Day from My Spin on Things is hosting Majacraft Camp Australia 2019 in Mryniong, Victoria. This is not just for those with Majacraft wheels, nor is it all about art yarns. It is for anyone with curiousity about just what they can make in partnership with their wheel. Janet has enticed four wonderful teachers Laurie Boyer, Suzy Brown, Jane Deane and Sue MacNiven to share their skills over the weekend. You can read about them over at the retreat page but they all have extensive and wide ranging expertise. This retreat is just the thing to move you beyond your default yarn and into exploring new techniques and approaches to spinning. I’ve just booked my place and I’d love to know who else might be going.
And here it is, a sock knitted in Shropshire yarn.
Today’s post is one in a series called Tuff Socks Naturally, an open, collaborative project exploring more sustainable alternatives to superwash and nylon in sock yarn. You can join in on the discussion, share pics and projects on this blog or Local and Bespoke or on instagram using the hashtag #tuffsocksnaturally.
I am so pleased with this sock. It knitted up easily on 2.5 mm needles to create a tweedy, elastic sock. It always stays in shape and it always stays up. It is significantly more elastic than the Ryeland sock although less fine. The handspun yarn was consistent through out the sock and I dyed a little in some left over solar dye to add some stripes.
For the pattern, I used the basic toe up pattern from Lara Neel’s Sock Architecture (2014) book. I used a figure of eight cast on, a regular wedge toe and then a short row gusset and a square heel. It has worked well, although I think I needed to make a deeper gusset. The sock is made up pure Shropshire, no added reinforcers, so I can get a good understanding of the durability of the fibre. I am beginning to think that no all sock yarns require reinforcing.
And here is the sock, getting its hours up and staying tough. It has 108 hours already and no signs of holes and absolutely no fulling.
The knitting process got me thinking about the importance of multi gauge sock recipes for hand spun socks. This sock yarn was a little heavier than commercial sock, so I had to tweek the pattern accordingly but a really good multi gauge recipe would be wonderful for the Tuff Socks Naturally project. Does anyone know of a good one? All suggestions welcomed.
It is also good to remember that this is Rare Breed Sheep, in Australia and elsewhere. It is uniquely suited to long lasting socks and other garments and could have a significant role to play in the sustainable clothing movement. Shropshire Woollies sells fleece, fibre and yarn so even knitters can get their hands on this wonderful fibre.