Shop till you drop….

(That’s me dropping after making a shop…)

Well I realise it’s been a little while since I last posted in here. I’ve had a very busy two weeks because exactly 14 days ago in about… oooo…. 53 minutes time, I opened my Etsy shop selling dyed fleeces and some roving/tops I’d dyed. It’s been busier than I dared to hope thanks to lovely people on Ravelry who’ve bought my woolly wares. I’m ever so grateful for an encouraging start to add to a very successful Wonderwool and I hope to produce more fibres, fleeces and yarns that people will enjoy crafting with in the months and years to come.

It does mean that I’ve been working all the hours trying to learn the ropes and work out new ways of doing things – all very exciting but just at the moment it leaves less time for writing or even thinking about writing whilst I get to grips with the new routines so I shall just post a few pictures of what I’ve been putting in the shop for this post and leave it at that. In the next day or two I hope to come back here with a very special project involving my Gotland fleece that just needs a wee bit of finishing in the morning before it can have a photo shoot. Till then…

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(Gardening) Gloves Off

One of my friends asked me for an update on the seedlings I posted about last month. So as I’ve been waking around 6am of late and it seems pointless to just lie there when there are a thousand and one things to be done outside and the sun is streaming in through the window and chasing me out of bed, yesterday morning I shrugged on some clothes, grabbed my camera and headed off across the dewy grass to show you how they were getting on. Picture heavy post…

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Some of the seedlings out in their beds: this is mostly salad at this end and the netting is ugly but vital – chickens’ feet can dispatch a horribly large number of baby plants in a surprisingly short period of time…

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At the other end of the bed are two crops of broad beans, aiming for successional harvests. I sowed the second crop in the plug trays as soon as I’d finished planting out the first in this bed and when they were seedlings they went out next to them. I didn’t think it would make a huge amount of difference as they were similar in size but since the warmer weather the first ones have shot away so it was worth doing apparently.

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Spinach and chard. Just in case Popeye pops over for tea and wants to pop some iron…Image

The “baby” cabbages that are in fact almost a year old (still haven’t explained this stunted beginning, I know) They are doing OK now though after a traumatic start in life.

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Celeriac – under scaffolding nets to stop those scratchy scratchy hens feet again.

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The spuds are coming. But oh dear, this is where the weeds are laughing at me. The battle commences…

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Onwards and upwards. Literally. My lovely Golden Hop which I was given years ago and put in the wrong place. It fought it’s way through rogue raspberry canes and survived being dug up and split and generally pushed around every which way. It’s now growing through the bottom of a most inelegant black plastic bucket because I plonked it next to the garden hoop structure a few years ago and there it’s rooted so that’s that. And finally it was able to produce a decent quantity of hop bines last year which I cut and arranged across the mantle in my kitchen. Which was the whole point of getting the darn plant in the first place.

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The onions seem to be doing OK despite it being the bed of choice for a bantam bust up on more than one occasion. How the chooks didn’t snap off the fleshy shoots I don’t know. And the “weeds” in this bed are some of Phil’s “moocher” potatoes. Hmm. Think I’ll leave them for the moment.

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The soft fruit is doing it’s thang too. This past spring I actually did something about all of our soft fruit, dug out my pruning book and pruned appropriately for each plant (at least I hope I did) and tidied up around them and dumped a load of wood ash on each and every one. Nothing much daunts the redcurrants and whitecurrants though whether neglected or pampered. Every year they are laden with dripping jewel-like berries and every year the blackbirds get every damn one. Unless I net them in time.

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I never forget to net the blueberries though. I love them. I love the flowers, I love the berries and going out each morning to pick some to go with my breakfast when they are in season and I love the stunning shades of red and purple the foliage turns in autumn. Blueberries, blueberries, the bees are all over them at the moment so lets hope for a bumper crop!

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I also like to munch on alpine strawberries. A few years ago I grew some from seed and they fruited so well for several years. The last 2 years they’ve been spent though and I missed the tiny aromatic berries that taste so much more strongly of strawberry than any berry so tiny has a right to. I bought some more seed this this spring and in my eagerness sowed the entire packet of dust-like seed. Going to be interesting finding space for all these babies. But find it I will. Alpine strawberry jam. Mmmmmmmmm…

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Herbs are doing Ok too. The coriander is in the beds, I have a few dill plants coming along and here are the all-important Flat Leaf Parsley boys should a certain brother come home for a visit. It is a vital ingredient in his cooking. And I wouldn’t miss his cooking for all the worlds, it’s awesome.

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and I’m also really happy about this little chappie too – or chappess really. It’s Melissa or Lemon Balm and it’s self seeded from a plant I had a couple of years ago. I found it growing in the gravel on my hard standing area and carefully potted it on and it’s doing great.

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The leeks seedlings have been pricked out and are growing on into plantlets and soon I will dust off the dibber and plant them out in the beds. I love leeks, all the fun of garlic and onion without the socially challenging after effects… ;0)

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And so onto the next crop of seeds coming through. Runner beans (because my first batch of seed was really too old and failed) and the squashes. I’ve learned to hang fire with sowing these. They hang around all dressed up and with no where to go if I sow them too early and nothing grows faster than a curcubit with the promise of endless room to stretch it’s tendrils out it so now it’s sow ’em late, warm ’em up and let ’em romp I say. I grow two varieties of courgette – Nero di Milano which is pretty reliable and a dark green colour and Ok taste and Albarello di Sarzana which is paler and flecked with pale yellow speckles. It tastes divine but is less hardy and sometimes the blossom ends go mushy so I have to keep an eye on the fruits. But then you always have to keep an eye on the fruits with courgette because if you turn your back to sneeze you have monster marrows on your hands before you’ve turned back again.

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Later brassicas. Calabrese – which most of us call broccoli when it’s in the supermarket and Romanesco cauliflowers which really look like pointy spiral broccoli and are lime green. They tastes awesome and I can’t decided if I like it more than calabrese. I definitely like it more than regular cauliflower which I do like but has an unfortunate aroma in the close confines of a kitchen…

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Sweetcorn. If you haven’t had a home grown sweetcorn cob picked, peeled, wrapped in tinfoil and chucked on a BBQ before it’s had time to shriek “Nugget!!!” then you’ve not really tasted sweetcorn. Corn on the cob was my birthday meal of choice when I was a kid, my birthday falling in prime corn-on-the-cob season and liked it dripping in butter with salt and pepper. But if you BBQ it, you can eat it nekkid. It doesn’t need a thing with it (except oven gloves maybe…)

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And a few sunflowers. I don’t think it’s really fair to have a competition for the tallest sunflower with these dudes. It’s pretty obvious who’s likely to win.

All this glorious sun over the past week after quite a bit of rain has made everything – plants and weeds – shoot away and it’s hard keeping up and that’s making for long old days but it’s lovely to see things growing. I once read that it’s better to do things at the right time than to do things well with gardening. Normally I’d be stressing about doing it perfectly but really, it’s so true. Better to bang them in and get them growing than to leave them languishing because it’s not all perfect. I’m really trying with that this year. So far it’s working!

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I’m not the only one who’s pleased to see the sun. Miss Mousey better not stay rolling around in the sunshine too long though, there’s a rodent patrol to keep up with out there. Mice and rats decimated what little I was able to grow last summer so I really hope she’s got a paw on the situation this year!!

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And finally the flowers. In the vein of “getting things out there growing” I’ve cleared as much of the grassy weeds on the flower bed as I could in two back breaking session and planted out the flowers that mum and I had sown and pricked out earlier – they were all getting a bit strangled and yellow. I am not a flower gardener although I love cottage flowers so it will be interesting to see how this turns out. Mum optimistically said it would be a riot of colour but I’ve paid scant attention to the final size of some of these so it could be a bit of a mess!! Next year. There’s always a next year. Some of these are scented too and are outside my bedroom window so I’m hoping that they will give some lovely evening scents in due course like the lilac blooms are doing right now.

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And because a garden is nothing without insects (and more specifically in this case our honey bees) I’ve also been helping my mum by knocking up some frames for her. This appears to be a very swarmy year (is there any other kind of year with bees??!) and mum has had a couple of swarms already despite working carefully though the hives to try and keep on top of this before it happens. She’s not alone, a few of my beekeeping friends have also had swarms to deal with. I am keeping a low profile since I became allergic to them a couple of years ago and had to give up working them and now mum looks after them with help from a friend. I don’t really miss it, I have more time to so the garden, crafting, animals and building without having to chase bees up and down trees every few days. Luckily mum really seems to be enjoying getting back into beekeeping and I’m very happy to do the bits I enjoy – putting together frames and extracting honey. And eating it of course!! ;0)

 

I’m gonna wash that sheep right outta ma hair…

I promised a few customers at Wonderwool that I’d do a post about washing fleece. Better late than never.

They say there are many ways to take a pelt from a feline and there are probably just as many ways for washing fleece. It’s interesting to notice that us fleece spinners all have our pet methods and if what you do works for you and you get good results, that’s all that matters.

One thing really does matter though. Heat, moisture, agitation – these three things combined turn lovely fluffy fleece into felt. Well, most fluffy fleece. Some fleeces, notably of the Down type breeds, resist felting and some can even be washed in the washing machine allegedly – quelle horreur!! – without any significant change. Gotland is not one of those fleeces. I repeat NOT. It is highly sought after by felt makers so that should tell you something about how you handle it whilst washing…

A raw fleece is a dirty fleece. I’m sorry for those who love the smell of sheep and raw wool but seriously, there’s a lot of crud in there, even if you can’t see it. Some spinners do like to spin raw fleece unwashed and if that floats your boat then fine. I personally don’t really like the smell of sheep except when I’m cuddling my daft rogues and I don’t really want it in my living room permanently and because I handle my sheep on a regular basis I do know how greasy and dirty they are even when you go to great lengths to keep them clean as I do.

Dirt on a sheep’s fleece however is made up of different things. Firstly there is the obvious. Dung, poop, caggles, dags, other words I’m not going to print here – sheep get dirty bottoms for various reasons, sometimes it seems like a never ending job keeping them clean all year round. You shouldn’t wash fleece that has obvious chunks of the brown stuff in it, you are wasting your precious time, if there are chunks of poo on the fibre in the water you will rinse it till Kingdom Come and the water will still end up looking like Builder’s Tea. Get good fleece to start with and skirt it properly before washing. That means removing all the bits you know you don’t want there or won’t spin like poo, mud, bits of twig, short pieces of fibre, course tough wool from the britch (hind end) and round the brisket (chest area) and where the fleece ends at the legs and turns from yummy fluffiness into skinny, hairy, comical, knobbly kneed sheeps legs. If you’re working with fleece you’ve bought from me, none of that should be in there. I skirt aggressively on the sheep as I shear them and again when I weigh and pack fleece. I can’t guarantee there won’t be the odd stray bit of something in there but you shouldn’t need to skirt as with conventional straight-off-the-sheep fleece buying.

Other substances on there you don’t really want include; mud if the weather has been bad, suint which is sheep sweat basically and vegetable matter (VM) which can be bits of hedge, baler twine (yes really) straw, hay, seeds, burrs, sheep breakfast… And the odd dead beetle too. VM has to be picked out or flicked out. You have to use common sense with this. If it’s a twig or bits of straw you can see and pick out then do it before washing. Sometimes once the fleece is clean and dry and no longer greasy then some kinds of VM and scurf can fall out more easily than they would do raw.

The final thing in there which you may or may not want is a matter of personal taste. Lanolin. It’s basically the grease or wool fat that sheep produce to weatherproof their fleeces and helps to keep them more cosy by helping to shed rain. It’s a waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands in the same way that hair mammals (ourselves included) produce different kind of oils from the sebaceous glands in our skins.

Lanolin is a valuable substance both to sheep and mankind. Whether or not you want to spin your fleece “greasy” or not is entirely up to you – personally I don’t like a “greasy” fleece. But neither do I want to strip out all the grease because that leaves a harsh, dry, somewhat lifeless fibre behind which isn’t nice to spin and doesn’t look so lively and beautiful either in the fibre or in the spun yarn. The way I wash fleeces is performed so as to remove as much dirt as possible and a reasonable amount of the grease. The resulting fibre is soft, silky, pleasant to handle and is left smelling faintly and pleasantly sheepy rather than honking of things you’d rather not share your personal space with. And trust me, your family won’t want to share their personal space with honking sheep smells either.

So… back to the heat, moisture, agitation felty thing. Obviously we need moisture to wash it. To remove lanolin if that’s the goal we need heat too because this is a wax and needs to be melted as well as needing a detergent to bind with the grease so it can be washed away. That means we have to be super careful to avoid the third thing. Agitation. On it’s own, hot water is fine. Start swishing it around or dunking up and down like you’re trying to unblock the sink (which you’ll probably need to do after if you wash fleece in it ;0) and your lovely locks will start to hang together till death them do part. The best way to limit agitation/friction/movement is to contain the fibres so they can’t move around too much and so that you can handle them more easily. The best way of doing this is to use a mesh laundry bag of the type you might wash delicates in. What did you say? Yeah I don’t wash delicates like that either but I DO wash fleece like that. Nothing is so delicate in laundry terms as a delectable fleece lush with promise. Laundry bags are cheap. Really, really cheap. Get yourself one, or better still several, and make sure they are the small kind not the huge ones you could fit a couple of pairs of jeans in and still leave room for bathing the dog as well. It is better by far to wash fleece in small sections than to turf the whole fleece into a tub. Trust me. I learned this the hard way. Felt football anyone?

So, we have our laundry bag/s, we have our beautiful fleece with all the unnecessary bits removed. Pack the laundry bag so that it’s nicely plumped up but not rammed full. This isn’t pure Gotland by the way, it’s a Gotland cross but just as feltable.

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If it’s stuffed like a teddy bear then it’s harder to get the middle bits clean. You want it full so there’s not a lot of movement but so that the crud can get out past the fibres. Like so.

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Now the first stage for washing fleece for me is a cold water soak. This is something I learned to do from my friend Donna who keeps Polwarth sheep (one of only two flocks in the UK). In fact, I think I probably learned everything good about washing fleece from her. Thanks hun! ;0)   If you soak the fleece in cold water it softens and dissolves an awful lot of the muddy/pooey element of the dirt which is the bit you want most rid of and just sitting there in cold water it is not going to do any felting at all. Leaving it over night is great. If all you can manage is half an hour in cold water then that’s better than nothing. Really.

I use old washing up bowls for fleece washing. It means I can wash fleece outside or in the barn by the drain. I wash a lot of fleece so this is quite significant. The house stays clean, mum stays happy and I don’t run the risk of clogging up the drain with stray bits of wool. You can wash fleece in your sink or bath (clean it properly after, sheep can carry a number of organisms you might not want to share a bath or meal with) but if you have the space outside it’s just easier to wash in bowls. If you have a bad back and can’t bend easily, use a table outside, a wall, a workbench to raise the bowls to a comfortable height.

I have a confession – the above photo is how I would normally pack a mesh bag, the rest of the photos are of a bag with just a paltry handful of this fibre I did for a quick spinning sample so the bag looks a little skinny from this point on. It’s OK, it’s doesn’t shrink in the wash or anything… Did that fleece up above look pretty clean to you? Me too. Think again. This is what one handful of clean looking wool from the underside of the neck of a pampered sheep looks like when it’s sat in cold water over night…

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That, my friends, it what is called Sheep Tea. And whilst you really, really don’t want it on your spinning wheel, clothes or hands, it is wonderful for watering your plants with.

So far so good, We’ve got moisture but no heat and therefore no felt. But we have to start handling wet fibres and Agitation is rearing it’s ugly head. Truly the best way to get the water out of this is centrifugal force. A spin dryer is the best tool a fleece lover can have.

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If you don’t have a spin dryer (and I picked mine up by chance whilst sauntering past the open door of our local sale room and doing a double take. It cost me all of two quid because no one else bid on it. Heathens) then you can use a rotary salad spinner for small amounts of fibre – and obviously don’t wash salad in it after, not that I think anyone would. Well I hope not anyway… If you happen to have an intelligent washing machine that only spins on it’s spin cycle program then you could try that too but most UK front loading washing machines seem to tumble for ages before cranking up the revs and it really doesn’t take much slapping around the drum for disaster to occur. One of the final stages in felt making is to throw the felt forcefully down onto a hard surface which shrinks and hardens the surface of the felt, so the tumble bit of a washing machine does a pretty good imitation of this exact thing. if you’re in the US or some other enlightened country that has top loading washing machines (or if you are stuck in a 50’s British timewarp and still have a Twin Tub) then you will be fine using your washing machine to spin the water out. Your laundry might end up with the faint aroma of sheep though…

If you have nothing suitable to hand for spinning the water out then either just lift it out carefully and leave it to drain over a rack or gingerly press the water out but really you do have to be careful. Press or squeeze, don’t wring it.

If you want to spin clean “greasy” fleece this is all you really need to do. Once it’s dry you’re ready to go. Have fun! For the rest of you please step this way.

Lanolin melts in hot water as we discussed above. I use water at a temperature I would wash my dishes in. I don’t use a thermometer but I know from our data display that the best results come when the hot water is between 50-60 degrees Celsius. 60 C is pretty hhhhhhot to stick your hands in for a long time so 55 C is good. Hot enough to melt the grease, not so hot it strips the fibre dry. You also need detergent and you can use whatever you have. I use Ecover quite a bit because it’s what we use on our dishes and it’s there but Fairy is good for degreasing and cheaper and cheaper still are supermarket own brands. Others may disagree but I really don’t think it matters an awful lot which brand you use. At this point I should probably say that if you are washing merino fleece or other merino based breeds such as Polwarth then you would probably need to use more detergent and you will need really hot water – merino is chock full of lovely lanolin but you do want it gone, if it hardens on the fibre it becomes tacky, hard to spin and also hard to remove once it’s gone rancid. For these fleeces it really is best to degrease quite well at the first stage, especially if you’re planning on storing the clean fleece rather than spinning it right away.

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Hot water and a good glug of detergent. Put your fleece bag in and leave to soak for around 10 minutes.

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You want the detergent to get working but you want the water to stay hot so that when you drain it, the grease goes down the drain with the hot soapy water and doesn’t recoat the fibre as it cools down. Think of it like butter on a dirty plate. If the washing up water is hot then the plate rinses clean, if the water is cold then no amount of rinsing will take the greasy smears off it.

Notice that although the water is murky and a little brown, it’s not really like sheep tea is it. There is still some muck floating out of this fibre though. Lift it out and place in the spin dryer/salad spinner/wire rack and spin or drain the dirty water away.

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Hmmm…. still pretty gross huh. You can use this for watering plants too once it’s cooled. In dry spells when your soil is parched the traces of detergent act as a surfactant to break down surface tension and help the water soak into the soil. Neat.

Run another bowl of hot water same temperature as before. You can always go hotter with water but don’t rinse in cooler water because this will shock the fibre and, yup, that causes felt too. I tend to do one detergent wash only and then one or two hot water rinses depending on how clean I want the fibre or how dirty it was to start.

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So it’s not dirty any more but you can see the white cloudy swirl of emulsified grease coming off the bag now. That means there is still some “clean” grease there but that’s good, we want a little grease left behind to act as a kind of conditioner. For me, this is good enough. Either I’m going to spin it like this or I’m going to dye it and the further acid and heat from dyeing will clean the last bit of grease out anyway. So into the spin dryer again and spin it till no more water comes out and then I take it out of it’s bag and put it to dry.

Drying fleece is best done away from direct sources of heat. The scales on the wool fibre shafts are lifted by the hot water washing and heat from a radiator, stove or direct sun will exacerbate this and make it feel harsh to handle. I dry mine over large wire racks, sometimes outside if it’s not too windy, sometimes in my polytunnel if rain threatens and sometimes in my house. If it stays damp for days then it will start to smell musty. Use initiative and get it dry within 24 hours but don’t bake it.

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Before and after shots. Raw fleece on the left and the washed fibre on the right. It does show how much difference careful washing can make, the clean fibre is silky and soft and opens up easily and will be a dream to spin.

And it really wasn’t that bad was it? Enjoy!

Barnet Fair in Leicester Square

If you go down in the fields today, you’re sure for a big surprise….

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Grainne: Is it safe to come out yet?

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Rusby: Elvis! Stop tail-gating me!

Elvis: Sorry Rus, I’m protecting you from behind. And you saw what happened to me last week…

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Boudicca: Don’t worry Maaaaaa. I’m doing my Daniel Craig impression. She won’t mess with 007.

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Rasta: Don’t be silly child, you don’t look like 007, you just look sheepish. Ed, you best keep an ear to the ground.

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Edward: Oh I am ma’am. Bad news I’m afraid, a little worm told me she’s definitely doing it tomorrow. You’d better pray for rain. Or whistle…

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Jonathan: Oh Nooooooo! I can’t whistle!!! puff puff pufff….

It’s true, the worm told right. Tomorrow I plan, weather permitting to shear the last section of my flock. These are the Leicester crosses. Black Bluefeceds, and the crosses I call Gotleicester and Swedish Mule. I have some exciting plans for some of this fibre I hope to be able to carry out. Let’s hope it holds fine so I can get these last fleeces off!