I Can Spin a Rainbow

I’ve been meaning to do this blog post for ages. I do often get asked by customers “How can I use my Build a Batt Box?”. I know that although the initial temptation of lots of fibres in different colours is enough to coax people into purchasing, once it’s arrived it can sometimes seem a little overwhelming as to how to put it together and what to use if for, what kinds of yarns to create and so on. There have been some really wonderful examples in my Ravelry group over the months but I thought these yarns deserved a feature post of all their own. It’s a really good set of examples as to how one of my friends uses her BaBB fibres.

Elaine is not only one of my customers (she’s managed to snag one of almost every BaBB I’ve done!) but she’s also a good friend of mine from Guild. I know she really enjoys using her Build a Batt boxes, I’ve seen snippets that’s she’s made up and spun in the past. We have quite similar colour sense so she enjoys the colours I make up and likes it when it’s something she might not normally choose because it encourages her to try something outside her comfort zone. Last time she visited with our other friend Dawn she came into my house mysteriously carrying large zip up holdalls. This isn’t especially unusual; a lot of my friends are fellow fibre addicts so will often bring spinning or knitting when they call by and we nearly always shove a few skeins or knitting projects in our bags to show each other when we meet wherever that is. But I have to confess I was slightly intrigued by the sheer volume of yarn that appeared to be coming in – was she coming to stay for the weekend perhaps!?!

But no, like the angel she is, she’d brought all the sets of BaBB yarns she’d spun up so far to show me and offered me the chance to photograph them to use on my blog. I was blown away by how beautiful her yarns were and it’s interesting how I could recognise the “months” they came from straight away but using her own interpretation to blend them, they’d also changed. Even though the basic fibres in each box is broadly similar, her yarns felt different depending on what she’d chosen to blend with them. Some were distinctly woolly, some soft as clouds, some drapey.

Sadly the light levels were quite poor that day so I had to use artificial light and also my camera played up a little so the following photographs don’t really do justice to Elaine’s spinning. Nevertheless it’s a really interesting display of how she goes about it and I hope it will be useful for anyone wondering what they can make with theirs.

She told me that she aims for 1kg of handspun yarn from each batch. The BaBB itself contain just under 300g of fibre so these fibres constitute less than a third of her finished yarn but she likes to have a sweater quantity from each colour way, knows that to fit with her default yarn weight and the kind of styles of garments she likes that 1kg will give her enough to work with and allow for adaptability in garment/sleeve length and patterns like cables and so on that take up more yarn. (It’s worth pointing out here that you might need more or less than this; it’s very much an individual thing as we’re not only different shapes and sizes but also spin yarns to different thicknesses and this along with the pattern we chose really affects how much yarn you’ll need for a project).

Using that as her starting point she then goes through her stash to look for fibres that will work with the ones in the BaBB. These might be in similar shades or contrasting ones and can be anything; sometimes braids of dyed fibre, sometimes plain tops or dyed merino, sometimes a nice fleece either wool or alpaca. Bits of luxury fibres also get included like silk or other more unusual fibres. Once Elaine has approximately 1000g of fibre she then starts dividing them up into piles. She knows how much fibre she can fit on her drum carder so then can work out how many batts she needs to make and divides the fibres up by weight into a batts-worth. Sometimes there may be as little as a gram of some of the luxury fibres in each pile but the aim is to spread the fibres evenly throughout the mix.

Once everything is divided up ready she can start to card. She likes the tweedy effect of the different colours and textures so doesn’t put the batt through the carder too many times. I think she said she does two passes per batt to achieve the look she wants. Once all her batts are ready she can then start spinning. She also does a sample square to show how the yarn will look (in fact I think she does this before carding them all to check!) which also helps her when she comes to choose a pattern later on.

June 2014 – Lavender’s Blue Dilly Dilly.

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August 2014 – Sweet Meadow

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September 2014 – Kaffee un Kuchen

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October 2014 – Ruska

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and because the back was as pretty as the front in this sample!

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November 2014 – The Gathering Storm

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Elaine had already started knitting this up – it’s was all caked up ready to go and she’d started on the pattern which I’ve included here, a lovely cable.

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February 2015 – Faded Rose

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And although this isn’t a BaBB, she’s used the same method with some of my fleece and made a beautiful set of colourful yarn cakes! This is the lamb fleece from Elvis, one of my crossbred sheep (his lamb fleece was pure black but he is now a sort of Charcoal colour now he’s an adult).

Elaine only bought a small amount of this fleece raw at Wonderwool from me but she’s expanded it by adding more fibres, changing the feel of it and including colour with bits of texture. I really love how this has lifted and enhanced the natural black wool to make an interesting tweed yarn. If you want to try this, the last bit of Elvis’s lamb fleece that she used is in the shop. I’d kept some for myself but decided I had too much fleece to keep it so coincidentally I’d washed it ready for the shop when Elaine showed me what she’d done with her portion of it!

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Massive thanks to Elaine for her help with this and for sharing her yarns and method. I’ve found it really inspiring and hope others do too!

The September/Ocober 2015 Build a Batt Box will be out in around a week or 10 days time. It’s slightly more challenging as it has a wider range of colours than usual but is nice and zingy, seasonal with a twist!

Marley & Me

At the beginning of July I had to finally say goodbye to my dog buddy Guinness. He was born a few days before I turned 21 and I had him as a very young pup via the vets where I worked as a nurse, so he has been my companion for most of my adult life.

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Although I grew up with Black Labradors and my childhood was spent with one or other of these amazing dogs, Guinness was the first dog that was my own and he was special. We got our first Black Lab – a female called Sophie – when I was around 2 yrs old so I don’t remember life without dogs and she died when I was 18 and the following year our other Lab died. So in all, I’ve only known 2 years when there hasn’t been a Black Labrador as part of our family. It’s not as though we don’t have other pets; we have many! And we’ve had several collies alongside the labs. But often a particular breed just “fits” – with you, your life and personality and for me that’s these gentle, funny, slightly mad but always kind retrievers.

I knew as Guinness aged that I would have another at some point. But unlike when I was a child and we had two or sometimes three Labs together, I always said there was only room for one Black Lab in my heart at a time and that Guinness was irreplaceable and I couldn’t get another just because I knew that one day he would have to leave us. We also have our lovely three-legged collie Badger anyway so it’s not as though we didn’t already have canine company. When that sad day came a few weeks ago, despite the inevitability, I thought it would have to be a while before I could find another friend to share my life with. But life has other ideas sometimes…

The next few days I saw labradors everywhere. They’re a popular breed of course so they do feature heavily on merchandising in rural areas! Every shop window had labrador mugs, tea towels, aprons, mats. Every person I talked to seemed to have a well-behaved labrador at the end of a leash. Every passing car had that kind intelligent face poking out of open windows, silky black ears flapping in the slipstream. About 3 days after Guinness was put to sleep, the talented indie dyer and fellow dog lover Freyalyn re-tweeted a picture from a dog charity of a labrador that needed a home and I knew I was going to weaken sooner or later.

I held off for another week worried that it was rebound from losing Guinness, that it wasn’t sensible, I was busy travelling around for family reasons. But just before I went away to stay with my brother for a weekend, I showed the picture to my mum and she suggested I should contact them when I got back if I still felt the same. However once I’d left she emailed the charity herself and found out that happily he had already got a new home. But she also knew how much I was missing my old boy and that I find my daily walks empty without sharing them with a dog as both of ours have been too infirm to go on walks for some time. So she carried on scouring the internet for dogs that might need a good home. A lifetime of working for a vets practice means that I find myself unable to buy a dog – there are so many lovely animals out there that have lost their home or have been treated cruelly through no fault of their own. I just can’t bring myself to buy a puppy knowing that thousands of unwanted dogs in the UK need somebody to love them and keep them safe. Being adult and without the puppy cute factor, they’re harder to find homes for. A dog will repay you a thousandfold in terms of loyalty, companionship and affection for the work, time and money you put in – and rehoming dogs does require work as often their previous experiences have taught them humans can’t be trusted and it takes time and patience to show them otherwise.

When I got home Mum greeted me with the news that she’d been doing some doggy digging on my behalf. The lovely boy I’d seen had gone but she’d found another Labrador Crossbreed actually much nearer to home who’s owners needed to rehome him. We exchanged emails to talk about things, arranged to meet and the next day Mum and I went drove the 40-odd miles to meet Marley.

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His owners had warned in their ad that he was an energetic dog that needed lots of exercise and space and the canine cannonball that shot in from the garden and bowled me over certainly fitted their description. Their family circumstances had changed and it was clearly a heart wrenching decision to find Marley a home where his needs could be met. I was almost in tears too – I can’t imagine having to rehome one of my pets and Marley was obviously a very happy and much loved dog. Luckily for me they decided that what we could offer was perfect for him and agreed that he could come and live in our family.

The first few days were a little bit stressful, he was obviously going to miss his home and family that he’d known from a pup (he’s now 4 years old).

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I’ve rehomed so many animals but always ones that have been abandoned, are feral or have been cruelly treated so they’re always grateful for our love and a better life even if it takes time to persuade them they are now safe. Marley though of course had come from a happy home with loving owners, it must have been very confusing for him so I balanced trying to keep him calm and reassured with stimulating him with fun things to show him living with us is a good thing.

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He has quite a strong personality so it took a bit of sorting out how to rein in his exuberance; he tends to the dominant which isn’t a good thing in dogs. Dogs need to understand that they are much further down the “pack” than humans but you don’t do this by force, it’s important to reinforce this with behavioural things that elevate your own position as pack leader and create order. So this meant teaching him that he doesn’t sit on furniture (because that is for humans), go through doors before people, eat before people and doesn’t initiate fun sessions of play or affection, it has to be a human that asks him to play not the other way around. These things seem so small and subtle that one wonders if it makes any difference at all but it’s about understanding canine behaviour and hierarchy and the communication they have themselves and interpreting them into dog/human interactions and it does work – really fast in fact.

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Gradually we established the pecking order and the bonus side of this kind of positive personality started to shine through. Marley is a fabulously smart dog, more so than most I’ve had. He’s so quick at picking up what you want him to do – the challenge is over-riding his own quite stubborn will and getting him to do what you want! In fact though he’s very willing to please and working on the principles of “exercise first, then training and then affection” he’s a joy to work with. His previous owners had put a lot of work into him and it shows. Of course living here on a farm is very different to what he was used to. He is wonderful with children and other dogs. Less so with cats because his previous cat companion actively encouraged playing and chasing which ours do not like one little bit! He doesn’t really understand this yet! He also has a very strong chase instinct like a lot of dogs. This isn’t a good thing in a sheep farming area but luckily I have my own animals I can “practice” on and so one of the first things was introducing Marley on a lead to some of the animals he’d never seen before. Like cows.

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The pigs – he LOVES the pigs!

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as well as my sheep and the ponies, chickens and other poultry. After 5 weeks we’re starting to get to the place where I can call him back when he’s off the lead although he really can’t resist rushing at them to start with and barks a bit so he’s still not OK with livestock out and about. It’s still early days though and I’m encouraged at how far he’s come with something that is such a powerful instinct in a dog.

One of the loveliest things is how helpful he wants to be. He likes being with me whether it’s whilst I’m working at my desk or in the kitchen or best of all outside. If I’m gardening he likes picking up weeds in his teeth,

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Fruit picking means tasty treats of soft fruit (he likes fruit and veg!). Working outside means that he gets to be in the fresh air and can run around if he gets bored. I suspect when I stack this pile of logs undercover later next month he’ll probably want to help carry them in. He likes copying my actions; he only has to see something once to “get it”. Sometimes this is funny and sometimes it’s a bit disastrous!

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And then of course there is the real bonus of having a dog – someone to share those walks with.

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Whether at home or in Anglesey I now have a friend to trot alongside and make it more fun. Here was an 8 mile walk we did last week to look at some Sea Arches – the first is the Black Sea Arch or Bwa Ddu and the second, the White Sea Arch or Bwa Gwyn.

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He loves the seaside especially. Lots of other dogs to make friends with and the sea to fulfil that marine retriever instinct to it’s maximum. Labradors were bred (in Newfoundland – not Labrador!) from the St John’s Water Dog, a breed that became extinct in the 1980’s that was bred to help pull fisherman’s nets from the cold sea. And Marley is at his happiest when he’s swimming around in the shallows, grabbing floating bits and pieces out of the salty water, whether it’s an abandoned anorak full of sand (he was very proud about that) or seaweed which has the added benefits of not only being smelly but also breaking up in a most satisfying way when you shake it in your teeth. He’ll race around on the beach flinging it up in the air and catching it until it’s smooshed to bits. And then go and find another piece to start all over again. If there is no flotsam and jetsam, kelp stalks or seaweed then a stone will do – he’s quite happy to swim out for a splash and come back again for a repeat performance!

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I think my favourite version of Marley though is Bedtime Marley. Once he’s had a day of running around and being busy, the evening he gets sleepy and goes onto his cushion to curl up. He wants to cuddle when he’s a sleepy boy and is less likely to run off with my socks or knitting – one of his few annoying habits!

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I feel pretty lucky to have him. Both that Mum found him for us and that his previous owners were happy to trust him to us for a second life. I hope he likes being here too now and doesn’t miss his old home too much. I still miss Guinness every day but I’m happy to have a different dog friend to love in his own right.

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The Grass is Always Greener…

Summertime… an’ the cotton is high…

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So despite the decidedly dodgy weather suggesting otherwise, it’s Summer in the temperate climate of 52 degrees latitude up the Northern Hemisphere and the grass is romping away. If your lawn is your pride and joy you’ll know what I’m on about – you’ve just put the lawnmower back in the shed, turned around and before you’ve blinked the sweat out of your eyes, the freshly smoothed sward is wearing a distinct Five ‘o’ Clock Shadow across its grinning visage. The combination of long daylight hours, warmer (relatively speaking!) temperatures and rainfall mean that you can practically hear the blades of grass squeaking as they grow.

It’s bad enough when it’s your lovely lawn eating up your time but multiply that by several acres and you get a monocotyledon headache of mammoth proportions. This of course is turned to advantage in farming where a large part of agricultural produce in Britain comes from monocots in some form or other; the grain produced by arable farmers in fertile lowland areas, the milk produced by cows in lush dairy country and in upland areas the grass fed cattle and sheep that produce some of the finest beef and lamb in the world (OK, I’m biased but hey, if you’ve eaten slow grown Welsh lamb or beef you’ll know what I’m talking about ;0). Agriculture is basically about harnessing the power of the sun as it channels up through the biological systems on earth and harvesting them for human use.

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Grassland management for livestock is more scientific that you’d think. It’s not so simple as to say “animals eat grass, we eat animals” in some neat little linear food chain. Different herbivores graze in different ways depending both on their physiology and their anatomy. The different kinds of vegetation required is dictated in part by the digestive system and by how the species or breed has evolved to fit it’s habitat. Different dentition changes the way that grazing animals eat the same grasses and so the very best way of grazing land is to have several different species eating from the same patches of pasture – just as nature does in the wild where many species coexist to take advantage of their individual needs that mesh together in symbiosis. Farming systems that rely on a single species only can lead to an imbalance and therefore more human intervention is required to maintain the optimum health of the pasture and the animals. Often Organic systems or ones based on Permaculture seek to find ways of harnessing natural systems to work together with people to create a harmonious ecosystem even in artificial set ups like an enclosed farm, smallholding or garden.

This isn’t always possible for practical reasons. Not all animals suit all kinds of land, there are other constraints such as time, skills set or simply financial limitations on what livestock you can keep in a given area. This has certainly been true for us here on our smallholding where we’ve tried keeping most farm animals over the years but as time has gone on, other factors have required us to cut back on what we do or attempt. Whilst it’s nice to cut back on the complexity of work, it’s also sad when a holding slowly empties of the stock that is its raison d’être.

In the past couple of weeks however Chez BlackSheep has filled with more life than we’ve seen for a long while… and whilst most of it is temporary, it’s heart warming. The aforementioned triffid-like grass is far too much for our small flock of sheep, 4 geese and one old pony to keep on top of. Just as living in the country seems to be about spending six months of the the year preparing for the other 6 months, so grassland management for livestock falls within that same pattern of work. Once the day length starts to pick up as we move away from the Spring Equinox and there is less rainfall and the temperatures start to rise, the animals rely less on feed taken to them and start to graze more comfortably on the pastures. They put down fat, spend more time lying down cudding and even in the case of some younger animals, they play in the evenings too.

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This is one of the things I love to look out for; when my sheep start acting like goofs in the late Spring evenings I know that the grass is starting to grow properly. The saying goes “every baa misses a bite” – meaning that time and energy spent on other activities is time wasted on grazing. When there is little grazing, sheep keep their heads down moving constantly, nibbling urgently at the pasture getting as much as they can from the sward so they can then go and find somewhere to lie down to cud and digest what they’ve stored in their rumens. When there is plenty of grazing it takes less time to “tank up” and with more protein and sugars available the easier it is for them to get the required nutrition. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, however once the Spring grass starts growing there is a happy medium when there is sufficient before lush growth starts to cause potential problems with imbalances  with parasites and nutrition.

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Sheep, like cows and goats amongst other ruminants, have no top teeth at the front, just a hard gummy Dental Pad that meets their lower incisors. There is a gap between this and the premolars and molars at the back of their mouths – this gap is called a Diastema. Sheep graze by nipping off short grass with their incisors and dental pad and swallowing this down into their first stomach or rumen – a large sack filled with microorganisms that breaks down indigestible cellulose. Ruminants like sheep then regurgitate this back into their mouths to “chew the cud” whilst they are resting to grind it down with their molars into smaller pieces to be digested further. Cows are also ruminants but use their tongues to wrap around long grasses and rip it off so eat different lengths of grasses to sheep. Working together cattle and sheep graze pasture more effectively than one of the species on their own.

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Horses are not ruminants; they are known as hind-gut fermenters as they have an enlarged caecum (like the appendix in humans) towards the end of their digestive system and this aids breakdown of the indigestible cellulose there. They also have different dentition and have incisors at the front of both top and bottom jaws. They graze by nipping off shorter grass and chewing it before swallowing.

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Goats (of which we have only one now) are more browsers than grazers, they prefer to graze on tougher more woody herbage such as twigs, shrubs and leaves of trees as well as dicot plants in the pasture. They have similar dental and digestive structures to sheep however and share most of the same parasites and aren’t great to graze alongside sheep for that reason.

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Pigs are omnivores; they eat anything! (well almost anything) and have an impressive dental toolbox to match and can tackle most things that come their way that other animals would find inedible. My pigs are Large Blacks which are a traditional breed that does well outdoors on non-intensive systems and they like grazing and do better on low input systems than commercial pigs including garden waste and pernicious weeds from the veg plot (but it’s no longer legal to feed them kitchen waste). So they do like grass and in winter, hay. But they do better on longer grass as short grass is an open invitation to do what pigs do best – dig with their amazingly strong snouts for roots, invertebrates, rhizomes and other delectable piggy delights and a determined pig can wreak an incredible amount of upheaval on pastures… as I learned to my cost over the years!

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In summer we shut off fields to grow the grass long to cut and dry for hay. This gives stored feed for the animals during winter months when the grass stops growing and the weather means they have to be housed and/or fed supplementary foods to survive. Last year we made enough superb quality hay to last us for 2 years – the traditional/primitive breeds we favour and the low demands we make on them mean they can cope better with lower levels of nutrition and even thrive on bulky foods so this works for us in a way it wouldn’t on intensive farms where protein content is vital.

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However this year that leaves us with the conundrum of what to do with all the grass that would normally be shut off from livestock to do turn into hay. All of a sudden the grass growth shoots away and gets too long for sheep to graze effectively. So the only way for us to manage this superabundance is to draft in a little extra munch power. Some of a friend’s cattle are currently dealing with the longer grass over the summer months.

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Petunia the pig has come home after spending the first part of this year on loan to another friend.

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I didn’t have time to manage pigs with other things in my life so the deal was that she would produce piglets which they’d keep in return for looking after her for a season or two. Sadly she has failed to get pregnant so she’s come home for one last attempt here as at home she’s kept outdoors which suits this breed better whereas at the farm she went to on loan, the pigs have to be kept in large airy barns. It’s a system that works well for lots of breeds of pigs that wouldn’t manage outdoors so well but for hardy breeds like Large Blacks they are happier with the wind in their hair and the sun on their backs. She had a nice holiday getting tubby on her “all you can eat inclusive package” so now she’s on a grass based diet that she has to go and pick for herself in the hope that it will slim her down, excess body fat being a real hurdle to fertility in most species but especially pigs.

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Hopefully this handsome Hampshire boar can persuade her to start a family again!

Yet another friend has needed to find new livery to keep her pony; happily she asked us and as we already have a Welsh pony that needed some company that worked out well.

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And for emergency levels of lawn mowing you can’t go wrong with a tight flock of dry ewes to bite the grass down quick… which means that you currently can’t get a blade of grass between the large flock of borrowed sheep “at tack” being moved on from small area to small area every day! This is the ovine answer to Mountfield mowers…

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It’s a bit like a big house party where guests are bedding down in all sorts of funny places and using anything they can find to drink out of – it’s fun whilst it lasts even if you know it isn’t like this normally. Happily there is plenty of grub to go around though so at least for the moment, the grass really is greener on this side of the fence!