Colourful Friday

I’d really like to ignore Black Friday. I’m not even sure how this even became a thing in the UK. I mean, I totally understand about snagging a bargain – I love it when I can save a few pennies on something I was planning on getting; who wouldn’t? But I’m a firm believer that a bargain is only a bargain if you needed it in the first place.

But for the last 24 hours my inbox, phone and internet surfing seems to be pinging with offers for today… oh yes, it’s that weird non-day again. sigh

Sales are a hot potato for small independent businesses and craftspeople. Without the margins of big businesses there simply isn’t room to shave off money without it hurting or being counter-productive. There aren’t such things as fat profits, mostly it’s a delicate balancing act between charging a fair price for the customer and a fair wage for the maker and the juggling act between such things as break-even, turnover and profit can be surprisingly stressful at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one that agonises about setting price points; did I get it right, am I wasting my time on this particular product because it’s not cost effective, am I charging too much? It’s inevitable I’ll get it wrong at times – both ways – no matter how carefully I do my sums. The added pressure of “should I be offering a % off” is really unwelcome – no one wants to be thought mean or greedy but the reality is most craftspeople really aren’t in a position to undercut themselves no matter what day of the year it is or for bulk purchases. It also sends a really undesirable message that I might have been overcharging in the first place or that I don’t think the item I’ve made is worth it – neither of which is true.

My friend Katie wrote an excellent blog post on this last year explaining why she doesn’t do sales except at the end of a season to sell off old stock to make room for new – the same reasons I have.

This year, I’ve just read a really excellent article written by an expert in consumer behaviour, retail and marketing explaining the reasons why Black Friday sales are in fact actually bad for the economy as a whole not just for individuals. One paragraph really stood out because it resonated so strongly with my own experience.

He said:   In fact, a small minority of loyal customers directly and indirectly drive the bulk of sales and a disproportionately high share of profitability. These “apostles” sing the brand’s praises and will encourage their friends, family and colleagues to give their favorite brand a try. These consumers typically buy without discounts and do so year round.

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This is absolutely true of the wonderful customers who buy the things I make. I see the familiar names in my order list and bless them for helping me earn the money to pay my bills, run my car, buy the things I need, feed my animals each month. Their repeat custom tells me I must be doing something right – which reassurance is vital for someone who worries as much as I do! For a goodly number  of customers, I also interact with them online on Ravelry or Twitter, gaining valuable feedback and seeing and hearing about the wonderful things they make. Some are my “in real life” friends whom I already knew before I started BarberBlackSheep. Sometimes I hear that one customer has recommended me to another for which I am very thankful. In this kind of small business, the loyalty of customers is most noticeable and one of the things I never take for granted. In return I feel it’s my duty to keep prices as stable and fair as possible so that nobody misses out – how irritating to buy something one week and to find the following week you could have saved yourself 10% if only you’d known it was going to be knocked down.

So I was going to ignore Black Friday and hope it would go away if I hid for a day. But actually having just had my own gut feelings confirmed, now I think I want to celebrate Colourful Friday. Not by giving you a discount or slashing the prices of the items in my shop. I do however promise to strive to always price the things I make with integrity – for you and for me.

And I want to say a big, warm, heartfelt, colourful THANK YOU!!!! for supporting me all year round, rain or shine. I know who my repeat customers are. You know who you are. We may never mention it but we both know it. A thousand times thank you

Colour and Planning the Advent Calendar

You may have purchased the BarberBlackSheep Spinner’s Advent Calendar recently.

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This is a new venture for me and hopefully one that you’ll enjoy over the whole of December and after as you open and spin the fibres I’ve dyed for you each day.

I thought I’d write this post explaining the background to how and why I put together the 24 colours hidden inside the envelopes. Whilst I’m sure you’re wanting it to remain a secret until you open each little packet from day to day (if you’re able to exercise enough self control!) I know that people have different reasons for purchasing this and thus will have different ideas for using it. I wondered if a little background info might help you make your decisions before you get stuck into spinning. I’m not going to include actual photos of the fibres so as not to spoil the surprise for you; however later in this post there will be black and white pictures of the fibres I used as colour inspiration to work from whilst creating the dye recipes. So if you really don’t want to know anything at all maybe it’s best to stop reading now! Or be ready to skim past the pictures at top speed :0)

I know some people simply wanted this for the sheer fun of being able to open a little surprise each day to count down the days till Christmas. Perhaps you’ll be opening it first thing each day or maybe you’ll be waiting till you relax in the evening after work with a cup of tea, a glass of wine or even a small nip of sloe gin which seems to be very popular with us spinners!

You might want to spin it into little skeins each day for colour work or stripes. Perhaps you’ll save them for spinning once they’re all open. Perhaps you have no plans for what you’ll do with them until you see them. Maybe you’ll save them for blending and carding with other fibres to make them go further and create your own batts – a little like the Build a Batt Box I do. Maybe you’ll go with random and spin them end to end as you open them each day and N-ply it or 2 ply it on itself for a barber pole yarn. Perhaps you already have a larger project in mind and these 10g pieces of fibre will form part of a sweater or hat or be woven up or felted…

Because I know from the feedback in my Ravelry group that some of you will be doing the above things, I knew when I dyed them I had to think about what I was doing rather than just splashing colours around because I liked them. Hand dyeing on a small scale for indie dyers always carries an element of randomness anyway. If you mix your own stocks from commercial dyes there are so many different things that can alter the shade or tone. Even if you write down recipes and weigh and measure your dye powders, acid, water and dye stocks as well as the dry base fibres nothing is ever completely repeatable. This is part of the joy and appeal of small scale dyeing.

Some dye colours fix at different temperatures which when they’re complex shades made up of several stocks means that they can split – which can in turn lead to interesting graduations of colour on your fibre or make your tear your hair out if that’s not what you planned! Different fibres suck up dye at various rates; some don’t really like to suck up water or dye at all, others it fixes to the fibre almost as soon as it hits it and this means variation in saturation as well as the splitting. Some dye shades might look spot on perfect on your test paper or in solution but once applied to fibre and heat set can change in shade. The base tone of the fibre also changes how the colour looks to the eye, a grey or brown undertone saddens colours giving a muted effect, lustrous fibres or blends with silk in reflect back light and shed colour that falls on our eyes and makes them seem paler or richer or shimmery.

So I knew that no matter how carefully I planned I still had to leave room of chance and be flexible. Nevertheless, 24 different shades is a tall order and I wanted both the colours and fibres to be sufficiently different that you didn’t feel you’d seen it before or spin too many of the same things one after the other.

I spent some time looking for colour inspiration that gave me enough shades in the one picture to work with. At this point actual colour palettes are more helpful than photographs and I found one that was particularly pleasing to my eye although I had a lot of images to draw from (I stash away visual inspiration when I find it the way a squirrel hoards acorns! And just as often as the squirrel I forget where I put them!)

Once I’d decided the colours I was going to go with I really needed actual samples to work with. Flat plates of colour are useful as a starting point whether in a picture, on a computer screen or as a stroke of paint on white paper or splashes of ink or dye but really you need physical colour to work with and manipulate. This is something I guess I share with my industrial designer brother; he never embarks on a project no matter how small without first building a model and so in the same vein I need wisps of fibre or textiles before committing an idea to reality. Without dyeing up samples first (I simply hadn’t left myself enough time for this depth of prep) I turned to commercially dyed merino which is available in a really huge range of shades and can be blended further by hand if needed. So the photos that follow use these commercial fibres NOT the actual Advent Calendar ones.

Colour is about more than the spectrum of light that our human eyes and brain interprets when it sees an object. Many scientists and artists have formulated theories around colour over the centuries and as I am not an academic I don’t profess any depth of knowledge about the scientific use of colour. I work more by instinct and gut feeling. Never the less there are some basic “rules” that come into play whether I’m thinking about it or not. Most people are aware of the colour wheel.

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At its most basic we have the primary colours of red, yellow and blue and the secondary colours which are a combination of two of the primary colours. This gives us purple, orange and green. Blending a primary colour with the secondary next to it on the colour wheel gives us the 6 tertiary shades.

Adding black and/or white gives us tints, tones and shades.

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Colours next to each other on the colour wheel are known as analogous. They’re harmonious as they blend into one another creating subtle shifts and restful colour schemes. But like other harmonious things in life, however beautiful sometimes they lack that spark and edge that creates energy and vitality.

Colours opposite each other are known as complementary colours. They don’t at first glance appear to “go” with their opposite but used together in thoughtful quantities they “bring out” the opposite shade and make them more vibrant and zingy – just like people really! But just like mixing very different people together, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing and mixing complementary shades too much can lead to muddy colours and it all going horribly wrong.

Most people love rainbows – that gorgeous harmonious run of colour along the visible spectrum of light that we can only see when split by a prism. I spent a lot of time as a child grouping colourful things into rainbows. The pencils in my huge tin of colours. Buttons in my mother’s button box. Ribbons and threads in my sewing kit. Paints in the paintbox and again on my artistic endeavours on paper. I like harmony and seek peace both in my life and my art. I’ve had to train myself to search for a reasonable amount of conflict to sharpen the harmony and make it more alive, more earthy and real.

At this point I should say if you’re inclined to save your fibres for spinning at the end of December or you just want to spin each skein each day, you can create one heck of a stonkingly awesome rainbow out of your Advent Calendar. I know this because I couldn’t help myself arranging the armfuls of dyed tops into a massive rainbow around my living room as they dried…

But going back to those who might want to spin randomly each day as they open the packet. I didn’t want to artificially create a rainbow for you – it would be too predictable after a few days as you saw where it headed and besides, not everybody wants rainbows! I didn’t want to leave it to chance completely either, just as you can hit lucky with colours that are very happy to be together you can also get some very hostile combinations that really don’t want to play nice at all. If you like playing russian roulette though you can still do this by ignoring the numbers on the packets and just doing a lucky dip and picking out one – any one – to spin from. May the spinning force be with you…

Using colour together isn’t just about colour. Avid colour work fans will already know that colours that you think might complement each other or be harmonious don’t in fact work when placed together, they blend in too much and either create a gradient or just get lost in a muddy overall effect. It’s important to have enough contrast to make the surrounding colours sing by choosing ones that have different depths. The simplest way to do this is to take a photograph of them and convert it to black and white. Now obviously I can’t show you the original sample colours but here is the B&W version.

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The colours were laid out in the original form I chose, quite harmonious and probably still the version I’d personally choose for myself. To give a balance of depth throughout December though I then grouped the shades in their depth of shade groups.

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And here you can see quite clearly that some shades are light, some mid tone, some slightly darker and some very saturated. I then chose to spread these out evenly across my 4 rows. I also picked colours I felt would work next to each other, either analogous or complementary (but you can’t see that bit yet!)

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I then double checked by taking a tiny piece of each and arranging it in linear form too as though it were yarn.

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I also bore in mind Goethe’s theory of colour notation. I won’t go into it here – this post is already very long! But basically it’s a theory that assigns numbers and ratios to colours and thus the proportions of which you should use to balance each other.

Once I’d decided on the hues I was wanting to use I had to decide which fibres to use them on. I’d already created the wool blends specially for this and ordered them. So I played around with them so as to give a variety to spin from day to day and assigned each a shade to be dyed in. And then I headed out to the dye workshop!!

Basically the planning worked (you’ll be pleased to hear!). The idea is that you can use the colours in any way you want, harmonious, complementary, gradient, rainbow. But I wanted to give enough random and controlled contrast for the end-to-end spinners too. Hopefully the above hasn’t given too much away but provided enough background for those who want to plan their spinning as well.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

If ever a month merited that memorable line, it’s been this November so far…

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One day last week when it seemed as though the whole of the UK apart from us were in gloom and fog we basked in brilliant sunshine on our hill top bryn until late afternoon. Suddenly the fog rolled up the fields in a matter of seconds and for half an hour the world turned into a gloriously eerie bright mist before sunset.

A world between the worlds.

I stopped my work and went out to play with light for a bit…

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The light was so painterly, so Turner-esque, I played with pushing the exposure to enhance it, shooting into the sun.

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And then couldn’t resist pushing it further for a different effect.

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In the thicker mist further down the fields, you can hear the animals grazing before you can see them. Munching indicated the general whereabouts of my sheep before they loomed out of the haze… although they’d long been aware of my approach and were waiting with pricked ears.

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The slow damp mild autumn has meant the fruit ripened slowly and to a good size and the lack of winds up until a couple of days ago meant it hung well on the trees, as had the leaves. I’ve been picking apples – they’re currently stacked up in my dyeing workroom holding up things waiting for me to juice them or store them for eating. Marley and I may have eaten quite a few whilst picking them too…

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I’ve not had any success with my pumpkins this year but I did buy a few of the tasty eating sort – not the bland, soggy giant orange jobs the supermarkets sell for Hallowe’en carving. The potimarron and other small squashes are the business when it comes to pumpkin soup.

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And the sloes are massive in the blackthorn hedges this year. I’ve still plenty of sloe gin from last year but they’re too good to waste and a friend wanted some too so Mum and I picked some today.

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With a little help from a certain small person of course…

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We’ve loved our woodland and forest walks this month. I wonder what the rest of November will bring…

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Just Felt Like It

Recently I wrote about creativity and how seeing what my customers do with the fibres I sell often inspires me in return. I really want to show you some of these examples; it’s just been a question of finding time to sit down and write them, take photos and ask permission from others for using their photos. But I thought I’d start with this one first of all because I can tie it in with another set of blog posts I’d like to do on things you can do with the Haunui/Merino batts I make.

Merino is well known for being pretty much the best wool for felting with, it’s fine, felts quickly and easily to a hard sturdy but smooth soft fabric and is available in a vast range of commercially dyed colours. It’s easy to manipulate for fine detail in pictures, blend for complex colours and mould for intriguing structural shapes. And it’s readily available from multiple sellers around the world. It’s not the only wool or fibre suitable for felting however. the majority of 100% wool will felt given enough time and vigour although some felt more readily and some you’d be there an awfully long time and still not end up with great felt. As with any variety of wool, each has it’s own merits and that’s one of the glorious things about wool – there’s really something for everyone out there!

Other wools that are often used for wet-felting are the British breeds Bluefaced Leicester and Shetland, New Zealand breed of Corriedale and of course the Swedish breed Gotland which I keep here in Wales. And there are other suitable wools and fibres. Dry felting or needle-felting gives an even wider choice because of the way the fibres are mechanically locked together with barbed needles rather than by using water, heat and friction as with wet felting.

I’d seen comments about felt made with the beautiful Haunui New Zealand Halfbred wool I now stock but as a handcraft fibre it hasn’t been marketed specifically for felting. Although the breeders gave me useful feedback on this aspect, I realised I would have to experiment with it myself and make some test pieces before being able to offer advice to customers on using it for felting. Although the majority of my customers are spinners, I do have some felt-makers who buy fibres from me too and in a couple of instances where someone mentioned they were purchasing specifically for felt making I asked if they’d be kind enough to give me some feedback which they both did along with permission to use their photos.

The following waistcoat is nuno felted onto silk and includes “Still Waters” Haunui/merino gradient rovings in its fibre content. Nuno-felting is a relatively modern technique that involves felting wool fibres onto fine gauzy fabric such as silk chiffon or cotton muslin. The supporting fabric doesn’t felt itself but the fine fibres of the wool work themselves into the fabric weave and anchor themselves as they felt with each other. This adheres them to the non-felting fabric and draws it together into attractive puckers and gathers as the felting wool fibres contract and shrink. It makes a strong but lightweight fabric suitable for delicate garments. This piece was created by Faith Jenkins and you can see more of her absolutely stunning work on Facebook where she is known as The Artful Felter.

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And I think this is a separate piece of work but also by Faith using Haunui/Merino rovings in its construction.

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photos courtesy of Faith Jenkins

This next item is a wrap made by Gaynor Graves. She also used a combination of wool fibres and silk to achieve a light drapey fabric but using the more traditional method of wet felting the fibres to themselves rather than nuno-felting. She described her method of making this delicate “cobweb felt” in her email to me. The fibres were drum carded to make them smooth and achieve fine, even layers ready for felting. The one layer is of 100% Haunui NZ Halfbred natural undyed wool and the other layer is Rose Pouchong from my Tea Garden collection – this is a blend of merino, BFL, alpaca and silk. The leaf detail surface decoration are made from both Haunui and from hand dyed Tussah Silk from one of my Build a Batt Boxes (and I’m thrilled to see so many different BarberBlackSheep fibres in one item!) Gaynor tells me her aim is to make as light a fabric as possible without actually having any holes in it and her patient prep work on this paid tribute to this aim – you can really see how smooth and fine it is.

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Photos courtesy of Gaynor Graves

Gaynor gave me her opinion of straight Haunui as a felting fibre which was really interesting and useful. She said that the Haunui was really light and airy by the time it had been prepared on the drum carder and was harder to get wetted out than the merino and also takes longer to felt fully than merino. But the resulting fabric was soft and she thought that it was well worth the extra effort with the final result of the finished product.

The projects from both these dedicated felt makers really gave me food for thought and definitely left me wanting to try felting with Haunui and Haunui/merino myself. Mostly I’m a spinner but I do occasionally dabble in amateur felt making and I’ve always loved textiles in any form – I just feel drawn to textiles as a medium. I do have a large-scale felt project planned with Haunui forming large parts of it but that will have to wait for sufficient time and space to work on – in the meantime I will probably conduct test pieces which I may well show you – if they work OK!

But with the beautiful felt garments I’d seen and all the autumn colours appearing about me, a couple of weeks ago I had an idea and reached for some Turning Leaf Haunui/Merino batts and spent a happy afternoon playing with them.

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Because these batts are of a high percentage merino blend I knew they’d felt quickly and well, that I was going to do more with the felt after the wet stage and because this was purely decorative and not for garment use I could afford for this to be a very lightweight and fragile fabric so I did just two layers of fibre and lightly felted it in bubble wrap only – to what most people consider pre-felt stage. This is the half-felted fabric that you can then cut out and shape before felting onto your final piece so that it adheres well but has defined edges and colours.

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I aimed for vaguely leaf shapes and sizes but not worrying too much about the shaping at this stage and once each piece was done it was shocked by throwing onto a hard surface and several dunkings in piping hot and very cold water baths to thermal shock and tighten the felt a bit. They were then put out to dry.

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A week ago I felt like doing some non-spinning fibre crafts again and so pulled out my embellishing machine I bought some time ago but haven’t used much (that means “at all”… ;0) and spent a happy afternoon chopping up bits of silk throwsters waste, sari silk, synthetic organza and embellishing them onto my little pieces of felt along with wisps of hand dyed mulberry silk and coloured wool. I then threaded up the sewing machine and stitched free form lines suggestive of veins in stylised leaf shapes. I finally cut them out to trim away the excess fabric.

I’m really pleased with how they turned out. “Not bad for a beginner!” as our Phil would say! It got rather addictive actually so I can see myself doing more things like this during the winter months. I just need to sort out better lighting in that room…

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I think one of the things I love best about hand-made items – and this is especially true of textiles – is how tactile they are. When something is made by a hand it somehow wants to return to it and there appears to be something that emanates from it’s aesthetic that attracts us back to it. Time and again when I show something to someone that has been made by human hands the first instinct is for them to reach out and touch it – not to look, to touch. Whether it’s the limestone walls of my hand built home or the smooth lines of a wooden bowl hand-turned by my friend Matt or the polished unyielding but gentle curves of metal forged by my blacksmith friend Chris. Folds of hand spun fabric, lengths of hand dyed tops, hanks of hand spun yarn… And felt – formed, shaped, melded by hand – is no different.

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So thank you ladies for inspiring me. Perhaps some more people might be tempted to try making felt of their own? If you’ve experimented with Haunui or Haunui/Merino batts why not drop me a message, comment or PM via Ravelry to show what you’ve made to inspire us all!