Of Kites and Kerry Hills

Come take a walk with me?

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Marley and I have a new favourite walk. It’s quite a long one so we don’t do this every day but we’ve walked it a couple of times a week since New Year – I’d walked and ridden parts of this before many times as part of it are country lanes around my home and sections are bridle path I rode when Cobweb was in her younger days before she retired. I’m wary of walking footpaths across my neighbours’ land however though. Even when there are public rights of way I’m very aware of the frustrations this can cause farmers and landowners. On the one hand it’s great that everyone can access beautiful countryside and get exercise and enjoyment out of our gorgeous land. And we should definitely encourage people to get out more and what better way of keeping healthy as well as learning to appreciate our natural resources.

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But many of my friends are farmers and although the majority of walkers and ramblers respect others and the countryside, there are always a few who spoil it for everyone. Some of my friends have had to deal with the consequences of walkers not shutting a gate, or shutting one that’s meant to be open.

In one case this caused weeks of extra work and expense and resulting in the deaths of sheep when a walker carelessly left several gates open on a footpath and my friend’s rams that were many fields away from his ewe lambs that were too young to be mated wandered over and did what sheep do and the resulting mayhem 5 months later completely messed up their lambing season, already a stressful and exhausting  time for sheep farmers, extending it by several weeks and costing money in unwanted vets bills for caesarians on some ewes and loss of animals for the ewes and lambs that didn’t survive. Other friends have a footpath running close to their house and it’s not unusual for walkers to take a short cut through their yard where their working sheepdogs run free and their children play. Most people are apologetic when they realise they are trespassing, but some are rude and belligerent when politely asked to return to the footpath – which doesn’t help matters.

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There is also the matter that farmers have to take care which animals they put in fields where there are rights of way to ensure that members of the public are not put in danger. So whilst it’s up to you to keep your dog under control and not stray from the path or annoy livestock, the farmer also has to ensure that aggressive animals are not kept in fields where they might attack people using those paths. If walkers chose to take short cuts, not only are they trespassing but they’re also potentially putting themselves at risk by entering fields where animals who are protecting their young or guarding their females might take exception to the presence of strangers or dogs.

Having said that, it’s really important that we learn to appreciate both sides and so that farmers can work the land they rely on to grow food for us all and that those who want to can still experience the wonder and beauty of the countryside. Unlike some other countries, we’re not free to roam wherever we want – and given the small size of our country and the way it is farmed that’s probably for the best for everyone’s sake. However there are many fantastic walks to be had on existing rights of way and I’m pleased that around here people are trying to encourage landowners to maintain them so we can all safely use them.

So given my respect towards my neighbours which means I tend to stick to roads, I’d never yet walked the middle section of this route, it’s a public bridle path but it runs right through the middle of the farmyard of some of my neighbours. However some of my friends and I walked it with our dogs on New Years Day to walk off some of our festivities from the night before (fortified with leftover sausage rolls, pork pies and blackberry gin!) and it’s just so uplifting and gorgeous I just can’t help going back again and again…

We live almost on the crest (bryn) of a hill which borders England and Wales. To the front of us is a sweeping valley which means our view stretches away out over the entire breadth of Wales to the mountains of Snowdonia and the gap across to the Cheshire plain and Northern England. The vista is vast and almost scary at times it’s so huge.You can see miles of weather sweeping up country;  often a prelude of a few minutes warning before it hits us. The valley behind us is by contrast quite small – carved by ice thousands of years ago it’s just a short hop to the crest of the Kerry Ridgeway behind which splits England to the East and Wales to the West in this part of the borders. Sometimes I’m envious of my friends who live on this side – their valley is short and cosy, they get more sun. But then again all I have to do is walk up our lane and I can share that too so perhaps we have the best of both worlds being “the folks who live on the hill”.

So after days of rain we snatched a few dry hours and headed off in this direction. The lane winds down steep hills (exciting when there’s black ice or fallen wet leaves around!!) lined with overhanding trees and twists and turns for a mile down into the valley itself. We turn into a No Through lane surrounded by wooded hills and pasture land grazed by sheep. There is something very special about this to a spinner – these are no ordinary sheep, they are Kerry Hills belonging to my neighbours.

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And the pastures that they graze on are the land the breed was developed from at the foot of the Kerry Ridgeway itself.

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Kerry Hill sheep are primarily a meat breed. They’re striking looking animals with their black markings. Until a decade ago they were on the RBST list of breeds at risk but they’re more popular now, especially with smallholders and in other parts of the world so they’re no longer considered a rare breed. My neighbours actually farm them commercially on their beautiful and immaculately kept land and in an environment where continental breeds of sheep have now dominated the landscape as a way of merely breaking even for farmers, it’s especially gratifying to see the sheep in the land for which they were bred. I had the same feeling seeing Herdwicks grazing the glorious steep fells in the Lake District. I’d never really “got” the widespread attraction of Herdwicks but when seen grazing in their home environment instead of a show pen it suddenly becomes apparent that they are the perfect animal in the perfect place. And it’s the same with these jolly little Kerry Hills.

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They just look “right” with the Kerry Ridgeway behind them!

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Nowhere looks wonderful in midwinter unless it’s snowy and frosty. Our own land is tired and grey and muddy; we and our animals are longing for spring now and the grass to grow and the ground to dry out. These softer more gentle pastures however are managed meticulously and even in January look beautiful in the winter sun. I had serious grass envy!!!

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There are some rather cute donkeys with their big horsey chum in the smallholding next door too. A couple of days ago they were right next to the road and came over to the gate for a cuddle and to touch noses with Marley who got on his hind legs to bump the very tall horse on his muzzle. The donkeys looked hopeful but I only had dog biscuits in my pocket …

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After this we Marley has to go on his lead, we’re about to go through the farmyard with its beautiful old brick buildings and cows bedded down on straw for the winter (it’s too wet in Wales for cows to live outside, they poach the clay ground and wreck the grazing). Obviously I wouldn’t take pictures of someone’s home, but really I do wish I could show you. It’s so beautifully tended it’s such a brilliant advert for how good farmers can be. Sometimes I see the brothers who farm here and wave at them; one is married to the sister of my next-door neighbour. I think he’s a bit surprised to see me walking through their farm every few days now but at least Marley has been on his best behaviour whilst on their land!

Once out of the yard we head through a gate (that opens and shuts beautifully! This is unusual…) into some rough land where they have hayracks and troughs down for the sheep. This tells me they’re either pregnant ewes being fed before lambing or fat lambs being fed overwinter before being sold in spring. Either way, I’m still on private ground where livestock are so Marley stays on his lead here too although he has quite strong feelings about this! Especially if he spots a sheep peeking out from behind a gorse bush or tree …

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He pulls at the lead here; he wants to go explore but it’s out of the question. It’s a shame because the other day I was watching a pair of Red Kites soaring above us and it’s very hard to get a photograph of that with one hand when you’ve got an impatient labrador jiggling around on a lead on the other.

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This was the best I could manage. I’m still quite pleased about it though, I’ve never managed to get any photo of Red Kites before. When we first moved here in the mid-90’s they weren’t around. I saw my first one here about 8 years ago and for several years it was still a matter of great excitement to spot one over the house but they soar so quickly on their huge wingspan that by the time you’ve run for a camera they’re far away. Once terribly rare, they’re one of Wales success stories and well known at the Red Kite feeding station. They’re now established here too in small numbers and I see them more often but it’s still something that makes me stop and smile. I was just lucky to snap this before the kite disappeared behind the hill and Marley dragged me off in the opposite direction in pursuit of Nice Sniffs.

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There’s this little stream winding though the woods and with all the rain it’s swelled and rushing with waterfalls. The air in here is fresh and bracing with the water spray’s negative ions and the damp sweet breath of the trees. I love this kind of place; it makes you feel 100% more alive. Marley seems to like snuffling a few extra deep breaths too!

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We twist up off the tracks now and up a steep muddy path between gorse bushes and shrubs. They’re already starting to come out although in the cold I can’t smell that wonderful warm scent of gorse – somewhere between coconut and bananas I think!

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I start to warm up on this hill climb; struggling with an over-eager Marley invariably means by the time we’ve reached these gorse bushes I’m stripping off layers and trying to wrap them around my waist without letting go of the lead!

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And then we leave this farm via a more rickety gate tied shut in time-honoured fashion with baler twine. Much more common and super-irritating to riders on horseback!!

I still tend to keep Marley on the lead here because he’s a bit unpredictable about his exploring and my training isn’t as effective as it might be (hence the pocket of dog biscuits!). But when he seems to be in a cooperative mood he gets to run free for a bit.

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You can’t see here but beneath those impatiently tapping labrador paws is running water; it’s been so wet this winter than even this forest path is like a thin stream. The first couple of times I walked this in my walking boots. Now I just wear wellies; the inconvenience of walking in them is offset by keeping my feet dry! It’s also a section that runs through a shoot. I think I’m safe on this path when I hear guns but then again sometimes I wonder …

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It’s not as pretty in this section of forest, it’s wilder and less tamed, sometimes even spooky, but I still love being in the trees.

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And there’s also native broadleaved woodland on the other side; it is managed by someone as evidenced by the tree guards.

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Finally we come out of the conifer section and to a clearing where they do clay pigeon shooting, the ground is littered with broken bright orange “pigeons” which seems a pity. Several forest tracks meet here – this is where I used to ride through on my pony years ago but on a different track going round the back of the hill. The piles of logs stacked here smell sweet in the summer sun, now they’re mossy and damp.

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We take the highest track out of the clearing; to me this seems like the last stretch although we’re more than half an hour away from home still.

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This week the snow was falling through the trees in this bit and it felt like Narnia …

The last section of woodland is planted with birch trees. I adore birches, especially Silver Birches – they’re one of the plants that remind me of my Granny who had some in their garden when I was a child. She was a really keen gardener and she loved her Silver Birches and would wash the trunks from time to time to keep them gleaming and white unlike these which are green and orange from growing in a damp woodland.

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The fallen birches sprout all sort of interesting fungi.

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Marley wouldn’t let me take any more photos of them though!! Woof! We’re nearly at the last gate and back into sheep country!

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Which means he’s back on the lead again as we top out of the woods and look back over the Ridgeway and the valley we’ve just climbed out of.

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The last bit also means we have to walk through someone’s yard although these farm buildings have been converted into beautiful holiday cottages. If I didn’t already live here I’d probably go on holiday in one of them! I did once house-and-dog sit in one of them though for my boss when his family rented one when he was building a new home.

And then it’s back down the drive to join the road again in our own wide valley looking North West to where in the far distance beyond these near hills you can see parts of Snowdonia when it’s a clear day (but not today!).

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It’s still 20 minutes trundling along the road to home but we walk it so often Marley and I do it without noticing, dreaming of hot cups of tea and a warm fire to snooze by…

It’s a long walk and a long blog post but I hope you enjoyed it. Not everyone is able to get out for a bracing country walk so perhaps this might make up for it a little.

Handcarding a gradient from batts

This is another post taking a closer look at ways you can use BarberBlackSheep Haunui/Merino batts. Previously I showed how you can use them for wet felting and embellishing using the Turning Leaf colour way to make some autumnal leaf decorations.

Today I’m looking at how you can use the 5 batts in the colourway and blend them with hand carders to smooth the transitions for a seamless gradient yarn. You can do this on a drum-carder too and I’ll do another post on that in due course but I’d like to start with hand cards.

This is partly because it’s a really adjustable way of smooth colour transition but mostly because the majority of spinners are more likely to have hand cards than drum carders. Not everyone can justify the extra expense of a drum carder or has the space for one but most of us can stretch to a pair of hand cards and they range in price from very reasonably priced basic ones to super soft and flexible deluxe ones so there’s something for everyone.

I’m not going to repeat the actual hand carding technique. If you’re new to hand carding or need to “brush up” (!) on the process you can take a look at this blog post I did on hand carding rolags a while ago.

I apologise for the photos not being particularly beautiful – today it has rained nonstop here in Wales and was so dark and overcast that I had to use studio lights and white sheet as a background. It’s less than ideal but hopefully you’ll see the process clearly.

I’m using my Still Waters colour way – a wool blend of 35% Haunui New Zealand Halfbred/65% Merino.

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I’m using them in the colour sequence I pack them in but you can arrange the colours in the order that pleases you best so take your time moving them around before you start to decide on your sequence.

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I’m creating one gradient for a singles yarn that I will then Navajo Ply for even colour changes. If you wish spin yours the same way or make a singles yarn or a single that you can ply with another single for a barber pole yarn, carry on like this.

If you want to spin a 2-ply yarn but with the same colour changes you’ll need to start by dividing each colour into two – it’s probably easiest to do this directly along the fold line in the middle and make a “mini batt”. Then you need to do the following process twice; first with one group of 5 mini batts and then with the second group of 5.

Starting with your first colour, unroll the batt and split off one third.

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Take the larger section and put it to one side – this is your beginning point and it’s ready to spin. I just wrap it back into a little nest to keep it together. Taking the second colour unroll the batt …

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… and split that into 3 equal sections. At this point I should say I’m just eyeballing the quantities – the more you do this the more accurate you get and it doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect. But if you’re worried about not getting the right amounts then you can use digital scales (you’ll need them to weigh down to 1 gram)

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Set aside the batts and strips you aren’t working on – it helps to have finished sections on one side of you and the ones still to blend on the other. If you can have a spare surface or a basket to place the finished nests in that helps to keep them in order ready for spinning too.

Take one section of your first colour and one of the second and divide each strip into 4 pieces.

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Now arrange them in three groups:

a) two pieces of Colour 1 and one piece of Colour 2

b) One piece each of both Colours 1 & 2

c) one piece of Colour 1 and two pieces and Colour 2 like thus …

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The amounts of fibre in each of the three groups will almost certainly be too much to card in one go. Remember the rule that less is always more with both hand carding and drum carding – you get better results if you don’t try and cram too much fibre on in one go. So working methodically and keeping the groups separate, split the group into half again or even further if that’s easier.

Here I’m working with Group A. I lay some of the first colour on the carder, then some of the second colour, then top it with the remaining piece of the first colour again.

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Blend the fibres by hand carding two or three passes as per your normal technique or following the method in the link at the beginning of this post. DSC_0030

We’re not making rolags with this technique however (although if you prefer to spin from rolags you can absolutely do that instead). Lift the fibre from the last carder as usual so it lies on top of the teeth.

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Then starting at one of the shorter sides roll the little wad of blended fibre so the fibres lie parallel to each other.

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… which gives you a small “sausage” like section of fibre that is almost like a chunk out of section of roving.

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We’re now going to attenuate and pull the fibres out just the same way as if you were pre-drafting fibres for spinning (which is in fact all you’re doing!) So you want to hold your two hands sufficient distance apart to allow the fibres to slip past each other as you gently pull them out into sliver. I can’t show this because I don’t have three hands – which of course on the whole is a good thing but less so when you’re trying to take photographs of making things by hand! You’ll just have to imagine my right hand drafting the fibres back in this photo.

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Now you have your little section of sliver you can roll it up into a little nest and put it next to the first colour. Continue with the remaining section of Group A and then do the same with Group B and Group C. You’ll have a gradient of nests reaching from one “mother” colour to the next like this.

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Pretty huh?

If you think at any point that there is too big a jump between shades it’s the simplest thing in the world to smooth out – you simply take the two nests and remove a piece of each and re-card them together to make yet another transition shade. I told you it was versatile!

Now you’re going to do the same thing with the next two shades. Colour 2 was split into three pieces. We just used the one piece up, the second piece you’re going to set aside as the “mother colour” which is spun as it is and now you’ll take the third piece ready to blend with the next section. Divide Colour 2 into four pieces ready and taking Colour 3, split it into three strips to repeat the same process.

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2 x four equal pieces in 3 groups. Split as necessary and blend. Roll sideways and draft into sliver. More pretty gradient nests …

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Keep doing this with the 4th and 5th colours. Remember that the 5th colour you’ll split it into a 1/3 and 2/3 like you did with the first colour. You can in fact make a never-ending gradient by carding a third of Colours 1 & 5 together to join the gradient back in a loop or alternatively you can tack another gradient set on in the same way – lots of my Haunui/Merino batts colour ways compliment each other so you can make an amazingly long gradient yarn this way if you choose!

You don’t need me to keep waffling; you know where you’re going now. Here are the rest of the pictures though.

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Wooo… lovely long gradient nests waiting to be spun up.

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It’s super awesome fun. I hope you’ve enjoyed this gradient tutorial and that it’s inspired you to have a play with making your own gradients. You can do this with so many fibres, not just my batts. Keep experimenting.

The more blends you do between shades, the better and smoother your gradient colour changes will be. The closer the colours are the smoother they’ll be too so if you’re working with colours that are contrasting in either hue or value (in terms of light and dark) you might want to do extra blends on the transitions. Remember that at this “nest” stage it’s still really easy to adjust this though by carding two transitions together.

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Don’t forget to post pictures of your BarberBlackSheep Haunui/Merino yarns in my Ravelry group if you’d like to show them.

Happy spinning!

Berry Nice

January seems to me to be the low point of the year; Christmas and its bustling activity is over and we’ve still a long slog to pull out of Winter and darkness before Spring returns. However it’s also a good time to make new plans, mend and make things and generally start over with a brand new year. I usually do make resolutions of some kind and write them down. It’s interesting to look back at the end of the year and see which (if any!) I’ve achieved.

So it also seemed like a good idea to think up some new colours for the shop too. The past few days has seen the launch of four new sets of Haunui/Merino batts over in my Etsy shop.

By far the most popular (it’s already sold out twice!) is Sloe Gin. It was in fact inspired by some silk I dyed quite a while ago and I wanted to repeat it in batt form. The teal shades are not dissimilar to the colour of blackthorn leaves and the middle blue shade is like the dusky colour of sloes that still have their bloom. The purple shades are like the very delicious fruit liqueur we make each year from them – and Sloe Gin as a drink is ever popular with spinners anyway!

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I’ve also been wanting make a colour way based on some slate chips I picked up in Anglesey – the slate quarries of Snowdonia have some beautiful shades including some really stunning purples that are easy to wear and use in interior decoration. This is how Welsh Slate turned out.

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I tend to wear colours like those above as well as neutrals. I like to accent them with sharp pops of colour and it’s nice to make accessories in these shades. So here is Winter Berry, soft but zingy.

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And then after a discussion in my Ravelry group, I added another colour way today. I’d ordered in quite a few shades of red a while back intending to do a SweaterBox collection in reds and also had some in stock from the August Build a Batt Box based on poppy shades. I Heart Red is an ombre gradient of warm deep reds. I was tempted to call it Holly Berry but we’ve already got a bit of berry action going on with the other colours. All the same, it’s a nice cheery berries-inspired set!

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I keep having new ideas so hopefully can bring you some more colours in the coming weeks as well as some new exciting ideas hopefully. In the meantime you can purchase these along with some of the autumn colour ways in the shop linked at the beginning of this post or via the shop page at the top of the blog.

Hope you’re keeping warm and dry this damp winter. Thank goodness for hand knits and wool!