A River Runs Through It

The river theme for my yarns started with this yarn I blogged about yesterday. When I was planning it, the lustre of the wool once scoured really caught the light like sunlight playing off water and so I thought a watery theme would give a good yarn name as well as giving a sense of place. It helped with my decision to enhance that by adding 20% silk for a really shimmery lustre that is brought out strongly on the dyed shades.

I’m lucky enough to live in a really beautiful place. Wales is a very varied country and the scenery never fails to nourish me whether I’m at home or travelling elsewhere. At home we are on the top of a hill looking down into valleys – or cwm – whichever way we look.

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We catch quite a lot of weather here! The high level of rainfall drains off our wet clay soils and, along with the natural springs that rise all over the land, flows into the ditches we have to maintain. And at the bottom of our fields, this water run-off starts to form a very baby stream which almost dries up in summer. In the rare summers that it is scorching hot, it’s nice to go down under the trees and listen to this tiny waterway trickling its first “steps” to the sea.

It flows into the brook down to the village and from there into the first small river it turns into – the Afon Miwl. This joins up with the River Severn which is our local main river – or Afon Hafren in Welsh – and from there carries on to England and meanders its way south before heading out into the Irish Sea at Bristol. From small beginnings powerful things can grow and I liked the thought that the small batches of fleece my sheep were growing on our little fields were slowing gathering together before being turned into a proper grown up yarn.

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Late last Autumn I started to wind and dye a few skeins to test out my colour palette. When it came to photographing them, I knew I had to go down to the river and take the wool back to where its namesake flowed. This walk down the Captain’s Pitch is one that Marley and I enjoy occasionally – despite the fact it’s reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a local man murdered on his way back from chapel in the distant past!!

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The October light filtered through the trees for just half an hour or so as I tried to catch the colours (and not topple my basket of yarns off the bridge into the stream!)

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The colours played nicely against the moss of the bridge.

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And the soft shaded light really brought out the lustre.

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There are remains of various mills around this area. The farmer who lived at our smallholding before us was very interested in local history. Before he died he tried hard to enthuse me in the same passion. Sadly in my late teens and early twenties I didn’t fully appreciate all he wanted me to understand, nor had I yet developed the love for my new home, something that takes time to root and flourish. I thought he’d told me that the mills along here were sawmills and that the oak they milled from this land base was felled to provide timbers for the ships for the Royal Navy fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

I asked for help from someone who has long been associated with local history and textiles in this area and who was also a mutual friend of my farming mentor and she kindly corrected my hazily remembered misinformation, for which I was very grateful. She explained that although later they were converted to grain and sometimes sawmills, in the 19th C they were in the main fulling mills used for the local flannel cloth industry which was in its heyday in this area. As you might imagine, I was delighted to know that the mill was used for woollen textiles rather than wood!

She also directed me to the Cynefin project archives of the tithe maps for the area so I could see for myself the “flannel racks” or tentering frames where the wet woollen cloth was stretched and dried outside after fulling. They’re marked on land behind the trees opposite the bridge where I took the yarn photos above. This shows very clearly to what use the power of the river was being put – and in the 1840’s it was most definitely for wool! This screenshot detail of the overlaid map shows the racks as well as the Walk Mill woollen factory and river.

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I’m a bit clumsy with technology, although it is undeniably as useful to me as it is to others. In the main I prefer to do things by hand, it sits more comfortably with me and I find working things out by hand less frustrating. So when it came to making yarn labels for this yarn and for my other dyed yarns I wanted to draw – literally – on the landscape around my home. Whether looking west to the Cambrian Mountains as above or Snowdonia

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or behind us to the Kerry Ridgeway bordering England or to the soft undulations of the fields around my home…

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…wherever you look are hills, mountains and misty valleys; sheep, cattle and trees. They are connected to each other sustaining, shaping and evolving with the humans that tend them all. I started to sketch a stylised version because these are the things of my daily life.

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Which eventually turned into this label for the Hafren and Gwy yarns.

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And in the case of this Afon Miwl yarn, I’m able to bring the detail right down to the animals names!

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Afon Miwl is quite a sleek drapey yarn with little elasticity. Although it knits as a fingering weight / 4 ply yarn, its dense 80% longwool/ 20% silk worsted construction means its yardage is closer to sport weight yarn at around 290m / 100g (or 317yds / 3.53oz). It is in 100g hand-dyed skeins and is priced at £22.50 per skein. Colour batches are small, around 3 skeins in each colour batch.

It definitely lends itself to shawls and lace knitting. I think it would be amazing woven and hope there may be a few remnants after skeining that I can try this with myself.

I haven’t skeined all of the yarn yet but there will be around 150 skeins in total. And that’s it. I’m unlikely ever to make this yarn exactly like this again. The first batch of around 50 skeins will go on sale shortly once all the labelling is complete. Do feel free to sign up for my newsletter (subscribe button on my website www.barber-blacksheep.co.uk) to be informed of the planned update time.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my yarn project and will maybe want to knit with it too!

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Rivers Know This…

“Rivers know this; there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”  (A.A.Milne)

January was pretty busy. For me it’s always a time to take stock and plan ahead. Last year was unsettling in so many ways, somewhere along the way I felt I lost heart – about so many things – and I’ve used the first month of 2017 to ground myself and focus on the things that are important to me and doing this has been really helpful.

This has helped me relaunch a project that has been years in the making and ran aground last year. Namely, my Afon Miwl yarn project. I thought I’d use this blog post to tell you a little more about it in detail before the yarns actually come on sale.

Some years ago I started crossing my Gotland sheep with other breeds. I wanted to see how the different sheep turned out and especially what their fleeces were like. One particularly lovely fleece type was from the Gotland x Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) sheep. Like pure BFL, this “Swedish Mule” as I called it, had fine silky, lustrous staples. I knew they would be a challenge for some spinners to process and were best suited to combing. So I made the decision then to set aside these fleeces and store them carefully with a view to saving them up and one day having them processed into commercially spun yarn.

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Having small batch yarn spun at a mill is a fiendishly expensive project – so at the time this was more an act of faith than clear judgement. At that point in time “BarberBlackSheep” the business did not exist – I didn’t even really sell my fleeces direct. It was just something I knew that I really wanted to do and like most of my crazy ideas it was equal parts inspired and madness.

I had only four of this particular crossbred in my tiny flock – Alfie (in the picture above) and his half-sister Siwan and the slightly older Graínne and her twin Boudicca (whom I no longer have). I hand shear all my sheep myself at the point of the year most suited to their fleece type. Gotlands are sheared in winter and housed, BFL sheared in summer. My Swedish Mules fall somewhere between and I generally shear them around April once the weather starts to warm up but before the fleeces start to “cot” with their Gotland genes. When I started to shear I used blades and because I have inflammatory arthritis and painful weak joints I don’t turn my sheep to shear, I’ve developed my own style of shearing them standing.

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I still shear my sheep standing but now I used a Lister machine instead of blades and have rigged up a sling for me to lean in to to help save my back. Either way, shearing my sheep is very much a labour of love – it’s painful and I dread it, especially as most of my sheep get sheared twice a year! But it’s also lovely to handle the fleeces slowly at such close quarters and helps me pick over them carefully as I do so.

Given the small number of sheep and the fact that their fleeces are fairly light in weight, it took me five years to amass the minimum amount I could send for processing. I got to this point last year – I then needed to save up enough money to do this! Last winter I was able to bag up the precious fleeces after sorting them many times and just scraping in with the minimum quantity and send them down to the Natural Fibre Company, a specialist mill in Cornwall. Marley of course had to help – he likes to lend a paw where he can, especially if it smells sheepy…

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There was a neat synchronicity about this being spun by Natural Fibre Company. It is owned by Sue Blacker who also owns Blacker Yarns and when I first wanted to keep Gotlands I very nearly bought some ewes from Sue as she’s a fellow Gotland owner. At that point in time, she had just purchased NFC which had been a Welsh company based in Lampeter and having moved the mill to Cornwall she was downsizing her own flock slightly. I dearly wanted to buy some of her lovely ewes she sent me pictures of but my father was becoming very ill at that point and the long trek to Cornwall proved impractical despite Sue doing everything she could to help me achieve this. I later found my foundation ewes much closer to home thanks to another fibre person, Janet Phillips of The Threshing Barn. I still regret not buying the lovely fine wool Gotlands Sue keeps – but I knew that sending my fleeces years later to her flourishing mill meant they’d be in good hands!

Exactly this time last year a much smaller but still very heavy sack arrived back and Mr Marley gave it his approval.

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As a handspinner, I knew exactly how I’d wanted this yarn to be spun which made discussing my requirements much simpler. Whilst hand-spun yarn doesn’t bear much resemblance to commercially spun yarn and the processes are somewhat different, nonetheless you can get a good feel for the finished yarn by extensive sampling. So I knew that I wanted this to be a worsted spun yarn to align the lustrous fibres and enhance their good points. I also knew that I wanted a fingering weight yarn – this would be a drapey sleek yarn more suited to shawls and lace knitting and I felt that a fingering weight will give a more versatile yarn for the kind of wool it was spun from. And because worsted spinning and finer yarns are both more expensive to create, I really wanted to push for a luxurious yarn to take it up a notch and so chose to blend in 20% tussah silk. There is something very special about the quality of tussah – or wild – silk. I vastly prefer it to mulberry silk and it has something very honest and raw in its beauty that makes it exceptionally suited to blending with wool.

And it really didn’t disappoint. I felt like I’d received a sack full of silver…

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I chose to have the yarn returned to me oiled and on cones. I really didn’t know how I wanted to put up or sell this precious yarn and washing and skeining it myself shaved off some of the cost. This however also made the project stop dead in its tracks as I worked out how the heck I was going to achieve this! And how exactly I wanted to market what amounted to a one-off yarn that I’d invested so much time, love, hopes and dreams into. It wasn’t just “yarn” to me. It was the yarn… It was the yarn I’d dreamed about making when I first handled those shearling fleeces years before.

I’m a slow worker. I like to weigh things up carefully before acting. Sometimes this can annoy those around me and sometimes it can be a drawback, but for me, taking my time (and thus probably tapping into the Welsh side of my character!) gives me security in knowing I’ve done the best I can. I rarely regret decisions made this way and having waited so long to get this far and invested so much, waiting a bit longer until I could do this properly wasn’t that big a deal. This was a project that was never about money or income for me. It has to pay its way of course – after all there are other artisan yarns I really want to make if this sells OK! – but it wasn’t the motive for doing it.

So whilst I pondered my options and created the colour palette I wanted to use, I came across the lovely Welsh Mule yarns that I now sell under my brands of Hafren and Gwy. They’re very different yarns to my own and act as a lovely compliment and extend the palette of the Island Song colours I’ve created for these Welsh grown and dyed yarns. They also gave me confidence as I started to dye up yarns – which after all was a new venture for me as up till now I’d been a fleece and fibre dyer only.

My lovely friend Sarah is brilliant at test knitting my sample yarns for me. She has been working with Afon Miwl on a two colour shawl. The pattern is Avant L’Orage which if you like watching The Great British Sewing Bee you may remember Charlotte, the 2016 winner, wearing! Sarah asked me to dye up the shades Anenome and Bramble for her version – although we discovered that you need a skein and a half of the main colour and one skein of the contrast using my yarn as it has a different yardage.

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Inspired by Sarah’s beautiful shawl, I spent the latter part of last week putting the last touches to the project. Skeining the first batch of yarn by hand took over my kitchen, aided by my other trusty assistant Badger (this is too tedious a job for Marley to want to get involved!).

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And gradually a pile of oiled skeins appeared.

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They now look very different heaped up on my table after a days intense work in the dye studio…

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This post is long enough for now. Tomorrow I will come back and tell you a little more about the name behind the yarn before the yarns go on sale.