“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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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!).
And gradually a pile of oiled skeins appeared.
They now look very different heaped up on my table after a days intense work in the dye studio…
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.