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!

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.

Advent: Christmas Eve

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An old photograph – we’ve not had a snowy Christmas for a few years.

But this is “home” and it’s prettier than the winter we’re having at the moment!

Home.

I feel so very blessed. My family are the people I love most (closely followed by my animals of course!) and I am lucky enough to have seen all of them in the past few weeks which is unusual. But the past two days as we and our neighbours have met and called on each other to exchange cards and gifts and wish each other well and see how each other are I’m reminded over and again how the people I live near are also like family to us. How much we rely on the love and goodwill of those nearby, even when our own relatives are so very far away.

We don’t make much of a festive fuss. “Things” have never really mattered that much to me. People do. The greatest joy I know is to spend time with someone I care about and enjoy their company and friendship. If that is the most precious thing someone can have then I am rich beyond measure in the people I have in my life and I am grateful to have everything I could possibly want in that. I hope I have given of myself to those who need companionship too. None of us take each other for granted but at this season when we all take the time to say “thank you for being there” to each other it cements the bonds we share. Almost like resetting us for another year of living and working together.

I know there are many without, not just at this time but all year round. More than usual, those who “have not” are more on my mind and I find myself asking if I can do more about this. So many people who do not have someone to look out for them or just to care enough to ask if they are OK. Knowing how fortunate I am to love and be loved, I want to keep this in mind for the coming year, not just at Christmas time.

Wishing you joy, peace, love and good cheer this season and for the coming year xx

Plying from a Centre-pull Ball

A small tutorial-type post squeezed in among the Advent pictures!

Well I say tutorial; it’s more pictures showing how I ply small samples from a centre-pull ball. This is my preferred method for plying small samples and it’s quite straightforward. I do know that for some it’s a bit frustrating though and I’ve tried to look slowly at what I do and see if there are any tips I can pass on for how I do it. I’m not an expert or saying this is the “correct way” – it’s simply what works for me. Perhaps you can try it and see if it helps or refine it better for you.

I’m not going to go into huge amount of detail about winding the balls or how to do basic plying. I use a regular ball winder like this one. Other designs are available and you can also wind a centre-pull ball using a nostepinne. You can buy beautiful hand turned nostepinne from sellers of knitting and spinning tools or you can improvise and make one yourself. One spinner I knew wound beautiful balls of her handspun yarn using the handle of her dustpan and brush! The really important thing whichever method you use is ensure the beginning section of the single is well secured in the slots of the winder/visibly free if using a nostepinne before you wind the whole ball. You need both ends and if you lose the beginning section it will be very hard to find it inside the ball once wound and make a very stressful start to plying. You may even have to just pull a lump of tangled yarn out and discard it. MAKE SURE OF YOUR ENDS before winding.

For me, plying from a centre-pull ball is about control. In fact all plying is about control but in this case I’m focussing on keeping the ball itself and the singles coming off it tidy and measured. That’s pretty much all it’s about.

Freshly spun singles are full of twist energy and can get a bit unruly and “pigtail” by plying back on itself in small sections which is a right pain. The thinner the yarn and higher the spinning twist, the worse this is going to be. So for your first attempt it’s probably smarter to use a sample that is going to end up at around DK weight or thicker and not highly twisted. Use a nice bouncy wool not something tricky and slippy like silk. Leaving your singles on the bobbin for 24 hours will help calm it down too. I do ply straight after spinning, it really isn’t that terrifying once you’ve taught the ball to behave and play nicely. But it always helps to stack the odds in your favour the first time so be kind to yourself and start with plump stale singles!

You have the two loose ends on your ball – the one from the outside and the one from the centre. Join these to the leader on your wheel (or spindle) in the regular way and ply a small amount to wind it onto the bobbin.

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I use my left hand to hold the ball – this is because I also spin this way round. If you use your hands the other way around that’s fine, do what you would normally do and just reverse the hands for each task. I’ll refer to them as front and back hand to simplify it.

You need to keep the singles under the control of your fingers at all times. Normally the bobbins are keeping the singles under control and a small amount of tension. If you have a tensioned kate too this is even more applicable. The centre of the ball is going to collapse slightly when you slide it off the winder. This the bit that can get tangled into a lump so this is why  you need to MAKE SURE where the beginning section is before you slide the ball off (yes it is really important enough to repeat this!)

Keep your front hand holding the twist back and only allow it to run back when you are ready.

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If you hold the ball in your back hand like this picture below, it will start to go wrong after a while. The singles won’t be running off the ball under control and you won’t get even tension.

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The single from the middle is more direct, the outer single has to travel further around the ball so they aren’t equal like plied this. The middle one can also spit out a gobbit of kinky singles as the pressure loosens on the inner surface of the ball and that’s very much not fun to untangle.

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The outer one with it’s longer length can start to pigtail up on itself if left to its own devices – this is equally frustrating and makes for tangled plying and snarly yarns.

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So the way I hold the ball is to cradle it lightly in the palm of my hand and use my fingers as the means for tensioning the singles and keep them equal.

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To break this down into how the yarn feeds off like this, I’m using my thumb to lightly cover the outer single. My touch on the plying ball is very light at all times, I’m not really holding it back, just allowing the touch of my fingers to slow it down so it doesn’t kink up as it feeds. (my fingers are pinching off the twist here in this picture below purely because I’m using my right hand to take the photo! Normally that job would be done by my front hand – but it does at least show how you can still keep all the twist and singles under control at all times should you need your other hand to move flyer hooks, sort something out … or even pick up your mug of tea/ the phone/ pat the dog etc!)

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Treadle very slowly and allow the first wrap of singles to slide off the ball and hook your forefinger into the “X” that forms to hold it back. It’s something you’ll have to do to “get” what I mean so don’t worry if you’re thinking “eh?! What X?” at this moment.

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With the twisty singles safely held back lightly like this you can then allow your front hand to permit the twist to travel back into the length by sliding the forefinger and thumb of the front hand towards the plying ball. As you reach the end of the singles between your hands, straighten the hooked forefinger of your back hand slightly and slide/lift the “X” off it with your front hand. Your front hand can now allow the plied yarn to run onto the bobbin as you would normally do with plying and as it does so the next section slips from the plying ball and the back hand forefinger once again hooks into the next “X” formed and holds it back. You simply repeat this over and over smoothly.

Like all spinning skills, it’s one of those things that takes a little bit of doing to realise what goes where and at what time. Take it slowly. If necessary, treadle a little to build twist and then stop treadling whilst you concentrate on the hand motions whilst the wheel is stationary. Once you’ve done  a little bit you’ll soon settle into a steady routine that feels quite natural.

It’s best to use this for small amounts of yarn so the plying ball will be quite small. You can do it with larger amounts – and I do – but the benefits are fewer for the effort. With larger amounts of fibre you may as well split it in two and spin two singles on separate bobbins. However you may suddenly change your mind part way through spinning some fibre and have spun the whole amount on one bobbin or have some other reason that makes plying larger amounts like this logical or desirable.

In that case, you’ll find it hard to keep the ball in your hand until you’ve plied enough and when it’s smaller it will be looser and lacy and more inclined to tangle. I have mine in my lap or even on the floor beside me to start with. But be aware that there is greater scope for stretches of single to pigtail and tangle simply because it’s under less control than in your hand. You might also find with a larger ball that you want to use two fingers and spread them to change the angle at which the twist runs in.

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This works OK. I still prefer to hook my forefinger though for really even plying. You’ll soon get to feel the amount of tension required to make a nice snug plying twist!

It’s really not that different to regular plying; all you’re doing differently is using your back hand as an active kate to manipulate the singles, your front hand is doing all the usual things.

Try it and see!

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Tempus fugit (when you’re having fun)

The past week has involved a good deal of dove-tailing the different areas of my life. It’s been kind of busy – even more so than usual – and wow, hasn’t it gone quickly! Today has been a day to pause, reflect and hibernate just a little because it suddenly got rather chilly here with the wind blowing down off the first snows tipping the mountains to the NorthWest this morning…

It’s been a good week including lots of time with various friends from around the UK on trips out and celebrating gatherings closer to home. Making, writing, sketching, thinking, planning, walking, eating good food … and rather a lot of old fashioned grafting! Although this week we had help in for the major job of breaking up a large part of our farm yard and relaying the concrete which had become damaged over the past 10 years by frost and salt in the more bitter winters. It’s a job that needed doing for a while so although the new surface currently looks as stark as bleached bones, we’re rather pleased with it. We can work on “prettifying” the surrounds next spring!

I’m continually amazed at the glory of this Autumn though. One thing I’ve always thought I’d love to do is to go “leaf peeping” in another country renowned for Autumn/Fall colour. This past week though, I feel replete with all that arboreal Wales has offered during October. It couldn’t be better and it’s right here outside my door…

Here’s a few glimpses of the fun I’ve had both at work and play:

Baking butter cookies and roasted pumpkin soup this morning

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Around home with my animals and daily life:

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A change of scene for a day, exploring somewhere new and catching up with old friends.

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I didn’t have my camera last night for our neighbours’ awesome Bonfire Party they host each year but this is definitely something not to be missed, although sadly this year a few people weren’t able to be with us. As usual we finished off by roasting our faces and marshmallows sitting on the straw bales we loan for the occasion. There’s nothing quite like being huddled together round a fire with home made food and drinks, laughing with your neighbours to feel like you’re reinforcing bonds that will last through joy and adversity – and they do (marshmallows optional extra).

These times together are so cherished by us all that we were only halfway through the evening before our conversation turned to our next two usual gatherings – at Christmas and New Year and even projected onto the possibility of a new Midsummer madness!! Smokey smiles all round!

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What I can’t show you is the progress being made on the Spinner’s Advent Calendar – it’s top secret until December of course!

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I’m working my way through packing the pre-orders, they were so popular this year and I’m really grateful for that. There may possibly turn out to be a couple of spares at the end of this. My Ravelry group update thread is the best place to watch for the chance to snap one up…

What I can show you is the newest addition to my stitch marker range – Autumn Sheep! Now in stock.

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There are more things in the pipeline once the Advent Calendars have winged their way to their new homes. So many things to squeeze into the time. It’s all good!

Fresh Starts

I’ve had a little time to catch up with myself in the couple of weeks the shop has been shut. A little time to spend with family and the rest of the time to dye up some things for the next shop update which will be tomorrow – Monday 15th August – in the evening UK time … because I still have an awful lot of things still to do to get it ready!!

Just a hint of what will be coming; I’ve now washed and dyed all the 2016 clip fleeces from my purebred Gotland sheep. Tomorrow will see me editing the product photos I took yesterday – there are 36 colour batches to choose from, there’s a lot of shiny colourful fleece in my house just now!!

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I don’t know what other people grow in their polytunnels – for me it’s a really useful place to dry batches of wool when the weather outside is either to windy or too rainy for it to dry there!! This summer has been patchy, some gloriously sunny days interspersed with a few damp drizzly ones. I’ve changed my dyeing studio set-up slightly this summer so that I can dye whenever I want or need too now which is fabulous and the polytunnel extends that “all weather” dyeing capability. Makes life a lot easier!!

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I’ve also got Haunui New Zealand Halfbred back in stock – I love this wool so much, it’s hard to describe all the things I like about it. Anyway, this time around I have not only got my regular mid micron Haunui tops that I dye and use for blending into my batts but something really special.

I’ve got some of the finest micron Haunui (that’s 23micons) that has been gilled with Grade A mulberry silk – the resulting tops, well it’s like sticking your hands into warm soft clouds! As you can imagine it’s a dream to spin and the dyed tops shimmer with the colours on the silk. It really represents the immense care that goes into producing Haunui wool from the breeding and care of the sheep right through to the processing of the finished fibre – I think this is the nicest fibre I’ve ever dyed.

I really hope you’ll have fun trying out these new luxury spinning fibres! The first batch is going into the shop update tomorrow. It’s impossible to truly capture the shimmering beauty of the silk and wool in photographs but here is a tiny taste.

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I’ve also got a small batch of regular mid micron Haunui that I’ve dyed in mirror gradients. The narrower length of Haunui tops and its versatility as a finished yarn just lends itself to the ever popular gradient fashion – you have the choice of spinning it as a gradient or mixing it up for barber-pole yarns or random 2-ply or fractal spinning with a little extra processing. I love dyeing these and they never quite turn out exactly like another I’ve done previously!

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I really enjoy listening to podcasts when I’m working and there are some excellent knitting and woolly ones out there to choose from. So I was very grateful that Louise Scollay of the KnitBritish podcast agreed to road test my new yarns and the first part of her knit sampling (on the Hafren yarn base) is included on the latest episode 64. I just need to add the info that the Hafren yarn isn’t actually from my own sheep flock, it’s spun from Welsh Mule sheep farmed in Mid Wales which is where I’m also based of course so it’s a yarn local to me. One of the other yarns Louise is hopefully going to review in due course is the one that’s from my own flock.

If you’re new to podcasts generally then maybe you could try them out and KnitBritish is a great place to start, Louise has her knitterly finger right on the pulse of the yarny world and along with some of my other favourite podcasters has a beautiful speaking voice that’s wonderful to listen to. Lots of people listen whilst they knit or spin but podcasts are also a brilliant way of learning about new things and interesting goings on in the fibre/yarny world whilst you get on with (quiet!) household chores or routine work or even whilst you’re out and about if you listen on a mobile device.

Not in shop news but a commission I was given lately was to dye some beautiful handspun for a friend of mine. I wouldn’t normally accept a challenge for business like this because there’s too much room for mishap. Yarn dyeing and fibre dyeing both have their different challenges and with dyeing yarn as semi-solids in repeatable small batches you have to be meticulous about weights, measurements and note-taking to reduce the variables. (all that beautiful hard work someone else has put in combined with bulk dyeing and permanent dyes – yikes, it’s scary!). However this is a good friend and we’d discussed it carefully and with a bit of lateral thinking I was able to work around my limitations and it’s good to push yourself every now and then.

I love the colour she chose from some new shades I’m hoping to introduce to the range soon – a soft sky blue I’ve called Halcyon. I thought you might like to see it drying on the line. In this photo it looks similar to Squill but it’s a slightly more smokey shade. We’re both very pleased how it turned out and I can’t wait to see her finished sweater.

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Over in my Ravelry group I’ve done a little tweaking of threads. We’ve a brand new chat thread – the old one was very long! It’s always interesting to hear what people are getting up to in their spare time and see photos of their crafting or travels or pets. With members from all around the globe it gives a window into another person’s world which is one of the nicest things about online communities I think.

Sadly I had to say goodbye to my most loved sheep last week. She was the very first Gotland I bought in 2006 and gave so much love and fun over her life as well as a few stressful times to keep me on my toes! I’m going to miss her so much. But in the vein of fresh starts and being positive, having said goodbye to a few older faces in my funny mixed fibre flock this year it’s giving me ideas about who we could invite to join us and increase the variety of fleeces… Who knows!

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Raggedy Yarn

It’s a while since I blogged here … I have been busy I promise!

Over in my Ravelry group we’ve kicked off on the Tour de Fleece – the annual friendly challenge in the spinning calendar where we spin along during the Tour de France, usually setting ourselves some personal spinning challenge be it spinning every day, spinning a set amount or learning a new technique.

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On Team BarberBlackSheep we’re generally very laid back and relaxed. This is our fifth year of toddling along gently behind the more determined teams and we’re loosely involved in spinning down stash this year. So often I hear people say they’ve reached SABLE (stash acquired beyond life expectancy) or that they’re on a fibre diet. So I thought it might be a good idea to dig around and bring out some of those long-lost beauties we’ve acquired and spin them up. To that end I dubbed us Indie Dyer Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Stash. There are already some lovely yarns being produced – if you’re taking part and on social media do let me know so I can share or regram your pictures.

My personal challenge is to spin up some of my Tea Garden braids to weave into a blanket. So far I’ve spun almost half of them – let’s hope I finish it by the end of the Tour!

I’ve also been playing with some new fibres and blends though and this is one of them. I have an abiding love of texture in things and although we often aim for smooth fine yarns as spinners, I have a secret love for arty lumpy bumpy yarns too. I also have a love of silk; it was my first dyeing business when I was still in my teens and I made hand painted silk scarves and I’ve always loved how silk enhances colour in the way it’s fibres reflect light and the intensity of the resulting colours.

It’s also rather fun to spin and I had an idea for upping the fun quotient! I’ve dyed some silk lap – this is the waste silk left on the drum after carding and is cut off in a large glorious sheet of textured silk fibres like a silk duvet.

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My first skein is spun silk plied on itself. The idea is to spin this retaining the raggedy textured appeal so I spin it long draw, supported so as to attenuate the fibres and distribute the twist evenly. Just because it’s deliberately fluffy doesn’t mean the yarn is unstable – you want to trap the fibre securely within the yarn and being silk it needs a reasonable amount of twist. It has a soft hand, feels slightly like a chenille and is drapey. This isn’t a yarn that will stand up to a huge amount of abrasion but for small luxury items is soft and almost woolly feeling with all the beauty of silk.

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To mix things up a bit I decided to play around a bit more with the texture idea for my second skein. I carded up a batt from hand dyed wool and silk fibres – I used shetland and merino, tussah silk and a dollop of silk noil with a touch of sparkle and just gave it two passes aiming to keep variation in colour and texture.

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I spun the silk lap supported long draw as before to make the textured fuzzy single and then plied with a slightly slubby single spun from the batt. The resulting yarn still has subtle texture but has slightly more body and bounce and less drape than the pure silk yarn and so has a wider range of applications.

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So if you’ve fancied spinning some textured yarns but are slightly worried about new techniques for art yarns this might be a nice way to ease yourself into them with a simple 2-ply yarn where the fibres themselves do the texture.

The silk lap are dyed in small amounts and should be available in the hand dyed fibre section of the shop this coming weekend.

Colour in Symphony – trio and chorus

When I was photographing the skeins of Welsh Mule yarn for the shop listings a couple of days ago I quickly put together some colour combinations to help people making colour choices. These photographs are just snaps, not great quality (spot the skew-whiff ones!) and were just as I grabbed the skeins one after the other as the colours leapt out at me at the time not in planned colour ways.

So these are just to give an idea of possibilities, they’re not recommended colour combinations per se.

These are trios of colour. In some cases I’ve just swapped out one skein each time to show the subtle change from a lighter to darker version of a colour can make to a combination. I’ve put them in mosaic format to reduce the picture heavy nature of the post.

These are larger groups of 5 shades – a chorus of yarns perhaps…

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And finally 6 shades – mostly warmer shades and mostly cooler.

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Remember that these are for different ideas; if you’re looking for stranded colour work you’ll ideally need colours with high contrast in colour depth. If for stripes and edgings, contrast sleeves choosing subtle analogous colours (ones similar in shade) is fine.

When I’m working with colour and I don’t have the actual yarns to hand or if I’m designing colour schemes I’ve not yet dyed up samples to work with, I find it useful to have different materials in the kinds of shades I need just to help me see how they work together.

You can do the same – be inventive! I often use tufts of dyed merino tops as I have a lot in stock but I also use the paint chips that decorating merchants have for you to decide on colour test pots. I also colour in pieces of card with colour pencils or paints or lay them next to each other on white paper. But in a pinch you can use almost anything to give an idea of colour.

 

Colour in Symphony

Having introduced you to the colours of the Island Song collection last week and their inspirations, I’m now going to show you the colours all together and then in another post I’ll do a series of just pictures showing the colours in different combinations to help give ideas for putting them together.

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These images are all displaying the colours on North Ronaldsay heavy lace weight yarn – it was the one yarn I had in 100g skeins in stock to test the colours one last time and I needed all of them together to take colour photos. This is a really lovely yarn, it’s crisp and not especially soft at first but softens with handling. I’ve yet to knit it up myself (too many projects on!) but it’s begging to be made into a lace shawl or perhaps a vest or cardigan, the 2-ply structure will show off the lace stitches beautifully and snap cleanly round the edges of yarnovers. At this time I have only one of each skein which will go in the shop shortly after the Welsh Yarn but I’m hoping to get more of this “island” yarn back in stock at some point in the future.

I’ll be offering the colours first on two weights of the Welsh Mule yarn – one is a heavy DK/worsted 3 ply yarn perfect for squishy warm garments and the other a fingering/sport weight 2 ply which would work equally well as finer gauge garments or for lace shawls or small items like hats, mittens and children’s clothes; it’s a very soft yet robust yarn so will be perfect for items worn next to the skin.

Because of these attributes I’m offering the different weights in different skein sizes. The DK/worsted yarn will be available for now in 50g skeins and the fingering/sport weight in 100g skeins and a mini skein I’ve yet to finalise but most likely 25g. This will allow versatility in buying quantities for colour work or stripes, small items and still have larger skeins in the finer yarn for lace shawls where it’s good to avoid weaving in ends where possible.

For those who are interesting in colour-work I’ve turned some of the yarn photos into grayscale so you can see the colour intensity. This isn’t a subject for this blog post but colour work aficionados will know that for successful colour contrast in stranded knitting, you need a contrast in colour intensity as well as colour to make the shades pop out and work together rather than being lost in amongst shades of similar depth. This is a subject that has been addressed by many other far more knowledgeable knitters than myself so I suggest you google for more information.

Here’s the colours of Island Song.

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And the same photograph turned into grayscale.

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You can see that the shades range from almost white to almost black once the hues have been cancelled out. Picking out my favourite range of aqua blues and greens (to the left) for colourwork would leave me with quite an insipid pattern, I would need to mix it up with some of the other shades to give it some muscle.

However for stripes and some other kinds of knitting colour design you can choose whatever you like. You could go for a contrasting selection on a harlequin sweater with contrast sleeves or blocks of colour in the construction or intarsia. Or you might choose gentle shading and gradients or perhaps a delicate edging on a shawl or collar, hem and cuffs.

The choice is yours and the possibilities really wide!

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Island Song – v.4

The final trio of colours in the Island Song collection take us into the purple range of hues. They are Bramble, Penrhyn and Guernsey.

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Spiky thorn                                                                                                                                                    and tangled scrub;                                                                                                                                   sweet purple stains her lips and tiny hands.

Our family has always enjoyed gathering food from the wild. When we lived in town, dog walks and picnics in the country always seemed to involve foraging for wild food for some kind of meal or preserve or other. I don’t know if we were odd in doing this or not, for us it’s normal. My father had a well-thumbed copy of Food For Free by Richard Mabey which he would consult as to the more dubious species; sometime he could persuade us to partake of them and sometimes he would just have to plough into whatever it was on his own. One of our parents friends was convinced we were trying to poison him by serving slices of Giant Puffball fried with slabs of traditionally cured gammon and refused to eat it although it was perfectly delicious and quite safe. But though I love seafood, even I baulked at picking winkles out of their shells with a pin; I remember watching fascinated as my dad thoughtfully chewed and swallowed before admitting to “rubbery and gritty”.

Some of the more mainstream flavours of the wild are favourites across all our families now; my nephews and nieces have been initiated in the annual excitement that is exploding bottles of Elderflower Champagne, so full of sugar it can dissolve your teeth but delicious and yeasty, even when you have to strain out the tiny insects that were hidden in the frothy white blossoms you pick in full sun. We’ve also bred the next generation of prawners – something of a competitive sport across our much wider extended family as to who can get the longest prawn or biggest haul (weighed in ounces, shell on) and whose successes have been diligently recorded in pencil on the kitchen cupboard door for longer than I’ve been alive (my aunty still seems to hold the current record from August 2000 which appears to have been a bumper year).

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Blackberry picking is probably the most acceptable form of foraging though and isn’t just confined to slightly bonkers forager families like ours. My father and oldest brother were the best and most dedicated at blackberry picking, I was never as keen. The headlands are thick with wild bramble scrub and those blackberries are tainted with salty sea spray and less palatable. But around the cottage the bramble thickets yield sweeter, plumper berries and despite the savage thorns that lacerate unwary little bare legs, the brambles are never completely eradicated to supply the delicately scented berries to colour and flavour the ever popular blackberry-and-apple compote, crumbles and pies.

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Penrhyn

Heather grey                                                                                                                                              riven cold rock;                                                                                                                                              yet warmed by fire, the hearthstone welcomes home.

Most of us think of slate as a blueish grey. Slate of course comes in many greyish hues though depending on the minerals present in the rock as it was formed and for a grey fanatic like me I find this endlessly fascinating.

Welsh slate is famous throughout the world for its beauty and quality as a building material and for decorative use. It’s very smooth and durable and has been exported widely. Although a lot of slate that is used in Britain now is imported from India and China because it’s cheaper, Welsh slate is still highly sought after  – if you can afford it!

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There are several slate quarries in Wales, Penrhyn Quarry the one that inspired this shade is still active and is in Bethesda just on mainland North Wales below Anglesey. The slate from here is generally considered to be the finest slate in the world. It’s also the quarry that I photographed the quarry lake blue in from yesterday’s post. Whilst the slate quarrying business continues further up, the lower section now houses the activity centre Zip World where you can fly over the quarry and lake on a zip wire … if that’s your idea of thrills!

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The steps to the cottage and other areas are in the gorgeous purple shade known as Penrhyn Purple (or Heather Blue or Bangor Blues) and to me it’s a comforting and soft shade that seems warmer than the stone itself. A cool 590 million years old, it’s so old it’s beyond imagining and puts human history into its perspective of having only just happened by comparison. The slate steps themselves having only been in situ for a mere 130 years…

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This soft purple grey is the first shade I envisioned to dye for this collection. It’s the one I’ve had to dye most often to get right and it’s an elusive colour to photograph. Perhaps that’s fitting for such an ancient colour; it’s allowed to be a tad awkward!

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Guernsey

Horizon,                                                                                                                                                     waves slap the keel;                                                                                                                                 hand on tiller, a sailor tacks for shore.

This is a slightly odd one but nevertheless it is a very strong association of colour for me. Guernsey is for the warm navy blue shade of guernsey jumpers or jerseys – the Channel Islands seem to have had a monopoly on the naming of these sea faring sweaters!

Made from densely spun smooth 5-ply wool yarn knitted at tight gauge, they’re designed to keep out wind and with wool’s characteristic of being warm even when wet; guernseys must have saved lives of seafaring folks by staving off hypothermia. Now most people will go to sea wearing quite technical manmade fabrics that are both waterproof and breathable. But even when I was little, all our jumpers were made of wool and we all seemed to have guernseys for pottering around on the shoreline or in boats. Flicking back through our family photo albums for this project, it struck me that in the earlier photos, all of us were in guernseys, my parents, us, family friends. Later photos from the 1980’s as we grew, we children were in cotton sweatshirts although my parents continued to wear wool. This photo taken of me in Anglesey on the headland with the sea behind shortly before my first birthday shows me in my first guernsey – oversized to grow into with rolled up sleeves! My mum tells me it was a pale blue shade – I don’t remember this jumper, just the later dark blue ones I had to wear at my first school. It’s possibly the only photo I can show you of me as a small child, rather embarrassingly I was somewhat averse to wearing clothes as a littl’un as scores of family photos show! There is another amusing photo of me half naked having a sitz bath in the washing up bowl on the lawn … but still wearing my guernsey…

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My father wore his guernsey as his not-at-the-office clothing for weekends and around the house so to me it is the one garment that is inseparable in my mind from him. My mother has it still and I asked her if I could photograph it to show the colour I had in mind when I was dyeing the shades. Despite years of regular wear, it’s still in excellent condition, just a tiny bit of fraying at the neck where it grazed his neck which I need to darn. Otherwise – perfect. A really sustainable garment which just shows how economic a well designed and constructed wool garment can be – in stark contrast to the sad throwaway culture of fashion we have now where garments can wear out in a matter of months or even weeks.

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Guernseys (also known as ganseys) and other similar tightly knit wool sweaters were worn all over Britain and other coastal areas of maritime countries and so are a part of our collective heritage for lots of us regardless of where we live. Some have wonderful intricate stitch patterns; lore suggests they could be regional to allow identification of lost fishermen although I don’t know how true this really is. Nevertheless the beautiful patterning of ganseys is a massive subject on which I personally know little but has been explored extensively by modern knitwear designers to as a rich mine of textile culture. It is something I’d like to explore in my own knitting in due course. They can also be different colours – there are some gorgeous shades available now in traditional gansey yarn.

To my mind though a traditional guernesy  is a simply constructed tight knit, plain stitch jumper with the ribbed neck and cuffs, split hem, straight neck line and the simple rib and garter pattern at the armscye. And it’s always always deep navy blue…

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So there you have the final three shades – I’ve finished up on the colours that are perhaps most personal to my memories of being “in a place” rather than the ones that are directly inspired by Anglesey itself. But that is my hiraeth; the true meaning of longing for the place in time that you can only visit in your memory but never truly return to.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed the background to the colours too. I will do another post with the colours all together so you can see how they work that way. In time I’d like to do more of just a few of the colours in different combinations to help those who might find it harder to visualise how they work.

But for now I need to get back to finalising the yarn itself, there’s still work to be done on labelling and skeining and dyeing and the product listings so there will be a little pause before it comes into the shop. Thank you for joining me on this trip down memory lane; I’m so looking forward to seeing how you take the colours into the future in your knitting projects!