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!

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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A Welsh Yarn

This is a story about Wales, about sheep, about wool – a Welsh yarn. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin…

I’ve been dropping hints about yarns for a long time now. Creating and selling proper Welsh grown yarns from my own sheep is something I’ve desperately wanted to do since before I started selling my fleeces as BarberBlackSheep.

When I first started keeping Gotlands and crossing them for different coloured fibres I had this idea I’d somehow handspin everything. Hmmm… maybe not!

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Having yarn spun commercially from individual fleeces or from breed specific flocks is actually quite tricky. Within the UK there are now very few commercial mills that can cater to the small market and of the mills that can spin the kind of worsted yarn that benefits the kinds of fleeces I grow there are only two. And only one of these can deal with the tiny quantities of fleece I have.

When I switched from keeping commercial meat sheep to Gotlands I did so with the aim of looking for the “perfect” sheep. Over 10 years later I think I’ve now realised that this doesn’t exist within the parameters I was looking for; an animal is always going to lean towards one characteristic or other.
I was going through a rather zealous eco-friendly stage after a prolonged period of ill-health that forced me to give up my job in my mid-20s. Having ignored and even scorned the knit-your-own-yoghurt / wholemeal-socks brigade as we thought of them I was forced to think differently – but there’s nothing like chronic illness to burst an arrogant bubble.

My long and uncomfortable quest to find my health again involved facing a few home truths I’d chosen to ignore and realised that what we eat, wear and live in has a major impact on what we are. Having gratefully clawed my way out of debilitating pain over 18 months I threw myself 110% into natural food, clothing, toiletries and even housing in that way that converts do! I was interested in permaculture concepts and became somewhat obsessed about sustainability, often setting the bar impossibly high. No aspect of my life was spared the scrutiny of sustainability and that included the animals we were keeping.

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The meat sheep we’d kept till then were bred purely for the European export market. The fleeces went to the BWMB for not very much money and the sheepskins from the fat lambs would have been a waste product, I believe most likely going to China for making trainers (although I’m not certain!). I don’t have a problem with animals being farmed for meat or eaten as a moral principle I do however feel very strongly that nothing should be wasted, that we should never take lives unthinkingly and few things make me as angry as meat or animal products that gets thrown away. I wanted a sheep that’s fleece was as valuable as its meat but unfortunately we consumers dictate demands that often require a specialist breed rather than a dual purpose one.

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Wool growing sheep are usually rangy rather than meaty but we like juicy plump joints of meat; those sturdy, well muscled breeds that provide the kind of cuts the butchers require don’t have soft, snuggly fleeces for fine spinning.
I considered several traditional breeds for some time and narrowed it down to either Wensleydales or Shetlands for different reasons.

In 2006 I went to the Royal Welsh Smallholders Show which also included the Green Building Exhibition and the very first WonderwoolWales – fraction of the fabulous show so many of us went to last month. I had recently taken up knitting again and was learning to spin but I’ve always been a bit obsessed with textiles so I was blown away by the idea of an exhibition about textiles and wool.
I got chatting to a lady on a felt making stand and said I was hunting for “the perfect sheep” and she said “Gotlands!” and I said “whats?!”. She pointed me in the direction of Sue Blacker who had just bought Natural Fibre Company and was moving it from Wales to Cornwall (Oh how I wish it were still in Wales though!) and also had a flock of Gotlands and was manning the Gotland breed stand with another Gotland breeder. Gotlands in the UK are marketed as “the three crop sheep” for wool, meat and pelts (back in Sweden they are generally used for pelts).
There weren’t any Gotlands on show but she had photographs and Sue told me what massive personalities Gotlands have and then I saw some of the handspun overdyed yarns the other lady had spun and I was sold from that second.

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Over the next few years I fiddled around trying to breed from my two foundation ewes I acquired and crossing a Gotland ram onto another couple of different breed ewes we already owned. I quickly discovered I liked crossing for fleeces types more than I liked breeding pedigrees!

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I also realised that creating a “perfect” sheep is not a question of putting one breed onto another and hoping for the best. Genes will play the lottery, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes the results are predictable, other times not. First crosses can vary wildly, new breeds are created by selectively breeding those first crosses back to each other to reinforce the desirable characteristics whilst culling any that don’t meet the grade and I quickly realised also that a 15 acre smallholding combined with a shepherd with a complete inability to part with anything as adorable as a Gotland sheep is not cut out for creating a new sheep breed!

However I did get some interesting sheep and fleece types out of my experiments. One of the most special is what I refer to as Swedish Mule (neither a slipper nor a cocktail – a sheep!). A straight Gotland/BFL cross, it’s like the best of both breeds with none of the downsides. I bred 4 of these before I sold my ram. I’ve only ever sold a couple of their fleeces, I’ve carefully stored them over the past 4 years and last year I had enough to reach the minimum quantity for processing.

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Artisan yarn like this is really expensive to produce; having discussed the yarn a year ago I had to save up the capital to do this project and so it was late autumn before I could afford to ship the fleeces to Natural Fibre Company with my heart in my mouth for the next stage of a project I’d wanted to do for so long.

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The yarn came back a couple of months ago – it’s truly beautiful and I’m very happy with it. The yarn I designed is a worsted spun 4-ply/fingering weight yarn blended with tussah silk to enhance the wool’s characteristics – specifically created for a drapey, lustrous luxurious yarn perfect for lace shawls or other items where lustre and drape is an advantage. It’s limited edition, it will be costly and there isn’t actually a huge amount of it. It will also probably never be repeated exactly like this because I now have only 3 of the sheep whose fleeces it’s made from, having lost Boudicca to pneumonia last year. So I wanted to be sure exactly how I was going to sell it, skein size, colours etc.

If this project works well then there are other kinds of yarn I’d like to create from other fleeces I have stored once I’m able to afford to do so. I’m aware that my tagline “made in Wales” that originated from starting with my own fleeces is drifting further away from it’s roots in my products although everything I dye or card myself is made here in Wales and strongly influenced by the Welsh landscape and everything I stock has been carefully chosen for a reason such as the stunningly beautiful Haunui New Zealand Halfbred which has such great provenance behind the sheep and the business.

A couple of months back I realised that the Cambrian Wool project (part of the Cambrian Mountain Initiative) which had been in discussion for some years was getting close to launching so I started making enquiries about stocking their yarns to dye myself to compliment my own homegrown ones.

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It’s beautiful and I’ve spent some times in recent weeks finalising the palette of twelve shades I will be offering these lovely Welsh grown yarns in … as well as future yarns I hope. I’ve chosen initially to stock the DK weight to compliment the 4ply/fingering weight of my own yarn and it’s created from Welsh Mule, soft but robust and springing, perfect for garment knitting.

So there you have it – two contrasting Welsh yarns, spun in England and dyed in Wales. Coming to a shop near you soon!! ;0)

In my next few blog posts I’m going to tell you about the new colour palette I’ve been creating; it’s inspired by Wales and by my childhood memories so each of the colours has meaning for me and make my heart sing when I look at them. I can’t wait to share them with you now it’s done!

Advent: December 7th

Returning to images from The British Museum again, today I’ve chosen a very humble object but one that was essential throughout the history of agriculture right up until the present day. And one that has particular interest to me as a sheep keeper and fibre artist.

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These shears are around 2,000 years old and are from Hertfordshire, England. They look remarkably similar to the hand shears I use for dagging (clipping the tail wool) my own sheep. My oldest pair, now relegated to gardening duties are in about the same condition too!!

I now shear my sheep with an electric shearing machine. But for the first few years that I sheared my own sheep, I blade sheared them using the tool of shearers throughout the centuries; effective, well designed and standing the test of time. A good blade shearer is not much slower than one using a machine and shearing competitions often still have a blade category. Although no one would shear large flocks of sheep professionally this way now, it’s good to know that shearers continue to keep up these hand skills.

Before sheep were domesticated, they shed their wool naturally in late spring and summer leaving clumps of it dotted around the countryside for humans to gather and use for clothing. Over the millennia than humans have domesticated animals for their own use, they selectively bred sheep to retain the wool which meant it could be gathered at will at one time – shearing. Almost all modern sheep have lost the ability to shed their wool although most breeds fleece will “rise” in late spring where the new growth pushes through and indicates where and when the sheep need shearing. Primitive breeds of sheep can still lose their fleece. Because I keep a couple of more primitive breeds, some of my own sheep do this to an extent although they need a helping hand to get rid of the last bits of felted wool from their bodies. Because I shear the best wool from my sheep in winter, the spring growth is short and poor quality and I utilise the sheep’s natural ability to shed it to save me work by picking the optimum time to clear off this wool. It has no value to me and has served it purpose to keep the sheep warm since moving back outside after being housed in the depths of winter and so gets discarded.

This is generally a quick process compared to the laborious clipping of the quality fleeces. Often I will use a combination of electric clippers and my low-tech, traditional blades to achieve this. It’s nice to know I’m following in the footsteps of my sheep-farming ancestors across the centuries when I’m working.

Advent: December 3rd

So for today’s Advent post I thought we’d go back in time again to visit another sheep… this time much, much further back though.

It’s just over a year now since I took a few days to escape mud and fresh air and take a city break in London. I blogged about my visit to the Imperial War Museum shortly after but I also went to several other places whilst I was there. Unlike some of the other London Museums I went to as a child, The British Museum was one I hadn’t visited yet and I could happily go back time and again it’s so full of interesting objects. It’s definitely somewhere to go on your own and to take your time. There’s too much to see so I’m slightly envious of those who have to opportunity to go to places like this in a lunch hour and to properly look at just a few things rather than gorge on them like I did.

Some of the objects I wanted to see were ones I’d read about in books and it was truly exciting to see them for real up close. Others were curios I’d never heard of before such as this earthenware aquamanile from England in the shape of a ram.

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Aquamaniles are simply jugs or vessels in the shape of an animal  or person. Perhaps the forerunner of cow creamers or Toby Jugs!! Apparently ceramic versions are rarer because of their fragility – obviously they  don’t survive as well as the metal ones used by the rich. This poor ram is missing his legs as well as the handle – you can’t see from the angle I’ve taken this photo but his nose forms the spout. I loved this little broken ram; he’s around 650-750 years old so perhaps it’s hardly surprising he’s missing a few limbs!

Advent: December 1st

So Advent has begun… Well technically the true season of Advent started a couple of days ago on Advent Sunday but for the purposes of both the BarberBlackSheep Spinner’s Advent Calendar (BBSSAC for short!) and for the photo blogs we start on December the 1st.

So for today’s picture I’ve gone back in time. To 2005/2006

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This is sort of where BarberBlackSheep started really. These are some of the commercial meat sheep we had before I got into the general spinning fibrey fluffy knittingness of life… and we all know what kind of a rabbit hole that turned into!!

These 9 blackfaces ewes were bred by our neighbours. They’re my favourite commercial sheep – Suffolk x Welsh Mule. Easy to look after and good at their job. We had them as 6month old hoggets and brought them on. The first year was hard work. When we moved here my parents bought 20 ewes of various breeds that came with the farm so they were experienced at lambing even though we weren’t and I learned as we went along with these old timers who knew the score. Eventually they got to the end of their lives and we bought in fresh breeding stock of my favourites – Suffolk/Suffolk x – just 10 ewes from next-door. These young ladies had no experience and were just under a year old when they gave birth (this is normal for commercial farms but not a practice I would chose to do now). The new lambing issues I faced that year were enormous, my father and I struggled with the presentations, the new  veterinary problems thrown up by young inexperienced ewes bearing large single lambs as well as the annual curve balls sheep throw at you generally just to keep you on your toes. Our lamb mortality rate was unacceptably high; our morale devastatingly low. We lost one of the ewes as well.

My neighbour had suggested at the time we bought them that rather than purchasing commercial ewes from him I should specialise in a rare breed or a fibre flock given that we had little land and didn’t keep sheep as a viable income source. He suggested Wensleydales as his partner is a weaver and is a fan of the fibre plus the wool commands one of the higher  prices from the British Wool Marketing Board. After our disastrous first season with the new ewes I wondered if I should have taken his advice especially as 2006 was the year I learned to spin and wool suddenly became a very interesting subject indeed and the previous year I had returned to knitting when my mother formed a small Knit n Natter group with our neighbours.

I gradually turned over in my mind what I should do. I looked at different sheep breeds and dismissed them one by one although for a time Wensleydales and Shetland were both strong contenders for the replacement breed. Finally in 2006 I decided I wanted Gotlands, sold these what we in the UK call shearlings and the Australians and New Zealanders call two tooths (2ths) back to our neighbours and I bought my first 4 Gotlands.

Lurking in this group of blackface ewes, the eagle eyed will spot 3 white faced sheep. These were Nell, Nelson and Napolean who were BFL x Charollais sheep from some of our original sheep. These three lovely sheep stayed with us till ripe old age and died a few winters ago one by one – Nelson and Napoleon only a short time apart, as devoted as they were to each other in life they wouldn’t be separated by death. I still have some of their fleeces which I can’t bear to sell. It’s lovely bouncy soft spinning fibre and one day I hope to have some more of these sheep in my flock.

And the pony at the back is of course a much younger Cobweb – now 35 years old and a little crumbly around the edges but still a very game old bird for all that!!

To add to my Advent season this year I’ve decided on an extra small discipline each day. I’m one of those paradoxical people who doesn’t like mess but seems incapable of remaining organised so I lurch from chaos to blitz in terms of tidying up. I actually find housework quite therapeutic but even so, I wish I was a neater person in daily living – I don’t like clutter even if it doesn’t look like that to others! It’s surprising how much mess one girl and two dogs can make really…

So today I had a little idea – Teatime Tidying! I thought that for every time I put the kettle on I would put the time it takes to boil the kettle and drink my cuppa to good use. I would pick just one small area, one work surface, one smeary dusty window, one drawer or shelf and tidy, sort and clean it. I’ve also loosely extended it to dealing with piles of paperwork waiting for attention and odd mending things like sewing a missing button on or fixing something that’s broken. The reasoning goes that come Christmas my house will be a nicer place for me to live in and presentable for visitors.

So far it’s working!

Wool and the Gang

Some people think I need to get out more; I know this because I hear it quite often (mostly in jest I hope!) and usually from friends and family who live in urban areas and can’t comprehend that in fact you can make more friends living in rural areas than you ever do in town.

But actually I quite like my own company, when you work on your own sometimes having your own space to think and see is vital to the creative process. Although creativity is born of collaboration with that which is outside of you and is sparked by many things, to develop it you do need time alone in your headspace as it were to make it real. Of course often people “retreat” when they need to create things or think things over, sometimes on organised courses and sometimes just to get away from the busyness of a normal week. So rural living is perfect for this kind of life.

You’re never really alone here though. My mum and I share the land we live on so we have each other’s company whenever we want as well as our own space. Living where we do we’re also surrounded by a close community of awesome people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We just don’t see each other that often because of the physical distance between our houses but that means when we do meet, either by accident or by design, we make an effort to stop and catch up, take time to share a cuppa and hear each other’s news. I think that means that you truly get to know each other and “community” becomes “family” in a wider sense.

And of course most of us have animals of one sort or another. How could you ever feel lonely when you have a dog that woos you with roses?

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(Well OK, it wasn’t quite like that; Marley was keen for his walk and found the dead flowers I’d put out to go on the compost to add weight to his request – and who can resist those pleading eyes?)

So earlier we set off out for a damp misty walk to take photos (me) and chase bunnies and sniff the hedges (Marley – just in case you were wondering). There is something gloriously satisfying about walking in the countryside on a murky day in scotch mist amid falling leaves… and then coming home to tea and toasted crumpets.

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But before I put the kettle on I headed down the field to check on some of my other “friends”. My sheep might not be the kind of animals you’d share your home with (although I’m sure they’d try given half the chance) but they are bursting with personality and loyalty just as much as a dog and as soon as they see me approaching they run over to get a fuss – they adore human company and I find this very endearing.

Mostly it’s because they are Gotlands or Gotland crosses – this Swedish breed have massive personalities anyway, are extremely docile and are used to close contact with humans. When you handle them a lot they become incredibly tame and bond well with their shepherd in a way some other sheep breeds do not. I don’t carry food on me; this is no cupboard love – they are genuinely curious about people and just like contact with them. So although if I take strangers to visit them they will hold back just like any other sheep, when I go down the field on my own, because I’m “mum” I get mobbed. I climbed up on the gate to show you. Like this…

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Sadly it doesn’t extend to when I need to do tasks like shearing, foot trimming and worming – then they are as wild and as dippy as any other sheep! But out in the field on equal terms it’s a good way to observe them as individuals and notice which ones need attention or if one of them is behaving out of character which might indicate they are ill.

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Some are much more friendly than others; below is Hetti my oldest and most favourite ewe. She will always be the first to come pegging over for attention – her position as matriarch is unrivalled and although she retired fairly early on because she was ill a couple of years after I got her and can no longer be bred from, I will never part with this darling cheeky sheep.

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My other foundation ewe Helen is also retired and although not quite as in-her-face as Hetti, is also usually at the front of whatever is going on. Both of them still produce beautiful quality fleece; not all sheep breeds produce poorer quality fleeces as they age and these fleeces are still lustrous, curly and strong especially as they no longer have to carry lambs which takes a lot out of them.

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I crossbred my sheep from fairly early on and it’s interesting each year seeing the fleece types as they change with age as well as their genetic make up. Sometimes I wish I had a massive farm with lots of help so I could keep experimenting with this because the possibilities are infinite. But as we have only a limited acreage and time and I can never ever get rid of any of my animals I’ve had to stop breeding them – you can’t keep everything!

Some of the different types and colours from the Gotland, Black Welsh Mountain, coloured Leicester Long wool and Black BlueFaced Leicester genes.

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This next photo demonstrates some of the variation in my sheep over the past few years. At the front is Jonathan, he is Charollais, BFl and Gotland. Behind him is Mutton Monster – the last of our Suffolk x Charollais meat sheep but will almost certainly never be eaten now he’s 8 years old!! Behind him is Rasta a pure BlueFaced Leicester (BFL) but of a black gene variant which meant she couldn’t be registered (but I love black biffles as I call them!). Behind her is her daughter Siwan who is also 50% Gotland and to the left of her also at the back is the large and woolly Elvis who combines Gotland, Black Welsh Mountain (BWM) genes with coloured Leicester Longwool. They all look vaguely cream-to-coffee coloured in the picture but underneath each fleece is a different shade of grey, brown or silver – only the meat sheep is creamy coloured. And each fleece has completely different characteristics in terms of length, fineness, lustre and crimp (the shape of the curl or wave in each fibre) and therefore the uses for each fibre and how you spin them. It gets rather addictive mixing up the different types…

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The different genes also affect their characters, the more Gotland they are the more likely they are to be friendly – but not always. These three – Edward, Alfie and Paris – are all rather shy and not very keen on being handled at all and they are all part or full Gotland. Same handling, same flock – different personalities. Anyone that thinks sheep are boring, dull or stupid hasn’t spent any time with them!

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These two are my unexpected lambs from last summer (2014) and because they lost their mum who died suddenly of a viral pneumonia when they were only 5 weeks old, they’ve remained quite small despite being over a year old now. Unfortunately they’re also quite wild although I put them with Hetti and Isabella for adoption in the hopes they would teach them to be friendly. The older ewes affability hasn’t rubbed off sadly. Although generally they stick fairly closely to Isabella still (who isn’t in this photo) and are 3/4 Gotland genetically, they don’t trust me like the others do. Perhaps in time they will. Again I find it interesting how different these twins are; one really favours the Gotland genes and the other more like her BWMx mum. I’m looking forward to shearing their adult fleeces next year.

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Of course, not all of our “gang” here are sheep – yesterday we had fun trying to scan Petunia the Large Black pig to see if she is in fact pregnant. I’ve never had to do this before – when I bred pigs regularly my sows and boar were very fertile and had piglets without any difficulty. Petunia hasn’t had babies for a few years and in pigs this means they can become infertile and it’s been a struggle to try and get her back “in pig”.

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Yesterday though I was able to borrow a scanner from the vets I work at and some farming/vet friends and I had a go at seeing if Petunia’s expanding girth line was due to the impending patter of tiny trotters or merely eating all the pies. I’d wanted to take some photos to show you but in the end we just had to concentrate on the job in hand. She didn’t want to stand still and took exception to the cold gel on her tummy so whilst my friend followed her around the loose box with the scanner probe, I trailed around after clutching tightly to the precious scanner unit itself and the extension cable. Despite the lack of cooperation we’re pretty certain we saw finally some foetal piglets bobbling around in her tummy as she grunted and scoffed pig nuts we’d put down to keep her still! Let’s hope so anyway!!

She could do with some piggy company again, mostly she keep escaping from her own field to join the ponies which doesn’t impress them very much. They tolerate her but aren’t entirely sure about her trough manners…

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And then I quickly looked in on our latest arrivals – these are quite literally the new kids on the block! Mum bought a couple of young female goats this week to keep BillyBoy company. His mother died early this year as she was very old and shortly after he went mysteriously lame and despite various treatments it’s as much a puzzle to my vet boss as it is to me. He manages quite well with his unusual walk and for most of the summer had Donald the outcast duck for company. It was really sweet to see them cuddled up together in the shed but Donald was taken by a fox a couple of weeks ago and Billy needed some new friends.

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Mum is still thinking up names for them – I quite like Baa Humbug and Kendal Mint-cake personally – so at the moment they are just “the kids”. They’re quite a bit smaller than Billy but they all get on well. Now, I wonder if they’ll grow much cashmere undercoat this winter…

And home again.

Since I was away I’ve been very busy putting together different things for my fibre shop (amongst other things, the Shipwreck Build a Batt Box and Tea Garden collection I posted about recently). But I’ve also been doing things around the farm and home and attempting to get on top of the weeds and general jobs!

If I stop and think too much about all that needs to be done I start to panic – at this time of year you never really manage to get ahead of yourself (well I don’t anyway!) so you have to prioritise and work out ways of combining things to make the best use of time and energy. But I’m all too aware that I’m on damage limitation standards mostly; the garden’s heavy clay soil is productive but the runaway growth from the sun’s warmth and the soft rain and long daylight hours means the thuggish elements have the upper hand and cultivated plants are no match for pernicious weeds.

I had a real “down” moment a few weeks back; nothing I had sown seemed to be germinating, several batches were required of some things that I normally have no trouble growing. Perhaps it’s old seed, perhaps the new compost we’re using isn’t as good, perhaps the weather was tipping things away from my favour. Or perhaps I’ve lost that “green-finger” that comes from concentrating your attention on what you’re doing – perhaps after all I’m trying to squeeze too much in…

Happily some plants seem to grow no matter how little TLC they get. Potatoes and tomatoes will self seed where they fall or have been left and the ones you plant do just as well even if you forget about them. So although it’s been dry the Cara and Charlotte spuds I planted around Easter are coming up nicely. And I’ve decided to bring permaculture into play and solve two issues with one problem and mulch with the clippings from lawn mowing to keep the chickweed down that compete with the potato plants!

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It feels as though I might have gone a little overboard planting tomatoes this year… Somehow I have to find enough room under glass/plastic to fit the full grown plants in!

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Although two successive batches of French Beans have come to nothing and I am going to admit defeat on my favourite bean this year, these runner beans shot away and are now safely planted up in one long wigwam of canes.

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and the courgette plants are also now in their final positions – the slugs and the high winds are making them look rather pathetic just now but I’m hoping with the “sheep tea” washings from soaking fleeces for spinning they will start to root and romp away.

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My super long sweet pea tunnel last year took a huge amount of time just to pick and the winter storms have battered it beyond redemption but I have just a few sweet pea plants I grew this year on a far more modest scale – far too late, they should have been planted out by now so this is a job for this week to find a corner to squeeze them in with a wigwam to grow up.

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I struggled with two sowings of both my much-loved coriander and also leeks – third time lucky and so as with other plants, ridiculously late. Normally by now I’ve been eating coriander for weeks and it’s bolting uncontrollably. Not at the seedling stage… :0(

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At least there are now plenty of leeks but they’ll be like spring onions come autumn/winter if I don’t get them grown on fast now!

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Happily, the alpine strawberries I grew from seed last year seem content in their bed and are flowering nicely. I hope to get a good amount of berries this year, I love them for breakfast – going out to pick them first thing whilst the dew is on the grass and put them straight in my breakfast bowl. Nom.

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And the larger strawberry runners I took are also growing albeit still young because, yes, again, I was late with planting these out too!

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Some things just grow. No matter what. Thankfully the scented shrubs round about can be relied on at this time of year just to do their thing so evenings in the yard and patio are very sweet just now with not just the heady honeysuckle scent but also the lilacs

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and the first roses like this Gertrude Jekyll in such a fabulous shade of pink.

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I adore scented plants; my dream would be to plant up a garden full of scented shrubs and flowers. Not sure which life that will be in, it’s probably not this one though! ;0)

The grass grows like wildfire too. When it comes to lawns and rough ground this spells hard work for mowing large areas and strimming where you can’t mow. Sometimes this feels like a waste of time and resources but it has to be done – at least I’m using the clippings to mulch the weeds now! And it does look so much better once it’s had a “haircut”. However I can tell the grass is growing in the pastures too; the sheep spend so much of their time resting in the sun, snoozing peacefully and cudding.

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When the grass is short and nutrition low in late winter they spend a lot of time nibbling hungrily to get the most from the grazing. I know when they’re stretched out lazily on the ground like Alfie in the picture below that they are happy with full tummies and all is well in their sheepy world.

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They all need shearing soon. I winter shear my sheep so as to obtain the best wool for handspinning. But the wool grows again and at this time of year it “rises” – the natural pause when the growth stops and in primitive breeds, the sheep sheds its fleece and is when most flocks of sheep in the UK get shorn (albeit not for handspinning but for welfare reasons). This means that my Gotland’s look like they have stuffing coming out of them just now as the stubs of old fleece I left behind has felted into clumps and then peels off as the new years’ growth pushes through. When enough of it has risen I will shear them clean of the waste wool to leave the body clear for the new fleece to grow.

I’m not sure when I’ll find time to do it, luckily it’s not as critical as the first shearing is for me; they aren’t as uncomfortably hot as they would be in full fleece so they don’t overheat like most sheep do at this time of year and the good wool has been taken so I don’t worry about this fluffy felted waste left behind (more weed mulching material!!) But it does need doing and so somehow this is a few days work that I have to shoehorn in somewhere.

I’m playing catch up at the moment however. I took advantage of the lovely weekend to wash and dye the last of the fleeces I sheared earlier in the year and get on top of other jobs. On Friday our local fish and chip shop reopened after a year or so of being shut. I don’t normally like fried things; I admit to having a sweet tooth and I love food generally but greasy deep-fried stuff does not appeal so fish and chips is a rare occurrence for me – I much prefer “clean” tasting foods.. But after a very long day and being on my own for a while as mum was away I decided to check out the new management as a special treat for working hard. It’s 4 miles away so you have to really want chip-shop chips to make the effort! I was a little dismayed at the queue snaking out of the chippy door and down the street but I knew they were offering free chips all day so it was reasonable enough that so many people would be happy to see it reopen and want to try it out. More worryingly the line didn’t seem to be moving but having driven there I thought I may as well join in. Sometime later a friend queueing inside turned round and saw me through the window, waved and then text me to say she’d been waiting for 45 minutes already…

At that point I should probably have walked away but I’d already been there a bit, surely they’d speed up soon etc etc and by the time I’d waited half an hour, driven back home, found something to eat… It would be a waste of the time I’d already spent being 28th in the line. Or so the reasoning went.

Just over an hour later I finally left with a rumblingly empty stomach clutching my small warm paper parcel of mini fish and chips and headed back home. They were nice. But probably not worth waiting an hour for!

So yesterday evening I hunted for a duck breast I knew I’d bought and put in the freezer as a treat for sometime when I was eating on my own. It’s not something I ever have (I like our friendly ducks far too much to go round munching them!) and I wasn’t sure how I was going to cook it. I prefer a light touch when cooking meats; I am a fan or “rare” and “pink”. So I opted for pan-searing it with shreds of ginger, spring onion, sesame, lemon and a splash of tamari and our own honey.

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I had noticed whilst cutting the grass that the Swiss Chard I had left in over the winter was bolting – the new seedlings are doing well but not ready to pick but the old leaves were growing sky high but still tender. I also found a rogue coriander plant in the polytunnel path so I went and gathered some of each and served my tangy duck breast on some noodles with wilted chard and sautéed cherry tomatoes.

I found it strangely comforting that despite my “fail” on the veg plot this year that there are still things out there to eat despite my best (worst) endeavours and that they are tasty, nutritious… and conveniently close to hand. I noted how long it took me to cook this meal from scratch – 18 minutes. Which when I think of the time I spent queueing for my fry up and driving there and home it was no contest really. In future I think I’ll save fish and chips as a treat for eating beside the sea with the wind in my hair and salty spray whipping my cheeks. There it belongs and seems right; with buckets and spades, ice creams and stripy windbreaks and the ceaseless crying of gulls.

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This though; from the garden – this is my kind of fast food!