Tour de Fleece 2017

And they’re off!

Well the spinners started yesterday but I was up in sunny Anglesey for a couple of days and so missed the first day of spinning as I was driving home again.

As usual we have a small but friendly team of cheerful spinners on Team BarberBlackSheep – the lovely members of the group have already kicked off in style and produced some beautiful singles yesterday from various BBS fibres as well as those from other dyers and fibre suppliers. It’s so nice to spin along in company and it’s always good to see pictures of what we’re all doing! If you think you’d like to join us this year, it’s not too late – hop over the Revelry group and pitch in! You can spin anything you want (but please note only BBS fibre is eligible for the randomly-drawn prize I award at the end of the tour).

For myself I’ve been caught up in lots of non-spinning stuff recently so I’ve only just got myself sorted out with my first TdF spinning fibre today. We discussed the popular “Combo-Spin” technique a few weeks back which involves spinning sections of fibre in a random order to make a variegated yarn which could have a certain amount of planning in its design or be completely down to chance and how your fibres turn out. It’s a good way of putting together those one-off skeins that somehow wheedle their way into our lives but stubbornly resist getting involved in a project because of being just 100g or 4 oz or so.

I decided to put a BBS “spin” (see what I did there?!) on it by spinning random chunks of my Haunui/Merino batt sets together to combine.

When I designed the forerunner of these multi-colour-packs aeons ago it seems – the SweaterBox batts and then the Three Of A Kind batts – I put in the listing that they could be spun in several ways including being spun in random sections. I’d always intended it as an option for you … but haven’t got around to doing it as a project myself.

I don’t actually need a sweater quantity just now (a quick look in both fibre and yarn stash reveals enough sweater-possibilities to last me till Doomsday!) but I do want to try it so I’ve scaled it down for an amount that would work for a shawl or perhaps a hat/mitten set or something.

I found an image I liked that served as a starting point (I can’t copy it here without infringing copyright unfortunately but the general principle of using images to inspire colour combinations is very useful for a starting point that you can bend to your own tastes.

I’ve made up half-size batts picking out colours from both the Josie set and the Passiflora set pictures above. Which gives me a colour combination like this.

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My intention is to spin randomly for one ply and then to use another ply of undyed Black Haunui to create a random barber-pole yarn. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of barber-pole yarns as they are but they do usually knit up beautifully in plain knitting. I have the idea of how this works in my head – the proof will be in the making though! I’m literally nailing my colours to the mast by telling you before I start!

The possibilities for scaling this up into sweater quantities are pretty much limitless, either by combing more batt sets or by using multiples of the same colour way. I’d love to see if other people use this idea for Haunui / Merino batts too – if you do, please post pictures in my Revelry group so we can all see!

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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!

Spinning crepe yarn from pencil roving

I’ve posted very little spinning content on my blog in the past few months (bad BlackSheep!) but I’ve been doing odds and ends of spinning, test samples for various projects and people. I started spinning this BFL pencil roving I dyed back in the summer and it’s been sitting on my wheel taking up bobbin space whilst I do the oddments and the longer I leave things, the less I feel like finishing them. Which is a shame really because BFL is one of my favourite wools to work with and these are some of my favourite colours.

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I’ve got more sample spinning to do soon though and potentially quite a big spinning project to fit in with someone else’s schedule which needs me to clear all my bobbins. So although I have a brand new wool I dyed yesterday that’s begging me to start on it, I’m being good and finishing the BFL crepe first!

One of the reasons I had been delayed is that I’d started spinning this with the general idea of blogging about it because this is outside my “default spinning” on two counts and I thought it might be interesting to look at it and why I chose to do this.  I’ve had hand dyed BFL pencil roving in the shop this summer and it’s fun to knit with as chunky yarn, I’ve woven it for a friend as a show sample for her lovely hand dyed pencil rovings but I’d not actually got around to spinning it myself. Having spun up the first two bobbins a while ago, I needed the time to photograph the final bobbin and samples for the blog and just couldn’t find the time. So I apologise for the poor lighting of the following photos, but it’s a very murky overcast October day here and I also really needed both hands to spin with which makes it tricky to take photos – you really need a helpful assistant. Or three hands!! 

Pencil roving is one of the stages of creating commercially spun yarn so, unlike the usual much fatter tops and rovings we spin from, it has a slight twist in it. This twist is in the clockwise direction, also known as “Z” twist. For anyone unfamiliar with the term Z (and S) twist in relation to spinning, it’s called this because if you look at it the angle of the twist is like the middle section of the letter Z – slanting to the right. Imagine a Z overlaid on the roving below.

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Twist in the opposite or anticlockwise direction is known as “S” twist because the angle is like the middle section of the letter S.

Spinners commonly default to spinning their singles in the Z / clockwise direction before plying two or more singles together in the anti-clockwise direction to balance and stabilise the yarn. An S-plied yarn works well for English style knitting where the yarn is carried in the right hand and “thrown” (as opposed to Continental style knitting where the yarn is held in the left hand and “picked”) because as you carry your yarn, a tiny amount of twist is added. For English knitting the twist can slightly unravel Z-plied yarns – some people feel this isn’t a problem but my first attempt at spinning a cable yarn was Z-plied and it was very irritating to knit with as the chunky handspun wasn’t that tightly plied and did indeed unravel as I knit – lesson learned!

To make pencil roving with its inbuilt Z twist easier to spin, it helps to unravel that twist slightly as you draft and makes it easier to handle. Spinning the singles in the Z direction as normal adds twist and means you can end up fighting what’s already in the roving and locking the fibres together – a frustrating spinning experience. So spinning it in the S direction helps to unlock the latent twist and is generally much smoother to draft.

However that does mean you end up with a finished yarn that will be Z-plied … my English-style knitting nemesis from before! So I thought it would be fun to use this for a crepe yarn which is a 3-ply yarn that has 3 stages to it and would allow me to spin 2 of the singles in the S direction and still end up with S-plied yarn at the end for me to knit with. Cunning?!

For detailed information on spinning crepe yarns – or any yarns in fact – I strongly recommend you borrow or preferably buy a copy of the Spinner’s Book of Yarn Design by Sarah Anderson. Sarah is a wonderful teacher both in person and in writing and this is my go-to book when working with yarns other than my standard repertoire. This blog post is more about spinning crepe yarn from pencil roving than a basic crepe yarn tutorial. Really well worth having “…Yarn Design” in your spinning library.

You can spin crepe yarns in either direction but for the sake of the pencil roving subject matter I’m using the following formula:     2 singles spun in S (anticlockwise) direction plied together with twice the amount of plying twist in the Z (clockwise). A third single is spun in the Z (clockwise direction) and then you ply the Z single and the Z 2-ply yarn together in the S (anticlockwise direction) to make a balanced crepe yarn. Got that? Yup, go buy the book – it’s worth it!

So you need your fibre divided up roughly into three sections. I did this by weighing the skein as I wound it into three balls to spin from. As you spin, the twist you release is going to back up in the roving closer to the ball of wool. You can see it twist the roving behind where I’m pinching it off.

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You need to release that twist somehow so I find it helps to break off a section of roving (around 60cm is workable for me but you can go longer or shorter) . You won’t be able to pull tightly twisted roving apart so where you want to break it off, hold the fibre between your hands and untwist it so that the fibres lie parallel instead.

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And then pull them apart, they should drift quite easily…

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The twist will be sitting there but you can then shake it out and let it unravel ready for drafting.

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Another tip for drafting pencil roving is to roll it between your fibre (back) hand as you draft to release the twist as well – this definitely applies to spinning in the Z direction but it helps in the S direction too. (I hold fibre in my left hand but more spinners use their right hand for the fibre supply, so don’t swap over if you do the opposite to me – just carry on as you are!)

As you spin you can control the fibre supply between the heel of your palm and pinkie/ring fingers …

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…which leaves your thumb and forefinger free to control the  draft action as usual – at this point you can add a sneaky little roll of your thumb to the right to untwist it and then draft.

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When you have your S-spun singles ready to ply, remember that you will need twice the amount of plying twist to a normal plied yarn. Italics because this is important!! You don’t want a balanced yarn at this stage because you need latent twist in it to cancel out the twist when you ply it with your final (third) single. This is trickier than you’d think to maintain over the length of the spinning so it might help you to allow a fresh single to twist back on itself for a few inches to create a wee sample to have by you.

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You will need twice the amount of twist to this in your plying – and yes it will feel very odd over-twisting your yarn!! This sample will be handy to check whether you have sufficient twist or if you’ve slipped back into making a lovely balanced yarn out of habit!

The twisty pigtail yarn pinched between my finger and thumb is about right. The balanced (but wrong!) sample is next to it on my hand for comparison.

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So you will fight your instincts and ply a bobbin-full of overtwisted yarn in the Z direction.

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Aargh. Keep going. You can check twist by allowing a little of the yarn to ply back on itself to see how it balances out. If it’s under plied, add more twist. If you end up spinning a whole bobbin without enough twist then you can run it back through your wheel in the same direction to add a bit more – but it’s better to get it in there the first time if you can.

Now you’ll need to spin your third single in the Z direction. This will be harder from pencil roving because of the twist in it but using the tips above – short lengths and rolling it – you’ll be fine. And it’s only one single…

Finally you get to see the results of your labour. Time to play … I mean ply!

You’ll need your Z singles on one bobbin and your Z plied yarn on another. If you’re spinning all this in one session then the yarns might be a bit springy so tensioning your bobbins may help. On the other hand, if your singes/yarn are stale, they may be easier to ply but you won’t see the crepe snapping into place which can help with judging the amount of plying twist. It’s up to you and how much time you have to spin in one session; both ways have bonuses and drawbacks.

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This is quite a poor photo of the sample yarn I’m afraid but it does show the characteristic bobbly effect of the finished crepe technique. Crepe yarns are great fun to spin and you can do different texture and colour variations with them to add to the fun!

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The finished yarn:

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You can use the above tips for spinning ordinary 2-ply yarns too or maybe you can think up some other ways of using pencil roving? Plying it with a glittery commercial thread or using it as a base for other art yarn techniques would be really good fun too!

I’ve just a few skeins of pencil roving left in the shop at BarberBlackSheep – which is why I spun this sample in the first place! – but it’s also occasionally available from other UK dyers too should I have sold out when you want to try some crepe yarn fun yourself!

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.

 

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!

Island Song – v.3

The third trio of colours in the Island Song collection remain in the blue-green part of the spectrum. They are Squill, Llyn and Breakwater.

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Powder blue,                                                                                                                                           nestled in grass;                                                                                                                          shimmering stars like fallen flecks of sky.

Spring at the coast is fresh and full of delicate colour. In the height of the summer, the air seems thick with the compellingly whiffy tang of rotting seaweed and the wiry grasses seemed flattened and baked dry by sun and endless feet. But Spring washes everything clean after the winter storms and in April and May the grass is alive with flecks and sparkles of wild flowers.

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I really love the scattering of Spring Squill (Scilla verna) across the headlands. Our holidays as children were only ever in late summer or early autumn – I know if I’d been here at Easter or other spring holidays I would have been trying to gather these miniature lilies to make tiny bouquets for mice and elves…

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Llyn

Azure pool,                                                                                                                                                   light refracted;                                                                                                                                               icy depths suck the warmth from sunlit air.

I don’t know if journeys with young children are easier these days with all the in-car entertainment available to distract them, but with nothing more hi-tech than multiple rounds of “I Spy” and stopping to let out car-sick kids who’d tried to read, the long road trips to go on holiday must have been something of a chore for poor parents.

We lived just off the old A5 and so barely deviated from it all the way up through Wales. It was a good 3 hours drive plus though and I’m sure my parents hearts must have sunk after a few minutes to hear me piping from the back seat “are we nearly there yet Daddy?”

As I grew older I think I understood that to reach heaven a certain amount of traffic induced hell had to be endured. Nevertheless I would be caught out every trip in Snowdonia, still some hour away from our ETA. As we would pass Llyn Ogwen (llyn being the Welsh word for lake) at the base of craggy Tryfan I would be convinced we’d reached the sea (having a child’s hazy grasp on altitude and sea level) and probably took some pinning down by my brothers as I freaked out with excitement (by the way, I still freak out with excitement when I see the sea now more than 30 years later). That lake; it got me every time…

So I wanted to include a llyn/lake-inspired blue in this collection and there are beautiful lakes on Anglesey too one of which I may include in due course as a extra complimentary shade. However for colour contrast I’ve taken poetic licence here and chosen to represent the turquoise of the quarry lake in Bethesda just a little further up the road from Llyn Ogwen. The sediments and minerals in quarry lakes reflect and absorb different ends of the spectrum of light which gives their spooky brilliant blue appearance. Despite their tropical appearance, quarry lakes are actually bone-chillingly cold and can be very dangerous to swim in. Quite a few people get into difficulties swimming in these beautiful but deadly places – much better to admire them from a safe distance instead.

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Breakwater

Restless seas                                                                                                                                            roiling ever in;                                                                                                                                               the sea wall soothes and calms the anchored ships.

I couldn’t not include a sea-green. Without the sea, an island doesn’t exist. Without the colour sea-green in my life, I curl up and die! Not really of course! But it is one of my most favourite shades.

It’s almost impossible to capture the depth of colour or the variety of shades the sea can turn as the light plays on it and the weather systems change it’s nature. I chose to name this shade “breakwater” because the sheltered side of that kind of sea wall captures the shade best to my mind. Deep sea water but relatively calm without the surface wave action to cut up the light and change it’s colour.

The Holyhead Breakwater is an incredible piece of building work. At 1.7 miles in length, this huge 19th century sea wall runs out into the ocean like a crooked arm protecting the harbour from the rolling Atlantic crashing in almost unchecked (well apart from Ireland conveniently taking the brunt of course!). At the end stands a small square lighthouse.

Years ago I spent two nights floating within the nestled arm of this breakwater moored to a floating pontoon, rocked to sleep by the relatively calm motion of the sea interspersed with the quiet surging swell as yet another ferry passed the end of the sea wall on its way to Dun Laoghaire or Dublin Port. I also spent a very miserable drizzly day learning to manoeuvre a sailboat under power and MOB drill for my Competent Crew; think reverse parking and three point turns with added drift and wet sheets (ropes) whilst wearing by-then very smelly oilskins…

Outside the wall, the grey waves smack into it on their long journey in. Inside the wall on calmer days, like the one I visited recently, the sea is a smooth rippled blue-green colour that shifts in hue  with the scudding clouds.

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I know the colours are now quite blue-green heavy – I suppose that’s mostly because they’re my favourite shades! But hopefully there is a shade for everyone amongst them.

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And tomorrow you can see the final three shades to complete the set and how they all work together.

 

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!

Double Trouble

I’m very much a beginner weaver.

Since early childhood I’ve been entranced by textiles; of all the crafts I could do, those involving fabric, thread, yarn, fibre – they are the ones that hold my attention the most, make my heart skip a beat with the possibilities and draw me back to them time and again.

So once I became a spinner, weaving was an enticing next step. However despite having learned the basics of weaving cloth shortly after my forays into spinning I’ve not got very far. Weaving is a very structured craft. Whilst it’s true of most textile arts that you can be as scientific or as freeform as you like and this applies to weaving as well, the fact remains that you do at least have to understand the principles of how woven cloth works before you can start breaking the rules with wild abandon … or at least be prepared for confused disappointment when it doesn’t work out how you thought it would!

Although I do own an 8-shaft floor loom – a piece of equipment whose possibilities far outstrip my capabilities – it’s still stored in pieces waiting for the time and space that will probably never come when I can experiment. All my tiny weaving efforts now are on my Rigid Heddle Loom which I bought a few years ago when I realised that having what I regarded as a “toy” loom was better than having a professional loom that wasn’t even in working order. The more I looked into RH looms, the more I realised I had been very prejudiced about them and in fact you can weave really beautiful pieces of cloth on them and the limits are more to do with your own mind than what it can’t do technically.

Last week I wove some fairly random pieces of cloth using a borrowed piece of kit. One of my friends leant me her relatively new Vari-heddle that some companies have made to expand the varieties of textiles crafters can weave. Without going into too much detail, the vari-heddle allows you to warp your loom with differing thicknesses of yarn adding texture to it rather than just to the weft. I wanted to use up some of my handspun, hand dyed art yarns that I’d had lying around for a while and had great fun putting colours and textures together in random groups in a style not dissimilar to Saori weaving.

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I really love how they’ve turned out. They still need “finishing” – a piece of cloth is not complete when it comes off the loom; it needs washing and usually fulling (like controlled felting) to make the threads settle together and shrink down to make a harder wearing fabric or in the case of weave structures with more texture like waffle, honeycomb, collapse weave etc, to reenergise twist or to snap the woven structure into the final shape. But these won’t need a huge amount of finishing, I showed them to friends yesterday to pick their brains and the general consensus amongst us was that a light touch was desirable. I’ll probably underline the fabric before turning them into cushions for my home.

However I’m also someone who appreciates structure and order. Whilst I love clean simple understated lines, my brain struggles with the maths necessary to translate the principles into the cloth I’d like to weave. Random, arty cloth like the above is more my style of crafting! But I’ve longed to push the capabilities of my little rigid heddle loom into more complex patterns than just plain “tabby” weave. I’ve owned extra heddles and several weaving books for some time and this particular loom (a Schacht Flip) was purchased specifically because I wanted to learn how to weave with two heddles at some point. I never really understood from the instructions how it was meant to work though, the extra block for the second heddle didn’t seem right and although I understood the general idea for warping up through two heddles and I learned to weave on a 4-shaft loom anyway, I’d never seen someone weave like this on a RHL and so I kept putting it off.

Two of my friends went on a course to learn just this last summer and yesterday they ran a skills sharing workshop for our Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to help some more of us explore this kind of weaving. It was heartening to see just how many us turned up clutching our little looms in a Guild that usually consists almost entirely of spinners in a regular meeting!

This wasn’t a formal workshop, more a way of collectively passing on ideas and techniques and helping each other out, something that our Guild is good at because we’re very small and informal and our members friendly (and slightly bonkers at times – but we won’t go into that here!!).

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To start with there was a bit of muddling around trying to remember what went where but by lunchtime we were all ready to start playing with the short test warps we’d put on.

Because I don’t “do” maths this warp wasn’t calculated or sett correctly – basically the threads are too chunky for the spacing of the holes and slots in my heddle. There are ways around this – I could have sett it differently, used thinner yarns if I’d brought them or I could even go out and buy some different sized heddles … fibre crafts tend to get expensive when you start getting addicted!! In the future I’ll be using either thicker yarns spaced at half the density or much finer yarns but having started this warp I carried on just so as to learn the principles.

So with plain weave this created a warp-faced fabric and meant I had little stripes running up the dense fabric.

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I also had to get used to manoeuvring two heddles and 4 sets of warp threads in what amounts to very little space on a RHL, the shed created isn’t that deep and the area between the fell line and heddle isn’t huge so weaving with a stick shuttle and a sticky warp like these wool weaving yarns meant I didn’t clear the shed every time and skipped some warp threads which you can see lying loose in the middle of the picture.

Once I’d got the feel of tabby weave with two heddles it was time to start playing. A friend was weaving houndstooth check on her loom so I wound off the two colours onto my shuttles and tried myself. Because of the close sett and warp-faced cloth the pattern didn’t emerge at first so I beat the cloth between each pick very tightly (this fabric will be bullet-proof!) and if you squint slightly you can sort of see the houndstooth pattern emerging from the vertical lines on the cloth!

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By now it was time to clear up the hall and kitchens and pack up for home. A lot of the day was spent discussing the technique and warping up the looms rather than focussing on making actual cloth but I really appreciated the chance to pick the brains of other Guild members and resources and so when I got home I carried on playing with what was left of the warp using my copy of The Weaver’s Idea Book for inspiration. Knowing that the tight warp would limit what I could do and not having any string heddles ready for experimenting with twill and other more complex pick up patterns I just concentrated on texture using the two heddles and a supplementary weft.

I really liked this modified basket weave – it looks really smart and think it could make some interesting household textiles.

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I then found a contrasting and slightly thicker yarn for supplementary weft and tried making spots.

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They didn’t work so well because of the sett so I for the last bit of warp I moved onto making little “flowers”. Again, the tight fabric meant they didn’t show up. I kept trying to make the draft pattern work but either because of this or maybe a possible error in the draft in the book I just couldn’t make anything like flowers appear on my cloth. So I pondered the heddles over a cup of coffee and worked out a different draft to get the same kind of pattern only introducing larger areas of plain weave between the contrast rows. I thought it was quite a nice pattern to go out on to conclude my first dabbling into weaving with two heddles!

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Next time I do this I’ll use much finer yarns and also prepare a heddle stick ready for playing with some pick up drafts and twill and hopefully also make some double cloth. But for now I’m really happy with my first “double troubles”!

Spring into Colour

I’ve got a new wool blend to go in the shop later on today. As you know, I’ve been importing and selling Haunui New Zealand Halfbred since 2015 and enjoying dyeing and blending it as well as selling it in it’s beautiful natural shades.

Once of the more popular blends has been the Haunui/silk batts I did at Christmas. Haunui goes beautifully with silk and so with that in mind I decided to try an experiment.

Last time I headed up to North Wales I made an impromptu stop at a mini mill based there which wasn’t that far out of my way. The owners showed me around and I had a lovely couple of hours talking fibre and fibre animals. Because I just had a small test batch of fibre we blended it then and there on the big industrial carder which was rather exciting for me – a monster machine at around 8ft high it was a far cry from my little hand cranked Ashford drum carder!

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I was really grateful to them for taking time out to spend with me and help me. The resulting fibre is gorgeous to spin because it’s carded sliver and has 20% added tussah silk. This is a very small batch and unfortunately was expensive and as such really isn’t economic to produce commercially – this was more about experimenting and playing for me!

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The sliver is much thinner than the normal tops I dye for the shop which in itself presented a new challenge for me. They’re between the thinner Haunui tops and pencil roving in dimension and I decided the best way was to wind them into hanks like pencil roving to keep them stable during the dyeing process.

They took the dye beautiful thanks to the lovely wool and the added silk. I’ve dyed each 50g hank in separate colours to give as much choice as possible given the limited edition nature of this blend.

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I’ve left them in the hanks with several ties on to keep them neat – you would probably be best to wind them into a loose ball prior to spinning to keep the fibre ordered. This won’t take a minute (the length of the sliver isn’t excessive) and will save any frustration from tangles!

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I spun up a skein myself, dyeing it after for a semi-solid look – it was beautiful to spin. I’ve chosen to spin mine as a more bulky yarn and it’s lovely lightweight and springy. But equally you could maximise the yardage by spinning a fingering or lace weight yarn instead or by plying it with something else or two of the colours together for a barber pole yarn.

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I’m not sure what I’ll make with mine – I think I’ll probably combine it with some undyed Haunui perhaps in grey for stripes. It’s begging to be something squishy and cosy to be worn next to the skin!

I’ve also got a batch of BiffleRose blend – this is my Bluefaced Leicester/Rose Fibre/Faux Cashmere blend and it’s just heavenly to spin and dye. There’s just a few colours but mostly 2 of each braid.

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Whilst I was taking photos of the fibres I couldn’t help noticing some of the lovely colours coming through in the plants in pots outside my door.

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So much more beautiful than anything I could ever dye. But so inspiring!

The new fibres will go in the shop at barber-blacksheep.co.uk later on so keep an eye on the website and the update thread in my Ravelry group! Remember this isn’t something I will be repeating so if you want to try it you’ll have to snappity-snap it up now!