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!

Butter Fingers. (Or Post-Apocalyptic Skill #143)

When I was 11 my parents gingerly stepped onto the long winding path to self-sufficiency, with me caught up in the slipstream of their dreams. A goat or five installed here, a fistful of chickens sprouting up there. Another sliver of garden being dug up for veggies. A steaming compost heap or two adorned with exotic-looking fungi courtesy of the deposits harvested from the circus elephants stationed in the town park once a year…

For 6 years we continued to live our own version of The Good Life in respectable, staid suburbia – a village of the kind that on the whole doesn’t keep farm livestock on the lawn and stash cockerels in the cellar to stop them from crowing at crack of sparrow. Most people grew begonias and roses in neat beds, not rampaging artichokes and a thicket of raspberries laced with goosegrass. They mowed their lawns at the weekend with petrol mowers not small tribes of friendly guinea-pigs in rectangular runs moved block by block up the lawn in a stately progression of increasingly nibbled patches.

Behind the polished brass knocker (one of my pocket money chores) of our conventional front door, I would lie on the living room carpet, chin in hand, and pore over Home Farm magazine and other such edifying publications of the day for those who aspired to knit their own yoghurt. Chief of these was John Seymour’s classic The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. I would study the sepia pen and ink illustrations for hours, noting the perfectly square 5 acre plot with stream, woodland, barns and garden all in precisely the right places and aspects for maximum efficiency.  If 5 acres was too hot to handle then there was an alternative 1 acre diagram – but I always got the feeling that Guru John considered it very much a poor relation and only for those slackers who wimped out of the full-fat version. These curiously weed-free sketches were a thing of beauty in which he laid down the law on crop rotations, the requisite livestock and sundry skills needed to keep such a utopian dream ticking over like a harmonious baler. They were my childhood holy grail – a box-ticking list of things You Have To Have To Survive.

Guru John, it turned out, was painting pictures to sell dreams neatly packaged up in words to fund his own self-sufficiency. When we finally landed some years later, limbs and brains akimbo, surrounded by colour-coded packing cases, bewildered goats and transplanted chickens on our 15 acres (fifteen, John!) of north-facing Welsh hillside we quickly learned you don’t buy the dream as a plan. You sweat it out of every pore and your haemorrhaging wallet…

Still, 20 years on, what’s left of the original troops seem to have thrived, Nietzsche-style. No one would paint sepia-tinted images of our lives, least of all me. But by sheer bloody-mindedness and sometimes farcical twists of fate, I’ve accumulated a CV that consists of a range of post-apocolyptic skills that could give an Amish a run for their buttons. I may be entirely unfitted for the 21st Century Big Smoke but I have scratched a number of obscure notches on the barn door frame. What can I say; it makes for novel party conversation…

One other tome I had devoured actually included a prescriptive List of Things You Should Be Able To Say You Have Done. I’ve forgotten most of them but one that did stick in my mind was making butter – and I’d knocked that one out when I was a mere 14 years old. It took about 3 days and gallons of goats’ milk settling in shallow bowls, frantic skimming off the top and an awful lot of shaking this cream up in an empty jam jar. The resulting tiny soft white lump of grease I ended up with looked unappealingly like lard thanks to the lack of carotene in goat’s milk that makes cow’s butter a rich yellow. It probably took more calories to make than it would replenish. But my dad kindly ate it all the same whilst telling me about my thrifty grandparents in their pre-fridge days close on the heels of rationing, shaking up tiny pats of butter from spare cream so as to avoid wasting it.

Shortly after my parents scored a huge antique butter churn in an auction for a few pounds. It leaked like crazy, spraying liquid up the walls as it was cranked and would have required huge amounts of cream to justify putting it into action (even if said cream wasn’t going to dribble straight out between its wooden ribs). And I wasn’t about to try harvesting that much from our goats slight offerings or risk imbibing who-knows-what from its musty-smelling wooden interior. I think it got left behind when we moved. Still, the knowledge I’d actually done it once – tick! – gave me a warm buttery glow even if I’d not repeated the experience for a quarter of a century.

Until the other week that is, when I passed an array of Kilner products in the local kitchen shop. It amused me that something you could only dig out of a garage sale two decades ago was now being manufactured for the Country Loving lifestyle. It amused me so much we just had to buy one…

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It stipulated whipping cream but I think I’d try double cream next time. You also have to leave it to stand for a few hours to get to room temperature so that it will separate out as you churn. Anyway, 600ml later and we were off.

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The instructions say it would get frothy after a few minutes. After 5 or so it would thicken, after 8-10 it would become stiff and then suddenly separate out into butter and buttermilk shortly after.

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After 10 minutes I handed the churn full of still-liquid cream to my mother and rubbed my aching forearm…

After 5 minutes more churning she too paused. We agreed to adjourn the dairy activities and allow it to warm up for another hour.

Some time into the second stint of churning (I wasn’t counting any more) it looked vaguely like it was thickening.

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We briefly discussed if it was cheating to use an electric whisk to give ourselves a boost and then return it to the churn for the finishing line…

Dismissing all unworthy thoughts of kitchen aids, I woman-fully resumed churning and soon it started to whirr in a slightly lower key.

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…and stiffen…

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…and then suddenly, as if by magic, the yellow butter grains appeared sloshing around in creamy buttermilk.

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I poured off the buttermilk (this tastes like skim milk and is great for baking with).

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You have to rinse every last trace of buttermilk from the butter – it’s less relevant in our refrigerator days perhaps but the watery component of milk and cream is an ideal growing medium for bacteria and leaving traces of it behind in the lipids would cause the butter to spoil (or go bitter just like poor old Betty Botter’s batter butter in the tongue-twister).

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You need really cold water – ice-cold – especially in a heatwave like we’re having at the moment. It’s probably over-stating the obvious to say if you use warm water it will melt your brand-new butter pretty darn quick. Marley appreciated the first rinsing with tiny blobs of butter grains floating about it in and chased his bowl around the kitchen getting the last licks out! A couple of rinses got clear water and then you work it with butter hands to squeeze out all the remaining water.

This being our family, we naturally just happen to have a pair of butter hands packed away. These got scrupulously cleaned of 25 years of dust and soaked in Milton to sterilise. They work really well to squeeze out the water – if you keep them dipped in cold water the butter doesn’t stick to them at all.

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Salt was traditionally added to help preserve butter. You don’t have to salt it though and those who try to reduce dietary salt might appreciate the pure taste of fresh butter. But mostly we’ve got used to the flavour of salted butter and I added a sprinkle of my favourite Halen Môn sea salt from the shores of Anglesey. And then worked it in.

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It occurred to me this action was not unlike mixing cement by hand with a shovel. Which is another of my random skills set.

I also nipped off a tiny amount to experiment with adding smoked sea salt which I love. This butter is pure indulgence and not something you will fry onions in. This is what you spread on a thin naked cracker and savour every tiny crumb…

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I’d watched butter-making demos as a child when visiting Acton Scott Historic Working Farm Museum. The “dairymaids” there would show the patterns imprinted into the pats of butter – an easy way to “label” a farm’s butter so people could know who had made it.

Imprinting pretty patterns wasn’t that high on my list but I did press a lattice into the top before putting it in the fridge to firm up as the temperatures are around 24 C at the moment – not your average Welsh weather!

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Yesterday my mother made a small batch of scones using some of the buttermilk. It was immensely satisfying to eat home made scones, with home made butter and freshly picked strawberries – even if we didn’t produce the cream!!

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Making butter this way clearly isn’t economic, although it was actually only slightly more expensive than buying it ready made – without accounting for the initial purchase of the churn. 600ml of cream produced just over 250g of butter plus around 300ml of buttermilk so it is fairly productive even if time-consuming. We don’t milk goats any more and whilst I’ve long wanted a Jersey cow, that’s not going to happen anytime soon and we’d be as fat as ticks living off that much dairy produce anyway. We’re not likely to buy cream just to make butter. Although I’d probably eat less if I did which would be a good thing.

But it was hardly the point of the exercise. Although I’d still buy butter to cook with, it’s nice to know that I can make butter if I feel like it for gifts. Or if there should be spare cream leftover so it wouldn’t go to waste – just like my grandparents did. With an awful lot less shaking and jam jars.

Way to go, Kilner, that was a better bit of butter than I’ve had for a long time. Now where did I put that scone…

Paint effects

There are a hundred and one things I keep meaning to do – things that aren’t important and so get put aside for “some day”. And some day never seems to come. Yesterday I did a couple of those things which made a nice change!

Some of the things included giving a coat of paint to various items that I liked but weren’t colours I was particularly keen on. I was given these lovely little lanterns ages ago – the original flat apple green shade of the powder coating really isn’t me but I liked the style and I often put candles on the table at dinner. So last year I redid one in Annie Sloan paints and waxes as an experiment and really liked the rustic distressed finish and how it matched my kitchen. I just never got around to doing its twin. I also have these little wooden tulips which were a gift from friends who holidayed in Amsterdam. They’ve sat on my shelf for a couple of years but I always wondered what they’d look like with a little bit of a colour change…

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I popped the glass out of the lantern and got to work.

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A flat finish wasn’t the point otherwise I would have chosen spray paints. I’m unconvinced about Annie Sloan paints – I’ve seen some fantastic things that other people do with them but I don’t seem to have the knack! However they are quite forgiving to use in situations like this as they apparently stick to anything! And the waxes are quite an interesting way to finish the surface.

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I rubbed it all over with the clear wax to seal the paint once dry and then daubed on spots of the dark wax and them buffed it off slightly. It’s meant to give it an aged patina. I’m not convinced I achieved this but heigh ho! I then dabbed some gold wax on areas for a bit of a lift.

Yesterday was quite gloomy and overcast so the “after pic” is quite grainy and indistinct. I might have to take another when the sun comes back! But on the whole I’m happy with the pair of lanterns now.

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The tulips got a coat of chalk paint and then I played around with the dark tinted oils sitting on the lids of the pot (I’d stirred the paints thoroughly to mix them but they separate out over time). I used the tints and to drag over the surface of the wet paint to give tulip-like markings and make the paint less one-dimensional. Because this was unmixed paint it took a lot longer to dry than regular chalk paint – I propped them up in a vase whilst they dried. I then painted the stalks with a tester pot of Farrow and Ball Inchyra Blue which I had left over from another project.

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Once dry, they also got a coat of clear wax to seal and then a little bit of gold wax to finish. They’re a lot more subtle than before – I just used these paints because they were colours I had so they blend in with the kitchen now. But if I was choosing colours from scratch I would probably have picked out rusty oranges and deep Burgundy and mustard to compliment the lighter bluey-green shades in this room.

But again, it’s fine. And was nice to spend time doing something different to textiles for a change!!

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Birds and Bees

Don’t worry, this blog post really is just about birds and bees!!

This week I’ve had to handle both creatures in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated a few days before! I happened to be in the right place at the right time for a little swallow that had taken a wrong turning on Tuesday. I was next to my mum’s conservatory whilst she was out on errands and heard some fluttering noises. I put my head around the kitchen door just in time to see a Swallow flitting desperately from one side to the other trying to escape through the glass. It came to rest in the corner and Ginger the big tom cat prepared to leap on it. I roared at him and also dived for the corner and managed to bat away Mr. Ginger and scoop up the poor Swallow just in time.

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Luckily it wasn’t harmed at all and flew out of my hand just after I took these and went off to catch more insects.

The Swallows seem to be all nesting in barns this year. The house eaves have been taken over by a population explosion of House Martins – which is a good thing as they are on the Amber list. They really seem to like the wood cladding and bulkhead timbers as well as the shelter of the big overhanging eaves of my strawbale house – perhaps they recognise a fellow straw-and-mud-building fanatic when they see one!! Joking aside, the fact that the timbers of my home are durable ones that haven’t had any form of chemical treatment to preserve them probably helps; we chose them specifically for our own health and for the environment so the stamp of approval from these little guys seems like a small justification for that.

I’m not sure if they re-use nests or build new ones every year. There are some fairly solid constructions up there already but these pairs seem bent on a place of their own. I’ve not seen any coming or going from this one for example – apparently goose feather decor is so last year dahling.

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I’ll have to keep an eye out in case it actually has eggs in; we’ll soon see some hungry beaks poking over the edge if it has!

On the other side of the purlin are a young couple hard at work and having major domestics about how to go about it. I have to say that I somewhat sympathise with them – it’s always easier to work on a creative project like house renovations on your own I find!!

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This one has really got an eye for detail – or thinks it has. It’s quite fussy and precise about where each beakful of mud and twigs needs to be put and takes its time over placing carefully.

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This one just hasn’t got the same flair – apparently. It got told in no uncertain terms to go fetch some more materials and just stop messing up the progress willya?

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So the next time it just did a quick drop off before heading back for more gloop!

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I know where they’re getting it from, there’s a muddy patch near a dripping water butt tap that is perfect for them and I see them when I pass there several times a day. It’s outside the barn where I shear my sheep too and as that’s been one of my tasks this week there are plenty of woolly, strawy materials for them to dunk in the gunk to make a really well insulated and strong nest for their coming babies.

On the other side there’s more building going on too.

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I think somebody has already started on their family as one of the old nests is in use.

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It was hard to try catch them in flight but although the photos aren’t good, it’s nice to see them frozen in midair as they zip about so quickly you just can’t see them properly at all in real time.

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The other thing I didn’t expect to handle this week was our bees. I used to look after them but I became allergic to them about 5 years ago and I don’t go near them now. I do think they’re a vital part of the smallholding ecology – without bees and trees there would be no nature. And I really love their honey!

My mum has been looking after the bees in recent years with lots and lots of help and advice from some good friends who live quite some way away. Like most jobs it’s easier to do things with two people and bee-keeping is one of them. It’s important to work quickly and quietly once the hives are open so as not to annoy them more than is necessary and not to chill the brood (baby bee larvae) and eggs. Full supers of honey are pretty heavy to lift as well – in all, an extra pair of hands really helps.

I know mum was anxious that the bees might swarm on a warm day earlier this week and they certainly looked and sounded like it was on the cards for early afternoon. So I said I’d give mum a hand; it would be a shame to lose either a swarm of bees or the honey after the work she’s put in (and me, I’ve been helping to build some new hive parts!) So I cobbled together a bee suit out of various weird odds and ends and we went through them and moved some bees around.

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Hopefully it’s given all the bees enough work and space to be getting on with for now.

I removed this chunk of brace comb from the brood chamber. It had capped brood in and a little honey but it needed to go and the hive was chockfull of baby bees in the making – so although I don’t like despatching even one bee, it had to come out. I left it in front of the hive for the bees to clean out. I’ll probably remove it soon and melt it down and filter it into pure beeswax to store.

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They’re all busy working today. Just watching them on the flight board this afternoon, it’s funny to see how many crash land and roll in! Their pollen baskets on their legs are so full, it must be really heavy to fly with and awkward to manoeuvre. I’m glad they have lots of flowers to work though. Such a busy month of May!

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Bodnant Garden

Hello! I meant to come back before now to share some of the photos I took at Bodnant, I’ve been quite busy in my own garden amongst other things and had not found the time.

But I’m amending this now – this will be a picture heavy post. If you’re ever in North Wales do go and visit, it is just incredible. Make sure to leave plenty of time to explore; the gardens cover a huge area and it’s like entering another world going down into the bottom of the valley to the waterfall and mill race.

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South Stack

A quick 48hour trip to Anglesey last week to deal with some work things ended up being more frustrating than I thought. Sometimes life is like that no matter how carefully you plan but it’s still irritating. Normally heading to Anglesey is a happy thing for me even if it’s for work purposes rather than recreation, a change being as good as a rest. I think life got just so busy in recent weeks I lost the ability to stop and savour the good moments and my head got into a bit of a tangle and I felt quite sad and upset.

Life is short.

It’s something I appreciate more and more with each passing year and see the truth of this much quoted cliché in other’s lives as a flag that you really do have to make the best use of time. Sometimes people use this to justify selfish acts. I prefer to take this to mean how we work, how we act, how we behave to those around us. Not to be frivolous of time or resources and especially not with other’s love or feelings.

But I also think also means to take time to enjoy what we have and appreciate it in the everyday rather than going through life blinkered to that which is around us. Realising I’d temporarily lost sight of that whilst fretting about things that I couldn’t do anything about I decided to “seize the carp!” as I like to pun and went up to one of my favourite places to walk Marley for half an hour or so in the evening before the next meeting I had planned rather than just sit around waiting.

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South Stack is known both for its lighthouse and for its amazing seabird colonies. I’m no birder; I merely stand on the sidelines hoping to absorb new information with every encounter. Although I’ve visited South Stack since my earliest childhood, I’d never actually been inside Ellin’s Tower which the RSPB use as an educational resource and bird-watching hide for visitors. By the time I got there it was closed for the day but instead of heading for the lighthouse carpark and surrounding paths as I do normally I decided to walk along what the map showed as the lower path along the coastline.

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This was a mistake!! I hadn’t appreciated quite how close to the edge of the cliffs it was and for those with a head for heights this is fine as it’s actually quite safe. For someone like me who can make myself feel faint by looking at a photograph taken from a high viewpoint it was a Really Bad Idea. This is a normal coastal walk for most people. For those like me it’s a panicky adrenaline-fuelled torture of an over-active imagination and by the time I’d appreciated this it was better to carry on than turn back!

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Having a bouncy Labrador with a life motto of “act first, think later” on the end of a lead just added to the stress. Dogs are meant to be kept on the lead but I wouldn’t have trusted Marley not to absent-mindedly bounce over the edge in pursuit of a seagull anyway! I kept him very close whilst we were walking… err… crawling here.

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I couldn’t really appreciate the stunning beauty of this path because I was too busy reminding myself to breathe and kidding myself I was walking through a wood a very very long way away from a cliff… I did stop for a sit down for a minute though and took a couple of photos to appreciate later on when I was back on less worrying ground!

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The cliffs by the lighthouse were raucous with the sounds of the Guillemots and Razorbills, Herring Gulls and Black backed Gulls. Once I was back on terrain I felt comfortable with I felt it was a shame I couldn’t have got there earlier and gone inside the hide.

So the next morning although I was heading back home I decided to make another quick trip back specifically to go inside Ellin’s Tower.This was definitely not a mistake. Leaving Marley in the car this time and driving up I joined the tourists and students already gathered there. For dedicated and knowledgeable bird watchers this must be paradise. The RSPB staff were very kind and helpful in showing people like me how to spot different birds and explaining about their breeding habits. The webcam showed some Guillemots in close up getting ready to lay their egg on the cliff edge (“nesting” is a bit of a strong word to use for the haphazard parenting methods they use!) and we smiled as a curious Razorbill hoved into view and photobombed the webcam and unknowingly peered back at us!

This is the picture I took with my little compact camera I carry with me most times. I would have loved a long zoom and my DSLR though – I must remember to take it next time!

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People come to see puffins here too but actually there are not very many unlike on more remote islands mostly in Scotland (but including “Puffin Island” on the other side of Anglesey). The rats that steal their eggs from the burrows they lay in can still access puffin nests here on an island connected to the mainland. There are only a few breeding pairs here. The RSPB man I spoke to said they had spotted 6 puffins so far at South Stack this year – really not very many amongst the thousands of other birds. He’d seen one that morning on the sea and explained how a solitary puffin would hang out near a group of guillemots on the sea. After a bit he quietly said he’d seen it again quite far out and trained the telescope on it for me. This was so exciting as it was the first puffin I have ever seen … even if it was a very long way off and through a lens!

After a few minutes observing I asked an older lady if she would like to see it too rather than me hogging it. She was very excited too and got her husband so he could see too. Then the RSPB man spotted another puffin in a group much closer to us below the cliffs and trained the other telescope for this couple so they could both watch. I grabbed a pair of binoculars and found where he was talking about. I was very happy to have seen these colourful little birds even if they are much more accessible to humans in other areas in Scotland. They are sadly an endangered species and really need help to protect them or we risk losing them altogether along with so many other bird, animals and plants.

I didn’t see any Choughs which are well known visitors here. I was told if I walked along the cliff path I might see some but I politely declined that experience again… Apparently they are quite friendly and if you hang around any length of time you’ll probably see them. I ate my sandwiches but didn’t have enough time to stop any longer. I hope to see them next time I come back.

I approve of the picnic area seating though!

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I was really glad that I’d taken just a little time out of the trip home to come back, to see these birds and to learn a little more about them. I asked when they had arrived and was told just 48 hours earlier. So by seizing the moment I had been able to see something I might have missed later in the year. Instead of adding to the busyness it refreshed me and I felt better for it.

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Marley and I turned around from the tip of Wales and headed off back to the mainland and mountains of Snowdonia and the next stop I’d planned on the way home – Bodnant Gardens…

 

 

 

Welsh Patagonia

It’s been quite a long blog break! This spring has been very busy, probably even more so than usual. If I can snatch the time I’ll come and tell you about some of the things I’ve been working at but for now I just wanted to show a new spinning fibre blend I’ve created and which will be available from this weekend.

When something interests me I like to look around and read around the subject rather than just focusing on one aspect. The collateral research enriches both my appreciation of something, further embeds the knowledge I’ve gained and frequently sparks new areas of interest or creativity.

I’m always on the lookout for new seeds of inspiration and in the past six months or so I’ve deliberately turned away from seeking that inspiration from within the same areas I work in and towards other sources. As a visual person I find it easier to look at something creative and then translate it into dyeing or textiles or colour schemes. But sometimes I think I’m at risk of repeating the same things because they appeal to me and so getting into something of a rut. So this has been a personal challenge to whet the blunt edges in my mind and hopefully spark new areas of interest or ideas.

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One such small “spin-off” has been designing a new fibre blend. Whilst studying the work of two Welsh creatives, one a late artist and one a contemporary weaver, I found they had common ground in that they both travelled and studied in Welsh Patagonia. These travels informed their body of work and although I’d come across this Welsh colony in South America, coming across it again twice in quick succession intrigued me and made me look into this a little deeper.

The brief outline of this colony is that in the 19th century, a North Walian patriot, Michael D. Jones, proposed establishing a new Welsh colony overseas away from the influences of the English, to preserve “Welshness” and the Welsh language which he felt often disappeared in close proximity to other cultures and languages. The leaders of this movement considered several options around the globe. At that time, Argentina was offering incentives for peoples to emigrate and settle tracts of land and so the Welsh nationalists took up the offer and a colony settled there.

There’s a great deal more to the story; the misleading information given to the pioneers who struck out for a new world, the hostile environment they landed in, the hardships endured and losses encountered and the living they scratched and hacked from the harsh Argentine landbase that so very nearly conquered them. The co-operation of the native Tehuelche people (or Patagones as the Spanish called them) in assisting them to settle and the slightly dubious pay-offs from the Argentine government that induced them to “welcome” these benign Celtic invaders to their land. It’s not the purpose of this blog post to detail the whole story but it makes an intriguing, if rather baffling, tale for those who are interested in finding out more.

What struck me though was how very, very Welsh this story was. So gloriously and stubbornly Welsh…

In seeking to preserve a language and a culture, to give up homes and extended families, communities and comforts and transport ideology across an ocean to make more of a home in exile than the home you already live in. To chose separation from the thing you love best and to sacrifice that for a belief in a better version… I cannot really understand it. I admire it whilst at the same time feeling slightly … I don’t know… shocked? Perhaps that is too strong a word. Perhaps I am just too much of a British mongrel to understand the depth of Welshness. Perhaps I am too much of a home-bird to make sense of voluntary exile…

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The second thing that struck me however was how wonderfully balanced the current Welsh Patagonian community are between their Argentine land and their Welsh roots. Speaking Spanish and Patagonian Welsh, with their unique blend of Welsh chapels and Chapel Teas and asados and gauchos, it would seem at first glance that the founding fathers had lost the end game of retaining the Welsh “purity” they seemed to value above all else.

And yet I can’t help feeling that this shows the power of humanity at its greatest, being able to retain its cultural identity whilst adapting to those around it. Blending those things so that they lie comfortably together and make something new and strong that they would not have had without each other.

It made enough of an impression on me that I wanted to further explore this in fibre!

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So I’ve created “Patagonia” which is a rustic yet soft wool blend with subtle depths and textures.

Patagonia is created from Black Welsh Mountain and South American wools – Patagonia being a vast sheep farming area producing wool from mostly Merino, Corridale and similar breeds. (The pure Merino I already use is from either South America or South Africa from non-mulesed flocks). These very different wools are also blended with soft alpaca to represent other important fibre-producing animals from South America.

It spins up to a yarn with plenty of body and character which is great for those who find it harder to spin thicker yarns. I feel it would lend itself to great sweater – or poncho! – yarn (I fancy this is a project in my future!) and make garments that would be as equally at home on a Welsh mountain as on the pampas.

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I’ve gradient dyed this batch and it will be available for sale at Wonderwool Wales this coming weekend 22nd-23rd April 2017 at Triskelion Yarns (stand G8 – Hall 1).

A further selection of dyed, carded and blended spinning fibres will also be available there too and I really recommend that even if you aren’t a spinner or felt-maker that if you’re a knitter going to Wonderwool this year that you put Triskelion Yarns high on your shopping list; gloriously saturated colours on interesting yarn bases hand dyed in West Wales.

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That top quarter of Hall 1 is a pretty exciting place for hand-dyed colour-lovers altogether really as there are a cluster of amazing hand dyed fibre stalls up there including HilltopCloud and Oliver Twists the silk specialists, MandaCrafts (with amazing Qaria cashmere) Freyalyn’s Fibres and The Threshing Barn amongst others. If you’re ever stuck for inspiration as to how to spin indie-dyed fibre, Katie Weston of HilltopCloud is also launching her new Spinning Hand Dyed Fibre guide at the show. Written by a sought-after UK spinning teacher, this is sure to be packed with useful tips and information for getting the best out of your show purchases so don’t forget to go and get a copy!

Happy spinning!

 

A River Runs Through It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The colours played nicely against the moss of the bridge.

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And the soft shaded light really brought out the lustre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rivers Know This…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And gradually a pile of oiled skeins appeared.

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

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

Advent: Christmas Eve

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

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

Home.

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

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

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

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