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.

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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

Advent: December 23rd

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This is what we call a Sneeze Egg! My dad used to joke that these tiny little eggs are what pop out when a chicken sneezes!

We had this earlier in the year. The little brown shell is infact a sort of calcified pigmented membrane on this one rather than a proper shell and after 24 hours in my kitchen it had dehydrated and shrivelled flat. I popped it in water for a few hours and it plumped straight back up again! It doesn’t have a yolk although some of the larger Sneeze Eggs do have a tiny wisp of yolk just like a perfect mini egg…

The largest egg is a normal hens egg from one of the ex-battery hens, the white egg in the middle is a little bantam egg from one our last Pekin hen … so you can see that the crazy Sneeze Egg is really very tiny, almost pea-sized.

 

Advent: December 22nd

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A funny photo I know. But I woke in the early hours having had a bad dream which involved losing these little guys so they’re a bit on my mind just now! Sadly we really have lost almost all of them this year due to a very freakish combination of events that couldn’t be foreseen. We do have the Lemon cockerel and one hen left but the little flock of various coloured Pekin bantams that used to bumble about the yard and house has gone and I really, really miss these gentle, funny, loveable chickens especially the indomitable and irreplaceable Henrietta.

I even miss having my front door open in nice weather and finding I’ve got surprise visitors peering under my bed, investigating my kitchen or trying to wash the mud off their feathery feet in my shower…

 

Advent: December 21st

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The shortest day … and thank goodness for that!! Yesterday was beautifully sunny and clear, today is windy, grey and now lashing rain – looking for blessings I can only say I’m glad I got the dog walked and the outdoor jobs finished about 5 minutes before this all started!

This was a double rainbow I saw a couple of years ago over the end of our fields. (I don’t suppose there was a pot of gold!)

LIght and colour in the rain and darkness. Looking forward, upwards with hope. The upward trajectory to spring, warmth, light, life, growth.

Bring it on, I’m ready.

Advent: December 20th

It’s almost the shortest day. It’s beautifully sunny here which helps to lift the spirits but all the same I feel I’m flagging. So much to do, the year nearly ended – worn thin and grey by use and care. I like to reflect over the end of December, looking forward, thinking about how I can do things differently in the future, be kinder, work more fruitfully, live more deeply, love more intensely.

So many things are ugly and savage just now. So much suffering, so much that is beyond understanding. It shakes the ground and rips up all we know as truth.

I think I need a splash of colour today. I think I need to remember that all life is a process of metamorphosis. That we have to be the change we want to see.

The butterfly effect perhaps.

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Advent: December 19th

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Christmas is a quiet time for us. With animals to care for we don’t ever go away to visit others at Christmas and apart from taking a little time to pause and reflect and share good times with those around us, the farm routine means that each and every day has a structure that cannot alter no matter what other things are happening.

It’s always lovely to see friends though and some of ours are good enough to call by for a coffee and catch up. Our close knit community here also enjoys gathering on special occasions for good food and laughter. Some of my friends who live in other parts of the country come back to visit family. A hug and conversation by a log fire with a coffee or mulled wine with those you love is always nourishing for the soul.

A nice mince pie doesn’t go amiss either. So I’ve made a batch of mincemeat this weekend so I can bake some later this week. Yummy…

Advent: December 18th

I said I’d show you the stunning vista the Hebridean sheep from yesterday’s post have.

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Holyhead Mountain, the beautiful heathland of The Range, the bird rich cliffs and shore and the Irish Sea stretching out to the horizon. The ferries pass along here on their way to and from Dublin several times a day. I like this place best in late afternoon when the sunlight shimmers and glitters on a thousand-thousand wavelets and the blue-grey of the ocean sparkles until it bleeds into the grey-blue mirror of the skies…

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South Stack lighthouse guards this entrance of the hazardous shipping route towards Liverpool docks. Before the beacons here were built, many ships foundered and sank with great loss of life, both human and animal, as well as great wealth (in the case of the tragic clipper The Royal Charter which sank with millions of pounds of gold on board as well as horrific loss of life within miles of home after returning from Australia). In many cases these ships were wrecked within a few metres of shore having been pounded onto the treacherous rocks lining the coast but with little hope of rescue for the hapless passengers, particularly for women aboard hampered by the huge amounts of cloth in they clothing and children too small to survive the immersion in freezing cold merciless surf.

I walked over the old bridge to the lighthouse as a child (actually I was carried and I was terrified, the “new” bridge is much more solid feeling to walk over!). With its boiling chasm of waters beneath it is easy to see how little chance passengers on a wrecked ship have to survive, even in relatively calm conditions let alone in the kind of storms the Atlantic can throw at the west coast of the UK.

South Stack Lighthouse was built just over 200 years ago to aid ships to navigate these waters along with the other beacons further in towards England. Now automated by Trinity House, it continues to aid seafarers safe passage and partly because of that perhaps, is one of the most beautiful buildings I know.

 

Advent: December 17th

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We’re “celebrating” 20 years on our smallholding – we moved here on 17th December 1996. It seems both like yesterday and also so very long ago!

Life is quite different in a number of ways. It’s also the day that I first took ownership (reluctantly!) of a sheep! So I’m also celebrating 20 years of sheep keeping. I was given a lamb by the previous owner of our smallholding. It had been born as a single lamb out of season in September and instead of selling it along with the rest of the flock to my father he gifted it to me to “teach you to be a shepherd”. I wasn’t that keen on the idea I have to say! Sheep were woolly and smelly and not really the kind of livestock an aspiring small animal vet nurse wanted to get interested in….

And now of course they’re one of my favourite animals. The coloured sheep I keep for wool are quite different to the chunky Charollais x lamb I first had. I find coloured sheep and rare breeds really interesting  and I happened upon this large flock of Hebridean sheep at the base of Holyhead Mountain on a walk with Marley in September. We got quite close to them, despite Marley straining eagerly on his lead. They’re lucky sheep, living in a really stunning spot. I’ll show you their view tomorrow in my Advent post…

Advent: December 16th

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Visitors to North Wales won’t need this one explaining! This is the Menai Suspension Bridge which spans the Menai Straits – the fast flowing strip of sea between mainland Wales and Ynys Mon or Anglesey.

I love this bridge, such a beautifully elegant piece of engineering. It was built in 1826 by Thomas Telford as part of his commission to build a road from Holyhead to London. The A5 road he built ran past my childhood home in Shropshire and the house he stayed in whilst working on the Anglesey section is near where we stayed in on holiday so Thomas Telford is a name I grew up hearing a lot (not least because of the “new town” named after him where my father worked in planning for a time).

The Menai Bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More personally for me it was the exciting gateway to family holidays as a child. (now I enter Anglesey on the Britannia Bridge next to it)

It also carries a memorial to the victims of the Aberfan disaster 50 years ago this past October where many children in the South Wales village of Aberfan so tragically lost their lives along with teachers and other adults when a coal spoil heap collapsed and engulfed a portion of the village that contained the school. One thing I notice most about the warmth of the Welsh people is how they gather around to support those who are suffering or grieving to carry them through the dark valley. So it seems entirely fitting that a North Wales island should carry a memorial to such a tragedy for their cousins in the South; Wales grieving with her own wherever they are.