A week is a long time…

You know how sometimes time drags and at other times it flies? I can’t say that time has exactly dragged in the past 7 days but it does seem to be an eternity since last weekend because so much has happened. It’s sort of dragged and flown at the same time! Flagged?…

Some of it hasn’t been great to be honest. It seems like an awful lot of the people that I care about are having a really hard time just at present – and my thoughts are with them almost constantly which makes for reflective times. This week has continued that vein and it’s making me even more thankful for the good things I have and appreciative even when it feels like things aren’t really going your way!


It’s also been a week where some really great things have happened too. I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with some friends I’ve not seen for a while and in one case, friends from New Zealand that I hadn’t seen for some years. It was so good to spend time catching up with them and other mutual friends – even if it does seem a bit scary to be reminded just how quickly 15 years has apparently flashed past!!!! Whether it’s an evening walk in one of the beautiful areas we have here, meeting with like-minded people or catching up with those I used to work with or live near in a different time, I’m always thankful for the lovely people I have in my life and for the laughter, love and friendship shared.

The veg garden continues to be a mixture of great success and damp squibs this year – but that’s gardening in a temperate climate for you! I’ve got a few photos but I’ll put those in a separate post I think. The main gardening feature of the week was that we decided to order a large load of mushroom compost bagged up and wrapped on 2 pallets. Having it delivered was exasperating and didn’t really go to plan and meant I had to spend most of a day carrying the bags down individually from the side of our gateway on the road which wasn’t how I’d expected to spend the day!


The landscaping part of the gardening has sort of come to a halt but I hope to pick up with that again later in the autumn. I’ll have to change my plans around that work for various reasons but for most of the summer, what we achieved over last autumn, winter and early spring with the help of Phil, James and Gareth has given us much pleasure.

The top of the path is a new place we can now sit for a few moments to catch the last of the sun’s warmth before it slides behind the house so although it’s unfinished still, it’s been nice to have a drink or even a meal there at the end of the day. Although I think my grandparents old garden bench we’ve recently parked up there needs an overhaul too as the weathered wood seems a bit more bendy than I’d like when we’re both sitting on it!

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I’ve not got so much done on the fibre front. It’s been harder to fit in making stock recently. But I did manage to dye up some silk bricks lately and they sold very well which along with the lovely feedback was an encouraging boost to my “flagging” spirits. I do love silk!

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This week I’ve dyed a little more of my own yarn Afon Miwl spun from some of my own sheep and also blended with silk – this is for my next shop update. I’m getting low on undyed skeins of this and I’d really like to get a new yarn design I’ve been trialling spun up. A project for the autumn perhaps.

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I’ve also dyed a load of Haunui NZ Halfbred in gradients but I’ve yet to photograph them. I’ll be sending out a newsletter when the shop update is due though so make sure to sign up for these on my website if you want to be the first to know!

In my own personal yarnie fun, I’d been knitting a shawl in my hand dyed yarn – the pattern is Birds of a Feather by Andrea Mowry – and I’ve run into a glitch which must be down to me because no-one else who has knitted it mentions it and the pattern errata is for a different section not this one. I can’t work out what I’m stuck with though and even got my mother to count my stitches to check! By the time I finish work for the day it’s usually around 9pm and I just want to knit without thinking and not faff about ripping things back so I’ve not been in the mood to fiddle with it and get back on track. I’d actually cast it on for holiday knitting (below) back in July and did manage quite a bit of it until now so I do need to stop ignoring it! It’s dreamy and light and I’m really looking forward to wearing it!


I’ve put it to one side for a few days though until I feel like it and picked up a weaving project I’d been meaning to do for ages.

I’d put some handspun yarns together last autumn to create a handwoven blanket.


Because I have a rigid heddle loom which is relatively narrow, I needed to weave a length of cloth, cut it into sections to seam together and then “finish” or full the cloth in the usual way. Because I wanted to weave a plaid – or tartan – type blanket I needed to work out a repeat so the sections matched up once seamed. Again, as this is something that needed me to plan it out rather than sit down and do mindlessly, it also fell victim to the “I’m too tired to do anything but flop” evenings and so last Sunday I put aside my day off to move a bit of furniture, warp up my loom and just get on with it. Thus solving one procrastination by substituting it for another. Good eh?


By the way, Marley would like you to know, he doesn’t think weaving is really his thing…

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I wove a small amount to work out my pattern repeat – a combination of planning and just winging it! – but then the “flagging” week overtook me and so I’ve only just sat down to it again today.

As it happens, I didn’t do a great job of winding my warp. I didn’t have enough spacers in it and although it doesn’t look horrendous in the photo above on the grand scale of bad warps, it could definitely be better. So I’ve just slackened it off so as to re-wind it with a roll of wrapping paper I found under the stairs. It won’t solve everything – I need to pay a bit more attention to my weaving techniques I think and also practice a lot more! But I’m pretty happy with the pattern and the cloth feels nice (in it’s unfinished state). And it’s the right balance between order and rustic ruggedness that I was aiming for. So far!

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Better crack on with it, September has started in a rather miserable way and I think I’ll be needing all the shawls and blankets I can lay my hands on this autumn!


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


…and stiffen…




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


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


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).


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.


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.


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…


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!


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!!


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…

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.


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.


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!!


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!)


The colours played nicely against the moss of the bridge.



And the soft shaded light really brought out the lustre.


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.


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


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


…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.


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


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


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!

Art and Artifice

As someone who has no formal training or education in “the arts” and yet has spent a lifetime embracing creativity as a means of daily expression, I find I often feel things as an instinct rather than as an intellectual dissection of why and how. To my mind, that seems appropriate in a working sense; creativity belonging as it does the right hemisphere of our brain rather than the intellectual left. I’m not someone who teaches or lectures others, all my creativity serves a practical purpose to serve my own ends without having to justify my methods.

Just occasionally however the logical and the instinctive collide in my life and force me to think about it and sometimes sends me in a slightly different direction as a consequence and this has happened to me this week.

At this point I am editing this in light of the comments to add that the following is purely my own opinion and observations and that I have no scientific background nor am I a professional artist and this is based on my own experiences and knowledge of teaching myself to draw in my early teens and subsequent study of drawing as a non-intellectual process.

It started a few days ago when suddenly unusual looking photographs started appearing in my social media feeds. Initially a couple were so subtle my brain flicked over them with only a slight mental frown, putting them down to use of filters – something I’ve never really felt comfortable with personally but of course give users a lot of fun playing around with different effects. Suddenly a couple really threw me for a loop and made me look more closely. Noting the PRISMA legend in the corner of these photos, I realised there was a new trend happening and so I looked it up as yet another thing I was clearly behind on!

The Prisma iOS app is not a filter. Filters work by overlaying an original photograph to enhance, distort or alter it in someway visually. The recently launched Prisma tool works differently in that it digitally dissects the information and recreates the image anew from scratch using a “combination of neural networks and artificial intelligence”. One of the founders of Prisma stated this week that “It’s not similar to the Instagram filter where you just layer over … We draw something like a real artist would.”

At this point I was unable to gloss over it as yet another fad I’ve no interest in being part of. I understand what the 25 yr old Alexey Moiseenkov is driving at; the human brain does indeed filter the information it receives through the eye and by processing it puts its own slant on the interpretation of the creativity thus expressed. It does this imperfectly in the way that a photographic record does not, even when realism is the intended effect. However it is precisely the imperfection that gives creativity its innate beauty that so often has the capability to stir deep emotions within us, whether from colour, form or composition. Or indeed in sound or movement in other creative fields such as music, dance and performance art. No artificial intelligence can capture an image the way a human body and mind can do. Therefore I fundamentally disagree that even the most sophisticated technology can “draw something like a real artist would”.

Looking at some of the images I kind of understood though. Prisma appears to give people who feel they can’t draw or paint a way of turning out “works of art” in a swift painless digital mash-up. Suddenly doing art is apparently attainable for the inartistic. However, this too I feel is not true. Mostly because I do truly believe that everyone has the capability to learn to draw with some level of skill or other. The majority of us are not going to be the next Monet, Turner, Pissaro or Holbein. However drawing stick people does not have to be the limits of artistic ability, drawing is a learned skill that is within anyone’s grasp if they want it enough. It requires a degree of motor skill which can be honed through practice although most of us already have fine motor skills from our other everyday activities. Most important though is the ability to observe and override the brain’s need to process information symbolically and retrain it to literally draw what it sees.

For a lot of us in the Western world our artistic abilities become stunted in the early years of formal education where logical, left-brain thinking becomes more dominant and the stages of creative expression that a child goes through as its brain develops and makes sense of the world falter and become stuck in symbolic figures. The square house with a window at each corner. The door central to the facade and the smoke coming out of the chimney drifting upwards to the circular sun radiating yellow spokes like some celestial bicycle wheel wreathed in “M” shaped birds. Fluffy symmetrical clouds bordered by the thin blue line of sky that never meets the thin green line of earth leaving the whole hanging in a void of perspective.

The images don’t represent what the child is actually seeing, more what the child understands those things are represented by. For older children, some will persevere in more realistic representations – the carefully drawn hands with every detail shown, the fingers correct in anatomical length if not composition, hair drawn as individual strands or eyelashes fanning out like stage makeup. Often at this point we give up, frustrated by our inability to represent what we are actually seeing despite diligent use of the symbols we know to be logically “correct” to interpret what is in front of us. The verdict? I can’t draw. And so we move on to something else less frustrating, more attainable. And so often our creative selves shrink back with underuse, crying for a chance to burst free in a medium that can give voice to the human’s need to create. I feel that this frustration, perhaps at being excluded from a creative skill – look I can make art too now! – is perhaps what Prisma is tapping into so successfully and has seen its explosion in popularity over the past week.

Drawing – and painting – are entirely learnable skills however. Perhaps even more sadly the Prisma app enthuses that you can convert your photos into art in the style of artists such as Munch, Picasso, Hokusai, Mondrian. In fact, practising drawing “after” the styles of other artists is a good way of training yourself to develop your own style.

What struck me most was how instinctively I found the images repellant on first glance. At that stage it was nothing to do with conscious thought – I simply found the images slightly creepy, neither art nor photograph. It is screamingly obvious that they are artificially created but of course we live in a world surrounded by artifice as a norm so I couldn’t understand why that aspect would repel visually or why they should be creepy when they are innocuous photographs created purely for fun.

The next day I happened by chance on a radio programme – The Why Factor – about robots. Titled Fear of Robots, the discussion ranged on whether robots are good or evil, whether it is right to fear them or not and the classic science fiction trope on robots taking over their creators. It’s not normally a subject I’d find hugely fascinating, however I was up a ladder painting the kitchen and so the radio stayed on! When the conversation turned to discussing the “Uncanny Valley” suddenly my previous musings on Prisma fell into place.

The Uncanny Valley is not a new concept; first coined in the 1970s it describes the uneasy feeling humans have about robots that look too much like us. When a robot clearly looks like a machine we are OK with it. It can be a high functioning robot performing a range of incredibly delicate skills normally associated with human intelligence or more likely things that we aren’t actually able to perform with the same precision and as long as it stays looking like a robot, we accept that is it a machine or tool to aid us and therefore a good thing to be welcomed – even it it has rudimentary body parts such as mechanical limbs or a head. However the more a robot is made to look human, instead of increasing our attraction to it at some point it switches over to some instinct in us that repels us or creeps us out – this is the uncanny valley.

There are lots of theories as to why this is. Suggestions range from biological, superstitious, religious, cultural or ethical. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that that which is too perfect or too artificially human usually causes a feeling of unease. I remember reading about this more than 20 years ago where someone had produced an image of the most beautiful woman in the world. A reconstruction using features from renowned beauties, this hybrid woman had perfect lips, eyes, teeth, facial bone structure and hair. The verdict in the article? Yes, perfect. But bland and almost sinister.

This made sense of the creepiness of artificial art too. Whilst it is impossible for humanity to achieve perfection, our tolerances in our senses are so finely attuned that we are able to pick up subtle perceptions of change even when not knowing exactly why. Hence perfumes are created by someone who has a “nose”, wines are tasted by master sommeliers, chefs are trained to pick out delicate distinctions in flavour combinations, a colourist can detect subtle shifts in hues. Our sensory acuity is developed to keep us alive and safe. This also comes into play in neutral situations such as looking at a piece of digital art or a robot where there is no danger but it still raises emotional hackles somewhere deep inside.

I could choose to ignore this as something I don’t need to think about any more. I do think sometimes things coincide to make us look more closely though. I think this is probably a slight wake-up call to me to refocus on my own human skills base despite that being a counterintuitive concept in a thoroughly technological era. Talking with a music teacher friend this weekend about the extent to which I have lost the musical skills I had acquired as a child and teenager and the frustration that as an adult coming back to it I’m unable to just pick up where I left off. We discussed some of the pieces I used to enjoy playing or at least tackling with a level of competence if not proficiency and she regarded me with gentle kind amusement and pointed out I was rather chucking myself in at the deep end. My music playing was interrupted by years of arthritis in my hands and then compounded by further years of distraction and busyness. The only way to reacquire those skills from 20 years ago is to start again from foundations and relearn them. The real question is not whether it is possible; rather whether I’m willing to do that and how much I want it. Just like learning to draw.

All human skills are acquired through diligence and practise, it’s up to us to make choices about how we will apply that. I could chose to concentrate on digital photography which I very much enjoy (and in itself a creative skill) or spend some of that time on the nuts and bolts of drawing again. I can appreciated digitally recorded and transmitted music by performers immeasurably better than I could ever be and develop that cultural aspect of my brain or I can make myself reacquire the physical music making skills I once had albeit in a lower key.

I think most of all it has made me stop and think. There is nothing good or bad in artificial art. It simply is. And yet it isn’t either. If art is an expression of human self I fail to see how technological representations can be an expression of anything creative – it isn’t in fact art at all. Like so many things however, artificial creativity has been around in some form or other for a while and will be here to stay. Just like fear of robots, fear of artificial art is a non-thing. It cannot, as some have mooted, ever replace that which is created by humans. There is a crudeness about its perfection that makes it lesser than a child’s honest attempts or the naivety of primitive art. Its masterful blandness is not equal with naivety. It make overtake in terms of production as it already has in terms of imagery, photography, technology, 3D printing and a whole host of other areas. It may become the norm so that we no longer enter the Uncanny Valley when we look at it.

It’s more about whether I want to retain and celebrate those unique skills that belong to humankind and us alone.

And I think I do.

Ego Creo

I am frequently inspired by the yarns my customers make from the fibres that I dye, card and sell. I very much consider producing hand dyed and carded fibre for others as a collaboration between myself and my customers.

I usually start by having an idea for a theme or something visual inspires me and sends colour combinations sparking across the synapses of my design aesthetic. “Seeing” colour is more than simply seeing hues – the way colour interacts with form and emotion makes every new project an exciting unknown journey of discovery (especially where dyeing is involved!!).

P1070596 - Version 2

P1070597 - Version 2

Even now when I spend a large portion of every day with my senses drenched in colour, some shades or palettes make something leap inside of me; I get that swing of adrenaline at the possibilities. As though a thousand colourful butterflies have been released in my tummy and are fighting to get clear and start designing…


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Sometimes things turn out exactly as I envisaged. Other times they just won’t play nicely at all and I can end up lost in tears of frustration that the things I “see” behind my eyes I can’t make materialise in front of them no matter how hard I try.

For me creating – anything – is just a part of who I am and have always been. Creation is a need not a hobby. “I create, therefore I am”. No matter how poor the result or how many times you have to make it over, making – the act of building something with your hands and heart – is merely an attempt to make sense of the world around us, an attempt to understand Beauty or Nature or indeed Love itself.



Creativity may not be confined to physically crafting an object. It might be a making a delicious meal for loved ones as an expression of your affection. It might be hearing a beautiful song and wanting to meld that music into your own soul too. It might be reading something profound that touches you and perhaps gathers the pieces of your mind and inspires words of your own. It might be simply being present in Nature and feeling that peace or beauty or awe or fear soak into every part of you.


It might inspire you to nurture the fauna and flora as a gardener, conservationist, husbandman. Creativity inspires us to paint pictures with our daily lives, to make each moment matter however insignificant.




I make things because I want to see stars; I create because I want to feel the sacred in the every day. Creating is in a sense a longing for a reflection of heaven on earth


Sometimes a project is something you carry through from inception to the finished article. Sometimes you are merely a cog in the human machine to carry something through to the final stages in someone else’s hands. This is how I feel about the fibres from BarberBlackSheep. I make the materials for someone else to take on and develop further into something new, perhaps something I could never have dreamed of. For someone who likes to be in control this is actually very liberating. I have no idea if I will ever see these things I’ve made again now they belong to someone else and if I do, what form they will take. Sometimes when I do get to see their evolution it gives me so much joy to know they’ve given someone else hours of creative fulfilment and between us something tangible has been explored and made real.

Sometimes this goes even further and I get inspiration back in return. It might be a knitting pattern I’ve not yet come across. It might be a technique that I’ve not yet learned or a tip to make life easier. It might be a new way of combining colour or form, of mixing up the palettes I made and creating something fresh by adding in or leaving out other parts of the spectrum.


Whatever form it takes, creation is a constant visual conversation that enriches each person that takes part.

I hope in the coming weeks and months to find the time to be able to share some of the things others have made as part of this ongoing work.