Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Workshop

Bast Fibres, sorry, Fibres. We were the noisy ones, so noisy that Jacey came to find out what we were doing. Several times. Sometimes we were pounding fibres - the flax strick needed only hackling to be ready to spin, but pounding the finished skeins with the beautiful wooden mallet on a chunk of the tree that fell on the studio softens and polishes the yarn.

Sometimes we were singing. But most of the time we were laughing. Monday and Tuesday AM were flax; on Tuesday we braved the storm (there was a tornado warning!) to boil our skeins. The Event Organisers were not completely happy allowing us to play with matches, but we did not burn the place down (we did borrow Jacey's sign to use as a windbreak, though).

Tuesday pm was hemp, retted strick and decorticated top. Some of our handspun became rope: 12 singles became 3 strands became one thin but incredibly strong cord.
The singles are twisted into strands

The strands are twisted into rope

We spun on Balkan spindles, which have two whorls to contain the unruly flax singles; when the whorlsnare
removed ( they slide off), the spindle is used as a weaving shuttle.

We learned about other bast fibres: we spun ramie, we pounded soaked ganpi until what seemed was thick white fibre opened into the most amazing mesh

We showed our work at The Workshop Showcase on Wed evening; not the most packed or
most colourful table, but again we were noisy - we demonstrated pounded ganpi and flax ( as quietly as we could), and we, ah, encouraged people to come and watch our rope-making.

-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Monday is Flax Day One

And no photos on my phone, only on the camera and no way to transfer them here. In short: Stephenie summarised the characteristics of bast fibres as a group, talked about the cultivation of flax (including the story of an abortive DEA raid on one of her 4' by 8' flax plots (lush, green, what else could it be? Flax???). And then we learned about prep. Retting, rippling, breaking, scutching, hackling. Dressing a distaff or, in our case, broomstick (housekeeping was bemused). Spinning tow and line, dry and wet. My first attempt was Terrible, as I fought to overcome the longdraw habit. My second was marginally better. After dinner I returned to hackle and spin a third skein. Much better. Practice makes perfect and we've got flax again this morning. The rain and wind (tornado alert at 0630!) may delay the boiling of our skeins, but that gives us more time to spin.

-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, October 25, 2010

Some of the fun

Lake Lawn is a maze of glassed-in corridors connecting residence blocks and various function centres. Having spent Friday learning the layout I knew where spinners were likely to congregate; I headed for the well-lit tables in the window alcoves by the deli (coffee and hot chocolate). And as if by magic, spinners appeared. Old friends and

new. We sat and spun and talked and knitted until the deli closed, then drifted away until we met again at Registration. Stetson is here! And diJeannene, and Jimbobspins, and, and. Sara Lamb and Deb Menzies exhibit awesome teamwork (did you know Sara is a grandmother? :-)

The afternoon passed in a blur of words and hugs and attempts to match real live people to Ravatars. After the Official Welcome, dinner. The Spin-In. My first Swill (that stuff is disgusting and yet strangely attractive. But pink, so I can resist).

The light in the Great Hall is poor for spinning, but Stetson was prepared :-)

-- Post From My iPhone

Sunday, October 24, 2010

SOAR 2010: fun begins...

The view from the balcony at 0730 this morning.

Breakfast was a cinnamon-pecan thing from Panera; while stuffing goody bags yesterday pm, someone mentioned there is a Walmart just 'over there', about 10 minutes walk. So I walked, out of curiosity. Never been to Walmart before: it was huge, full of stuff, but
not the fabric sweater (fibre) storage bags I was hoping for. I did buy a 'Texas' muffin tin, though: English muffin tins (actually English
muffins don't need tins) are intended for fairy cakes, which are cupcakes by another name. There was also a Panera, smaller but stoked with much more desirable stuff :-)
Now, breakfasted, walked and wide awake (I crashed at 2000 last night), it's time to see what everyone else is up to.

-- Post From My iPhone

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Morning

The long day may have been worth it: I woke at the usual 0500 this morning and faffed around for an hour (the upstairs(!) tv(!) doesn't work) before essaying my morning constitutional. It was dark. Lake Lodge has a lake:

Eventually the paved path becomes a track through trees:

I found a sign:

Faced with the task of taking a photo in the dark, the iPhone does its best to emulate a flashy thing from MiB. I decided to stop torturing it.
Not far from that I found the boundary fence and a busy road. On the way back I wondered what trees I was walking under (I wish Lynn were here), spotted wildlife: grey squirrels, and what could be the Lake Lawn Monster sporting on the lake

Sadly, better light revealed not only waterfowl, but fishermen. Several boats-full. At 0700. What are they after?

Also large flocks of starling-equivalents grackling in the trees, then swirling across the sky

It's as well I started with the lakeside path, as the other option isn't

Now back to my room to scrub my hands. I bought what may have been the last orange at the deli, and the oil from the skin dissolved the black plastic disposable knife as I peeled it. I'm saving half to wars off scurvy later in the week, but it and I are smeared with black gunge.

-- Post From My iPhone

Friday, October 22, 2010

The road to SOAR 2010 II

Sitting at the departure gate for the flight to MKE I turned the phone on to check my email and noted the time: 2240. Given I lay half-awake in bed from about 0400, this feels like a very long day.

GO Shuttle does what it says on the tin: after 15 minutes, just time to buy replacements for my lost-but-unmourned headphones, Amy and another UK SOAR attendee were assembled. Arrived at Lake Lawn 0030 UK time. *nice* shower. Lights out 2200 local. It WAS a very long day.

-- Post From My iPhone

The road to SOAR 2010

Started at 0734 today, as the road from our house led to the M25

and that led to Heathrow. As usual, allowing 30 minutes for delays meant fewer delays than usual; I spent about 2 hours in the airport time warp before the gate was announced. I love liminal spaces, the desire to move made concrete. Now, after a movie and a hot meal - it was hot, but the bright yellow gravy was rather startling; I decided it was intended to cheer people whose holiday was over - I sit over the North Atlantic knitting, listening to Handel and inserting photos into a file to post on the Internet. And hoping 90 minutes is time enough to clear US customs in Toronto :-/ Isn't technology amazing?

Technology or magic: which is more likely to be responsible for what seems to be a tortilla wrap filled with lamb in tomato sauce, served hot in a sealed cardboard box, having an expiry date of 06OCT2011? Frozen in bulk? Or a Spell of Preservation?

Let's see if Toronto's free wifi works...

-- Post From My iPhone

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Woolfest and A Glorious Day Out!

It's a grey day in Flatland. I should be working, but my mind keeps drifting north and I remembered I did promise a post about Woolfest.

Oh, no they're not. You can't pull the wool over our eyes.
Seen just north of Blencathra.

I think Woolfest, which is held in Cockermouth, in the Lake District, was the first of the UK spinners' gatherings. There aren't many bricks-and-mortar shops selling spinning fibre here, so it's a chance to see and handle a variety of fibres, meet indie dyers (and many, many other people) and buy fleece. There are sheep on the hoof and there's a fleece sale. It's the most fleece most spinners could ever hope to see under one roof.
There are classes and other things too (a Rav meeting point!), but a lot of spinners head straight for the corner with the fleeces. It was particularly poignant this year, as in 2009 Cockermouth was flooded very badly indeed. Some businesses are not yet trading, but the town has made a tremendous effort to get back on its feet and I daresay everyone at Woolfest was pleased to be putting money into the area.

We drove up on the Thursday, a leisurely journey that allowed us to shed various mental commitments by the roadside. We stayed in a very luxurious hotel - this was probably our only holiday this year, so we made the most of it - the name of which I won't disclose because the obsequious staff blunted the edge of our enjoyment. But the shower was WONDERFUL. Anyway...

On Friday morning we arrived at the venue. The plan was for him to cycle the Lake District while I did Woolfest, my purchases limited by lack of a bearer to carry parcels. It was a good plan that failed :-)
Once in, I headed straight for the sheep and fleece, on a mission to buy an interesting fleece to share with friends on Ravelry. I wanted a good example of a UK breed that's unusual in the US, and found a beautiful grey Ryeland gimmer aka shearling from Sue Trimmings. (I'll do another post about sorting and grading it.)
Not one of Sue's.
I also wanted to meet Caecilia (Ravname) from the Wool Clip to deliver a pile of printed leaflets about preparing and selling fleeces for handspinning. These are free to all; if you, Dear Reader, would like copies, please leave a comment here or PM sarahw on Ravelry with your email address. I fell in love with one of Chris Croft's rugs – yes, this IS possible, at least for me – and visited it several times. And I fretted gently, worrying about him on his bike on narrow, unfamiliar roads and steep, steep hills. I bought some fibre. I tried to ring him, but the call could not be connected: wherever he was, he had no phone signal. I bought the rug ('A Yorkshire Abbey', Herdwick wools, 5' x 3'). I fretted... and then the phone rang! He'd been delayed by a tyre exploding coming down Honister Pass.
I relaxed a bit, went around the stalls again in search of Exmoor Horn fleece samples, something nice for me to spin, anything interesting. I bought a double handful of Herdwick fleece just to see how it spun, and a Shetland lamb fleece because, well, because it was there. These last two are shown in the previous blog entry. I sat and watched some of the sheep showing.
I admired Galina Khmeleva's lace, had a brief Russian Spindle lesson and bought one, plus a bowl. I went out to the car (which by now smelt strongly of sheep thanks to two-and-a-bit fleeces), got my wheel and prepared to spin... and the phone rang again. He needed collecting, somewhere on the road from Ambleside to the coast. So I packed everything in the car and headed off to experience Hardknott and Wrynose passes for the first time. I confess I used a lot of words as I drove hard up those hairpins, and many more as the smell of overheating clutch permeated the air; 'unnerving' was not one of them. Fortunately it was nothing more than hot and despite my fears I did no damage to the car. He was alright, too. Sighs of relief all round.

Saturday was to be a Hill Day. Blencathra seemed a likely candidate, especially as it offered so many routes up and down. Sharp Edge was a possible ascent that would test my fear of heights... possibly too far. We discussed it as we parked in Threlkeld and began walking along the base of the hill. It was a glorious, delightful, beautiful, couldn't-be-bettered morning.
There was wool on – and off – the sheep...
I think these are Swaledale, but they might be Rough Fell. Whatever they are, they are shedding their fleece naturally as it snaps at a weak point where the new growth meets the old. This is a 'primitive' trait: modern breeds such as the Merino have been selected to keep their fleece, allowing it to grow until the sheep is sheared. Shrek's story is amusing, but eventually that fleece would have killed him: if he'd fallen and rolled, he'd probably have been unable to regain his feet, and sooner or later it would have completely obscured his vision. Not to mention the effort needed to carry the weight!
This shows how walkers get over stone walls and sheep go through them: the gap (which is closed by a piece of chicken wire) is a creep. After some discussion I decided discretion would have the better of valour this time, and voted for Hall's Fell as the route up. Some scrambling and a little less exposure seemed a safer option, given that I have been almost physically sick from vertigo at times. It makes me incredibly angry that my body can do this to me, and I am determined to train myself past it. Mind over mind over matter. But it's easy to say that on the flat.
That's the view south part-way up Hall's Fell, showing the point where civilised, walled, fertilised pasture meets the fellside. The lower part of the fell is also green with grass (and bracken), and probably gets a little fertiliser from time to time (or did in the past, before nature conservation came to the fore). Higher up the slope the green-brown of heather is broken by the first rock outcrops.
And that's the last photo you have of this ascent, because soon after this the ridge began to fall away to either side and the path began to run across rock. Scrambling. Not difficult at first, but as we climbed higher, onto rock polished by the passage of thousands of feet, I realised I was forcing myself up and forward by willpower as much as muscle: my hindbrain, the remnant of lizard where my sense of self-preservation lives, was increasingly afraid of falling, and my legs were responding to that fear. Rebelling, slowing, faltering. Which was silly: I'd have had to be both stupid and unlucky to fall any distance, but still. I felt as though my body was made of lead and I was forcing it up by mental effort alone. It was exhausting. I narrowed my focus: I didn't look at the drop, I didn't look at the view. I looked at the path no more than 3 feet ahead, I looked at the (firm, secure, good, friendly) rock I was grasping. And kept going. And we reaped our reward. It's not a big hill, not a high hill. The Lake District is a (whisper it) bijou landscape by comparison with Scotland. If we'd taken the broad motorway worn into the hillside from Threlkeld, it would have been nothing more than a slog uphill. But this, for me, was a triumph.
The top of Blencathra is broad and long, sloping away to the west. People were picnicking everywhere.
Looking westish, towards Skiddaw
We wandered from one end to the other discussing various options for the descent.
The view northeast, away from the Lake District to Scotland. Eventually.
North of the summit a cross of white quartzite is laid out on the turf. The Internet doesn't seem to know why it's there, but that quartzite is not found on the mountaintop: each one has been carried there.
The remnants of a small Armistice Day cross was tucked under one of the stones and that, for me, made the quartzite cross a reminder of all the mountaineers, mountain-lovers, shepherds and walkers who died in both the Wars.
Lest We Forget.

The southern summit. Yes, we walked all the way there, too. And back again.

Eventually we decided to head down the hillside to Scales Tarn, which looked quite attractive from up here.
The steep bare rock ridge above it is Sharp Edge. As we descended the hillside we could see a steady trickle of walkers head up the path and slow dramatically as they moved onto the rock. Most continued, but a few eventually turned around and came back down the path. I think... I don't know. The memory of fear had already faded, an hour or so later. I think... I could do it. In good weather with no wind. But I know I wouldn't enjoy it. That's no reason not to do it, though. And he wants to, I think.
Picnickers were wading in the tarn, and the hillside above it was dotted with sheep. Count the sheep... there are at least 23 (I counted in Pshop). Further down it felt like Scotland in miniature.
Briefly. The Northwest Highlands are not so green, so pastoral:
The path loses height constantly as it curves south around the base of Blencathra. Into fresh, green bracken.
A place to consider our Western change in attitude to beauty in the landscape. In the distant past, when life was hard, the friendly green valley, covered in tame, fertile fields would have been regarded as a beautiful landscape. The wind-lashed peaks, the harsh stony hillsides were frightening, lonely, inhuman places. Only relatively recently, in the last two centuries or so did we (or at least some of us) begin to see the wild places as romantic, even attractive. The Lake District is one of the places where that link between wild and beautiful was forged, with the works of the Lake District Poets and their descendants.

The online guides to the route mentioned a brief scramble on the path at Gategill. Brief it was and, with no drop to speak of, it was fun.
But what we REALLY wanted at this point was ice cream. And, eventually, we found some. Our joy was complete: a Glorious Day Out indeed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Exploring a Fleece: Grading and Sorting

Confession time: although I've done a lot of research about grading and sorting a spinning fleece, enough that I feel I should know how to do it, I've only dealt with two fleeces in my spinning life. I'll share my experience of the third fleece with you, in hope that it helps someone as nervous as I was when I unrolled my first fleece. If that's you, take heart: it's less difficult than you might think. And, as Beth of The Spinning Loft says, "The sheep are growing more even as we work". There will be another fleece along shortly.

Sitting in its bag in the sunshine is one of my Woolfest 2010 acquisitions, a Shetland lamb fleece from Lenice Bell, Todhill Shetlands. It's a spinners' fleece, thoroughly skirted, so I don't expect to find any dags (dried lumps of manure) hanging from the edges. It's important to encourage farmers to sell clean, well-skirted fleece: you may not mind removing the dags, but dried sheep dung poses a much greater risk to animal health than does clean raw fleece. This lamb lived in Scotland, I bought the fleece in Cumbria, I'm dealing with it in East Anglia and I plan to send some of it overseas: if by chance there was a harmful organism in the fleece, I'll have done it a great favour (and farmers a great disservice) by moving it across the country so quickly. It might seem that this is a lot of fuss about next to nothing, but having lived in the UK through the Foot and Mouth epidemic in 2001, I will do everything in my power to minimise the chance of that happening again. Ever. Anywhere. If any of this fleece contains dried dung, I'll remove it carefully and dispose of it safely. Traditionally spinners use it as mulch, but I'll bury it deep in the bean trench or compost bin where it won't surface for at least 18 months. If I didn't have a garden I'd put it in the non-compostable rubbish. I don't want birds or other animals moving dirty fleece out into the wider environment, just in case.

The rolled fleece is intimidating. Where's the way in? Fortunately I know that the British Wool Marketing Board (hereafter BWMB) approved method of rolling fleeces is staple side up/cut side down, sides to the middle, roll from back end to front, pull the neck out into a long strip and wrap/tuck it under itself to hold the roll closed. Here I've just found the bit of the neck that's tucked under.
Unrolled it doesn't look like a sheep to me... I wouldn't want to meet whatever that came from on a dark night! For reference the tape measure has 12"/30cm extended. If you could look closely, you'd see that the cut surfaces are on top, folded one over the other BWMB-style. You can tell because the cut surface, close to the lamb's skin, is relatively clean, a beautiful cream tinted gold with drops of lanolin. After I unfold one side of the belly I can show you what I mean:
Furthest from the camera, beyond the tape, the upper surface of the fleece is greyer, dirtier, with the tips of the staples gathering into pointy bits. This side of the tape you can see the underside, paler, cleaner, creamy in colour, with drops of golden lanolin, and the staples breaking naturally into rows. If you ever had long hair, you may remember that even after it was combed into a beautiful flowing sheet of hair, it would break/clump into long locks. Fleece is the same, clumping naturally into what are known as locks in longwools and staples in fine wools. One thing I can't show you on this fleece is what are known as second- or double cuts, short (1-1.5") tufts on the underside of the fleece that result from the shearer cutting a bit high, then going back over the same area and cutting lower down. The sheep looks tidier for this, but those second cuts must be removed or they can form nepps when you process the fleece.
Unfolded, with gentle reminders from me that sheep have four corners, a bottom, two sides and a head, it looks like this: a very long lamb, but a lamb. The neck, stretched long, is nearest the camera. I know from my reading that the finest, cleanest, longest-staple is likely to be the base of the neck, the shoulders and down the back. The legs are likely to be muddy and have more VM (vegetable matter). The backside or britch is generally coarser, stronger wool: sheep, being sensible animals, stand with their backsides into the wind and rain so the britch bears the brunt of the weather. If it's not properly skirted, there may be dried dung at this end, too.
Here's the edge of the belly. It's generally discoloured by dirt, there's some VM, some of the staples are stuck together with dark glossy stuff that I think is dust and dirt and grease. At this point my supervisor arrived...

This is the middle of the britch, the backside. It looks surprisingly attractive, relatively clean, but the soft skin of my wrists can feel that this area is coarser than the middle of the shoulders. And there seems to be black grains of dirt and lanolin buried deep in the staples. What does the good bit look like?
The staples are thinner, with more and finer crimp than the britch. There's no dirt at the base of the staples and, when I hold my wrist to the surface, there's no prickle at all.
Here's a staple from the britch (above) compared with one from the middle of the shoulders (below). With luck you can see the dirt at the base of the britch, the more obvious, fine crimp, and the greater length of the shoulder. Both have lamb tips, the tightly twisted ends of the animal's first fleece. These may be relatively dry and fragile; if so, they could break away to form nepps when carding. I have to remember to check that at some point.

So it's decision time. I have a reasonable idea of what I've got; what am I going to do with it? Because I want to be able to send nice clean fleece to friends, encouraging them to buy British Shetland, I'm going to put the leg fleece and more of the discoloured belly fleece to one side. I think it will clean up reasonably well, and would spin into a softish sturdy yarn. Here's the sort of thing I'm removing, plus some of the lanolin- and dirt-matted locks above it.

You should find that the fleece rips apart cleanly and easily down natural partings between the staples. If it doesn't, the fleece may be cotted, matted and felted on the sheep before it was sheared. This is a fatal flaw for a spinning fleece unless the staples/locks are long enough to be spun after the cotted areas are cut away.
Here's the fleece with the legs and belly edges piled on a sheet of newspaper, and my best guess at a dividing line between britch and 'the good bit'. It is still a bit of a guess for me, so I was pleased to see this
when I flipped the edges back. The good bit is on the left, the britch on the right. Can you see that my division by fibre quality matches the cleanness of the underside? Here's a close view of the cut surface of the britch just to the bad side of the dividing line
You can see the dirt driven into the fleece by the wind and rain. Sensible sheep, not putting their heads into the weather. All that's left to do today is roll and bag the three different bits of fleece separately, each labelled with supplier, date and breed.

Speaking of sensible sheep coping with bad weather...
On the left, a sample of the best bit of a Herdwick fleece; to right, the britch. Herdwicks are seriously hardy sheep, bred to deal with the worst weather. Their wool is best used for weaving and commercial carpet production.

I can vouch for the fact that it makes glorious, beautiful carpets and rugs because I bought one at Woolfest. Handmade. I'll post a picture of it next time, together with an overview of our two days of adventure in Cumbria.