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Reading a book on creative knitting is one thing, but exploring it by knitting is something else altogether. In my previous post I spoke about Creative Knitting by Mary Walker Phillips. Since then, I have been itching to get my hands on some linen and try it out for myself.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Wall Hanging

A linen swatch, exploring Mary Walker Phillips’s book Creative Knitting

I had not worked seriously with linen before, so this swatch is also about exploring a new material. Linen has cropped up quite a lot recently as various friends have been working with it. It’s very different from working with wool, it has no stretch at all and is very strong, which makes it ideal for wall hangings and other art pieces. But it also has its challenges, as any irregularities in your knitting will stand out.

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Fancy crossed throws combined with stocking stitch, and some lace stitches shown on top

First and foremost I was intrigued by Phillips’s use of a stitch called ‘fancy crossed throw.’ At first sight they appear to be made by throwing the yarn twice around the needle, and then dropping the second yarn-over on the return row. However, if you study them closely you can see that these stitches are twisted around themselves. They are made with a complex throw around both needle tips and are laborious to execute.

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Texture is added by wrapping stitches and bobbles; lace stitches create spaces

The linen emphasises stitch texture and its crips lines make lace stitches with their open spaces shine, creating beautiful contrasts. Phillips manages to play with this to great effect, and I admire her wall hangings. You can see one of them in an accompagnying picture in her obituary in the New York Times, from which I want to share this great quote with you: ‘What Miss Phillips did, starting in the early 1960s, was to liberate knitting from the yoke of the sweater. Where traditional knitters were classical artists, faithfully reproducing a score, Miss Phillips knit jazz. In her hands, knitting became a free-form, improvisational art, with no rules, no patterns and no utilitarian end in sight.’

By knitting this swatch – and more will follow – I know I’m simply reproducing Phillips’s ‘score,’ but that’s not the point of making them. She says in Creative Knitting: “Personal expression in knitting, as in any other creative medium, is not achieved by copying exactly what someone else has done. Rather, the aim is to translate with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration.” They challenge me in different ways, making me approach techniques in a new light, and continue my journey of a more free-flowing form of knitting.

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Bell pattern and ladder stitch

The bell pattern and ladder stitch shown above is a good example of what Phillips means by translating with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration. She was inspired by that Master Knitter, whose indispensible books should be mandatory reading for any knitter, Mary Thomas: “It was with the purchase of Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns, discovered while rummaging through a secondhand book store, that I really became involved in creative knitting.” Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns contains quite a few variations on the bell pattern, and I can imagine how trying out some of Thomas’s stitches and patterns in swatches eventually transformed into the knitted art that Phillips is known for.

I’d like to finish my first steps on my new journey with Rachael Matthews’s comment on my Creative Knitting blog post: “It’s like the journey is to find the place, and you know where you are going but of course you never know what it looks like until you get there.”

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As a knitter, I’m somebody who likes to plan ahead. I knit numerous swatches; I try out new techniques and compare them with firm favourites; I take gauge measurements; I sketch and calculate. I knit up accordingly. This doesn’t mean I always get it right, but that’s okay. I will have learnt something new, and I can use that knowledge when planning the next thing. But in the last couple of years or so, I have been exposed to other methods of working. A more carefree and let’s-see-what-happens approach. A good example, and great inspiration, is the work by Rachael Matthews who runs Prick Your Finger.

Rachael Matthews Shamanic Bed for Creatives

Rachael Matthews’s Shamanic Bed for Creatives

Rachael’s Shamanic Bed for Creatives contains a cornucopia of textile techniques. Hand knitting, machine knitting, crochet, darning, and who knows what else, all find their way into the shamanic bedspread. Ideas come into her head and these magically flow into her hands and make a fabric, as she comes up with them. Some of these will work, and others will not. Knitting and crocheting allows one to shape the fabric while making it, this in contrast to woven fabrics, where one has to cut and sew to shape it. In addition, knitting and crocheting can easily be undone without loss of material. It is possible to use the ripped out yarn and try again. So if an idea doesn’t work, then it’s a lesson learnt that can be put to use straightaway. It’s even possible to start something without knowing what the end result will be, like Rachael’s Explosion Jumper.

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Embroidered Cushion Cover, exploring Jamieson & Smith Heritage yarns

I find this way of working, when it comes to knitting, quite a challenge. With decorational techniques (for want of a better description) I struggle less with this approach. For instance, the embroidery on the cushion cover pictured above was done free-style, without any planning whatsoever. Those of you who follow me on Instagram (@tomofholland) will have seen the doodles I occasionally post. Embroidering this cushion was like doodling with needle and thread.

Slowly but surely, I’m opening up to allow my knitting also to be more free-style, and less planned. It’s a shift in thinking that wakes me up, and it allows me to use my knowledge of techniques in a different way. It started with a simple bath mat. Having worked with Sue Craig on the Knitting The Map project (more on that in a later blog post), I had developed an obsession with stripes in garterstitch. Rachael selected eight shades for me from Prick Your Finger’s carpet yarn range, reminiscent of Bauhaus colours.

knitted rug in garterstitch by tomofholland

Knitted bath mat in garterstitch

Although I had made a lot of doodles (none of them larger than approximately 4 x 7cm), I didn’t plan anything before casting on. Yes, I knitted a swatch to select the right needle size for the fabric I wanted, but after that I just started at one corner and came up with the patterns and colours as I went along. I only decided on the construction after knitting the bottom strip. It was a departure of the planned object, the self-imposed constrictions and the letting go of expectations.

inspirational craft books

Inspiration for creative knitting: C Nieuwhoff: Anders Breien en Haken; M McNeill: Pulled Thread; M Walker Phillips: Creative Knitting; M Stove: Creating Original Hand-knitted Lace; A Sutton: British Craft Textiles; S Read (editor): Wild Knitting; E Mairet: Hand-weaving Today

These are just some of my books in my craft library in which the author in some way or other speaks about, or shows, how to let go of the regimented way of working, but instead letting materials or techniques guide the way. The compendium by Ann Sutton is a showcase of British textile artists working with a huge variety of techniques. Wild Knitting shows that knitting doesn’t have to stop with jumpers and socks. Margaret Stove shows how to create your own lace patterns, after explaining how lace stitches work together. Moyra McNeill and Constance Nieuwhoff both use traditional techniques in new, sometimes unexpected, applications. Ethel Mairet talks about letting materials and colours speak for themselves, and she often used simple techniques to show these off.

It all seems to come together in Mary Walker Phillips’s Creative Knitting. A weaver by trade, she became a very accomplished knitter with a sound knowledge of knitting techniques; she also spins and dyes. She explains how she uses vastly different materials, from artificial straw to handspun linen, and how these have an influence on the techniques she uses. Mostly her art pieces are wallhangings, casement curtains or other lacy structures, incorporating pieces of mica, pebbles, or beads. I find these pieces particularly inspiring at the moment.

Lace sample in handspun Rough Fell 2ply yarn

Handspun Rough Fell 2ply yarn and lace sample

The lace sample above was a quick study in mixing and matching lace stitches, using handspun Rough Fell 2-ply yarn. I like the contrast between the kempy, hairy and wire-like yarn, and the lace stitches, which are more usually executed in, for instance, a fine and soft Shetland yarn. This is just a starting point, and I will be creating more samples of both yarn and stitches this year, and be guided by my newfound approach to creative knitting. And in true Rachael-style, I don’t quite know where this will lead me, but I’m excited to start this journey and will be reporting back on my blog.

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Post-script (added 1 March 2014): perhaps my view on how Rachael appears to create her work was somewhat romanticised and simplified in my head, so please check out the comments on this post below, where Rachael has responded to my writing.

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Having just returned from a three-week holiday, I had plenty of time to look back to 2013, and look forward to 2014. Last year has been amazing, and I’m sure this will continue in the new year!

Looking back

Darning

Darning at Wool House, Somerset House

I was invited to darn at Wool House, Somerset House, as part of the very successful Campaign for Wool event. I had a great time, and Wool House put my darning sessions in the “best bits” list! It was super-busy, and I think I have enthused quite a few people about darning, and also explain why I like using 100% wool products.

Hope and Elvis Darning Workshop

2013 also saw the first of my day-long darning workshops. I went to Hope & Elvis, lovely Louise’s great studio. It’s stuffed to the gills with vintage fabrics, blankets, threads, scraps, books and any tool you would possibly need, so it was a lot of fun to explore various darning techniques. You’ll be pleased to hear I’m returning there in April.

ShetlandWoolWeek Darning at Jamieson & Smith

Last but not least, my darning skills took me to Shetland! Here’s a picture of my darning class at Jamieson & Smith. I had a great time, I met so many amazing people, with amazing skills. I left a few loose ends on purpose, so I have a good reason to return.

Knitting

Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches Lace

Early last year I exhibited at Prick Your Finger. My Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches explored many different knitting stitches and techniques, some old and rare, others common and much-used. It was a good way to learn about different techniques, and investigate them in detail.

Altered Kasha Cardigan for Wedding Outift

Rosemary had seen my Curiosity Cabinet, and thought I’d be the ideal person to take on a commission for her wedding outfit. I gladly took this on, and I knitted a Kasha Cardigan for her, with some alterations: a different collar, and three-quarter length sleeves. It was a great project to work on, and Rosemary has been wearing her cardigan many times since.

Aleatoric Fair Isle Swatch

Last year I also explored stranded colourwork, and in particular the Fair Isle tradition. Together with my comrade in wool, Felicity Ford, we devised a method to learn more about Fair Isle patterns, which took away some of the hurdles we often face when trying to knit Fair Isle. Using rules we made up and some dice, we left pattern and colour selection to chance, based on John Cage’s compositional concepts. We called this Aleatoric Fair Isle.

Spinning

Diamond Fibre Mill spinning

Other highlights include my visit to Diamond Fibre Mill, where I met Roger, who runs this small independent mill, specialising in worsted spinning, and who owns his own flock of Romney sheep.

timbertops chair spinning wheel

I also became the proud owner of an original Timbertops spinning wheel. A chair wheel no less. I haven’t had a chance to write about this yet, so keep your eyes peeled for a blog post in the near future.

Special mention

And if all that wasn’t quite enough, Kate Davies, Felicity and myself curated Wovember 2013 to celebrate wool in all its myriad forms. We posted features about growing, harvesting, processing, working, and wearing wool. I did many more things last year, so these were just some of my highlights.

Looking forward

Plans for 2014 are forming in my head, and amongst others, I’m looking forward to releasing my first cardigan pattern, using Foula wool. A bit later than expected, but it’s important to me to get everything right. I will continue working on the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches. I’ve also taken on a very special visible mending commission to repair an upcycling attempt gone wrong. As previously mentioned, not only will I return to Hope & Elvis for a darning workshop, I will also run a Darning Master Class at Unravel at Farnham Maltings. More classes and workshops are in the pipe-line, so keep an eye out for them.

Scotch darn on sock

2014 will also be the year of exploring. I did some free-style knitting before Christmas, and I found it very liberating. I found some good books on the subject, and I have also been inspired by Rachael Matthews’s approach to making, and in particular what became her Explosion Jumper.

On the spinning front I want explore more lace-weight spinning, using wool from both classic breeds (Shetland), and unexpected breeds (Rough Fell.)

Last but not least I would like to explore more mending techniques, and in particular learn more about darning and repairing woven textiles. And I still have one or two jumpers to complete…

darned jumper

 

I don’t know about you, but I think I have plenty of things lined up, and it will be my pleasure to share them with you and write about them here.

Happy New Year!

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Wovember is well underway now, and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself getting woolly content to all the Wovember readers, together with Kate Davies and Felicity Ford. Wovember celebrates the wool for what it is, and one of the ways we’re celebrating is with a WAL, or Wool-Along: start and finish a project made from 100% wool during the month of Wovember! Find out more on the Wovember blog.

My WAL project is my first ever machine-knit garment. A cardigan, knitted in Jamieson’s of Shetland Spindrift in the colourway Grouse. I picked up a 900g cone during my visit to their mill in Sandness. As I have a single-bed knitting machine, I cannot do ribbing on it. The usual way would be to first hand-knit the ribbing, and then transfer the stitches to the knitting machine. Then you can continue using the knitting machine and knit the panels for your garment.

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Grouse Cardigan panel pieces, surrounded by loads of woolly items. And yes, that’s the Foula Cardigan in progress – to be revealed at the end of Wovember

I copied the pattern pieces’ measurements from an existing, shop-bought cardigan. As this had slightly shrunk in the wash, I had to add a margin to all the pieces in order to make it fit. As I wasn’t quite sure if this was going to work out, I decided to do things in a different order. I first knitted the pieces, so I could seam them together and try it on, before adding the ribbing. If reknitting would be necessary, then I would at least only have to reknit the machine-knit part of it, which would take much less time. To make it easier to pick up stitches for the ribbing, I started the pieces with some rows of waste yarn in a contrasting colour.

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Grouse Cardigan, seamed together, with waste yarn still in place

As the Spindrift yarn is rather delicate, I decided to seam these pieces together with a back stitch, rather than the more usual mattress stitch, as this results in a more elastic seam, and thus less chance of the seam breaking with wear. I used short pieces (about 15in long,) and it was easy enough to add on some more by spit-splicing.

I’m pleased to report that the cardigan fits, and all that’s left to do, is to unravel the waste yarn, pick up the stitches with a circular needle, and hand-knit the ribbing. After that I will pick up stitches on the front pieces and the collar to add a garter stitch button and collar band.

Keep an eye for my next progress post, and don’t forget to visit Wovember to embrace WOOL!

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A couple of weeks ago I returned from Shetland Wool Week. I was invited to run two darning workshops, and to present the works-in-progress of the Aleatoric Fair Isle project I’m working on with Dr Felicity Ford. I have met so many amazing people, seen impossible feats of spinning and knitting, and enjoyed the landscape.

Hanging out with Felicity, who’s a sound artist, it may come as no surprise that apart from all the woolly wonders, I will now forever associate two songs with Shetland. The first one was recorded in 1960 for an oral history project for the School of Scottish Studies. The interviewer asks Rosabel Blance to talk about her own composition Da Spinning Sang (the spinning song.) He is clearly fishing for an answer with deeper meaning, but Blance is very matter-of-fact about it. But then she sings it and really, no explanation was ever necessary:

Taese da Shetlan oo till it’s clear an fine / Lyin laek a clood wi a silver shine

(tease the Shetland wool till it’s clear and fine / lying like a cloud with a silver shine)

But that’s enough poetry for now. Here are some pictures I took during Shetland Wool Week, in no particular order:

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The view from our log cabin – we stayed at Nortower Lodges, and we couldn’t have wished for a better cabin.

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The view from Fort Charlotte, in the centre of Lerwick. Luckily most days the weather was much nicer than these two pictures would have you believe.

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Felicity helping out participants of our Aleatoric Fair Isle workshop. Rolling the dice and following rules to create Fair Isle swatches proved controversial in some quarters, but I think we all had a good time in the end.

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A fine Shetland Ram at the Flock Book Ram Auction. In order to prevent an ever dimishing gene pool within their flocks, sheep farmers sell off their rams, and buy new ones frequently.

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A visit to Jamieson’s of Shetland‘s mill in Sandness. One of many banks of spinners; in many ways a very different affair from Diamond Fibres Mill, which I visited recently. Jamieson’s spin their fibres with the woollen method, resulting in a lofty, warm, yet light yarn, very suitable for Shetland wool. Diamond Fibres on the other hand, specialise in the worsted spinning method, which is much better suited for longwool (like their own flock of Romney sheep) and this makes for a smooth and lustrous yarn.

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The Textile Museum has a working loom, as found in the traditional crofts. Until my visit, I never knew that Shetland once was also famous for their tweed fabrics.

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As part of the Flock Book Ram Auction, there was also judging of the best rams. Here are the Shetland hot shot rams, all together in a special judging area. The atmosphere was palpable and tense, as a price-winning ram means a lot to the owner.

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And here is your good self. Elizabeth Johnston, spinner and dyer extraordinaire, showed me how the Shetland lace spinners managed to get such exceedingly fine yarn. After three hours of blood, sweat, tears, and some rather flowery language, I managed to get some extremely fine yarn. Elizabeth told me that I had started to understand the technique, but that my thread wasn’t near fine enough… The aim is to make a single ply the thickness of six individual fibres. This will then be used to make a two-ply yarn. I will keep on practising!

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This delapidated croft was not far from our lodgings, so we passed it every day.

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I also ran two darning classes. A drop-in session took place at the Shetland Museum and Archives, who helped organise Shetland Wool Week, and who invited me to come over in the first place: so a massive thanks to them for making this visit possible. Secondly, I ran a darning master class at Jamieson & Smith, pictured above. More thanks due here, as they kindly provided Felicity and me the yarns for our workshops.

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Susan Freeman found a new application for the Scotch darning technique. As you can clearly see in this picture, you can make pockets! I think I will have to add a fountain pen pocket to one of my cardigans.

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And here is a beautiful gift from Diane Houdek, who came all the way from America for Shetland Wool Week especially. A small box with teeny tiny wooden reels of darning silk. What a magnificent addition to my collection of mending ephemera!

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The fleece in this picture was chosen as the Champion fleece during a fleece-judging competition. The fleeces are judged on, amongst others, resilience, crimp, uniformity, and presentation. Readers of Jane Cooper’s excellent blog Mrs Woolsack’s Blog, may recognise this fleece. Incidentally, Jane also maintains the Woolsack website. Woolsack was started as a Cultural Olympiad Inspire project to make British wool cushions as personal welcome gifts from the people of Britain to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The Woolsack website now lists and links to information and sources of British wool products from spinning fibre to dyed knitting yarn and woven fabric.

Oliver Henry, Jamieson & Smith

Here you can see me with the fleece judge himself: Oliver Henry, who is the Master Woolsorter at Jamieson & Smith.

The keen observer will be wondering where that second song comes in, that for me is so inextricably linked to Shetland? Well, as part of Felicity’s lecture Listening to Shetland Wool, she composed a song, which she performed at the end.

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Here she is, performing it in the Jamieson & Smith shop. Sandra Manson and Adam Curtis are listening intently. As Felicity was fine-tuning the song during any spare moments we had at the lodge, I can sing it from start to finish. It has proved to be a great success, and indeed, it has found its way to the internet. One word suffices, as Oliver Henry said: BRILLIANT.

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Wool Week UK 2013 is in full swing, and so far I have been enjoying the effort and enthusiasm put in by most participants. As a member of Team Wovember, I wholeheartedly support their cause and it’s great that the Campaign for Wool are trying in general to get more wool into the existent and problematic fast-fashion industry. The point of the Campaign for Wool and Wool Week UK is to educate consumers about wool and its unique properties. As they explain on their website, wool is natural, renewable, biodegradable, breathable, resilient, elastic, easy-case, odour resistant, a natural insulator, and more.

Therefore I was surprised to find out that Topshop created a 80/20 wool/polyamide blend jumper to celebrate Wool Week. Having a garment promoting wool week that is actually a wool-blend dillutes this educative opportunity to teach the consumers about wool and its benefits. Worse, it actually feeds common stereotypes about wool being ‘scratchy’ and ‘unwashable,’ whereas there are 100% woollen fabrics available which are both soft and machine-washable. I started asking questions on Twitter why this was. Soon the Campaign for Wool got in touch, explaining that

“At CfW we don’t ask that the garments are 100% wool. We stipulate a 80% min which Topshop have stuck to.

This still makes the garment wool-rich but allows the retailer to hit certain price points which make it an attractive item for their customers or add embellishments and details not always possible in 100% wool.

The aim of CFW is to get as many consumers aware of wool and its benefits but we find it important to take a balanced approach that makes it easy for our valued retail supporters to join and celebrate wool week.”

As some of you may know, I was invited to participate in another Campaign for Wool Event earlier this year. Wool House at Somerset House was a resounding success, and I’m sure that the message that wool is amazing has come across to the general public. Part of this was surely due to the high standard set by the Campaign for Wool: when I accepted my invitation to run darning workshops during this event, I was asked by one of the Campaign for Wool coordinators to remember that

” [a]lso, this is all about real wool – so all activity has to be with real wool.  Sorry to point out the obvious but you would be amazed how often it does not register!!”

Why did the Campaign for Wool not insist on setting the same high standard for their valued retail supporters? I would like to have seen that Wool Week in particular should be a more risk-taking, daring, ambitious and inspiring cultural event, which raises the bar on what is possible and seeks to educate on the value and provenance of real woollen textiles? The 20% polyamide sweater is a half-hearted attempt at educating consumers on the value of wool; it’s a conservative and unimaginative manoeuvre which allows more wool to be utilised by the fashion industry while simultaneously perpetuating all of the myths which compromise the very position of wool within that industry.

A number of High Street retailers such as Cos and Sea Salt do offer 100% woollen outfits at a similar price point. And, indeed, Topshop also managed to do so, for example with this machine-washable 100% wool jumper currently on offer. I hope that for next year the Campaign for Wool can challenge any participating retailers and their design teams to excel themselves and to help stop misconceptions such as “an attractive item for their customers or add[ing] embellishments and details [are] not always possible in 100% wool.” Topshop have already shown that it is.

Meanwhile, if you want to celebrate Wool Week UK in true style, then why not buy one of the 100% woollen jumpers that Topshop (and other participants) have on offer?

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People often ask me: Tom, how do you manage to do so many projects? The answer is very simple: I love stitching on the train. My daily thirty-minute commute means I have at least one hour a day of crafting time, and I’ll have something to work on during lunch hour, too.

However, there is a limit to what is manageable on the train. My Foula Cardigan is making good progress, which is great news, but it does mean it is now becoming somewhat unwieldy.

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Foula Cardigan in progress

So I have been looking for a smaller project to take on the train. When I met Sandra Manson and Martin Curtis during Wool House back in March, they asked me to work on some cushion covers, using Jamieson & Smith’s Heritage yarn. The Heritage yarn is a bit different from their regular jumper weight yarns: first of all, the colours are based on jumpers from the Shetland Museum and Archives collection. This means they are all flat colours, as opposed to the current trend of heathered shades. Secondly, the Heritage yarns are worsted spun. Therefore the yarn is smooth, and stronger than the woollen spun jumper weight yarns: perfect to indulge in a spot of embroidery.

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Shetland wool cushion, embroidered with Jamieson & Smith Heritage yarns

An easy project to take on the train, and it’s something I can do free-style. No need for patterns or charts to refer back to once in a while. No need to count stitches. I couldn’t help but use a stitch which I have been using a lot in darning lately: Scotch darning, although there are some other names going round for this stitch, too.

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Meta-embroidery: the lot numbers of the ball bands found their way into the design

At work I have a scrap paper doodle pad, as I find that doodling helps me think through things, and often I end up incorporating words I hear, or numbers I see on my computer screen, and this habit is hard to supress. Indeed, I ended up stitching the lot numbers of the ball bands.

Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book is endlessly inspiring, and I was intrigued by the square fillings used in crewel work:

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Patches of square filling stitches

Once you understand the principle, it is very easy to create your own variations. As the cushion cover fabric is very forgiving due to its thick, felted surface, it’s easy to try something and, if you don’t like it, to undo it again. No holes or other marks remain! I have made every patch free-handed. No measuring out or marking the fabric beforehand. This feels very natural, as my doodles are also often made up of grid-like structures that I fill in one way or another, and I relish the slight wonkiness this creates. To me it makes the rigid grids more alive.

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Couching, back stitches, French knots, weaving, and satin stitches

As you can see, the needles have not been put back in their needle case. I don’t think this cushion cover is quite finished yet. So keep an eye out on the train, you might see me stitching away, adding a last flourish to this cushion.

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Last week I wrote about my visit to Diamond Fibres. As we hadn’t finished our job, we went back last Friday. On our first visit Roger had given me a lot of information, so I took this chance to clarify a couple of things. Unfortunately I didn’t take any new pictures, so I’ll keep it brief.

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two gilling machines on the far left, the top of the combing machine at the right. Click on the image to see a larger version

After the wool gets carded, the carded fibres land from the back of the carder into a belt, with a funnel at the end and a number of rollers. These compress the continuous carded batt into untwisted sliver, which ends up in a big coil in a “can;” a large open-topped casket, so that you can move the delicate sliver to the gilling machine.

You can see two gilling machines at the far left in the picture above, one of which shows its feeding belt. The can goes underneath this belt and the sliver is fed into the gilling machine. The gilling machine will add some twist, but more importantly, it has rows of combs hanging down. These will align the fibres so that they lie parallel to each other. This first machine has the tines of the combs quite far apart (seven to the inch.) The sliver comes out at the other end and ends up in another can. This get’s moved to the second gilling machine, shown at the far left of the picture. This one has finer combs, with the tines spaced closer together (ten to twelve to the inch.) To align of the fibres even further. Again, the sliver is caught in a can. Once sixteen cans have been filled up, they go the combing machine.

The combing machine will only comb out noils (small clumps of short fibre), in order to end up with a very smooth yarn. It also adds a bit more twist to, what is now called, combed top and it gets wound onto the biggest bobbins. These then go onto the big machine in the middle of the picture above, and from there on, the process continues as described in last week’s post.

Any readers who enjoy preparing their own fibres for spinning will have noticed that the process of aligning the fibres and combing out the noils is reversed when you process fibres by hand. When preparing your own fleece at home for worsted spinning, you usually skip the carding altogether. The locks go straight onto the hand-combs, and you comb the fibres first to remove the noils. Once this is completed, you pull off the fibres with a diz (a small flat object with a small hole in it) to produce your combed top. Some people add some twist to this, by carefully winding it onto a make-shift distaff – this could just be a large knitting needle. Others leave the combed top as is.

Another thing I learnt is that Roger’s spinning machine is a flyer spinner (as I noted in the previous post, just like a spinning wheel at home), as this is more suited for longwools, the type of wool Diamond Fibres specialises in. As the pencil roving is drafted out to be twisted into yarn it is guided around the flyer a couple of times before it winds onto the bobbin. This will make for a smoother worsted yarn as it will help “tuck in” any loose fibres.

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The yarn is twisted around the flyer before it goes onto the bobbin.

When spinning woollen yarns, where the fibres are more jumbled up, the spinning machine has a ring, rather than a flyer. You can see the woollen spinning preparation beautifully explained in the following Wovember blog post with the ring spinner here.

If you’re curious about hand combing at home, then I can highly recommend the following set of videos found here (link to the first of four videos.)

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Last Friday I jumped at the chance to accompany my friend Sue to visit Diamond Fibres, a small independent spinning mill specialising in worsted spinning for knitting yarns.

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The Diamond Fibres Mill at Diamond Farm

After Wovember2012, I had a greater understanding of how fleece gets turned into yarn, but to see a mill for real was an unexpected pleasure. The mill is owned by Roger, who used to work in The City, but he quit in the 1980s to start the mill.

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Roger tweaking the spinner

There’s a lot to do  before you get yarn, and Roger does it all at his farm: fleece sorting, scouring, carding, combing, spinning, and skeining. It would probably take me a few visits to see all the machines working, as they’re not all continuously in use. Here’s an account of the process, as I remember it from the overload of information Roger gave me.

He stores his fleeces and does the sorting in an the oldest building at Diamond Farm: an old barn, probably dating back to the 14th century.

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The old barn where Roger stores and sorts his fleece

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the beams and rafters of the old barn

Once the fleeces have been sorted and graded, the wool gets scoured to remove dirt, suint and lanolin. This is necessary to ensure a high quality yarn. If there’s lanolin or or sticky stuff in the wool, then this gets transferred to the equipment, and soon fibres will start to cling to it, messing up the intermediate steps in the processing.

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Wensleydale wool drying, there’s approximately 17kg of wool on the drying table.

Once the wool is picked, it gets carded to loosen up the fibre mass. The carding machine is just a big version of a drum carder:

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Sue and Gill are picking wool to feed into the carder

After the carding, the wool needs to be gilled: the jumbled up fibres get disentangled and gradually more lined up; if I understand it correctly, this produces sliver. Unfortunately the gilling machine was not in use, but you can see some pictures of it here.

The sliver then gets combed, which is done rather differently than when doing it by hand.

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Roger explaining the finer points of combing

The sliver is fed into the combing machine at the back, 16 strands at a time.

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the sliver feed seen through the opened hatch of the comber

These slivers then get combed by a top comb and a bottom comb.

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the top comb

The bottom comb was difficult to photograph, but it consists of a roller, with rows of tines on it, each row of tines smaller than the previous one. When the sliver has been combed, you get combed top. The combed top gets put onto huge bobbins. From there on, the spinning process itself starts. The combed top gets drafted into pencil roving.

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the machine that makes pencil roving from combed top

The bobbins with pencil roving are moved to the spinning machine, where the roving gets pulled through a series of rollers. Below you can see Blue Faced Leicester on the large bobbins.

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Bobbins with pencil rovings are drafted by the rollers.

The rollers perform the same action as a handspinner does with drafting and feeding the fibre into the yarn. Twist enters the roving by means of a flyer, just like a spinning wheel. To facilitate the yarn being wound onto the bobbin, the bobbins rest on felt discs, which slow down the bobbin’s speed relative to its flyer:

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Bobbins and flyers threaded up

If the bobbin rotates too fast, the yarn can break, so some bobbins need to be kept in check by means of an additional brake. You can see them in the picture above. They’re the pieces of felt clamped into place right next to the naughty bobbins. Although the bobbins with the single yarn spin around at an amazing speed, can you imagine that the large bobbins with the pencil roving will take a whole three days of spinning before they’re empty?

Seeing that Roger has a flock of around 110 Romney sheep, it won’t surprise you to hear that Romney longwool is his favourite fibre to spin. It has a nice lustre, it’s strong, and yet soft enough for a jumper; a good all-rounder.

Knowingly and unknowingly I have been knitting with yarns spun up by Diamond Fibres. It turns out that the Wensleydale I used to knit a hat from, as reported during Wovember2012, was spun by Roger.

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Deepest Darkest Romney teamed with my handspun Possibly Romney from the M25 yarn

The picture above shows my Romney and handspun combination jumper I’m working on. Alas, it’s on hold right now as I have a number of commissions to complete before I can return to personal projects.

And you, too, can get your hands on some yarn made with care, showing off all the good qualities of Romney fleece, spun up by a Master Spinner. Prick Your Finger sell his DK weight Romney in deepest darkest brown, and also a beautiful steely grey.

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Post-script added on 18 August 2013: I have been back to Diamond Fibres, and got a few of the finer points clarified. You can read about it here.

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Wool House, a showcase of the use of wool in many different guises at Somerset House, has now come to an end. Wool House was organised by the Campaign for Wool and I got to play a part in it, too. What’s more, my drop-in darning sessions were a great success and the Campaign for Wool added them to their highlights of the exhibition!

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Drop-in darning at Wool House. Photograph © Campaign for Wool and used with their kind permission

As you can see, it was really rather busy – and it was like that all weekend long. In the background you can see two felted wallhangings by Claudy Jongstra. I’d love to see some of her large site-specific installations. Some people knew I was going to be at Wool House, so they brought along holey jumpers and socks, but I also provided swatches to practise on.

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Concentration at Wool House. Photograph © Howard Sullivan, Your Studio and used with his kind permission

I also ran a darning master class. As this was more in-depth, I had to restrict this to six people only, but many people watched over our shoulders. For many, darning seems to be connected to memories of grandmothers or mothers regularly taking up darning mushroom and needle. These stories got shared with other visitors and me – somehow this simple act of repairing, either by doing or by observing, is very emotive.

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Master class in darning. Photograph © Sue Craig and used with her kind permission

We learnt how to do Swiss darning, or duplicate stitching: a good way to reinforce threadbare fabric which hasn’t developed into a hole yet.

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Swiss darning in action. Photograph © Sue Craig and used with her kind permission

And of course, we also wielded darning mushroom and needle. The darning mushroom in particular opened up conversations about mending, as many people have their nan’s or mum’s one, or remember somebody in their family using one frequently. Whilst darning, people start to reflect on repairing garments, what certain items of clothing mean to them, their motivation for repair, and how they get completely absorbed in the act and find it meditative and relaxing. I think this is probably in great contrast to the times when people had the necessity to darn and repair their clothes and it was viewed as a chore.

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Stocking darning, the finer points. Photograph © Sue Craig and used with her kind permission

Of course, I was very happy that darning was so popular, although it did mean I didn’t get a chance to look around as much as I would’ve liked to, or chat to other people showing their skills. Luckily some of my friends took pictures that they have let me use with their kind permission. As the beautifully curated rooms have been discussed at length in other places, I have picked here a very small selection of all the things I would’ve wanted to have learnt more about:

Savile Row tailoring: as I have tried to do some more sewing lately, I’m utterly in awe of all the work that goes into making a suit or a couture gown.

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Pattern blocks. Photograph © Howard Sullivan, Your Studio and used with his kind permission

I may have mentioned before that I have taken up spinning as well. One of the things I want to do soon, is use my handspun yarn for weaving. After all, darning is weaving on a really teeny-tiny scale! I’ll start with a simple home-made frame loom; it’ll be a while yet before I will be able to make something as beautiful as Jason Collingwood can, using a huge loom.

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Jason Collingwood weaving. Photograph © Howard Sullivan, Your Studio and used with his kind permission.

As somebody who really likes hand-stitching buttonholes – yes, really! – I could not finish this post with a perfect example of the art.

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A buttonhole, perfectly stitched by hand. Photograph © Howard Sullivan, Your Studio and used with his kind permission.

With many thanks to Campaign for Wool,  Howard Sullivan of Your Studio and Sue Craig, who runs Knitting the Map, for letting me use their pictures.

One final post-script: you can still sign up for my sock-knitting three-week course; taking place 14, 21 and 28 April. More details here.

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