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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!

Dear readers, Wovember 2013 has arrived! Another round of Woolly Wonders to be shared with the world. Like last year, I will be working hard, together with Kate Davies and Felicity Ford, to celebrate wool in all its myriad aspects. This means I will be a bit quiet on my own blog. You can join in with the fun over at WOVEMBER!

That said, I’m planning to track my WAL progress here. What is WAL? A WAL is a Wool-Along, where we invite Wovember blog readers to join in on a woolly project of your own choice, for the month of Wovember. More details on the Wovember blog.

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I’m going to work on a new pair of woollen trousers, using a herringbone tweed I bought at the Jamieson’s of Shetland mill in Sandness, my first ever machine-knit cardigan, also in Shetland wool, and last but not least, I’m already working on a Fair Isle cardigan in Foula Wool. Come join us in a woolly project. What will you be working on?

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.

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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.

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?

Public Needlework

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.

Aleatoric Rhythm

Shetland Wool Week is only a month away, and that can only mean one thing: Felicity Ford and I are working hard on our Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches. We’ve created a number of rules which tell us how to roll dice and select pattern and colour combinations depending on the outcome, based on John Cage’s composition Apartment House 1776. Since knitting my first swatch, we’ve gone through some iterations of the rules, and after talking about my knitting experience, I feel it’s now time to talk about another part of our Aleatoric Fair Isle project.

In honour of our inspiration, the John Cage composition, Felicity and I have been recording notes about the sounds we hear whilst working on the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches:

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 1 – close-up

Sound recording: listening to Pearl and the Beard’s album Killing The Darlings; faint sounds from the other room where my partner is watching Coronation Street; creaky noises from the wooden table which shakes as I write; the clock on the dresser ticking.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 2 – close-up (apologies, it’s upside-down)

Sound recording: the clock on the dresser ticking; traffic driving by; TV programme noises from the other room.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 3 – close-up

Sound recording: various music pieces drifting past on BBC Radio 3; the clock on the dresser ticking; the washing machine going into a spin cycle; traffic driving by.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 4 – close-up

Sound recording: knitting in the office during lunch time: listening to Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse on my iPod; clacking keyboards; office chatter. On another occasion: listening to BBC Radio 3; traffic going by; washing machine.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 5 – close-up

Sound recording: whilst knitting on the train, train announcements, someone munching on crisps and the slight slurp of licking fingers; on the iPod listening to David Bowie’s album Station to Station.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 6 – close-up

Sound recordings: the clock on the dresser ticking; BBC Radio 3 music drifting in and out of my ears.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 7 – close-up

Sound recordings: knitting at home, listening to a CD with music composed by Giacinto Scelsi and Hans Zender; occasionally noticed the traffic going by; the startled sound of me accidentally hitting the worklamp.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 8 – close-up

Sound recordings: knitting on the train, listening to Stockhausen’s Stimmung on my iPod; noises from the train filter through, as does the occasional announcement.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 9 – close-up

Sound recordings: traffic passing by; the clock on the dresser ticking; snippets of YouTube clips coming through from the other room.

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Aleatoric Fair Swatch Number 10 – close-up

Sound recordings: listening to BBC Radio 3, a live broadcast from the Proms where they were playing Shostakovich’s 11th symphony; traffic going by, a bus’s squeaking brakes; as we live close to the train station in a basement flat, I can hear the thunder of a train pulling in as it travels through the ground; the clock on the dresser ticking.

I find a lot of rhythm in Fair Isle knitting: a pattern is built up by repeating its elements, patterns and colours repeat throughout a garment. In the case of Aleatoric Fair Isle, these repeats are sometimes syncopic: the pattern repeats and the colour repeats are not always synchronised, for example, see swatches 2, 8 and 9 above. And so it is with the sounds I’ve recorded so far. There are many recurring sounds, but not always at the same time; if I hear the clock on the dresser ticking, I might be casting on, charting, knitting, or tying knots in the cut steek. In contrast to the aleatoric experience, where I roll the dice to make a choice, many of the sounds I have recorded are completely out of my control. Yes, I consciously choose to listen to CDs and radio, which gives me a varying level of control of what I hear, but, as you have seen, there are always other sounds to hear, too.

And so it is with the Aleatoric Fair Isle: using 21 shades of all the beautiful Jamieson and Smith colours as selected by Felicity, colours and patterns play with each other in unexpected ways. We are looking forward to presenting our findings at Shetland Wool Week 2013. Our talk “Interesting Yarns and Aleatoric Fair Isle” is on Thursday, 10 October, 17:30-19:30 at the Shetland Museum and Archives.

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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