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Archive for April, 2013

Late last autumn I bought a jumper from a charity shop. It was a nice enough woollen jumper. But after wearing it a few times, I wasn’t feeling the love anymore. As I was keen to explore a technique I tried out on a cardigan last year, I indulged in ten skeins of Appleton’s crewel wool:

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Ten shades of Appleton’s crewel wool, and a boring jumper

It was time to say Bye Bye Boring Jumper, and Hello Amazing Jumper:

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Bye Bye Boring Jumper, Hello Amazing Jumper!

In a way this is a darning sampler gone slightly out of hand. The bottom half consists of blocks of crewel wool woven in and out of the stitches of the knit fabric:

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Damask darning on knitted fabric

As you can see, there’s plenty of different patterns to make, and yet I think I’ll run out of jumper before running out of ideas! In some patterns I pick up a single “leg” of a knit stitch, in others I pick up a whole stitch, or even more. Some of these patterns are based on existing patterns from other sources. There are quite a number of herringbone variations, a Prince of Wales Sanquhar tweed pattern, and a simple houndstooth, too.

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The pattern in the middle is based on the Prince of Wales Sanquhar pattern

Unsurprisingly, weaving in and out of the fabric mutes the colours of the crewel wool when seen from a distance. And these colours do deserve to be seen in all their glory:

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Appleton Bros. Ltd. London, 100% Wool, made in England Crewel Wool

So I have just started adding a row of what I have called “Finnish” darning in the past, by want of a better word. This really shows off the colours:

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As an aside, when I was browsing through a stumpwork book, it turns out that in this needle lace tradition it is called Corded Single Brussels Stitch, but, as a few people have pointed out, it also appears to be a variation of nålbinding. Whichever name you use for this stitch, I just love the way it looks.

It might take a little while yet to finish the Hello Amazing Jumper, but I will be taking it to my one-day darning workshop to share these techniques at Hope & Elvis on Saturday, 4 May (please note, this is now fully booked.) I will also run the same workshop in Glasgow, on Saturday, 18 May at The Stitchery Studio – for which there are still a few places available.

Last but not least, I’ll be running my usual darning class at Super+Super HQ on Friday evening, 10 May.

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Who knew that spinning is so addictive? Since I last wrote about spinning yarn, I have managed to do a great deal more:

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A selection of hand-spun yarns, all from rare British breeds

As you will find out, I have learnt a lot whilst spinning up these yarns, not least, that I really enjoy spinning and preparing my own fibres. So, let me take you through my latest skeins:

First up, a selection of Herwick yarns. Herwick is a very hardy sheep breed, and is native to the Lake District. They have a very distinctive face, and their woolly coat is perfect for the rainy and windy conditions of their natural home. It contains a lot of kemp (white brittle fibres) and hair (dark smooth fibres) as well as wool fibres. The large amount of kemp and hair means rain runs off their coats very easily. It also means, that resulting yarns can be very scratchy and are usually used for hardwearing carpets. This fibre was generously gifted to me by Vicky from Eden Cottage Yarns and she got the fleece from a Herdwick shepherd in the Lake District.

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Herdwick in all its glory! From left to right: woollen 2ply, felted woollen single, worsted 2ply

However, if you first comb the fibres, it is quite easy to separate most of the wool from the kemp and hair. The combing waste can then be carded. This means you can create some very different yarns, all from the same sheep. It’s amazing! You can see this in the picture above: on the right, a yarn made from the combed top, worsted spun, then plied. As I had a lot of combing waste, I could try out some different things. The skeins on the left and in the middle were both spun from carded fibre, and I made my first attempt at longdraw drafting, to create a woollen yarn. Admittedly, this is easier done on a spinning wheel, but it can be done with a spindle, and I kept the beginners technique of “park-and-draft” in mind for this, which is one way of achieving this. For the longdraw, I built up a lot of twist in the leader, then parked the spindle between my feet and slowly let the twist escape between my drafting fingers and run up into the rolag. Granted, this is not something to do for a long period of time, as it’s not a very ergonomical method. Then I finished the woollen singles in different ways. The skein on the left is a standard 2ply, the skein in the middle was felted by agitating the skein in hot soapy water and shocking it in a cold bath, followed by some wacking against the rim of our bath tub.

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Mixing breeds: top-to-bottom shows Herdwick 2ply, Herdwick plied with Lincoln, Lincoln 2ply

Another thing I tried was plying a fat woollen Herdwick single, with another classic British sheep breed: Lincoln. Lincoln is a typical longwool sheep, with lots of lustre. Longwools often don’t have any hair or kemp mixed in at all. Such a contrast to the Herdwick! I found the Lincoln quite a challenge to spin, as its staple length is quite fenomenal!

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Lincoln fibres lashed onto my wool combs

Not only does it show some resistance to being twisted, the staple length was very long, and my spindle didn’t allow me a lot of time to draft, before I had to set it in motion again. Also, the plying was a challenge, and the end result in the skein above is an unintentional bouclé. A second skein turned out better, and it shows off the lustrous quality of the Lincoln fibres:

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Shiny Lincoln yarn

But this is not the only longwool I played with. I also still had rather a lot of Wensleydale!

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Wensleydale longwool in natural colours.

I tried out quite a few things here, and this time, I struggled with the commercial preparation, as it is very slippy, and again, my spindle worked against me. This didn’t stop me from trying an intentional bouclé, made by plying up a S-spun and a Z-spun single. You can see it in the white skein, and in the grey skein on the left. I’m not so keen on how it came out, but I think there is still lots to be learnt about the amount of twist I put in both singles and the plied yarn. To be revisited in the future. The grey skein on the right, however, I really love. It’s a cabled 4ply. My singles were Z-spun, then I created two 2ply yarns with an S-twist, and these got plied together with another Z-twist. Again, there is still lots of improvements to be made on the amount of twist at the various stages.

After struggling with all the longwool and its slippery nature, I had to put aside the dark-brown Wensleydale as I wasn’t quite sure on how to improve. And I’m glad I did, as a few weeks ago Cecilia Hewitt, her husband Graham, Felix, Prick Your Finger‘s Rachael and yours truly all met up and we had a great time spinning and chatting and drinking tea.

Cecilia explained a lot of things to me about spinning, and when working through my Wensleydale, I learnt about pre-drafting compacted fibres, checking the amount of twist you’re putting in, and last but not least, how a spindle that spins longer could help me deal with those long, slippery Wensleydale fibres! I’m very grateful for the bottom whorl spindle she gifted to me, as I really enjoyed spinning with it.

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Wensleydale lace-weight yarns. Left: plied from a centre-pull ball, right: plied from two separate balls

As you can see, I managed to get some really nice lace-weight yarns. I tried two different methods of managing the two singles for plying up. I tried using a centre-pull ball, neatly wound up on a nostepinne. I didn’t enjoy the process of plying from this and you can see that in the left skein: it’s a bit hard and wiry. In fact I got so frustrated I just had to stop and wind the two ends of the centre-pull ball into two separate balls. Lo’ and behold, the skein on the right looks much more relaxed and happy and you can feel that difference, too.

Meanwhile I have combed the left-overs from the Lincoln, and carded some Shetland fleece, so I will soon have more spinning to share.

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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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