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Archive for October, 2013

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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