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Archive for the ‘spinning’ Category

Ethel Mairet (1872-1952) was an exceptional weaver and dyer, who’s influence can still be felt today. She was a member of the small but vigorous crafts community in Ditchling, where she established an influential weaving workshop at Gospels, alongside Eric Gill, Edward Johnston and Douglas Pepler. Mairet was greatly interested in demonstrating and educating, teaching weaving at the Brighton School of Art, exhibiting her work widely, publishing a number of books and articles and producing what she referred to as ‘textile portfolios’ with accompanying pamphlets to support teaching.

She has also been an important teacher to and collaborator with other well-known hand-weavers such as Mary Barker, Peter Collingwood, and Marianne Straub.

Ethel Mairet Weaver and Dyer Sign

The sign for Ethel Mairet’s workshop at Gospels, Ditchling

I’m fascinated by her approach to texture, colour, and fibre, and I had a very enjoyable afternoon with fellow textile appreciators Louise Spong and Jenny Dean, looking at the Mairet collection at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, and seeing some of Mairet’s work up close. Mairet has written a small number of books on weaving and dyeing, and Vegetable Dyes; Being a book of Recipes and other information useful to the Dyer was first published exactly 100 years ago.

Ethel Mairet, Hand-Weaving today; vegetable dyes

My copies of Hand-weaving To-day; Traditions and Changes; and Vegetable Dyes; Being a book of Recipes and other information useful to the Dyer

Talking to natural dye expert Jenny Dean it soon became clear to me that Vegetable Dyes is very much of its time, and a modern-day dyer would perhaps struggle with some of her recipes, and certain mordants used by Mairet, such as chrome, are now no longer in use as they are very poisonous.

Dye Garden at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft

The grounds of the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft contain a dye garden. Jenny is seen inspecting the dyer’s broom

Ethel Mairet Madder Samples

Weave samples using madder-root dyed wool. Wonderful to see these were clearly off-cuts from the sewing room

Ethel Mairet natural colour samples

Mairet also used undyed natural colour wool to great effect

Hand-weaving To-day, on the other hand, shows an acute understanding of hand-weaving and industrial development, and her success at the hand-loom has not, however, prejudiced her against the machine, which can be directed in the service of quality. She was inspired by methods of the French cloth house Rodier, which employed hand-weavers to make highly regarded modern fabrics.

Ethel Mairet Rodier Samples

Samples labelled ‘Rodier’; I’m assuming these were fabric samples from Rodier, to serve as inspiration

Many of Mairet’s fabrics combined different fibre types, natural and dyed yarns, and machine-made and handspun yarns to great effect. On the whole Mairet herself preferred to use simple weaving techniques, and concentrate on colour and combining differenty textured yarns instead, but other weavers in her workshop used more complex weaving techniques to great effect.

Ethel Mairet plaid sample

A typical Ethel Mairet plain weave fabric, combining subtly varying yarn weights, and a certain penchant for combining yellow and grey

Ethel Mairet Textured Sample

Some very bold samples combining colour and texture to great effect. These pieces come from Mairet’s workshop, but are most likely woven by one of her co-workers or students

Ethel Mairet various samples

Fabric scraps showing an exciting combination of fibre types, colour (both natural and dyed) and texture

One thing that really stood by me when I first read Hand-weaving To-day was Mairet’s excitement about synthetic yarns. Although I personally prefer natural fibres, Mairet felt that with developing and producing synthetic fibres ‘…the chief error was the close copying of the natural fibres – and the names ‘artifical silk’, ‘artificial wool’, etc., which suggested to the mind materials of very secondary quality. Instead of creating a quality of its own, a new fabric entirely unknown and unforeseen – a new art of the textile world – so far, all it has done is to copy silk, to copy tweeds, velvets, and other materials. […] Cellophane as used by the great textile artists such as Otti Berger, or Rodier, or some of the Finnish weavers, become textiles of rare beauty, holding their place with the greatest textiles of the world. […] The combination of synthetic materials with natural materials holds great possibilities for the hand-spinner and weaver[.]’ (E Mairet, Hand-weaving To-day, 1938) I was very excited to find some samples showing exactly what she meant:

Ethel Mairet Sample with Cellophane

One example of Mairet’s use of cellophane, giving a subtle glistening quality to the fabric, and, I imagine, it might also impart a light rustling noise when manipulated

Ethel Mairet sample with synthetic yarn

There were no notes with this sample, but the golden weft threads just above the black ones appear to be synthetic

The output of Mairet’s weaving room was not only sold as fabrics, but also made up into clothes and accessories. The weaving room at Gospels served as an informal shop most weekends, and in addition, Mairet sold through some small galleries, and used to have a shop on 68a East Street, Brighton.

Ethel Mairet Silk Scarf

A silk scarf in delicate colours

Ethel Mairet Beret

Scraps from the sewing room were used to make beautiful berets. This particularly fine example shows off the rich colours used in the weaving room

Visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft and seeing their Ethel Mairet collection has allowed me to get a better understanding of her forward-thinking approach to creating textiles, and it remains a constant source of inspiration and motivation for me as I continue to explore and find my way through ‘slow textiles’.

As the Ditchling Museum is only small, there is necessarily not much on display; so if you wish to see the Ethel Mairet collection, then you can find more information here to make an appointment.

If you wish to learn more about Ethel Mairet, then I can highly recommend A Weaver’s Life, Ethel Mairet1872-1952, by Margot Coatts, published by Crafts Study Centre, Bath, 1983.

Note: unless otherwise stated, all pictures are taken at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, with their kind permission.

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In the last twelve months or so I have started to gain an appreciation for Taking Time. Although (hand-) knitting probably isn’t the fastest craft known to man as it is, I have never shied away from projects that take a particularly long time to complete, such as this holy communion shawl.

Shetland Lace Shawl Rose Trellis

A Shetland Lace Shawl in Cobweb weight yarn

However, I’m now more consciously slowing down. As I become more interested in using specific traditional techniques for specific tasks, I also feel an urge to take my time to to do the best job possible.

I think my interest in this started when I took up spinning. Working with wool is a tactile experience I enjoy, and now I’m seeking out opportunities to enhance this experience. Taking time to handle the fibre at the various stages allow me to explore its material qualities.

Of course, knitting in itself allows me that tactile experience by its very nature. But instead of using a skein holder and ball winder, I now prefer to use my knees to hold the skein, and wind a ball by hand. The rhythm of winding, going from left knee to right and back again, feeling the yarn glide through one hand, feeling the ball of yarn grow in the other, I can get to know the yarn I’ll be knitting up later. How smooth is the yarn, how bouncy is the ball? I dream about the project that it will become, contemplate how I can enhance the fibre’s inherent qualities.

Handspun yarn and handwound balls

Handspun yarns and handwound balls

But as a spinner I can create even more opportunities to explore these tactile qualities. I love getting a raw fleece and process it from scratch. Laying out the fleece, sorting it, scouring it, preparing it for spinning; this all requires a lot of handling. Raw fleece feels greasy and at places, dirty, and smells strongly of sheep. It takes me right back to my childhood, visiting my grandparents’ sheep farm. During the scouring and drying the fibre transforms through its contact with water and soap. This process can’t be rushed, and it creates space to think about what this fleece might want to become.

Consciously taking time when performing tasks makes them more meaningful to me. It clears the mind and allows me to contemplate the more esoteric aspects of my work. Preparing and spinning Shetland wool makes me think about the importance of wool in Shetland’s economy and society and particularly how it affected women’s lives (if you are interested in this subject, then Myth And Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland, 1800-2000 by Lynn Abrahams is a good place to start.)

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 02a

Knitted darning samplers in the Fries Museum

When I’m darning, I think not only about when this was a necessity, but also about the amazing darning samplers I have seen at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. Young girls were taught to knit and darn and had to take time to create perfectly executed darning samplers. I also noticed during my visit to the Fries Museum, that the clothes in their collection were rarely repaired to the same high standard. I can only assume that the women couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time on this task, undoubtedly one of many when running a household, big or small.

Things become more personal when I take on a specific darning commission, the most poignant example perhaps being the repair of Bernadette’s jumper.

The Visible Mending Programme - repaired jumper

Bernadette’s jumper visibly mended

Just a normal jumper to most people, even if they recognise the good knitting skills that went into it, this jumper is very valuable indeed to Bernadette. One of the few items made by her mother that she still owed, and a botched attempt to turn it into cushion cover made this a very special mend.

As Bernadette had given me the background story of this jumper, her relationship with her mother, and why she attempted to turn it into a cushion cover, the repair felt very intimate. While preparing the pieces of the jumper for repair I let my mind wander and it allowed me to refine my repair approach. I wanted to show that this was not repaired by the person who originally made this jumper, and I used a variation of the cable stitch pattern to highlight this. Although I had never met her mother, taking my time to perform a beautiful repair, allowed me to contemplate this woman while I picked up stitches she had knitted many years ago; a very intimate act.

Shetland Lace Shawl for my Mother

A Shetland Lace Shawl for my Mother

In summary, giving yourself permission to take time has, I believe, many benefits. There is time for contemplation, exploring material qualities, and re-inforcing the connections between all the things I do. It makes my work a creative, deep and rich experience that I wouldn’t want to miss for all in the world.

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Having lived in the UK for almost fifteen years, I’ve come to understand the importance of Tea. Not the “tea” I was accustomed to drink in The Netherlands: a tea bag is briefly suspended in a glass cup of water gone off the boil, resulting in a light-brown warm liquid. Of course, the tea bag is used to make not one, not two, but three cups of said liquid. Adding milk is only for children under ten. Tea it ain’t! It’s like taking your shoes off and dipping your toe in the sea, and pretending that’s the same as doing a mile-long swim in the sea. Not only that, I’m quite sure it’s only the British who solve any emotional distress with a “cuppa to cheer you up.” Luckily I have seen the error of my way a long time ago, and now much prefer a “builder’s tea” without, however, the regulation two spoons of sugar.

Tea Hat Tea Cosy from handspun wool

Wool is a good way of keeping your tea warm!

We regularly make a pot of tea here at Casa Tomofholland, and in order to keep it hot, I wanted to make a tea cosy. For some reason most tea cosies in the UK seem to be the kind that fits around the pot, with openings for the spout and the handle. Or maybe that’s just something that knitters do to show off their knitting prowess?

Fitted tea cosy in Foula Wool

A tea cosy knitted in Foula wool; my way of showing off the beautiful, natural shades of Foula wool

However, we’ve been collecting Wood’s Ware crockery for a while now, in the Beryl colourway. Wood’s Ware is another English institution: it was the crockery of choice for many canteens in schools, hospitals and other communal spaces. Although it is no longer made, it’s easy to find the pieces secondhand and they’re not very expensive as so many were made over the years. Although of a most unassuming colour and shape, I like the simple lines of the cups and saucers, tea and coffee pots, plates and tureens. I didn’t want to cover up my beloved teapot and hide what I like so much about it.

Wood's Ware England, in Beryl

 

A few pieces of our evergrowing collection of Wood’s Ware in Beryl

So I cast my mind back to when I was very young, and remembered the more usual tea cosies we used to use in The Netherlands (so there must have been a time where the Dutch drank proper Tea after all.) In Dutch they’re called a “theemuts,” which translates as “tea hat.’ And that’s really what they are: a hat for your tea pot, to be removed when you want to pour another brew. And what better material to make it from than wool? A perfect project for using some old handspun yarn; small skeins I had made a long time ago, trying out a few techniques.

Tea Hat with toast, marmalade and Wood's Ware in Beryl

My Tea Hat spotted in its natural habitat: a breakfast table with toast, marmalade (lime jelly marmalade if you must know,) some books to read and a random skein of yarn

The grey is coarse Herdwick: a sturdy fibre with excellent insulating qualities. The creamy white is lustrous Wensleydale: also surprisingly sturdy, but very soft, too. Apart from the appeal of using British rare sheep breed fibres, I was also reminded where the fibres came from when I knitted this up. The Herdwick was a gift from Victoria of Eden Cottage Yarns fame (who apparently has a shed full of fleeces.) The Wensleydale was a gift from my dear friend and woolly comrade Felicity “Felix” Ford. She gave this to me when I became interested in spinning, and she was very enthusiastic about it, in a way only Felix can be. It was very infectious! It comes from Julia Desch’s flock of sheep, and her Wensleydale really is something else.

I also wanted to try out knitting two-colour brioche, and take another opportunity to do some free-form knitting. Apart from taking some rough measurements I didn’t plan anything upfront. It soon became apparent that the very bulky Herwick yarns would not stretch to a whole Tea Hat in brioche stitch, so I ended up using a variety of stitches. Some stocking stitch on one side, some garterstitch with woven in strands at the other. After the pompoms were made, I had quite literally used up all of my yarns, apart from the small scraps I trimmed off after sewing in the ends!

Tea Hat, toast rack, Wood's Ware England in Beryl

The luminosity of the Wensleydale is accentuated by the matte Herdwick

I’m really pleased with this little folly of a Tea Hat. The interplay between bulky and thin yarn, the contrast between the rough Herdwick and slick Wensleydale, the lustre of a creamy longwool against the matte appearance of a fibre most often used for carpet yarn. I’m sure it will provide its warming service for years to come!

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Dear readers, first things first: a happy new year to you! I hope 2015 will be full of many fullfilling spinning, knitting, darning, and other crafty pursuits. I’d like to thank you all for following my blog and leaving me comments; I really appreciate your interest and support.

It’s a time for reflection, so I want to share with you some of my 2014 highlights, and also talk about what I have planned for 2015. I hope you will be as excited about that as I am!

2014

Looking back at my blog posts, I find I have done a lot of things, and I also realise there are a fair few things I haven’t even got round to share with you.

In chronological order here are some of my personal favourites of last year:

Creative knitting

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Wall Hanging

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

Returning from my parents after Christmas 2013, I had found out about Mary Walker Phillips, who wrote, amongst others, Creative knitting. For somebody who usually does a lot of planning and swatching this was a refreshing approach. After knitting this linen swatch I have been taken her philosophy to heart, and it’s given me a sense of freedom and let things happen as they come. As I always need a balance in my practice, I have also started a jumper with the largest amount of planning and swatching I have ever done. Using these different approaches side by side means they inform each other and make me value them both more than I did before.

Playing with wool with Deborah Robson

Wool Types workshop with Deb Robson

Deb Robson in her element: wool and spinning wheels, and a captive audience

2014 was the first time I went to Fibre East as I really, REALLY wanted to attend Deb Robson’s class on wool types. I almost didn’t make it, as I had an awful flu the days before, but I’m glad I went, as half a year later my head is still spinning (pun intended!) with all the possibilities of wool. Deb Robson is most generous and amazing in sharing her knowledge and knows how to get anybody interested in wool. Unfortunately I did not have much time for spinning since, so this is something I would really like to remedy in 2015.

Friesian darning samplers

Fries Museum stoplap darning sampler 4

One of the many darning samplers I saw at the Fries Museum

When the textile conservator of the Fries Museum, Gieneke Arnolli, invited me to view their collection of darning samplers, I couldn’t wait to get on the plane! I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and Gieneke’s hospitality. I learnt so much from it I had to write not one, not two, but three blog posts about it. It has inspired me to learn more about repairing cloth in the coming year.

A visit to Sanquhar

Sanquhar Gloves with Initials

Darned Sanquhar gloves, what a treat!

I have a bit of a “thing” for the traditional gloves from Sanquhar, so I was more than happy to attend the one-day workshop in Sanquhar itself. I gave a presentation on the Sanquhar knitting tradition, met a lot of interesting people, and developed a bit of a “thing” for Scotland – to be fair the first seeds for that were sown a long time ago.

Hacking the KNITSONIK System

KNITSONIK System Swatch Complete

A swatch made according, or against, the KNITSONIK System, depending on your point of view

My comrade in wool and good friend Felicity “Felix” Ford, published a book on how to find inspiration for stranded colourwork patterns in everyday things. She asked me to hack her system and I enjoyed taking on this challenge. As I had helped her out a bit with the book, we have had many conversations on rules and guidelines you can set yourself, and on how strict her instructions in her book should be. I think we both learnt a lot from this, and it has added a new perspective on my quest to be a more creative knitter and trying to let go of rules and planning.

Mending

Of course my year is not complete without some mending and repairing, and I have worked on two very special commissions this year, so they deserve a special mention.

The Visible Mending Programme - repaired jumper

“A Mother’s Work” repair commission for a private client

A Mother’s Work” was a very special repair commission that went much further than simply fixing a jumper. Being asked to repair somebody’s jumper made by her mum who has passed away proved to be a very intimate experience.

Knitting and Crochet Guild Commission in colour

Knitting & Crochet Guild Repair Commission

The other special repair was commissioned by the Knitting & Crochet Guild, and it allowed me to use some traditional techniques, which I have highlighted by using naturally coloured undyed yarns.

And apart from the things I did blog about, I have done some other things that made 2014 a great year for me: I made a jumper with a graphic design on the front built up in single row stripes and other technical details; I have been interviewed a few times by PhD students, magazines, and newspapers, which helped me think about and better understand my own practice; I volunteered at the monthly Brighton Repair Café, which I thoroughly enjoy, so I’m looking forward to many more meet-ups to come (incidentally, the next one is on 31 January 2015.)

2015

I’m much looking forward to 2015, as I have plenty of things I’d like to get done, such as:

Repairs

Late last year I met up with my good friend and repair comrade Bridget Harvey, and we have started a repair dialogue. We want to explore the difference between functional and non-functional repair, using a pair of tatty tea towels.

My visit to the Fries Museum has given me an insight in repairing cloth, and also about the way you can learn to repair, and who traditionally performed repairs of household items and clothes. I want to learn more about repairing and darning cloth, using some early 20th Century Dutch lesson plan books I have.

Spinning and creative knitting

Spinning and creative knitting will meet each other this year, as I have a project in mind that involves first spinning up British rare breed fibres, and free-form-knit them up in some sort of mythological cloak. I want to learn more about the role of clothes in myths, sagas and folklore at the same time.

Finishing things

There are also some things left over from 2014 that need finishing. Most importantly a Shetland fleece spinning project that’s currently on hold; I have started a jumper in brioche stitch (this is the project I mentioned earlier, for which I’m doing a extraordinary amount of swatching and planning.) I’m also knitting a  version of my Tom of da Peathill cardigan in a more roomy version; I have one sleeve left to do!

In summary, 2015 will be a year in which I will be doing a lot of personal, slow craft projects. Some of you may know that I also have a full-time office job, so in order to make sure I get to do the things I want to do to grow as a maker and mender, I have decided to run fewer darning workshops this year. I’m sure I’ll keep myself busy with planned things, and any surprises that might pop up. I hope you are looking forward to a new year as much as I do!

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Last weekend I spent two wonderful days with Deb Robson at her Wool Types workshop at Fibre East. Deb wrote the Fleece & Fiber Source Book together with Carol Eskarius, which is a compendium of many sheep breeds and other animals, and the fibre they grow. It explains for each of the fibres their characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and is illustrated with pictures of the locks, spun yarn, and a knitted or woven sample. She has also contributed to Wovember more than once.

Deb Robson Wool Types Workshop

Deb Robson distributing wool amongst her students

Needless to say, Deb knows a thing or two about wool, and she shared her knowledge freely and liberally during her two-day workshop on wool types. Although I have had a chance to play with wool from a number of different breeds, it was very enlightening to be able to compare and contrast sixteen different wools, ranging from the softest and most luxurious Saxon Merino to a very springy Southdown X Beulah cross, to the coarse hairs from a double-coated Hebridean fleece.

Wool Types Workshop 16 Sheep Breeds

Sixteen breeds: Saxon Merino, Rouge, Lleyn, Lonk, Hampshire Down, Polwarth, Southdown X Beulah, Soft Fell, Corriedale, Romney, Hebridean, Badger Face, North Country Cheviot, Texel, and Ouessant

The students in the workshop ranged from absolute beginner (amazingly, Heather learnt to spin especially to attend this workshop!) to the very experienced. They came from all over the world (from the USA to Finland), and there was also a good mix of wheel and spindle users. I think we all learnt from each other as well as from Deb.

Wool Types workshop with Deb Robson

This one’s for Donna Druchunas, who wanted to see a picture of Deb in England

Apart from learning about wool, I also learnt about spinning, and about spinning wheels. Until Fibre East I haven’t had a chance to try out many different wheels, but as I couldn’t arrange for my own wheel to be there, I got to try a number of loan wheels. It made me appreciate my Timbertops wheel, although it would be nice to have a travel wheel one day. On the other hand, for this class I could’ve just used my spindles.

I now have some new techniques under my belt, too. One is Andean plying, which is a way of managing your singles yarn in order to ply it up. The other one is a quick and easy way to make a textured yarn. Deb called it ‘spinning from a cloud,’ (please note that the linked video is a slightly different method that what I learnt) for which you first pick open some locks until you have light mass of randomly arranged fibres in your lap. When you spin this, you feed in the fibre unevenly, giving you a very textured singles yarn.

So, what did I play with?

wool types class with Deb Robson samples 1

Lonk, Southdown X Beulah, Ouessant, Lleyn, Badger Face, and Romney

The picture above clearly shows how different breeds produce different wool. Although they are all “white” you can see that there are many variations in hue; some look creamy, whilst others are a much cooler shade of white. You can also the difference in lustre, or shine. Some breeds produce a very shiny, lustrous fibre, and others a very dull and chalky fibre. This can be emphasised with the spinning technique chosen. To emphasise lustre, you can prepare the wool by combing it, so that the fibres lie all parallel to each other, and then use a worsted spinning technique, to keep the fibres parallel in the yarn. Carding on the other hand will hide the lustre.

wool types class with Deb Robson samples 2

Ryeland, possibly Ouessant, Texel, Rouge, and Hampshire Down two ways

Deb is also fond of trying out spinning techniques that you wouldn’t immediately think of. For instance, the Ryeland at the top has a very short staple (fibre) length, and is traditionally carded, like my sample. This jumbles up the fibres and plays up a fibre’s crimp (waves in the individual fibres) and elasticity; this is enhanced by spinning it long-draw, where you keep the fibres jumbled up in the resulting yarn. This leads to very warm and lofty yarns. But not Deb, she decided to comb the Ryeland fibres on mini combs and spin it worsted style. The resulting yarn is also very nice, but not something people would immediately think of doing.

wool types class with Deb Robson samples 3

Soft Fell, Lincoln, Corriedate, North Country Cheviot, Hebridean – hair only, Hebridean – wool only, and Finnsheep

Sheep can produce three types of fibre: wool, kemp, and hair. In some sheep breeds the wool and hair are hard to distinguish. Wool is a fibre that naturally has a lot of little waves in it, which is called crimp. The crimp can be organised or unorganised (in other words, show as a regular pattern of waves, or jumbled up). Hair is just what you imagine it might be like: it behaves like human hair, so it’s stiffer and when spun up, it will feel more wiry and be more like twine than yarn. Kemp, on the other hand, are short and brittle fibres. It’s most usually white, but some breeds produce red or black kemp. Kemp doesn’t show dye well, or not at all. Traditional tweed fabrics and yarns use this as a feature as it will give a heathered effect when dyeing the fibres.

The keen observer may have noticed there are no sample skeins of the Polwarth and Saxon Merino fibre samples shown in the second picture. I tried to prepare a little bit of Polwarth, but as it was so hot and clammy that day, the combed top just collapsed into a clumpy mass in my hands before I even had a chance to draft it. I’ll wait for the cooler weather to return before trying thatand the Saxon Merino out again. Both fibres are very fine and quite slippery, and once mastered, will produce luxurious results.

The Sheer Sheep Experience with Michael Churchouse

The Sheer Sheep Experience, with Michael Churchouse, who has around forty different breeds in his flocks!

I met many inspiring people at Fibre East. The tutors were all top-class, and Fibre East have put a lot of effort in to get some tutors over from the USA, for which they deserve a huge thank you. Not only Deb Robson, but also Abby Franquemont (spindle spinning,) Sarah Anderson (fancy art yarns,) and Sara Lamb (spinning and weaving.) Michael Churchouse with his Sheer Sheep Experience was also there, and he puts on a very entertaining and informative show. And there were many others, too.

I already liked spinning, but Fibre East made me realise I like it a lot; and I feel inspired to spin all the wool to make myself a whole outfit – it will take me a long time, but I’m looking forward to the journey, and all the amazing people I will meet, and all the things I will learn along the way.

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One of the reasons I bought a spinning wheel, was to learn more about British rare sheep breeds and their wool and eventually to be able to spin yarns that will emphasise a particular breed’s wool qualities. Always on the look-out for learning opportunities, I jumped at the chance to sign up for Deborah Robson’s Wooltypes workshop at Fibre East this year. Together with Carol Ekarius, Deb Robson wrote the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook; a terrific compendium on a huge amount of different rare sheep breeds, their wool, and how to work with them.

So far, I have only really used a worsted spinning technique. This is suitable for wool that has a longer staple (fibre length), but I expect that at the workshop we will also be working with shorter staple fibres. And for these fibres woollen spinning techniques are more suitable. For worsted spinning you prepare the fibres by combing them in order to get them all lying parallel; worsted spinning techniques aim to keep the fibres aligned – this results in a shiny, drapey yarn. For woollen spinning, however, you prepare the fibres by carding, and using a woollen spinning technique, the fibres end up all higgledy-piggledy in the resulting yarn. This makes the yarn lofty and very warm as it traps more air.

fleece, carders, rolags, and yarn

 

A pair of handcarders, finished yarns, rolags, and unprocessed fleece

So, what better fibre to use for practising making a woollen yarn, than the Shetland fleeces I brought back from Shetland Wool Week last year? As I only have one grey fleece (this particular shade of grey fleece is called Shaela in the Shetland dialect) and half a black fleece I think I have just about enough for a jumper. So how to combine the two colours in one garment? Perhaps the most obvious choise would be some stranded colourwork, however, this will take up more yarn than something knitted with a single yarn in each row. I didn’t fancy stripes either, but then inspiration struck, and I came up with a cunning blending plan. I’ll be making a few skeins each in pure shaela and in pure black, but for the remainder I’ll blend the shaela with the black on the handcarders; you can see the resulting rolags (the fibre tubes) in the picture above, and I’ll spin these up into some more skeins. But that’s not all! To blur the transition from shaela to black even more, I will ply a blended single (the single strand that makes up a, in this case, 2-ply knitting yarn) with a shaela single, and also a blended single with a black single to make some marled yarns. In the picture above you can see a skein of pure shaela on the left, and on the right a marled yarn made from a shaela single and a blended single.

JamesNorburyPortrait

James Norbury. Will I end up looking like this when I get older?

James Norbury Knitting Books

A few of my Norbury books: Traditional Knitting Patterns, Odham’s Encyclopaedia of Knitting, and Knit with Norbury

So what does James Norbury have to do with all this? Norbury (1904-1972) was, according to Richard Rutt, the “strongest single influence on British knitting during the 25 years after the Second World War.” I have a few of his knitting books, and reading through the patterns, it’s always the superb shaping that strikes me and that is exactly what I’m after. Handspun woollen spun yarn is a bit lumpy-bumpy by nature, but seeing that this is my first attempt at making enough yarn for a big project, and because I don’t have a lot of experience in spinning woollen, my yarn will be even more lumpy-bumpy and probably look very homespun, in every meaning of the word. So to make up for that I want to make a jumper using meticulous shaping and really push myself with that challenge. I’ll be employing the very best knitting techniques I know, knit all the pieces flat, and use good shaping. An example of this is the sleeve caps that Norbury uses in his patterns. There are three progressive rates of decreases, so that the sleeve caps are very rounded, just like they would be for a sewing pattern. I did once knit a jumper like this, which I don’t often wear for other reasons, but the shoulder on it fits me like no other.

James Norbury Polo Neck jumper

A polo-neck jumper designed by James Norbury; look at the shoulder shaping!

I will be documenting progress here on my blog, but as I do like to switch between projects, I think it will take some time before this jumper will actually be on my shoulder, but that’s okay. I like making things that take forever, and now that I’ve added spinning in the mix, you can make that forever and a day.

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Around Wovember 2012 ago I was introduced to spinning by my comrade in wool Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford. I started off with a drop spindle, and soon got caught by the spinning bug. It was not long before I started dreaming about spinning wheels. As is my nature, I started reading up on them, and I soon realised that if I wanted a decent wheel I could afford, I would be best off getting a second-hand wheel from a good make.

And when it comes to good wheels, it would be hard to beat a Timbertops. This make just kept popping up in on-line forums, and I decided I would hold out until I would find one for sale. Timbertops Wheels were originally made to order by husband-and-wife team James and Anne Williamson to exacting standards. Last summer my patience was rewarded. The East Sussex Guild of Spinners, Weavers & Dyers had an original Timbertops Chair Wheel for sale. This model of spinning wheel was supposedly originally made by using the frame of an old chair, and appears to be more common in the USA than in the UK. As you can imagine, the footprint of this wheel is rather small, which was perfect for my one-bedroom flat.

So it was with much excitement I went on a road trip with my friend Sue to collect the wheel in The Garden of England (as the county of Kent is known in the UK.) Kent didn’t disappoint, and we kept finding ourselves travelling down smaller and smaller roads, in increasingly beautiful and bucolic surroundings. Eileen, the seller of the wheel, had given us very good directions, but just in case we miss it, she put up a sign for us at the last turn.

Signage to collect Timbertops Spinning wheel

A sign pointing towards my spinning wheel!

Over a cup of tea, Eileen told us the history of the wheel. She purchased the wheel from Jim Williamson at Timbertops about 25 years ago when she and her husband moved to the country and purchased a few sheep to keep the grass in the paddock down.  It was one of the first chair wheels that he made and he fitted a maiden on the right hand side so that left or right handed people could use it by swapping the flyer assembly over.  The wheel was in good condition but Eileen hadn’t used it for about 10 years,  as she has developed arthritis nearly everywhere. Consequently her hands and back play up very badly if she tried to sit and spin. Although Eileen can no longer spin, her hands are not idle, and she showed us some beautiful knitting and quilting pieces she was working on.

Timbertops Spinning Wheel left mother-of-all

A close-up of the left-side mother-of-all, you can also see the leather drive-band of the accelerator. The little handle sticking out just in front of the wheel is in fact the handle of the orifice hook placed in its own little home

The chair wheel is a spinning wheel with a double-treadle, and it has not one, but two fly wheels placed one above the other. the treadles drive the lower wheel, which in turn accelerates the upper wheel by means of a leather drive-band. The upper wheel in turn drives both the flyer and bobbin, as it also has a double-drive. In addition, it has two mother-of-alls, one on the left and one on the right. This means you can have the flyer assembly on either side of the wheel, and as I’m left-handed I prefer it on the right-hand side. This wheel doesn’t do things in halves!

The wheel has been turned from oak, and the attention to detail is superb. Everything is in proportion, and I particularly like that the orifice hook has its own little home next to the upright of the upper wheel. I was very lucky to also get a skein ‘unwinder’ (for want of a better word), a lazy kate, and twelve bobbins, all made by Jim Williamson.

Timbertops Chair Wheel flyer assembly

The right mother-of-all, with the flyer assembly.

As the wheel was missing one maiden (one of a pair of small upright ‘sticks’ with leather bearings that holds the flyer-and-bobbin assembly), I contacted Joan Jones from Woodland Turnery. Joan and her husband Clive took over the Timbertops business when Jim and Ann Williamson wanted to retire, and I think they are doing a great job of it, too. You can read more about Woodland Turnery on the Wovember blog here.

Timbertops Chair Wheel, Skein holder and Lazy Kate

Not only did I get the wheel, but also a skein ‘unwinder’ and a lazy kate. And twelve bobbins

The chair wheel with its accelerator mechanism is ideal for production spinning, but the flipside is that it’s not really a beginners wheel. Luckily there’s a large whorl as well as the standard one, which means I can slow the wheel right down. I’m taking my time learning to spin on this wheel; every time I sit down with it, I not only appreciate it as a spinning tool, but also the workmanship required to make it, the beautiful oak it was made from, and all the spinning that has gone on before I had it.

When I emailed Eileen to thank her for the wheel, she replied saying that “…I did have many happy hours spinning and I [was] most anxious for the wheel to find a good home with someone who would appreciate it.” Knowing how much this wheel meant to Eileen, I hope I will do her proud, and I’m looking forward to spending many happy hours with it.

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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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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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