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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver Henry, Jamieson & Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Foula Cardigan in progress

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

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Shetland wool cushion, embroidered with Jamieson & Smith Heritage yarns

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

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

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

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

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Patches of square filling stitches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Diamond Fibres Mill at Diamond Farm

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

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Roger tweaking the spinner

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

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

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The old barn where Roger stores and sorts his fleece

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the beams and rafters of the old barn

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

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

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

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Sue and Gill are picking wool to feed into the carder

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

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

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Roger explaining the finer points of combing

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

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the sliver feed seen through the opened hatch of the comber

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

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the top comb

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

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the machine that makes pencil roving from combed top

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

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Bobbins with pencil rovings are drafted by the rollers.

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

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Bobbins and flyers threaded up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goodbye 2012

Some of my personal highlights for 2012, a year in which I saw my making and mending practice bloom, are almost too many to count. I’m thankful for all the people that believe in me, with a special mention (in alphabetical order) to Susan Crawford, Felicity Ford, Louize Harries, Rachael Matthews, and Linda Newington; and last but not least, all my blog readers. So, without further ado, here are some of my highlights:

Commissions:

THAT Green Cardigan, was a commission that I really enjoyed doing, contrasting luxurious soft dyed cashmere with sturdy, natural Jacob wool.

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Invisible Mend: this commission was a learning curve for me, and rather scary: an invisible mend of a beautiful 1950s (?) Aquascutum woollen coat:

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Mending:

I started teaching regular Darning Workshops in Brighton at Super+Super HQ (incidentally, the next one is on Friday, 1 February 2013). I have also been roaming the country for one-off workshops. One that I particularly enjoyed took place at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead.

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I also started taking my darning to a whole new level: meta-darning Sanquhar Socks.

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My favourite Visible Mend of 2012, however, must be my shoes!

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I felt honoured when I was asked to be Mender in Residence at the MendRS Symposium. I met so many amazing people and I got to talk about mending in a barn, what’s not to like?

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Knitting:

In 2012 I also released my very first knitting pattern: A Sanquhar-inspired Pencil Case.

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I presented at In the Loop 3. Incredible that it is possible to talk about knitting for three days, my head was spinning for days afterwards. Alas, I didn’t take any pictures, as I was completely immersed in a different world.

Although I’m no speed knitter, I did manage to churn out a lace stole sample knit for the cover of Susan Crawford’s Coronation Knits in 3.5 days.

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Coronation Knits Cover © Susan Crawford and used with her kind permission

Wool:

For the woolheads amongst us, November was transformed into Wovember. A month-long turbo-celebration of all things wool. This was the first year I helped out, and I curated a series of posts called Wovember Words. It also spurred me on to start sewing and I made myself a pair of Woollen Trousers.

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2012 was a great year, and I hope to continue this in 2013.

Hello 2013

Mending:

One of the things I really enjoy doing, is running my darning workshops. So I will continue my regular workshops at Super+SuperHQ, although somewhat less frequently. Also, I will be doing more one-off workshops. You can stay up-to-date by following me on facebook and, of course, my blog.

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As I learn more about darning, I realise there are more darning techniques to be explored then just the regular Swiss darn and stocking darn; a new world is waiting for me.

Knitting:

One reason for doing less darning workshops, is because I want to start offering knitting classes at Super+Super HQ. I’m working on a Sock-Knitting Workshop – details to be announced in a few weeks!

Sanquhar Socks

Art:

At long last, the Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches will see its first outing. Head over to Prick Your Finger in February (Private View on 15 February, Tom’s Curious Stitches short workshops on 16 February).

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Once the Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches Show has finished, I will start working on Bursiforms: an exploration of seamless containers.

New Skills:

Last but not least, in my quest of making my own things, I will start developing my sewing skills. With knitting, I know now how to make garments that fit me, without using commercially available patterns and I want to be able to do the same for sewing. In 2013 I would like to learn how to draft my own trouser and shirt patterns.

And to take the ‘making my own things’ a step further, I have started spinning. I’m taking this very slowly, using a drop spindle to get familiar with drafting fibre and everything that comes with it. Having done a little bit of fibre preparation, I’m amazed at how different wool is when you use it from scratch. It highlights how processed commercial knitting yarn is in order for the mechanical spinning process to work smoothly.

Here’s to a new year; I’m curious to see how all this will develop over the course of the next twelve months. I hope you have plenty of ideas, too!

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When I joined Team Wovember, I was introduced to the Wovember readers in a Q&A post, in which I mentioned that the only thing lacking in my wardrobe, was a pair of woollen trousers. I curated all the Wovember Words, and as this took up more time than anticipated – there were so many interesting quotes, I posted one every day – I never got round to the trousers. Or, to be more precise, I never got round to writing about them. As I did make myself a pair, shown here in a completely natural pose:

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Woollen Outfit: Woollen Socks, Woollen Trousers, Woollen Jacket, Woollen Jumper, Woollen Gloves, Woollen Hat – I left my Woollen Scarf at home, as quite frankly, it was rather hot!

The gloves and the hat will get their own separate posts in due course, as today I want to tell you all about my trousers. For a long time now, I  wanted to make myself a pair of trousers, and indeed, two winters ago, I bought some lovely charcoal woollen fabric from Dïtto. I bought some calico. I bought a pattern. I bought a zip and buttons and thread. And I traced the pattern in one size too small. And I made a toile from the calico. And I found out I my mistake. I traced again;  I made a second toile. And I found it had the right size, but had an ugly fit.

And that’s when I gave up.

But, the fabric always looked at me reproachfully every time I opened the drawer in which I had hidden it from sight, so WOVEMBER2012 seemed to be the right time to try again. I was lucky that in the meantime I had made friends with Zoe, who knows a thing or two about sewing, and we agreed on a skill-swap: I would teach her how to darn, she would teach me about sewing. She gave me some tips on altering the pattern and this time, the toile fitted very well, and confidently I took my shears to the woollen fabric:

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As, however, I’m not a confident sewer, and my Singer treadle sewing machine doesn’t have any seam guides on the cover plate, I basted every single seam before taking it to the sewing machine. It meant that I could pay attention to the needle, rather than the side of the seam, and I didn’t have to worry about navigating over pins: the fabric is quite heavy, so a pin, even if inserted perpendicular to the stitch line, was a slight distraction. It may come as no surprise to you, that I tried to make these trousers to the best of my abilities I currently have.

So, let me take you through my trousers, so to speak!

I hand-picked the fly and zipper for two reasons: 1) I just really love the look of it; 2) I do know how to wield a needle and thread, but I still struggle a bit with making a nicely curved stitch line.

WOV12TFly

I’m a big fan of tailored button-holes, and I once spent an afternoon perfecting my button-hole stitch, so I finally got to use it on a garment, even if my Singer has a buttonhole attachment that famously makes the most gorgeous buttonholes in the whole wide world. For a sewing machine. The vintage button was sewn on with a “woven shank”, which means that you go around and through the threads of the shank in a figure-of-eight:

WOV12TButton

I’m particularly proud of my welted pockets. I approached them very carefully, spent a lot of time pressing and basting, because a heavy woollen fabric really needs to be put into place with a lot of pressing, making fiddly folding of strips of fabric a bit of a challenge:

WOV12TPocket

The cuffs also have a special finish. There used to be a time that I thought that spending £250 or more on a pair of designer trousers, was money well spent (oh how I have changed), and when you buy these kind of trousers, their cuffs haven’t been finished yet, so that they can be made to measure. One shop I used to frequent, used a seamstress who always put this sturdy ribbon in. It protects the cuff from fraying, and it also made the trousers fall very nicely over your shoes – grosgrain ribbon is the nearest I could find, although I remember the ribbon in those expensive trousers to be a bit sturdier. If anybody knows what this is called in English, I would love to hear from you. In Dutch, they are called a ‘stootband’ which roughly translates into bumper.

WOV12TStootband

There is one drawback on using my Singer treadle machine. It’s a straight-stitch-only machine. I do have the zigzag attachment (it attaches in a similar fashion as the buttonholer, but instead it makes the fabric zigzag under the needle) and every time I try this out, I have less than satisfactory results. So I blanket stitched all seams by hand. I also sewed down the waistband by hand, as I wanted a very neat finish. Last but not least, I read somewhere (I can’t remember the source), that back-stitching the centre seam makes for a very strong seam, which also has a little bit of give. Which is good, as I wear these trousers on my bicycle, too, so I also back-stitched the centre seam.

WOV12TFlyOpen

I have been told by sewers that all that hand-finishing would completely put them off. But I feel differently about this: apart from actually enjoying handstitching, I’m not put off by something taking its time. I’m a handknitter, and I’m used to it. Yes, it did add an additional day before these trousers were ready, but I enjoy getting into the rhythm. I put some music on and soon I’m completely absorbed by the task at hand, making stitch after stitch, feeling at one with the object I’m making.

The woollen trousers are already a faithful addition to my wardrobe. They are comfortable, fit very well, and look rather smart. Although I chose the fabric two winters ago, having helped out with Wovember makes me even more happy that I used wool – and those of you who have followed Wovember know that there are plenty of reasons to use wool for your clothes: it’s natural, bio-degradable, hygroscopic, flame-resistant, breathable, warm, sustainable, versatile. But, ultimately, I’m just happy that all this validates what I already know: the look and feel of wool is unsurpassed.

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me posing in my high wool-content outfit on Brighton beach.

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My Sanquhar socks.

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As you all know, I’m currently having a lot of fun over at WOVEMBER2012, celebrating wool for what it is. I’m curating the Wovember Words posts – woollen elevenses, if you like. Although WOVEMBER takes up a lot of time, I have found some time to make things with wool. I’m very pleased with all of them, and they will each get a separate in-depth post once WOVEMBER has finished. But as I’m too excited about each of them, I want to share some pictures with you:

First up, I made some Sanquhar gloves in the Prince of Wales pattern:

 

Of course, my name is knitted in the cuff:

Secondly, I finally managed to sew a pair of trousers! I bought the fabric two winters ago, made two (yes, TWO) toiles, and then wasn’t happy with the fit and didn’t know how to change it. But with a new pattern, and some encouragement from Zoe, I made this pair of trousers, which are perhaps more classic than fashionable in shape. Here some close-ups, as I will reveal the whole pair over at WOVEMBER later. A hand-picked fly with vintage button:

 

Welted back-pockets:

 

 

Last, but not least I’m finishing of this self-lined beany in the most amazing Wensleydale Longwool yarn:

 

The patterns are typically more often used on ganseys:

 

 

Come on over at WOVEMBER, there’s even a competition going on where you can win all sorts of prizes by sending in a woolly picture!

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On Wednesday  I made my way to the Riflemaker Gallery in London, which hosted a panel discussion on contemporary craft, as part of the Women to Watch exhibiton. Rachael Matthews from Prick Your Finger was selected to represent the UK and over the last few weeks, she has made the Shamanic Bed for Creatives:

I don’t even know where to start ‘unravelling’ this Shamanic bed, which is full of symbolism, drawn from many different sources, ranging from the universal to the personal. Rachael is a woman of many skills and this shows in the Shamanic bed. The bedspread treats hand-knitting, crochet, machine-knitting and darning as equal crafts. The bed-frame is made from discarded wood and shows inlaid work and beautiful joinery:

As with many things that Rachael makes, important items and symbols get their own custom-made shelves or storage space. If you have ever visited Prick Your Finger in Bethnal Green, you will know exactly what I mean. Some of these find their place on the back of the head-board:

This means that the bed requires, or rather, demands, a prominent place in the middle of the room and thus symbolises the importance of craft and making in Rachael’s live. It cannot be shoved into a corner of a room and this was alluded to during the panel discussion:

In a very packed room, Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at V&A and Contemporary Craft Curator (far right), led the discussion between panellists Sandy Black, author, designer, knitter and professor at London College of Fashion (far left); John-Paul Flintoff, journalist, author and nettle pants maker (middle left); and Rachael Matthews (middle right) herself. Audience participation was welcomed and encouraged.

We tried to find an answer to the question ‘Why must we lead this creative life?’ and it won’t come as a surprise there is no one answer. It is perhaps easy to misread this question as ‘Why do I make what I make?’ or ‘What do I like about making?’ and indeed the discussion sometimes wandered off in this direction. For instance, John-Paul felt compelled to start making his own clothes and books because he’s worried about consumerism and the environment and this seemed to be a natural way of dealing and investigating these issues. He also said that sometimes we need permission from someone else to do something we want to do. Something that Sandy said resonated with me: by making something yourself, you start an appreciation of made things. For example, before making his own shirts and visiting a tailor on Savile Row, John-Paul didn’t appreciate the skills involved in making suits and why these tailored garments are so expensive.

But whenever we got back on track I think most of us agreed that if you are creative, you just cannot help it. Rachael feels a compulsion to make things and indeed, we all recognised the example of just having to do something with your hands: if she can’t knit, she’ll draw. If she can’t draw, she’ll do some woodwork. If she can’t do some woodwork, she’ll knit. Making is a journey. You start somewhere, but you’re not quite sure where it’s going, or where it will end.

Some of the themes we discussed felt very topical and were touched upon at MendRS and In the Loop 3, as well: sustainability, rebellion against mass production, craft skills dissemination and personal well-being. They also pop up in the practice of some of the people in the audience. For instance, Dr. Felicity Ford turned up in a 100% woollen outfit, with almost all items made by herself or by other skilled crafts people:

Making her own clothes from wool, a sustainable material and mostly sourced from independent spinners and weavers, and made from rare British breeds, she makes a strong point against mass produced, throwaway fashion. John-Paul was wearing a shirt he made himself and he adorned it with some badges, he had also made himself:

In a world where it’s becoming difficult to feel part of a tradition, something I think helps you feel grounded, I have noticed people have started exploring traditions (this also came up in the panel discussion) and are trying to shape their own traditions and symbols*. These badges, showing that John-Paul feels English, is happily married, has a lovely daughter, and has published books (and he makes them, too, from paper that would otherwise go to waste), are the first of a larger series he’s making, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he will develop his own tradition.  Tradition is linked with myths, stories and symbols, and this brings us neatly back to Rachael’s Shamanic Bed for Creatives.

Why do you lead a creative life? Is it a compulsion or a necessity? Do you enjoy being creative and what are the downfalls?

*) Dr Felicity Ford discusses developing her own textile tradition as a response to visiting Estonia; Helen Whitham explores creating a new, personal tradition in the textile-tradition rich Shetland Isles; and indeed, my own interest in traditional knitwear is a starting point on this journey.

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