Sunday, 5 December 2010

Not So Bonkers About Conkers

There was recently a Ravelry thread regarding the substantial walnut tree outside the Knit studio shop in central Newcastle. One customer collected the nut husks and used them to dye a skein of wool a wonderful series of rich browns. This got me thinking about dyeing with other nut husks that are more commonly available in the UK compared to walnut. One obvious choice was the spiky husk that occurs around conkers. Fortunately although it was near the end of autumn a number of husks could still be found around so I was able to collect some for a test dye.

I originally tried extracting from 240g of husks. After smashing up they were simmered for about 2 hours than left overnight before another 30min simmer. The resulting dye liquid was a rather disappointing pale brown.

Undaunted I then carried out a test dye using 4x15g alum mordanted and 4x15g unmordanted Shetland fibre. After a couple of hours simmering the results were somewhat underwhelming so I left to soak overnight.

Sadly there seemed little difference the following day so I split the dye solution and tried alkali, copper and iron modifiers. After rinsing and drying the results were:

(left-unmordnted, right-mordanted, top-bottom, no modifier, alkali, copper, iron)

The results are that most samples are an unremarkable tan with slightly stronger colours on the alum-mordanted fibre. Only iron significantly altered the colour giving a pale grey suggesting that the brown was down to tannin.

Given the effort to recover this colour I have to say that these husks weren’t worth the effort, given the stronger tannins you can get from oak galls and bramble which are also available throughout the year.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Technicolour Dreamcoats

On Sunday it was time for a trip out to visit Jean Bennett who specialises in Shetlands. We had been hoping to see her earlier in the year but unfortunately whenever she was available we were not and vice-versa. Our timing was unfortunate as despite a good forecast there was torrential rain in Newcastle and it still pretty soggy up in Northumberland.

Jean has a smallish farm and breeds with one eye on producing quality fleeces. She is an enthusiastic spinner and weaver and so on arrival we had a lively discussion about all things woolly, including breeding, processing and local wool initiatives, over cups of tea and biscuits. Then it was on to see her sheep, which she describes as being a ‘flock of many colours’ This was certainly evident in the first field we visited that contained ewes and lambs of multiple colours, black, dark brown, champagne, moorit and grey. The range of colours was accentuated by the variety of facial and body markings all of which have names in the Shetland dialect. As with the sheep of Highside farm these animals were fairly tame and allowed us to get close and even feel their fleeces (which were uniformly wet!).

As well as pure breed Shetlands there were was also a Bluefaced LeicesterXShetland cross lamb that was distinctive by its larger size and bigger conk, though it had inherited Shetland colouring.

In a two other field were some larger older ewes, one group of which had had feet trouble. These included the breeds that had made us aware of the farm Bowmonts and BowmontXShetland crosses, the latter of which supplied one of the fleeces we bought at Woolfest. For those who are unaware of the sad and sorry story of the Bowmont there is a good description here. According to Jean they are difficult sheep to keep having regular foot problems although the crosses are hardier. It’s a pity because as well as producing phenomenal fleece the pure-bred Bowmonts have a regal air often stretching out their necks as if peering down at the other sheep around them as in the piccies below

and here is one of the crosses........

Then it was off to see the fleece store and the remains of this years clip. There were still a number of great fleeces and we came away with a grey moorit, brown moorit, black and red Shetlands and another (large) BowmontXShetland. Sadly just as we were leaving the sun decided to come out but that just gave us some great views of the Northumberland countryside on the way back.

Of course no trip out would be complete without sampling a local boozer, this time the very welcoming Percy Arms in Chatton which called to us as it was a Jennings pub.

Many thanks to Jean, Malcolm and the dogs for making us both very welcome and taking the time to show us their gorgeous sheep.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Marvellous Masham

The weekend of the 25th and 26th of September was the date of the 2010 Masham Sheep Fair. This long running event in North Yorkshire is a celebration of all things sheepy.

We decided to go on the first day as we wanted to see the longwool and downland breeds that featured in that days show. The day started in a disorientating fashion as I stopped off at the portaloos that were both CLEAN and pleasant to be in!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! –a completely alien environment for a veteran of several music festivals.

The morning was spent viewing the show sheep, all of which looked fantastic and visiting the craft fair and displays. The latter was slighty disappointing in that a number of categories had very few entries and there was no sign of any entries for the natural dyeing section. Then back to watch the judging, which was accompanied by an excellent commentary that helped demystify the whole process.

After some scrummy chips at the local chippy, that included an unplanned meet up with some other ravellers, it was off to the back field to watch first sheep racing
and then sheepdog demonstrations.

Then it was back to the main square to watch the last run of the sheep show, for me the highlight of the whole day. The brilliant Kiwi who ran it was brilliantly funny while the show was also superbly informative featuring some brilliant characters who illustrated different types of sheep.

He also explained how wool was processed including a shearing demonstration but also laced it with some serious political stuff including encouraging people to sign the petition encouraging British wool products to be used in the London Olympics.

However the highlight of the show was the end display of dancing by the sheep. I do have a small video of Terry the Texel who was the absolute star of the whole thing but I’m not going to post it as it doesn’t do his funky grooves full justice. Just if you have a chance to see the show that does tour pleas do.

Plus as with all such events there was the wallet-damaging fleece sale. As well as an opportunity to purchase some fleeces this also gives a great opportunity to get hands on with a variety of fleece types. We picked up a great Wensleydale, a grey/blue Ryeland and two fabulously soft Whitefaced Woodland (note if the person who produced them is reading this you really should assess what you charge for your fleeces-they were way too cheap for their quality).

To finish off the day it would have been rude not to have a pint as Masham is also home to both the Theakstons and Black Sheep breweries. Weirdly the pub we visited, the White Bear, was next to the Black Sheep but stocked Theakstons.

Finally back up to Newcastle and flake out as we were both sheep-tired!

Catching Up

Well it looks like my plan to keep a regular blog has gone awry over the past month and a bit. I am now going to buckle down and try and post regularly so to start off with here is a quick recap of everything woolly that has gone on since my last posts.

Trouser Tasting Teeswater Twins.

Late August we went off for a visit to Highside Farm in Teesdale. We had previously bought one of their Teeswater fleeces via the sale at Woolfest and were visiting to see their sheep and look at the few fleeces they still had. Richard and Stephanie Proud who run the farm have developed a model of diversification keeping rare breed pigs, shorthorncattle and free range chickens as well as sheep and also run a small campsite on their land.

They are unusual in that they keep a small but extremely mixed flock and actively breed their sheep to produce interesting fleeces. As well as a number of crosses they had black Wensleydale, Gotland as well as a number of Teeswaters.

As they don’t have a working dog the majority of the sheep are trained to be hand tame and readily came upto you. One of the first to greet us was Pogie, whose fleece was the one we bought at Woolfest. While she was well behaved the same could not be said of a pair of hand-reared, late Teeswater lambs, Diddle and Dumpling, whose response to our arrival was to run up and start chewing on my trouser pockets (obviously on the off chance that I had food).

Another great character was Wellie, a young Teeswater ram, who whose ability to pose marked him out as a future star.

After meeting the sheep we had a look at the fleeces and went away with two part Teeswaters and two Texel cross shearling fleeces. The former we hope to get made up into a low twist 2ply sock-weight for shawls/stoles and the latter we hope to get made into a standard sock as they are reasonably soft but also feel very hardwearing.


Beside the Sea

The end of August saw us head up the coast to St Abbs for a Bank Holiday festival organised by Louise from Woolfish. Normally she runs two festivals a year in February and November, held in the old school, so this was a new timeslot for the event. We were both excited as this was my first festival-proper and I spent quite some time planning the layout including making a stand to display my lace weights together with a shawl knitted in Red Grape Silky lace.

Typically once there I found that I had completely miscalculated on what would fit in my space but luckily the organiser was kind enough to supply another table (Thanks Louise!!!).

The show was quieter than normal but we still sold a number of skeins, especially laceweight (so the stand obviously did its job) and got to chat with lots of enthusiastic yarnies.

So now we are really looking forward to having another stall in November. Lousie is hoping to expand into the newly renovated village hall and possibly run some workshops. If you are in the area it is a great little festival attracting big name indie dyers as well as smaller local firms like myself. Plus if you are going to hold such an event you couldn’t do it in more picturesque surroundings


More from the Flexigraze sheep.

Last week saw the return of some of the Flexigraze sheep to Tyne Riverside park. To help develop the wild flower meadow three Manx Loaghtan and seven Swaledales, which I had previously helped shear earlier in the year, were to be moved in from Whittle Dene. After rounding the sheep up Stephen Coomber took them in his truck to the park where we penned them so that their feet could be checked and then the Swales could have their bellies and tails sheared to keep them clean. This involved the volunteers catching and dragging out the sheep for Stephen and boy, they may have been skinny last time we met but the Swales had really put on weight. One of the rangers even got a chance to try shearing herself.

As well as the volunteers, a team from the Local Environmental Action fund that supports Flexigraze were also present to take publicity photos. After lots of fun trying to get the sheep to ‘look at the camera’ Stephen ran Jess, the other half of the Flexigraze team, through her paces to get some action shots of her developing herding skills.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Weld I Never!

‘Tis the height of summer here in the North East of England, although nobody told the weather. That means weld is easy to spot if it is in its second year and throwing up flower spikes. This year has been good with large stands popping up allowing me to harvest decent quantities while still only taking a small fraction of each population leaving plenty of plants to generate the next generation. While I am happy to use dried weld it lacks the potency of fresh material
This has also proved ideal as I am currently dyeing like mad to stock up for the St Abbs August festival where we will be running a stall. The festival organised by Louise at Woolfish normally occurs in February and November but this year a third date has been added. Hopefully the summer date will also allow some fleece animals to come along as they have been absent the last two times due to the foul winter.
Weld is a traditional yellow dye but stands out from its contempories due to its excellent fastness, especially when used with alum-mordanted fibre. Unlike many other dyes it also doesn’t need high temperatures to bind and fix to the yarn making it suitable for solar dyeing. However I was not ready for the dyeing potency I encountered when I tried to dye alum-mordated, superwash-wool in a weld bath. Now superwash does suck up the colour better than normal wool but the reaction I saw was amazing in that the yarn went yellow after a minute in the dyebath, coresponding to a reduction in colour in the bath.

Yarn after a few seconds in pot.

This has now happened three times for me with different weld baths. All gave a vivid yellow without alkali treatment and using down to 70% weight of weld to fibre. The first time I rinsed then simmered the wool that was fluorescent yellow in plain water to ensure it was fixed and while there was some yellowing in the simmered water the vivid yellow remained on the yarn indicating wash fastness. Later batches are to be overdyed so I feel they will get a simmer then. This effect is restricted to superwash wool and hasn’t occurred with other dyes so might just be an eample of why weld is such a brilliant (no pun intended) plant dye.

The end result

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Beginner spinner

As I am picking over a variety of fleeces and processing them I decided it might be a good idea to learn how to spin so I can assess things from my potential customers point of view. It also means i could spin soem of my stuff when at shows. To knuckle down and learn I took on the challenge during the Ravelry 'Tour de Fleece' that involves individual spinners in a variety of teams taking on a spinning challenge during the time period of the Tour de France cycling race.
Initially OH selected a lightish spindle and this gave me these three attempts spun as singles that plyed via the andean technique where the singes are wrapped around the hand to give an 'andean bracelet' that can be spun into yarn. Due to the wrapping around you hand this is also infamously known as the 'bluefinger technique' !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A clear quality progression but acres of room for improvement.

I didn't feel to happy with the lighter spindle so I swapped it for a heavier Bosworth maxi. This felt a lot more comfy and gave thefollowing singles that andean plyed-into this mini-skein.

Feeling more confident I then tackled a 100g bump of downland roving from Spinning a yarn that OH had spare. The fibre was nice and grippy allowing me to spin reasonably fine. Here is an early piccy of the fibre on a the spindle.

However I really didn't fancy andean plying the quantity of yarn that I had spun so I used a piece of planed softwood to fashion a plying tool. It took three goes to get a shape that felt comfortable in the hand and held some test yarn. This unfortunatly meant the end result was a bit wonky. However it works !-Here are piccies of the tool before and after winding on the singles.

The tool could then be clamped to our open plan stairs leaving both hands free to draft and ply the singles into yarn. The end result was this 112yards from 63g (about aran weight).


Now to keep in practice so I don't lose the technique.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Bags and bags of fleeces

As I forgot to post the picture in the last blog here are the five fleeces I bought at Woolfest. They are from top clockwise: TeeswaterxShropshire, Portland, Soay, BowmontxShetland, Teeswater.

Yesterday we got a call from Flexigraze to say that we could pick up some more fleeces from the conservation grazing sheep. There were 8 more fleeces from rare breed sheep. They are from top left (clockwise) 2 Manx Loaghtan, LlanwenogxHebridean, grey Shetland, brown Shetland, black Shetland, 2 Manx Loaghtan.

It is a testament to the qualities of the rare breeds that the fleeces came from that all are very nice with no obvious tenderness or weak points. This is despite the fact that the sheep, other than regular health check ups and treatment, are basically left to get on with grazing on rough ground without any supplementary feeding, come rain, shine,or, in the case of the last winter, snow.
I now really must get my combs made so spent a lot of this afternoon grinding and polishing welding rods. Otherwise we are going to soon run out of loft space.

Saturday, 26 June 2010


The end of the holiday coincided with the annual Woolfest in Cockermouth, what a coincidence that my OH booked this week off :). It was my first time at the festival (OH has been 3 times before) and it was a bit overwhelming, if only for the vast number of people crammed in.

Sadly some of the people I wanted to speak to weren't there but there was still lots of stalls and displays and rather painfully for my wallet a fleece sale. Even worse the fleece sale was right by the entrance so we only made it about 20 yards in before having to return to drop off the first haul to the car. Also many thanks to Enys at Growing Colour for babysitting the 2 Dyer's knotweed and madder plants, that we got from her, till we could pick them up at the end.When not browsing there were a couple of demonstrations on fleece selection and rare breeds the latter of which is shown below

And of course a number of fleece animals to see, with an emphasis on the rare breeds that were the focus for the festival this year. Glad that the Manx I sheared last week had much smaller horns than the lad in the middle.And despite stuffing my face on holiday the highlights were still the delicious ewe's milk ice cream and a pint of Jennings and cake at the end of the day.

Then at the end of the day just time for a last raid on the fleece sale to pick up some more fleeces giving me a grand total of 5: Soay, Teeswater, TeeswaterxShropshire, Portland and BowmontxShetland. Just got them in the car
Good job I also bought some more scouring agent