At the Woolly Brew

lurker

Mel and I had a grand day out yesterday, and took all of my Colours of Shetland samples over to the East Neuk of Fife to visit The Woolly Brew. Fiona and Karen opened this shop in a great spot in Pittenweem just over a year ago, and it has very quickly established itself at the heart of the knitterly community of Fife and beyond. I met and chatted to loads of amazing knitters yesterday, and saw some gorgeous knitted items, including two beautiful Scatness Tams in colourways very different from my original. I really wish I had taken a photograph of these tams, and of the many lovely folk I met, but we were so busy that I singularly failed to take any pictures until we started clearing things away . . .

shop

. . . I did, however, manage to snap a pic of Fiona and Karen.

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The Woolly Brew is my kind of place — they stock a great selection of British yarns; you can get a proper brew (ie, a good cup of tea) there and Fiona also makes fantastic cakes.

Thankyou, Fiona, Karen, and all of the knitters who took the time to stop by for a lovely afternoon!

A grand day


(combed tops and yarn in the sample room. Wool heaven.)

Yesterday I had a grand day out. Martin and Janet Curtis kindly invited me to the opening of the new showroom at Haworth Scouring, the world’s largest commission scouring company, and an important hub of the British wool industry. The opening showcased many different elements of the industry — from processing right through to retail and distribution — and I was there to demonstrate hand-knitting and design. My sister, Helen, lives nearby, and it was great to bring her along as a spare pair of knitterly hands. Here she is working on a BMC, with some of the beautiful throws from the Real Shetland Company and my Rams and Yowes blanket behind her.

She couldn’t resist trying out one of the Real Shetland throws.

And here she is having a gander at Knit Real Shetland. (Note the obligatory Manu cardigan!)


The showroom had been fitted with a luxurious Shetland carpet, and there were other superb examples of British wool carpeting on display.


. . . as well as woven textiles . . .


(These samples are from Abraham Moon, another great Yorkshire company)

. . .knitting yarns . . .


(Jamieson & Smith’s amazing Shetland Heritage yarn, of which more another time).

. . . finished garments . . .

. . . and other innovative British wool products, such as these Shetland duvets, and a fabulous Vi-Spring Shetland mattress, of which I completely failed to take a photograph.

But my favourite thing, out of the many wonderful woolly things on display in the new showroom, was a piece by artist Angela Wright.

Angela’s wool installations take coned yarn (supplied by Martin Curtis), which is reworked and rewound into gigantic woolly hanks. These huge hanks, when arranged, suspended, and carefully laid down by Angela, have a profoundly transformative effect on the spaces in which they appear. I only had my macro lens with me yesterday, so was unable to take a picture capturing the full effect of Angela’s piece on the showroom space, but you get a good sense of her work from this earlier piece in Bradford Cathedral.


(“189 Miles” Wool Installation ver. 2, Bradford Cathedral, 2010. Photograph ©David Carr-Smith / Angela Wright)

I think it is quite rare to find textile art that manages to combine the spectacular with the contemplative, but Angela’s work is both. These installations are grand and public in scale, but there’s a quiet intimacy about them too, which arises from the woolly materials Angela is using, and (very clearly, I think) her own distinctive personal ‘feel’ for space and substance. Sited in Bradford, the historic home of the British wool industry, the installation seems celebratory and commemorative, both veil and shroud, a portal connecting past to future. There is a tremendous weight to Angela’s pieces — the wool threads hang, drape, and flow with a heaviness that is deeply emotional. Angela told me how some folk were moved to tears upon encountering the piece in Bradford Cathedral — I can well believe it.


(Wool Modern exhibition, Sydney, Australia, Apr/ May 2012, ©Angela Wright)

I recommend you go and have a look at these photographs which document the process of Angela’s wool installations from Yorkshire sheep to finished piece. Pretty amazing.

Here is Angela, discussing her installation with Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who came to open the showroom yesterday and who, like her brother in law, is firmly committed to the Campaign for Wool.

. . .Martin Curtis presented her with a very special woolly gift. . .

. . . a beautiful hand-knitted lace stole, created as part of the Shetland fine lace project.

It was a day in which, from start to finish, the best of British wool was celebrated. Helen and I felt honoured to have been a part of it and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Thankyou, Janet, and Martin, for a truly grand day!

affirming


I have to confess that I was rather nervous about my Dublin trip beforehand. It was the first time I’ve been away on my own since my stroke and, though I feel embarrassed to admit it, this was the source of some trepidation. While I am perfectly happy pottering about alone in my locale, every time I am in an unfamiliar public space, I am produced all over again as a person with a brain injury. In public spaces, one becomes hyper-conscious of the annoying slowness and awkwardness of one’s body, and the difficulty of one’s brain in coping with a confusing range of stimuli. There is an awful lot to do (manage bags, negotiate doorways, steps, and other people’s bodies) and there is an awful lot to take in (lighting, background noise, different voices, spoken and written information). Before my stroke I was a person with an able body and brain, and, though I didn’t think of myself as such, I was intrepid, fearless, energetic. Now I am a person whose brain is quickly exhausted by auditory/ visual stimuli, and who also has a few minor disabilities. All these things accrue into a feeling of intense vulnerability in public spaces. One of the worst things about a stroke, it seems to me, is the way in which it can undermine one’s confidence and sense of independence. But I value my independence immensely, and, 18 months after my stroke, it was time to give things a go in Dublin. Was I going to be OK?

Of course I was. I travelled on planes, trams, buses, and taxis. I got myself to and from a hotel. I walked about the streets of an unfamiliar city. I pottered around the sights and shops just like I used to.


(I am still becoming accustomed to this camera, which is lighter and much easier to carry than my heavy canon).

I am not saying it was all a breeze, because it wasn’t. But things were made infinitely more breezy because of the lovely folk at This is Knit. I immediately felt not just welcome, but completely at home.

After you walk through the door and meet Jacqui and Lisa, it doesn’t take very long to spot that This is Knit is the very best kind of yarn store – one that acts as the supportive focus of a whole knitterly community. I got to meet that community at a special event – their annual yarn tasting!

This is the loft before:

and after:

Everyone settled down to enjoy some tasty yarn

I had a great evening, and even managed to say a few words to the assembled throng (this was another significant first for me, since I’ve not spoken in public since my stroke). It felt important that I was able to thank the knitters who made my blanket. It was amazing to spend time with them – they really are a lovely bunch of women.

Another highlight of the evening was getting to meet Carol Feller, whose designs I’ve long admired. Carol was launching her new book — Contemporary Irish Knits (of which more another time).


(With a little help from Eimar, Carol demonstrates Kilorglin’s neat and ingenious construction)

I am sure everyone who was at the yarn tasting enjoyed themselves in their own way, but for me it was an incredibly affirming occasion. Not only was I taking a significant step towards regaining my independence, but it was the first time I’d attended an ‘event’ of any kind as the designing, writing, post-stroke me. It felt quite momentous and was, at times very moving to meet people who read my words and knit my sweaters. It also means a lot that I was able to do this among a group of people that I really like, and know that I will see again. So a massive, affirming THANKYOU to Lisa, Jacqui, Siobhán, Elana, Roseanne, Karen, Keiko, Eimar . . .


. . . and, of course, José.

socks, owls, &c. . .


(recognise that darned heel, Mandy?)

Some of you may be interested to know that the above appears in this month’s issue of The Knitter magazine. It is the first piece for publication that I’ve produced since the stroke, and because of this, I feel unusually proud of it. Did you know that such a thing as sock police existed? No? Get hold of a copy of The Knitter and find out more! I really enjoyed researching this article, and turned up many whacko stocking-related oddments on ecco and elsewhere….For example, I didn’t have a chance to include this intriguing piece of advice from John Gardiner’s Inquiry into the Nature, Cause, and Cure of the Gout published here in Edinburgh in 1792, but I thought you might enjoy it. . . (if enjoy is the word, ahem).

“As soon as a fit or the symptoms of an approaching fit appear, the patient is directed to draw on each foot three or four socks, made of the finest and softest wool, commonly sold under the name of Welsh flannel; over them a pair of short hose or bootikins of oiled silk, drawn as close as possible around the ankle…After the bootikins have been neatly applied, one, or two more socks are to be drawn over each and to cover the whole, a pair of soft woolly Shetland stockings.”

If I’m counting correctly, that’s eight pairs of socks. . . imagine.

This now-familiar image of my headless torso also appears in The Knitter in the context of a discussion of Ravelry knitalongs. And when I went popped over to Ravelry to have a look at recent o w l-related activity, I noticed that there were more than three thousand projects listed ! Three thousand o w l s! I felt I should commemorate this exciting discovery in some way, and found that Amy, from Hartlepool, was the three-thousandth knitter of an o w l sweater. Congratulations Amy! (I am sending her a wee owl-themed gift to commemorate the momentous occasion.)

And finally, as this picture would suggest, I did make it to Stirling, but unfortunately not for very long. . . frankly, I can hardly believe that I actually wrote a whole blog post about having a migraine and I do not want to produce another along similar lines . . . suffice it to say that I was able to spend a few happy hours with my friends before returning home.

I was quite put out, but this wee feller was still happy to see me.

best fest

herdwick

There has been much talk over the past few days about the general handsomeness, and nobility of the ovine. Here is a supreme example. Just look at that marvellous phizog! So calm, so gentle, so self-contained, so . . .sheepy! I spent a long time admiring this fine herdwick at woolfest the other day, and find it hard to articulate for you quite how much I like him. He is a bit like woolfest itself, then, which has sort of left me lost for words.

It was the best fest because it was spent in the company of friends.

monklmorning
Felix & Monkl

laratent
Lara. (I failed to capture a corresponding morning-head-in-tent shot of Liz — seen below in her gorgeous hand-made halter-neck dress — crack of dawn does not capture how early she rose. . .)

fest
From left to right: Sarah, Mel, Liz, Lara, Felix. . . and Frida Kahlo. Six great women, five great knitters (I don’t know about Frida).

Inside la fest there were so many people to meet, and I was particularly excited to run into Amanda and Lily, who was also sporting her paper dolls (Lily is absolutely lovely). It occurred to me after I’d seen her that the sweater I was wearing was made from yarn I’d got at last year’s woolfest: I acquired my bowmont braf from the man at bowmont braf. I was able to talk to him about the character of the breed, the properties of the wool, and the qualities of the finished garment it might produce. We also talked about the economic realities of small-scale yarn production, and the future of projects and flocks like his. I went away thinking about those questions, and inspired by both sheep and wool, designed and knit up my paper dolls sweater. These conversations are what makes woolfest so amazing.

shetlands
(Shetland markings. Designed by Sue Russo and available from the Shetland Sheep Society)

The material and sensory impact of the interior of Mitchell’s livestock centre is completely overwhelming. Faced with all that bounty, its quite hard to stop oneself running around, shouting and cooing, squeezing yarn, fundling sheep, and throwing oneself at fleeces like a crazy lady. . . But I found an oasis of calm among the stands of the coloured sheep breeders, to whom I was repeatedly drawn. The proximity of the sheep themselves certainly had something to do with it, but I also really enjoyed chatting to the representatives of the different breed societies, particularly Joy Trotter, who keeps the Rivendell flock of Shetlands. After talking to Joy, I had a sort of moment concerning the sheer range of shades in the fleece of British sheep, and spent much of the rest of the day reflecting on this, and being inspired by these colours: the creamy blue-greys of the north ronaldsays, the choclatey browns of the jacobs, the soft, almost powdery ginger of the manx loghtans, and the breathtaking non-technicolour dreamcoat range of shetlands. These colours were everywhere: on the backs of lovely beasties, in the deft hands of spinners, in plump finished skeins of yarn, in beautiful knitted and woven items.

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(Yes, that cake and those chocolates are fashioned from coloured Shetland. Delicious!)

It is fair to say that I am on a shetland roll right now, and that you will no doubt see and hear more of this in the coming months. If you are interested in quality natural-shade British shetland, I would warmly recommend getting it from Garthenor Organics. Chris King is such a thoughtful man who knows his wool, and this knowledge really tells in the finished skein. More of his yarn later, meanwhile, here is a picture of the only dyed stuff I took home:

artisan

I met the lovely folk from Artisan Threads last year when I was writing a piece in which they featured for Yarn Forward. Their sense of colour, and the feel they have for the process of natural dyeing is just fantastic. They have such a marvellous Autumnal palate, and I shall be doing something with their lovely muted shades this Autumn.

shandy
(Lara taking a fest-break with a swift pint of shandy — it was such a hot day!)

After the fest, we retired to the Bitter End in Cockermouth for some much-needed refreshment and de-briefing. Really, I can think of no better way to spend a Saturday evening than surrounded by yarn, in a good food-and-ale serving pub, in the company of friends, discussing the political economy of British wool. I will say it again: great women, great knitters. The excitements of the day were more than matched by a night full of stimulating conversation. When the menu came round, we all put our money where our mouth was, and chose lamb. I had such an amazing time and am still reeling and thinking — both about woolfest itself, and the conversations it provoked. I sort of feel like I spent the whole weekend following the narrative thread of John Dyer’s seminal 1757 Georgic The Fleece which traces the economic, political, material, and indeed intellectual journey of wool from the sheep’s back to the human’s. Perhaps I shall bore you with John Dyer — and the vexed question of how to produce poetry about “the care of sheep in tupping time” — on another occasion. But that’s me all fested out for now.

fleece

**Bee-bag competition winner will be announced shortly!**

Katherine Emtage at Concrete Wardrobe

On Saturday evening, Mel and I popped in to the opening of the Spring collection at Concrete Wardrobe. I can’t believe I’ve not mentioned Concrete Wardrobe here before. It is certainly the best place in Edinburgh, and probably the best place in Scotland, to discover all kinds of original things both beautiful and useful from a wide range of superb designer-makers who are all either Scottish born or Scottish trained. Concrete Wardrobe is owned and managed by the very talented James Donald and Fiona McIntosh, and one of the (many) great things that they do is to support and promote the work of young designer-makers, like Katherine Emtage, who is currently their Maker of the Month. Here is Katherine celebrating her opening.

katherine

Katherine works with Scottish tweed (Harris, Borders, Mull) to create fabulous — and very contemporary — bags and accessories. One of the first things you sense about her work is that she has a genuine feel for her chosen fabric, and the intriguing possibilities of colour and texture it affords. The way she folds, gathers and quilts the surfaces of her bags not only make them uniquely sculptural, but really showcases the subtle depths of colour so characteristic of handwoven Scottish tweed. Here the waves, pods, and shadows created by the quilting make an apparently solid teal fabric flicker into life with the blues, pinks and yellows of its original individual threads.

bag

While this quilted tote quietly demanded to be felt, some of Katherine’s other designs are much more flamboyantly tactile, like this next handbag, with its uber-feminine excess:

roses

Katherine’s designs really make tweed tasty. Indeed, the sensory metaphors suggested by her careful and thoughtful manipulation of fabric were confirmed by the manner of their display in Concrete Wardrobe: her tweed accessories were set out on cake stands like tempting, edible treats . . .

likecakes

delicious!

I love Katherine’s designs: some of her bags are modest and subtle, some are bold and exuberant, but all are playfully original. I had never associated roses and apples with tweed before, but now I do.

corsage

Get down to Concrete Wardrobe and see for yourself!

I keep forgetting

To show you a few photos from the St Abbs wool festival on March 9th. It is great to see regional events like this taking off (thanks to Louise). Beasties! Yarn! Spectacular coastal scenery! What more could one want? Tom liked the goats . . .

weegoat

I heart alpacas . . .

alpaca

. . . and there were some great humans there too. It was lovely to meet Anne and Lindsay

mos
(sorry for chopping the top of your head off there, Anne. I think I became distracted by the wares in front of you . . )

. . .and I had a nice chat with Natalie from the Yarn Yard

natalie
yarnyardyarn
(yarnyardyarn)

Natalie was talking to me about an interesting project. I’m going to put my mind to it, and will let you know more soon.

no stash guilt here!

(warning: long post!)

Guess where I’ve been this weekend?


(Bruno, the North Ronaldsay ram).

. . . to marvel at some wonderful beasties . . .


(these two lovely ladies belong to Robin and Caroline Sandys-Clarke of Why not Alpacas)

. . .and the stuff that comes off their backs . . .

. . . yes, I was at WOOLFEST!

This year I am writing an article about Woolfest, and this gave me an opportunity to meet and chat with some really lovely people, and to hear about some inspirational businesses, projects, and initiatives. My piece will be about what makes this show so distinctive: its contemporaneity and energy coupled with a deeply held respect for regional identities and long-established craft and textile traditions. And all of this is thanks to the women of the Woolclip co-operative who organise the show.

Woolfest is wonderful! But I have to save its bigger picture and my thoughts for the magazine article. So heres some stuff about what I did and (gulp) bought this weekend.

Some of my work at the moment involves writing about a group of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century women whose attitudes to consumption are hesitant at best, and I think that their negative view of shopping (as something in which you are inevitably exchanging/ losing part of yourself) rather rubs off on me. As a consequence, I tend not to talk about my stash, or about buying yarn or fabric on this blog. And my not-buying-clothes-for-a-year project-thing has also made me regard stuff and its acquisition with a weird, nigh pompous embarrassment. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I discussed my stash-ambivalence with Felix, who among her many other talents, is a fount of tremendous Good Sense. In response to my problem with yarn as just another soul-sapping commodity, she spoke articulately about 1) how her stash represented a series of promises of time saved up, time that was going to be well spent in the future; 2) how her stash spoke to her of a whole world of creative possibility, enabling any project or experiment that might spring to her mind; and 3) how it was an incredibly positive thing to be spending one’s money in support of yarn producers, spinners and dyers — the artists and artisans one respects and admires. In the face of this wisdom, my concerns about commerce, stash guilt, and yarn p*rn all seemed rather foolish, frankly. Why should I be embarrassed about the stuff that I buy?

My experience as a Woolfest consumer was Immensely Satisfying. So I thought I’d show you the stuff that I bought, and why I bought it.

Evidently I am in my blue period, or summat, as I bought a lot of blue things.

1) Bowmont Braf 4 ply. A few skeins in a few different colours — enough to make a fairisle-ish top. Bowmont Braf is a new Welsh cross-breed and the wool these sheep produce is completely amazing. It’s a shame you can’t really see how it feels — otherwise the knitters among you would be making peculiar appreciative noises. It is incredibly soft and springy and, knitted up, has a very pleasing velvety, matt quality that is very distinctive. It feels like cashmere, frankly, but with much more loft and body — it behaves like wool — which of course it is. I saw and felt a sweater knitted in it at last years Woolfest and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I had to get some. It is spun and dyed in Wales too.

2. Linen embroidery thread from Mulberry Dyer. The dye is woad and on linen it is luminous and lovely. I can stitch with it and foolishly imagine I am back in the early eighteenth century.

3. Several skeins of wonderful Blue Faced Leicester DK from Artisan Threads. (My photo here does not do the range of subtle blues in this yarn any sort of justice). Jill and Penny are two talented textile artists based in Nairn, in the Scottish Highlands, who just launched their new company selling naturally dyed fleeces, yarn and thread. (Their website is not up yet, but should be very soon). Most of what they sell is locally sourced and produced, and they talk about the animals from which their yarn originated as articulately as they do about dyes and dying. Their knack with colour is really amazing and their yarns are all utterly beautiful — subtle, and slightly semi-solid. At every stage, process is an important part of the end product — and the end product is very good indeed. Perhaps the best compliment I can give this yarn is to say that the only place I’ve ever seen anything remotely like it is at Shilasdair. It is truly beautiful stuff and, if I was a spinner, I’d have been snapping up a fleece or two as well.

Top and bottom left are laceweight cashmere/silk and bluefaced leicester ‘dazzle’ sock yarn, both from the Natural Dye Studio. Their yarn is Very Nice. Top right is merino sock yarn from The Yarn Yard. Natalie is based just outside Edinburgh, and this is the first time I’ve met her or her yarns — which are gorgeous. She runs a sock club which is unlike others I’ve come across as you can drop in and out as and when you like. Tempting. Bottom right is rather a poignant purchase — this is Cheviot Aran dyed by Carolyn Rawlinson, who established Woolfest in 2005, and who recently sadly died. I actually bought two skeins of this same raspberry coloured yarn last year at the WoolClip’s shop in Caldbeck and have been playing around swatching with it and thinking that two skeins just weren’t enough to do justice to the yarn — which clearly wants cables. I bought a few more skeins in exactly the same colourway yesterday with mixed feelings — this was the last of her yarn. When I make something with this, it will have Carolyn Rawlinson’s memory knitted all the way through it.

and finally . . .

. . .no, I did not buy myself a ram. In fact, I only purchased the last item — a herdwick-themed gift for Mr B. The other three pics provide context for his Herdwick obsession. Item one is a noble animal I saw at Woolfest on Saturday; item 2 is himself cavorting in his Herdwick sweater, knitted by me from the wool from Pam Hall’s Herdwicks, and item 3 is his proudly-owned Herdwick tie, bought last year at the Woolclip. He likes Herdwicks. So I bought him item 4 — a rather nice china mug with the phiz of a herdwick upon it — just one of many new products designed by the talented team behind Herdy, an interesting new initiative now lending these quintessentially lakeland animals a new identity and, through their range of lovely bespoke wool products, a vital new lease of life as well.

Other weekend highlights included these beautiful hand-carved sticks on show at the Ullswater Country Fair. . .

. . . and the lush variety of colours in the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick.

Did you know you can see the world’s largest coloured pencil there? Well, you can . . .

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