monday stuff

pompommakers

Can one develop an addiction to pompom makers? If so, I fear I am sorely afflicted, for I am now the proud owner of several different varieties in a range of sizes — the most recent of which is pictured above. These tiny and rather pleasing contraptions will enable me to turn out miniature fluffy balls under an inch in diameter — which will hopefully add the final ridiculously festive finishing touches to these mitts . . .

mitts

. . . and these mittens

mittens

(I do apologise for the quality of these photographs — daylight is a rare commodity in Scotland right now.)

In other news:
If you would like to WIN a signed copy of Colours of Shetland, you have two opportunities to do so: first in the Visit Shetland December Newsletter, and second in the latest issue of Let’s Knit, in which I and the book both feature.

letsknit

Finally, Tom is about to celebrate an (ahem) significant birthday, so we are taking a few days off and going somewhere really exciting to celebrate over a dram or two as old as he is.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TOM!

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I confess that I am really looking forward to a wee break as I have been rather occupied of late, as you can imagine. For us, Tom’s birthday signals the start of the festive season, which round here is a time of maximum relaxation / pie eating / film watching / long winter walk-taking. Bring it on!

When we return I will have some Snawpaws to show you. . .

Until then x

woolfest


Herdwick lamb


Mel, Felix and I – setting up shop


Wearing our Deco cardigans, and ready for, um, action. . .


Woolfest throng


Periphery


Susan’s stand was utterly delectable. Everything was displayed so beautifully.


Customers admiring Helen’s gorgeous wares.

Natalie’s fab herd-of-sheep stitch markers.


Jen and Nic having a giggle.


Lily France looking fabulous in the Betty Mouat sweater


Bruno the North Ronaldsay ram. What a lovely old boy he is.


Woolsack cushions.


Deconstruction.

There are two rubbish things about my present situation: one is suffering from post-stroke fatigue, and the other is worrying about the grim possibility of whether or not one is going to be suffering from post-stroke fatigue. I can tell you that there was quite a bit of the latter in the lead-up to Woolfest. This was the first time I’d attended any sort of public ‘event’ in my new professional capacity and I was (to put it mildly) concerned about whether or not I was going to be able to manage. Happily, I have three amazing comrades – Tom, Mel and Felix – who shouldered much of the burden, and thanks to them, everything was totally FINE. Things were very hectic, and the weather was insane, but I met many, many lovely people, and it was grand to see folk walking around in sweaters I’d designed, and being generally enthusiastic about what I do. It has been quite a weekend, so I’m going to take a few days off to relax now. In the meantime, I have released the Sheep Carousel and Tír Chonaill patterns as digital downloads, and I will be back in a few days with news about the availability of my kits, if anyone is interested.

walking dress


(Wool jacket, wool sweater, wool hat, wool skirt, goretex gloves, leather boots. Edinburgh, December 2009).

You may (or may not) remember that, during 2009, I set myself a project to walk every day, and to think about walking. I initially attempted to photograph and calculate the distance of my daily walks, but this part of the project quickly fell by the wayside: it is difficult to take any sort of decent photo in the dark or in the rain, and I rapidly became bored with the pedometer — in fact, I found that the things that interested me least about my walking were how fast I was going, or how far I’d been. Other aspects of the project proved very thought provoking, however, and I shall try to group some of these thoughts together here over the next few days.


(wool vest, wool base layer, linen shorts, wool tights, leather boots. Beinn An Dothaidh, April 2009).

One of the issues that has preoccupied me consistently over the course of the project has been appropriate walking garb. In terms of my daily commute, I soon realised that walking everywhere meant abandoning heeled shoes, and selecting outfits that were smart enough to teach in, but comfortable enough to work up a bit of steam in, when rushing to the station and back. But weekends meant a different kind of walking — in the mountains. Over the past twelve months, I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with different garments and different layers of garments, in order to find the most flexible, light, versatile, and comfortable combination to get about in while walking up hill and down dale. It will come as no surprise to you that I favour wool for just about everything but the necessary waterproof shell. I stick this shell (comprising gloves, light jacket, and — at the very last resort — pants) in my backpack, but when the weather is dry, I enjoy comfortable wool-clad walking in all weathers.


(wool headband, wool base layer, wool sweater, cotton shorts, wool tights, wool socks, leather boots. Eildons, October 2009).

You will note that my current walking shorts are cotton, but I do have a pattern to make myself some tweed shorts, and, when I’ve done so, I shall have an entirely woollen walking outfit. Now, you may attribute this to my inordinate love of all things sheepy, but my experience has told me that the warmth, wicking and layering properties of wool really are superior to those of any synthetic fabric. In wool, one does not stink, even after several days in the hills, and nor does one’s clothing produce enough electricity to light a fire when one simply moves about (Tom’s synthetic Ron Hill and Helly combo generates visible bright green sparks). My favourite walkers, like the legendary Alfred Wainwright, often also favoured wool. Wainwright’s son recalled that: “Dad always walked in his shoes and his suits . . . he had four suits, all tweed. His best one was for council meetings. His second best was for work. Third best for walking. Fourth best for gardening.”* Now, Wainwright had a tweedy sort of a mindset, and he was also a bloke. If, toward the end of his walking career, he had wanted to change his woolly walking uniform, he might have selected from the wide range of innovative clothing that was then beginning to be made accessible by the British pioneers of contemporary outdoor wear: men like Mike Parsons of Karrimor , Pete Hutchinson, or those two Newcastle guys who started Berghaus. Things are much more complicated for women, who, in both historical and contemporary terms, have not been served well by the outdoor industry. I have talked about this before, but I feel I must reiterate how consistently frustrated I am by the poor cut and design of women’s commercially manufactured outdoor clothing. It also bothers me that I cannot buy quality merino base layers without them being marked with some sign or other of what is assumed to be the feminine. Are their masculine equivalents decorated with footballs, tractors or other inanely gendered visual cues? No? Then why are all of icebreaker’s women’s merino tops daubed with fookin flowers? Why don’t these (otherwise admirable) manufacturers realise that it is perfectly possible to be feminine out of doors without being pink or ornamental? Size is also an issue. Because I’ve found that manufactured outdoor wear for women is always cut too large, and too poorly, I have resorted in the past to buying boys clothes.** In this respect, my choice of manufactured outdoor clothing is as limited as that of a Victorian woman climber, who would buy boys knickerbockers, to be worn in secret under her long skirts.


(wool vest, wool knickers, wool base layer, wool sweater, wool tights, wool socks, wool hat, wool cowl (thanks, Mel), wool gloves, goretex gloves, Rab pertex and down gillet, cotton shorts, wool skirt, leather boots. Crummock Water, Jan 1st, 2010)

Now, on the flat, or in a tent, it strikes me that a heavy skirt is not necessarily a bad thing. The thick woollen one I am wearing above, for example, is as windproof and cosy as a blanket. It is great for walking around Edinburgh in the current arctic windchill, and is also fantastic when one is emerging from one’s tent in sub-zero temperatures, like those we enjoyed on New Year’s eve. In such circumstances, a wool skirt can protect the legs with a warmth that cannot be beaten. But would I want to wear it out in the hills, or even carry it in my pack up a mountain? No I certainly would not.


Charles Boutibonne, The Mountain Climbers, 1868

Certainly, it is impossible to imagine ascending any sort of hill in the heavy hitched skirts Burberry recommended as a “practical” women’s climbing wear in 1907, let alone the garb worn by the women depicted in Charles Boutibonne’s painting above. While the seated woman is reasonably comfortably dressed in a wool skirt that seems to be hitched, pinned, and divided, the figure standing to her right is clad in a light walking dress of impractical cream hue. This woman is also clearly wearing corsets, as well as a gauze-veiled hat that would be both useless and indeed dangerous in such rocky terrain. Laced in her stays, she gazes with what is perhaps a certain degree of envy at the nimble child (an acceptably infantilised male guide for this all-female party) in his easy-to-wear shirt and breeches. And its a good job the group seem to have abandoned their parasol, because it would be completely useless in that wind. Now, there are things I like about this painting: its drama, its movement, and the way it depicts nineteenth-century women in a wild landscape, looking robust and physically capable (albeit inappropriately dressed). But it is clear that this painting — just like the photographs that depict women climbers during this era — is a sort of staged fantasy. It is all too easy to read nineteenth-century photographs of women’s outdoor activity as direct representations of reality, when, in fact, these images are governed by conventions of genre, and rules of respectability, just like Boutibonne’s painting. That early photographs of skirted women climbers are carefully staged for the public eye is a point is repeatedly made by Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, whose Invisible on Everest is one of the best-researched and most interesting of the many books I’ve recently read on the subject of women’s walking and climbing (those who are interested in further reading will find a short list at the end of this post). Rose and Parsons describe two worlds for the nineteenth-century woman climber: the public world of the valley, the chalet, staged photographs, and long skirts, and the invisible, private, and immensely enabling world that women experienced in the mountains: a world of enjoyable physical exertion, and clothing that was both comfortable and appropriate for the conditions. Rose and Parsons describe a “complex charade where [women] only appeared to follow dress codes whilst privately flouting them — along with many other conventions — as soon as they were out of the valley.”


(Freda Du Faur)

Freda Du Faur — the first woman to climb New Zealand’s Mount Cook — regarded it as imperative to look feminine as well as physically capable, and was never photographed without a skirt covering her knickerbockers and puttees, as she is seen here. The redoubtable Lizzie Le Blond, meanwhile — who routinely climbed in knickerbockers and stockings — also felt it necessary to don her skirts whenever she was in public view. According to an anecdote relayed by Rebecca Brown, after a strenuous day’s climbing in 1908, Le Blond returned to discover that her skirts (which she had carefully secreted under a cairn) had blown away. She crept back to the village in her knickerbockers, and sent her guide to her hotel to fetch another skirt while she hid herself from view. The guide apparently returned with an evening gown, in which outlandish garb she made her way back to civilisation.*** While many of these otherwise intrepid walking women clearly felt the need to conform to conservative ideals of female respectability where their appearance was concerned, Constance Barnicoat, whose climbing achievements included an ascent of Switzerland’s Grosser Schreckhorn in the winter of 1911, was unusual in her open advocation of climbing in boy’s clothes: “skirts, even the shortest, are almost impracticable. I promptly sent for proper boys boots . . . and generally rigged myself out as much like a boy as possible with sweater, knickers, and puttees to my knees. . . whatever arguments may be urged against a boy’s dress for a woman anywhere within range of civilisation, those arguments do not hold good in such wilds as we went through.”**** Despite what climbing women might have said or did in public, then, in the paradoxically hidden world of the great outdoors they were whipping off their heavy skirts and restricting stays, and shimmmying up mountains in shorts and stockings.


J.F Willumsen, En Bjergbestigerske (1904) (Thankyou, Lise, for the heads-up about this marvellous painting)

For low-level walks, however, I still think a good skirt can be a good thing. Dorothy Wordsworth’s skirts clearly received a lot of outdoor wear (from the amount of walking and mending her journals describe), and I often picture her moving about the landscape in her skirts and stockings, observing Cumbria’s characteristic tricks of the light, and gathering mosses and lichens, whenever I’m in the Lake District. I also love this early twentieth-century Danish depiction of a be-skirted walking woman, which I think suggests a genuine sense of feminine ease and strength in the outdoors. As for myself, I have decided to supplement the deficiencies of contemporary women’s outdoor wear by producing an entirely home-made walking outfit. As well as the forthcoming tweed shorts, I am now in the process of knitting myself a serviceable, warm and hard-wearing base layer (out of some Jamieson and Smith Shetland lace weight). And after that, I intend to take on the interesting task of producing my own pair of knitted longies from scratch (rather than the two pairs of wool tights I’m wearing here)


(wool head band, wool base layer, wool sweater, wool gloves, cotton shorts, two pairs of wool tights. Pentlands, November 2009).

*Hunter Davies, Wainwright: the Biography (1995), 123
**The women’s outdoor garments designed by Sheffield-based Rab Carrington are a happy exception to this rule.
***Rebecca Brown, Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering (2002), 50
****Barnicoat, “Where no Woman Ever Went Before” Wide World Magazine (March 1904), 566.

See also:
Arlene Blum, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (1998 ed)
Jill Marie Maclachlan, Peak Performances: Cultural and Autobiographical Constructions of the Victorian Female Mountaineer PhD Thesis, (UBC, 2004)
David Mazel, ed, Mountaineering Women: Stories of Early Climbers (1994)
Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers (2003) (Thankyou, John, for the recommendation of this title).
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2006 ed)

Recommendations of books any of you have enjoyed about women’s walking, climbing or general outdoor activities would be very welcome indeed.

2010

Here is the first thing I saw in 2010 . . .

. . . and here is the second . . .

Tom preparing the first cup of tea of the decade — a welcome sight on an incredibly chilly morning. We saw in 2010 in a tent by the edge of Crummock Water. There was a bright blue moon, a hooting owl, and a little malt whisky. We wrapped up warm. You may think I’m batty when I tell you that it was the best new year ever — but it really was.
Normal blog business will resume very shortly, but for now, happy new year, everyone!

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!**

blencathra

wainwright

Guess where I’ve been? We had an amazing weekend (more on the fest shortly) but I thought I’d begin with where it concluded — a walk up Blencathra. Dominating the skyline of the Northern Lakes with its craggy buttresses and dark gulleys, this is a really distinctive and deservedly popular mountain. Predictably, we plumped for the most famous route of ascent — up Scales Fell and over Sharp Edge — an exposed, rocky and (for me) hairaising arête along which one must pick one’s way with care, before ascending Foule Crag, whose name speaks for itself. You can see both edge and crag to the right of Tom’s head in this photo.

sharpedge

Being some kind of bloke-weasel, who scampers up and down mountains on a daily basis, Tom rather scoffed at the purported challenge of the edge. But I, who scamper a bit less, was not nonchalant at all.

waiting

One of the problems with Sharp Edge is that it is not as sharp as it looks — so much of it has been worn smooth by the weight of a million walkers’ arses. The smoothness of the rock certainly increases the difficulty of scrambling about an exposed ridge in heavy boots. At the end of the arête you can see the base of Foule Crag — yes, the bare rock face on which those two white specks / people are about to take their chances. I confess I got the fear. We let the other edge-traversers head in front before I took my turn.

wazzontheedge

Me and my arse had a little difficulty getting around what Wainwright refers to as the “awkward place,” and the base of the crag is the foule-est bit of it. . . but with some help from Tom indicating the tricky hand-holds, I made it across and up. Fun! When you reach the summit, you are rewarded with views North across the Solway Firth to Scotland, and to the South and West, the peaks and lakes of Cumbria are all laid out before you. The spectacular fell architecture of Blencathra itself looks pretty good from up there as well.

blencathra

We came down via Doddick Fell — a route which Wainwright recommends and which we thought was superb. What a great walk! So if you are ever going up Blencathra with a choice of ascents and are feeling a little nervy about what th’edge entails, I would say just go for it — its really not as hard as it looks. And can I say there is nothing better than a good Cumbrian pie at the top of a Cumbrian mountain. . .

pieface

or a pint of Cumbrian ale at the bottom.

pint

sixes and nines

I’ve been tagged by two of my favourite blog buddies, Helen and Suzanne. Helen was kind enough to name me as a kreativ blogger (thankyou Helen!) while Suzanne‘s tag involves doing something complicated – nay, well nigh apocalyptic – with six bloggers and the sixth photo in your computer’s sixth folder. Now, I know that Suzanne was hoping that the number of the beast would actually turn out to be that of Jesus (my cat), but unfortunately it didn’t – I’ll just have to make my feline household god pose for you another day. Anyway, I picked the folder that is sixth alphabetically on my external storage (I stopped keeping pics on my mac since it went ape last year) and that folder was entitled Coast to Coast. Here is the sixth photo.

9standards

To add another random six to the mix, this photo was taken on the sixth of the twelve days it took Tom and I to traverse the fine northern country from St Bees to Robin Hoods Bay, following the well-trodden footsteps of Alfred Wainwright. What you see here are a few of the mysterious cairns that give Nine Standards Rigg its name, and the figure of yours truly, leaning against one of them.

Though it is not half-way in terms of distance, Nine Standards Rigg is the psychological mid-point of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. It marks the historic boundary between Westmorland and the North Riding of Yorkshire and also sits on the Pennine watershed. Westward, rivers flow toward the Irish Sea, but from this point on, they empty East into the North Sea. It affords spectacular views across spectacular country. To the West, you see the dome-shaped sleeping giants that are the Howgill Fells, and to the East lies green and lovely Swaledale. “The attainment of Nine Standards Rigg is an occasion for celebration,” writes Wainwright, “if you are carrying a can of beer, prepare to drink it now.” We did not crack open the ale, but I recall that I did guzzle two mars bars (obligatory walking fuel) shortly before this picture was taken.

On the matter of what exactly the Nine Standards are, many walking books say something like “their origins are shrouded in mystery”* before claiming (with sadly predictable Englishness) that they acted as a warning to marauding Scots with (one presumes) terrible eyesight, since wee Jimmy was supposed to mistake the stone “standards” for those of a waiting army. Wainwright pooh-poohs this notion, but notes that the cairns are clearly not Victorian follies as they appear on much earlier maps. I myself have seen them marked on eighteenth-century topographical surveys, but to be honest, I quite like not knowing just what they are. Because to me, the standards are simply the best kind of folk art — spontaneous built-things, marks on the landscape, structures and signs with a purpose quite other than that of human shelter or the shelter of beasts. They are incredibly characterful cairns — stubborn, stolid, querulous, even — and when we were up there, the original nine had been joined by some proudly teetering additions of much more recent construction.

Before this picture was taken, we had walked across the Westmorland limestone pavement– a landscape I love. Our path took us past stone circles, tumuli, and the mysterious remains of Severals Settlement. As we neared Kirkby Stephen, the Nine Standards came into view on the horizon, and I remember finding them just as evocative as all the other signs of earlier lives — earlier feet and earlier hands — that we had seen that day.

Well, before I spiral off an into orbit about the Wonder of Ancient Stones or something, let me return quickly to the photo. Tom took it with one of those crappy disposable cameras (pack-weight is a serious issue on a long distance walk) — and given that, I think its pretty good — all I did after we had it developed was scan, desaturate, and turn down the brightness (it was a bit flare-y). I’d also like to mention that despite my near-rapturous account of Nine Standards Rigg, shortly after this photo was taken, things took a turn for the worse as I reluctantly traversed eight hideously boggy miles across Whitsundale. By the end of the day, I recall that I was forced to turn to my thing of last resort in these situations — what I must do when the mars bars run out — which is to silently narrate The Love Match, scene by scene, in order to to stave off sheer exhaustion (seriously, don’t ask).

There are far too many blogs and photographers I enjoy to name just six of you. Please consider yourselves well and truly tagged if you are reading this, and dig out the sixth of the sixth of the sixth photo. . . . or whatever, and write about it. Fun!

*Re: the puzzling origins and function of the Nine Standards, while writing this post I discovered that this Kirkby Stephen scholar has apparently Revealed All in a recent publication. . .

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 . . .

outside in

Here is a knitted gift, completed this morning. I can show it to you because it is no secret.

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Mr B has been party to my knitting of his sweater over the past couple of months and, in fact, played a large part in the design process. He picked out the yarn — which is an undyed Herdwick aran from Fornside farm near Keswick. We bought it at the Wool Clip this October. Both of us love Herdwick sheep. I won’t go on about what a smart and hardy breed the Herdwick is, but these lovely animals are a ubiquitous feature of the Cumbrian landscape and an integral part of our walks in the Lake District fells.

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I swatched up several cables for the front panel, from which he selected one design. I had wanted to include cables on the arms, in a similar manner to some recent designs I’ve seen, but he was having none of that. Arm-cables were deemed too fussy. The shaping was very important, because sweaters never usually fit him. Like many men, he actually has a waist — theres a 10 inch difference between his waist and chest measurements — but this (ahem) trapezoid shape is hardly ever reflected in either bought garments or (most) masculine knitwear designs — which tend to assume that all men are rectangular. I based the mathematics and design of the sweater on a combination of EZ and Ann Budd’s instructions for a seamless raglan. It was knit at 4 stitches to the inch in the round from the bottom up. I tapered the sweater to the waist and chest accordingly. It is really an excellent fit.

I am also pleased with the cables, which (to me at least) echo the aesthetic of the masculine torso. Hence the sweater’s name — suggesting how its exterior reflects the interior it contains.

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MANTASTIC!

The yarn knitted up lovely. It has a satisfying spring and tremendous solidity — and absolutely no drape at all. To my mind, this is just what’s required in a manly garment. It was, frankly, a bit scratchy to knit with and I imagine even more so to wear. But man fears not the hair shirt. That said, it also has a very high lanolin content, so my hands always felt super-soft after an evening’s knitting.

Man is very pleased with his sweater and sports it smugly. Wearing it, his torso is evidently endowed with magical properties:

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Actually, thats just what the winter light did on the bathroom wall a little while ago.

Now it will be blocked and dried and wrapped up in some jolly packaging for a week or so. Merry Christmas, Mr B!

Pattern: Outside In (my own, with help from EZ and Ann Budd)
Yarn: Fornside Herdwick aran. (6 skeins – around 550 grams)
Needles: 5.5 mm & 5mm for rib. (I knit most of it on one 100mm circ)
Gauge: 4 sts to 1 inch.

woolfest!

hurrah! woolfest weekend! We camped in Buttermere, on a lovely site, complete with herdwick sheep, chickens, and superb views of the fells.

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And yes, there were moments of sunshine!

Woolfest was super. The atmosphere was really unpretentious and friendly and there was a wonderful range of things to look at and be inspired by: rare breed animals; spinning and weaving equipment; a fabulous variety of yarns and fleeces from small producers; and beautiful handmade objects from artists and craftspeople. I particularly liked Jane Cummins‘ unique bags — in which the smooth, pale surface of turned birch contrasts beautifully with the bright colours of fuzzy merino felt.

I have a soft spot for Alpacas, and the pair on show were particularly nice.

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and here’s its lovely phizog:

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There were also some super-curly mohair-producing goats from Crookabeck farm, which Tom suggested had a cremaster-like appearance.

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And many examples of my favourite sheep – the Herdwick

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they always look happy. I did try to get a pic of the lambs – both the herdwick and the almost bear-like (and very friendly) coloured ryeland…but they just wouldn’t stay still!

The laughing hens stall looked good enough to eat:

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…and the colours at the house of hemp stand were wonderful:

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I had set myself a purchasing limit, and (ye gods) actually stuck to it. First, I bought 600g of undyed grey shetland dk from Susan Russell at Woodpark Wool. Susan had a super range of different wools and wool-blends, all from her own flocks of rare-breed sheep.

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It is exceptionally soft and springy and the fleece has a lovely subtle range of colours in it. This wool deserves some serious stitchwork to show it off at its best! Hence, I shall use it to fashion my own version of last autumn’s infamous Pringle yoked sweater which I intend to be a bit lighter, and even more swingy than the original.

I then went to the other end of the yarn spectrum and gravitated towards the gorgeous cobweb mohair from the natural dye studio.

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This yarn is a glorious concoction – feather-light, unbelievably soft – quite delicious. The colour is much more mauve-y than in the picture. Really lovely. I have a little cap-sleeved top with picot edging and a lace panel in mind for it….

Really, it was something of an effort controlling myself at the natural dye studio stand – everything was so completely delectable. I had to mutter ‘Alpaca-silk sock yarn is UNNECESSARY’ several times to prevent my gathering up armfuls of the stuff. I noticed several other women had, like I, taken on a zombie-like appearance at this stand. Hands were reaching out automatically for the blue-faced leicester 4-ply, eyes glazing over at the silks and hazy mohairs. I swear I saw one of them salivating.

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mmmmm…..

Finally, I came back down to earth with three balls of this cheerful stuff from the wonderful woolclip (for whom three cheers for organising such a fantastic show):

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I looked at it, and it said “mittens” back to me.

We celebrated my purchases and toasted woolfest with a pint of Dickie Doodle at the Bitter End in Cockermouth.

On Sunday we climbed Haystacks, High Crag, and High Stile, with a damp and misty ridge walk inbetween. Heres the view west from Haystacks. Those ominous looking clouds dumped their contents on us minutes later. Still a great walk though – the fell architecture surrounding Buttermere, Ennerdale Water & Crummock Water is really quite spectacular.

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