A chat with Tom of Holland

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I am sure that many of you may be familiar with the work of my good friend and woolly comrade Tom van Deijnen, also known as Tom of Holland. Tom is perhaps best known for his expertise in, and celebration of, darning, which he puts into practice in his classes and workshops, as well as his wonderful Visible Mending Programme. But though Tom is best known as a darner, he can turn his hand to just about any fibre art: he spins, crochets, knits and sews and his approach to all of these activities is incredibly thoughtful and curious. Tom cares about, and cares for, made items, and his work always seems to be prompted by a deep understanding of the processes of making. This is a man who not only wants to lengthen the life of a favourite pair of shoes, but who, in order to do this, will teach himself the art of shoe repair from start to finish. Everything Tom does seems to add vitality and meaning to the textiles that surround him and I find his work inspiring on so many levels. He is a superlative technician, with the focus and patience to refine and hone a method until it best does the job for which it was intended; he is a talented designer with an eye for structure and balance as well as a feel for textile history and tradition; and he is also joyously creative and clearly loves making for its own sake. All of these elements are combined in his superb new design, the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan, which he has just published. I just love everything Tom does, and thought it would be nice to bring you this wee chat I recently had with him about his work.

1. Tom, you have lived in the UK for many years, but are also “of Holland” . . . can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up?

Yes that’s right. I was born and grew up in the south of The Netherlands. My grandparents kept cows and sheep, so I have had a woolly element in my life from very early on. I still remember the excitement of lambing time: my grandparents obviously were tied to the farm during this period, and visiting them then was always full with expectation: will new lambs be born tonight? Besides that, my mother is an amazingly good knitter. As a child I got her to knit me loads of jumpers. She allowed me to choose patterns and yarns myself, and I remember even as a kid I always wanted 100% wool when possible. Although I’ve always been very creative I wasn’t that interested in knitting at the time, although I was taught at primary school and also a bit by my mum.

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(a sock, hand-knitted and expertly darned by Tom)


2. I know that your considerable skills with the needle are completely self-taught — which craft first piqued your interest? And how did that lead on to your developing other needle-skills?

My first love, as a child, was crochet. I’ve made numerous doilies for my both my grandmothers. Most of them very small, but I enjoyed doing them – all completely free-style, I don’t think I even realised there were such things as patterns. I also enjoyed a spot of embroidery and needlepoint. However, as a teenager I became more interested in painting and drawing, and I did little fibre-related stuff until after I moved to the UK. In fact, anything knitting-related I learnt here, so I don’t even know many Dutch knitting terms. This makes talking about knitting with my mum a bit difficult at times.

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Tom’s Amazing Jumper – a showcase of many different darning techniques.

3. What was the first thing you ever darned? Can you tell us about the process and what you learned from it?

I have always done little bits of embroidery and other things like beading to hide stains on jumpers or whatever, but the first proper darn was my first pair of hand-knitted socks. After spending weeks trying to learn using double-pointed needles and understanding heelshaping, I was devastated when the first hole developed. But, with mushroom, darning needle, and some old needlecraft books in hand, I soon learnt how to embrace new holes, as they provided me with a new darning opportunity!

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Damask darns on Tom’s amazing jumper


4. And how did the visible mending programme come about?

The Visible Mending Programme started because I found others were interested in fixing up clothes, but it’s sometimes difficult to get started. So after getting questions about mending from friends and the general public, I decided I could provide mending inspiration, skills and services by writing a blog, running workshops and taking commissions and thus, The Visible Mending Programme was born. I like mending to be visible, as it’s a talking point which helps me explain to people why I feel it’s important to try to extend the life of a garment as long as possible, rather than throwing it out and buying yet another cheap piece of clothing that will disintegrate after a few washes. I see a beautiful darn as a badge of honour, to be worn with pride.

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(Tom explores different pattern ideas in his darns. The green darn in the centre is based on the Sanquhar or tweed “Prince of Wales” check.)


5. In a world dominated by disposable fashion, I find so many things to love about your visible mending programme, but one thing I find especially interesting about it is the way that it suggests that garments and objects, have time written into them — that things are not fixed or static but are always somehow in the process of becoming. I wondered if you could reflect on the way that mending adds, as it were, a certain temporal dimension to the mended object?

For me, I went through some kind of ‘continuity realisation’ when I took up spinning. Making at least some of my own clothes, made me realise that it takes time to make garments; and especially hand-knitting can take a long time. So when I started to darn more, I no longer thought that a garment was finished at the time when I worked in the last ends. Instead, darning keeps adding to the garment, so it’s not finished. It highlights there’s a story and a connection to that garment. I spent time, effort and skill in making it, and darning allows me to reflect on and trace the evolution of the making, and adding to it. Therefore, a garment isn’t finished until it is beyond repair. And even then it might be used as a cleaning rag or whatever. When I took up spinning, I started to understand a garment doesn’t start with casting on, or cutting the fabric pieces. There’s a whole process that happens beforehand, too. Fibre needs to be harvested and processed and spun up into yarn and perhaps woven into cloth, before I can start making the garment. In the olden days, all these things were done by hand, and the more I learn about textile history, the more I am in awe of the skills involved. At the same time, I’m also becoming more and more baffled that people have completely lost this connection, and don’t have the understanding of what’s involved in making clothes. Therefore, it is now possible to buy very cheap clothes on the Higt Street, and these get thrown out when there’s a small hole, or button missing. So this is something else I try to highlight with the Visible Mending Programme. I’d like to go back to an older mindset, where clothes and cloth were expensive, you only had a few, and you looked after them and repaired them until they were completely threadbare.

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Visible mend #11


6. Many of your projects suggest an admirably deep understanding of the real nitty-gritty of textiles: the internal structure of stitches, and the way that they behave. Can you tell us about the ways that your technical understanding of knitting and darning speaks to and prompts your creativity?

I guess I’m a real technique geek. I love researching techniques, and the best way is to try them out yourself. So I cast on, or sew a toile, and see what happens. It doesn’t always work out, and then I like to find out why I didn’t get the result I wanted. I often find that old techniques that take a bit longer have advantages over the shortcuts that people seem to prefer nowadays. Sometimes I get completely inspired by the research, so that’s how I ended up making my Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches, which is a showcase of old and new knitting techniques, some well-known, others obscure. On other occasions I get totally jazzed up by construction techniques (for instance Barbara Walker and Elizabeth Zimmermann) and I want to try that out. There is so much to explore and learn!

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Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: cast ons, bind offs, increases & decreases, selvedges.

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Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: eyelets, chevrons, lace


7. For many reasons, stranded colourwork just does it for me: I have a feeling you feel the same. Can you put into words what it is that you love about stranded knitting?

I do love stranded colourwork. On a practical level, I find it appears to knit up quicker, as you can easily trace your progress through the repeats, and trying to finish ‘one more repeat before I go to bed’ also helps. On a more conceptual level, I’m intrigued and inspired by the many knitting traditions that make up the stranded knitting canon. There is so much interesting history involved: development of patterns, development of construction techniques, social implications of knitting as a way to make a living, the changes in gendered crafts. There is still so much to explore and learn that can feed into my own work.

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Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #8


8. With Felicity Ford, you’ve been developing the Aleatoric Fairisle project – where dice-rolls determine the colours and stitch patterns you both knit up as swatches. Can you tell us more about the project and what it has taught you about colour and pattern so far?

The Aleatoric Fair Isle project (‘alea’ is the Latin for dice) was developed from our mutual interest in John Cage (a 20th Century American composer) and his use of dice rolls, the I Ching and other ways of chance to inform his compositions. He wrote a piece called Apartment House 1776, which uses snippets of music from that time. The end result is still recognisably based on the original music, yet at the same time completely fresh and modern. Felicity and I have used the same compositional principles in creating stranded colourwork that is still recognisably based on traditional Fair Isle, yet at the same time is fresh and modern. It has taught me a lot about colours in particular. Following certain rules we created, we select colours from 21 shades, using dice rolls. There are also rules on how to select the patterns (all are from Mary MacGregor’s book Traditional Fair Isle Patterns.) We started knitting exactly what the dice told us to do, but soon we both started to rebel and try to do things a bit differently. This is still true to John Cage, who also made a lot of subjective decisions whenever something didn’t seem right to his artistic sensibility. I’ve knitted eleven swatches now, and most of these need fixing in some way. Particularly our rule on how to come up with the shades for the contrast row (the row in the middle of the pattern.) Traditionally the contrast row was used to knit in some yarn of which you had very little for whatever reason: you may simply not have had enough, or it was very expensive to make, for instance, it was dyed with indigo. going through the Aleatoric process and feeling that rebellion makes you more aware of colour. It has made me more confident in choosing shades that work together, and also that you should add one colour which jars a bit with the others, to add some freshness and contrast. Lastly, the contrast colour should never break the pattern up.

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Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #3

9. And how has the Aleatoric Fairisle Project informed the design choices you made with your wonderful Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan?

One of the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches intrigued me. This swatch had the patterns placed vertically, and I was very curious to see how they would work horizontally. I tried it out in the Foula wool and I liked the way it came out. I think the Foula wool colours naturally harmonise well together, but from doing all the Aleatoric swatches I learnt a lot about finding a harmonious balance. Particularly the black needs to be used in moderation, as it’s such a strong colour and tends to dominate and throw off the design if used too much.

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10. Why did you choose Foula Wool to knit this garment?

I would almost say that the wool chose me! For a while I wanted a warm outerwear cardigan, and the Foula wool is perfect for that. It’s knits up quick, and after washing it it blooms quite a bit, so it makes a very integrated fabric.

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11. I think the colours, patterns and repeats of your cardigan are really beautifully balanced. The planning process of the design must have been considerable. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

I got my hands on some wool from Magnus, and the limited palette of seven shades actually made design choices easier, as there’s not too much to distract you. I already had the starting point from the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatch, and then when I knitted this up in the Foula wool, I found it quite easy to correct things, because there are only seven colours to play with. And in true Aleatoric style, I left a bit to luck and worked them out as I went along!

FoulaCardiganGussetSeam_medium

12. I find that knitting actually knitting a design can change the direction of my ideas about it, sometimes in quite subtle ways. Did anything change for you while making this cardigan?

Each time I make something, I start reflecting on the item whilst working on it. I often try out something new and see what I think about it. This often relates to techniques I’ve chosen. For this cardigan, I had a number of ideas on how to work out the buttonband and collar, and I kept changing my mind until I actually got to the point I had to do it. I settled for a moss stitch buttonband with i-cord loops for the toggles. Also, I had two options for the toggles, and the final choice could only be made at the end and I chose the opposite from what was my favourite up until then. Also the way I dealt with the knotted steek has changed throughout the knitting of it. In June Hemmons Hyatt’s The ‘Principles of Knitting’ she suggests that you could cut the strands really short and leave a small fringe on the inside. I tried this on one armhole, but I much prefer the second, and more time-consuming method, of skimming in the ends at the back of the fabric.

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13. I know you have tried many steeking methods, but are a great fan of the knotted steek. Can you explain what this is and why you like it?

I believe in having different techniques at my disposal, so I can chose the one that’s most suited for the job. As the Foula wool is a chunky double-knit weight, I felt that the more usual way of cutting the steek and folding the seams in and tacking them down would be too thick. Likewise your own method of the steek sandwich. If I had used this on the Foula wool, I would have very thick buttonbands. So I looked elsewhere. The knotted steek was the solution for me. I first used it for the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches, as it can be really quick, as long as you don’t mind the fringe. Once you have knitted the steek and you’re going to cast off the tube you’ve knitted, then you make sure not to cast off the steek stitches. Instead, you let the steek stitches drop down all the way. You end up with a big massive ladder. Then you cut the strands, leaving equal lengths on each edge. The next step is to knot together the pairs of strands that are used in each row, using an overhand knot. In other words, each row will end in a knot. You can then easily pick up your stitches for the buttonband and not have to worry about accidentally manipulating the edge too much. As only pairs of strands get knotted, the edge has the same flexibility as the body of the fabric. Once the buttonband is finished (or the sleeve, of course,) you take a sharp-pointed sewing needle (a crewel needle works well) and skim in the ends at the back of the fabric. This makes for a very flat finish, no bulk whatsoever.

(Tom will be explaining more about the knotted steek technique shortly in a tutorial on his blog. )

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14. Finally, I know you are, like me, a great fan of wearing wool. Can you tell us about some of your favourite items from your all-wool wardrobe?

I have many pairs of hand-knitted socks, most of which have darns in them now. I am rather fond of a black scarf which I jazzed up with some Swiss darning to add small blocks of colour, and love my woollen trousers thatI made last year for Wovember. My Sanquhar gloves are great in keeping my hands warm for chilly days cycling, but the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan definitely takes current pride of place in my woolly wardrobe!

Thankyou, Tom!

You can find out more about Tom’s work, and his current teaching schedule here. And the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan is now available from Ravelry.

sunshine on . . .

leith

Yesterday we had beautiful weather while we popped back to our old stomping grounds in North Edinburgh and Leith to take some photographs of two new sweater designs. I’ve been working on these patterns for a while now, and they form part of my Edinburgh series — garments inspired by my favourite places in the great city in which I lived for a decade.

Here’s the photographer:

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And here’s a wee hint of what was being photographed:

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I’m really excited to tell you all about these two designs and promise you’ll see more very soon!

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As well as the two Edinburgh-series designs, I’m full of woolly plans for this WOVEMBER. The French translation booklet to accompany Colours of Shetland will soon be available, as will the second edition of the book itself, which is currently being reprinted (so if you’d like a print copy of the book, I’ll soon have my online shop up and running again). As well as the book, the shop will also be stocked with other items, including kits for three new accessories which I’m busy working on right now. Moving house has also meant moving work – it has taken a while to get everything set up, but now everything is ticking away in my studio and stock room and I’m enjoying seeing it all develop.

In the meantime, here are links to two WOVEMBER posts from two of my favourite woolly Shetland folk: Take a look at Ella’s incredible Spencer Dress, and Sarah’s fabulous collection of Shetland knitwear. (Sarah, of course, is the editor of Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present, of which more another time). Meanwhile, over on the WOVEMBER website, you’ll find lots of lovely things about growing wool this week, including this interview with Pam Hall about her Herdwicks and her farm. (Some of you may remember that I knitted this sweater, many, many moons ago, using wool from Pam’s sheep).

Layter – a celebration of sheep and wool

Layter_closeup

In case you haden’t noticed, today is the first of WOVEMBER! I thought I’d begin the month by showing you a garment that, like no other I can think of, truly celebrates the glorious variety of British sheep and wool. It was designed by my good friend and fellow WOVEMBERIST, Felicity Ford, AKA, Felix. This year, Felix was the patron of Shetland Wool Week, (and if you’ve not yet heard / seen her singing the “Shetland Wool Song” I suggest you pop over to YouTube right now!) Back in June 2009, Felix and I and several other woolly friends met up at Woolfest. It was a wonderful weekend for all of us, and I well recall how Felix, over a jolly pint or two at the Bitter End in Cockermouth, toasted the glory of British wool, and explained to us how she was going to create a garment celebrating the diversity of sheep, inspired by what she’d seen at the show. Layter was the result, and, over the past few years, this marvelous original garment has evolved several times. Its now available as two fabulously sheepy designs, for both adults and babies. I asked Felix to tell us more about the story of Layter.

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1. What does “Layter” mean?

“Layter” is a word from an old Cumbrian counting rhyme which shepherds used in the past for counting their sheep and it’s the number “seven”. The prototype of the design used wool from seven different breeds and since I found this wool in Cumbria at WOOLFEST, a title from that part of the world made sense. I love that when people ask me about “Layter” we end up talking about old shepherding traditions!

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2. I have a very clear recollection of your infectious excitement at Woolfest in June 2009, upon perusing the marvelous breed-specific yarns that were available at the Blacker Yarns stand. Am I right in thinking that this was the moment the design was born? Can you tell us about this moment and the garment’s inspiration?

The Blacker Yarns stand blew my mind! There were two deep containers full of balls of yarn from different sheep breeds. As I read the names on the ball bands and squished the yarns, I felt there was loads to discover about each one. I pulled out ball after ball and kept finding more names… Jacob, Border-Leicester, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Shetland, Teeswater… it was like a poem! Additionally, I watched a shearing demonstration and was really impressed by how the shearer got the fleece off the sheep all in one piece. I realised I really wanted to knit something which looked like that, so yes – the design was born in the wonderful sheepy celebration that is WOOLFEST!

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(shearing at Woolfest)


3. You then began knitting, and I remember first seeing (and admiring) the first incarnation of Layter just a few weeks after Woolfest. I know how you loved this garment and wore it loads. In many ways this design seems to epitomise your concept of ‘the slow wardrobe’! Can you tell us about how the original Layter has stood up to wearing since you made it?

The first incarnation of Layter was knit at quite a loose gauge, which makes it drapey, and quite long and robe like! The fabric has relaxed with time, and the whole garment feels very feminine to me. I love wearing it with a dress, and that I can really hug it around myself in the cold! I am genuinely impressed with how well the yarn has worn; it hasn’t pilled or shed, and the stitches remain well-defined. The fibres have softened after four years of wear, and the whole garment has developed a very slight and pleasing bloom. The sideways construction means it can stretch a little bit if I wear it every day for a couple of weeks, producing a mildly limp appearance, but when this happens, I simply bung it in my washing machine on a Wool cycle and give it a good block! Layter does indeed epitomise my concept of ‘The Slow Wardrobe’; it is a 100% WOOL garment that I cherish and will wear for years to come; the yarn it is made of is durable and well spun; and the whole process of making it has made me more aware of different breeds of sheep and the unique properties of their wool! However perhaps most importantly, it sparks conversations about wool and sheep everywhere it goes. Because it is quite big and has those crazy sleeves, it does attract attention, and every time I wear it, people ask questions, and seem enchanted by the notion that the stripes are all from different sheep breeds. Folk immediately connect it with what they have seen on Countryfile, or start telling me about their own connections with sheep, and men always seem to ask me if there is any Herdwick in it! The Slow Wardrobe is about making my own clothes, but it’s also about how we talk and think about fashion, and I love the conversations I get to have with strangers when I wear original Layter.

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4 After many of us badgering you for a pattern, you later (heh) re-designed and re-developed Layter for publication. How did the second incarnation of the design differ from the first? And what did you learn from the process of redesigning and re-knitting?

I was thinking about a garment that other people might really like to wear which could be paired with tailored trousers or a fitted shirt. To achieve a more flattering, figure-hugging garment, I re-knit Layter using exactly the same maths as in the original version, but at a much tighter gauge. The waist and hips are defined more dramatically and the rows of tight-knit garter stitch are very neat. The effect of this tidier, firmer fabric is a more formal garment, and something which is more like a jacket. In redesigning Layter I also abandoned the big puffy sleeves because I always felt they gave original Layter a slightly religious appearance which I find amusing, but which I wasn’t sure other knitters would enjoy!

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(Layters together)


5 How many British sheep breeds and fleece shades are represented in the new Layter? What was your process of selection? And did you have thoughts of including more?

The new Layter contains wool from several different sheep breeds – some of which are represented in multiple shades! The full list contains Southdown, Corriedale, Ryeland, Shetland, Jacob, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean and Pure Black Welsh Mountain DK knitting yarn… nine discrete breeds in total. Carrying on the theme of the old Cumbrian counting words, I called that version “Covera” which means nine. I would like to do a further version which incorporates Herdwick, Rough Fell, Swaledale, Romney, Wensleydale and Cotswold, because this would create more textural contrast and if I made a version with fifteen sheep breeds in it, the corresponding word from the counting rhyme is “Bumfit” which I think is brilliant. Who doesn’t want a garment that fits nicely around the bum? !

My process of selection involved lining up a lot of balls of Blacker Yarn, arranging them from dark through to light, and swatching to see which textures would work best together. The yarns used in the latest version are all fairly matt and hardwearing, and I got mildly obsessed with different shades of white while knitting it. The Corriedale almost looks bleached, while the Southdown is more ivory, and the Bluefaced Leicester is the softest of the bunch, and somehow mildly translucent! I played a bit with how to use these different whites through the sleeves and at the sides of the body.

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6. Tell us about how the garment is constructed. Was it fun to design?

Layter is knit vertically in 2 pieces from front to back over the shoulders. To finish, it is grafted together at the sides and centre back. Finally, a neckband is added, providing some shaping. I felt that constructing a garment sideways would allow me to make a vertically-striped garment for showing off my sheepy rainbow of Blacker Yarns, and decided on an open garment rather than a sweater because this would most closely resemble a fleece just taken off a sheep. I knit it in two halves so that I could maximise the yardage from all of my balls of Blacker Yarns by simply dividing them all in half and knitting one half of the garmemt at a time. Working this out was all fun, but the best part was actually getting on with making it. Those stripes go fast, and there is a feeling of being involved the knitterly equivalent of cheese tasting as you register the qualities of one sort of wool and anticipate the next! I fell in love with Manx ; it is matt, gingery, warm and soft, and reminds me of biscuits. I also love the feathery texture of Black Welsh Mountain and the sturdy, dense hand of Southdown…

LAYTER-COLOURS-INFOGRAPHIC copy
7. Layter has been an evolving project for four years now, and the latest stage in its evolution is Blayter (Baby-Layter) – an incredibly cute scaled-down version for infants and toddlers. Can you tell us about how this design developed out of your previous work on Layter?

I am conscious that there are more modifications that could be made – more short rows; a side to side approach, eliminating the back seam – all modifications best understood through knitting practice rather than in the abstract! I felt a smaller version of the pattern would make it easier to test out these different ideas for this garment…a baby version was an obvious idea once I realised I wanted to continue tinkering with the construction, and playing around with colours organised into vertical stripes!

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8 Does Blayter use the same construction method as the adult garment?

The basic method of construction is exactly the same as for the adult Layter, but there are proportionately far fewer short rows because I didn’t want to create a lot of extra fabric to swathe a baby in. The neckband is also more gently shaped, and the sleeves are long enough to either come right down over the hands or to be rolled up out of the way. The gauge is quite tight, and again it is conceived of as a little jacket rather than a next-to-skin garment. The name – as you have probably gathered – is a conflation of “Baby” and “Blayter”, although I did think about calling it Yann, because I only used the wool of one sheep while designing it!

J&S_supreme

9. What wool did you choose and why?

I chose to work with Shetland Supreme Jumper Weight from Jamieson & Smith because I enjoyed the soft hand of wool from the Shetland sheep breed when I was knitting Layter, and thought it would be gentle enough for a baby to wear. I also love the range of colours represented within the Shetland breed, and the Shetland Supreme palette offers the possibility to be quite subtle moving between greys, fawns, whites, creams… I started a high contrast version of Blayter which looked a bit like a mint humbug, but in the end was seduced by the subtle transitions possible between Shaela, Katmollet, Mooskit and Gaulmogot! Shetland Supreme has a lovely light hand, and even knit at quite a tight gauge, retains a soft halo and bounciness… it’s lovely for a baby jacket. I also wanted to find a way of fitting the sheepy ethos behind the original Layter to the aims of Shetland Wool Week, which – like WOOLFEST – is such a fantastic celebration of sheep and wool! What better way than by designing Blayter in a way that celebrates some of the lovely shades of wool found amongst Shetland sheep?

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10. What challenges did you find adapting the pattern for differently proportioned bodies?

There’s lots of conflicting information about sizing from different sources, and this made certain aspects of the design process a bit tricksome. To assist with these challenges, I enlisted the help of our amazing friend Liz, who as well as being a brilliant tech-knitter, is an experienced knitter of baby things, and has produced many tiny and gorgeous items for her two lucky nieces. Liz was a total star and test-knitted a beautiful version of the pattern in berry shades of Jamieson & Smith 2 ply. She also discussed baby sizes and proportions with me, and made great suggestions for the details we included on the sizing chart, because in her experience, babies range wildly in terms of size/age. I learnt loads from her during the process of adapting Layter to fit a baby.


11. Finally, what is your favourite sheep breed and why?

Ooh it’s a tricky one, that! Hard to pick just one as they are all so amazing, and all for such different reasons, but I have an enduring fondness for small, wild sheep like Shetlands, Manx Loaghtans, North Ronaldsays, Borerays… I am afraid I am terribly romantic about all these breeds. When I was in Shetland, Ollie showed everyone a hairy grey fleece which he described as “scadder” meaning that it’s very rough. I love that fleece, though, because it is what the Shetland sheep would grow if left to its own devices in order to survive in the wild. It has a thick mane down the middle which I imagine would give a ram a very proud aspect out on the hills! To me, scadder looks like land… like rocks, stones, earth, peat… On the other hand, who can argue with the lovely ginger-biscuit fleece of the Manx Loaghtan which is wild too, but surprisingly soft? Perhaps in the end though I have to say the Boreray is my favourite sheep, purely because it’s the most endangered breed, and the one we all need to love the most if we want to keep it going!

Thanks so much, Felix!

If you’d like to celebrate WOVEMBER by knitting your own Layter, you’ll find the adult pattern here and the baby pattern here.

And be sure to follow the WOVEMBER blog this month, for sheepy stories, inspiring interviews, woolly giveaways and more!

Layter-sideways

snawheid

Here is the result of my pompom mania — SNAWHEID!

Snawheid is a seasonal, snowflake-adorned beanie, feauturing a gigantic snowball pompom. It being Wovember and everything, I thought it would be fun to present to you three rather different Snawheids, each made in a different British breed-specific yarn. All are, of course, 100% wool (as is, incidentally, the rest of my outfit, with the exclusion of my boots).

Snawheid #1 is knitted in Shetland Organic 2 ply. As its name would suggest, this yarn comes from certified organic Shetland sheep, and is processed by organic mills. It knits to a standard 4 ply tension, and, as you would imagine, has a lovely woolly, typically Shetland hand. In the ball it has a matt, almost chalky feel to it and it is plied and spun slightly looser than other natural Shetlands I’ve knit with. When blocked, it puffs right up, producing a lovely halo. I gave it a good long soak and the yarn bloomed and relaxed tremendously. Its a really special, totally traditional Shetland yarn, and makes a lovely soft, even fabric. It has lent Snawheid #1 a quintessentially cosy, Wintery feel.

For a rather different look, I present to you Snawheid #2, which has been knitted by Jen in Excelana 4 ply.

I decided not to stick the pompom on Jen’s Snawheid just yet, so that I could show you my crown design — which is shaped to resemble a gigantic snowflake. If one were in any way averse to pompoms, or preferred a sleeker look, the crown ensures that your heid will remain adequately snaw-y, however you decide to knit this hat.

Excelana is a collaboration between Susan Crawford and John Arbon: the former has unparallelled knowledge of vintage yarns, and the latter is the UK’s independent spinning meister. The result is this delicious blend of 70% Exmoor Blueface / 30% Bluefaced Leicester which has an incredibly smooth, soft hand, a lovely sheen, and a good bit of bounce. Being worsted spun, it also has superb stitch definition, making it ideal for showing off some festive colourwork snowflakes.

Without the enormous pompom, and knitted in the monochrome shades of Persian Grey and Alabaster, I think Jen’s hat has a lovely muted, classic feel.

And finally, here is Snawheid #3.

After I finished Snawheid #1, and got my hands on Snawheid #2, I had a sudden desire to make another one using Jamieson and Smith Jumper Weight. Snawheid #3 is knitted in shade FC 34 — the coolest of cool winter blues — and 1A, a natural Shetland white.

I am not quite sure why, but this is my favourite of the three.

Perhaps I am just in a blue-hat mood, or something.

Or perhaps its that the addition of colour makes this hat feel particularly jolly and festive.

Or perhaps it is just that knitting with Jamieson and Smith jumper weight feels like spending time with an old friend.

In any case it is fair to say that I have gone a wee bit Snawheid crazy. These gigantic, happy pompoms certainly chime with my mood right now; I am really pleased with the design and I absolutely love every one of these three hats. And let me tell you that you have got off lightly with the name, as the temptation to call it Bawheid (one of Tom’s dad’s favourite insults) was extremely strong.

Well, now there’s just a bit of pattern-tweaking and checking to do and, all being well, the SNAWHEID pattern will be released on Ravelry tomorrow (19th).

Wovember is here!

Happy Wovember, everyone! If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to head on over to the Wovember site to read the first of many wonderfully woolly installments. This year, I’ve not really been involved with the Wovember preparations because of the, um, somewhat pressing demands of my collection and book, but you can be assured that I am sitting here wearing my 100% wool outfit and Wovember badge and supporting everything that Felix and Tom are doing. This years Wovember theme is ‘closing the gap’ – that is – the gap between fibre and finished commodity that often leaves consumers woefully misinformed about a yarn or garment’s provenance and the different processes involved in its production. Tom and Felix have done a marvelous job of curating a series of really inspiring and interesting essays, beginning with a group of posts exploring what’s involved in “Growing Wool”: celebrating sheep, and the work of the people who raise and care for the animals who produce the fibre that we all love to knit with. I’m looking forward to reading more!

I shall be doing my bit to celebrate Wovember by knitting like mad, wearing wool every day, and writing more about woolly matters. I’ll try to post here every day for the next month. Till tomorrow, then — HAPPY WOVEMBER!

worn

The best things in my wardrobe are made of wool. Some of these are ‘vintage’ items that have worn incredibly well. I thought I’d show you one of my favourites today.

I picked up this hand-knitted cardigan second-hand. From its shape, patterns, buttons, and the kind of worsted- spun Shetland wool that was used to knit it, I reckon it dates from the 1930s. 80 years later, it is still in fantastic condition. The right side of the fabric has that slight sheen that Shetland hand-knits seem to develop after many years of wear. There is not a single pill to be seen.

The strands along the back of the fabric have felted ever-so-slightly. The work is incredibly fine and neat.

But this is not a pristine garment. It has been worn a lot. Where this is most evident is under the arms. Here, movement and friction have created areas of felting on the fabric’s right side.

It is also a garment that has been cared for. There is a place on the back of one elbow where an area of about two square inches has been repaired. The darner has taken great care to match the pattern. You can see that wool of a slightly paler-blue than the original has been used. Here is the darn from the wrong side . . .

. . . and here from the right side.

These are clearly the repairs of a seasoned darner. The stitches are perfectly made, the fabric perfectly stable. I do love to see good darning. One of the most moving hand-knits I have ever encountered is a Fair-Isle sweater now on permanent display in the Shetland Museum. It belonged to a local who spent much of WWII as a prisoner. He wore this sweater constantly, repairing and re-repairing the areas that suffered from wear. A powerful document of his interment, as well as his Shetland identity, this sweater really looks as much darned as it is knit. It is very beautiful. Next time I visit Shetland I’ll get a photograph for you.

Here is another repair conducted by the hand of an inexpert darner – ie me.

Not only is this an example of my second-rate mending, but you can also see how difficult it is to find contemporary yarn that is a good match for vintage palettes. The brown colour I’ve used to darn is a Shetland that is close in hue to the original, but it is a blend with flecks of green in it. Like all of the colours used on the original sweater, the rusty-brown shade is very flat and solid. This ‘flatness’ is one of the many things I find interesting about knitting wool from the 30s and 40s. Those marled, heathered, or tweedy effects that we might think of as being ‘traditional’ are really of relatively modern ilk.

I love the simple construction of this sweater. The button bands are so neatly done that I originally assumed they had been knitted at the same time as the colourwork. Had the knitter actually purled those stitches back-and-forth instead of working in the round?

No they hadn’t – but they had conducted a kind of knitterly magic when picking up the stitches. Each cut yarn-end on each row has been individually bound down and woven in. It is an incredibly nifty piece of work.

Impressive! But how had the knitter secured the steek before cutting? When I looked closely at the armhole steeks (similarly neat, and flat) I discovered more about her method.

Upon careful examination I discovered some tiny cotton thread ends showing that the steek had been hand-sewn before cutting. While the majority were removed when the steek was completed, a few of these stray cotton thread-ends actually still remain in the armhole joins, as you can see at the centre of this rather blurry photograph.

The work is so neat, so very carefully done, that there is no bulk at all — hardly a hint of anything resembling a join or ‘seam’.

The sweater has very little shaping: there are some decreases in the arms, and a narrowing at the waist created by the ribbing, but there is no underarm gusset, or setting-in-of sleeves. The sleeves are, in fact set in to the armholes totally squarely, as you can see here.

This squareness is probably one reason for the increased wear that the underarms have seen – but the totally un-tailored sleeve actually fits surprisingly nicely under the arms — not much excess fabric at all.

The cardigan is a good, neat fit on me. I love it, and love to wear it. I’ll keep admiring it, repairing it, wearing it, caring for it. Maybe under my proprietorship it will be able to see another several decades of wear — just as it did with its original owner.

news &c

A miscellaneous post:

First, a reminder that there are only five days remaining for entries in the Wovember competition. You could win some amazing things! One grand woolly winner will be selected by our friends at Jamieson & Smith, and there are other great prizes too: Blacker Designs are offering three runners-up awards for the best photos of sheep, and the Wovember team will also be choosing three “3 bags full” winners for the entries that best capture the creative use of wool. Above you can see some of the contents of the “bags” – a selection of lovely British wool in appropriate colours!

Next, I don’t know if you have had a look at the Wovember blog recently, but if you pop over there you’ll find some great posts from our wonderful woolly guests. For example, in from Sheep to Skein, talented British designer Susan Crawford tells us about the development of Excelana, a superb new breed-specific wool. You can also hear Diane, the Spinning Shepherd, talk about her woolly year, see Deb Robson’s take on endangered sheep breeds, learn about the different meanings of wool from inspiring artists and makers, and read some truly beautiful woolly stories, such as Rachael Matthews account of Walter’s Crook. But I am particularly excited today, as our guest blogger is none other than Oliver Henry — world expert on Shetland wool! You can read Ooey Ollie’s account of what wool means to him here.


(Oliver Henry demonstrates sorting Shetland wool. Photo by Billy Fox.)

Finally, on a personal note, things have been quite busy round here. There’s apparently a discussion of my work in the latest issue of Vogue Knitting, and, (just as exciting) on the pages of the new Shetland sheep magazine. I’ve yet to see either, but several folk seem to have found me having encountered Sheep Heid in the latter publication, so a big welcome to all you Shetland sheepy folk. Also, I’m pleased to say that some of my patterns will soon be available on the shelves of several UK retailers. I’ll be “launching” my new range of printed patterns at Baa Ram Ewe in Leeds on December 3rd. Just pop along between 4 and 6 if you’d like to have a chat! I’m not exactly sure what a pattern launch usually involves, but I’m pleased to say that this one will also feature my Ma and my sister, and perhaps a mince pie or two.

If you are a UK retailer and are interested in stocking my patterns, then do get in touch with me at the email address you’ll find over here. Meanwhile, I am working on two new designs which, all going well, will appear next month. One takes my Shetland sheep obsession to new levels, featuring over a hundred of them, and the other is inspired by this:

more anon.

woolly thinking: part 2


(Mid- eighteenth-century glazed Norwich worsted wools: Bruxelles, Belles Illes, Martiniques, Blondines.)

As we’ve seen throughout WOVEMBER, the way that textiles are named and sold can be misleading and difficult to understand. In a rush to make a chemical innovations integral to a brand, or to lay corporate claim to a particular spinning or weaving process, manufacturers are constantly in the business of re-naming and re-marketing the fabric they produce. While these fabric-product-names have an important function in selling textiles on to garment manufacturers, their significance seems to gradually get lost as the newly-named fabric travels down its chain of production. When it finally ends up as a finished garment, it is of course rebranded, renamed, and remarketed anew. The result of this is that the consumer has little sense of what the words on the label really mean. Did you know, for example, that lycra is the same thing as spandex or elastane or that tencel is simply a brand name of lyocel, which is itself a sub-category of rayon, which is made of wood? Really, it is no wonder that we are bewildered by what is wool and what is not.


(Samples of eighteenth century tobines. These examples are glazed worsted wools, but tobines could be made of silk and cotton as well as wool)

But such confusion over the meaning of the names of commodities is really nothing new. Canny branding and re-branding, naming and re-naming is, of course, one of capitalism’s distinctive hallmarks. And, in a sense contemporary textile manufacturers are merely drawing on a marketing tradition that was already well-established in the early-modern British wool trade.


(eighteenth-century moreens, woven in Yorkshire. Moreens were furnishing-weight worsted wools, with a waved or stamped finish achieved by ‘watering’)

The swatches at the top of this post are taken from a mid-eighteenth century trade sample book. They are all dress-weight glazed worsteds, and were all woven in Norwich. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, following the successful development of long-wool sheep breeds in East Anglia; innovations in the processing of combing-wool; and a large community of Hugenot refugees (who were skilled designers and weavers); Norwich was the heart of Britain’s trade in worsted cloth (‘Worsted’ takes its name from a village North of Norwich). But as the seventeenth century progressed, Norwich found itself under competition from the burgeoning new woollen and worsted trades developing in the English North. In response, the East Anglian worsted manufacture successfully re-branded itself as the “new draperies”. But “new draperies,” needed new names, to distinguish themselves from the old, and such names also needed to appeal to the fashionable consumer’s sense of the modern, the novel, the exotic: hence Bruxelles, Belles Illes, Martiniques, Blondines in the top example. The newly-named glazed worsteds were extremely popular with the public, but some other English weavers, (in terms typically coloured by xenophobia) complained heartily about the Norwich Hugenots’ “outlandish inventions”. There was nothing new about the “new draperies” but their names, and these, the weavers complained, were mere ciphers to make the Hugenots’ textiles “more vendible”.

“In demonstration, thereof, a buffyn, a catalowne and the pearl of beauty are all one cloth; a peropus and a paragon all one; a say and pyramides all one; the same cloths bearing other names in times past. The paragon, peropus and philiselles may be affirmed to be double chambletts; the difference being only the one was doubled in the warp, the other in the weft. Buffyn, catalowne and pearl of beauty etc, may be affirmed single chambletts, differing only in their breadth. The say and pyramides may be affirmed to be that ancient cloth called a bed; the difference only consisting in the breadth and fineness.”*

For these weavers, the new draperies were little more than words, and simply illustrated the public’s propensity to be hoodwinked by fashion’s meaningless novelty.

Another impediment to understanding textile names (from a historian’s perspective, as well as a consumer’s) is that their significance is apt to change radically over time.

These rather beautiful scraps of cloth are eighteenth-century tabourets. These examples are fine Norwich worsted wools, frequently exported to colonial America, where, among fashionable circles, they achieved popularity in the manufacture of clothing. In mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia, you might well be wearing tabouret but, half a century later, during the early years of the early republic, tabourets of heavier weight were being imported from London to furnish the homes of Philadelphia’s new federalist elite. By the 1860s, and by now in exclusive use as a luxury upholstery fabric, taboratt was being manufactured in the USA, and was no longer woven from worsted wool, but from heavy cotton, or silk, or a blend of both. Apart from their names, what connects this series of quite different cloths all in popular use in North America over a century or more is their appearance: tabourets or taboratts all tend to be shaded and / or striped.


( eighteenth-century camlet. Another worsted wool cloth, camlets were also woven from silk, linen, or mohair. Camlets of different weights and finishes later became known as grograms, and groginettes, chinas and cheneys, harateens and moreens)

I have two points to make here. The first is an obvious Marxist one about the way in which finished commodities always disguise the stages of their own production. Whether it is a wool-flannel shirt sold by Urban Outfitters that is actually entirely made of cotton, or a bolt of glazed worsted pyramides that was once simply known by the homely and far less exotic name of a bed, textiles are in the business of constantly being renamed, redescribed, and rebranded in order to sell themselves. The second is that the meanings of commodities – as well as the commodities themselves — are subject to change, not just through canny marketing, but, like tamouret or tamoratt, through their contexts and the way in which they are used. To my mind there is no reason why we can’t wrest the word wool back from meaning all yarn, or all warm and fuzzy cloth (as it clearly does for some UK retailers) to its correct application to cloth spun, knitted and woven from the fleece-of-the-sheep.

And we purportedly wool-aware folk in the UK are very much at fault here as well. Among UK knitters, there is a curious and totally intractable attachment to the phrase “wool shop” (for yarn shop) and “wool” as a generic term for whatever yarn they happen to be knitting with at the time. The words yarn and yarn store are the focus of weird resistance by some British knitters, who regard these terms as a terrible Americanisation of language amounting, in their eyes, to a sort of imperialistic imposition. (Bizarre, I know, but all too true) But, dear countrymen and women, it is nothing of the sort: with the word ‘yarn’, North Americans are simply using the English language correctly, while you, who stubbornly continue to refer to all yarn as wool “because it is British” are completely incorrect. In fact, I would argue that this incorrect, generic application of the word WOOL to all yarn is actually perpetuating the very problem that the WOVEMBER hall of shame exemplifies. If we want retailers and manufacturers to use the word wool correctly, then we have to make sure our own usage is correct as well.

In short, British knitters, please start saying YARN.

* See Robin D Gwynn, Hugenot Heritage: The History and Contribtion of the Hugenots in Britain (1985; reissued 2001).

Woolly thinking: part 1

Wool snood at French Connection containing 0% wool and 100% Acrylic.

We’ve had some WOVEMBER feedback suggesting that we are being overly dogmatic in our insistence that the word wool should pertain to sheep’s wool only. These comments are useful to read, and very interesting since they suggest how wide the application and understanding of the word wool is today. The word wool is, it seems, itself rather woolly in definition. And, in fact, it is wool’s very breadth of meaning, diversity of application, and generic connotations that have produced a situation in which pretty much anything in the world of online retail can be described as wool, such as the 100% Acrylic snood from French Connection shown above, or this 100% cotton shirt from Urban Outfitters below.


Paul Smith flannel wool shirt at Urban Outfitters, 0% wool, 100% cotton.

Whatever our particular understanding is of the the word wool, I’m sure we’d all agree that these two products –one of which is manufactured entirely from plant, and the other from man-made fibres — do not contain any. And though, as we will see, the meanings of wool can be quite broad, the irony is that both of these completely non-wool items are drawing on the very specific associations of the word wool with what is cosy and Wintery in order to sell themselves.

These associations seem to carry particular weight in the marketing of children’s clothes. While UK family retailers such as Debenhams and BHS do reasonably well at describing the fabric content of adult garments accurately, their children’s department contain numerous examples of wool products that contain no wool at all.

British Home Stores 0% Wool girl’s “wool coat”


Debenhams 0% wool girl’s “wool coat”

The reason for this is obvious: for the parent-consumer, wool has powerful associations with what is warm and natural, and the idea that you should dress your child in a “wool coat” during the Winter months remains incredibly persuasive.

A similar situation exists in the world of women’s hosiery — which includes some of the worst examples I have found of 0% wool products adding value to themselves with misleading use of the word wool.


Manoush at ASOS: 0% wool tights


Miss Selfridge 0% wool tights


Orla Kiely 0% wool tights, described as ‘wool blend.’

The word wool when attached to the word tights, immediately suggests warmth, thickness, and quality: at least they do so to this consumer — and I freely confess to being misled myself by the final example. Since I know that the clothes in Orla Kiely’s ready-made collections use top-notch pure wool fabrics, I expected similar quality standards in her hosiery. I bought a pair of these ‘wool blend’ tights online, without examining the fabric composition, only to discover when they arrived that they contained no wool at all. (Orla, how could you? I think something inside of me died . . .) Anyway if I — whose obsession with what-is-wool and what-is-not approaches the pathological — can be hoodwinked by the words “wool blend tights”, then surely anybody can.

So if we are all agreed that acrylic, viscose, polyester, cotton, nylon, polyamide and elastane products are NOT wool and have nothing to do with wool, then what do we actually understand wool to be?

I’ve spent some time exploring the historical meanings and associations of wool this past week. It has made for interesting reading. The first definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary is as follows (the image will become readable if you click on it)

According to this definition, wool is the fleece of the sheep or other domesticated animals . But interestingly, the 20 instances of British usage from 725 to 1871 given by the OED in support of this definition, only refer to sheep.

As if to bear out the sheepy exclusivity suggested by the instances of given usage in the first definition, the OED’s second definition limits the application of the wool to sheep only.

While the third definition extends the meaning beyond fleece, to refer to the hair or pelts of other animals.

The dictionary goes on to illustrate how the word wool has later been applied to other materials that resemble the fleece of the sheep: cotton-wool, glass-wool, and so on. This may seem very confusing, but there is actually a simple rule of thumb at work here: the word wool when used on its own refers to the fleece of the sheep only but when used in a compound (camel-wool, cotton-wool) etc in can refer to the fibre produced by other animals, or indeed, to other fibrous substances not produced by animals at all.


Alpaca-wool? Or simply Alpaca?

But if wool is a word that clearly requires qualification with the use of a compound, why does the phrase “sheep-wool” or “sheep’s-wool” hardly ever appear in English usage from (according to my research) the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries? If the fleece of an alpaca or a rabbit can equally be referred to as “alpaca”, or “alpaca-wool” or “angora” or “angora-wool”, why is the sheep the only animal to whom this does not apply? Because — through centuries of common usage which themselves suggest the massive cultural and economic importance of this fibre — wool has principally meant sheep. In Western Europe at least, domesticated sheep were the first, and for a long time, the only wool-producing animals.


Do we refer to the fibre produced by this animal as Sheep-alpaca? Sheep-wool? Or is it just WOOL?

From a Western European perspective, and particularly in terms of the history of the English language, wool – the fibre of sheep – really is the UR TEXTILE. Over the thousand years prior to 1800 wool accounted for 70% or more of global textile production. From my own experience, this incredible figure is borne out by the swiftest of glances through any early modern trade sample book. The 1600s and 1700s saw a dizzying proliferation of different fabrics and fabric names, (most of which are completely lost to us today) and by far the majority of these fabrics are woollens and worsteds — cloths spun and woven from the fleece of sheep.


(A sheep waving the St George’s flag — suggesting the importance of wool to the national economy — appears on the gate of Halifax’s piece hall – the heart of Yorkshire’s West-Riding wool trade).

The rush to name different manufacturing processes and cloth-types during the rapidly industrialising 18th- and 19th centuries can make the understanding of historical textiles confusing for the layperson. My sense of things is that this proliferation of woolly names in itself accounts for some of the present-day confusion surrounding the sheepy associations of the word wool. (This will form the subject of another post). In any case, wool’s historic status over several centuries as the UR TEXTILE – the fibre to which all others were secondary – did not last much beyond 1800: by the mid 19th century, cotton was king, and accounted for more than 70% of global textile production.


(Lancashire cotton mill)

And by the early decades of the 20th century, wool again found itself under threat — this time from the new man-made fibres that sought not just to displace, but to imitate it.

So, to summarise: before 1800, wool so dominated world fabric production that it was the UR TEXTILE. While all other fibres required description with a qualifying compound that suggested their secondary status or likeness to the fleece of sheep (alpaca-wool, camel-wool, cotton-wool and so on) WOOL WAS WOOL and as such needed no explanation. But as different fibres came to dominate the increasingly complex world of global textile production; as fabric types and names proliferated; and as wool became increasingly marginalised, so its exclusive association with SHEEP was gradually lost. The general understanding of what wool really is is now so woolly that contemporary attempts at promotional branding have to reinforce the fibre’s sheepy connections.

In a world in which the fashion industry is so heavily focussed on the production of cheap, unsustainable fabrics ( viscose, modal, and Gok Wan’s favourite textile – pleather (shudder)), there is no doubt that wool is a marginal fibre. But the properties of real wool are so unique, and its reputation so very powerful, that products that that have no connection to sheep at all market themselves through purported – and entirely false – woolly connections.


(Dorothy Perkins wool dress composed of 0% wool and 100% polyester.)

The paradox of wool is that, precisely because of its historical dominance, it now lacks a definitive identity. While all other fibres once had to be defined in terms of their secondary status to wool, we now find ourselves in a world where fibres called alpaca or alpaca-wool could only come from one kind of animal, but wool – ie the wool-of-the-sheep – could apparently come from multiple different sources – some of which have nothing to do with animals at all.


Boohoo polyester coat, described with the mysterious and euphemistic term ‘poly wool’.

As we approach the middle of WOVEMBER, it strikes us that wool is at a crossroads. The word WOOL has to be properly reclaimed to suggest — as it once did — the fibre of sheep only. Otherwise wool production will be further damaged by its appropriation by, and association with, textiles to which it has no connection at all. And this is why a key claim of the WOVEMBER PETITION, is that “The word WOOL should refer to sheep’s wool only, and there should be a clarification of trading standards to distinguish between different animal fibres (angora, alpaca, cashmere, and so on) which also possess their own unique properties, qualities and cachet.”

More woolly thinking tomorrow.

Have you seen the WOVEMBER gallery recently? We think that the competition entries provide a beautiful woolly corrective to the 0% wool products in the HALL OF SHAME.

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