a few days in Cartmel

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cartmel
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A pretty Cumbrian village . . .

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. . . festive windows . . .

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. . . and doors.

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Ben, the friendly cat . . .

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A fine local food market . . .

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And a wonderful birthday meal.

In case you are wondering, the food at L’Enclume was just as amazing as you might imagine. We didn’t look at the menu, and really enjoyed the delicious surprises that all (ahem) seventeen courses of the tasting menu afforded. This was incredible food, impeccably presented, but I never felt that its theatre was pointless. In fact, in general L’Enclume struck us as being refreshingly grounded — from its use of local ingredients and suppliers, to the warmth and complete lack of stuffiness of its staff. As our holidays and meals are usually done on the cheap, camper-van style, the whole experience was a real treat for us and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

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Happy 40th birthday, Tom!

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Herdwick lamb


Mel, Felix and I – setting up shop


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


Woolfest throng


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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.

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.

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Felix & Monkl

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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. . .)

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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.

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(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:

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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.

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(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.

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

blencathra

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. . .

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or a pint of Cumbrian ale at the bottom.

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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.

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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 . . .

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