Shepherd hoody


You may remember that, last year, I mentioned how thrilled I was to be invited, along with Kirsten Kapur, to design a sweater for Susan Gibbs and Emily Chamelin’s project The Shepherd and The Shearer. Well, the sheep have been shorn, the yarn has been spun, the patterns have been written, and a lovely booklet and a sweater’s worth of yarn is about to wing its way to 200 subscribers. I’ll explain the process, and my part in it.


Susan’s original brief was one I found particularly exciting: to design a functional cabled sweater that would suit the robust properties of a good, natural woollen-spun yarn, that would wear well and look good over time. For my swatches and sample I used some local Scottish stuff that we imagined would be a really good match for how Emily and Susan envisioned their yarn turning out – New Lanark Aran (a yarn whose weight is equivalent to a US ‘worsted’) . I popped over to the mill to pick up yarn for my sample back in April, and decided that I wanted to make a simple, functional hoody – a garment which a shepherd might easily throw on before nipping outside to check her animals. I thought I’d use a simple modified drop-shoulder construction (a style that’s easy for shepherds of all body shapes and sizes to wear) and an allover cable pattern (both fun and straightforward to knit). I finally settled on a stitch that I have always found really pleasing.


When knit, this alternating cable has a lovely rhythm to it. It is simple enough to make the knitting a pleasant distraction, but has enough action to remain interesting to work. This was the cable for the Shepherd hoody! I started to work on the design.

While I was knitting away in Edinburgh, over the pond in the US, Emily was shearing sheep.

2013-04-13 06.22.08

The fleeces used for the Shepherd and the Shearer were shorn by Emily from animals raised in fifty flocks on small farms across the Mid-Atlantic region. One thing I find particularly interesting about the yarn that’s resulted from the project is the variety of identifiable breeds and crosses that are blended in it, mixing the fleeces of ancient British breeds like Shetland, with relatively new US breeds, like the California Red Face.

(I spy a goat-buddy)



After shearing, the fleeces were prepped and skirted . . .


. . .then sorted and baled




From there, the bales were taken to MacAusland’s mill in Prince Edward Island.


(Here is Emily, heroically joining the bales on their trip to the mill following an accident which severed tendons in her left hand. I’m very happy to say that after surgery and physio, she’s back to shearing again.)

MacAusland’s has been in business since 1870, and under a vertical operation where all processes are finished on-site, scours, cards, and spins raw wool into yarn on a 128 bobbin frame.


With its firm springy hand, the yarn has indeed turned out to be very close to the New Lanark Aran I used for my sample.


While the yarn was being processed and spun, the Shepherd hoody was being knitted. Here’s how it turned out.


Now, I like all my samples, but I immediately developed a very special affection for this finished garment. Once I’d put it on, I seriously didn’t want to take it off. I think its equally suited to tramping about the fields in a brisk wind . . .


. . . or cosying up by the fire on a chill winter’s evening.


The hems, cuffs and hood are finished with moss stitch.


. . . as is the pixie hood


I’ve used buttons on the facings, but they are equally well suited to the insertion of a zipper, if preferred.


The construction enables the hoody to be knit all in one piece, completely seamlessly, with minimal finishing. The pattern is sized from 30 to 57 inches, and I reckon it could easily be worn by a shepherd of either sex.


In short, I absolutely love this garment, and it was really very difficult packing it up in a box and sending it off to the US.


The pattern for the Shepherd hoody, together with that for the breathtakingly beautiful Shearer pullover, designed by Kirsten Kapur, is included in a booklet produced by Juniper Moon Farm telling the whole story of The Shepherd and the Shearer. This booklet, together with a plump package of yarn to make their choice of sweater, is about to be posted to the project’s 200 subscribers, without whom none of the processes I’ve described in this post would have happened.

From start to finish it has been a delight to be part of a collaborative project which truly celebrates sheep and wool, and which also makes transparent and legible the many different kinds of labour that go into raising and processing fibre. It is quite rare to receive a commission to design a garment to support that labour, and to showcase the unique properties of that fibre, rather than to speak to a trend, and I have to say that this is one reason I was so pleased to be invited to participate. The project has brought together the skills of many talented women and I am very proud to have been involved. I want to say a special thankyou to Lauria at Juniper Moon, who has been cheerfully brilliant at co-ordinating the project, and bringing everything smoothly together. I hope the subscribers enjoy their wonderful yarn, and the patterns that Kirsten and I have designed, and I understand that a limited further number of Shepherd and Shearer kits will also soon be available from the Juniper Moon Shop, so if you are interested in knitting yourself a Shepherd hoody or a Shearer pullover, do keep your eye on the site for updates.

Photos reproduced courtesy of Juniper Moon Farm


the best wee yarn shop in the world?

If you are lucky enough to find yourself at Kilchiaran, where lichen, wind and water claim the graves of Islay’s ancient dead. . .


. . . if you take the narrow road that winds up the curve of the bay; if you follow that road in sight of the sea; and if you turn on that road a few miles before Portnahaven, you will discover what may well be the best wee yarn shop in the world: Tormisdale croft crafts.

(the road to Tormisdale croft)

At Tormisdale croft, the wonderful and talented Anne Kemp hand spins the fleeces of many different breeds of sheep currently on Islay: Manx Loghtan, Black Hebridean, Cheviot, and Shetland, to name but a few. She also handspins some truly amazing yarn from Port Mor’s now-famous residents:

The alpacas near Port Mor. If I were an alpaca, I would like to graze in sight of Loch Indaal. (Photo taken last July)

Anne sells her handspun yarn; a wide range of quilting and knitting supplies; horn buttons and walking sticks; and some truly beautiful finished garments — including finely-worked lace shawls. These are all made by the knitters of Islay from her handspun. If you, like many contemporary spinners and knitters, are concerned about the environmental impact of your craft — the stages of processing and the miles your raw materials travel — then what Anne is doing is really exemplary. The yarn is processed, spun, and knitted up on Islay. From the back of the beast to the shawl round your shoulders, nothing has been taken off the island.

(handspun manx loghtan)

Anne’s yarn is powerfully connected to, and redolent of, Islay. Just like the island’s whisky, it speaks of the landscape.

(handspun suri alpaca)

I hope to knit something with it that speaks of the landscape too.

And if you think I am sounding slightly crazed and rhapsodic now, just imagine what I was like when I was actually there, in Anne’s workshop, surrounded by fleeces, baskets of naturally dyed shetland, gorgeous handknitted shawls, and handspun alpaca. When I first felt the skein of suri depicted in the photo above I emitted a range of curious noises and entered a troubling state of near-hysteria. Poor Anne put up with all of this most tolerantly. Anyway, just in case you haven’t got the idea already, I really, really like Tormisdale croft crafts — I am impressed both by the ethos of what Anne is doing, as well as the quality and beauty of the things that she produces. I shall return in the Spring when the lambs are there, and write a proper feature about Anne and her yarn.

Anne doesn’t have a website yet. But I encourage all of you who can to visit the croft in person. Take the back road between Port Charlotte – Kilchiaran – Portnahaven.



Needled reviews: The F-Word. Tuesdays, 9pm, Channel 4
Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008)

Don’t get me wrong, I do not like The F-Word, but it is worth watching it occasionally for a few cheap laughs. You know the bit I mean: when Gordon tells you how to make his pea and lettuce soup in just one minute, all in words of just one syllable. Riotous! We are somehow meant to see Gordon’s failure to use any adjectives at all as the signature of his virility, “full of balls, energy, and really great food,” as the Channel-4 tag-line puts it. (Full of balls? Sure is. . .) And the gender stereotypes peddled in Gordon’s brisk how-tos are just as strange and crass as those associated with Nigella. Man does not describe. Oh no. Describing words redundant, and unmanly. Man only know how to use imperative. Imperative style of cooking instructions works best with short, firm words. More difficult with two syllables. Very hard to make the word “mushrooms” sound manly. “Mushrooms” does not sound like manly decree. Man quickly mutters “mushrooms” then gets on with real business of shouting Real Man Words. “WHISK! TOSS! STIR!” etc. If Nigella’s mellifluous, adjectival style is supposed to be read in direct relation to her cleavage, then the F-Word’s use of the imperative might be seen as the culinary equivalent of a wanking circle, with wee Gordon in the centre, braying out commands (Shaft! Girth! Beat! Etc)


But I bring the F-word to your attention because of a particular moment in Tuesday’s show. The redoubtable Janet Street Porter appeared on set, fresh from her carefully stage-managed experience of rearing and slaughtering two veal calves. The viewer had already been treated to the money-shot of the poor beasts’ deaths, and what we clearly needed now was Janet to preach at us about our lamentable food-buying habits. We must never buy cheap meat again. No we mustn’t. Instead, we should feast only on luxury meat products humanely reared by media luminaries. While dispensing her new-found farming wisdom, Janet was dressed in a formless top, machine-knit in a vibrant shade of puce. It was a truly hideous garment (sorry, Janet).

“I suppose you knit that yourself?” said Gordon, inferring that Janet’s experience of slaughtering “her boys” had turned her all rustic, or something.
“No I fooking didn’t, Gordon,” retorted Janet, “this is a designer item.”


Now, I know that I’m more sensitive than your average jane to anti-knitting slurs, but this was about so much more than knitting. Janet enthused about how raising the calves, and watching the process of their lives and deaths, had completely transformed her perception of meat. She now knew what was involved with what she put on her plate. And everyone should think about how the meat they eat is raised and killed. Apart from the patronising attitude, and the unavoidable questions Janet did not address about cost, class, and the ethics of raising a niche luxury product like veal, this is sort of fair enough. Yes, Janet. We should all think about process, and production. But, the problem is, that she hadn’t really engaged with process at all. She had merely played a game to camera: a game with a neatly plotted narrative arc, with contrived hooks and encounters, with a particular rhetorical language (that of reluctant maternity—quite bizarre) and with moments of typically ‘direct’ and ‘irreverant’ Street-Porter-like entertainment. “’Oh no, it’s pooing again’, moans Janet,” to quote The F-Word website. Janet had engaged about as much with the slow processes and difficult realities of farming as she had with the making of her sweater, and her quick retort about the obvious superiority of ‘designer’ to ‘hand-made’ spoke volumes.

So is it just me, or does so much of this currently popular moralising about process (particularly as it concerns food) have an incredibly hollow ring? It is just far too easy for Gordon, Janet and their like to preach to the middle classes about the importance of the means of producing edible luxuries, before nipping out to snap up, promote, or sell other commodities with little thought about the process of their making—or the livelihoods of their makers, for that matter.

But one place where such discussions of process are neither hollow or easy is in Richard Sennett’s excellent new book, The Craftsman. If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should. In a series of radical, lyrical essays, this venerable sociologist makes the case for a reassessment of the idea of work itself. The making of things for use or beauty are never, he argues, a matter of individual brilliance, the romantic imagination, or isolated talent. Rather, for him, excellence lies somewhere between the eye and hand, in material practices and processes, and the slow engagement with them over time. Sennett’s notion of craft is something equally applicable to the design of a mobile-phone or a line of linux code, as much as a Stradivari violin , or a particular recipe for Poulet a la d’Albufera. For him, all these ‘crafts’ involve the same struggle with tools and processes, the same issues of encountering and solving problems, of developing and refining skill and focus, of learning how repetition itself can be creative, and of coming to know the singular pleasure of doing something well for its own sake. It is a book of tremendous breadth and sweep but which is also rich in details. In fact, for me, Sennett’s singularity, both as a writer and a public intellectual, is found in such details: in the bumper that really bothers him in the parking garage of a post-modern building; in his discussion of the symbolic values of bricks; in his thoughtful self-awareness of being an outsider as he watches a group of healthcare professionals transfixed by the image of a troublesome large intestine. And any man who can begin a sentence with the words “consider, for instance, an irregular tomato” and from that opening build an argument about the how an idea of virtue inheres in thing-ness, is OK by me.

Epinglier (pin making) Diderot, Encyclopedie (1762)

Lurking around the back of Sennett’s thesis is a familiar argument about the de-humanising effects of the modern and post-modern division of labour. He is quite explicit about his fondness for the all-encompassing curiosity of the mid-eighteenth century, or the undifferentiated artisanal labour of the medieval workshop. Not for him Adam Smith’s efficiently produced pins. This practical resistance to the division of labour—and the division of knowledge too, perhaps—is something he clearly applies to his own intellectual craft-work. He writes about the way children treat the spaces and equipment of playgrounds just as articulately as he does about Martin Heidegger.

Sennett’s thoughts about process have multiple and resonant contexts for me. For example, his remarks about being-in-the-thing came to my mind very strongly, when I read Mandy’s account of the pleasure of the rhythm of knitting her swallowtail shawl:

“We might think, as did Adam Smith describing industrial labour, of routine as mindless, that a person doing something over and over goes missing mentally; we might equate routine and boredom. For people who develop sophisticated hand skills, it’s nothing like this. Doing something over and over is stimulating when organised as looking ahead. The substance of the routine may change, metapmorhose, improve, but the emptional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it; it is rhythm. Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled crafsman has extended rhythm to the hand and eye.” (p. 175)

. . .and his section on mess chimes very strongly with Felix’s and Kirsty‘s Messy Tuesdays posts:

“To arrive at that goal [that of being fit-for-purpose] the work process has to do something distasteful to the tidy mind, which is to dwell temporarily in mess—wrong moves, false starts, dead ends. Indeed, the probing craftsman does more than encounter mess; he or she creates it as a means of understanding working procedures.” (p.161)

And what Sennett has to say about the importance of modesty, and the awareness of one’s own inadequacies, while engaging with material processes is very moot too. Perhaps this is something for Janet and Gordon to bear in mind.

*You can hear Richard Sennett talking with Laurie Taylor and Grayson Perry about craftsmanship, and process in this episode of Thinking Allowed.


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