Layter – a celebration of sheep and wool

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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…

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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!

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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

Shepherd hoody

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(I spy a goat-buddy)

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

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. . .then sorted and baled

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fleecesorting

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

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(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.

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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.

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

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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 . . .

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

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

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. . . as is the pixie hood

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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A tale of Titus

As you know, the story of the yarns I use in my designs is very important to me. I am always interested to know as much as possible about a yarn’s provenance and background; like to use fibres that are locally grown and processed where possible; and am especially keen on yarns that showcase the unique qualities of different breeds of British sheep. One of my recent ‘wow’ discoveries is Titus, a wonderful new yarn that has been developed by my Yorkshire friends at baa ram ewe. I am sure many of you will have heard of Titus already, even if you haven’t knit with it, as each new batch seems to disappear from baa ram ewe’s shelves in Headingley and Harrogate almost as fast as it is spun up. Why is Titus so special? Well, this yarn blends the lustrous fibres of two beautiful British sheep breeds — Grey Wensleydale and Blue Faced Leicester — together with 30% UK Alpaca. These three different fibres are worsted-spun together to create a yarn that has a gorgeous sheeny-soft hand, but also tremendous strength. What I especially like about this yarn is that it feels incredibly luxurious but, because of the particular qualities of the fibres of which it is composed, is also clearly really tough and hard wearing. It has a really unique hand — smooth, yet because of the Wensleydale, slightly hairy — and you can tell as you knit it that the yarn simply does not want to bobble or pill. So far, Titus has been available in three natural shades, but five new colours are about to be produced, meaning that the yarn now also has a beautifully balanced palette. In short, I love Titus, and have just completed a couple of designs using it, which I’ll show you very shortly (huzzah!) First, though, I caught up with Verity Britton of baa ram ewe to hear more about Titus and the thinking behind it.

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How did the idea for Titus first come about?

Owning a wool shop and choosing among the hundreds of different yarns that are offered to us does make you think about what your dream yarn would be. We love the fuzziness of our local Wensleydale and the softness of the Bluefaced Leicester and Alpaca, and when the opportunity came to have a small batch spun, we jumped at the chance. It was amazing seeing our dreams become reality!


Can you tell us about the process of the yarn’s development? What was involved?

We knew what mix of fibres we wanted in our yarn, but we’d never made one before, so we took some advice from the the wonderful John Arbon of Fibre Harvest, who spun our first ever batch of Titus. We’re passionate about supporting British Wool and UK fibres and showcasing our local breeds here in Yorkshire, so it some ways it was an easy choice to make. We could say we had a firm idea of exactly how the yarn should be spun and what it would look like but in fact we put our trust in John who had far more experience at spinning wonderful yarns than we did. We were very nervous when we ordered our initial 12 kilos- would we like it? Would anyone else like it? But when the box arrived we breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was absolutely gorgeous and surpassed all of our expectations.


Who was Titus Salt and why is he associated with your yarn?

Sir Titus Salt was a Leeds born wool manufacturer who became tired of the smoke and pollution emanating from Yorkshire’s mills and factory chimneys and built a new mill on the outskirts of Shipley, followed by houses, bathhouses, an institute, hospital, almshouses and churches which became the village of Saltaire, now a World Heritage Site. But this wasn’t Sir Titus’ only achievement. In 1836, Titus came upon some bales of Alpaca in a warehouse in Liverpool and, after taking some samples away to experiment, came back and bought the consignment. Sir Titus became the creator of the lustrous and subsequently hugely fashionable alpaca cloth, which contributed massively to his success as a manufacturer. And that’s why we’ve added 30 per cent of the finest UK Alpaca to our yarn, which adds a little bit of magic to our wonderful wool, and strengthens that connection to our Yorkshire heritage even further.

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It is fair to say that Titus has been a roaring success, recently voted no.1 British yarn by the readers of Knit Now Magazine! Do you have any plans for new colourways and ranges?

We have been completely bowled over by the popularity of Titus and can’t thank knitters and customers enough for their support, especially for their patience when we sell out! It’s been so popular that we have now been able to introduce a brand new Titus colour range spun by the amazing Peter Longbottom of West Yorkshire Spinners. There are eight shades, all inspired by our Yorkshire surroundings, which blend beautifully together making them ideal for colourwork. It’s being dyed up as we speak and should be available in the next week or so- we’re so excited!

baa ram ewe is located in the historic hub of the UK textile industry. Is that heritage important to you? How?

One of the biggest reasons for opening baa ram ewe in Leeds and now Harrogate was to reaffirm Yorkshire’s historic link to wool and to celebrate that heritage. Industrial towns like Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield would not have flourished without the wool trade, and towns like Harrogate with the Yorkshire Dales on its doorstep mean sheep breeds like the Wensleydale and Swaledale are practically on your doorstep. We want to celebrate that woolly heritage and we love that so many of our customers want to see and buy yarn that is local to Yorkshire- it means we must be doing something right!

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I lived and worked in Yorkshire for many years, and love it for many reasons. What is special to you about Yorkshire and its landscape?

It’s hard to put your finger on it, but for me there is an understated natural warmth and beauty to both the Yorkshire landscape and the people that live here. Yorkshire has a really captivating mix of both industrial and rural heritage that is really unique, creating a quiet confidence that envelopes you and makes you proud, even if- like me- you weren’t born here. It’s a rich, varied and special place and if you haven’t been- come and visit soon!


What is your favourite Yorkshire expression or dialect word? (For the record, mine is probably GINNEL).

Oooh I like Ginnel too! Joint favourite though is one I got from my husband and is RADGED, as in ‘he were proper radged’, meaning very, very angry. To me, it’s almost an onomatopoeia. My mother in law says it all the time and it always makes me chuckle.

Finally, what’s next for baa ram ewe?

Oh Lord, who knows? We’ve just opened a second store in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, so we’re still recovering from that. We can’t wait for our new Titus colour range to hit the shelves any day now, and then we’ll be taking that to Woolfest in Cumbria and TNNA in the U.S in June, as well the new Yarndale show in Skipton this September. Oh, and then we’re organising the second Yorkshire Wool Week in October. So just another quiet year for us again then….

Thanks, Verity!

And finally, here’s a wee hint of what’s to come in my Titus designs :

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Shetland Wool Week in pictures: part 1

Sheep on the hill . . .

. . . and at the marts.

Some fine boys . . .

. . . and my secret favourite.


Oliver Henry, Shetland Woolmeister . . .

. . . judging fine wool on the hoof . . .

. . . and off.


straight from the sheep . . .

. . . to the wool store

. . ready for sorting and grading.

Sheep Carousel

It’s time to show you the second design I’ll be launching at Woolfest. . . I confess that this one has been quite hard to keep quiet about . . .

Dear tea-obsessed knitters, I present to you . . .

The Sheep Carousel Tea Cosy!

I suppose it was inevitable that at some point I would combine two of my favourite things – sheep and tea – into a single design.

The tea cosy is designed in the shape of a stripey merry-go-round upon which eight jolly Shetland sheep seem to be having quite a bit of fun.

Why not put the wool of your favourite sheep to good use warming your teapot?

In his History of Hand Knitting, Richard Rutt dates the appearance of the knitted tea cosy to 1867 with the first “batchelor” cosy (incorporating openings for spout and handle) being published in Weldons in 1893. I’ve long been intrigued by Rutt’s remarks about tea cosies – he seems simultaneously fascinated by, and dismissive of, them. Perhaps he had a large, secret cosy collection squirrelled away somewhere:

“Crinoline dolls, thatched cottages, beehives, brooding hens, pineapples, even television sets and electric toasters have been the models for knitted tea cosies that hover uncertainly between trivial novelty and serious pop art.”

Oi, Rutt! We’ll have less of the “trivial novelty” – - I’ll have you know that this particular cosy has a serious technical purpose, acting as a miniature sampler upon which one can practice many different knitterly techniques: stranding, steeking, vikkel braids, centred decreases, i-cord . . .

. . . and the design has, of course a second crucial function in keeping your pot toasty-warm while you are waiting for your TEA to brew.

The Sheep Carousel is pictured here with the lovely Mary Kilvert mug that Felix sent to me last year.

mmm . . . tea . . .

I will be launching the Sheep Carousel pattern at Woolfest in kit form which will enable you to knit it with my favourite sheepy wool - Jamieson & Smith Shetland Supreme. One kit contains enough wool for two projects, so you could easily make both of the moorit-on-white and white-on-moorit versions pictured here.

Each carousel kit comes complete with wool, printed pattern, a professionally printed project bag and, in honour of Cumbria (where Woolfest is held) a card depicting a noble Herdwick ram whom I met and photographed at Woolfest in 2009.

The Sheep Carousel now has its own ravelry page, and the digital version of the pattern will be released when I return from Woolfest on the 24th June.

I had a total blast with this design – I hope you have as much fun knitting it!

rams and yowes

Hmmm . . . do I spy . . . some sheep?

. . . . many sheep?

. . . and many rams?

120 yowes and 48 rams?!!

Yes! It’s the rams and yowes lap blanket!

In case you were wondering, yowe means ewe in Shetland dialect and, just like the sheepheid design from which it emerged, the rams and yowes blanket is a celebration of the many-hued variety of Shetland sheep. The blanket uses all 9 natural shades of Jamieson & Smith Supreme jumper weight, and it is very simple to make: the body of the blanket is first knit up as a steeked, colourwork tube. When the colourwork is complete, the steek is cut, and stitches are picked up for the garter stitch edging. Increases and decreases create mitred corners, which fold to the back of the work, creating a neat facing inside which the steek is completely hidden. If you have never steeked before, this would be a good first project to try out the technique.

Here is the facing from the back with the steek hidden inside. To my mind, there are few things more lovely than graded shades of natural Shetland worked in garter stitch. So very pleasing!

Can you tell that I am stupidly happy with this design?

I love the way that the 120 yowes, worked in the graded Shetland shades, give the effect of a massive, ever-receding flock, and the rams lend a graphic, carpet-like aspect to the blanket’s centre

The finished blanket measures 3 feet square. It is just the right size for draping over your knees, or the back of the sofa, and can also be worn as a very cosy wrap or shawl.


The rams and yowes pattern has been expertly test-knitted by my friend Sarah (thankyou, Sarah!). If you’d like to make your own, the pattern is now up and available here, or here.

And in case you are wondering about my hand wear – yes, those are a pair of Muckle Mitts that I whipped up yesterday from a lovely free pattern – a new year’s treat from (who else?) Mary Jane Mucklestone – go and download yourself a copy!

wearing Deco


(my Deco cardigan in October 2010)

Throughout WOVEMBER, we’ll be exploring WOOL from several different angles, and today Felix and I are both writing about how wool wears. We knitters are perhaps sometimes more interested in the new and the spectacular than we are in the old and the reliably-wearable, but durability and longevity are important factors to consider when choosing yarn for a project that will actually be worn. Kristen wrote two excellent posts about this very issue here and here, and because Felix and I have both knitted Decos out of two very different breed-specific British pure-wool yarns, we thought we’d jointly write posts about how these garments have worn.


(Deco in October 2010)

I have knitted many things that have not worn well – and the worst was probably the first sweater I made for myself after my return to knitting – a Kim Hargreaves cardigan out of Big Wool. This yarn is a bulky merino, and knits up very fast – I made my sweater in under a week. I was very pleased with myself and my cardigan, but within days it had begun to pill, in a few weeks time it had turned into a tatty mess, and after a month or two it was completely unwearable. I never knit with Big Wool again. I would show you this garment, but I was so displeased with it that, after removing its carefully-chosen buttons, I got rid of it. I don’t know if Big Wool has changed, but at that time it was so loosely spun it almost seemed like a single-ply. My cardigan was also knit at a fairly loose gauge on, as I recall, 10 and 12mm needles. No wonder that the damn thing pilled!

While my big-wool cardigan didn’t see a year, at the other end of the wearability spectrum, I own a hand-knitted garment that is more than 40 years old – a cabled cardigan that my grandma originally knitted for my mum, and was later appropriated by me. I still wear this cardigan, and it still looks fantastic. My grandma knitted it from the sort of old-fashioned, worsted-spun aran that is quite hard to find today. I love this garment for many, many reasons and promise to show it to you another time.


(Deco sleeve cap in 2010).

It was the yarn that first excited me when I was designing Deco. Several of my knitting comrades were fashioning glorious items out of Blacker Corriedale, and when I saw the ‘olive’ colourway I immediately knew it was a yarn I had to knit with. I swatched a simple slip stitch pattern, and it looked so fantastic that the yarn really did tell me what it wanted to be. Before I knew it I had a sketch and design, and was knitting up a cardigan.

Quite apart from the fact that I designed it, I just love this cardigan – over the year since it was knitted it is has seen a lot of wear. I like to be outdoors, and Deco has often been outdoors with me.


(hmm. . . looks like rain)

Deco has been with Bruce on many rambles, and it has been frequently jumped on and pawed at by my damp and mucky companion, and his equally mucky dog-pals.


(This Spring, somewhere above the Bridge of Orchy)

But, with a frock underneath it, Deco remains a smart garment too: I took it with me to Dublin in September and, as I had only took one outfit with me due to Ryan Air’s luggage restrictions, I wore it solidly the whole time I was there.


(Deco being foolish. September 2011).

So how has Deco held up a year after it was knitted? Really amazingly well. Here is the back

And here is under the left elbow, a place where you might expect to see significant wear.

I know that I have brushed dried mud from this cuff – and do I spot a dog hair?

I bound the bases of the wonderful Nichols buttons to reinforce them – they are still luminous, still beautiful, and most importantly, still stable.

The tape on the opposite button band is still doing its job very well, and despite being snapped and resnapped many times, my snap fasteners have not come loose.

The shoulders and sleeve caps remain neat and hold their shape . . .

and in fact, the only area of wear that I could find was a small place on the underside of the right arm

There are a few little pills there, but if you look closely, you’ll see that, (amidst the dog hair – and do I spy a crumb?) some are clearly rogue pills from a rust-coloured item that Deco has been sitting next to in my wardrobe.

Why has this cardigan worn so well? A little of it is attributable to the design (ahem) which, though being seamless, has several features that make for a very stable garment: short row sleeve caps; three-needle-bind-off at the shoulder-tops; close-gauge fabric; and front bands that are reinforced with tape, and use snap fasteners in place of buttonholes. But mostly, this garment has worn well because of the nature of the WOOL I used to make it.


Photo ©Blacker Yarns

Call me contrary, but I have yet to be totally blown away by a 100% merino yarn. Merino crosses, on the other hand, frequently amaze me. You may recall the rhapsodic nature of my posts about Bowmont Braf – a Shetland-merino cross – and I feel similarly rhapsodic about Corriedale – a dual-purpse breed originally developed in New Zealand as a Merino-Lincoln cross. What’s so special about this yarn? To quote Deb Robson:

“medium-soft, it has nice long staples, some luster, and a well-defined, even crimp, which means it has a lot of loft and elasticity. It’s a resilient fiber with enough character to be interesting.”*

Clara Parkes, meanwhile writes of Corriedale’s “inviting hand that falls somewhere between finewool and longwool, rather like the breed itself. Corriedale makes a smooth and extremely durable worsted yarn but it can also be spun into a loftier, more elastic woollen yarn.”**

I’m in total agreement with everything Deb and Clara say about Corriedale with, perhaps, the minor exception of the lustre since the defining characteristic of the Blacker Corriedale at least is an almost severe matt-ness. There is no sheen to the yarn at all and when dyed, this lends it a pleasing and extremely saturated quality, apparent in Lilith’s gorgeous new hand-dyed Corriedale. There is something velvety about the way the yarn and colour absorb the light. The Blacker Corriedale I used is woollen spun, and when knitting, it feels light and soft and fluffy in the hand. While working it, I expected it to bloom a bit like a woollen-spun Shetland, but it didn’t bloom so much as stabilise. The yarn that felt fluffy in the hand turned into a pleasingly firm medium-soft fabric that also retains the flexibility that befits a knitted garment. You can see that it has good stitch definition, but what you can’t see is that it is really warm, and a little water repellent – great for a cardigan, or other outer-garment. And having experienced this several times, I can also testify that dried mud simply brushes off its surface without affecting the quality of the knitted fabric at all.


(Deco in 2010).

In sum, I heart Blacker Corriedale and can affirm that you will not only really enjoy knitting with this yarn, but can make a garment which will wear extremely well. I’m certainly looking forward to many more years in my Deco.

*Deb Robson, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook (2011)
**Clara Parkes, The Knitters Book of Wool (2009)

If these two books are not the cornerstones of your knitterly bookshelf, I suggest you rectify the situation immediately.

Shetland Wool Week

Huzzah for Shetland Wool Week! I have been enjoying:

Spectacular landscapes in beautiful weather . . .


(The Drongs from Braewick)

. . .hanging out with my favourite woolly creatures


(Shetland sheep at Lunna)

. . .meeting inspiring people . . .


(Hazel Tindall)


(Mary-Jane Mucklestone)

. . . good company . . .


(Wool Holiday comrades)

. . . and glorious knitting as far as the eye could see.

I feel both proud and immensely humbled to have been involved.

of dogs . . . and sheep

It has been an interesting week. On the downside, there have been a couple of days of evil, all-consuming fatigue to contend with. This meant that I was unable to go across to Glasgow, and hence unable to meet up with some folk I’ve been looking forward to seeing for ages, to chat about lace. Though I detest not being able to plan ahead, or having my plans scuppered when I do, I am pretty much resigned to the fatigue now, and I get by OK as long as I a) don’t get frustrated with myself and b) don’t try to do anything too taxing when it strikes. While I was feeling tired and rotten, I listened to an interesting interview with philosopher, Havi Carel about illness, which really chimed with my own recent experiences. Most of what she said was common sense, but it was very eloquently put common sense. I have ordered her book.

Fatigue notwithstanding, there have also been many good things over the past few days: the most exciting – nay, amazing – being that I FOUND BOBBY. To explain, when I had my stroke, I collapsed on the cycle path, where I was luckily found by a man and his dog who were out for an early-morning run. I remember the dog very vividly: it was a lovely black spaniel; it was wearing a flashing disco collar; and its name (perhaps predictably for an heroic, Edinburgh dog) was BOBBY. I remember the man much less clearly, but I am so very glad he was there. This man turned out to be a GP and he knew exactly what had happened to me (I was conscious, but had no clue what was going on). It is thanks to him that, within 20 minutes of having my stroke, I was being seen by the skilled neurologists at the Western General. He may well have saved my life. For the past year, I have wanted to find this man, to thank him. As I walk up and down those paths a lot, I thought I might be likely to run into him, but the problem is that I did not know his name, nor have any idea what he looked like. The dog, however, I did remember: since the advent of Bruce, I see and speak to a lot of dogs in our locale, and I have been on constant look-out for a black spaniel named Bobby. AND THE OTHER DAY, I FINALLY FOUND HIM! I ran into Liz, one of the dog walkers, down by the weir. She always has a jolly pack of hounds with her to whom I like to say hello, and as I approached, I heard her refer to one of them as Bobby. Sure enough, Bobby turned out to be a black spaniel! And when I asked Liz about Bobby’s owner, I discovered that he is a GP; indeed, the very man that helped me! Liz has put me in touch with Andy (for that is his name) and soon I shall finally be able to thank him in person.

I found it very moving meeting BOBBY, for, as you might imagine, he has taken on a near mythic status for me. While I was lying in hospital with my stroke-addled brain, I had many odd recurring dreams, in one of which I was walking with a black dog. It is fair to say, that in the months following my stroke, I developed an interest in, and affection for, dogs that I really did not have before. Hence, this fine fellow:

OK, that’s it for the dogs, then, but what about the sheep? Well, occasionally folk are kind enough to send me the odd woolly treat, and I wanted to say a quick thankyou. At the top of this post are Suzanne‘s sheep, who seemed very happy to play their part in this Christmas’s knitted nativity. I like them so much that I couldn’t bear to put them away after the festive season had passed, so they now live on top of my knitting cabinet. Really, how cute are they? (You can find their maker here — I love the photograph of all the different sheep sizes!) Thankyou, Suzanne!

A little further down the post you see some lengths of Hinnigan’s tweed, that Anne kindly sent me. My love affair with Hinningan’s tweed is long standing. Anne tells me that the shop has now sadly gone from the centre of Selkirk, but you can still buy their fabric through Locharron. Thankyou, Anne!

And last but not least is this beautiful Beiroa yarn from the wonderful Rosa Pomar. I really admire Rosa’s research into Portuguese textile traditions, and this yarn is the fruit of some of that work. The yarn is spun from the fleece of Bordaleira sheep, who live on the slopes of Portugal’s highest mountain range, the Serra da Estrela. These sheep are better known for their delicious cheese, but for many years, their wool has also been used to make woollen capes, which remind me very much of mauds, in the Scottish shepherding tradition. The wool of the Bordaleira sheep is as delicious as their cheese, and Rosa is now putting it to good use for hand-knitters. She soon hopes to produce more yarn from the coloured fleeces of this flock.

The Beiroa really is a lovely 1 ply yarn – just the kind I like – rustic and sheepy and real. I rewound the skein into a cake the other day, and since then have been swatching away. I thought it might knit up like Manx Loaghtan, or one of those similar ancient goat-y breeds, but it has much more spring and body to it. Indeed, it has great bounce and stitch definition (it is a yarn that seems to to demand cables) and I will be interested to see how it behaves when blocked. I sense a hat coming on. . .

. . . hold up a minute , the light is falling on the yarn-cake rather nicely, and now the sheep want to play too. . .

. . the thin sunlight is interesting, coming in through that window . . .

Now you’ve gone too far, Kate! Move away from the sheep!

best fest

herdwick

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

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

monklmorning
Felix & Monkl

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

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

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

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

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

3675903909_d5215e0026

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

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

artisan

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

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

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

fleece

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

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