Month: November 2016

November, in wool

wovemberWALcsc_0319Outside the home, the November mornings have been adrift with fog in pockets of the valley. There was the first snowfalls of this autumn, which have had us reaching for the woolly clothes during the day and the woolly blankets at night.

Inside, things have been rather busy in our little family, leaving little time for the more energetic or involved woolly pursuits (fibre preparation, spinning, natural dyeing…) once the sun has gone down.

I have however managed to find some little pockets of time in between for some Wovembering – reading, researching, sharing and plenty of reflecting. This month dedicated to wool has given me much to think about in terms of both my own crafting practices and some of the wider woolly questions of the industry here in France and also across Europe. I am excited at the prospect of slowly working through some the strands in the coming months and sharing them here, when time and energy allow.

I have also managed a little knitting in the evenings. I cast off a second Quynn hat for our little man just in time for the first snows. I have also been working on my WovemberWAL project (I am on the verge of casting off as I write) as well as a series of little woollen love hearts improvised from some hand spun scraps. I’m thinking of scribbling down the pattern, let me know if you’d be interested?

What have you been doing with wool this past month?

fleece

Raw fleece

For the past two years, corners of our house have been filled with bags of greasy, dirty, lanolin covered fleeces, gathered directly from local farms at shearing time. Little by little, I have been working my way through them, learning as I go about skirting & sorting but also experimenting with a variety of scouring processes. Every stage is an opportunity to learn something new, even when I get things ‘wrong’. And therefore further expand my knowledge of these rawest of materials. This knowledge guides my feet & fingers when sat at the wheel making yarn, but also when I am preparing for a knitting or crochet project.  There seem to be as many variations within individual fleeces as there are between the different breeds of sheep who have kindly gifted me their woolly coats. I know I am still far from unravelling all the mysteries of wool & fleece!

sheep

baregeoise-1

It might already be apparent to those of you reading here or elsewhere that I love wool. I’m fascinated by everything that the world of wool has to offer us and it seems that I have, quite unintentionally, made it one of my life goals to surround myself with all things wool related. Wool, as my beloved dictionary tells me is the “outer coat that grows on sheep” that is “used to make things such as clothes, blankets and carpets“. It seems so simple and obvious. And yet.

I have a confession to make.  

I grew up in the West Country, in the beautiful county of Dorset. An area, like much of Britain, whose countryside is quintessential sheep rearing country.   And yet it wasn’t until recently, very recently, that I started paying attention to sheep. Really paying attention.

Like most people, I could recognise a sheep when I saw one. They have woolly coats, live in fields, eat grass and have lambs in spring. But those basic things apart, sheep were only sheep. I would not have been able to name the specific breed. Or what part of the world it belonged to. Or known what it was doing in that particular field or why it was there.

It was only in 2014 when I first started seriously becoming interested in where my yarn came from that I began to realise that not all sheep are the same. That there are different breeds which have been developed over time to become adapted to the land they live on. And that these adaptations make for an infinite number of possibilities, in terms of shape and size and character of the animal. And therefore also in the fleece.

Quite soon after taking up the wheel and spindle in spring 2014, I realised that these new activities had opened up a new source of joy for me. Living in a sheep rearing valley in the French Pyrénées, it was possible to spin yarn from sheep I’ve met. Or as Annie Claire has so beautifully put it, “to tighten the gap between pasture and pullover”, as it were.

From the moment I was invited to select my first fleeces from a friend’s farm, I felt a deep rooted satisfaction when I held my first finished skeins in my hands. Knowing that I’d worked with it from raw, stinky fleece through to final, washed and blocked yarn. Even if it was a bit lumpy and bumpy.

So far, all of the raw fleeces I’ve worked with have come from sheep that were born and raised in the valley where I live. Some from the local rare breed the Barégeoise, (see the photo above). Other fleeces came from other traditional (French) South West stock. Beginner that I was, very early on into my experiments I nonetheless started noticing differences in the way the fleeces responded to the various stages involved in spinning yarn: scouring, carding, spinning, plying and blocking. It quickly became apparent that if I were to do justice to the fleeces, it was important to become familiar not only with the various characteristics of the breeds but also the history and fibre traditions associated with each.

Perhaps one day, we’ll have a  patch of land. Where we’ll live in a tiny round house made of fleece and spend our days getting grubby. Him tending to a little permaculture veggie plot, me looking after a little dye garden and our own (tiny) flock of sheep. Then I’ll not only be able to meet the sheep whose fleeces I work with, but I’ll know them intimately.

Until then, I can enjoy the wondrous fibres by working directly with fleeces and yarns that have been grown elsewhere and cared for by other hands. And so in keeping with my personal slow wool project, I’ve decided to start sharing some of my sheepy discoveries and experiments with breed specific fleeces and yarns from here in France, my native Britain and perhaps, occasionally, a little further afield.

intentions

It would be easy to awaken from recent news with a heavy heart. But I know if I give myself up to the sadness and displacement I feel, come mid-morning my heart would be too heavy to carry. And I have far too many important things to do here in the home this morning. So instead of giving myself over to disappointment and fear, I am resolving to find renewal in my role as a mother to a little boy, who one day will grow to be a man. To remember that our true life is here in our home and that our role models, and our son’s, are to be found firstly here in our family and within our wider community. So I shall keep on nursing my growing toddler, read picture books with him, stroke his back as he falls asleep, bake him cakes and cook him lentils. We will take him outside every day to play in the fields and the woods, we shall marvel at the mountains. And we will do our very best to raise him a better man.

 

slow wool

spinning wheel

An idea was cast on in the back of my mind about the middle of 2014. Since then, there has been a baby and this whole new life as a mama to get my head (& heart) around. But all the while, in those quiet moments between, I’ve been listening and reading and crafting and dreaming. And just like a piece of knitting, those different strands have been slowly growing and growing. Recently, the time felt right to pick up those ideas again and try them on for size, just as I might a pair of socks in progress. That idea is slow wool

It might sound pretentious. Or possible a tiny bit hippy dippy. But I don’t really mind. For me, it’s more than a concept, or a label. Rather, it’s a coming together of a variety of different threads into a coherent expression of my personal understanding and approach to a natural resource which I’ve come to love deeply. A woolly manifesto, of sorts.

So here are some of those threads…

Slow wool expresses first and foremost a personal love affair with a natural material which has been quietly unfolding since I moved permanently to France in 2012.

But why wool, you might ask? Wool is a natural resource. It is 100% sustainable, biodegradable and renewable. It can be utilized in an infinite number of uses. To insulate our homes. To stuff the mattresses on our beds. To weave the carpets beneath our feet or the cloth on our backs. It’s fibres can be rubbed together to produce felt, for making blankets or slippers or oven gloves. Or twisted together to produce yarn, which in turn can be transformed with knitting needles, crochet hook or loom. In almost all cultures on the world, wool has been the golden thread running through our shared histories.

Wool in all it’s many beautiful forms can be processed in a way which is respectful to the land on which it is grown. To the sheep from whose backs it is shorn. And to the human hands which skilfully work with it to transform it from raw material into finished item. Or not.

Slow wool is therefore partly my own quiet resistance to mass production. To fast fashion. To disrespectful treatment of the land, of animals and of fellow human beings. It is a conscious decision to embrace the art of authentic craft and pure raw materials, to seek the stories behind the fibres that run through my fingers. To create not only with my hands, but also my head and my heart. It was born of my dismay at many of the current realities of the wool industry both locally and world wide. It also grew from a desire to make a deeper connection to the landscape and sheep rearing traditions of the Pyrenean valley where I have chosen to make my home.

And on a more personal note,  slow wool also serves as a reminder to myself to be more mindful in my making. To refuse to be rushed. To pace myself. To not put too much pressure on myself to produce. As Inge put it so succinctly, to remember that “I am not a factory“.

I believe deeply that the acceptance of slow is essential to create beautiful things. But also for me to live well and sustainably within the confines of my chronic health condition, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS). Refusing to be rushed, slow wool is therefore also a conscious reminder to myself to take things one step at a time.

wool stories

Slow Wool from the French Pyrénées

And so here we are once again at the start of Wovember – a month dedicated to the pursuit of celebrating & exploring wool for what it is and all those fabulous folks who produce it. It’s a subject very close to my heart: wool and the way we interact with it. So I’ve decided to start gathering some of my own woolly discoveries together with you in a regular post – Wool Stories. It will feature tales of the wool and wool producers that I’ve encountered, discovered & gathered here in France, in my own native country of Britain. And perhaps sometimes further afield.

Like any practice, both growing & working with wool can be done in a quick, easy, chemically assisted (!), harmful way. Or it can be done slowly, naturally, lovingly. Personally I choose the latter (for various reasons which I’ll talk about later in the month) and I’m drawn to other people who have chosen the same path. We seem to be kindred spirits, people who create for pleasure, discovery and to reduce our environmental impact. Because as Joanne so rightly commented last year, “Wovember everyday!”.

I can’t wait to share more soon! Until then, I can highly recommend taking a little trip over to the Wovember blog to see what’s happening this year…or to the archives to explore a wealth of wondrous woolly resources.

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