Category: gathering

shearing day

shearing dayshearing dayIt’s a chilly Autumn morning, at the start of October last year. We’re stood shivering in the yard of a local mountain barn, wellies on our feet, scarves wrapped round our necks, the baby bundled up beneath layers of cardigans nestled on my chest. The farmer and his helpers have been up to their elbows in sheep and wool since first thing. The yard smells of machine oil, manure and sweat. The trimmers buzz, the sheep bleet loudly as they scrabble around on the cobblestones and the workers say very little. The air is thick with dust and fibres, and as a light drizzle starts to fall, I wonder if it really was a good idea for us to bring the baby up to this barn this morning. But he is unperturbed by all the excitement and sleeping soundly in the scarf, no doubt lulled off to sleep by the whirring of the shears and the shouting of the men as they wrangle each ewe from the barn and across to where the shearer is working furiously.

” Numero 50017. 50176. 10237, laisse le cou.”

“ Numbers 50017. 50176. 10237, leave her neck.”

It takes less than two minutes for the shearer to undress each sheep. The farmer and two of his helpers gather up fleeces as they fall from the animal to the ground. After a few minutes, the farmer approaches me, with what looks like a cloud in his arms. All be it, a very grimy cloud, covered in bits of straw and dung. He gestures to me to touch and I reach out across the gate. The wool is still warm from the sheep. Running my fingers through the locks, I imagine this must be what it feels like to pluck just-laid eggs from a hen’s nest. Oddly intimate. A few seconds ago this fleece was part of a living animal, protecting it from the elements all year long.

For this sheep farmer, who raises his flock not for the spinning mill but rather the slaughter house, shearing day is the end of the production line (for the wool) and just another necessary aspect (and expense) to his farming year Now the wool has been removed from the sheep, it’s status as a protective covering for an agricultural product (sheep) has been reduced, to that of a category 3 animal by-product. Current EU legislation sees no difference between the sack of warm fleeces in the farm yard and catering waste, slaughter house waste & “former food”. Meaning it’s value as a precious, renewable and sustainable agricultural resource has depreciated to that of an item of (at worst) hazardous agricultural waste or (at best) an animal by-product. At least the wool from this clip, destined to be turned into thick woollen blankets by the local blanket makers, is still considered valuable enough to just about pay for the expense of the shearer. But sadly it is not the case for many farmers and their fleeces here in France, in my native Britain, indeed all across the EU. Often just the cost of transport versus what a farmer is paid for raw fleece often makes it economically invalid to send wool to be spun in mills. Which for a local wool enthusiast like me seems like a very sorry state of affairs.

By half past ten, the men are halfway through the flock and they pause briefly to drink a slurp of coffee, brought out on a tray by the farmer’s wife. If she is nonplussed to find an British girl in waterproofs stood somewhat awkwardly in a corner of the farm yard, she is surprised to discover I have a three month old baby snuggled up on my chest. Before we are allowed to leave, she ushers us in to the cosy warmth of the adjoining barn, where a fire is burning merrily in the grate and a big pot of garbure (the local hearty mutton stew) has been slowly bubbling since first light. The shearing will soon be over, but the day is not yet finished. The men (and lone lady shearer…) will soon be joined by various wives and family members to sit down and enjoy a hearty lunch by the fire as the freshly shorn sheep are left shivering out in the drizzle. Twice we are invited to stay and join them at their table. As tempting as it is, the babe is starting to stir and we’d rather get back down to the valley. We don’t leave empty handed however. As we prepare to leave, the farmer hands me three bags full of lovely greasy fleeces (2 white fleeces & 2 black) to take with me back down the mountain.

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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a good yarn : barégeoise

barégeoise yarnWhen our babe was just a few weeks old, I dropped by one afternoon to our local blanket maker’s to proudly show him off to the owner and his wife. The last time they had seen me, I was just a week off giving birth, and had waddled in searching for an emergency skein of yarn to finish off his first blanket…

After a happy ten minutes of the owner’s wife cooing over baby, I inadvertently came back home with four skeins of freshly milled yarn, made using wool reared & sheared in our valley from the local breed of Barégeoise sheep. Oops!

barégeoise_yarnI wasn’t supposed to be buying any more yarn then. But it was hard to resist those smooshy skeins; from the light & lofty woollen spin of the yarn, to the creamy, subtly flecked oatmeal shade (obtained by the light blending of a dash of natural black with the white fleeces), this yarn was just perfect for a first post-partum knitting project I had in mind. And the fact that the yarn was spun using fleeces from the Autumn 2014 clip of wool (when I was in the first few weeks of pregnancy) made it even more irresistible.

barégeoise_yarnDo you have any extra special skeins of yarns in your stash? If so, I’d love to hear about them below!

out of the mist

autumn mists

This is what early autumn feels like in our mountains : misty and chilly when we wake up to find our view eclipsed by the clouds that sit on the neighbouring mountain top. They hang like a thick veil across the sky, obscuring everything until the sun finally breaks through in the late morning.

It is already October. Already a year has gone by since I moved into this space, when our baby was just three months old. I had so many intentions and plans, all of which have steadily fallen by the wayside as the year has unfolded. Because although the words, the motivation and the dreams have been there deep down inside, I’ve been struggling to let them out into the fresh air. Partly because I’ve been undecided about just how much I want to document and share about our daily life as three. But mainly because in the grand scheme of things, blogging hasn’t really been my greatest priority this past year.

Because underneath this silence, that has hung like a mist, so much life has happened. Twelve months that have passed by in a haze spent with a dear little boy we feel we have always known. Such a joyful time this has been for us three. And also such a time of learning & discovery. Becoming a parent is an enormous challenge for anyone. Becoming a parent when you suffer from a long term chronic illness makes things just that little more interesting.

So whilst much has had to be put on the back burner, just knowing this little place existed, was waiting patiently for me has been such a comfort. It’s been like an anchor, of sorts. Now one year on, it feels as if I am slowly emerging out of the mist of early motherhood.

And so I return to this little place.  A place to gather all my crafts together, to delight in slow & sustainable wool. Wool that’s been grown, gathered, spun & dyed in our mountains: hand-spun on spindle & wheel, dyed with plants, knitted on my needles.

More news to come, no doubt. But first a night of sleep. And then a mug of steaming rooibos tea. Lots of rooibos.