The sheep now produce a great range of wool ....I like to check out yarn shops, yarn producers and sheep.
The weeks away mostly consisted of wrapping up warm and dragging Hamish out on bracing walks along beaches and up glen paths but whilst staying in Kinlochmoidart recently (and hiding from Storm Ali) I was able to visit a flock of Shetlands with which we have a long-standing relationship. Over the years, we have swapped ewes and tups and supported each other in finding a way forward through the world of wool.
The sheep are based at Sanna, on Ardnamurchan and - we managed to combine a visit to the lighthouse which we hadn't visited since about 2004 with an afternoon's sheep-talk. The terrain is so different from that of East Lothian and the Borders, but the sheep that we have sold on to live here have adapted well and show what great value Shetland sheep are to the small holder and crafter where terrain and conditions can be harsh. The sheep produce a beautifully soft range of wool for West Highland Woollery - check them out on facebook.
The approach of autumn always has me in a frenzy of activity - perhaps it'a a hangover from old lives where September meant the start of the school or university year. This autumn we did our first ever Perth Festival of Yarn and I have to say, we were a bit nervous.
In thinking about how best to showcase our wool at this event I decided on two things:
- hat bunting (to illustrate our undyed and dyed shades working together)
- creating some new shades of dyed wool
The hat bunting was fun to do - although my hands suffered for it. My aim was ten brightly coloured hats but in the end I could only get eight done. And a swift web-based lesson in knitting iCord helped me to display them properly.
I had always been unsure that people would want to 'buy what they can see' but the display certainly helped to spark people's thinking.In picking two new dyed shades, in the end I went for Bramble and Bracken, with the bramble shown below. When not working (or , dyeing wool or knitting hats, I have mainly been bramble and sloe picking ...
Over all, Perth FoY was an incredible event for us: really helpful event team and lots of space so that the venue never felt crushed or crowded. Financially it was very successful and has re-booted our enthusiasm for woolly events. Big thanks to Eva and team!
When I'm at woolly events, I always find myself thinking about the value of things which are have traditionally been classed as 'women's work'. Several encounters this summer have brought this closer to home. We spent a good chunk of Italy in Barga, in the north of Tuscany. Not the Tuscany of a million postcardss: the chianti-shire rolling hills and olive groves with roads flanked by rows of dark cypress trees, but instead a mountainous landscape cloaked in chestnut and pines, where the traditional foods are wild funghi, castagne, mirtilli, lepre and cinghiale. Barga badges itself as 'the most Scottish town in Italy, and is home to a fish and chip festival each summer.
My in-laws - particularly my late mother-in-law, Bianca, and sisters-in-law, Anna and Letizia and cousin-in-law Roberta are skilled in a number of textile-based crafts. I will never forget getting my hands slapped by Bianca before I was patiently shown how to both crochet and knit 'the right way' I think that Italians always have 'the right way' to do things. And they are, generally, right.
I spotted a leaflet for an exhibition subtitled 'Lavori di donne antiche e moderne in mostra' and persuaded Anna to come along with me for essential translation purposes - and also because I knew that she would be able to explain exactly what I was looking at:
Many of the items that I saw looked familiar. So Italian. We have a cottage full of bits and pieces of trimmings, wee cloths and so on all in this similar starched white fresh Italian white cotton or linen. Picked up at markets... It has just become part of how we live.
A lot of the pieces were designed for 'bottom drawers' and for special gifts.
Some of the items on show were made on a massive scale in tiny stitches - lovingly crafted by women working Without Electric Light. My eyes hurt just thinking about it.
And every time I asked a question - and people who know me will testify that I ask a LOT of questions - there was a women on hand to show me exactly how things had been made and stitched. Threading needles and showing me how to do it; explaining the Italian name for each technique.
The curator of the exhibition was a Australian Italian. and was passionate about two things: preserving and highlighting this highly skilled work; and trying to encourage a new generation. Young women who might want to learn these skills. There were local workshops and 'new hands' were able to learn from older ones.
A living tradition as it should be. Such a rich heritage to risk losing it.
2018 was our first visit as stallholders at Woolfest. I have visited a few times in the past; as a customer and also as a helper on the Shetland Sheep Society stand. I have always come away awestruck by just how creative and entrepreneurial so many people are, and inspired to do more myself.
Applying to 'do' Woolfest was a big decision: it is a multi-day undertaking requiring accommodation and paid-for doggy-care, as well as travel costs and stall fees. We were encouraged to apply for a mini-stall; an initiative run by Woolfest to encourage new and smaller sellers. I worked hard on the application and was both excited and scared to find out that I had gained a place at this year's event.
Despite still being short of stock (because my missing 16kg of spun wool is still mislaid by Parcelforce), I worked hard in the weeks leading up to the event: weighing, re-skeining; dyeing; drying; labelling ....
We set up on the Thursday afternoon and were finished quite quickly which meant we could help out our neighbouring stall-holders. Especially Paolo, as he has Long Arms Which Can Reach Things. Our stall didn't look too bad and - as we were in a bit of a dark corner - we felt we had lightened it up as best we could.
We'd booked a farm cottage about 30 minutes stunning drive away, which was blissfully quiet.
The Festival is open Friday and Saturday, and it was great to meet people who were interested in the wool and its provenance. People had questions (some challenging ones!) about sheep-farming practice and we were able to bust some myths.
The quality of the wool speaks for itself and people - some of whom expect Shetland wool to be 'scratchy' were pleasantly surprised at how soft it is.
The dyed wool went down well and people seemed able to imagine how they could work the greys, moorits, natural whites and dyed shades together. The names of the shades, and the inspiration behind them was also a great talking point.
It was exhausting and the days seemed very long - something to do with standing on concrete, I think!
It was an enjoyable event for us - we got to meet new customers (and old ones), as well as some useful conversations with other stall holders and designers. I managed to avoid buying much wool (just some John Arbon Devonia for another shawl, and some Blane Norwegian wool to finish a sweater I'm working on.
But I did buy a wee hook-rug kit in the shape of a fish. It's now finished and I love it!
On the Sunday, we ventured to the Woolclip's shop in Caldbeck which is definitely worth a visit.
We took this photo of a neighbouring field last month - when everything was still very fresh and green. It does not look the same now!
The lambs - which were so tiny back in April have really grown, with some of the larger lambs now almost as big as their mothers. To watch two huge lambs diving for their mother's milk with such strength that they lift the ewes back-end off of the ground is funny to see, but the ewes are starting to look a bit fed up of the whole business of providing milk to such boisterous and independent off-spring. We will probably wean off the lambs in late August, moving the ewes a few miles away to a different field, where they have nothing to do but eat and regain condition.
We lost two lambs over the last few months - and each occasion was very sad. One lamb developed CCN - a brain illness - and the other who we nursed carefully for over a month - never really recovered from being abandoned by her mother (and stolen by another ewe) at birth. Both times we were able to take the lambs to our local vet to have them euthanised. It's very upsetting for us as we spend a lot of time with our sheep (and even more with the ill ones!) and grow attached to them.
We had to bottle feed two lambs for the first momth or so after they were born. The ewe birthed twins but would only ever feed one. If the second lamb tried to feed she would butt it away. However, she did not reject the lamb outright (as sometimes happens). It turned out that the ewe really only just had enough milk for one lamb and so had made a decision not to feed the second.
There's a wee film clip below showing the paler lamb (the one not being fed by mum) looking a lot quieter and less active than her sister. We kept the three of them in a pen for over a week so that mum got used to the idea of both lambs being around.
We ended up feeding both of them and the ewe later came to allow both lambs to nurse for what milk there was. Four feeds a day become three, then two, then one and now both lambs are fully independent. Having been bottle-fed, they are irrepressible, and the first to run up when we arrive at the field each day. The lambs are currently called Tillie and TillieToo but we will have to find proper names, soon. Here is TillieToo getting stuck in to the bottle...
It was a tricky lambing period over all with some new challenges for us but lambs now seem healthy, happy and are growing fast.