Friday, 23 June 2017

In the Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski - Review

A signed copy of 'In the Footsteps of Sheep' by Debbie Zawinski came to me as an unexpected gift at such a fraught time in my family that I even forgot to send a thank you letter. Life has only really settled back toward normal recently and as is the way of things, instead of relaxing and enjoying the headspace, I've been irritable and uptight. In my hands, even the finest merino and softest silk have been spun into stringency. After a couple of abortive attempts to begin new projects, I went digging through bags of unfinished knitting and rediscovered this book.  


In The Footsteps Of Sheep, Debbie Zawinski journeys to the places in Scotland most native to its indigenous breeds of sheep. Often free camping in remote spots, she forages for bits of fleece that the sheep have shed about the countryside, then packs up her gear and walks on next day, spinning the wool into yarn using only a stick. Engaged by the immediacy and honesty of her writing, I was wrong to assume that this kind of enterprise would make a worthy, but soporific bedtime read. Morning found me waking late, walking the dog and talking with my companion, Elinor Gotland, enthusing over the whole notion and keen to try it myself. 

"That Debbie sounds like a nutter to me, Beaut." 
My companion gave up objecting and found herself a sheltered spot for a smoke on the headland while the dog hunted rabbits and I scrambled about in the gorse and brambles, collecting whatever wool had not been blown away by gale force winds.
"On the contrary, my dear Gotland." I plumped myself down beside her and started to pick the thorns out of a handful of fibres. "Debbie Zawinski has kept exactly the clarity of purpose I have lost. Once upon a time, my heart's desire was to spin fleece from local sheep and knit in natural colours."
"Fair play, you did try. I remember the Huxtable jumper - so thick and heavy you could hardly move. And the Welsh Mountain - what a rainbow of canary stained cable that was. Then there was a Blue Texel. Didn't you turn it into bath mats in the end?"
"Hmm, well, me wearing a handspun, native wool jumper has plainly turned into an abandoned dream. I've been running astray, shopping for indie dyed, mill processed luxury fibres, forgetting why I started spinning in the first place. Look at this wool, rain washed, imbued with local character." I held it out to show her and yelped as a couple of gorse spines stabbed into my thumb.


Elinor examined my salvaged fleece as we walked on. She turned to me.
"Imbued with your very own DNA. You've got blood on it now. Will you listen if I tell you you're going astray again? Think about it. This month, Gethin the shearer is working himself into the ground and your friend Mary will give you as much Speckled Face Beulah shearling fleece as you want. Here you are, wasting time on kempy old crap off the back end of some random crossbred ewe." 
"In Scotland, they call these bits of wool 'henty lags'. Come on, I'm going down the beach to find a driftwood stick to learn to spin with."


Spinning on a stick is simple, portable, satisfying fun. There are so many things I enjoyed about the book. The little maps showing routes taken on ferries, buses and of course, on foot. The evocative pictures of places and people, Shetland, Hebridean, Scottish Blackface, Boreray, Soay, North Country Cheviot, North Ronaldsay, Castlemilk Moorit, Cheviot and Bowmont sheep. The best thing of all is Debbie Zawinski's style. OK, she is earnest in her heartfelt responses to landscapes and her fascination with the creatures which inhabit them, yet her courage and determination to travel among them is never cast in heroic mould. Speeding across the sea on a small ferry to St Kilda 'is a symphony of sound and motion, almost a ballet; rhythmic, hypnotic. I catch myself dozing, head lolling backwards and mouth hanging open; hopefully no one has noticed.' Time after time, I caught myself smiling in recognition and fellow feeling.
At Spinning Camp last week, I read a chapter aloud. 'Here on this desolate and rugged chunk of metamorphic rock with thousands of clangourous sea birds for companions live a flock of feral sheep; the Boreray sheep." Spinners fell silent hearing Debbie's daring plans to collect fleece from Boreray island, all of us could empathise with her fears as she was told she would have to swim or climb the last part of the approach. My copy of the book was handed round and added to several wish lists.


Finding no valve in my air mattress and spending the first night in my tent turning in a rotisserie of pain on the cold, hard ground, reminded me that however much I might like to identify with Debbie's self sufficiency and back to basics willingness to physically involve herself with both living and spinning in the wild, I lack her steel. Laying aside my driftwood stick and henty lags, after shopping for a new air mattress, I did spin a substantial amount of a Black Welsh Mountain lamb's fleece.


Each chapter of the book ends with a knitting pattern 'ten pairs of very different socks, each geared to the perceived needs of the recipient, the particular characteristics of the fleece I was working with and inspiration from their attendant story'. All look beautiful and have directions for sizing and making up with commercially available yarns.


Temporarily forswearing beaded lace shawls, reading the book at camp renewed my motivation to complete a pair of toe up Speckled Face Beulah socks, part dyed with yellow cosmos, which have been occupying my best circular needle since well before Christmas. Intending to finish with a flourish by copying the cable turnover given in the kilt sock pattern, I overestimated my powers once again. Simply switching to cable pulled the cuff in far too tight for the human foot to pass through. Still, here are my primitive socks, finished in ordinary ribbing and here am I, content with ordinary Welsh fleece and working toward a Black Welsh Mountain and plant dyed Beulah handspun jumper. Whether that turns out well or not, I thank Debbie Zawinski for reconnecting me with the significance of homegrown handspun. 


In The Footsteps of Sheep
by Debbie Zawinski
Published by Schoolhouse Press
printed in the USA
April 2015
softcover
ISBN-10:0-942018-38-9

Friday, 9 June 2017

Spinning and Knitting Space Dyed Wool Tops

"Of all the dyed tops you could have chosen, from all the stalls at Wonderwool Wales, tell me, what possessed you to pick that grey and brown?"
My companion, Elinor Gotland, was more partial to the hot pink stuff also dyed and sold by MandaCraftsWhile its colours may be subtler, my purchase was an exquisitely soft blend of fine merino wool with an added sheen of silk.


"I was thinking of making something for my nephew. Secure as he is in his own masculinity, I don't suppose he would get too much wear out of your selection. Plumbers can get away with fancy tattoos, but maybe not pink woolly scarves." Leaving Elinor among the daisies, I hastened away to start spinning. 
The quality of this fibre was not the only reason for my excitement. Last year, I bought a Schacht Reeves spinning wheel from a friend who had found it didn't suit a left handed spinner. Meeting up at Wonderwool, I had to confess the wheel had spent the winter decorating my hall, with me too nervous to use it. Returning home I felt shamed into plucking up the necessary courage.
After fiddling about a bit to find its sweet spot, the Schacht was spinning like a dream, gentle treadling putting in a huge amount of twist which enabled me to spin a far finer single than I usually manage on Roger, my Ashford Traveller. Spinning short forward draw, back and forth across the top of the opened braid, the bobbin filled with pure colour bands and gentle transitions.
The dyed sections of the braid were closely spaced and I noticed that as I drafted across each change, individual fibres had one part of their staple length in one colour and one part in the next. Fascinating to watch the gradual shift in tone along the single, I kept stopping to admire the bobbin. In order to make a yarn that preserved this flow, I set to Navajo plying. After washing the yarn, while loving the colours and proud of the fingering weight 3 ply spinning, the finished skein did not feel as luxuriously smoochy as I had imagined. In retrospect, spinning any fibre worsted with quite such high twist would be bound to reduce its softness.
While spinning, I had been wondering how best to show off my medium/short length colour changes. In stocking stitch, even the width of a small scarf would barely get one whole row in each colour and the transitions would not be long enough to separate the stripes. The mitred square knitting technique is clearly explained in the free pattern for The Coziest Memory blanket.
Very straightforward to knit, though time consuming in fingering weight yarn on number 11 needles. I could manage about two little squares while watching TV of an evening. "See, Elinor, how beautiful grey and brown can be. Look at the way each square holds its own colour transitions."
"Fair play, Beaut, nice square. Shame you won't have enough yarn to make that scarf."
Aaaagh, she was quite right, damn her. 
The garter stitch squares were also yarn consuming and one sixteen square block had used up more than half my fibre. I tore the remaining braid of fibre across its width into three equal lengths and spun them onto three bobbins, then plied all three together. No attempt to keep the colours together, the result of this experiment would show what blending random chance might bring.
Each of the little squares was 23 stitches across. I cast on 92 + 92 stitches and knitted one big square, carrying on with grey Shetland yarn when I ran out toward the top right corner. The outer edges of the square held quite distinct colours and rather lovely mottled transitions, while the colours had been variably blended in plying the yarn that knitted the inner part. The overall effect is more muted than that given by Navajo plying, with much longer, slower colour changes. 
"I do like the colours on this side, but I think the big square has something of an abstract pointilliste painting."
"Art, is it? Best ring the Royal Academy and tell them to hold a space in the Summer Exhibition."
"Don't be such a hardarse, Elinor. You can see very well that I've crocheted the pieces together and stuffed them to make a cushion."
"Just as well you spun that fibre into a death twist, Beaut. At least the yarn is tough enough to cope with a hard arse."

Friday, 2 June 2017

Dyeing Yarn with Silver Birch Bark in a Long Colour Change

Not long til we go to Somerset for Spinning Camp. So much to look forward to, not least the promise of a turn at weaving a shawl on a friend's seven foot triloom. In preparation, I went digging through my stash, searching for 400 metres of double knitting wool. The skeins of Coburg Fuchschaf sheepswool yarn which I bought last year in Berlin feel more durable and strong than smoochy soft, but I'd been advised to choose some wool on the tougher side, as fulling a woven shawl will improve the handle of the final fabric. 

Such expert advice is one of the many joys of the company of spinners. Apparently, the best effects in triloom weaving come from using a long colour change yarn. Though there may well be better ways of setting yourself up to do this, before scouring and dyeing the yarn, I wrapped each of my 200m skeins round the top of a clothes horse, making between 10 and 20 turns and tying a marker of scrap yarn around them, before moving down to a lower point, wrapping another set of turns, tying a marker, moving down to the lowest point, wrapping and tying, then coming back up and down again, making more bundles at each of the three points til the yarn ran out. Each of my three sections ended up with several sets of wrapped turns, linked by short trails of loose yarn. The three sections were secured individually with loose cotton ties in four places. Clouds of lanolin floated out from the yarn during a hot soak with detergent. Given the awkwardness of transferring each triple bundle of yarn, trying not to twist up the lengths of yarn running between the sections, I was grateful I had made up a pot of bark dye, so the wool would not need to be mordanted.


Four hundred grammes of freshly peeled silver birch bark had had a week to soak in a pot of water and then been simmered for an hour or two and left overnight to cool before being sieved out. The natural pH of the resultant dye bath was slightly acidic. Adding some soda ash to alkalinise a test sample in a jam jar made the colour look deeper and redder, so I brought the whole dye bath up just above neutral. I'd like to have made it properly alkaline, but feared a high pH might make the yarn weak and too rough to be redeemed by any amount of fulling.


The two skeins, with their complicated sets of ties, in total measuring 400m and weighing 200g, were launched sopping wet into the dye pot and simmered en masse. The first time I tried silver birch bark dye, the outcome was a pale pink and I blamed the nature of the wool for the poor uptake of colour. This Coburg Fuchschaf yarn started out a goldish cream colour and had only turned palest orangey pink in the first hour of simmering, despite having twice the weight ratio of birch bark as my my first attempt. Damn, damn, damn. What the hell, this time, I turned up the heat a little and gave it another hour, which did deepen the colour considerably. The wool had become impressively red after four hours, when I turned off the gas and left it to cool overnight.


Now to dye the long colour change sections in different shades. Adding dissolved iron to one pot of water and dissolved copper to another, I managed to separate each of the skeins into its three constituent bundles and land one in the copper pot, the next in the iron, keeping the third just as it was. After heating them for half an hour, I wanted to rinse out the copper and iron as soon as the skeins were cool enough to handle. This became a total logistic nightmare of shuffling the linked hot pots towards the sink, rinsing sections separately in order not the cross contaminate the colours.


Once dried, I could compare the silver birch dye results with my previous efforts. The deeper colours may well be due to prolonged heat. On the left is the unmodified pinky orange, in the middle, the saddened brown of iron modification and on the right, I think the best result, with copper adding a purple cast to the pink.

It took nearly an hour to wind each skein into a ball, undoing the ties on the main three sections then working back through each set of wraps, saying to myself 'Patience is a virtue.', knowing full well that being methodical was the only way to avoid a rats' nest of yarn. I do look forward to seeing the effect of weaving it on the triloom, though the shawl is going to have to be pretty spectacular to persuade me to dye yarn in a long colour change again. Thinking about it now, it would be more straightforward to dye fibre, then spin the colours in different lengths. I used the remaining silver birch bath to dye a silk scarf in a contact dye bundle. The pinky red came out beautifully on silk and though the garden dye plants are still juvenile, their leaves are already giving out some colour. Here's hoping the sun will shine in June, on plants and campers alike.