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

Edited to add - I hear you can buy direct from the author here and have a signed copy :)


  1. Is that you Fran in the photo? Living is for trying dreams in real life, I think. Nobody's getting any younger (maybe you in that photo!) I have wanted to try collecting wool off the ground since you mentioned it years ago in posts so I guess you are our Debbie Zawinski!

    1. That's me, but I'm not in Debbie's league :)

  2. Thank you for your wonderful review of Debbie's book. She's my friend and yes, she is a nutter but in the most amazing of ways! She's an inspiration to these of us who know her, whether spinners, crafters or not. She guided my first steps into spinning with enthusiasm rather than just spinning by rote, and the lesson has never left me.

    PS: Try the ribbing on the Castlemilk Moorit pattern. ;)