Thursday, 27 October 2011

Turning the clocks back

It's one of those wet and windy autumn nights a few days from Halloween.  The clocks go back by an hour here in England this weekend, marking the start of the darkest third of the year.  But poems bring the darkness to light, in our minds at least.  This time of year puts me in mind of Robert Louis Stevenson's poem 'Windy Nights' about the ghostly rider.  It starts: "Whenever the moon and stars are set, whenever the wind is high, all night long in the dark and wet, a man goes riding by..."  A wonderfully evocative entry into the season of dark nights for a child, especially if, like me, as soon as you were put to bed you'd get out of it again and stare at the stars in the autumn night sky.

Watching the moon and stars became even more real as my sons grew and I took them to Cambridge Young Astronomers, with their Star Parties and telescope viewing evenings open to all.  Some of the most amazing sites we saw were in the silent pitch black of a farmer's yard in the countryside where the Cambridge Astronomical Association had a telescope in a barn and offered tours of the universe to enthusiastic amateurs like us.  Even now if I go outside of an autumn evening the first thing I look at is the sky, to see what's up, as if it somehow confirms my humble place in the cosmos.

All this star-gazing has emerged in my great woolliness too, first in a felt piece I made a few years back, trying unwisely to capture clouds running across the moon on a windy night.  Some exciting moonshine-looking fibre then came my way via a sale at Rampton Spinners, which I stashed until I'd accumulated a selection of other moonlit might colours to spin together into a skein I called 'Midnight Skies'.  I can't resist all those mysterious blues, greys and silvers.  'Silver' of course is the title of a picture-filled poem about  moon-watching by Walter de la Mare - some of you may remember it from school. It begins: "Slowly, silently, now the moon walks the night in her silver shoon ..."

The return of any rain at all to the deserts of East Anglia is certainly welcome - we desperately need it - but the flip side of course is having to bring yarns inside for drying instead of using the greenhouse.  It's just too damp in there overnight.  And finding space for a big yarn clock dripping with wet Teeswater locks is no mean feat in a busy house.   

It's soon going to be time to start secreting handfuls of needing-to-dry fleece on the radiators too, and that'll make me doubly unpopular.  I don't find anything perturbing about the calming scent of slightly damp sheep wafting about .....but then I am, if you'll pardon the pun, a "dyed in the wool" yarnie.  Others in the house however make it plain that they're not, so autumn does bring its limits!

Autumn is a thoughtful but promising time of year, full of colour.  Even the wet pavements (sidewalks) can become "...streets of shining jet..." as Irene Thompson's poem 'Rainy Nights' says. So if you're turning back the clocks this weekend, mentally or physically,  remember beauty comes in many forms and is out there somewhere, even on dark wet rainy nights, if we make the effort to find it. 

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Turner Prize - for yarn?

"It's all about the materials," said Baltic Gallery curator Laurence Sillars on Radio 4's 'Today'  this morning, talking about the Turner Prize shortlisted artists' exhibition which opened there today.  Well I thoroughly agree with you, sir. 

Life wouldn't be worth living without contrasting textures, structures and rhythms. That's what inspires me to experiment with the yarns I make.  Not that skeins of highly textured, richly-coloured yarns would win me the Turner Prize - I'm just past their prize-awaring age anyway!  But given into the hands of shortlisted candidate Karla Black they might stand a chance...  Maybe I should ask if she'd consider collaboration! 

Cross-fertilisation is a wonderful thing.  When I was little, sewing machines were for making clothes and furnishings.  Now, by combining their technology with the artistic mind of the embroiderer, they've become broad brushes being weilded by deeply creative textile artists like Pauline Verrinder, and by groups like Out of the Fold, whose stitched and dyed textiles exhibition starts this Saturday at Cavern 4 in Bury St Edmunds. 

Machine embroidery, fabric embellishment and the like have liberated the sewing machine from pure functionality and allowed it to soar to new creative heights.  There's a similar flow afoot in the spinning world with growing numbers of small-scale art yarn producers like me, each putting our individual twist into what we do.  And like the Turner Prize shortlisted artists, for us too it's "all about the materials". 

We spinners live in an intensly tactile world.  The varying textures of fleece from different sheep,  the fluffy bits, hairy bits and curly bits each has to offer, let alone all the extras you can add, from sparkles and beads to silk, shells and driftwood, give the same limitless possibilities as artist's collage.  There's no big sponsored prize for us, but we get by in our own way, with an appreciative pat on the back from fellow spinners, knitters, and the textile community.  And I for one am satisfied with that.   

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Nowhere to hide .....

Oops! My fleece is showing - all round the house in fact, and in the greenhouse!  It's no good, I can't hide it any longer.  I fully admit to  fleece addiction.  There are just so many sheep out there to try!  I don't know how Lydia at Shearer's Girl Yarns restrains herself with all the fleece that passes through her hands each year.  I have about as much resistance as I have to dark chocolate when offered!

This summer's fleece finds started with a Leicester Longwool - a chocolate one, which I'd desired since I saw the breed at WonderWool Wales in 2010. It's currently resident in the greenhouse, waiting for washing.  At Fibre-East, the lovely ladies from The Farm Animal Sanctuary who care so much about animals had brought loads of fleece with them for spinners to buy.  I picked up two Gotland cross fleeces and a light Hill Radnor, all of which are taking natural dyes nicely. 

I've picked some elderberries to try on the Gorland's soft greys. I also like the sound of the blues created by turtle beans, as recommended on The Ways of the Whorl - they look very much worth trying. That's why the dyeing equipment is still in the kitchen ...along with the fleece!  The Farm Animal Sanctuary's fleeces have been meticulously skirted by Ravelry's MoonMoss, herself a spinner, so she knows how we like to find a fleece when buying.
I have to admit to picking up two more fleeces for £2 each from a friend at a Thursday spinning group in Hadstock - uncertain breeds but possibly Suffolk crosses.  Last but not least another friend's cousin with an organic smallholding in Herefordshire (alas not on the web yet)  has interesting fleeces so I bought the  a Jacob's cross fleece from a sheep called Greyling.  The wool really reminds me of the reds in the soils in that part of the world - and it's not just in the dirt when you wash it!  You can truly see a pink tinge to it:  can't wait to try that one.

Mind you, it will have to get in the queue behind the remnants of last year's fleece bonanza - namely a gorgeous white Shetlad from Jamieson & Smith which was ridiculously inexpensive considering the quality.  They really know what they're doing in sorting fleece for spinners too, as an article in Yarnmaker magazine highlighted during last year.  The Shetland is not very well hidden in the bedroom, sitting on a few other boxes tucked away containing ... well, you've guessed it:  fleece! 

So with all this fluffy stuff to look forward to, there's no time to mourn the passing of summer.  It's spinning and sampling season girls - so roll on the dark nights and get those wheels turning!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Hurrah for Thumbs!

Well' they've had their summer rest after Fibre-East and now they're back in action again:  my thumbs that is.  Must admit I really could have treated them better through life:  shutting both of them in different car doors at busy or stressful times hasn't made them particularly user friendly in their middle years, but we stillget along, after a fashion. 

Thumbs were back in action today helping me demo-spin my extreme knitting yarn on the All Craft Media stand at the Knitting & Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace.  Kerrie and her team very kindly hosted me and also Sue Blacker of the Natural Fibre Company, who manned a Stuffing Station for Olympic British Wool Cushions as part of the Woolsack Project, along with volunteers Kat and Sarah.  The stand was packed virtually all day with a forest of folk and it was great to talk spinning with so many visitors, especially little people, who were just as fascinated at the size of my Country Spinner as their mums and grans!  

Technically, I shouldn't be using my thumbs like that of course when spinning:  I should be doing long-draw, which would save their integrity for other things.  I have had one go at very long-draw - namely on the Guild of Longdraw Spinners' replica medieval Great Wheel which they brought to Fibre-East in July.  But I really must get with it more usefully as I'm sure it will make twinge-reminders of painful car-door-shutting incidents fizzle away into the ether. 

A very fine pair of working thumbs is possessed by friend and fellow spinner  Eleanor, who makes baskets occasionally in between looking after her family.  I was watching her admiringly at the Ashdon Craft Fair last weekend, making willow bend to her will with ease!  My baskets always turn out wonky because of - you've guessed it - the 'thumbs' issue.  I can't control willow or dogwood as I'd like to, so my baskets go a little 'off piste' in terms of direction. 

So if you possess a good, sound pair of working thumbs, give them some praise when you go to sleep tonight.  Thank them for their continual hard work - and promise, as much as you can, never to shut them in car doors!