Thursday, 24 November 2011

Insulation, Natural Selection and Permaculture

It was a real ‘frosty cobweb morning’ out there when I went to feed the hens yesterday.  A proper frost – not the kind that glints at you briefly and is gone, but the sort that sticks like glue, giving every leaf a white lace edging.  On mornings like that I really appreciate what sheep can do for a girl. My ‘chicken jacket’ sports an eclectic mix of sheep breeds, the best that sheepdom can offer to keep me warm.  Apparently today marks 152 years since Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection’.  It was thinking about ‘natural selection’ that led me to choose the mix of breeds for my chicken-visiting jacket.  

Here in the deserts of East Anglia, on light, dry soils that cool quickly, we get some pretty cold winters.  The scientists say that ‘global warming’ for Britain will in fact result in ‘cooling’ here; with more wet summers and bad winters. Getting out to feed hens when it’s -10 first thing in the morning takes more than just resolve, it takes wool - and lots of it.  I got to wondering which wool would be the warmest and how could I test for myself? 

Vikings who crossed the sea from Scandinavia in their shaggy-woven coats took inspiration from nature.  If water drips down and off locks of wool on a sheep, then making a coat shaggy with locks was likely to keep you as near waterproof as a non-sheepy-being could get.  But though I love spinning locks into my yarns, they’d get a bit messy in clearing out the hen house each winter morning.  I thought I’d try my own bit of ‘natural selection’, make some thick Cowichan-style yarn, and try as many different sheep as I could.

Gardeners work by the edict: “right plant, right place”. Applying that thought to sheep,  I reckoned if Herdwicks keep dry in almost perpetual rain in the Lake District their wool was worth trying, and if North Ronaldsays survive howling gales on Scottish islands, the wisdom of their own ‘natural selection’ would benefit me too.  I then got obsessed with trying any British breed I could get my hands on!  All spinners who’ve learned their craft from fleece to fibre will know what I mean. The unconscious learning of exploration is addictive.   

It’s certainly been worthwhile:  with at least a dozen different sheep present in my chicken jacket, kindly knitted by my mum Babs, I’m now pretty much waterproof and as warm as toast, no matter what the weather throws at me.  I can definitely see why the construction sector increasingly are substituting breathable, sustainable sheep wool insulation to replace resource-draining petro-chemical and mineral-based insulation.

For anyone who hasn’t yet tried all the woolly marvels that natural selection (and human interference) have wrought, read the Fleece & Fibre Sourcebook first  - it’s a wonderful bed-time wind-down read. Or simply see what rare breeds farms have to offer when they shear next summer.  I’ve tried fleeces from tiny Ouessants to huge Herdwicks and it’s endlessly fascinating.  By trying them, we’re making our own small contribution to Permaculture.  Re-discovering the right sheep wool for the right purpose will help us all to ‘live more lightly’ on the planet. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

Monsters, Smiles and Sheep Support

"Mission accomplished," declare the intensely creative designers at London fashion house SIBLING.  What mission is that?  "Putting smiles of peoples faces," they say.  And you can easily see it in the sheer joy of innovation they've brought to what many would otherwise think a pretty staid arena:  men's knitwear.  Their brand of  joy and smiles is spreading as SIBLING's Knit Monster tours the globe as part of The Campaign for Wool's tour de force 'Wool Modern'.  This showcase for wool in the 21st century brings together artists and designers who, like all of us woolly-holics, want to make good use of natural fibres.

Using natural fibres is undoubtedly one good thing:  remembering where those natural fibres have come from is another.  It's not just we humans that like a hug every once in a while.  Thousands of people may have been queuing in London today to receive a beautiful, spiritually-connective hug from Amma, yet there are are many creatures out there that need a genuine hug too, and are just as capable of appreciating it.  Look at Spot Loggins the sheep here, rescued with his mother by The Farm Animal Sanctuary.  Now if that isn't a smile in response to a little affection then I don't know what is!  The Farm Animal Sanctuary has been bringing comfort to animals for many years but now finds itself in need of our care and support, as winter approaches and funds are stretched in a fight for survival.

Although times are tough all round the world, it shouldn't be a matter of whether humans or animals are first when it comes to hugs or funds. As Chief Seattle is reported to have said:  "All things are connected, like the blood that unites one family."  So giving the occasional hoof of support to the beings which provide the fluffy stuff we enjoy using should at least be somewhere on every one of our charitable priority lists.  Janet and her dedicated team of volunteers at the Sanctuary do a tremendous job in rehabilitating both animals and their trust in humans, and it shows in the excellent fleeces they produce each summer, which you can buy through Ravelry's Moonmoss.

In medieval Britain, growing a good fleece was more important than growing sheep as meat.  Perhaps we need to decide as a modern society what we really want from fleece-providing animals. Producing a good fleece isn't simply a matter of genetics, as Janet and her Sanctuary team seem to be able to demonstrate. I'm no decryer of progress: I just believe that progress should have some compassion built into its algorhythms.  For the further out of touch we get from the real animals - the actual owners of the super-flexible, breathable and carbon-storing material we covet - the further our own humanity ebbs into the distance.  Maybe that's something all spinners, weavers, knitters, fashion designers and users of natural fibres can play a part in halting.

So if you possibly can in these very tough times for everyone, do have a think about donating to The Farm Animal Sanctuary if you're here in the UK, or a to  a smiliar Sanctuary near you, wherever you are in the world.   Wishing you dreams of joyful Knit Monsters, smiles and sheepy hugs wherever you are tonight!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Fireworks inside and out

I'm a bit miffed:  I haven't been to any 5th November Fireworks displays this year.  I've enjoyed odd glimpses of other people's in the days surrounding Bonfire Night last Saturday, mostly from a distance while travelling about in the car.  But nothing beats a sparkler in the hand, and the smell of  logs on the bonfire and fizzled gunpowder in the dark-night mist. 

For anyone lucky enough to be in London this coming Saturday evening,12th November, there's a magnificent free fireworks display over the river Thames in central London - the closing display of the annual Lord Mayor's Show,  a 785-year-old tradition well worth the watching.  My Dad used to work for Reuters, which back then had its headquarters on Fleet Street, so as children we'd watch the parade from the office windows.  I walked past the building at 85 Fleet Stret just this afternoon, coming home after a meeting for 'the day job'. It's prompted happy memories of many Lord Mayor's Shows and fireworks displays gone by. 

This year I'll have to be content with the metaphorical fireworks going on inside and outside my abode.  Inside, I'm spinning new mega yarns to take to the Sandringham Christmas Craft Fair on 26th & 27th November.  Creator of 'Extreme Knitting', Rachel John,  has most kindly invited me to join her and her daughter Carmen on their stand at the show.  The fairs at Sandringham bring together an ecclectic but fascinating range of craftspeople from right across the disciplines. It's great to be amongst them and talk to people about spinning - and to watch Rachel's sheer artistry in action.  Come along and say hello if you're at Sandringham:  would be a pleasure to meet any Bobbin' Along readers!  The 'fireworks' in progress in the yarn department include these amazing red Teeswater Wools locks I'm incorporating into this red flecked batt of Merino and silk. 

Outside, the're are plenty of plant-colour 'fireworks' around the garden.  I've chosen plants 'with attitude' that have special features at this dark time of year to to lift the spirits and encourage me out into the misty mornings.  Even more than summer flowers I love the colours of autumn, from the lipstick pinks of Euonymus alatus, which are followed by its corky feature bark in winter, to the reds of Cotoneaster horizontalis, and the real autumn golds of Chrysanthemums.  Reds and golds are to me the only proper colours for chrysanths - the manufactured greens and strained whites in the bunches you see at filling stations just don't do it for me! 

There's one special set of  woolly  'fireworks' I'm going to be missing out on this weekend, and that's the fashion show at Knit Expo in Exeter. The show is growing rapidly in stature and reputation and I hope to be a part of it one day in the future.  Good luck to everyone in the exhibition and on the catwalk:  I'm sure there will be many sparkling designs showing wool off to its very best.  Talking of which, the generous ladies at 'Knit!' magazine have just published their first pattern for my mega yarns in issue 43,  complete with interview. You can see the cover preview picture on their blog, at the top of the right hand picture column. It's certainly spurred me on: my Country Spinner now whizzing round as fast as a Catherine Wheel!  Here's wishing you all a week of equally rocket-propelled creativity! 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Homage to the Unknown Spinner

Watching 'Grayson Perry and the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman' last night I really found myself in tune with his thoughts.  He hit the nail on the head when he crystallised people's trips to museums as 'pilgrimage':  essentially we go because we are fascinated by the hands that created things in the past.  His exhibition of the same name at the British Museum will definitely be on my schedule next time I'm in London. It's on until February so there's every chance I might actually get to it. 

As an exhibition of artefacts, it does include textile elements, but of course most textiles don't survive well in the archaeological record.  Loom weights, spindle whorls, even types of niddy-noddy have survived, along with wool combs and other solid items. Cloth itself is all too rare, though it's through the dedication of women like Elizabeth Crowfoot that we can get an insight into what to us seem invisible materials. 

I was infuriated not so long ago on an archaeology course to hear one of the tutors say to a student from Botswana that there was "no evidence of sophisticated culture" in her country before the 19th century.  Utterly ridiculous.  If an area is not rich in the types of long-lasting stone and bone we have in our part of the world it doesn't mean that "civilisation" is absent.  Cloth and basketwork, both ancient and necessary, are biodegradable. And both imply technical sophistication, high levels of skill - as all of us fibre-holics recognise -  and societal organisation of a level that allows these specialised activities to take place.  Cloth and baskets carry with them the stories of the people they represent, in the same way as fragments of braid, though they are even more rare. 

I studied the Basketmaker People of the southern USA for one of my archaeology essays. The most fascinating event was showing a picture of a 'Basketmaker II' period museum artefact to the chairperson of the UK's Basketmakers Association, who said the pattern of basket weaving would have taken an apprenticeship of approximately seven years to master.  Whilst it's important to see 'evidence' it's also exceptionally important to understand it, in the context of the life of its maker. 

Another example of biodegradable 'evidence' kept alive through a weaving tradition is Kente cloth from Ghana.  Each colour and pattern has significance and tells a story, as it has done over many generations back into history.  The skill of the archaeologist should be interpreting not just the past but possible links to the present.  All over the world, spinners and weavers are carrying on traditions going back to the dawn of time. 

Not so far from where I live, Anglo Saxon remains show that our area was inhabited by highly skilled fibre artists.  Fragments of rare braids, spindle whorls, and loom weihts have all been found, some in such quantity that there must have been considerable fibre-related industry here  around 1,500 years ago. 

In my own small way, by making my yarns I'm paying homage to a long line of  Unknown Spinners who've gone before me in this landscape.   Our work may not make it into Grayson Perry's exhibition, but spinnners and our fellow textile creators of all kinds, along with our basket-making cousins, are the backbone of  societies across the globe - and across time.