All this wool

I had grand plans, this spring, of spinning up all of last year’s fleeces before the new ones were even shorn. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but I came closer than ever before. It’s such a learning curve, this spinning hobby of mine. The first two fleeces I was given – lovely piebald Jacobs’ – took me a full two years to work through. Last year I was given three more: two Scotch mules and a huge sack of what turned out to be alpaca. So when I found myself with half a fleece still to process when offered this year’s shearings, I wasn’t too downcast. I think I’m making good progress.

Progress is a good thing, as I’ve been offered several fleeces this year. Two are from my aunt who lives outside Edinburgh and has all sorts of rescue animals, including Ilse’s favourite goat. My sister Meg has eight sheep now, and I was offered four of their fleeces (four are this year’s lambs’, and will keep their fleeces against the coming winter). Two were absolutely enormous, with more than a year’s growth, and, to be entirely honest, more than I could handle. The other two were beautiful Shetlands, one mottled grey and one brown, or moorit, as I’m learning to call it. They are so small and light in comparison to the last three fleeces I’ve had that I made short work of washing and drying them in the good weather of last week.

Since those first two fleeces, which came from a commercial meat farm and which I washed, section by section in buckets of hot soapy water, I’ve adopted a far less intensive approach. Given than all my fleeces now come from either my sister or my aunt, both of whom care for their sheep with minimal (if any) use of chemicals, I much prefer to soak them in a bathful of cold water for a day or two, changing the water once or twice. The amount of dirt that drops out of them is extraordinary, but more importantly the suint (sweat) washes away, leaving a sweetly sheepy smelling fleece with ample lanolin for easy spinning. Then I pop them in an old pillowcase, spin them in the machine, and spread them first outside then finally inside on one of our airers to make sure they are completely dry before putting them back into the (washed) pillowcase with a couple of lavender bags for storage. I can’t tell you how much labour this has saved, and how much more I enjoy carding and spinning a fleece while it is still a little greasy.

I also used to process each fleece bit by bit, picking and carding and spinning and setting each couple of skeins before moving onto the next, but I don’t do that any more, either. Instead, I wait for a fine day and spend it sitting in the garden, picking the washed fleece open and discarding any bits of vegetation or nubbly second cuts. Most of the dirt falls out at this point, and I’d rather it fell outside. If the weather is kind, I card outside too (you should have seen the clouds of dust that came from the alpaca – no way was I carding that in our house). And I save the spinning for rainy days, with a film or an audiobook and one or two of the children for company, playing alongside with their own projects.

I’ve also learned a lot about spinning this year, moving on from carding and worsted-spinning everything (I made a cardigan so sturdy that it can almost stand up by itself) to combing for socks, chain-plying for strength, and spinning long-draw for jumpers and hats and mittens. Not only does long-draw spinning result in the softest, loftiest, cosiest yarn, but it’s fast. Or at least as fast as any (sheep) back to (human) back jumper can be described as such, which is probably very slow in non-spinners’ eyes.

Finally, I set the twist and give it a proper wash at the same time with a bit of eco-friendly delicates liquid, before labelling it and, usually, knitting with it immediately. I’ve made quite a bit from my own yarn this year: two pairs of socks (one woolen and one worsted, to experiment) a pair of sturdy (ahem) colour work mittens for my aunt, a surprise for another aunt (more of which in a later post), the softest, warmest and most beautiful Georgetown cardigan for myself, a cardigan for Ilse, and am halfway through a jumper for myself or Fliss from this last fleece. I plan to spin up the final rolags today and take all the wool on our last holiday of the summer to finish it off.

Ilse in particular has been fascinated by the possibilities of dyeing, and has just finished carding a basket of rolags from fleece that we kettle-dyed in the spring. I’ve promised her that I’ll spin that too, before our holiday, so that she can bring her crochet with her. There’s a big bag of avocado pits and skins in the freezer, just waiting for a spare white skein, and I can’t wait to try dyeing with elderberries for a pillowy purple-grey cloud. I suspect these coloured skeins – and any others that we make – will end up as colour work in something or other, against some plain white fleece.

Not all leftovers are dyed, though. When I didn’t know what to do with my first, inconsistent spins, I started crocheting a hydrangea blanket, which has turned out to be wide enough for a double bed and serves as a record, of sorts, of my spinning ventures. There’s a bit of everything in it: wool and alpaca, DK and aran, wobbly adventures in long-draw and neat inchworm chain-ply. One day, in about a million years, it’ll actually be long enough for a bed, too. So that’s where all the leftovers will continue to go: into a blanket that probably looks lovely to no-one but me but which tells the story of all this wool.

Whirlwind

Oh my. Turn your back for a moment and the pile of craft-jobs-to-be-done grows exponentially. Out of sight, in cupboards and drawers around the house, more scraps and old clothes and odd bits of this and that gather than I ever thought possible. I knew I had a few projects lined up, but with my push to use every craft material for the purpose I had bought it for earlier this year, I thought I was quite on top of it all. In a way, I was. Every single piece of fabric or skein of wool has been sewn or knitted into its intended product. But what I’m left with are the remnants and the lame ducks of the crafting world: worn sheets, crumpled scraps of fabric and outgrown and stained clothes.

Now, I know that I could send some of this off with the rag and bone man to be rewoven into shoddy, but I genuinely want to make these things. So last week I gathered everything together into one tremendous heap on the dining room table and went through it all, sorting it into projects as I went. There’s the end of the fleeces I was given last summer to spin up. Three old white sheets to dye. Lots of snippets of fabric to trim into useable sizes for the three quilts I have lined up. Wadding for each one – two threadbare blankets and Seb’s sorry-looking eiderdown. A stack of granny squares which just need sewing together into a dolly blanket to set aside as a gift. Two pieces of fabric large enough to make a sunhat for our holiday in Greece. Some linen and some embroidery silk to turn into two more labels. The list goes on.

Literally nothing in the pile was new. Nothing had been bought (or given to me, with the exception of the fleeces) for a particular project. But it seemed such a waste to throw it all away when I could see all the potential in it. So I made a list of each and every project I had in mind, and made myself a kit for each.

In some cases, this was easy. The linen and thread went together with my hoop and needle: done. The fleece was already washed and sorted. But all that scrap fabric needed trimming, with sheets and scraps being divided between three different patchwork tops. And those old clothes? Well, they needed the collars and cuffs chopping off before they could even be cut up into strips. Seb, whose room the finished product was intended for, was keen to begin, and he and Ben and I made reasonably short work of turning a heap of old clothes into a basket of fabric yarn.

The simple act of preparing the materials has made them so much more appealing. By the time the yarn was made, everyone wanted to have a go at plaiting it. It’s trickier than it looks, because the balls have a way of making a sort of inverse plait beneath the real, intended one, but you find ways of dealing with this pretty quickly. Seb did a little bit – a yard or so – and I did the rest in two long evenings with John and the wireless for company. An hour of stitching round in spirals and the rag rug which had been waiting for well over a year was done. It’s by the reading chair in Seb’s new bedroom, and he’s nominated it the place to sit on the floor when he’s playing with his soldiers. Cheery and bright and completely recycled, we all rather like it.

Next up is that dolly blanket, and then the embroidery I think. And all the while, whenever I feel like it, I’ve been chopping away at that fabric, and building three kits for quilts. I keep thinking about how much fun it’s going to be, sewing it all together. And about how simple it is, to turn something cumbersome into something new and inspiring. The dining room table is in a state of flux, there are measurements and sketches building up in my little notebook, but I’m amazed at how quickly I’m whipping through these projects. In a whirlwind, in fact.

Squares

They are curiously compelling, these little squares. I had intended to make a few each summer, using up odds and ends of aran until one day I might have enough to make a blanket. It was a plan for dealing with the sort of balls that aren’t big enough to be worth casting on with. And as the pile of such balls grew smaller they went from pesky to precious. I found myself divvying them up with care: these ones for the centres, those bigger scraps for outer rounds, so that each square would still change colour with each row.

This is a portable craft – more so than knitting. A hook and a ball of wool can be slipped into a handbag, or a knapsack’s outer pocket, or a basket for the beach. By the time we came home from Filey I could have made them in my sleep: three triples, one chain, three triples, one chain, until you get to the corner and do everything twice. Once home, Fliss asked me to show her how it was done, and for a day or two she commandeered my hook and a half-ball of double knitting, until her surprise for Ilse’s birthday was complete, and wrapped carefully in tissue in her highest drawer.

Before I knew it, the aran was gone and there were no more squares to be crocheted. It was back to the leftover 2 ply for a pair of fingerless gloves with leaves growing up the wrists: fiddly and comparatively slow. Sometimes it is fun to make something you have to think about, but sometimes it is the repetitive twist and pull that we long for at the end of a busy day. So a second blanket was begun, simply a giant double knitting granny square to which colours will be added whenever there is wool left over, or a child’s pullover outgrown and frogged.

Because, really, it is when our hands are busy that our minds are free to wander. Perhaps I should have been thinking of more important things: of politics or literature or the people I know and love. Perhaps, another time, I will. Just now, though, I found myself content to plan a blanket or two. I’m quite looking forward to a bit more crotchet, once the last little knits are done. It’s a soothing shape, a square: predictable and easy. It doesn’t matter where you start from, or where you have to pause. I might keep them all small, or pick a single shade to link them all together. Other colours will be added as new jumpers are knit up, but the steady brown and cream will be the same. I’m not after a wild old time, just at the moment. The school year is coming to an end, there’s a riot in the garden, there are bigger projects underway. All in all, this was a good time for these squares, and I may not wait until next year to make some more.