At the mill

It was on a rainy afternoon in Wales that I picked up a leaflet for Trefriw Woollen Mill and suggested – half jokingly – that we go and have a look around their factory. This was met with some moans and groans and, although I thought it would be interesting, I didn’t think we’d actually end up going. But John pointed out that it was very nearly on our way home and so we took a little detour north before heading back over the border and goodness me, I’m glad we did.

I didn’t even take my camera in with me, that’s how little I was expecting. We looked around their shop which was full of the most beautiful woollen goods: skirts and jackets, jumpers, slippers, hats and mittens, knitting patterns and balls of wool. What really caught my eye was the display of tweed, woven on the premises and available by the metre, and it took some stern words with myself to walk away. You’re allowed to wander through the little cafe into the factory beyond, and the very first thing we found was a traditional Welsh bedspread being woven on a beast of a machine, roaring and clanking as the fabric grew, weft by coloured weft. Ilse didn’t like it much and Seb lost interest fairly quickly but Ben and Fliss were almost as transfixed as I. The loom is set up with a chain which tells the machine which shuttles to send across when, creating the traditional patterns. At the same time, the man operating the machinery was winding new bobbins on an old bit of kit which seemed to work in almost exactly the same way as the bobbin winder on my 1916 Singer. In the room beyond was the little hydraulic electricity plant which drove the whole factory, filled with plants from all over the world which liked the warm, damp conditions.

I thought that was it, until John pointed to some iron stairs leading to the floors above. The first – the whole first floor – was given over to carding the wool. Huge cages of the stuff, ready scoured and spilling out through gaps in the wire, was picked up by the steel needles of the first drum. From there it worked its way along the whole floor, drum to drum, until at the end of it all there was roving, thinner than I’d seen before, and quite ready to spin. We followed the painted arrows up again to the second floor where spinning mules dominated the space, doing in a minute what it would take me many hours to achieve at home.

I’ve never actually seen a spinning mule in real life before. I’d seen pictures of them at school, when we were studying the Industrial Revolution, but to see them in action was quite breathtaking, and not only for the wool enthusiasts among us. It took only one man to operate a full row of them, spinning perhaps two hundred strands at a time, the roving stretched out for a yard or two as the spools ran backwards on iron rails set in the floor. Then the spinning began, the roving oscillating and dancing in tiny standing waves as it grew more and more taut until the gears changed and the bobbins ran back towards the body of the mules once more, winding up the spun wool as they ran.

No wonder the cottage spinners went out of business. No-one could possibly hope to keep up with production on this scale: not with the carders or the spinners, nor the looms, nor even the machines which twisted the spun yarns together into two-plys for knitting. And yet this wasn’t modern machinery. This was old-style industry, run by water and producing high quality, skilfully made products. This was a mill which was embracing the past – just not as far back in the past as most home spinners and weavers go. On our way out we found a little dyers’ garden, with all the native herbs and flowers labelled by name and by the colour they would produce. We recognised several from our own garden and the hedgerows roundabout. I’ve never been that interested in dyeing my own wool, but Seb and Ilse leapt at the idea and keep asking to borrow my drop spindle. Perhaps we have a couple more wool-lovers in the family after all. Perhaps they’ll forget about it when they go back to school. Either way, I pulled a few handfuls of white wool off one of the Jacob’s fleeces in the shed and set it to scour in a bucket of hot water. Either they’ll use it or I will. I’ve run out of washed wool this week. It was almost the first thing I reached for when we got back from Wales: to make a few rolags and spin them on my wheel. For the first time, I felt reasonably pleased with the results, despite the fact that I’ve barely spun a thing all winter. Now I’ve got a plan for all the wool I’m making, and there’ll be a few more bucketfuls set to soak before the week is out. I don’t mind sharing if it fuels the children’s interest. Even it it’s on nothing like the scale we saw at Trefriw Mill, there’s plenty of wool for us all to play with.

The saga dress

So here it is: the very last piece of uncut fabric pulled from my shelf and turned into its intention. Dressmaking teleology in action. How very satisfying that is.

The end product, that is. It was not the most satisfying sew for much of its construction. I’d started casting about for ideas as early as Boxing Day, having received the wool as a Christmas surprise from John’s mother. This picture has been held between the leaves of my notebook for some time, and every so often I would pore over it, trying to work out the details of its construction amid the crisscrossing lines of plaid. Finally, on a Friday evening, I drafted a pattern from my block and cut the pieces out. It should be done by Saturday evening, I calculated wildly, and ready to wear on Sunday morning. I had everything I needed: wool and lining cut, plenty of coordinating thread. Then I woke on Saturday morning tired and grumpy and convinced that it needed a little something extra, to lift it and make it special.

I won’t bore you with any more details of this particular saga. Suffice to say I have a valliant husband who rode off into York to buy the ribbon while I sewed, yet came back empty handed. Allow me to hint at the pitfalls of trying to pattern match a large check for a dress which left only the tiniest of scraps. By Saturday night the dress was not complete. I had darted the woollen pieces and tried to pleat the front with varying degrees of accuracy. Sunday afternoon was spent unpicking the wobbliest of the lines while Seb held his electric torch to help me separate thread from weave. In the end, I had to accept those pleats for what they were, with no small feelings of frustration. Then the neckline wouldn’t lie flat, and had to be sewn three times. I still needed to find some trim. I trust you understand.

But then, barely an hour later, it had come together and I discovered how much I loved it. I love how the pleating of the bodice falls open into a generous skirt. I love the long sleeves, rolled down for warmth or up for a touch more style. I love the deep soft pockets, designed solely for the purpose of warming my hands. And I love the darts and shaping at the back, turning what could be shapeless into a dress with a definite line, yet still loose and comfortable and easy. I waited two weeks for the velvet ribbon I had ordered to come into the shop, but it was worth it. Everyone who lives in a cold climate should have a dress like this. It is essentially a blanket, lined and fitted round your body. Ilse keeps sidling up and slipping her hands into my pockets to warm them through, and I can’t blame her. I’d do the same, if I were her. In fact, I might have to make she and Fliss such a dress each, next winter.

Most of all, though, I like the unfussy, folksy look of this dress. It is the type of dress I imagine women might have worn in rural homes before fashion became so ubiquitous. Or perhaps this simply was the fashion, once upon a time – not this, exactly, but something of this ilk. Something practical and beautiful all at once, something which is first and foremost just a lovely thing to wear. I can imagine women telling stories, in dresses quite like this, around fires in northern longhouses. Sagas, of men and monsters who meet their rightful ends. Which is why I’ve named this dress the saga dress, rather than focusing on its own rather trying story. Like the best sagas though, this one had a happy ending, and I have hardly taken it off since.

Lenten promises

Each year, partway through Lent, someone tells me what they’ve given up and I am struck by what a good idea it is, and how I should like to try that the following spring. This year it was moaning – no little moans or groans of quibbles about inconsequential things for a full forty days – much more inspiring than giving up chocolate or biscuits or, as in my own case, alcohol. Next year, perhaps, although I’m making an effort now, too. There’s no need to stick to just one promise.

Nor is there any need for Lent to be about giving anything up, either. It can, and really should, be about adding something good to your life. Daily prayer, for those of us who have yet to make a habit of this. Going out of your way, each day, to do something kind for someone else. Giving money or time to charitable causes. Smiling at strangers. It’s easy, really, to think of so many things to do which would enhance your relationships, both human and divine.

It’s been a very stressful time here, recently. There are pressures and frustrations in my life, just now. Add to that the inevitable worries and clashes that every parent faces, and the backdrop of so much political anxiety and strain, and it feels as though some days are nothing but a struggle to get from dawn to dusk. And yet, far worse things happen: this I know. There are many more good things in my life than bad. I know, deep down, that if this is all I have to face then I am lucky. Without really making a conscious decision, counting my blessings has become my lenten promise.

I doubt it will surprise you that, in counting blessings, I am helped by counting stitches. I spent all of Saturday knitting while John did the shopping and made tea and took the children to their ballet lessons. I added another few inches to my spring cardigan, and settled on its design. The leafy lace pattern is not my own, but comes from a book I bought a couple of years ago. It has such a lovely blend of geometry and nature, like the sunburst gates which are all the rage just now, or the art nouveaux of my childhood, or even the William Morris curtains in our two front rooms. It is wild and ordered, restless and peaceful, living and still.

The pattern itself is twenty rows long: ten to form one set of leaves and then another ten, offset, to form the next. I spread the finished portion of it on my knee on Saturday morning to admire all eleven inches of it before decreasing for the shoulders, and saw that I had made a mistake, setting two lines of leaves one above the other a full six inches back. I blame knitting in the dark as the most likely culprit: it doesn’t work with lace. I very nearly groaned. And then I thought, oh well, more knitting to enjoy, and ripped it out at once. It only took one day to get me back to where I’d been, one day of John giving me his time, one day of happy children doing their own things, one day of counting stitches and paying attention to rows. I like this sort of knitting, in Lent. The sort that fills your head – not completely, mind you, but just enough to keep the other thoughts from crowding in, and by the end of it I felt more awake and full of cheer than I did in the morning.

So I’ve made one more Lenten promise, but this one is just to myself. I’d like to keep working on this above any other project, and finish it by Easter. That’ll mean a lot more counting stitches, a lot more checking rows, a lot more finding pleasure in something simple and easy and small. And all those little things add to something bigger: a cardigan for Easter Day, yes, but also a calm and happy me, which has got to be good for everyone around me.

Just socks

After all those hours, those evenings and mornings and snatched half hours in the afternoon, I finally cast off and sewed in the ends to find… just a pair of socks.

It’s an awful lot of effort for something which will be hidden on my feet, tucked away inside boots or slippers or wellingtons most of the time. And although the pattern is deceptively simple, they’re still not quite as simple as a pair of toe up socks, with simple short row toes and heels. These socks sport a lovely, wavy pattern reminiscent of the Seine (and our own, closer-to-home Ouse). They have a thick and padded eye of partridge heel, and a double cast off at the toe. There’s a nice bit of shaping as the heel narrows into the foot, with a neat row of slanting stitches standing proud of the rest. And yet they’re not a cardigan or a hat or even a little snood. No, they’re just socks.

I’ve knit three such pairs of socks this winter: one for Mother and two for myself, as well as a pair last summer. There will be more this coming summer as I use up all the odds and ends in a stripy pair or two. To be honest, there’s still an untouched skein of yarn in the bottom of my wool basket. But for now, that’s where it’s going to stay. Because for someone who doesn’t like making the same thing more than once, even with variations, three is a lot of pairs in a row. I’m moving onto something new, as soon as I’ve sketched out the pattern. A proper winter knit, to keep me busy until spring.

There will be more socks in my future, that much is certain. I always tire of them before they’re done, and have to force myself on through the last few inches. But then I wake up on a chilly winter’s morning and pull on a pair and it’s the nicest start to my day. All those little details – the heel and the pattern and the colour of the yarn – make a functional piece of clothing a little bit of luxury. They might just be socks, but oh! What a treat.

Tiddely-pom

It isn’t snowing around here, but it is pretty cold and dark and foggy. Bad weather for walks and scenic drives; good weather for toasting your toes in front of the fire and speeding to the end of a pair of woolly socks.

They’ve taken rather longer than I anticipated, largely due to the fact that things got very busy around the heels, and by the time I sat down each evening I was so tired that I kept going wrong. I had to wait until a Sunday to make the turn, and even then it was another week before I got going properly on the feet. I was very glad indeed to reach the toes: a pair of socks shouldn’t take so long to knit. If I hadn’t been making them two at a time I might have abandoned them until after Christmas. But it’s cold now, and I have every intention of pulling them on the moment I get out of bed tomorrow, unblocked as they are, to wear to Mrs Thistlebear’s December party. Time enough for blocking in the wash, I say.

With the coming of the cold and the long evenings, the retreat inside is very nearly complete, and the shelves of books and games have been thoroughly reexamined. Our library visits have gone up in frequency, if such a thing is possible – I wish I had the leisure to read as voraciously as the children do. Although I can remember ploughing my way through a novel a day, I am still taken by surprise when, at the end of the weekend, those towering piles they bore home so happily have been devoured. Last week’s hoard included Anne of Green GablesThe Riddle of the Sands, and The House at Pooh CornerWe did so enjoy reading those poems and stories again. And while I was knitting, the plodding yet skippety rhythm of The more it SNOWS (tiddely pom) kept marching around my head, reminding me of the parlous state of my own toes.

Well, they’re done now. Homemade woolly socks – a little pre-Christmas present to my toes. There seems to be a theme emerging, of nice little things to keep us all going until Christmas. This week: summer jam and woolly socks. Next week, nativity plays and carol concerts. I think Pooh Bear has the right idea really, approaching the cold and the wet with a cheerily unconcerned tiddely pom. In fact, looking at the calendar and my ever-growing to-do list, I think it might be the only way forward. Perhaps he isn’t a bear of so very little brain after all.

In my hands

In the evenings, when I’m tired of chopping and mixing and spooning hot food into jars, I’ve been knitting, instead. And so, in a week, this little cardigan has almost been completed. It’s Ilse’s, of course – the one she chose the wool for at the fair. The one she’s been asking me when I’m going to start. And now her eyes are as big as saucers as I let her try the top-down garment on for size, and she can see that it is almost there.

It is a simple little knit, with a clever pattern to form the rippling rows around the shoulders. The neck and hem and button bands are finished in childish garter stitch: the first stitch I ever learned, which lies flat and wiggly all at once. Only the sleeves remain, and the buttons to sew on, and ends to be woven in. I’ve knitted a lot this week, because it has been such a sad week, and I knit when I am sad. I’ve dropped a lot of tears on this little woolly number. And because of the way the things I make remind me of the times I made them in, this cardigan will always remind me of my grandad, and when he died.

If last year was all about pattern, this winter is all about texture. Ben’s cables were the start of it, and now the rise and fall of these sweet waves. I bought some sock yarn at the fair and want to try three different pairs, one homely, one botanical and one Parisian. That’ll take me up to Christmas, I should think. I’ll have something to bring to each of Mrs Thistlebear’s parties between now and then, and make new friends over. And between parties, with my hands busy, my mind can wander freely to wherever and whenever it wants to go.

When sad, some people walk. Some talk. Some sit and gaze out of the window. Myself, I like to knit. It’s a good thing to have in your hands, wool. It’s soft, and warm, and strong. And later, when you look down at what you’ve spent the evening making, you realise that all the things you couldn’t say are in your hands, instead.

Goodness

 

It seems almost silly to be knitting with such a colour when October sunlight saturates the world. Outside are verdant lawns, wanton berries, roses which throb pinkly in the dawn and evening light. Inside, I am knitting with the colour of summer: the sea washed out by overhead sunlight, the faded greens of favourite cotton frocks. And oh, goodness, how I love it. The time for plums and teals and ruby reds is fast approaching, but not here yet. I’m happy knitting with the ocean, on sticks of driftwood beige.

While this jumper looks like summer, it feels like bed on a winter’s morning: plump and soft and comfortingly warm. I’m not sure I’ve ever knitted with anything quite this thick, or on needles wide as tree trunks. After months and months of 2 ply it felt a little wrong, but only until I looked down to realise that I’d knitted the whole of the back of Ben’s jumper in two short sessions. Then it felt just right: fast and compelling, keeping pace with this sudden onslaught of autumn. I’m cabling the front already, and watching the pattern emerge. He’ll have this jumper in a couple of weeks, all of a sudden, having waited all last year. Ah, well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Once done, it’ll be on with Ilse’s, in seasonal royal plum blue, paving the way to Christmas. Then, after the feasting, I’ll rip out my old white aran and make it over in a way that’ll feel just right for January. Frugal. Austere. Necessary and good. I’ve decided to join Mrs Thistlebear’s winter project parties, this year, and take along a new project at the start of every month, which leaves room for Ilse’s quilt as well as those two raw fleeces, bits of which are already twisting their way onto my wheel.

Truth be told, I’m not all that happy about the arrival of autumn, but little bits of goodness are cheering me along. Sitting by the fire and knitting. Holding onto the colours of August for a short while longer. Dashing through a jumper to warm my patient boy. Simple things, but kind. Thank goodness for wool, and knitting, and boys who ask for jumpers in subtle summer hues.

Wool in the house

Oh, how lovely it is to have wool in the house again. After the fair my basket is full, and another season’s knitting can begin. There’s not a moment’s hesitation over patterns or sizes or gauge: all that was worked out a while ago, and all that remains is to decide which project to begin with.

Last year’s fair was all about fairisle. I thought it was just me, but I’m sure there was less of it this time around. There were still pockets of it, including a stall with the sweetest little bunny jumper that I might just have to make for Ilse, even though she’s getting a cardigan too. There were lots of tiny baby knits, so small that I couldn’t quite remember my own children being that size, and adult ones in undyed shades of greys and browns and duns. In fact, it was the undyed yarns that Mother and I liked best, and we walked from stall to stall just looking and admiring. One sold nothing but natural white wool, and standing there there seemed no need for any other colour, until I turned around and saw the rainbow displays behind me.

However, it is Ben and Ilse’s turn to have new knits this year, and so I shopped with their choices in mind. Ilse, who had come with us, chose a royal blue-purple aran for her cardigan, and some painted wooden buttons to match, whereas I picked out a sea-green blue for my boy who suits pastels so well. John has no need for a new knit, and I’ve decided to rip out a cream aran sweater of mine and reknit it in a brand new pattern. Three jumpers is about right for a winter’s knitting, and I am eager to get started.

There was another colour that came home with me, despite all my expectations. Ada brought my spinning wheel over last week, all serviced and ready to work, and I needed to dive in. There are two Jacob’s fleeces waiting to be washed and carded and spun: enough to keep me spinning for a long while, I expect. But I wanted something simpler to get going with: something clean and combed and ready. I walked past stall after stall of roving in white and black and every shade that sheep are in between, meaning to come back and make my choice. And then, chatting to a spinner, I fell for her roving in the most glorious peacock blues. She gave me much encouragement and so as soon as we were home and the chicken was in the oven, I sat down at my wheel for the very first time and tried to spin. It’s very wonky, of course, this yarn that I’m producing, but such a gorgeous colour that I know I’ll overlook the thick bits and the bits with too much twist. I got a little better as I went on, and had another go today, trying to remember what I was taught in my lesson a month ago. Pull forward with the left hand, not back with the right. Move the yarn along the hooks to spread it along the bobbin. And, most importantly of all, stick to a pedal an inch.

I have no idea what I’m going to make from the yarn that this becomes. It might even lie in my basket until the spring, when the little knits begin again. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m spinning, and having fun, and have even put the first bit of raw fleece to soak. Soon it’ll be ready for carding, and by the time I finish with the peacock roving I’ll have little rolags of Jacob’s fleece to make into a yarn of sorts. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll have spun an even enough wool to knit my own fairisle jumper in the whites and caramels and chocolate browns of these lovely sheep. Right now, I’m just enjoying having a house full of wool again.

Twirling

There was a brief period, a few days ago, when there was absolutely no wool to knit with in this house. Ben’s socks were cast off and the basket was empty. The little knits were over and the autumn knits – the big ones for the children – are only half dreamed up. Patterns are chosen, but the wool hasn’t been – and most likely won’t be until we go to the fair again in September. That funny time between the end of one project and the start of another is sometimes so exciting. At other times, like last week, it makes for restless hands. It’s not as if I have nothing to do. There’s an old jumper which needs unravelling and reknitting just a little shorter. But that’s just not as enticing as something novel, something different, something fresh.

Fortunately, Ida had something new planned for me. A while ago, when we went over to Skipton to visit her for her birthday, she had asked me whether I might be interested in a spinning wheel. The answer was a foregone conclusion, and little bits and pieces have been coming my way over the past few weeks. A pair of carders. A drop spindle. The promise of a fleece. And then, via Mother, a package from Auntie Flo full of Irish tweed roving.

I always seem to end up trying new things when my children have their friends round. Heavens knows what they make of it: Fliss’ mother walking around the house with her arms stretched high above her head and a slightly uncontrollable spindle twirling down below. It was all a bit frustrating, at first, but then suddenly it stopped being roving wound around a stick and became something akin to wool. Whisper thin in places, definitely the wrong side of chunky in others, but knittable. It grew more even as I went on – and I did go on, all evening, until I’d spun the whole lot – so that whatever I end up making will be quite different from end to end. Those little flecks of colour didn’t really, on the whole, get spun into the yarn. But I rather like them, and am inexperienced enough to hope that they disguise some of the wobbles as well as adding to their number.

By the end of the following day the product was finished – washed, bashed and wound into a very artisan looking ball of wool. I have no idea what to make with it. The lavender on the landing suggests knitted pouches to present the sachets in. Autumn, just peeping over the horizon, is putting in a vote for woolly corsages. We’ll see. I’m not in a hurry anymore, and the restlessness has gone. There’s a ball of wool in my basket, so I can start knitting again whenever I feel the urge. Just now, though, I really want to keep getting better at making wool. And as spinning seems too grand a word for for my total lack of skill, I think I’ll call it twirling.

Garden notes: Scorcher

On my way downstairs this morning I found a neatly folded pile of blankets on the landing floor, just outside the linen cupboard. I stepped over them, knowing just why they were there and having no good ideas about where they might be moved to. You see, for much of the year the cupboard stands quite empty, its cosy innards strewn across our beds. It begins to fill in spring, when the eiderdowns are rolled and squeezed onto its shelves. Then come the blankets, and the odd quilt, and I can normally find a way to make it fit. But in a good summer the very last layers come off, leaving only sheets and a breeze from an open window – and this, for the moment, is a good summer.

The air is hot. The earth is hot. Even the soft green grass is warm to the touch. The potatoes, which we began to dig a week or so ago, are keeling over, yellow. Unwatered plants don’t wilt, but crisp. I picked the first tomato yesterday and nibbled it as I opened the greenhouse vents. In the space of a week, the broccoli has doubled in size. I forgot to cut the courgettes and have a harvest of marrows to contend with. The garden is full of butterflies, trying to get through the netting to my cabbages’ swelling hearts.

I keep finding myself in the veg patch, trowel in hand, wanting to begin a job. I pull a few weeds before retreating to the shade. I have young lettuces to plant out, and watering to do, and try to fit those jobs into the cool of the early morning. But for most of the day it is simply too hot to interfere with the plants. Water them and they’ll burn, the droplets magnifying the already strong rays of the sun. Transplanted seedlings will shrivel and die. It is too hot for salad or fennel seeds. Yet the garden is where I long to be.

As happens so often in life, one problem solves another. A blanket on the lawn, in the dappled shade of a tree, is the perfect spot to enjoy this weather from. A book, a little bit of knitting, a notebook full of summer plans. Sat here I can cool down enough to have another cup of tea, despite the fact that, yet again, it looks set to be a scorcher.