about March

March was a month of rich contrasts – in equal measures both exhilarating & disappointing, both refreshing & and at times exhausting. Nearly three years down this path of motherhood, I still find myself struggling to find the balance between my role as a mother and my desire (need?) to pursue some sort of creative work. As each month opens, I hope this one will be different. That somehow I might find a more happy medium, only to wind up at the close of the month feeling the same result, overstretched and overwhelmed.

I had been intending to open the doors of my little shop this past month, only to find a variety of life events conspiring against me. After a good cry (or two), I’ve accepted the need to put this date back a little. The disappointment was crushing at first. But when that first sting had lessened, I was able to reflect on how far I’ve already come so far. And celebrate the achievements that I’ve already made.

I may not have managed to open the shop nor accomplish every task on the list. But just like that second load of laundry still sat beside the washing machine, it will wait for tomorrow. Deep down I know there is no rush, and that any progress however seemingly insignificant is progress nonetheless. Above all else, I am so grateful for the opportunity to wake up each morning and give it a good old go – washing the laundry, making yarn & bears and all that is in between.

distractions

There are always just so many distractions around here. They’re fun distractions but goodness it’s hard to get anything done quickly. Of course my primary distraction is a little blond haired, blue eyed boy. But there are others too, like this bunny. Or is it a hare?

He’s so unlike anything I’ve made before. I used some scraps of mohair I’ve been keeping safe for such a project and a sample of linen I naturally dyes last summer with walnut hulls.

One evening last week I crept down the stairs once our boy was asleep full of courage to have a go at a project that’s been bubbling in my mind for over a year. The result was this little fellow. I made him from start to finish (drafting the pattern and all) that evening. He’s a bit rough and ready, mainly because it took me more attempts than I’d like to admit to get his limbs and ears sewn in the right way and his head joint is a little on the loose side. But I learnt so much working on this project, most importantly the importance of play in the creative process. And the sense of achievement was immense. It was such fun to work from nothing to something, drafting out the pattern, cutting out the pieces, stitching & unpicking, stitching & unpicking until he was finally finished. He feels like a gauge swatch in rabbit form, bringing the seed of an idea to fruition. The pattern still needs a bit of work and the final result is a bit rough & ready…but he reminds me so much of the little folk I used to make as a child. And we already love him…

Growing wool

DSC_0041Whenever we’ve visited my parent’s-in-law this winter, we’ve spent time lending a helping hand in their allotment, pulling up carrots, beets & leeks from the frozen ground. It’s a place we’ve always enjoyed coming as a couple and now a little family, with our boy bundled up against the cold and wet in layers of wool & welly boots. On some days, as I dream of harvesting this summer’s crop of tomatoes with L, I let my eyes wander to the adjoining field where my love’s uncle keeps a tiny flock of sheep to graze amongst the apple trees. And there my mind wanders to other dreams.

DSC_0055I have the tiniest of dreams that one day we might have our very own (tiny) flock. Because flocks of sheep grow into balls of yarn, don’t they? And I find there’s something incredibly appealing about the continuity that would come from slowly working from field to fleece to finished ball of yarn using raw materials that I had been responsible for growing.

DSC_0030That said, we are also realists and understand that caring for one sheep let alone a whole flock would be both an enormous responsibility & commitment. And yet somehow, coming up to Brittany and moving to this place has really felt like a step closer to this dream as well as a few others. There is ample space in the garden of our current abode for us to keep a couple of local Breton breed Ouessant sheep, and we had fully intended to be hunting for a pair of ewes with the start of spring. However unforeseen circumstances in our family mean that for now, that project (along with the chickens) will have to wait for another day. My love thought the disappointment would be crushing for me, but somehow even just to know it would technically have been possible is rather exciting. And whilst I wait patiently, I am content to meet as many local sheep as possible, and try out their fleeces (more on that later). To meet shepherds, sheep breeders and farmers. To talk to them about their many experiences of raising sheep in these green hills and gather their wool to transform into hand spun yarn and felt. And also gain some hands on experience at handling & living with sheep before we get some of our own.

DSC_0032

sheep & wool

baregeoise-1It might already be apparent to those of you reading here or elsewhere that I love wool. I’m fascinated by everything that the world of wool has to offer us and it seems that I have, quite unintentionally, made it one of my life goals to surround myself with all things wool related. Wool, as my beloved dictionary tells me is the “outer coat that grows on sheep” that is “used to make things such as clothes, blankets and carpets“. It seems so simple and obvious. And yet.

I have a confession to make.  

I grew up in the West Country, in the beautiful county of Dorset. An area, like much of Britain, whose countryside is quintessential sheep rearing country.   And yet it wasn’t until recently, very recently, that I started paying attention to sheep. Really paying attention.

Like most people, I could recognise a sheep when I saw one. They have woolly coats, live in fields, eat grass and have lambs in spring. But those basic things apart, sheep were only sheep. I would not have been able to name the specific breed. Or what part of the world it belonged to. Or known what it was doing in that particular field or why it was there.

It was only in 2013/14 when I first started seriously becoming interested in where my yarn came from that I began to realise that not all sheep are the same. That there are different breeds which have been developed over time to become adapted to the land they live on. And that these adaptations make for an infinite number of possibilities, in terms of shape and size and character of the animal. And therefore also in the fleece.

Quite soon after taking up the wheel and spindle in spring 2014, I realised that these new activities had opened up a new source of joy for me. At the time, I was living in a sheep rearing valley in the French Pyrénées. It was possible to spin yarn from sheep I’d met whilst out walking in the mountains. Or as Annie Claire has so beautifully put it, “to tighten the gap between pasture and pullover”, as it were.

From the moment I was invited to select my first fleeces from a friend’s farm, I felt a deep rooted satisfaction when I held my first finished skeins in my hands. Knowing that I’d worked with it from raw, stinky fleece through to final, washed and blocked yarn. Even if it was a bit lumpy and bumpy.

So far, all of the raw fleeces I’ve worked with have come from sheep that were born and raised in the valley where we used to live. Some from the local rare breed the Barégeoise, (see the photo above). Other fleeces came from other traditional (French) South West stock. Beginner that I was, very early on into my experiments I nonetheless started noticing differences in the way the fleeces responded to the various stages involved in spinning yarn: scouring, carding, spinning, plying and blocking. It quickly became apparent that if I were to do justice to the fleeces, it was important to become familiar not only with the various characteristics of the breeds but also the history and fibre traditions associated with each.

And now we are living in Brittany, a region where wool (but also flax & hemp) are deeply embedded into the landscape & textile traditions, offering me ample opportunities to try my hand at new types of wool & fibres as we explore the area around us.

Perhaps one day, we’ll have a  patch of land. Where we’ll live in a tiny round house made of fleece and spend our days getting grubby. Him tending to a little permaculture veggie plot, me looking after a little dye garden and our own (tiny) flock of sheep. Then I’ll not only be able to meet the sheep whose fleeces I work with, but I’ll know them intimately.

Until then, I can enjoy the wondrous fibres by working directly with fleeces and yarns that have been grown elsewhere and cared for by other hands. And so in keeping with my personal slow wool project, I’ve decided to start sharing some of my sheepy discoveries and experiments with breed specific fleeces and yarns from here in France, my native Britain and perhaps, occasionally, a little further afield.

slow wool

spinning wheel

March will always be a precious month to me. Near it’s end, we will celebrate the start of Spring, welcoming in all the hope & joy that can be found in Mother Nature’s re-awakening. And in my own little life, March has been a month of two significant new beginnings. The first, was in 2009 when I first moved to France to begin an exciting adventure in a mountain village school as a language teacher. The second came in 2014 when I “met” real wool for the very first time on a mountainside…and two weeks later I had found a second hand spinning wheel and was teaching myself to spin. Four years later, I am quietly working on opening the doors of my little shop in time for the arrival of Spring. And so it seems fitting this month to share a series of posts I had previously published elsewhere, to give you a glimpse into this project which has been slowly percolating since that very first skein of hand spun yarn.



An idea was cast on in the back of my mind about the middle of 2014, not long after I had fallen in love with wool & spinning. Since then, there has been a baby and this whole new life as a mama to get my head (& heart) around. But all the while, in those quiet moments between, I’ve been listening and reading and crafting and dreaming. And just like a piece of knitting, those different strands have been slowly growing and growing. Recently, the time felt right to pick up those ideas again and try them on for size, just as I might a pair of socks in progress. That idea is slow wool

It might sound pretentious. Or possible a tiny bit hippy dippy. But I don’t really mind. For me, it’s more than a concept, or a label. Rather, it’s a coming together of a variety of different threads into a coherent expression of my personal understanding and approach to a natural resource which I’ve come to love deeply. A woolly manifesto, of sorts.

So here are some of those threads…

Slow wool expresses first and foremost a personal love affair with a natural material which has been quietly unfolding since I moved permanently to France in 2012.

But why wool, you might ask? Wool is a natural resource. It is 100% sustainable, biodegradable and renewable. It can be utilized in an infinite number of uses. To insulate our homes. To stuff the mattresses on our beds. To weave the carpets beneath our feet or the cloth on our backs. It’s fibres can be rubbed together to produce felt, for making blankets or slippers or oven gloves. Or twisted together to produce yarn, which in turn can be transformed with knitting needles, crochet hook or loom. In almost all cultures on the world, wool has been the golden thread running through our shared histories.

Wool in all it’s many beautiful forms can be processed in a way which is respectful to the land on which it is grown. To the sheep from whose backs it is shorn. And to the human hands which skilfully work with it to transform it from raw material into finished item. Or not.

Slow wool is therefore partly my own quiet resistance to mass production. To fast fashion. To disrespectful treatment of the land, of animals and of fellow human beings. It is a conscious decision to embrace the art of authentic craft and pure raw materials, to seek the stories behind the fibres that run through my fingers. To create not only with my hands, but also my head and my heart. It was born of my dismay at many of the current realities of the wool & textile industry both locally and world wide. It also grew from a desire to make a deeper connection to the landscape and sheep rearing traditions of the landscape y where I have chosen to make my home.

And on a more personal note,  slow wool also serves as a reminder to myself to be more mindful in my making. To refuse to be rushed. To pace myself. To not put too much pressure on myself to produce. As Inge put it so succinctly, to remember that “I am not a factory“.

I believe deeply that the acceptance of slow is essential to create beautiful things. But also for me to live well and sustainably within the confines of my chronic health condition, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS). Refusing to be rushed, slow wool is therefore also a conscious reminder to myself to take things one step at a time.

I wish

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but like everybody else, it must be in my own way.” Jane Austen

At the start of each month, my dear friend Ruth picks a quote that applies to what she’s experiencing or focusing on at the time and shares it on her lovely blog.  I always enjoy reading these posts, as they not only bring me to some new, but also offer a glimpse into some of the ups & downs of fellow maker friends. So I’d like to follow suit and start each month off with a quote too.


I came across Jane Austen’s words almost ten years ago, around the time I was in my second year of University and really struggling with my health. The demands of studying for a highly academic degree in a large city far from my parents had taken their toll during my first term and I went back after Christmas on the brink of a major relapse. I found myself with two choices, both equally difficult. Change from full time to part time study, which would mean that my degree would take me six years to complete instead of the usual three. Or stop everything and return home. I chose to remain, but it was one of the most painful decision I have ever had to make. For four successive years, I had to watch on from the sidelines as dear friends made during that academic year graduated at the start of each summer and left me behind. I was genuinely delighted to see them fly off into the world, but also so disheartened each time. It felt as though life had ground to a halt and I would be an eternal Undergraduate, stuck wandering the stacks at the Arts & Social Sciences Library forever. Looking back now, of course it’s easy to see that everything has turned out alright in the end. I eventually graduated in 2012 (aged 25) with a swish of my academic robe and a First Class Honours Degree to my name. But at the time I found it hard to accept the incredibly slow pace my health was forcing on me, and the feeling of stagnation that it brought with it.

I come back to this quote, time and time again, when I need to be reminded that it is not only okay to do things in my own way, but actually the only way. Because otherwise I cannot be true to myself. Recently when I’ve felt the little niggles of external pressure with regard to pursuing this little dream, I try to remind myself of Austen’s words. If slow and steady is my way, then I should fully embrace this path, and make it my own. No one but me can live my life for me, and so ultimately, I need to work to my strengths and do what works best for me. Which surely is the whole point to working for myself, after all?

about February

That was February.

At times overwhelmingly heavy, as difficult family news meant melancholy was often lurking at the edges. We have also found ourselves plunged into winter with bitterly frosty mornings, biting wind and sprinklings of snow. It would have been so easy to loose ourselves in worries of what is to come. Instead, we light the fire and seek to rest in that safe haven of now.

Making is one of the things which anchors me firmly in the present moment. And so many little bears have come to life from the mohair and wool this past month. Each one surprising me more than the last. Each one so unique and yet all capable of raising a smile & the spirits.

Comfort has also come in the form of heartfelt messages, meaningful exhanges & surprise parcels in the post, from women from across Europe and further afield. Friends I have never met, and yet whose kindness and caring have brought me such warmth on these cold days. Not for the first time, I feel so incredibly grateful for the magical way that wool & a shared love of working with it can weave such meaningful connections & lead to friendships in such unexpected places.

As March begins with it’s promise of Spring not far off, I will continue gently & quietly working on some dear little woolly things for my shop. All being well, I hope to open it’s doors around the 21st March.

Thank you so much for being here. What has brought you comfort during February?


One of the many meaningful connections I have treasured this month has been with my dear friend & incredibly talented maker Adriana. This first monthly round up was actually inspired in part by one she does on her beautiful blog. A little window into a quiet life in Portugal, her blog Mundo Flo is one of my long term favourites. I love to sit down with a mug of something warm and soak up her simple but wonderfully poetic reflections on life, mothering, making and all that is between. You can read more about Adriana here, see her most recent blog post here, and find more of her beautiful work here and here.

 

in my workroom 1#

On the western end of our little Breton cottage is a little room, with thick stone walls and one door to our living room and another straight out onto the garden. The garden wall has a chimney breast, just hoping to soon welcome a wood burner. And there is a sky light and the sweetest of square windows with a deep sill to let in plenty of natural light.

Along with the large garden and the large south facing windows, it was this room and all the possibilities it immediately inspired that helped me fall in love with  this place. Boxes are being unpacked, shelves arranged and rearranged as I start to spread out my tools, materials and dreams into this nook.

When talking about this room amongst ourselves, my boys generally refer to it as “mama’s atelier“, which feels simultaneously strange and natural. For the first time in my life, I have a dedicated making space to call my own. And for now, that feels mostly like an incredible luxury, but sometimes almost a bit of an indulgence. So I have to be mindful of these feelings and not let them undermine me. I have to keep reminding myself that this house is big and there is plenty of room for us three to each stretch out. The other that that occasionally flutters into my mind is the one that makes me feel reluctant to refer to this space as my studio, for fear of coming across an impostor. As if somehow I am dishonestly pretending to be someone with more experience, skills, talent or creativity. Or simply that I am having ideas above my station. I find exploring these different thoughts interesting, because ultimately they are symptomatic of a lack of courage and self belief in this project, and in my own legitimacy in pursuing it. But that does not mean they are true. They are something I wish to explore a little further in the coming weeks, but for now I shall practice here referring to this little space for what it is: not the spare room nor the garden room.  But rather my workroom.

I’m curious to know, do you have a dedicated space to call your own, for making or other projects? Whether a whole room or “just” a little basket or a favourite armchair, I’d so love to hear about it, and also about how spending time in that place makes you feel. Please tell me in the comments below.

a new home in the hills

It’s now four months since we arrived in our new home in the hills. For the time being, life has brought us from our mountain village in the Pyrenees, north & westward to the green and rolling hills of central Brittany.

Last year saw a great many challenges sweeping through our quiet little life. At times it felt like a tidal wave, leaving us tired and wrung out in it’s wake. Over the summer, in the midst of a significant flare up in my health, we both felt an unexplainable tugging on our hearts to uproot our mountain life and move over 800 miles northward to be closer to our respective families. We found a little Breton cottage nestled in a gentle valley, with a large garden and surrounded by fields. It seemed like the perfect place for us to rest & recuperate from a difficult year. But to move here was to take a leap into the unknown…because my poor health over the summer meant I wasn’t well enough to come and visit the place before we moved in mid October.

But there was love and hope and trust (and wool) to see us through. And it’s worked out fine in the end.

Our new home is nestled in the green hills of central Finistère, at the furthest end of Brittany. It’s a place where the wind & rain are frequent and the wildlife abundant both inside & outside. We fall asleep to the hooting of a pair of tawny owls each night and often wake to find the left overs of the midnight feasts of the resident mice in the kitchen the following morning.

With most of the boxes unpacked and a gentle new rhythm unfolding, we have finally exhaled. As our thoughts start to turn to Spring, we find ourselves outside as much as possible, slowly settling into our garden as well as exploring our new land base. For the next few months, this little tumble down cottage will be our home. Our motivation to come here was simple: we are here to recover from a hard last year and to be closer to our respective families. Our intention for the coming months is just as simple: to lead a gentler & slower existence, centered around our home & garden. Where are hands are kept busy (and often dirty) pulling this or that from our veggie garden, tending to chickens and possibly even sheep.

I also intend to finally plunge in and start peddling some of my hand made wares – starting with my bears & other little playthings…and am currently working towards opening my little shop up for the first time at the start of Spring. I look forward to showing you next week a little of what I’ve been working on this past month.

 

woollen hearted

At my heart, I’m a maker. And at the heart of my making, there is wool.  Wool is the raw material I return to time and time again. Whether hand spinning, knitting, natural dyeing, felting or bear making, the golden thread running through my making is woollen.

And this work with wool feels somehow like an extension of the whole of me. When I work closely with this fibre in an intentionally slow & mindful way, I find some of life’s many tangles become unravelled, some of it’s creases become straightened out.

Working wool with my hands allows me to reconnect with myself and my values, my wildest dreams and my most cherished priorities. Each turn of the wheel, click of the needles, tiniest of stitches is an outpouring of my heart, as it were.