Category: making

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?

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.

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.

start where you are

 

I wake early.

Week by week, the nights are slowly getting a little less disturbed. A little more restful. So today I can creep from the darkness & the warmth of the family bed, knowing I am as rested as I’ll manage for this morning.

On tiptoe, I creep down the stairs, into the spare room and turn on the lamp. The project I was working on last night is still laying out patiently on the work table. Beside it, my wheel is also waiting. A bobbin half full with a cloud of fibres hanging in the air.

Not knowing how long I’ll have, it’s hard to know where to begin. Ideas flutter around my head like butterflies. I leave the sewing & the spinning untouched and instead reach to my notebook. The one with all the lists. And scribbled ideas. There is so much I am aching to do. But there seems to be no time. No energy. No right moment to get started.

Then I remember something I heard a few weeks back. About how there is indeed never a “right” moment to start anything. So instead of never getting started, it’s all about taking that first step right now. Starting where you are, wherever you are.

He stirs in his sleep, the bed creaks and after a moment I hear “MAMA” calling out. I drop what I was doing and dash back up the stairs, sinking back beneath the woollen blankets. The warmth of his little body warming mine on this foggy morning in early January.  After we have snuggled for a while, the day will begin with all it’s toddler energy & pace: there will be breakfast which will leave me mopping up spilt tea and trying to wipe crumbs and egg from the floor & table. Then we will play, and the floor will be covered in all the elements needed to create this morning’s particular playscape. Cushions will be pulled from the armchair, the little quilt dragged from the bed and soon wooden animals, teddies and a tea pot will be strewn across our living room. By mid morning I’m forcing a comb through my bedraggled hair, trying to make the best of myself without the shower I am so craving. I look at myself in the mirror, with the tired eyes and the stain on my t-shirt and wonder if this really is the moment. Even with the help of my partner, it is not always easy to find time and energy beyond the caring responsibilities I have at the moment. Caring for my boy. Caring for my partnership.Caring for my health.

It’s so easy at times like this to sink into a spiral of negative feelings: guilt, low self esteem, embarrassment. But today, I am resolved. Resolved that yes indeed, now is the time to start.

So here I am: with a toddler grabbing at my skirt, crumbs on the floor waiting to be swept and a deep resolve to give it a go. It won’t be perfect, but then when is anything ever perfect these days? I gave up aspiring to perfect long ago. Instead these days I try to find joy & beauty in the mess and the crumples, the tiredness and the tears. If I can somehow craft things of beauty from the mess on my work table, then I’m sure it must be possible to do the same with my life.

Consider this an intention to get started, properly sometime very soon. And also to begin some wild & wonderful adventures in sustainable creativity. All be it at a deliberately slow pace.