The coat off his back: why I love Wool Week

It is Wool Week and it seems an appropriate moment to celebrate the artisans and the animals that give us beautiful natural yarn for knitting and weaving.  The fact is, this is the thing above all that enticed me to try knitting: seeing how the animal’s fleece goes from farm to garment and beauty of the natural processes involved in that transformation.  One of the many attractions of knitting is the direct connection between making and wearing a garment.  I certainly feel a sense of pride in wearing anything I’ve made that far outweighs the (secret) knowledge I have of the imperfections in it.  Imagine, though, the pride you might feel in mastering the whole production process yourself. 

This summer, on holiday on Dartmoor, I was lucky enough to witness our neighbouring farmer penning her angora goats for shearing. The little flock of goats live a charmed life on Dartmoor, farmed solely for their mohair. As you would expect, their hair is rather special – their ivory corkscrew curls are super-soft and produce a beautifully soft yarn that Susan, their owner dyes and spins herself.

I was fascinated to see that she uses a traditional spindle – the kind that I remember from fairytale books – and even more delighted to be given the opportunity to try spinning myself.

It is harder than it looks and requires a level of physical co-ordination that you might expect from drumming: each arm and one leg all employed in different motions. The right hand feeds the fleece through thumb and forefinger into the left hand that holds spun yarn taught, while the right foot pedals at a constant speed to keep the spinning wheel in regular motion. As the yarn is produced, it winds onto a bobbin.

The way it works is that the spinning wheel creates energy that is transmitted to the yarn.  Whichever direction the wheel spins will determine the natural lean of the yarn, so in order to avoid that translating into a wonky garment, you can combine yarns with opposite ‘leans’ to give a single straight strand which then becomes a ply yarn. 

The real skill though lies in creating colour combinations in the yarn itself.  Susan showed me how she builds different colours into the yarn, using lighter colours or metallics to lift the darker ones.  It was clear to see her enthusiasm for this and her joy in the colour combinations. 

The final stage is creating the product – a woven rug, a knitted cushion cover or hat.  These products are very special: a unique and  hand-made product that has been created from inception to completion by a single artisan.  From caring for the lush fleece of her goats to creating the hat that will protect your own locks from winter weather, Susan has the process covered.

 I couldn’t resist buying one of her beautiful hats, especially having met the ladies and gents who had generously donated their luscious locks, and I wove the thread that I had spun myself through it as a reminder of a really fascinating and eye-opening afternoon.

You can find out more and commission work from Susan at www.dartmoormohair.co.uk and if you live near Dartmoor you may see her at local markets or National Trust events, though perhaps not with her caprine suppliers…..   

Failing that, you can check out Wool Week online at www.campaignforwool.org including their super-cute gallery of sheep photos which is nearly as good as seeing the real thing.

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