Mothering Sunday

Today when I switched on my computer I noticed that Google is using this image of a ewe and a lamb for Mothering Sunday.

This reminded me that last week on Lambing Live I learned that the Swaledale Sheep breed is renowned for the good maternal skills of its ewes. Swaledales, it turns out, are good mothers. I think this means that they do not lose their lambs easily, that they do a good job of protecting and guarding them, and that they produce plenty of milk. Young Swaledale lambs need this kind of protection, because they are often born in the exposed and high-lying environments of the North Yorkshire moors.

Having knit with pure Swaledale I can say that as a fibre, it reminds me very strongly of the places where the breed originated, and I think there are few yarns more suitable for the purpose of making hill-walking socks. Prick Your Finger’s DK Swaledale is from young sheep, so it is not as rough as it might be, but it retains a robust hardiness which I personally like in a good walking sock. Slim strands of kemp somehow prevent the socks from felting too much, creating resistance and strength in the fabric, which is perfect for the work of walking up steep hills where a sure and solid surface is necessary for the feet to work against. I also love the colour of the pure Swaledale; many shades of white inhabit the yarn so that it resembles stone or earth, with heathery, non-flat colours and a certain roughness that catches the light. In behaviour, Swaledale yarn is supple, slim and hardy – just like the sheep that it comes from. Knitting with the Swaledale yarn reminds me of crunchy snow and difficult landscapes.

There is a beautiful bit of footage in Andy Goldsworthy’s film River and Tides where one can see both the maternal power of the Swaledale, and the mountainous context which has produced this unique breed. Andy Goldsworthy is an artist from the North of England who works with natural materials – ice, snow, thorns, twigs, leaves etc. – to produce ephemeral works which exist briefly in the landscape before being consumed by the same elemental processes that produced them. Most of Goldsworthy’s work is impermanent, but he has thought a lot about sheep in his practice, because they have been so central in shaping the places where he has lived and worked, and in recent years has produced a work entitled ‘Enclosures’ in which he restored many permanent stone shelters, for sheep. There is an interesting review of the book detailing this project here – and when Mark and I visited the Lake District back in Autumn 2008, we saw some of the restored enclosures for ourselves.

In the DVD about Goldsworthy’s work – Rivers and Tides – there is an amazing moment where a Swaledale gives birth while Goldsworthy talks about sheep and what they mean to him. I especially liked the unsentimental approach that the video-directors took here; the birth is bloody and visceral, and the shepherd helps the mother to know her lamb by rubbing her face in it. There is no cosy barn or straw, just grey stones, white air, thin grass, and the mucky lamb being cleaned by its mother and trembling on its just-born legs. One can sense the brittle beauty and cold hardness of the landscape from the light.

The reason this landscape looks as it is – with no trees – is because of the sheep. So the sheep have had this very deep impact on the land… and so I do feel this need to work with the sheep and yet our perception of sheep is so different to the reality of the sheep. It makes it (an) incredibly difficult thing to work with because we perceive it as being ‘a woolly animal’ and to get through that woolliness to the essence of the sheep is very, very hard… sheep are incredibly powerful animals in their own way.

They have been responsible for social and political upheavals; the Highland Clearances when people where people were put off the land… the landlords put sheep on the land and moved the people away. And they’ve left their story behind them; it’s written in the place, in the landscape. There is an absence in the landscape because of the effects of sheep.

People lived, worked and died here and I can feel their presence in the places where I work. And I am the next layer upon those things that have happened already.

– Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides

So in the context of Mothering Sunday I am thinking a lot about the Swaledale Sheep, the awesome forces in the Earth itself, and the raw energy and blood that mothering – in my observations at least – really entails. It seems to me that mothering is a thing which, like the much cutefied sheep, is often depicted in sentimental and softening terms which defy its power and its strength. Like the soft Merino wool with all the kemp bred out of it, gentle mothering is more fashionable than the Swaledale school of love, which is robust and hearty and born of rocks and places where the wind is wild and free.

But I know which school of love I come from and I am grateful for the strength of that place. Merino socks wear through quickly, but the deep hearty powers of Swaledale take us up mountains and back down again. Hurrah for good mothers, for uncute sheep, for mountains and hills, and for strong socks that last the distance. Hurrah for love and sheep and Happy Mother’s Day, Bam.

Rough Fell, a horned sheep related somewhere back in sheep history to the Swaledale.

4 Responses to Mothering Sunday

  1. Yes! Hurra for that!

  2. Anna says:

    What a true and beautiful post, linking landscape and wool and mothers, three of the world’s best things!

  3. Lara says:

    I loved this post and had completely forgotten about the fact that Andy Goldsworthy talks about sheep in Rivers and Tides. I must re-watch it. I was really struck by AG exhibition I went to in Yorkshire which had a series of paintings made by mud on sheep hooves and also his sheepfold. Hurrah for the Swaledale school of love, I know which one I’d pick too. Must try knitting some walking socks with the amazing swaledale.

  4. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » FO: Swaledale Socks #2

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