Wovember 2012

I travelled yesterday to see Julia Desch who runs the Woolcraft with Wensleydale project down in Sussex.

I am a big fan of Julia’s work with coloured Wensleydales. The explicit mission of the Sheep to Shawl community company established by the Woolcraft With Wensleydale project is to educate on all the stages of producing and processing fibre.

In this way the journey by which this…

…becomes this…

…can be appreciated for all the labour, tradition and skill involved in the transformation. Through hosting educational events on all stages of fibre preparation and wool work, the Woolcraft with Wensleydale project ensures that the know-how, traditions and skills associated with turning sheep into textiles will not be lost.

The yarn which Julia produces from her sheep drapes beautifully, and it has a luxuriant quality which makes it especially suited to lace knitting.

While I sat in her kitchen ranting about the Royal Berkshire County Fair, Julia worked on a silver-grey shrug pattern she is currently writing, and a small stock of Wensleydale rams grazed down in the valley at the bottom of her land. Julia and her boys have moved from Beech Hill Farm to a smallholding of 6 acres near Hailsham. Her breeding flock is on a larger farm in Surrey, and in a couple of months her rams will be put to various ewes around the UK to keep those precious coloured Wensleydale bloodlines going.

There are just 21 flocks of coloured Wensleydales registered in the UK now.

Julia is the person who first introduced me to the realities of being a small-scale yarn producer in the UK. Meeting her was a pivotal point in my developing appreciation of wool.

Another sheep farmer doing incredible things for wool right now is Sue Blacker, whose Gotland sheep I hope to meet in October, and whose impressive projects – Blacker Designs, Blacker Yarns and The Natural Fibre Company, not to mention Woolsack – consistently raise the profile of wool.

One of the projects instigated by Sue that I have found particularly inspiring has been the Natural Fibre Company project to produce Boreray Yarn. Boreray Sheep are critically endangered, and the Boreray Yarn produced by Blacker Yarns earlier this year directly supported sheep farmers keeping Borerays and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. This project has been written about several times by Deb Robson and the RBST, and a google search for Boreray Yarn / Natural Fibre Company brings up countless links to blog-posts where people share their experience of buying and working with this rare sheep breed yarn. This project is a brilliant example of co-joining economic activity with social media, cultural activity, and education. As well as practically providing a market for the Boreray wool clip, it has publicised the plight of Boreray sheep and provided a practical way for the concerned, knitting public to directly support the work of sheep farmers raising these endangered animals.

When small producers like Julia set up projects like the Sheep to Shawl project, or when organisations like The Natural Fibre Company instigate projects like the Boreray Yarn venture, the gaps between farmers and consumers are closed a little bit. We value wool more highly as a consequence of knowing more about it, we find a new appreciation for the meaning of textiles, and we can experience connections with the world that we live in through the act of dressing ourselves.

Layter, a celebration of all the wonderful sheep breeds we have here in the UK knit with Blacker Designs Yarns.

There are many producers working in a similar vein to Sue Blacker and Julia Desch whom I could mention in this post, but today I wanted to introduce Wovember 2012 with the two producers/educators/entrepreneurs in woolwerld whose work has had the greatest effect on my own thinking about this precious, sustainable material.

Thinking about Woolcraft with Wensleydale and The Natural Fibre Company, I have decided that this year the theme of Wovember 2012 will be ‘closing the gap’. The month of November will feature a sequence of woolly contents on the Wovember site, divided into 5 distinct themes:

*growing wool
*harvesting wool
*processing wool
*working with wool
*wearing wool

I am inviting a range of specific people to contribute guests posts for each section, but in addition to this, I thought it would be amazing to invite YOU to help shape the celebration! You can submit the following items to be in with a chance of winning some woolly goodness:

*a blog post (100 – 700 words long) on any of the five topics in the list
*a photo relating to any of the five topics in the list (1024 pixels wide if possible)

…submissions should be emailed to wovember[at]gmail[dot]com by 15th October 2012. Selected submissions will feature on the Wovember website throughout the month of Wovember, and the best blog-post or photo submitted in each category will be awarded a prize.

Sue Blacker has generously agreed to contribute 12 balls of Blacker Designs Yarn to the prizes stash, and I will be delighted to contribute a wide selection of limited-edition wool brooches to Wovember winners!

Many of you will also be excited to learn that Kate Davies – the other half of TEAM WOVEMBER – has added a copy of her forthcoming book ‘Kate Davies Knits: Colours of Shetland’ to the prize pot!

I am curating and organising Wovember by myself this year as Kate is currently busy working on the aforementioned book and preparing for Shetland Wool Week. Wovember 2012, however, builds on the manifesto we devised together last year, and Kate’s amazing patterns seem to me to be the very embodiment of celebrating wool for what it is.

I am so excited to see Kate’s new Shetland designs. So far I have been especially enthralled by the way that her amazing Rams & Yowes blanket visually and materially celebrates the wonderful Shetland animals from which it comes, and I present it here as a prime example of closing the gap with style:

Rams and Yowes blanket © Kate Davies Designs, image used with kind permission of Kate Davies

If Kate’s designs aren’t some of the most inspiring examples of using creativity to close the gap between the producers of yarn and the folks who knit with it, I will literally eat my 100% wool hat.

For further details on Wovember 2012 please visit the official Wovember site, and if you have suggestions for how it can be better this year, please do leave your comments here.

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