Woolfest

I spent the weekend here with Liz, Lara, Kate and Tom. Our temporary tent-village was frequented by the Herdwicks who also live in Sykes Farm and who produce the most amazing variety and quantity of baas around first light. The cows sometimes join in and I have attached a sound file here so that you can hear the joys of the baaing concert.

Lara, Liz and Kate, looking sprightly after the sheep dawn chorus

Herdwicks passing behind our tents

Lara’s amazing Cath Kidston tent

We were camping in this beautiful spot in the lake district so that we could rise bright and early to attend Woolfest, a sheep and wool festival with a fantastically agricultural feel and the opportunity to meet small producers and flock-keepers directly, as well as the opportunity to buy masses of gorgeous yarns from small UK producers. Driving carefully from Buttermere to Cockermouth along winding roads peppered with grazing Herdwicks, I was really struck by the intimate relationship between sheep and the landscape, and — by extension — the bond between knitting and the land. I found myself thinking about how I when I invest in products from UK sheep farmers, I invest in this.

This is not an entirely new idea for me; researching the Yarn Forward article I wrote about Julia Desch and her Wensleydale flock in East Sussex, I began to understand more closely the relationships between land, people, animals and knitting, but the whole experience of going to Woolfest expanded that idea for me enormously, and on several counts. Because of the way that Woolfest is organised and set up, I got to meet many different breeds of sheep and to talk with many different producers of wool.

Shetland

Herdwick

Rough Fell

Manx Loghtan

Meeting these animals in person in the setting of the agricultural auction building where Woolfest is held, it is possible to understand their working life as farm animals, and to witness the animal husbandry — the relationship between man and beast — that lies at the heart of wool production. Watching the incredibly competant and deft shearing demonstration at Woolfest I was struck by the depth of this relationship and its long history.

To shear a sheep competently you must be able to balance it against your body in such a way that its hooves cannot touch the ground, for as soon as it gets any purchase with its feet, a sheep will run away. Firm hands and strong arms are needed to keep the sheep relaxed and assured so that it will lean back against your body as you go over it with the clippers. The Rough Fell sheep being sheared in this image weighs more than the woman shearing it, but with expertise, deftness and a sure hand, she had it shorn in under five minutes. She had to get right in close to this animal to shear it, to anticipate its movements and to know it.

Shorn sheep

The skeins of sanitised, scoured, dyed, pretty yarns that one encounters in a wool shop do not exhibit the rough, earthy intimacy of this connection. The signs of muscle, earth, nobility, mud, rock and power that sheep embody when you meet them are absent from clean, wound skeins, and with that absence, it is also possible to miss the labour and the communities and the landscapes that surround what yarn is. To see the animals in the flesh and to meet their flock keepers and handlers in person is to encounter the deep earthiness of sheep, their affinity with rocks, mountains and rivers, and to witness the ancient agricultural bond between people and animals that has formed the economic backbone of communities all over the UK. I really enjoyed talking to Jean Bennet of the Shetland Sheep Society about her flock. She said she prefers being on the hills with her sheep to knitting with their wool, but was extremely knowledgeable about the beautiful knitwear that others have created from her quality product. I learned from her that she prefers handclipping her own sheep to using electronic clippers and that she often brings fleeces straight from her sheep to Woolfest to sell to handspinners. She told me how in the foot and mouth crises a few years back, her and other farmers fought hard to keep their animals. She pointed out that nobody who keeps sheep does it for the money, but that her animals pay their own way. I bought a postcard from her featuring her own flock and in that simple, small transaction, another gathering of animals on a hillside became less anonymous, contextualised, known.

3 bags full

Handspun, handknitted shetland shawl from shetland sheep fleece

It is possible to see from this incredibly fine handspun lace how the Shetland sheep and its fleece have become associated with shawls that are fine enough to pass through a wedding ring.

And this brings me to another element of attending Woolfest that evolved my consideration of knitting, sheep, the landscape and our connections with those things, which is the role that handspinning plays in our understanding of wool. Someone once said to me that the reason handknit items are so personal is that each individual stitch has passed through the hands. But this is just one level at which yarn is touched. It would seem that the handle, feel, tensility and unique properties of different wools are also felt and understood keenly at the handspinning stage. One of the things that was especially inspiring for me this weekend was having Liz in the car all the way to the festival, knitting up some beautiful handspun she has made from UK sheep fleeces, and speaking of the things she has learned from the Oxford Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers about the specific qualities of each of the different wools that she has spun so far.

Julia Desch also found that it was the work of the Vauxhall City Farm spinning group that helped the Woolcraft with Wensleydale group to understand the specific qualities of the Wensleydale fleece. The knowledge of wool gathered through centuries of handspinning massively influences the way that industrial spinning processes spin fibres. The worsted spinning process that is done at Diamond Fibres mill, for instance, is best suited to wools with long fibres like Swaledale, Wensleydale and Teeswater. In this process, the fibres are carded and combed many times and spun into successive rovings before being plied together. Resulting yarns are denser than those produced by other wool spinning processes — such as the approach adopted at the Natural Fibre Company — which have been developed for processing springy, shorter fibres, and which results in a bouncier, lighter yarn for knitting with. But such knowledge — even when applied at an industrial level — has come from many centuries of handspinning, from many centuries of wool running through clever fingers.

Knowledge of wool is also something that seems to go with our socialising; with our societies and meetings and times spent together. I learn from my knitting friends all the time; we are a sort of unofficial guild, and the time we spend knitting together is often also spent learning. The stitch and bitch phenomenon is like a contemporary system of guilds and I am intrigued by how the urban knitting culture and the traditional craft guilds are increasingly intersecting, with knitters that I know from the Oxford Bluestockings knitting group and the Sticks and String Reading group taking an increasing interest in handspinning and the activities of local spinning guilds.

I want to learn more about the handspinning and I have a suspicion that I will be interested in spinning ‘in the grease’ when I learn. I had a muddy fleece in a carrier bag for years when I lived in Ireland that I amateurishly tried to spin with a drop spindle. I have no idea what breed of sheep the fleece came from, but I liked the muddiness of the fleece, its rich, sheepish smell and the greasy texture of the wool. I liked — and still like — the sense of the earth and the land that inhabit a mucky old fleece from a living animal, and I really enjoyed being able to remember that earthiness at Woolfest.

Of course it was also lovely to touch and handle scoured, soft, clean, beautiful yarns from independent producers, and to fondle skeins of Manx, Jacob, Ryeland, Shetland, Herdwick and other yarns. UK 100% wool has an undeserved reputation for being very rough and scratchy, but this is a very partial truth. Certainly the yarn from the Herdwick sheep is quite rough, but its structural properties and hard-wearing qualities mean that it is perfect for garments that need to be hard-wearing like bags, bowls, or indeed sculptures with stone-like qualities.

Rachael Matthews’ knitted hourglass from Relics of an awesome picnic, made for Love is Awesome from Herdwick yarn

Rachael Matthews’ knitted skull and crossbones from Relics of an awesome picnic, made for Love is Awesome from Herdwick yarn

…and the yarn from the Rough Fell sheep is hardy enough that Prick Your Finger have a shop sign made from it, so it might not make for the most comfortable lingerie. But other breeds – Shetland, Jacob, Wensleydale, Teeswater, Manx, North Ronaldsay and many others – produce a beautiful wool that is soft, comforting, warming, enduring, and a pleasure to knit with.

The Garthenor Organic stall featuring many rare-breed sheep yarns, industrially spun into many different weights including a beautiful super chunky and a very delicate laceweight.

Much of the feel and texture of yarn is determined at the sorting-stage of wool production, when fleeces are gone through — again by hand — and pruned so that only the softest and most high quality portions of the fleece go through to be spun. Smallscale production allows for attention to detail at this stage and I think the nice man at the Garthenor Organic stall (although being incredibly modest about this) is something of an expert at this stage of wool production, since all the wools on his stall were of beautiful quality and the selection of colours (all natural fleece colours) was immense. I had a long chat with him about his favourite sheep and we agreed the Herdwick is very noble, and that the Manx Loghtan produces a gingery fleece, a bit like mellow marmalade.

The amazing Garthenor Organic stall

Liz, Kate, Lara and I all agreed this was our favourite of all the stalls. I think we each left with at least 600m of the beautiful laceweight yarns available, and I also got 3 balls of DK weight for a project I want to begin immediately. I also spent a lot of money at other stalls, but have come away with no Alpaca, no Cashmere and no Merino yarn. Unusually for me I also left without any hand-dyed yarn at all. Something about Woolfest made anonymous yarn from many miles away seem less inspiring than wool from sheep I can actually meet and touch, sheep I can smell, sheep with handlers who talk of the same hills and mountains that I love. And something about the undyed yarns reminded me of the stone and mud and pastureland where the sheep who produce them graze. Articles like this one about cashmere make me think pretty long and hard about what yarns I spend my money on, and what sort of agricultural practises I want to support with my creativity. Although this may sound a little prosaic or whimsical — especially coming from someone raised in the suburbs with only a handful of agricultural knowledge — it seems to be an idea that is also espoused by farmers who recognise the spending power of knitters.

When I got home from Woolfest I went to check up on my favourite blogs in one last-minute dash of Internet Bingeing before July Offline commences, and I read the following line on this post, lamenting the damage that constant rains are doing to the Hay crop in the US at the moment:

I make wool and wool is made from hay. Hay prices will almost certainly skyrocket in the fall.

What can you do? Support your local small farmer. When you pass a farm stand this weekend stop and buy some berries, lettuce or apples. Try to buy more yarn from small farms and less from international conglomerates.

Farmers will survive this rain, as they have survived all kinds of weather since time began. They are a tenacious, never-say-die lot. They don’t need your pity, they need your business.

— Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm, US

I couldn’t have put it better myself. I believe that the investment one makes in yarn can be deeper and more involved than merely finding pretty yarns to knit with. Buying wool can be a land and community investment and an investment in farming practises and rural heritage. When I knit with the yarns that I have bought home with me from Woolfest, I will be thinking of the places where the sheep that it comes from live. I will be thinking of the strong arms that shear those sheep and the baaing choruses that wake the farmers who keep flocks. And I will be figuring out how to keep sheep myself one day, and to pass on all the richness of our woollen heritage to successive generations of farmers and knitters.

That is why Woolfest is the best fibre festival of them all.

9 Responses to Woolfest

  1. Kate says:

    Felix, this is a fantastic post. You are just as inspiring as the fest itself. I like your notion of the unofficial guild, and feel fired up with renewed sheepiness. Hurrah for the materiality of the land and the yarn.

  2. lara says:

    What a lovely post – I love all the connections that you have woven together throughout it and I love the idea of while thinking about the landscapes and farmers with the wool you are almost knitting the landscape into the garments. The quote from Martha’s vineyard is great too… (Also I love the photo of the sandals….)

  3. Ruth says:

    Next year, I am coming too! I am a little bit gutted that I planned my Cumbria camping holiday for next week. Just toooo late!

  4. Lucie says:

    This is a beautifully composed and written piece. Really inspiring!

  5. Anne says:

    Found your blog via various threads !!! and couldn’t resist butting in after reading your Woolfest post . You mentioned Jean Bennet and I just wanted to say what great fleece she does have and if you ever decided to spin you couldn’t go wrong with her fleece. I order from her every year and funnily enough she called to see us yesterday whilst holidaying here in Wales. Isn’t it a small world 🙂

  6. jeannette says:

    brava!

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