Woolfest 2015

It is 6 years since I wrote this on my return from Woolfest in 2009. I vividly remember that jolly trip;

the wonderful campsite at Buttermere where Herdwicks had free reign;



the pleasure of spending time with some of my favourite people;



and the epic inspiration which we found at Woolfest itself. I came home with an entirely new perspective – one which has had a profound influence on the direction of my work. Many wondrous things have grown out of a group of buddies piling into the KNITSONIK mobile and heading North for a few days in 2009 and in many ways I feel that the work with which I am now engaged really started there.


The agricultural setting of Woolfest in an auction mart site and the presence of sheep, shepherds and raw fleece for sale all left a deep impression on me, and I’m sure this is due to the amazing Wool Clip cooperative who organise the festival. For those of you who have not heard of this organisation The Wool Clip is an inspirational group of artisans and makers, many of whom grow their own wool as well as turning it into gorgeous textiles. Their knowledge of what can be done with wool and their appreciation for its place in their art and their landscape informs all aspects of the festival, from the baa-ing sheep, the omnipresence of wellies and the carefully curated marketplace. This festival is about celebrating woollen textiles from the land, and that is why attending it in 2009 was so inspiring. Happily, many more festivals are appearing with a similar ethos, but Woolfest was my first really sheepy knitting show and it will always have a special place in my heart.


In 2009 I wrote:

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; it is to witness the ancient agricultural bond between people and animals that has formed the economic backbone of communities all over the UK.


At Woolfest 2009 I learnt to identify several breeds new to me…


The Rough Fell


The Herdwick


And The Shetland.

On the Blacker Yarns stall I purchased the yarn for my first original knitwear design – Layter – which celebrates the sheepy inspiration found at Woolfest.


I also got the yarn for a Baby Surprise Jumper from the Garthenor stall – Manx and Shetland – which has found its way through the family to my nephew Toby. I remember making up a card for my cousins with photos of Manx and Shetland in it – a tradition which I am continuing with all the new additions to the family; all the babies get breed-specific knitting and either audio or photographic evidence of its source 🙂

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Woolfest inspired ideas that have preoccupied me since; a desire to knit with yarn of known provenance; a need to better understand the production chain behind my hand knitting yarns; an appreciation for the landscapes in which wool grows, and a rich, heartfelt love for WOOL and the wondrous people and animals responsible for its production.

This love has mostly gone into my research activities for WOVEMBER where I annually join forces with comrades Kate Davies, Tom of Holland and Louise of Knit British to celebrate WOOL.


The articles I most enjoy assembling for WOVEMBER are those which reflect the feelings I first had in 2009 and which put me in touch with the amazing comrades who have taught me about wool, and the comrades with whom I have most deeply shared its discovery. The Q&A with Emily Chamelin inspired by seeing a shearer at work at Woolfest; the pieces about work done by members of The Wool Clip like Pam Hall and Cecilia Hewett; articles about Rachael Matthews and Louise Harries from whom I learnt about Cumbrian wool and different sheep breeds; my interview with Kate Davies with whom I have shared many exciting woolly discoveries + adventures; being allowed to republish such gems as “Nature’s Colours” by Ella Gordon of Jamieson & Smith and “Walter’s Crook” by Rachael Matthews and reflecting on what it means to me to wear more wool.

Many such research adventures have their roots in that seminal trip of 2009 and with time spent going around stalls with my buddies, making 100% WOOL purchases, meeting sheep and shepherds, and reflecting collectively on our discoveries.


I am therefore extremely happy and honoured to have been invited to exhibit the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook artwork at Woolfest this year. I have put quite a bit of thought into how best to present this and what I want to show is the thought processes behind my swatches and of course the swatches themselves.


I will have copies of my book plus the photos and objects which I used as inspiration sources; the palette sticks I developed; and the messy notebooks that I filled with scribbly ideas in the course of coming up with my twelve case studies for the book. I will have a basket of J&S 2 ply Jumper Weight yarn with me and will be working on a new swatch as part of the KNITSONIK Frangipani Caterpillars swatch-along. The entire stall will be clad in KNITSONIK fabric, printed with my swatches and photos taken by me and my amazing brother Fergus Ford for the book.

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Given the very sheepy focus of Woolfest, I will also have a special listening station at which you can hear some of the sounds related to the production of the wonderful yarn with which I knitted all the swatches in my book. I summarised my appreciation for this yarn in the book as follows;

The beautiful Shetland 2 ply Jumper Weight yarn produced by Jamieson & Smith is the material foundation for all the knitting in this book. I love this yarn because when I travelled to Shetland I was able to fully understand its journey from sheep to shoulders, and because its qualities are perfectly suited to knitting stranded colourwork in the round. The yarn has a soft hand, comes in a glorious array of shades, and blooms beautifully when washed. It wears well, and is as resilient and full of character as the sheep that are its source. With such an appropriate local material on hand, it is no wonder that Shetland is famous – in part – for its stranded colourwork.


My approach to using yarn in my book was influenced by my earlier experience at Woolfest where I first began to really differentiate different breeds of sheep from one another; where I first began to twig that all WOOL is not the same; where I first perceived the relationships between distinctive landscapes and specific sorts of textiles… where I first realised that Shetland sheep are especially valued for their different natural colours, for instance…


I wonder how many other knitters have had similar experiences at festivals like Woolfest in the din of the shearing demos and in the quiet moments found by the animals in their pens?


I feel I care more about the materials with which I work because of that mind-blowingly beauteous encounter with sheep and their shepherds back in 2009. Woolfest led me to WOVEMBER which led me to Estonia and Shetland, which ultimately led me to write my book. At each stage of this journey I have found more richness in this world of wool, more sounds to record and more knitting designs to draw out of the landscape around me and this glorious stuff that grows on the backs of sheep. It feels momentous to return to Woolfest now and I am anxious to do the organisers proud.

Nothing would make me happier than to meet you there and talk at length about the joys of wool and knitting! I shall have my camera and trusty digital recorder for documenting any KNITSONIK swatches or sounds you care to bring and I feel really glad and grateful to have been invited.



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