I love reading about other people’s spinning. Caro wrote this post – spinning – on her blog last week, with a great description of why spinning is a good evening activity, whilst on the Bowerbird Knits blog the rich story of her latest sweater from Corriedale tops to finished sweater has been gradually unfolding throughout the year, culminating this past weekend in an amazing sweater post. I have also been loving watching Liz’s spinning improving greatly from week to week and enjoying regular updates on her beautiful Arisaig, which she is knitting from Shetland wool she has spun herself. Finally, as listeners to the TAPE edition of the Cut and Splice domestic soundscape podcast will know, I have an ongoing fascination with Rachael Matthews’ Analogue Amnesty project where tapes are spun into yarn. Every time I go to Prick Your Finger there are more delicious handspun yarns to play with, inspired by everything from rare sheep breeds to popular culture – like this amazing Dukes of Hazard yarn or this spaghetti bolognese yarn. So there is a lot of inspiration out there for the aspiring spinner and this Autumn I decided to learn how to do it myself.

For the past 3 years I have visited Julia Desch’s farm at around this time of year and have come to know the sheep a little bit. During these visits I have learned an enormous amount from Julia about longwool sheep, about Wensleydales, and about the conservation of our rare breeds; so her farm and flock seemed like a natural starting point for the spinning endeavour. Lucky for me, I was joined in my spinning enterprises by seasoned spinners Liz and Ruth. It is really a lovely treat to have great company on the farm and to be able to share the joys of this special place with my friends.

This is The Studio where we stayed. I took this photo last year when it was much frostier than during the past weekend. And this is one of Julia’s gorgeous sheep.

For my beginner’s spinning I wanted to work with a little bit of carded silver Wensleydale. The rare silver-grey gene in Julia’s flock is an unpredictable genetic glitch and the silver yarn has for me a magical quality about it. Grey Owl – the sheep who carries this silver gene in Julia’s flock – is a bit lame at the moment so was getting some special attention from Julia this weekend and being moved off the damp grass into a more sheltered spot until his foot mends. I think this is a picture of Grey Owl that I took last Winter; you can see the silvery hues in his lovely fleece and he is – according to Julia – very gentlemanly as far as man-sheep go.

Wendy – who taught me to spin on Saturday – had some lovely Jacob fleece for us to try. It was straight off an old lady Jacob sheep and had plenty of grey in it and lots of lovely colour variation throughout the fleece from the dried tips to the darker parts closer to the animal’s skin. This fleece had only been washed in water and so it still had some sheep grease in it and still retained its rich, sheepy smell. I really enjoyed spinning with the Jacob; it felt full of the life of the animal that it came from and working with it was almost a sculptural process. Unlike when working with intensely carded tops, teasing out the fibres from this much less processed fleece involved a lot of gentle tugging and manipulation and it felt like my hands were learning about the fleece – about the dried parts and the greasier parts, and about where to pull hard and where to just gently prise apart the fibres – as I spun it. The grey Wensleydale was also nice to work with in this way as it too was greasy and fragrant and although it had been carded, this hadn’t been done to a high degree and so my fingers had to find and pull apart the fibres in a way that made me feel I was understanding more about the material and the animal it came from as I worked with it. I plied these silvery greys of Jacob and Wensleydale together and made this yarn.

We also had some amazing tops from Roger who runs Diamond Fibres. I believe that these tops came from his own flock of sheep which are badger-faced black Romneys, and which Kate and I met around this time last year when we visited Diamond Fibres in order to learn about the Worsted spinning process. Here are Roger’s Romney sheep, which are also known as Kent sheep. Romneys or Kents are a breed of sheep once kept widely around the Kent and Sussex area and still known to graze on the Romney Marshes. I have only ever seen black Romneys at Diamond Farm; the ones that still graze the Romney Marshes tend to be white.

You can see from the image here how open the fleece of his flock is; rather than matting together in rasta dreadlocks like the Wensleydale’s fleece, the Romney’s fleece has an airy quality. Roger is extremely exacting about the way that fibres are processed and the tops we worked with from his flock were absolutely beautiful; washed and carded into luxuriant, combed tops with all the fibres lying straight. The lustre and richness of colour in these tops was gorgeous and the staple in the Romney fleece is also quite long, so Liz and Ruth with their superior spinning knowledge were able to create shiny, dense, worsted-spun yarns from it. I created this, which pleases me deeply.

Finally, I spun up some random merino tops that I had in my felting stash from some years ago, and some very short, bouncy fibres from a Dorset Poll. The short fibres in the Dorset Poll were difficult for me to spin and card, so the resulting yarn is pleasingly gnarled and slubby, which is thankfully what I wanted it to be.

It was absolutely superb to spend a weekend with Liz and Ruth and to learn how to spin; thanks to you both, and to Julia and Wendy, and of course, the sheep.

You can hear Julia talking about her Wensleydales in the S H E E P radio show that I made for Framework and you can read about Beech Hill Farm on the Woolcraft With Wensleydale website. Julia is also on Ravelry and on Flickr, where she has some beautiful photos of her flock.

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