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Spinning, Sheep, & Wool on the Fourth of July July 3, 2016

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I’m giving one of my talks at  Stoke Library, Coventry tomorrow 4th July at 11 am.

Stoke Library, Kingsway, Coventry CV2 4EA




Yarn cakes February 18, 2016

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just spent an evening with my Christmas swift & wool winder. The lilac/pink blue yarn cake is laceweight yarn, hand-dyed. The cream is alpaca plied with superwash wool. The barber-pole set are from another Christmas gift – fleece from a White Faced Woodland sheep, crossed with a blue Texcel. Probably going to be a wrap. Thanks, Sarah



Shepherd Stocktaking October 16, 2015

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Rooks are out gossiping

On the greening red soil

Where winter wheat’s coming.

Down ’ere, pheasant’s craking.

Yan,    tan.


Elderberries, rowan,

Drooping fat. Yellow leaves

Rippling, dribbling down.

Whispers of wind stir birds.

Tether mether.


Year’s coming round agen.

Nice dry day, I’ll dip em.

Get rid o’their burden

O’ ticks. Bloodsucking things.

Pip, azer.


Soon time to run tups in.

I’ve good strong lads, strong backs

And legs at each corner.

That’s ‘ow we breed ‘em up ‘ere.

Sezzer, akker.


Got to earn their keep up ‘ere.

Pay back fer the bad years

When snows come late, and cut

life-cord of still-wet lambs.

Conter, dick.


And bloodsucking buyers

Cut lamb wi’ horsemeat,

And still pay less deadweight.

Buzzards keen overhead.

Yanadick, tanadick.


Yon lambs had my nights’ sleep.

Pulling ‘em out, rubbing

Life into their bodies.

Gettin’ yows to give suck.

Tetheradick, metheradick.


The young ‘uns might gambol

And jostle fer hayrack,

But there’s bin no time

Ter stand and savour.

Bumfit, yanabum.

As spring turned to summer

I’ve checked ‘em fer footrot,

Seen the lot of ‘em sheared,

And cleaned their bums o’ maggits.

Tanabum, tetherabum.


The whole flock’s right gradely

And there’s hay in the yard.

I’ve med it come good agen.

Reckon I’ll do one year more.

Metherabum, jigget. Mark.

Spinning Season October 16, 2015

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Autumn has ripped leaves from the trees, and winter daylight is too weak to take the crunchy skin off puddles. Spinners are oiling their wheels and settling in for a sedentary season. Not less busy and certainly not less productive, because hour after hour, sitting treadling produces miles of fine yarns.

Although modern spinners don’t stick to sheeps’ wool alone, the spinning year still follows the traditional ways of the past: fleece, shorn in early summer are washed whilst there’s a chance of drying outside. They’re picked over to remove a year’s worth of burrs and thorns, and carded or combed ready for spinning. Outdoors in a breeze, knots waft away for birds to pick up. About then, most spinners would support bringing back child labour – these stages are boring and time-consuming, and don’t need real skill. And they’re keeping us from spinning.

Now, with most rooms in the house insulated by bags of clean, fluffy wool, spinners can settle in for the hypnotic, addictive yarn production.

Hypnotic, when you’re alone, spinning smooth consistent yarn. Easy to lose yourself in the rhythm and flow: treadle, feed to the bobbin, treadle, feed to the bobbin. Keep the speed and feed even, and the yarn comes out unvarying and unbroken, and your thoughts can go where they will: tomorrow’s shopping list, or more thorny problems. All resolve as the wheel turns steadily, and your creativity plays whilst the gatekeeper in your head watches the yarn oblivious. You can do it blindfold, feeling the fibre your backhand is drafting towards the wheel, feeling the twist with your front hand before you let it onto the bobbin. Treadle, feed to the bobbin.

Of course, with big families and small rooms, this is a luxury most spinsters did not enjoy a century ago. Today, we still get together to spin, as happened in the past.only then, to save on heat and candles, and to meet an urgent order, or just to put food on the table. We get together to spin socially – in guilds across the country.

We share meals and we share ideas – we’re not limited to functional homespun yarns for simple knitting and weaving, so colours and effects highlight the dismal light on a wintry day. No two projects will be the same in a meet of twenty plus spinners. There’s a lot to learn there, and not a single formal teacher – we pass the knowledge by word and feel and hand, just as it always happened.

Not many will have the same design of wheel either – although the basic mechanism is the same. A four-hundred-year –old spinner would still recognise and get a modern wheel working: treadle turns the bigger flywheel, which turns the smaller whorl faster; flyer spins round the bobbin, adding twist and winding on the yarn.

We might have the same type of wheel, but we rarely aspire to be as productive as spinsters in the past had to be. In medieval Coventry, a spinster would be expected to spin a 2 ½ pound fleece in a week. And walk miles with the spun yarn – to get paid and pick up the next fleece. All the young and adult women in a family would spin. As well as tending the vegetable garden, cooking and cleaning, and looking after kids. They would need to keep on top of it, especially if the man of the house was a weaver – it took twelve spinsters to keep one weaver in yarn.

Unlike the medieval spinners, we are free to choose our own fleece –sixty-plus breeds of British sheep give us permutations of fibre characteristics. So as evenings lengthen, we’ll be spinning long lustrous Wensleydale for a shaggy jacket, fine crimped Shetland for a traditional shawl, Piebald Jacob for a humbug-stripe pullover. On round the room, we’ll stop, and stroke, and slaver, and wonder if we can squeeze anything else into our stash. It’s satisfying to support smallholders, who are bringing back our rarer breeds, and as we treadle, we’ll be dreaming up our own queue of must-do projects.

Successes February 1, 2015

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Just had one of my pieces longlisted in a competition in online magazine Brilliant Flash Fiction. Always satisfying to see work published.

So now, I have several pieces in both Bulkington Writers Anthologies, on Amazon in both Kindle & paperback; a piece in Thynks Publication’s Christmas Celebrations available from this author, if you’re Christmas shopping early.

Indigo Dreams publishers were pleased to accept a piece in one of last year’s quarterly  Dawntreader magazines. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at submitting to opportunities as different as  Magma Poetry and Nuneaton Festival of Arts, Alongside fine tuning my latest presentation on Spinning, Sheep, & Wool. If I’m not tempted away to the wheel & peg loom too much.

Looking back at 19 June, Farlands July 16, 2013

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Another warm, dry afternoon after so many cold miserable days – perfect for listening to the post-lunch tune-up while M packs.  The lambs and sheep punctuate the birdsong as usual: hearing the ewe answer its errant lamb adds that “all’s well with the world” dash to the composition.  I could easily drop off too, but settle for closed eyes while I recreate the valley image from the sounds.

Until the sheep down the lane up their act: no longer gaps between the wobbly bleats and throaty mothers’ ‘mehs’, the calls overlap and take on an anxious tone.  Sounds like they’re being moved.  Yes, definitely more lambs and mums joining in.  Definitely down the lane we need to be driving along to catch M’s train.  The single track lane with drystone walls on either side.  Time to investigate – lean over the five-bar gate, I think.  The good news: they’re coming up the lane towards and then past us.  Decent sized, sturdy sheep, with broad backs like coffee tables.  Encouraged on by a sheepdog and the two young men we’ve been seeing working the farm across the lane.

moving lambs at Farlands

moving lambs at Farlands

I say we’ve been seeing them, but perhaps its more accurate to say they couldn’t help but notice us as they went about their work: driving the landrover from one field to another, there we are, sat down in the middle of the hillside, catching our breath.  Then later, wool-gathering across the clough.  Yes, gathering real wool, just like the 16th century origin of the phrase.  Weaving erratically back and forth across the field, gathering the shed tufts of wool, with little to show for the effort.  Except M and I were very satisfied with the results of our labour, and it’s since been scoured in the washing machine.

Oh, and then the eccentric lady townies popped up to ask them who we might tell about the one-eyed distressed horse:  fast-pacing along his paddock, tossing his head from side to side and whinnying.  If you’d asked us to explain beforehand how to tell if a horse was distressed, we’d have looked at you gone out, but there was no mistaking: this horse was distressed and we couldn’t distract him from his upset.

Well, they might have been tolerantly amused by our involvement in country life, but they obliged and directed us to a stable just off the most chocolate-boxy hamlet: gritstone cottages and hollyhocks.  The horse’s owner was there, currying another horse, not at all put out at our taking an interest.  This bay had come out of the paddock for a wash and brush-up (not correct terminology) and our one-eyed friend was missing his mate – who was going back down there shortly.  So all soon became well.  I missed the opportunity to ask how he lost his eye – so mortified, I’d described him as ginger.  Everyone knows horses are chestnut.

But enough wool-gathering and back to the sea of sheep swimming past our cottage: The ewes have done this before and head the tide.  Some are even a bit blasé about it and stop to nibble the roadside plant-life.  To some, as always, the grass is greener on our side and they make determined efforts to breach the gritstone wall, but these are chunky beasts and don’t have the jumping ability of the Ronaldsays.  They also have handy steering devices: the shepherds take them by the horns to point then in the right direction.

Day later, describing this at Pat’s Woolly Day – a gathering of six ladies each with spinning wheels of five different designs, the call goes up, ‘What breed?’.  Knowing the breed of fleece you’re spinning is important to these ladies: it tells you how long the fibres will be and how fine, how much crimp will be in the wool and even how much lanolin will be in the wool (up to 30% in weight).  I hadn’t known that it’s common to spin wool straight off the sheep and then scour it in the skein.  We decided that with their horns and black faces, these were most likely Swaledales.  But that will wait for another time.

spinning and wheels

spinning and wheels

To finish Wednesday: we enjoyed the spectacle – rare for us, but just another day in the life of a young farmer.  The sheep cleared the lane in plenty of time for us to get to the station, leaving me quietly glad that they had ground their droppings into the tarmac.  Beneficial as it would have been on the allotment, sharing the journey home with a bag of sheep droppings might have been taking the re-use, recycle mantra a step too far for this Marie-Antoinette.