This week’s research has been about getting back to my roots. Specifically, my spinning roots – I’ve been back at home in Suffolk with my Mum relearning how to prepare and spin raw fleece. Mum is a trained weaver and spinner who studied textile design at college in Harrogate at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders – it wasn’t a good time to be out on the streets so she spent a lot of timed holed up inside with her spinning wheel. There’s more than a touch of the dystopian fairytale about this set-up, but it meant that there was plenty of time for her to perfect her spinning technique.
When I arrive home the sitting room is in thrall to spinning. The Ashford (pictured below), a classic upright spinning wheel first produced in New Zealand in the 1940s, stands sentinel amid bags of fleece. Each bag is stickered with its breed: Wensleydale, Suffolk, Jacob, Bluefaced Leicester, Herdwick. The table is heaped with carders and bobbins, their naked wooden bodies waiting to be wrapped in yarn.
Mum hands me a little pink booklet titled, rather marvellously, The Insatiable Spinner. It is the yarn fanatic’s handbook for home-spinning, detailing everything from buying fleece to dying your yarn. Although mostly aimed at those spinning sheep’s fleece, there is a detailed section on the possibilities of using dog, cat, rabbit, goat, camel, llama and even musk ox hair. I’m not sufficiently insatiable to seek out these more outré options – not yet anyway.
Sticking to sheep, of which there are more than sixty UK breeds and hybrids, they are classified accordingly to their wool type: Mountain & Hill, Shortwool & Down, Lustre & Longwool, and Medium. Unsurprisingly, Mountain & Hill sheep bred for those areas where the weather conditions are colder, wetter and windier than their downland cousins. Their fleece is coarser, better at turning water. Shortwool & Down are their lowland cousins with denser, springer fleece – perfect for the drier lowland climate. Lustre & Longwool fleece have an inviting sheen and long staple, and the category marked Medium scoops up everyone else. Together Mum and I look through the wool she’s been stockpiling: the differences between coarse Herdwick, a Mountain & Hill breed from Cumbria, and a Suffolk Shortwool & Down, are plain to see. As someone from Suffolk who has married a Cumbrian, I enjoy the contrast between our representative breeds.
Key among these categories is the staple. This is ‘the natural length of a lock of fleece’: and today the staple is measured in microns, millionths of a metre. In this book the fleece is ranked by Quality Count. Brainchild of a Mr A Hawkesworth in the days when imperial measurements reigned supreme, it records the number of 560-yard skeins that can be spun from a pound of the fleece’s best wool. Running my finger down the table I see familiar breeds like Wensleydale and Swaledale. Others like Lonk, Beulah, and Lllanwenog are strange on my tongue. Britain in miniature is reproduced in this table: Welsh Mountain, Manx Loghtan, Derbyshire Gritstone. Oxford, Dorset, Hampshire and South Down. Britain’s polyglot history of invasion and exchange with the continent is here too: British Texel, British Friesland, British Bleu Du Maine.
My great friend Elly, with whom I collected sheep’s wool from briars and fences on the farm as a child, comes over to lend a hand. I have known Elly since I was two years old and one of the only arguments we’ve ever had was as tempestuous eight-year-olds over who was going to wash the sheep’s wool we gatheed! There is something beguiling about the implied challenge of making something beautiful from a pile of dirty sheep’s wool, daggy with faeces and flecked with straw. The physicality of the challenge compels.
Mum has acquired a raw fleece for us to turn to yarn. The first coat from a yearling Jacob, it is chocolate brown and pale cream, with a waved, soft staple about three inches long. We lay a sheet out in the garden and roll out the fleece onto its back, its soft underbelly to the ground. The tail end is claggy with shit, and we start at the literal bottom, pulling out the worst of the wool. We then skirt round the edge, pulling away felted wool, and Mum guides us to sift out the occasional kemps, wiry hairs sometimes produced by a sheep under stress. We take out the too-short tufts of unspinnable wool, made when the staple was clumsily cu in two.
In the weak March sunshine we spend more than two hours picking over the wool, cleaning and sorting into the best, the worst, and the middling. Getting our eye in takes time: at the beginning it all just looks like wool, but after an hour or so the kemps jump out in their wiriness and the cut staple looks painfully, wastefully short. The best of the fleece comes inside with us, the worst goes to the compost. Mum bags the rest, shorter stapled and less fine, to be returned to once our spinning skills are up to snuff. Neither Elly or I get to wash the wool this time: it will be spun ‘in the grease’ to help the fibres cleave together.
Coming next: we get to grips with teasing, spinning and plying.