Sheep and Shearing

From a hand spinner’s perspective.

It’s HOT

Sheep seem such simple souls. Left in a field to their own devices, they grow fleece and make lambs. Simple. Not so, they require a person with a job (career) all of their own, dedicated to them i.e. shepherd/ess. Of course farmers manage a whole farm with endless work to do, but there seems to be so much to know about sheep. Sheep and shearing are very physically challenging jobs.

Take shearing, a sheep needs to be sheared once a year to keep it healthy. Too much fleece would not allow freedom of movement, the animal would be attacked by insects and unable to eat because the fleece does not stop growing. At shearing time sheep must not eat or drink for 8 hours beforehand and must be kept in shade and dry for the duration. Wet sheep cannot be shorn. If they do eat or drink before shearing, the animal is liable to suffocate because of intestines impacting on the lungs, which would then be unable to inflate.

A professional shearer is valuable as he/she knows from handling each animal if there are health issues which may have been missed, through no fault of the shepherd/ess. Shearers need to be strong and able to manoeuvre the animal onto its back and sides without causing pain. Some sheep are only too pleased to be free of the weight of fleece and lollop between the shearers legs, like a well behaved drunk. Whereas, others need to be firmly restrained by the shearer until the job is done.

Where do the shearers come from? Are they always here, but only work in spring? Many I am told come here from Australia and New Zealand in shearing gangs. They travel around the world, working and following spring. This year, because of Covid. 19 that plan was in jeopardy. Some came but others didn’t. Depending upon the size of farm and amount of sheep living on it, dictates who shears. British shearers, when they are not shearing, carry out worming, foot trimming and other sheep related work for the rest of the year.

A gorgeous Hampshire Down sheep and fleece.

A good, professional shearer wears moccasin shoes to stop slippage and stands on a board on which to manoeuvre the animal, thus keeping the fleece as clean as possible. A clean fleece is what I desire. A fleece that is covered in mud, muck, straw and other vegetable matter is not worth cleaning. It is a long and laborious job, to try to rid the debris from even the most gorgeous fleece. Therefore, us hand spinners who use natural fibres, really appreciate a clean sheep and a good shearer who only cuts each staple once. Did I mention second cuts? Well I shall save that for another day.

I am pleased you are reading this, otherwise I would be writing to myself! Till next time.


How it feels

Foraging for dye plants is like panning for gold. In old American western films you will often see a gold prospector, swishing water and gravel around a shallow metal basin. He concentrates intently on his search, until suddenly his eyes widen and he becomes very excited. He has found GOLD! Well foraging is a bit like that; to find exactly what I am searching for is just marvellous.

Ideal conditions

Plants that give colour include the latin word tinctoria in the name, meaning that the plant yields colour eg. Indigofera Tinctoria, yields the colour blue. It grows in the tropics and requires full sun with a temperature of 22-28 degreesC for 4-5 months. The indigo plant can be invasive in the perfect conditions. I am not going to find any in the Sussex countryside. Neither will I find madder (red dye) or woad (blue dye) despite being used for the Bayeux Tapestry, (which was actually an embroidery). I cultivate madder and woad in my garden. They have been successful, as long as the weather is kind. Some plants require the right amount of shade and it is likely that they will only be right for harvesting at a particular time of year. Each colour giving plant is different from another as to their optimum growing requirements. I may see a patch of greenery, recognise it, decide that it will give me green colour but realise that it will be mature enough in one week only to find 7 days later that it has been strimmed!

Company Whilst Foraging

The aim of my countryside foraging walks is not only to collect dye plants but to collect them in amounts that nobody will miss. I hunt for dock, nettles, lichen and more. I used to enjoy foraging in the countryside with my faithful dog, who sadly is no longer with us. A friend said she would come foraging to keep me company instead. I told her that we were waiting for our puppy to arrive so she would not be ‘helping’ me for a few months. My friend thought that our outing in the countryside would be a good time for a chat. It didn’t work out quite how she envisaged because as soon as I saw a likely leaf, I was heading in another direction, whilst she was thinking I could still hear her chatting. Despite arming her with gloves, foraging bag and pertinent information, she was not concentrating on the job in hand. We returned home with few leaves and many questions about when puppy would be old enough to accompany me foraging ha ha ha.

British wool naturally dyed with nettles by Paton and Daughter
I am sure puppy will be a patient forager, in time.

Plants that give us colour require certain soilds, the right amount of sun or shade and are Plan

It is easier to grow dye plants in the garden, however not everybody sees these ‘weeds’ as gems. Nettles for instance take up a lot of space but do encourage butterflies. Not many dye plants are deemed attractive enough to deserve a place in a flower garden and so a designated section needs to be kept as a dyer’s bed.

I am so pleased that you have joined me in this space.

Until next time, I’ll be here if you’ll be there.


Using Stash

A very warm welcome to you. This is a bit of space where I can share my making musings, successes and complete failures. It’s all a learning experience: we never stop learning. The most important thing is to (as my friend Jane reminds me) have fun.

About 5 years ago, another friend, Rita gave me some selvedge. Selvedge used to be a throw away item that the wool mills cut from cloth and discarded, but not any more because we makers found uses for it. The selvedge arrived in huge balls. Rita purchased it from a stall at Wonderwool Wales and I was over the moon to receive it from her. I had such plans, but just didn’t get around to using it. When I did have the time, I couldn’t decide whether to use it on the peg loom, on oversized knitting needles or some other process. Not until necessity ‘kicked in’ did I finally use this stash of selvedge. I needed new pad/cushions for my kitchen chairs. So now the problem was not what to make but how. This selvedge is thick, hard wearing, sustainable and natural. It is woollen cloth in a continuous strip.

Crochet! Using a very large crochet hook I started in the middle, 5 chains, join to a loop, several d.c. into the centre of the loop and carry on around adding two dc where necessary to stop the circle turning upwards until the pad/cushion was the required size. I used the same selvedge strip in 4 lengths to attach the pads to the chair by weaving in and out of the circular rows and then around the 2 legs and 2 back parts of the chair. Voila! Next, I made a square one. Only 4 more to go.

Have fun whatever you make.

A ball of selvedge half used
2 Finished pads.