Tuesday, 15 October 2013

North Atlantic Native Sheep & Wool Conference 4

Day 4 of the conference was spent at Shetland Museum and Archive listening to the lectures from the invited speakers.  A very diverse range of speakers and I found the day enthralling.

Jim Nicholson, one of the people who had demonstrated Flock Book points for rams at the Mart on Saturday, introduced the Lecture Programme.  He told us that as late as the mid 20th century Shetland sheep used to be mainly on hills and rooed.  Now there are fewer sheep on the hills and more in fields.  The Shetland Flock Book Trust ensures purity of Shetland Sheep and makes them commercially viable so crofters will keep them..10% of Shetland Crofters are members of the Trust.

Then followed:
Dr Carol Christiansen: Sustainability through the ages
June Hall: Soay Sheep (Ovis aries) - Prehistoric Survivors on Britain's Remote Islands
Deborah Robson: Rare Breeds from North Atlantic Native Sheep: An Important Piece of the Sustainability Puzzle
Ólafur R Dýrmundsson – Icelandic Sheep and Sheep farming in Iceland in the context of sustainability
Dana MacPhee: Cloimh Uibhist – Sustaining the islands through a textile tradition
Panel Discussion: All speakers will take questions from the floor
Conclusions and outcomes of the day summarised by Ronnie Eunson

A wonderful day where I learnt so much.  I've transcribed my notes at the end of this post.
This is a photograph of the speakers just before the start of the Panel Discussion.

June had also brought a wonderful selection of items relating to Soay sheep and St Kilda for us to see.

Lunch time was a chance to share thoughts about everything we were learning, and to persuade Felicity Ford to show us her Baby Layter sweater.  I first saw the original Layter over 3 years ago and I'm very cross with myself that I've not yet knitting one myself.  It's a great way to use wool from several different breeds of sheep.

At the end of the session we heard from Ronnie Eunson about how the Shetland Flock Book was started in 1927.  Up to 40-50 years ago, in Shetland, wool was more important than meat.  Castrated male sheep grew the biggest fleeces and were 'leader sheep' in snow conditions. 
Sheep offer sustainable and beneficial land use and produce.

In the evening we all travelled to Tingwall Hall for a meal together with traditional music and dancing demonstrations.  A really enjoyable evening with good food and great company.

 Towards the end of the evening Felicity performed the Shetland Wool song that she'd written at the beginning of Shetland Wool Week.  It went down very well!

 You can see Felicity performing her song here

For the final morning we started with Jan Hicks presenting details about Wool Clip and how this led to the annual Woolfest event.  Having enjoyed visiting Woolfest for a number of years I was very interested to hear about the story of Wool Clip.

Karin Flatøy Svarstad then gave us a summary of the conference - I can't believe we fitted so much into so few days!

Next was a very exciting presentation by Jóhanna Pálmadóttir introducing the 2014 North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference which will be held in Iceland from 4 - 8 September 2014.  And having enjoyed this conference so much and heard what we'll be doing in Iceland, I'm definitely wanting to go. 

We'll be seeing sheep and wool in different parts of Iceland, travelling through areas of the country away from the usual tourist venues and seeing one of the famous sheep round-ups.  This is one of the places we'll be visiting - the Icelandic Textile Centre - and if you'd like to find out more about joining the 2014 Conference you can contact Jóhanna Pálmadóttir at textilsetur@simnet.is
I can't wait!

These are my personal notes, transcribed from what I scribbled down during the talks, so I may well have made errors in noting something down.  If you're reading them, please bear this in mind, and if anyone spots a glaring error, please let me know.

These notes are a real help for me since I can read them with full memory of the passion and enthusiasm of the speakers, and the wonderful images they all showed us.  I can only encourage people to try and listen to these speakers 'live' if the opportunity arises.

Dr Carol Christiansen, Curator and Community Museums Officer at Shetland Museum and Archives.  She is a textile archaeologist whose research includes the use of Scottish and Scandinavian landrace sheep breeds for textile production.  Her talk was titled, 'Sustainability through the ages'

She spoke about how people in Shetland made the most of what they had in textiles by adapting to change and using opportunities.
The 16th century saw the change from weaving to knitting.
The 19th century saw the development of lace knitting.
Maintaining the tradition of hand knitting has been the focus of the 20th century.

A very interesting photograph of loom and spindle weights before and after the Norse entered Shetland.  They got bigger - does this reflect a change in the length and weight of fleece staples?  Were new sheep introduced?

For the 200 years after Shetland was pledged to Scotland in 1469 rentals were paid in a cloth called Vadmal - a heavy, dense twill that used a lot of wool.  In 1627 there was 7,400m of cloth used for rentals.

The introduction of knitting was a most significant change to life in Shetland.  Did this change Shetland sheep since a softer wool without hairy tips is needed for knitting?  Another change from weaving to knitting is that instead of combing the wool for spinning they were carded for the woollen spinning more suitable for knitting yarn.

Common garments that were knitted were stockings, caps and underclothes which were sold to fishermen.  When this market declined in the early 19th century there was the introduction of lace knitting (1830).  When the young Queen Victoria was gifted a pair of Shetland lace stockings which she very much liked, a fashion was started leading to exports even to New York.
A benefit of lace knitting is that it requires little wool but a great deal of skill is needed in the spinning of the fine yarn and the knitting of the lace.

In the 20th century hand working of knitted garments continued in Shetland even when the rest of the UK fully mechanised.  This has become part of the modern Shetland knitting brand and remains part of Shetland knitting even as new products are developed in the 21st century.

Next June Hall spoke on Soay Sheep (Ovis Aries): Prehistoric survivors on Britain's remote islands.
The Soay sheep came to St Kilda with Bronze Age People from southern Europe, so they have been on the island for 3,500 years.  They have evolved in equilibrium with their environment.  The abandoned stone built cleats where the islanders used to store turf, feathers & catches of seabirds are now used by the sheep as shelter.
The population of Soays on Hirta varies between 600 - 1300.  The last two years has seen steep declines in population, mostly in spring around lambing time and the recent wet winters are thought to blame. (I've found more information about this here)
The Soay sheep on Hirta are the most studied in the world, the research currently being done by National Trust for Scotland, University of Edinburgh and Imperial College.
When St Kilda was evacuated in 1930 all the crossbred sheep on Hirta were evacuated and later around 100 Soay sheep were brought from Soay Island to repopulate Hirta with sheep.  This has appropriately managed the vegetation on Hirta.
? Difference between Hirta and Soay Island feral flocks and managed Soay flocks in the UK.
An 1896 photograph of a Soay lamb seems to show it having white colouring on its head.

Soay sheep are the oldest and most primitive sheep in Europe.
85% of the rams are horned, as are many ewes.  There is also a scurred form of the horn which is mostly found in ewes.
The Soay sheep on St Kilda are either dark brown or light brown in colour - known as Dark Phase or Light Phase.  Both colours can be solid or show mouflon marking.

Two more things that June mentioned - that she has a book nearing publication (that's sorted a Christmas present for me this year or next!) and that the National Trust for Scotland is seeking applicants for a PhD to research whether Soay sheep on St Kilda are under threat.

And for anyone wanting to learn more about Soay sheep the 2014 World Congress on Coloured Sheep is in Rambouillet, France in May 2014

This is an interesting piece about the evolution of the two colours of Soay sheep that I found while googling for the links above.

Deborah Robson: Rare Breeds from North Atlantic Native Sheep: An Important Piece of the Sustainability Puzzle
Restoring wool to its rightful place as a central part of everyone's life.
Wool instead of synthetics leads to global sustainability.
Is wool: trash, second crop or primary income source?

It has been and can become a primary income source.
Ancient - meat + wool
Medieval - WOOL + meat
18th - 20th centuries - MEAT + wool
? Future - wool + meat.

Wool is a severely underrated, misunderstood income source with significant potential
Value of breed-specific wool eg Suffolk - sturdy sock wool, machine washable.  Merino is a nice wool but not for socks.
Users today evaluate yarn on dyed colour and softness NOT suitability for purpose, durability etc.
Need best materials for purpose for highest level of crafting. (lustre, length, natural colour, strength)

Wool is environmentally sound
aesthetically pleasing, diverse & versatile, durable & functional.
Using different wools in complement with each other.

Need to capture and guide the imagination of users of these wools.

Overview to see what we're already accomplishing - need to use social media appropriately.
As producers we need to: reach, tantalise & inspire, guide & educate.

Finding the audience (consumers) for:
fleece (raw)
fleece (clean) + processed fibre
finished goods - functional &/or artistic

Top 4 resources for reaching people:  Ravelry, Etsy, Ebay, Own Website

Tantalise and inspire - tell stories.
Who you are, why you're doing what you're doing.  The more individual the better.

Stories: History (personal), Current culture, Making individual lives better, Making the world better.  Third of these is a big sell point.

Guide and educate - why and how to use non-generic fibres (breed-specific)
Why it's important to maintain diversity - genetics

Individualise - tell stories.
Not all wool is the same (not common knowledge)
Different wools suit different purposes
Life is better with knowledge and use of specialised wools (satisfaction, skills, legacy)

See Clara Parkes - Knitters Review
FFSB now into 2nd printing.
Pattern support for breed-specific yarns - Ann Kingstone, Sue Blacker, Kate Davies etc

Other ideas - The Great White Bale project - Clara Parkes - selling memberships & subscriptions including Armchair Travellers
Shepherd & the Shearer 

Making connections between people, animals, places & stories

Ólafur R Dýrmundsson – Icelandic Sheep and Sheep farming in Iceland in the context of sustainability

Last importation of sheep into Iceland was in 1946 - rams from Scotland which got foot rot during their 2 mths of isolation so not allowed out of isolation.  There is no foot rot or liver fluke in Iceland. 
Farming - 4000 farms around coast.  2400 flocks including hobby flocks.

Farmers Association of Iceland 
pdf with detailed information about Icelandic farming - in English

Great genetic diversity in Icelandic breed of sheep - the only breed within Iceland
Have horned & polled, white & coloured.  Some are mouflon

Tri colour is rare.  A few have 4 horns
Icelandic leadership gene - more info here in this online article by Ólafur R Dýrmundsson

Sheep used to be winter grazed but now kept inside during winter.
Rangeland is natural unimproved grazing.
The sheep are shorn before housing in November - except for shearling lambs which are shorn after going into winter housing.  This gives the best fleece.
They are shorn again in Feb/March

Importance of quality control - product quality, traceability of individual sheep, welfare & sound management, sustainable rangeland use.

Quality products
Local integrity
Cultural Heritage

Dana MacPhee: Cloimh Uibhist – Sustaining the islands through a textile tradition
All Uist wool used to go off the island to BWMB Evanton for processing and returning little to the island.  To address this planned to open a mill in Uist - Uist Wool - as a community benefit society

Got old mill equipment from Argyll.

Creating something of the local fleece that has value and worth.

Blog post about the opening of the mill earlier this year

Jan Hicks:  Wool Clip
In late 1990s there was European funding for underprivileged areas which financed Rural Women's Network.
In late 2001 after Foot & Mouth disaster a retail outlet for selling textile crafts was opened at Priest's Mill, Caldbeck.  Focus on something with a provenance.  Short runs & unrepeatable important.

Selling online didn't work for them because of work updating website for one-offs. 
Set up co-operative.
Working together:
Creates business oppportunities
Spreads risks/costs
Spreads workload
Moral support
Pool of skills/expertise to draw on

North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference 3

Saturday didn't finish with the Makers' Market - it was back to the Mart for a very special event - Fleece grading and sorting with Oliver Henry.

Oliver started off by showing us lower grade fleeces and what many more Shetland fleeces used to look like.  This wool isn't suitable for the fine knitting yarns that Jamieson & Smith produce but it isn't wasted.  It is used in a variety of products including carpets, beds, duvets, throws and the latest product,  numnahs.

 Then we saw some of the very fine fleece that some Shetland sheep produce - fine enough for even one-
ply cobweb lace yarn, and an absolute dream for hand spinners.

 Here are the two extremes of Shetland wool - you wouldn't think they come from the same breed.  Both though have their uses where their individual properties best match the required function.

Oliver does talks about fleece grading and sorting as a regular event at Shetland Wool Week, so you'll get the chance to learn so much from him for yourself if you come to a future Wool Week.

There was one final event at the mart - the opportunity to buy fleeces from the fleece competition.  I'd obtained such lovely and interesting fleeces from the Fine Fleece Store at J&S on the Monday morning, that I'd not intended to purchase at this point..........  but then it turned out that the rather special black Championship fleece was actually for sale........  Tom and I decided to split it and buy it between us.  (you'll know Tom from Wovember)  Even half a Shetland fleece will go a long way for spinning lace yarn, and it was just too special to go to one person only.  So, actually, as I'm writing this I'm realising that my purchase of half of this fleece was a sacrificial and altruistic action on my part.  Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Sunday was a very early start to get to the coach before 7.30am, but everyone made it.  We were going north for the day.  This involved two ferries there and two ferries back.

The journey to Haroldswick in Unst, driving through Yell, took us over 2 hours, but we did make time for a stop at the famous Unst Bus Shelter.

I think we were all very moved when we heard that the theme for this year of Sheep and Wool was in honour of the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference.  What a wonderful honour and welcome to us from the people of Unst.

I see that Deb Robson has also blogged about the Unst Bus Shelter - you can see her actually knitting in the shelter here.

After being served the most amazing morning coffee/tea at Haroldswick Hall, accompanied by some seriously gorgeous home bakes, we drove on to Hermaness National Nature Reserve to meet some local crofters and their sheep.

They had brought off the hills a selection of Shetland sheep just for us to see and penned them in groups of rams, ewes, and male & gimmer lambs/hoggs - I'm not sure if in Shetland they call their weaned youngsters of around 6 months of age hoggs or lambs.  Also, I realise I didn't look to check if the male hoggs/lambs were castrated or not - if castrated they'd be called wethers.
There is a useful list of sheep terminology here, and a more comprehensive but international one on Wiki here.

Anyway, not only had the crofters rounded up these hill sheep - no small task, but they'd separated them into male, female, boys and girls.  Again I felt very humbled to be welcomed so fabulously by the people of Unst.

Above is a pen of ewes, including a couple of very old, but very healthy looking ewes.  Below are two  of the sheep from other pens that caught my eye.

We were able to spend a good amount of time observing the Shetland sheep and talking to the crofters, and I also observed that there were some glorious examples of knitting being worn by members of the group, and I think possibly nålbinding in the second hat from the left.

Here I got a very clear photo that shows the
characteristic tail that gives the North Atlantic
Short-Tailed group of sheep breeds their name.

Again I was most interested to see the huge variation in the types of fleece on the sheep.

The crofters explained that some of the fleeces looked different because they had been rooed rather than shorn since those sheep had been shown earlier in the year.  Rooing gives a better look to the fleece on the sheep for the show ring.

The other thing I learnt is that in Shetland sheep rooing is easier where the 'join' between the old fleece and the new growth is weakest and this is influenced by the sheep being not in the best condition at the end of winter.  It may be that there is a genetic influence on this as well.

Just before we left I couldn't resist this photo illustrating the story of Shetland wool from 'on the sheep' to finished Shetland wool hat - those of you with sharp eyes may spot that the person studying the sheep so intently is Deb Robson.

History of the Shetland Sheep
Shetland Sheep - A brief description
So we left Hermaness and drove back to Haroldswick through some stunning countryside.

At the Hall we were met with the sight of a wonderful buffet lunch made especially for us - a real treat indeed and it was as delicious as it looks.

 There was a craft fair on in the Hall as well, and musicians playing traditional Shetland music.  Many of us succumbed to temptation with the high standard of the different craft goods for sale.

On the opposite side of the road to the Hall is Unst Heritage Centre, and the wonderful welcome for us extended there where there were knitters and spinners demonstrating their skills for us to see.

There is a fabulous display of historic lace knitting held at the centre, together with examples of the equipment used to spin and knit the famous Unst lace.  Another place that is firmly on my 'must-see' list of suggested places to visit in Shetland.

One of the exhibits at the Heritage Centre that I really enjoyed looking at were these sheep made by the local children.  I think crafts skills and creativity must run in the blood of these descendants of the lace knitters of Unst.

We then left Unst and went to Sellafirth Hall on Yell for afternoon tea and talks from Andy Ross and Liz Gott on the use of Shetland wool in local textile arts and crafts.  There were some lovely samples of weaving for us to look at.

We then had time to look round ASF Shetland, Shetland Gallery and Bayanne House - all the linked websites have great images of the art and crafts we were able to see.  Yell is another island where creativity flourishes!

Just as we were leaving I spotted two Shetland sheep standing on the top of a bank which had partly collapsed to reveal the rock and peat below.  A very fitting image for the end of an absolutely fantastic day.

Monday, 14 October 2013

North Atlantic Native Sheep & Wool Conference 2

Saturday morning was as much about the sheep as their wool, and the opportunity to hear experts talk about Shetland sheep and what they were looking for in the best sheep and the best 'wool on the hoof' was most definitely a highlight of the day.  All the sheep at the mart that day were Shetland rams.  Addie Doull was one of the people talking about points for Flock Book rams and it was so informative.  It also appeared that for an individual deciding which ram to buy that there was an element of 'feeling' as well as going through the points.

Some was so practical, such as looking for a sheep with a mouth that wasn't too narrow - it means when daylight hours for eating are short in the winter that the sheep can get more food with each mouthful.

Oliver Henry took time out from his judging of the fleece on over 200 rams to give us a fascinating demonstration of what he's looking for in the very best fine fleeces - also known as 'kindly' fleeces.  Crimp and uniformity are just two of the desired characteristics.

Oliver also judged the Fleece Competition and it was the usual wonderful display of the very best fleeces from the clip this year.

High marks, as expected, for the white trio, but I was thrilled to see that the Championship fleece this year was a black fleece from a very fine coloured trio entered by Addie Doull.

 What I hope you can see in this photo of the black fleece is the fabulous crimp and exceptional fineness of the fibres, and the uniformity of this high standard throughout the fleece.

We also had a visit to the adjoining abattoir and a talk by Ronnie Eunson about how the new and modern facility was financed and is run.  This abattoir is now run by the community for the benefit of the community and replaces an ageing facility that many were reluctant to use.  The design ensures minimal stress for the animals and means that Shetland residents can purchase meat that has been entirely processed within Shetland.  I do eat meat and enjoy the wonderful flavour and health benefits of eating lamb/mutton from native breeds grazing on hills, but it's important to me that the sheep are treated with respect and with minimal travelling and other stresses, so I was very happy to see this facility for Shetland.

Some free time next meant some of us could go into Lerwick for the Makers' Market - what a wonderful selection of the incredible skills and creativity to be found in Shetland.  I'm just going to let you share my most enjoyable experience through a selection of photos of the event.

I think this comment, "Plenty of Character" sums up the entire Makers' Market.  As I've said before, if you ever get the chance to come up for Shetland Wool Week, then grab it!  And do include the Makers' Market in your itinerary.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

North Atlantic Native Sheep & Wool Conference 1

Friday evening was the start of the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference, which this year is being held in Shetland.  You can keep up with the events at the conference on facebook and there is more background information in this blog post from Jamieson & Smith

First we all took the opportunity to look at the wonderful exhibits in the touring exhibition 'Sheep and Wool Around the North Atlantic Region' which can be seen in the Shetland Museum and Archives.

I shall let the photos speak for themselves - if you can get to the Museum then I can highly recommend seeing it.
 Orkney - the beautiful Orkney Gansey on the left was designed and knitted by Elizabeth Lovick
 Outer Hebrides

Then we moved into the lecture theatre.  Robert Hunter, Shetland Lord-Lieutenant set the tone in just the right way with his welcoming Opening address.  The introduction by Karin Flatøy Svarstad, the founder of the conference was really interesting and a lovely reminder of how one very determined person can make a real difference.

Eric Wilson, past-master of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen and Director for Campaign for Wool spoke about the Campaign for Wool and its origins and reminded us how the international aspect of wool trading and production cannot be neglected.

We then listened to a fascinating lecture by Ronnie Eunson and Lyall Halcrow titled 'Carbon Kind Lamb' about the benefits pure Shetland hill sheep can have on the biodiversity and carbon sequestration of Shetland peat bogs to such an extent that their meat becomes 'carbon neutral'.  The research will be published in full next year and I'll be very keen to read it.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Shetland Wool Week 5

After the Wild Wool workshop it was a quick dash back into Lerwick for the Many Strands Make Interesting Yarns lecture from Felicity Ford and Tom van Deijnen about their collaborative work, followed by a workshop with the most intriguing title of Aleatoric Fair Isle.  
 Aleatoricism is the creation of art by chance, exploiting the principle of randomness.

Here are some of the samples Tom and Felicity have produced using their aleatoric method.

Now I have so say some of them work very well as examples of Fair Isle, and some of them contain combinations of colour and pattern that wouldn't appear in any book on designing Fair Isle.  Although it was clear to see that unexpected combinations of colour together, that I would never have thought of creating, did actually look rather interesting.

So after the fun of looking at the samples it was time to turn on logical minds in a big way as Tom and Felicity explained how their aleatoric method was applied to the creation of Fair Isle and what the rules were.

I have to be completely honest and say that, at that hour of the evening, my powers of logic and understanding left a lot to be desired.  Fortunately Tom and Felicity were more than willing to go over things and they were so lovely about it that I felt completely comfortable asking for help.

So the group I was in set to with rolling the dice and working out the colours we were each to use, and in what order.
It was lovely to spend the evening chatting to people doing the workshop whom I'd not met before and once we got down to it, the knitting was rather fun - until the rules required you to add in colours that wouldn't otherwise have been chosen.  The acid yellow became notorious - it may be some time before I'm comfortable using that colour again.

However, despite the chatting sometimes slowing down the knitting, I did manage to knit the first half of a large star motif, and I found the whole process rather interesting.  I can quite see myself trying some aleatoric knitting in future, but probably modifying the 'rules' and probably not having acid yellow as one of the colour choices!  Although, being honest with myself, letting go and making myself do things with colour I wouldn't normally consider could well lead to some very interesting discoveries.

I was very interested to see the effect of using several quite different coloured yarns for the star motif, but that were very similar in tone, where normally I'd have used one colour or a carefully selected group of quite different colours and tones.  A possibility for a future project that I've tucked away.  An exhausting day, but I'm so glad that I chose to go to both events.

Today saw me back at Hoswick Visitors' Centre for a second workshop with Nielanell.  This time it was Felt Memory - making a felted wall hanging to remind you of Shetland.

Again we were met with a vast and enticing supply of fibres to use in our felting - the baskets didn't seem any emptier after our mammoth batt making of the day before.

We learnt how to make felt and then it was time to choose the subject or inspiration for our panel/hanging.

Having enjoyed so much using the colours of the dead nettle plants for my batt and spinning, I decided to revisit that source of inspiration and see how I could work with it for making felt.

I'm beginning to embrace the greens and browns that I previously wouldn't have considered using in a creative craft.  That rather fabulous container of rich reds and purples was left to others today.

We didn't just have wool to play with.  There was also a shelf full of exotic fibres, glittery bits, lustrous silks and much more besides.

I went out again to remind myself of the colours and form of the nettles - and this time took photos as well.
I hope these photos show the full range of colours to be found just by closely examining a bit of dead nettle plant.

And this was my Dead Nettles felt - which I'm rather pleased with and really enjoyed making.

Sadly the photograph doesn't really show the texture I was able to achieve by using linen threads and locks of fleece which came out from the surface of the felt.

It's very hard work making felt, but I was delighted that I was able to translate so much of my vision of what I wanted using a new craft.  I'm not sure if more felting is going to give me huge biceps or be rather useful in reducing the flabby bits at the back of my upper arms.  Sadly ageing isn't all the fun of red hats and sausages, but the inevitable rule of gravity over the most unlikely parts of the body.

Felting is however another way of allowing myself to be insanely inspired just by playing with colour and texture.  Opportunities for such life-affirming happiness should never be ignored.

Just look at all the felted pieces created by everyone in just one day - such a riot of talent.  Niela is very good at releasing the inner creative genius in people.

I did make a second piece - this time of the sea at Hoswick - it's on the bottom row, second from the right, and I very much like this one too.

Finally, as we left, I decided to photograph my Sonic Yarn and Dead Nettles felt actually with the nettles.  A lovely way to end my 2013 Shetland Wool Week.

I am very pleased to say that this year has been even better than last year and my main problem has been having to make choices and to accept not being able to do All The Things.

One thing that has struck me about this year is how strands have woven themselves between different events and different speakers and teachers to bring me an experience that has been so much greater than the separate parts.

I must remember to book my accommodation for Shetland Wool Week 2014.