Cave days and colourways

It’s not often we have a day of weather so terrible here that we can’t spend at least a good portion of it outside, but this week has thrown us more than one such to contend with. Thick sulking ribbons of cloud have streamed in from the coast, riding the kind of gusts that send confused crows skittering sideways across the bruised sky. The mountains melt away as the valley is enveloped in rain, each violent squall hammering out its persistent percussion on the roof and hurling raindrops at the windows like fistsful of pebbles.

I always think of these downpours as brutally cleansing; they are not gentle dampenings, soft refreshings or joyful waterings but storms that scour and scrub viciously at the landscape, cascading in curtains from gable ends, filling the river with a menacing voice and casting mirrored puddles in the iron-rich soil of the empty maize fields. In nooks and crannies around the windswept garden, the mounds of tumbled, jumbled leaves tell their own forlorn story.

Confined indoors, I’m happy to potter away at household chores for a while at least but, inevitably, the fidgeting begins once realisation dawns that there will be no outside activity in the fresh air I love and crave; I’ll always consider pulling on waterproofs and setting off through the woods with a brolly but when thunder rumbles its throaty complaints above and blasts of icy hail hammer down, even I have to admit defeat. To things woolly, then. I set a pile of Merino to simmer in a dyepot of dried French marigold flowers, worked a few more rounds of a Scrappy Sock, plied a skein of Jacobs on the spinning wheel. Fidget. Sigh. I balled a skein of walnut-dyed Merino and tussah silk and launched into a new project: this was more like it. I love this yarn, the subtle blend of soft, autumnal colours and silk running through in sleek twists and ripples.

No surprise that I’ve chickened out of lace knitting and opted for crochet instead, a simple narrow scarf using a picot trellis stitch. The yarn is beautifully elastic so should stretch cooperatively with blocking and, depending on yardage, I might work something a little more elaborate at each end. I realised this would the perfect project to tuck into my bag on our travels next week . . . which meant not getting too carried away with it now.

A quick digression into the world of books. Roger and I are both avid readers and English language books are like gold dust to us, being in short supply locally. Rummaging about in the dwindling pile we bought from UK charity shops earlier this year, I came across Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, something I’d picked up in a hurry, hoping the mention of half a million puffins on the front cover might make it readable. What a gem of a read it has turned out to be, a colourful mix of geography, geology, history, linguistics, culture, character, spirituality, wildlife and nature expertly woven into a rich tapestry of descriptive language. I don’t want to put it down. I don’t want to finish it.

So, in my ‘searching for something interesting to do with wool because it’s raining’ mode, a couple of totally unconnected passages from the book wormed their way into my consciousness. The first, a description of how the daughters of the Campbell family – the only resident household on the Shiant Islands at the end of the nineteenth century – spent the long, dark winters knitting woollen socks to sell or give away to welcome summer visitors. As shepherd’s daughters, I suspect there was nothing about wool they didn’t know, the entire act of processing fleece from sheep to sock coming as second nature. The second, an intriguing journey through language, the twists and turns and textures of Gaelic and Norse, as complex and changing and knotted as any cabled pattern, revealing that the Isle of Man had once been called Ellan Shiant, the Holy Isle. Well, I suddenly recalled that somehere – where? – I had some raw Manx Loaghtan fleece, that ancient and endangered breed of sheep from the Isle of Man, descended from primitive ancestors which once roamed the Scottish islands. Serendipity? Time to get down to the full sheep experience.

This Manx Loaghtan was my first (and to date, last!) experience of dealing with a whole, raw fleece and I’m not sure I made a very great job of it. The fleece itself was beautiful, a shearling cut with soft brown underwool and golden tips; the breeder suggested I spin straight from the fleece to preserve the integrity of the different colours and through various painful learning curves, I managed to spin enough wool to make a rather curious looking (but subsequently much-loved) knitted teddy bear for Ben. Through a process of elimination, I deduced that the remaining fleece must be lurking in the dark and mysterious depths of Roger’s Man Cave, so whilst hunting it out I cadged a few rusty nails from the cave dweller himself which are now steeping in a jar of vinegar and water to make an iron mordant for future dyeing projects. Back in the house with the fleece and it was time to sort, tease, card, make fluffy rolags and -panic stations!- start some long draw spinning.

Watch an expert spinning long draw and it is a thing of infinite grace and beauty, the fibre bundle pulled back to arm’s length then the twisted yarn, so fine and consistent, running quickly onto the bobbin in a steady, mesmerising ebb and flow. Watch me doing it and it’s like a Bear of Very Little Brain trying to win a world chess championship; honestly, I’m clueless. All fingers and thumbs, too, which, of course is a large part of the problem; as a dyed-in-the-wool (sorry!) short draw spinner, letting go of the pinch feels as unnatural as trying to write with my left hand. Forget that elegant elastic thread, mine is more like a stringy washing line of lumps and bumps achieved through much muttering and grinding of teeth and there really is only so much pull-pull-pull-break-curse-rejoin-repeat that I can handle at a time. It’s like learning to spin all over again and I suppose that I need to remember that I eventually moved on from those early days of frustration and lumpy ropes of yarn to being able to spin fine and consistent yarns from a range of fibres. I would love some proper tuition one day as I suspect part of the problem is sloppy rolag preparation and the fickle nature of my wonky wheel and much of it is my lack of technique, but in the end, it all comes down to perseverance and practice. Where the Manx Loaghtan is concerned, I hit on a compromise of shorter draw, less pinch and finally managed a bobbin of something.

In the murky depths of the fleece bag, I found something rather strange: a sort of grubby marshmallow of white fleece with a texture like mauled cottonwool mixed with badly mashed potato. It took me a while (and an inspirational mug of tea) to remember it had appeared as an unexplained extra with my gift wheel, stuffed in a clear plastic bag and simply labelled ‘Shetland.’

I’ve puzzled over what exactly it is: certainly not locks of raw fleece, very definitely processed somehow but to no state I recognise. Drum carded, perhaps? It gives the impression of being something that could be spun as it is if it weren’t for the fact that it is completely peppered with field detritus of the kind sheep are so expert in gathering – twigs, stems, dried grass, seeds of all shapes and sizes not to mention several insect life forms. Carding would at least give me the chance to remove some of this clingy rubbish so I made a couple of rolags, did a test spin on the wheel . . . and decided to abandon that idea and do something far more interesting with it. Braving the weather (see, I am prepared to suffer for my art even if it means death by giant hailstones), I ventured out to collect a pile of very soggy walnut leaves and start a dyepot brewing. I chopped the leaves, stuffed in the fleece whole, simmered it for a bit then left it to stand overnight. I love the unfolding magic of this colour transformation!

Mmm, what a delicious chestnut brown. My plan for Shetland Marshmallow Rescue Phase 2 is to spin it and ply it with the Manx Loaghtan for possibly another bear-themed creation. Meanwhile, I’ve skeined and washed the Jacobs, that most reliable and easiest of spinners’ fleece, and started a second in the hope of actually getting back to building a stash of ready-to-dye skeins. Note to self: try not to get sidetracked with new dyepot ideas for a while . . .

I’ve messed about with madder, this time producing a pinker shade than before, and had a great result on Merino from dried French marigolds and an alkali modifier. I’d thought to use this in an indigo vat to produce something green, but that yellow is so yummy I’m tempted to use it as it is – and heaven knows, I need a streak of brightness under these gloomy skies.

Dodging the weather, we’ve managed to harvest the last of the squash. Now here’s a bunch of self-set mongrels if ever I saw one, but I love those textures and colours, the nuanced shades of blue and green, the deep ridges and shallow freckles. Completely delicious in every sense of the word.

The polytunnel offers gardening for wimps in extreme weathers and although there isn’t a great deal to be done at this time of year, it was a joy to pick the last of the Scotch bonnet chillies. We only had two plants and they lagged behind the other varieties from the word go but have certainly made up for lost time. There were a few bonus cayenne chillies, too. Just look at those bold colours, the perfect antidote to grim, grey days.

No matter how dire the weather, when we roll into a second or – horror of horrors – third day of being stuck in the cave, I reach a point where it feels imperative to crawl out from under the bearskins and stretch my legs outside. Swathed from top to toe in waterproofs and clutching our battered old brolly against the snatching wind, I ventured up the lane and into the woods for a short wander. The air was fresh and invigorating, spiced with the scent of wet leaves and sweet woodsmoke, the landscape around me tousled and rearranged by the lashing it was taking. The path was littered with whippy branches from the teetering tops of eucalyptus, nature’s pruning at its most magnificent. I carried a few stems home, charmed by those chunky seedpods that always make me think of wooden buttons on a grandfatherly tweed jacket or aran cardigan.

There is much of the season in these branches, their gunmetal leaves an exact reflection of the skies, their windswept form an echo of the wind’s relentless energy. I’ve put them in a vase close to the stove so that their fortifying, herbal scent wafts sweetly around the kitchen and when they’ve had their day, I shall recycle them through my dyepot.

Eucalyptus is another natural substantive dye. No need for a mordant, simply add fibre. I might just have a handy skein of Jacobs about my person. Mmm, perfect. It seems every cloud really does have a silver lining. 🙂