Friday, 6 January 2012

The Woolshed and The Wool School - November 2011

Just November and December to catch up with now!

November saw me heading north one dark and wintry night to Aberdeenshire, to deliver workshops at The Woolshed, Oyne. The Woolshed is a mecca for knitters in the north-east of Scotland, crammed full of gorgeous yarns including their own range of locally sourced wool in fabulous colours. There are patterns, needles and 'notions' galore, and loads to inspire whether you want to knit fine lace or chunky woollies - or anything inbetween.

Unfortunately I forgot to take any photos during the two days of spinning workshops there. We worked mainly in the Woolshed's conservatory but at times spilled out into the main shop area. With seven 'learners' each day plus, on Saturday, a large Leicester x Cheviot hogg fleece, and on Sunday seven spinning wheels, we really needed quite a lot of space!

On Saturday we spent a bit of time getting to know the aforementioned fleece, learning how to sort it into different qualities of wool - it was great to have sheep farmers Linda and Sarah there to add more information about keeping sheep and shearing them! (And look out at the end of this post for news about Fleece on the Hoof, an exciting idea which has grown out of that conversation!!!)

Once we had cleared the floor of the fleece (its amazing how much they spread when you unroll them!) we got down to carding and combing, discussing the differences between woollen and worsted yarns, and how it all starts with the method of preparation. We looked at other kinds of fibres - alpaca, mohair and silk for example - practiced blending on handcarders and preparing silk from cocoons and hankies. We also tried out different forms of commercially prepared wool.

After a delicious lunch of soup next door in Touched by Scotland we started spinning with drop-spindles. And once two small balls of singles were spun, we went on to plying.  By the end of the afternoon everyone had produced at least a few yards of hand-spun two-ply yarn, to take home, wash and proudly display.

On Sunday we turned our attention to spinning wheels. My four Ashfords (two Kiwis and two Traditionals) were supplemented by another Trad, a Traveller and a locally hand-made wheel. I was very impressed by the double-treadle Traveller, it is a huge improvement on the single-treadle one I got back in the early 80s, and I would have to concede that it is prettier than the Kiwi, although I really like the stability and robustness of the Kiwi.
We spun singles all morning, fortified by a delicious cake (thank you Patricia! What is it about cake and wool that makes such a perfect combination?!!!) and sampled the various fibres and blends that we had prepard the day before. After lunch at Touched by Scotland the singles were plied, and skeined, and we discussed washing and finishing the yarn, as well as how to measure thickness to determine knitting needle size or for comparison with commercial yarns. Again, everyone had at least one skein to take home, and plans were being made to meet up and spin together ....
Thanks to Barbara and the Woolshed staff for cups of tea and for hosting us for a very enjoyable weekend.

I was staying nearby with friends, so after packing up, Karen and I headed back for a delicious dinner - and just when I thought I couldn't stay awake any longer, Arne pulled out a box containing his grandmother's spinning wheel from the family's cabin in Norway. We tentatively tried to fit the various pieces together and after a few mistakes managed to figure it out - its not so easy when there are no instructions and you've never seen it in one piece!! Arne thinks that it was made by his great grandfather around 1870, from wood grown on the family farm, as in those days nothing was bought from outside that you could supply and make yourself. He is planning to restore it to working order - I would love to spin on it when he does!!

Having driven up in the dark and on the main roads, I drove home on the Monday morning via Braemar and Glenshee. Although the weather wasn't great, it was a nice journey through some really beautiful scenery. Shame I forgot my camera!!

When I got home I straight away had to start re-packing, as two days later I was off on my spinning travels again, this time to north-western Italy, to do two days of workshops as a guest tutor of the Wool School, see here organised by Biella The Wool Company.
BTWC is a consortium of wool processers  working to add value to wool - their products are completely traceable, using local breeds and producers all within a 10km radius. The Wool Box is their online shop, and the Wool School was devised to offer a series of courses delivered by practitioners who are very experienced in the various hand-crafts using wool. As well as my two days of spinning workshops there were courses on knitting and pattern design, felting, weaving and tapestry.

The courses complemented and ran alongside a fantastic exhibition called Wools of Europe, which has been touring major textile areas and was back at its 'home' in Miagliano from October to December. Over 100 european sheep breeds are featured, with a bag of raw fleece from each one, information about the origin and use of the breed, and examples of products made from the wool. A huge amount of work went in to putting the exhibition together and it is well worth seeing - hopefully it will continue to tour. The exhibition 'catalogue' is a fantastic reference book on european wool and sheep breeds in its own right

I arrived at Malpensa on Wednesday evening (no flight on Thursday, Friday's one too late for setting up) and was met by Emilio Langhi, one of the partners in BTWC, who had organised everything for my workshops. Emilio had also arranged a B&B for me in the little village of Pettinengo. It was of course completely dark as he drove me to Pettinengo, so I had no idea until I awoke the next morning that I was in such a pretty place!

Dawn over Biella, from m window in Pettinengo

My B&B was called Uva Fragola - strawberry grape - and they were gowing right there on my balcony, and made into jam on my breakfast table.

Pettinengo in daylight
I had the morning to explore Pettinengo before going to set up for the workshops.  It is a small village in the hills which evenually become the Alps to the north. It was very peaceful, not at all touristy and I really liked it.

The snowy alps

After a lovely lunch in a restaurant where I think we were the only ones speaking Italian - everyone else was speaking Piedmontese, Emilio took me over to Miagliano, where BTWC has its headquarters in an enormous woollen mill. The comune is one of the smallest in Italy, and really grew around the wool processing industry, sadly now all but lost. The big mill lay disused for about 20 years before the BTWC consortuium took it over, and there are workers houses, a school and infirmary all built to serve the workers and their families.
Emilio took me in to the big wool sorting shed - almost empty now as most of the wool for that year has been processed - and to select the fleeces for use during the workshop. I chose a whole Biellese fleece to show the variation in quality of the wool over the fleece,  but Biellese wool is a bit coarse for hand-spinning, so I chose some Sambucana and black Moretta d'Abruzzo for us to spin.
Biellese fleece
My workshop space was at one end of the big exhibition hall, so once I had re-built my Kiwi and organised the rest of my equipment I was able to have a good long look at the Wools of Europe exhibition.
On Friday I again spent the morning exploring, and also chatting with Corrado, who runs the B&B with his wife Alessia. Corrado first showed me a spinning wheel that he was repairing for someone - I think he said it had come from Sardinia, and the style was very similar to the one Anna had shown me in San Sperate, with a brake on the flyer and the drive band on the bobbin. Next he showed me a weel he had made himself, very similar to the Louet S10. In both cases I was able to suggest some minor improvements to help the wheels run more smoothly. Finally Corrado reached in to the wood store for the stove and produced a spindle he had turned, based on a local traitional design. He said it hadn't turned out well and he was going to burn it, so I could have it if I could spin on it!!
Corrado's hand-turned spindle
 Needless to say it has joined my collection of spindles, although more for curiosity value than practical use! With the weight centred so close to the shaft I find it hard to get it spinning and doesn't spin for long, but I'm sure with practice you could get used to it. I wonder whether this style was used for spinning canapa (hemp) which was the main non-wool fibre in the area.

In the afternoon Emilio took me to La Piccola Fata, a project based in a very old house in the village kitted out with antique school equipment, where children go after school to learn traditional crafts, the piedmontese language and traditions. First we visited the girls - about thirty of them aged from about 6 to 12, all wearing white pinafores and crammed on tiny chairs into a room with a hot woodburning stove. They were doing the traditional embroidery of the area, and singing. One girl showed me how she had learned to spin sardinian wool on her grandmother's (sardinian) spindle and short distaff. I had taken one of Murray's Scottish spindles and some Shetland tops so I did a little demonstration, and Emilio's daughter Emma told the other children about the Wools of Europe exhibition and the wool school. Next we went downstairs to where a similar number of boys were making woden christmas decorations. The volunteers showed me the woven samplers that the children make - a folder of 8 or 9 different weaves by the age of 9, moving from very simple frames to four shaft looms, and the traditional baskets and recycled wool fabric footwear that they make. The childen were all very focused on what they were doing, lively but very well behaved. I was very impressed!

The Saturday and Sunday workshops went really well, following a similar pattern to most of my weekend workshops with fleece and fibre preparation and drop spindle spinning on Saturday, and spinning wheel spinning on Sunday.
As always, everyone had different levels of experience and different wool and spinning stories, and we had some really interesting conversations. Also, throughout the workshops, visitors to the exibition came to see what we were doing, and Emilio explained the purpose behind the Wool School.
On Saturday night Rita was staying in the B&B - it was nice to have her company, as I was the only guest for the rest of my stay. She spent a couple of hours practicing her drop-spindle spinning while I knitted, and in the morning we had home made crema di castagna for breakfast as a special treat (instead of home made cake - different every day and also a treat!!).
On Sunday there were several spinning wheels to use and compare - but my Kiwi ended up going home to Brescia with Maria - where it will hopefully soon meet up with the Kiwi that belongs to one of my Lucca students, Rosaria, who also lives in that area.

This very ornate wheel is dated 1885
Again, the wheels were all of the flyer brake type - and again all needed some adjustments and plenty of oil to get them running smoothly, apart from the almost new Ashford that Laura brought with her.
On both workshop days we had lunch in the trattoria in Miagliano,
and a brief look around the village before going back to our spinning. I was amazed to see, opposite the mill, a Tennant's pub!!!

Monday morning arrived too soon and with it my flight back to Edinburgh. On the drive to Malpensa Emilio spoke of his hopes to continue and expand the Wool School - I certainly hope I can be involved in that!!

In December I did not hold any workshops, but it did see me picking up the conversation about fleeces that had started at the Woolshed. I called in to see Linda and her husband Colin (who only live about 5 miles from me) and between us we came up with an idea to let spinners choose their fleeces - while they are still on the sheep.
one of 2011's Texel cross fleeces to whet your appetite!
 We are calling this Fleece on the Hoof, and we plan to have a special day on the farm in June. I will post more details soon but places will be limited so if you are interested in learning more about it, let me know as soon as possible, by e-mailing

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