Never… Spun on an Ashford

After! (With bonus dog tail)
Before! A bit of water damage; bleached-out and discoloured wood. Nothing major.
After! (With bonus dog tail)
After! (With bonus dog tail)

Recently we were demo-ing at the Kendal Wool Gathering, and at some point in the early afternoon, a lady came in, walked up to us, and asked us if we’d be interested in having her old spinning wheel. She said she had just got in the building, we were the first people she had spoken to, and had a spinning wheel in the car ready to donate to someone who would use it to teach others.  She’d been a teacher – now retired – and no longer wished to spin. She said she had taught very many kids to spin on the wheel in her teaching days.  Would we be interested? That was one of those hairs stand up on the back of your neck moments as we had been about to launch a search for precisely that thing…

The week before, I had messaged a very helpful spinning teacher on Ravelry, and asked how to go about getting a spinning wheel or two donated, so we could teach at demos and maybe elsewhere, if there proves to be a demand.  The kind of wheel I had in mind was something like an Ashford Traditional. My own wheels wouldn’t be much use. One is too fast for a beginner; it would be analogous to a learner driver getting into a Formula One car for their first driving lesson.  Scary. The other, has proven too delicate to be transported around very much (in fact was returning to us, that very day at Kendal, from a stay in the spinning wheel repair-shop at Woodland Turnery).   It is a lovely wheel, but not one suitable to be moved around a lot; more temperamental thoroughbred when what we need for demo-ing and teaching is a sturdy pit pony. I love both my Timbertops wheels dearly but neither are remotely ‘teaching wheels’.

Almost every spinner has tried, used, or owned as a beginner – and many kept far beyond being beginners –  an Ashford Traditional or the little Ashford upright, the Traveller.  I’d go so far as to say, from my generation (learning to spin in the 1980s) most people in the UK probably learned on one of these New Zealand made kit wheels.  They were the most widely available wheel, and had a reputation for being reliable; slow enough for a learner but with the capability to grow with you; and pretty well ubiquitous in the spinning world, to the point that I felt a bit of a freak, having learned on a Haldane, then moved on to Jensen and Timbertops wheels.  It is the spinners’ equivalent of ‘Never seen Star Wars’ – never spun on an Ashford.  Few people can claim that. Yet for me, it was the truth.  Never spun on one, or so much as touched one, til one evening I got the chance to fettle one.

One of my most treasured memories (and I have a lot) of my late friend Caro, is the evening she asked me to go round to fettle her secondhand Ashford Traditional that she hadn’t quite got her head round, yet. I took my own wheel with me, and spent a very happy evening fettling, tinkering, messing and finally – after over 30 years as a spinner – playing on a Traditional.  And eventually, even got her spinning on it! We meant to meet up and do our little spinning bee much more often, but ‘life gets in the way’ etc – somehow these plans never quite come together and before you know it, the chance is gone.  Lost opportunity. I had her spinning and smiling that evening, though and that is a great memory.

Now I’m a left-handed spinner, which means I can’t spin on a wheel like the Traditional with the flyer to the left of the drive wheel, for any length of time without getting back ache.  But for the odd hour, it’s fine and to teach someone else (who is spinning right handed) it would make perfect sense. Yet,  I have to admit, once I had Caro’s (1970s?) Traditional up and running, I rather liked it, to my surprise.  To the point, I started looking on eBay but they always seemed to go for more than I could afford, the very word ‘Ashford’ being a selling point,  and I really only wanted it to teach other people, because it has Scotch tension, and is the kind of wheel they’re far more likely to end up buying.

So, there we were in Kendal, being offered a wheel. I didn’t want to get my hopes up it was an Ashford Traditional; precisely the wheel I’d been about to put an ‘In Search Of’ post up, on Ravelry, for.  The lady said she could go down to the car park, after a preliminary walk round the show, to fetch the wheel.   I thought it was too good to be true. She’d probably not return  to us, or find someone more worthy. (She’d already walked right past a lovely spinner in the doorway of the room where we were and somehow made her way straight to us, at the back of the room).

I tried to take my mind off it, and there were plenty of lovely people to meet and chat with – so a bit of time passed and t- whilst I went for a wander leaving Worser Half in charge – there the lovely lady was, with an Ashford Traditional under her arm.   I missed my chance to chat with her again, as the wheel was sitting there, by our stuff, when I returned from my amblings. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask her first name, when I saw her,  at least!  But I was a bit stunned to meet with such serendipity and kindness. All I remember she told me of the wheel was that it had been used to teach many children, and that it had been stored in a slightly damp place (garage?) the past few months.  I’d been a primary teacher probably at the same time this lady was teaching and had also taught many, many children to spin but only ever on spindles. Teaching is something you never really shake off, and I have been thinking for a while, of starting to teach spinning in the new year.


We had gone to Kendal with our small car packed up to the ceiling to demo. And had left precisely enough space to fit my repaired wheel, Betty, in for the journey home.  So after the show, getting the Ashford in the car was a bit like doing Tetris in real life.  And it took us quite a few goes, but eventually, we got it and we managed to stuff the car not only with the demo stuff, and my own wheel (Thankfully, we’d not done the usual thing and taken our Great Wheel) but also the new wheel.


Water damage on wheel
Water damage on wheel
Now (water spots gone).

I knew nothing of the history of Ashfords, so did a quick bit of internetting when we got home, and discovered the Ashford Traditional Time Line.   A handy guide to help figure out when your Traditional was made. This put the wheel at maybe around 1980/81 (without the click fit bearings, but the tension knob is in the same place as the ’81).   This very wheel may have been standing in a shop not long before the  time I went to buy my first wheel, in 1984.  Which is a strange thought.  Have to admit, this late 70s-ish  is my favourite type of Traditional, aesthetically – I hadn’t consciously noticed, over the years, but the spokes became fancy turned ones not long after this. I prefer the plainer spokes of the 1970s – more in character with the 20thC style of the wheel, those plainer spokes.

I like the wheel’s nylon bearings as well, only ever having had wheels with  leather. Which has its limitations.   The wheel is sturdy enough to be transported around, and after many years looking at old, old wheels as well as some recent but old-school beauties, like Timbertops, I’m actually quite appreciating this wheel’s no-nonsense  utilitarian, work-horse style.  A bit like my favourite spindles tend to be the plastic, 3D printer made ones in neon colours because I spend a lot of my life looking at the old lead ones!

As these wheels started being produced during wartime, (1940, the Ashford Homecraft, a direct ancestor of the Traditional, according to the Timeline), it is also perfect timing for us, given the current research work I am doing on the Land Army.   The perfect wheel finding us at the perfect time, in other words.


Knowing it had been kept somewhere damp (but not for long), we wanted to strip it down, to give it a thorough clean and fettle although in the end, the screws attaching the con-rod were totally seized and didn’t even shift with PlusGas – which I’ve managed to un-seize Edwardian sewing machine parts, before now!  Ashford now recommend when assembling a wheel, you rub a bit of wax on the screws, and if that had been done, we’d have had no problem.  There was a bit of a wobble on the wheel but no massive damage we could see.  We decided in the end not to remove the wheel and hub from the axle, but just clean the visible bits of axle  with a thin bit of cloth (a bit like flossing).  As whatever was causing the wobble didn’t seem to be debris on the axle, from what we could see…

And a loud squeak came from the leather con-rod joint.  Replacements are available but in our case, we couldn’t replace it as the screws holding it in were seized, so instead we have liberally applied dubbin over the past couple of weeks, and now the squeak is now minimal and will hopefully be eliminated over time, with more dubbin. I’d prefer to use my Brooks Proofide, I keep for my leather bike saddles, as that’s the best leather conditioner there is – but predictably, now I need it, it has proven elusive, so the wheel got cheap dubbin instead.

After sanding, the wheel drank a couple of coats of oil. It’s now really ready for another coat – apparently, coats with gaps of hours or days (or weeks) between is a good idea for long-starved wood.

Seized con-rod screw
Seized con-rod screw with old style leather con-rod joint

The kind lady who gave us the wheel said she’d lost the bobbin brake on the way,  (“I swear I saw it when I put the wheel in!”) so we replaced that with a £1.99 one from Fibrehut.   Older wheels have only one spring on the bobbin brake – newer ones have two; one either side of the mother of all.   So the current kits have two springs – which we stuck with. (Seem to recall I may have used an elastic band on Caro’s, unless the old spring was there – not sure).  I have spun on a double drive all my spinning life, so Scotch tension is a novelty.

Apart from the missing bobbin brake, its only other problem was the lone bobbin’s core had swollen and it had got stuck on the flyer shaft.  We soon got that off, and got a couple of replacement bobbins. The shaft has cleaned up just fine.  I oil this pretty well every time I sit down at any wheel, so it should not be a problem, from now on.


The wood of the entire wheel was stained in places (but not warped or split). The back end of the mother of all was most affected – but again, no ply-wood split or warped. I think if it had been stored in a damp place much longer, the wheel would have really started to suffer, though.  We gave the wheel a light sanding, then applied my favourite magic potion I use on my vintage sewing machines,  Parker & Bailey’s ‘Orange Oil Polish’. (Available from Lakeland).  Several coats of oil over a period of a couple of weeks, and the wood looks much, much better.  Apart from the treadle which, even with a sanding, looks a little bit – sad.  But nothing that affects its functionality, so we won’t be replacing it.


I will leave it as a single treadle although double treadle conversion kits exist.   I have used double treadle wheels for years but have no problem with single treadle, either.  This is another huge advantage of getting a wheel like the Ashford Traditional – you can get spares and upgrade parts, very easily.  I can’t really overstate that, as someone who usually has wheels that have hard to track down parts.  Life is easier now we have Woodland Turnery, as we can get bits replaced, new bobbins, etc. But life wasn’t always so simple!  The repair on Betty, by the way, now has her back to her old self.  Apparently, when I bought her, my Timbertops Lonsdale, Betty, had a very old crack in a rather hidden part of the gubbins, which the seller couldn’t possibly have known about, nor did I, despite stripping her down and cleaning as well as I could. The crack was very old, Woodland Turnery thought, as it was literally black.  One day, it all got too much and Betty fell apart.  She is now fixed.  I’m told the Lonsdale was a prototype wheel, essentially, and so many spinners with longer legs than me, find it a bit inconvenient to spin on as there is little clearance above the pedal.  I have the legs of Gimli, so no problem here.  But thought I better mention it as I’ve extolled the virtues of my Lonsdale in the past, not realising its limitations for people with longer legs – sometimes stumpy legs are an advantage! I should have realised my legs were freakishly short, as we once had an old Volvo, and I could only drive it with the seat as close as physically possible, to the steering wheel and even then I could only reach the pedals at tip toe (and I’m 5’6″). Clearly, a car made for Scandinavian supermodels, not Gimli.

Quick oiling and spin on it this morning, and the Ashford appears like it will be great for demos and teaching.  I am going to spend 5 minutes a day teaching myself to spin right handed on it. Because it’s about time I did.  My entire spinning life has been spent with uprights with centrally placed flyers or the Chair Wheel with the flyer set to the right of the drive wheels. But I think it makes sense to teach people right handed or left, whichever they choose.  (Unlike the Great Wheel where it is, of course, left handed).

The wheel was given to us, so we could teach new spinners, so we hope to get plenty of chances to do just that, in the coming year.  As he found us at Kendal, I’ve christened him ‘Kenny’ which seems like a suitable war-time name for a war-time design classic.

I will be forever grateful to that anonymous woman who came to Kendal with a 1970s’ wheel in her car, on the offchance she’d find someone who could use it. We can and will use it.  Life is full of missed opportunities so am glad I took this one, when it presented itself.



Image courtesy 'The Knitter'.
Image courtesy 'The Knitter'.
Image courtesy ‘The Knitter’.

Last week, my new gansey pattern came out, in ‘The Knitter’.

It’s published in the supplement. I’ll put up some gansey alphabet PDFs for initials, for anyone thinking of knitting it – or any other gansey – in a day or two.  But for now, here’s some info about the gansey itself.  It was knitted in Wendy 5 ply Guernsey wool, Atlantic Blue. There are three other traditional shades – Aran, Navy and Crimson.

It’s called ‘Lansallos’. Whilst I usually name them after vessels – to get away from the cliche that specific gansey motifs come from certain areas – I decided to name this after the place where its original wearer (and probably, knitter) came from; Lansallos, in Cornwall, so I could give it back to its original ‘owner’ in a way, as the design is not mine, just one I reverse engineered from a photo.

Image courtesy Polperro Heritage Press
Image courtesy Polperro Heritage Press


Seated on the left: Charles Joliffe Sr, one-time landlord of The Three Pilchards Inn, Polperro. Centre: Charles Joliffe Jr. Seated right (and our gansey):  James Curtis, who was Charles Jolliff’s Sr’s son-in-law. Little girl: Kate Curtis, born 1874, which dates the picture to around 1877.


James was married to Emily Jolliffe (called ‘Emma’ in later censuses). In the censuses, our gansey-wearer, James was a merchant sailor, then “Fisherman”, later “Fishmonger” at Lansallos. Emily – who probably knitted the gansey – was from Lansallos, too.  On the 1861 census, Emma’s occupation is “Knitter” and she is found on Census night visiting the Curtis family on Pier Head, in Lansallos. It’s rather cool – and rare –  to be able to (possibly) put a name to a gansey’s knitter.


The photo was taken by Victorian photographer, Lewis Harding, in his studio at Osprey Cottage, Polperro. It’s been reprinted in most of the published gansey books, and for good reason.  To reverse engineer it, I had to get the best res image possible, blow it up on my screen, and literally count the purl bumps. Then I charted the pattern as well as I could.  I think it’s reasonably accurate. Although I went off piste with the sleeve, putting in a pattern that echoed the sleeve on the centre gansey in the photo.  One element of design I am fairly confident about was the little Indian Corn Stitch cable – fairly sure I’m not imagining that in the magnified version of the photo. Polperro Heritage Press’s book “Lewis Harding – Cornwall’s Pioneer Photographer” is well worth a look, as is Mary Wright’s “Cornish Guernseys & Knit-Frocks”.


The diamond and fern patterns in this Cornish gansey are the same as diamonds and ferns found on ganseys from elsewhere in the UK; diamonds, “nets” or “masks” also being extremely common on the inland waterways of Northern England.

I kept the shoulder treatment straightforward, just as Emily Joliffe seems to have, in the original. The neck would be slightly deeper in the original – so if you’re knitting Lansallos and would prefer a more traditional-looking neckline, simply continue knitting a couple more inches. The tension was not so fine as this probably looks, so if you have yet to knit a gansey – this is probably a lot less daunting than it might look!

I’ll put up a link here, to Lansallos in the Ravelry pattern pages, just as soon as one goes live. Lansallos is in Issue 103 of ‘The Knitter’ and will be in the shops for another three weeks, at the time of writing. Enjoy!



Spinzilla 2016

AFTER!  Spinzilla 2016 haul.
Rolags ready to go. Castlemilk Moorit (undyed) and Norfolk Horn shearling (dyed). Plus some carded wool from Natural Born Dyers!
BEFORE: Rolags ready to go. Castlemilk Moorit (undyed) and Norfolk Horn shearling (dyed). Plus some carded wool from Natural Born Dyers!

I managed to spin just over 7 miles of yarn in 7 days, with the UK Team, HillTop Cloud. Not a brilliant total – but not bad!

The brown is some lovely, prize-winning Castlemilk Moorit (an entire fleece’s worth!) from our sheep at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming.  Castlemilk is often short and can be neppy but this was just exquisite (sadly my hurried spinning did it no favours).  I didn’t even work too hard at blending the qualities as the entire fleece was not only usable but excellent.  Spinning went a bit slower than I’d have hoped, because like an idiot I only gave this fleece a quick cold water wash – it was so clean, I broke the habit of a lifetime and didn’t give it a brutal scouring, before spinning!  I often scour to leave a bit of grease in the wool, but this was a bit too much and unless the ambient temperature in the room was good – I wasn’t getting much done, fast!

The dyed wool is mainly our Norfolk Horn – a shearling fleece we got this summer (along with a shedload, quite literally, of other Norfolk Horn fleeces!)  There is some mauve alpaca, blue silk, Eider wool from Natural Born Dyers, and Corriedale from WoolTops.  Also a small amount of merino from AdelaideWalker.

In the lower layers of the baskets was some Jacobs fleece leftover from the stash of my late friend, Caro. We had used that this year,  for our ‘Luddites’ demo-ing, (as she’d have loved us to), so the leftover bits, plied with odds and ends from various bobbins, will make something special for me to look at and smile when I remember her.

Sometimes, the wool you spin is bound up with memories – friends you were with when you bought it, places you went, things you were watching whilst spinning…    I’ve done a good job of spinning down a 30 year old stash in the past couple of years – to the point that only one thing I spun last week, was from old stash – the mauve alpaca. We bought that a few years ago, on a lovely day out at the Yorkshire Show. Everything else in the photo is from this year, apart from the Jacob’s and that alpaca.

I’ve spun the Castlemilk after my favourite day out this year, at Fountains Abbey when Art Student Son was taking photos and we realised the shots were ruined by the fact I had borrowed his old dog-walking hoodie – so I decided to make myself a ‘hooded monk’, natural coloured, hand-spun hoodie.  Watch this space!


In terms of ‘experimental archaeology’ – the point for me, being to see how much I could feasibly spin in a day – the answer was, yet again: on a good day – a couple of miles. On a bad day – close to nothing! Spinners in the past had kids, livestock, and all those endless interruptions we call ‘life’, but I have no doubt an 18thC spinner could comfortably double my total, even on a ‘bad’ day.  Not a problem in summer, but on a crisp autumn day, wool drafts much more slowly. You need a couple of basic things for good spinning – decent light, and a warm room. These were not universally available to spinners of the past.   I was surprised that there was probably very little difference, speed-wise, between spinning woollen and worsted – as I used commercially prepared fibre for the worsted spinning, that just needed a quick bit of pre-drafting.  For most of my spinning, I went from rolags, spinning a slubby longdraw.

Spinzilla is a great event – bringing together spinners from all over the world. and a reminder that yarn holds so much more than just twist.


AFTER: Spinzilla 2016 haul.
AFTER: Spinzilla 2016 haul.

Spinzilla 2016

Rolags ready to go.  Castlemilk Moorit (undyed) and Norfolk Horn shearling (dyed).  Plus some carded wool from Natural Born  Dyers!
Rolags ready to go. Castlemilk Moorit (undyed) and Norfolk Horn shearling (dyed). Plus some carded wool from Natural Born Dyers!

Tonight at midnight, is the start of Spinzilla 2016 – an international challenge where teams and individuals compete to see who can spin the most yarn in a week.

I entered in 2014, on impulse, and because last minute, didn’t have much time to prepare fibre, and lost a day to kids’ appointments,  but managed to finish second in the Rogue category, falling short of the Rogue winner by 30-something yards.  A few minutes’ spinning! Which made me determined to enter again some time.  Looking at the mileages of last year’s faster spinners, I know I can’t pull those kind of numbers, so am competing with myself but also seeing how I do against other Europeans (not about to undo the habit of a lifetime – thinking of myself as European!)

Was thinking about doing Spinzilla last year, but was still reeling from the shock of a dear friend dying in the summer, so decided against putting myself through the added stress.  This year, I thought I’d enter but this time in one of the three UK teams, the one run by Katie of Hilltop Cloud Fibres  (Team Hilltop Cloud, or “the dragons” because our symbol is a beautiful Welsh dragon!)

I’ll be spinning a Castlemilk Moorit fleece from our flock at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, and some Norfolk Horn shearling from the flock in our parish and the next parish.  In case that’s not enough, I have a batt of beautiful madder and weld dyed Eider fluff from the talented Natural Born Dyers  bought as compensation to myself, for utterly failing for the first time in my life this year, to dye a nice, clean yellow with my own weld.

Acid dyed Norfolk Horn shearling, an entire fleece of Castlemilk Moorit (in back basket) and some purple alpaca I didn’t dye, (centre)


The Norfolk Horn is dyed with both natural and acid (kenanthrol) dyes.  Of course, I had to use acid dyes for magenta – a nod to my relations, the Dawsons of Huddersfield who were amongst the first people to develop that colour as a chemical dye. The natural dyes were my muddy goldenrod and weld dye baths which I wasn’t thrilled with, but will probably, like all natural dyes, look suddenly nice when used in combination with some other naturally dyed colour.

I’ve been carding on and off, most of September just losing a week or so to prepare for our demo at the Masham Sheep Fair, last weekend.  During Spinzilla 2014, I ran out of carded rolags after a day or so, leaving me frantically drum carding during Spinzilla, losing much of my spinning time to carding.  Despite all the work this time, I still suspect I’m going to run out of carded fibre in maybe two days, and switching to spinning combed tops will inevitably demand more of a worsted style of spinning, and slow things down…  Despite having to spin a lot worsted-ish last time, I did manage to clock up over a mile spun each day and 2 miles on a good day…  (I didn’t keep detailed notes, so am determined to put that right again this time, too!)

I don’t know how much time I’ll get to document what I’m doing over the week on the blog but will try and get back here.

I’ll be spinning almost entirely on my 1994 Timbertops Chair Wheel as Betty, my poorly little Lonsdale, has gone to Joan and Clive at Woodland Turnery to be mended.  Will be getting her back at Kendal Wool Gathering, at the end of the month. The Chair wheel is accelerated by a second drive wheel, and I usually have it on one of the smaller whorls – not a spinner who cares too much about ratios – I just do what works. Sometimes getting hung up on the technicalities sucks the joy out of spinning and for me, spinning has always been about fun and relaxation.  Not that there’s anything relaxing about Spinzilla, the way I do it!  Need to find a big, fat audiobook ASAP and luckily have lots of TV box sets available, one way or another, so it will be kind of relaxing.


Spinzilla is about the joy of spinning – plain fun, really.  But also it’s a good time to challenge ourselves as spinners; try a new technique, or push past a comfort zone.  For me, the challenge is simply to see how much I can spin English longdraw in a day, and see if I can then figure out if it’s comparable to the yardages spun in the past. What is a realistic figure?    Also I want to see how the Norfolk Horn spins. It is thought to be one of the oldest British breeds of sheep and was probably the mainstay of the worsted industry in parts of medieval England  (despite it not being a longwool, apparently it was used a lot for the finer, high-end cloths). I’ll be spinning it woollen not worsted-ish.  I will give myself plenty of breaks but it is a brilliant excuse to not have to cook or bake or do any housework for a week, and as such, an opportunity not to be missed.


Happy spinning, everyone doing Spinzilla!


Decoration from County Arcade
County Arcade, Leeds

Inside The Paracosm 2: 22nd September, 1942



Paracosm ~ a prolonged fantasy world invented by children; can have a definite geography and language and history…”








Another glimpse into the life of a wartime child and the unique record of her home-made dolls’ house and its contents.

The following comes from a series of charming wartime letters, written by a little girl, Brenda, to her dad who was away during WW2.  The letters were found on the pavement outside a charity shop, alongside a dolls’ house, and its contents. Many of the letters mention items still present in the dolls’ house.

The house’s curtains are faded to light green, now, and silk, with a subtle red and white abstract pattern on them – probably a textile from Brenda’s home. They are ‘green’ as she mentions, but not ‘flowered’ so maybe there were two sets of curtains, one now lost. They were not hemmed, but a running stitch along the top, done with linen thread, attached them to some screws on the inside of the windows.  Brenda seems to have been allowed to see the curtains her father made for her, whilst she was in hospital, having her adenoids and tonsils (“As and Ts”) removed, in the autumn of 1942. Brenda was 8, that year.

1930s’ and 40s’ Triang doll’s houses came with little strips of fabric, attached to the window panes, made from an equally fine silk or faux-silk,  and these were probably roughly what Brenda’s father was replicating.  According to my Ancestry searches, Brenda’s paternal grandfather was an upholsterer, so it’s not surprising Brenda’s father was accomplished with a needle.

I will be carefully removing the curtains, giving them a gentle clean, and returning them to the inside of the house.  One of the things that fascinates me about doll’s houses are the textiles.

Brenda also mentions her doll’s “frock” and unpicking a “skarf” (so presumably that was knitted!) I will have to look through the extant dolls’ outfits and see if I can find a likely candidate – if I do, I’ll photo it.

I have preserved Brenda’s spelling and punctuation, throughout.  This letter is written in pencil, so I transcribed it.

Brenda’s letter



22/9/42 September.


My Dearest Daddy Pet.


How are you Dear? Quite well I hope. I had three letters in one day from you, because I didn’t get the one you posted to the Hospital but they sent it here. I could see the curtans you made from my bed, did you make those flowered ones? I saw the dark green ones, like we have got on the landing. It isn’t a very nice day yet, very windy and looks like rain.


I have done one side of my dollie’s frock and unpicked the skarf. I took Teddy to the Hospital. It took quater of an hour to take my As & Ts out because the nurse told me Mummy’s going to sit in the bed-room and sew.

Grandma Leatherhead came to see me on Saturday. I hope you will like the drawing of a garden. A week to-morrow you will be home. Won’t it be just lovely, what a time we shall have to-gether. I have got a loose tooth. I am writing this letter  in bed. the time is 5- twenty two and I shall soon be having dinner, I shall have fish and saygo pudding. Dr Eastern came to see me yesterday. It is very cold out to-day. Dickey doesn’t sing yet. I am writing on the paper you gave me. my throat didn’t hurt a bit only when I swallowed. we saw one of those big lorries in Leatherhead once.



He’s making a marrow out of clay. It is so funny. I thought you’d like to read it. I rote the addres of the envelope well. Must say good bey for now, I hope you are quite well and fit I am quite well thank you lots of your from you Everloving xxxx Daughter xxxxxxxxxxxx Brenda XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


Of Cardinals, Monks, and Rampaging Vikings

Cellarium, Fountains Abbey. CREDIT: Nate Hunt

On one of our regular dog walks, close to home,  we pass a flock of Norfolk Horn sheep.  They graze on a corner of Cawood Garth, a piece of common ground owned by the folk in the next village. It used to be where Cawood Castle stood (only the Gatehouse remains). This was where Cardinal Wolsey came to live, in 1530 but was here only a short while before Henry VIII had him arrested for high treason.  He died on his way to trial in that vortex of doom that is Leicester.  By all accounts he was very popular with the locals in Yorkshire and I grew up in a nearby village where every other street had the word ‘Wolsey’ in it.  The Garth was rescued from developers when Greater Crested Newts and Star of Bethlehem wildflowers were found – there are also some old varieties of apple growing there.


Norfolk Horns are an ideal breed of sheep used for ‘conservation grazing’ and the fact they are on the Garth is good news for its flora.  I have many happy childhood memories of Cawood, where my mother grew up and her aunties still lived. So to get some fleece from the sheep who graze there – and, of all places, on the very site where Cardinal Wolsey once lived – is a rare privilege indeed.  My ancestor, Isaac Moses, left a piece of land in Cawood his will, in 1820, called ‘The Close’ which may have been nearabouts and he lived yards away at Market Square.  This may or may not have been a bit of the Garth.

Washing Norfolk Horn in a dolly tub.

I managed to get talking to the sheep’s farmer, and she kindly set aside some of her clip for me.  I’ll be spinning some in the next month.   Having so much wool to wash or scour, we borrowed a dolly tub.  Scouring = a good, thorough clean with detergent and hot water.  Washing = a slight opening up of the locks, and then soaking for a few days in cold water, to get the worst of the muck out.   I tried a small amount of neck wool on the wool cycle of my washing machine, as I’d read Norfolk Horn was reluctant to felt. It instantly felted.  Luckily, only a couple of ounces lost!  For links to info about wool scouring, check out:

Fountains Abbey, Credit: Nate Hunt

The wool is short-medium staple and mostly looks to be white, but one fleece has some grey and others grey bits near the margins where the sheep have markings.  Fleeces were well skirted and rolled, and quality sorted. The wool looks to be a typical 54s-56s; and finer sections of the one I unrolled this morning had lovely crimp, and looked ‘lacy’ when held up to the light.  The wool has a fair bit of grease, too. By another coincidence, they were stored in a barn on my Grandfather’s old farm, where my mother grew up, so it was strange going to pick them up and thinking “She once stood here and this was all where she played.” My mother would have loved to know one day her daughter would be standing there, buying wool.

We sorted the fleeces, labelled them clearly and have stored them in the little loft of our shed – formerly the kids’ playhouse)so it had a tiny ‘upstairs’.  I’ve put the best fleeces towards the front and will process in quality order, ensuring the better ones, at least, are stored clean before winter. The wool on the ‘moderate’ ones looks to be very lovely, as well, though.

I’m also about to get a couple of Castlemik Moorit fleeces from a prize-winning flock.  With all our efforts going towards covering the cost of shearing at the Museum of Farming, earlier in the year, it feels good to be doing something to keep the rarer breeds of sheep going, in another way.  This will be a Norfolk-Horn crazed Spinzilla.


More Norfolk Horn info here:


Norfolk Horn Breeders’ Group.


Here’s hoping for a few weeks of sunny, windy weather, to get at least some of the wool scoured and dry before autumn sets in.  We bought a few metres of cheap muslin and have made some new drawstring bags to hang drying wool from the line.   I’m trying to get the first fleece scoured and carded, so I can see if my old David Barnett drum carder is OK with it, or whether I’m going to need a higher TPI drum carder to process it.  (Hand carding works better but I want to get a shedload carded before Spinzilla…)

I’m still dithering though, whether to enter Spinzilla – if I do, it will be as a Maverick. The year before last I was only 30 odd yards from winning the Mavericks, and as I hadn’t planned on entering the competition til the day before entries closed, I hadn’t cleared my schedule so lost a day of that week to appointments, and unavoidable things that could have been avoided with more notice!


As I card and spin this wool, in the run up to Spinzilla (or Not Spinzilla), I’ll report back how it’s looking as I know this is a breed of sheep a lot of spinners haven’t had the chance to try.


In other news, we just had to do an emergency harvest of our dye garden after it was trampled by some viking re-enactors (which, on the bright side, gives us the rare distinction of being possibly the first people to suffer financially from a raid by inconsiderate vikings, in almost 1000 years…)

Our dye garden area had an impromptu fence around it.  But apparently, the vikings had to urgently work on something that involved them being our side of the fence, and walking about on what they must have assumed were worthless ‘weeds’.  In fact, the madder we were hoping to leave undisturbed another year or two.  The weld – greatest tragedy – was two weeks or so off coming into flower.  We have just grubbed everything up, hung it up to dry in the shed, and will see what colours we salvage, when we get time to dye with them.  I would have had double the madder, I guess, leaving another year.  Anyway, we’re now going to have to re-locate to a place where rampaging vikings won’t do a dance on our crop.  (Quite ironic as they were doing ‘living history’ at the time but clearly with more of a 21stC sensibility where anything that isn’t petunias or roses = weeds…)  The dye garden was 2 years’ worth of effort put in by four people. A shame to see it go. It will rise, phoenix-like, from the Viking pillage – but in a Viking-free zone.

Green Man, Fountains Abbey. Courtesy Nate Hunt

Talking of Viking-free zones, the other week, we were at the stunning Fountains Abbey, fettling their Great Wheel which is having some teething troubles. (Nothing major – a slight problem with the leather bearings). We’ve had the wheel fixed for them by an expert and will be returning the mother-of-all and spinning head, down the week.

I’ve never fallen in love with a place on sight, so much as I have Fountains. Any excuse to get back there in the coming months, I think!  I’ve been reading about its history.  Only nine years after the Cardinal was captured, and marched away to die, Fountains Abbey was surrendered at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The Cistercian monks are of course, of great interest to anyone who is into woolly history. There was a woolhouse on the site, too.  (I’ll explore that the next chance I get and share in a future post).  On the ground, you can see how the landscape helped with the wool-growing and wool washing/processing. The abbey is sited in a sort of ravine – like so many Cistercian monasteries; put out of the way of humankind, in places we romantically perceive as ‘wild’ and ‘beautiful’ but medieval society perceived as ‘hostile’ and ‘barren’…
At the moment, I feel like I’m living the monastic life in my own personal woolhouse; constantly washing and scouring wool, and now preparing to card it for spinning, during the autumn/winter.  Sick of plastic bins splitting under the strain of wool washing, I hit upon the idea of using a dolly tub. Borrowed one, but it has to go back soon so I’ll be on the lookout for my own as it’s proving to be perfect for the job!


Look out for us demonstrating spinning/Yorkshire Dales knitting at the Cawood Craft Festival, this weekend.

We’ll also be demonstrating Dales knitting,  the Great Wheel and/or the Chair Wheel at Masham Sheep Fair, 24th/25th September.  Look out for us upstairs in the Town Hall!






Have A Go On A Great Wheel Weekend!

The lovely Emma spinning on my Great Wheel at Bolton Castle. Wheel custom built by Jack Greene. CREDIT: Nate Hunt

Tomorrow (5th August) and Saturday, we’ll be demonstrating the Great Wheel, at the British Wool Show, Murton, York.

If you fancy some ‘Have A Go’ great wheel spinning, come along and try your hand at it.  Very few spinners are left who can spin on the Great Wheel – we’re hoping to change that!  You can also book a half hour workshop session, on either day, for a small charge to cover materials, wool preparation, etc.

We have spent much of this week carding wool on the drum carder and will be bringing along some interesting British breeds of wool, including Whitefaced Woodland and some of our Badger-Faced Balwen for folk to try.  We will also have a bit of raw wool available for sale, from the sheep at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, next door to the livestock centre – money raised contributes to paying for the sheep to be sheared.  (Below: One of the Museum’s Badger-faceds, from prize-winning stock and a close up to show you the quality of the fleece).

On Sunday, we’ll be at the National Trust’s Nunnington Hall’s Traditional Skills day, with either the Great Wheel or the Chair Wheel or both if we can fit them in the car!  Spinners and knitters please come along, and ask all your Great Wheel/spinning questions – and the braver amongst you; have a go on our wheel!


Nunnington Hall. By Wehha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons