There are a few things that matter to me when it comes to how I run the business. I occasionally share bits and pieces on the blog.
One of the big things that matters to me in how I do things, is waste. Everything that I do is designed to minimise the amount of stuff that gets thrown away. To me it makes perfect sense, less waste reduces costs, and is better for the environment.
So what do I mean when I talk about reducing waste?
For starters running a business means lots of deliveries arriving with me. If I can, I re-use that packaging. If I can't reuse it then it will be recycled. I bulk order as much as possible to minimise the amount of packaging that arrives with me, and where possible will buy options that are re-fills.
When I dye I try to reduce the amount of plastic that I use. I've yet to develop a satisfactory no-plastic method, but I keep trying. The only paper kitchen roll I use is to test colours, anything that needs wiping up is done using washable towels and cloths. In terms of dyes, I make sure that the dye ends up on the fibre, and stays there. I use professional quality dyes responsibly, next-to-no dye ends up going in to the waste water system.
Our water come from a spring, so I'm also aware of trying to reduce the amount I use in summer. I try to strike a balance between enough to make sure fibre is rinsed well, and avoiding waste. Water for soaking fibre before dyeing is used to water the garden. I also use a biologically friendly, degradable, scentless, detergent.
When I send out orders I try to minimise the amount of packaging that you get. I don't do fancy tissue paper wrapping or pretty stickers. I know that it's probably more pleasurable to open a parcel that feels like a present, but that tissue paper has taken resources to make, and even if you recycle it I still feel it's an unnecessary "extra". Instead I send out fibre in a grip-seal plastic bag. And yes, plastic is less green than paper, but most wasteful of all is having to replace an order that has got damaged in transit due to water or scent damage. The bags I use are good quality and can be re-used for multiple tasks for years.
The mailer bags themselves are made from recycled plastic, and are bio-degradable.
For those same reasons the only "extra" you get in a parcel is a small sample of fibre. I could create lots of lovely branded "stuff" but in our house most of that "stuff" just ends up going straight to the recycling bin. I don't need a pretty postcard, or a bookmark. Minimising extras also reduces my costs, which means you pay less. Yes I can get things printed for minimal cost, but it's amazing how 10p here, and 5p there starts to add up when you work out prices for things. Fancy packaging also takes more time to do, I'd rather devote my limited hours to dyeing, which again means that I can charge less.
Old time readers of the blog will know that I have a flock of mini bantam chickens. Pekins are perfect for us, small, friendly, cause minimal disruption in the garden, and oh so amusing to watch as they scuttle around. A few years ago I bought some eggs to hatch under a broody chicken, and accidentally ended up with a Polish. Cav, the result from that accident was a real character, a bird who blundered from disaster to disaster. When she died I hatched out some of her eggs, and ended up with Big Bird.
Big Bird is head cockerel in the flock at the moment, so it comes as no surprise that the eggs we hatched out earlier this year ended up having him as the dad.
Over the summer they've grown up, and now look like miniature adults. We thought we'd worked out which were boys, and which were girls, but in the same manner with which the bees have been misbehaving this year, we got it rather wrong!
We thought that the one on the left, with minimal wattle and comb was a girl. In the middle, bigger wattle and comb, therefore a boy. On the right, a regular Pekin rather than a Polish x Pekin we weren't sure. So names were chosen... Lilly, Freddy & Pip.
Except two weeks later, Lilly decides to start crowing. So rather than being names after characters in The Archers, he has now been renamed to Lillee after Dennis Lillee, the Australian fast bowler. As for the other two, knowing our luck they'll be boys as well. Mind you, we are now down to 3 cockerels in the flock, Millar died a few weeks ago. He'd had a really rough winter, had to spend a couple of weeks being nursed through a cold inside the house, and was my companion in the dye studio for many weeks because he was struggling to get around the garden. This summer he got a new lease of life, and spent most of his time hanging out with the new babies. He was such gentle soul, and it still feels odd to wander out to the garden and not have him wander up to say hello.
The babies are no longer the littlest chickens in the garden though. Last week we adopted a whole flock (14 hens and 2 cockerels) of Seramo bantams from a neighbour. They're moving back to the town, and can't take their chickens with them. They've spent all their life living in an enclosure, so watching them learn how to be proper chickens has been lovely. It's not until you watch a chicken out and about that you realise just how much goes on in their little heads. These newbies make my existing chickens look like giants, they're tiny, if you're not careful you can mistake them for a large blackbird.
The local area is dominated by 2 estuaries. The poke a relatively long way inland, which makes travelling up the coast a bit of a pain, because there are no road bridges over them until a long way up. Those estuaries used to be really important. They provided a route to the sea, so were ideal for getting goods out of Wales.
It was a sign of the priorities of infrastructure during the Victorian era that both these estuaries are crossed by rail bridges. A trip along the Cambrian Coast Rail Line is a beautiful way to see this part of the world.
Dyfi Osprey Project wrote a lovely post on Facebook earlier this week about the bridge that crosses over the Dyfi below Machynlleth. In order to keep local ship builders happy the bridge featured a draw bridge, allowing masted ships to sail out to sea.
Yesterday I was up at the Mawddach estuary, the next river mouth along the coast, which features a similar bridge.
You can walk across this 150 year old wooden bridge (or ride a bike along it).
We were there geocache hunting... and had to wait for the tide to go out. Leaving us some lovely warm pools to splash about in.
The Tour is over for another year, and Team Hilltop Cloud had an even busier tour than ever before. We racked up nearly 1200 posts in our team thread, 760 of them contained posts of spinning in progress and spun yarn. It's amazing how much your can achieve even when you only do 10 minutes an evening. Some people experimented with new spinning techniques and fibres, others stuck to old favourites. Some wheels went on holiday, and we saw some beautiful spinning spots.
We also raised £118 for Qubeka, who put people in African communities on bikes to help them access education and employment, with sales of this years special Tour de Fleece fibre. I know many team members also made personal donations.
Here are a few of my personal favourite photos....
Over on the Tour de Fleece Ravelry team thread we've been having a bit of a chat about spinning for larger items. Sometimes it's very easy to end up only buying 100g braids, either because that's all there is in the budget, or because it's the only one left in a colour you just need to own...
I try to dye in 400g branches, and whilst that's not quite enough for a jumper all by itself (though in some cases it can be...) one of the things I wrote about in Spinning Hand Dyed Fibre were ways to combine fibre to get bigger quantities of yarn.
A relatively recent "thing", I hesitate to call it an invention because I've seen variations of this method discussed for years now, is a Combo Spin. There was an article in the Winter 2017 edition of Spin Off. Some versions just involve plying different braids together, but others get you to chunk up the fibre and spin it in a random order. Both are great ways to combine braids, and get bigger quantities of yarn.
My one note of caution.... if you're chunking your fibre then you do need to have a similar fibre type in all your braids.
So for example, putting together my Romney Silk & Linen blend with the BFL & Camel is going to produce a yarn that has patches that are very different in texture. You could ply them together, but small sections of one type of fibre, and then a section of another is going to produce an unusual fabric. The example I spun above used Superfine Merino, and Bond & Silk. Thos 2 fibre types are similar enough that I could have spun chunks at random, but in this case I just plyed them together.
If you want to spin for bigger projects then there are a few things you can do to make not much fibre go further...
- Spin finer, sweaters at a finer gauge use less yarn by weight.
- Pick a pattern that uses lace in some way, and is worked at a looser gauge.
Then of course there are option to combine handspun and commercially spun, or plainer handspun from a fleece or solid colour fibre. Yokes are a lovely place to use up a smaller amount of interesting yarn. They don't get as much wear as elbows so you can also get away with using a more delicate fibre than you might on the main body.
Garter Yoke Cardigan is great for this. My version using last years Tour de Fleece yarn still needs the buttons... just make sure you check the helpful notes in the other projects if you like a slightly narrower neckline. The same idea, but in reverse is this pattern, Anora uses bands of colour at the bottom, and a different yarn for the band and collar. Imagine each section worked in a slightly different handspun, but ones that co-ordinate together. A pattern like Breathing Space would also suit a combination of colourful handspun and plainer yarn. You could use alternate skeins for the stripes if you didn't have enough yardage in the contrast colour.
Finally there's this option. Taking 5 different colourways, and spinning them as separate skeins, but then knitting them in to one pattern using alternate skeins to gradually move from one colour way to another. So Faded is in essence a top down raglan jumper. It uses fingering weight yarn, so even for the largest size (54" bust) it only takes just over 500g, and just over 1800m of yarn. You could substitute for a basic raglan pattern of your choosing, but there are some helpful hints in changing the yarn colours in the original pattern. You could even work in a heavier weight yarn, but of course you'll the need more fibre.
The one really important thing. Be honest about the thickness of your spun yarn, otherwise the quantities required won't match... A WPI gauge and a control card helps, but make sure you check a sample of washed yarn. I also like to keep a sample of commercial yarn around, the yarn used for a jumper like So Faded is much thinner in reality than many spinners like to call Fingering (4-ply). The tips for sampling I wrote a while ago might be helpful. If you're in a hurry scroll down to the "Pattern then Yarn" section.
I think, in order for this concept to work well in handspun, it needs to be yarn that doesn't have broad stripes, so I'd look for variegated braids with unpredictable bands of colour, and subtle blending. Just as with the Combo Spin principal you realistically want to use similar fibre types. You'd get away with combing Rambouillet and Superfine Shetland, putting Superwash BFL & Ramie with BFL & Baby Camel will work less well!
So, shop your stash... look for 5 braids that will link together. Lay them out and look for a common colour between braids. You don't have to stick to one fibre dyer, though that might help. I have certain shades that I know I use in lots of braids!
Need some ideas? Here's a few combinations I put together out of the show stock (nb. these don't stick to my rules about combing fibre types, I was more interested in the colour combos)
If your stash isn't very well endowed, or you're a bit nervous then I will be dyeing some fibre packs. Who's up for a post Tour de Fleece Spin-Along?
Before Woolfest Mum and I took a trip back over to the Peak District. We lived on the edge of the National Park for 25 years, but we've now been away for long enough that it's like being a visitor, and you notice all the things you take for granted. We stayed with my Aunty who still lives on the edge of the Park, we'd gone over to visit the new RHS Chatsworth garden show (which was a big disappointment), but the day before we went to Haddon Hall.
My highlight of the hall was a small room with some tapestry hangings. The wonderful thing is that you could get up close and personal to them. They're not behind glass, so you can really see the detail of how they were made. I only had my phone with me, and the light levels were low to preserve them, so the quality isn't great... but you can see how certain areas were woven using silk to catch the light and act as highlights. You could also see where repairs had been carried out at various stages, such as the red darn on the right.
The colours have lost their vibrancy, the yellow in particular has faded, hence the number of blue leaves... They would have been green by using a blue dye like woad, that was then over-dyed with a yellow dye plant such as Weld.
And here's the real tragedy. These tapestries survived because they were forgotten about. Haddon Hall wasn't lived in for nearly 200 years. In the early 1700's the family abandoned it, choosing to live in a more comfortable, modern property. They were bundled up, and put in to a tower for storage, and there they stayed until the 1920's when the then Duke started restoring the hall.
They were put in to a stable block for storage, before being taken to be restored, and made ready for rehanging. But tragically one evening fire broke out. Many tapestries were nearly complete destroyed. Thos that survived were now in pieces, they all have burn patterns along the fold lines. Some were salvaged, and stitched on to backing cloths, and are now on display again. On the top photo the finer threads are from the more modern restoration.
I'm not a textile historian, but I did love trying to work out how these were made. To my eyes it look like they were woven sideways, with warp thread running across the fabric when they're hung for display. They're a very weft faced structure, with the warp being completely hidden.
They were made by expert craftsmen, a drawing would be produced, and taken round for the nobility to choose from. So in the case of some of the Haddon Hall tapestries other examples are in royal collections in other European countries like Sweden.
Cambrian, not to be confused with Cumbria (home to Woolfest, Herdwick sheep, and English), is an area in the central of Wales. Put bluntly, it's that bit in the middle. The bit that when you look at a map seems rather unpopulated, and doesn't have much by way of roads...
It's been described as the Green Desert of Wales (because of the lack of people and roads, not due to the rainfall!), and if you want to see the stars there's practically no light pollution. What we do have a lot of is sheep... one visitor from the US commented to me that she had no idea just how many sheep she'd see on an almost continual basis.
I've always found it a real shame that I couldn't get more local wool... We don't have a farm ourselves, and whilst I know of ways I could source fleece, and have it processed I could never manage to do it on a scale where it made economic sense.
However, there is now a CIC (Community Interest Company) who are doing just that. They're buying up the fine wool clip from farms in the Cambrian Mountains, and getting it processed in to yarn and combed top. The sheep they're using are known as Mules, a mule in this context is a crossbreed sheep. The upland sheep around here are Welsh Mountains, they're small, hardy, excellent mothers, and do well on the upland areas. However their fleece isn't very fine, and the lambs aren't quick growing, or large enough for the modern meat market. So many farmers use a BFL Ram, and create a cross-breed. This gives the best of both worlds. For our purposes as spinners that means the fleece is much finer, longer, and far more useful for clothing. If you're careful about the fleeces you select, you can easily find fibre that looks like this. I've been in the Newtown Wool Marketing Board sorting depot a couple of times, and this sort of fleece is not unusual.
And the really good part... I now stock the wool top. And it's beautiful.
I will of course be dyeing it in all my usual dyeing styles, but I also wanted to do something that linked the wool back to the landscape. So I've developed 5 colourway packs, called Colours of Cambria. For me, these are the accent colours of home, there's a Pinterest Board with some inspiration images, and the packs.
I need to get some more dyed up for the online shop, but hope to do that this week, when they're available you'll be able to find them here.
We've had a bit of a chat in the Ravelry group recently about using up 100g chunks of fibre, but the nice thing about this wool is that you can also buy it as commercially spun yarn, in lots of colours and in DK and Fingering weight. If you fancy getting some hand dyed yarn then my neighbours Wrigglefingers and Barber Black Sheep stock the base.
I did some speed spinning and knitting to get a sample ready for Woolfest using one of the Colours of Cambria packs, together with 100g of the undyed fibre.
and then turned it in to a Punctuated cowl. It's soft, but has good structure, it won't end up looking pilled and fluffy where it rubs against your coat. It certainly passed the Mum prickle test.
I hope you're going to enjoy working with something that comes from the place I call home...
A short while ago I spent a lovely morning exploring the mines in the hills above Machynlleth. People tend to look at where I live and think it's wild and untouched, but even up in the high hills man has had an impact.
Mining has happened in Dylife since Roman times, and only stopped in the early 1900's. It's a really exposed site, right up in the hills, but the lead seams were very rich. I grew up in the Peak District, and am used to the lead mines there, which have now been so visited by people going through the spoil heaps that you don't really find anything interesting.
That's definitely not an issue here!
Nearly every rock you pick up is heavy with lead, and if you break them open they shine with lead ore.
As well as lead there are lots of other interesting bits of geology, so many inclusions of quartz, and lots of fools gold.
The site was nearly completely abandoned and stripped. Even the dwellings are no longer there, The Star Inn pub remains, and two chapels have been converted to houses. The church was dismantled, only the headstones remain.
Most of the evidence of mining has gone as well. It was home to one of the largest waterwheels in the UK (Rhod Goch), which was 63 feet (20m) in diameter. Some evidence says that when the mine closed it was dismantled and shipped over to Canada. If you walk up the valley, following the stream you do find this...
It's a giant pumping mechanism to remove the water from the mine. Lower down the valley there's more water management.
A pipe to carry water, but it's made from a hollowed out log rather than planks. In winter during times of heavy rain this whole area ends up being flooded, so you can see why they needed to focus on water drainage.
Lots of people enter the world of spinning with the aim of spinning for socks...
Then they fall down the rabbit hole and discover just how many things go in to making a good sock yarn. Before you even get in to fibre choice, there's the issue of number of plies (more is better), wether to go classic 3-ply, or modern chain ply (tests seem to show there's very little difference), or even to use opposing plies.
A good sock yarn needs to have bounce and memory. Otherwise the ribbing at the top bags out, and your socks fall down. It needs to withstand lots of friction, and needs to be able to put up with getting warm and damp. Those are of course conditions for felting. Some people are ok with their socks felting, which is fine providing that doesn't make them shrink. It also removes some of that elasticity. So I prefer a fibre that resists felting.
If you want to go pure wool, then Southdown is a really good bet. It resists felting, and has great elasticity. However, it's not great at resisting abrasion. If you have rough feet, or rough patches in your footwear you will get holes.
As well as Southdown I always used to offer a Superwash BFL & Nylon blend. This was great, because the superwash treatment resists felting, and it was hardwearing from the nylon. However, it was actually very similar to the Superwash BFL & Ramie base that I adore. So last summer I started experimenting. I still wanted a really machine-washable option (you can put Southdown in the machine, but I wanted a superwash treated fibre, that people could also use for garments). It also needed to be resist to abrasion, and have more bounce than the Superwash BFL.
And the final result... Two swatches. One went through a machine wash pinned to my jeans pocket. The other was unwashed. The stitches still move, and the size remained un-changed. It's a delight to dye as well.
I'm still using British wool, which was important to me. But it's slightly more coarse than BFL (but for your feet that's really not an issue), and is lovely and bouncy. You could still use this fibre for jumpers, cardigans, gloves and hats, it's definitely not Herdwick!
The Cheviot Hills are in the border area between Scotland and England, and remind me so much of my own bit of Wales.
By Cheviot_ewe_with_lamb.jpg: Donald Macleod from Stornoway, Scotlandderivative work: Coycan (Cheviot_ewe_with_lamb.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The sheep that live in the area are hardy, living on the hills all year round. They have a lovely bulky fleece, with a 3D crimp that makes the fibre bouncey, and hard wearing. The staple length is 4-5 inches, which makes it excellent for worsted spinning, just what you want from a sock yarn.
To add to the strength I've kept the nylon component. It really does help stop holes developing. To help with the dyeing, because Cheviot is a chalky fibre that can be a bit of a pain to hand dye, and to allow me to dye the eye-socking colours some love in their socks I've added some tussah silk.
I did a small batch for the online shop a few weeks ago, and also had some for sale at Wonderwool. Thos braids flew off the shelves, so I've dyed another batch that will be in the shop at the start of next week.
One of the things that visitors to Wales always comment on is that if you blink the weather changes. Today was prime example! Waking up to a blizzard, and the hills being white over. Three hours later and the snow has melted, and it's back to being a chilly, sunny, spring day.
Our beehives have had a lovely start to the spring, all 5 hives survived the winter, and are starting to bring in lots of pollen and nectar.
They're very comfortable on their new stands, made from the bottom sections of display boards recycled from Newtown Textile Museum. We've swapped some of the hives in to polystyrene hives, and those colonies have done really well because they're so well insulated.
One of the things that people often comment when they come to Wonderwool is how much they love the drive through the scenery. Last year Meirionydd Beekeepers were at the Royal Welsh Show, and we had a lovely video playing on loop. I can't embed it here, but it's a lovely peaceful watch, really worth going to look at.