I’m often asked, why? Why spend so much time hand-working ancient, wool-related processes in order to create? Why create something in the most labour-intensive way imaginable? Why don’t I go online and buy what I need? I smile.
I grew up in a farming family in which the women “did” as they talked. My mother, aunts, and grandmothers were all accomplished needlewomen. I think it’s in my genes. Any family gathering would find the women in one room, crafting around the fire. Their men talking, beers in hand, around the Aga in the kitchen.
Weaving the tapestry
As a very shy child, a lover of female stories and gossip, I learnt from an early age to sit, stitch, and listen quietly. My spot was the low stool next to my grandmother’s armchair. Oh, the things you learn when your adults forget you’re there! I relish the memory of the connection with that time. Our individual threads, weaving the tapestry of our family history.
Very late in life, I’ve come to understand that the speed at which I do something changes my experience of it. To walk the hills, collect a bag of foraged fleece, then prepare it for the spinning wheel, involves six separate processes. If you include eco-dying, the number increases again, depending on the methods you use.
Daily, early morning walks through familiar spaces have made me sensitive to the smallest of changes. Berries on a hawthorn today, stripped bare by fieldfairs and redwings by tomorrow. New buds on a beech tree yesterday, nibbled by squirrels earlier this morning. New humps of moist, dark soil indicating the local mole at work. The change in the sound of the footpath after last night’s rainfall.
The imperative to go further, faster, higher, leaves me in peace nowadays. Sometimes a short walk can take two or three hours. I become engrossed, take out the magnifying glass, start drawing, taking photographs, or simply sitting, soaking up whatever is offered by each moment.
A slow process
Once home, coffee to hand, the process begins. The shreds of moss, small twigs, and lichen clinging to the fibres are removed and put to one side. They could be incorporated back into the work during weaving. The fleece is soaked in clean, cold water overnight. Next morning, it’s rinsed and spread out on a towel to dry.
The dry fleece is carded to straighten the fibres and have them running the same way. If I’m using hand-carders, my mind invariably goes back to all the young daughters of Llangollen cottage-dwellers who would have learnt to do this by the age of five.
When my sack of carded fleece is full, the joy begins. Treadling softly, I listen to the rhythmical wooden clicks as the spinning wheel turns. The fleece draws through my fingers, twisting into yarn, before disappearing through the orifice onto the spindle. Ideas are drifting and spinning slowly in and out of my mind as the fleece in the bag gradually diminishes and the yarn on my spindle grows. My next weaving project. Coffee. The devastating impact of the industrial textile industry. (Worldwide, it’s responsible for creating undervalued fabric at the expense of others’ well-being, and at huge cost to the environment).
Hand-spinning is slow. This very slowness allows a relationship with the yarn to develop. A gratitude for the work that goes into rearing the animals producing it. An appreciation of the natural dynamic qualities of wool, which we can only imitate but not replicate commercially.
My first spindle full, I start on the second. Already, ideas for what it will become are beginning to formulate. The yarn from both spindles is plied together, then gently hand-washed to settle the ply and reduce the twist. The wool is wrapped into balls ready for weaving. It could become the next cushion cover, bedside rug, or wall hanging, whatever takes my fancy. I wonder about the journey the fabric will eventually take. The stories it will have to tell, the lives it will touch. How well will it age? Where will it meet its end?
Spinning the seasons
Fabric has a similar ageing process to my own. Colours fading, textures softening, strength gradually giving way, maybe time to consider a different purpose, a growing fragility, leading to eventual composting. Even our expected life spans are far more similar to wool than to those of stone or wood.
Forward planning is kept to the bare minimum. I rarely have any idea how something will look when it’s completed. No two pieces of work are ever the same, it’s just what emerges on the day. Tension, colour, and design are influenced by how I feel in the moment. Slow working and even slower walking is helping me to become more environmentally grounded. I no longer subscribe to dire media predictions of gloomy despair over the weather. I feel as if I’m moving away from the pre-ordained seasonal change dates on the calendar, and reclaiming the natural tempo of the rural life of my childhood.
As each season comes, it brings its own delights. Spring is now my new year. I love the unpredictability of our weather. I’m lucky enough to find pleasure in the dullest of days, just as easily as in bright sunshine. The weather, in all its moods, is there for me to embrace and enjoy. A strange life indeed, if I could only smile on a sunny day.
I’ve noticed more and more how seasonal change influences my colour choice. Occasionally I’m asked to produce something with a specific colour scheme. If I’m at odds with the requested colours, the process loses its joy and needs to be completed quickly so I can move on.
Spinning, weaving, sewing by hand, and most other heritage textile skills are all slow. By their very nature they force me to give a process my full attention. If I’m wholly present and noticing the changes as they emerge from my fingers right there in front of me, I find it particularly difficult to dwell on the past, or stress about the future. The repetitive aspects of the work provide me with calming and thoughtful headspace, while giving me the opportunity to create and produce with ease. The process is so energising; the more I do the better I feel. A slow state of flow.
I need to forage, therefore I walk. I need to walk, therefore I forage. I don’t have a TV or radio. My life is busy, but simpler and calmer. My joy is to create, then gift creation to those who also wish to celebrate our traditions and shared landscape.
CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THE BYLINES NETWORK CROWDFUNDER!