Category Archives: Travel (sling yer hook)

Out and about

Bo-Peep and The Owlers

Wool may not have been high on my list of priorities when I holidayed in Hastings last week – my focus was more botanical, exploring plants of the coast – but my discoveries were to include wool after all!

Best known for the events of 1066, Hastings is also famous for its links with historical smuggling. As I found out at a popular visitor attraction, The Smuggler’s Caves, wool was one of those commodities subject to illicit handling and movement. The activity was originally a shifting of illegal exports (rather than imports). Wool was smuggled out of the country  as early as the 13th century when it was a luxury item, and King John had stamped an Export Duty on wool in 1203. This covert transportation of wool became known as owling due to participants’ use of the owl hoot as an alarm call. The Owlers plied their illegal trade for several centuries and by 1700, approximately 150,000 packs of wool were smuggled from the Sussex and Kent shore alone.


In the 1800s, when the Napoleonic Wars raged, circular forts known as Martello Towers were built along the coastline. Their primary function was defence but they were also used to incarcerate smugglers caught by the Preventive Services. A mile or two from Hastings Old Town stood Bo-Peep Martello Tower. Within an innocent-sounding nursery rhyme about a shepherdess of the same name as the tower lurks a darker story:

Little Bo-Peep (Preventive Men)

Has lost her sheep, (smugglers)

And doesn’t know where to find them.

Leave them alone 

And they’ll come home,

Dragging their tails (tubs*) behind them.

I wonder which came first – an innocuous children’s rhyme reappropriated by criminals? Or the smugglers’ tale hidden in the rhyme, a jibe against the law enforcers? I’m don’t why that particular Martello was known as Bo-Peep – I’ve noticed there is now a pub of that name, and the rail tunnel next to the station of St Leonard’s: Warrior Square is called Bo-Peep Tunnel.

The other unexpected woolly discovery was to be found on the new Hastings pier:


Very typical of British seaside resorts – except they’re normally painted, not knitted. Of course I had a photo take with my mush in the face slot.. but I won’t be sharing that pic!


* Tubs: Booty was hidden in barrels or tubs, and the locals employed to carry them from the beaches to their hiding places were called Tubmen.

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Tin & Hairpin

Now, I know I said I was having a ‘hook hiatus’ but a few things have come up recently to bring my mind back to crochet, if not hands and wool yet. One is an article commission which regrettably hasn’t come together in time due to problems with images, but hopefully will go ahead this time next year when all that is sorted out..

The others were spotted on a trip to the Midlands to visit a friend for an all too brief couple of days. We tootled over to Stratford Upon Avon and couldn’t resist the lure of a secondhand bookshop where I spied a publication that I knew I’d regret not getting. Of course I bought it! Quite a rare find, I think.


The other was a piece of filet crochet in the Mission Church (or the ‘Tin Church’ as it was also known) at the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings – where historic buildings retire when in danger of being pulled down! It’s worth a visit if you’re ever in Worcestershire. The tin church originally stood in Bringsty Common, Herefordshire, and was moved to the museum in 1995. I’m not sure if the crochet was also original – the information stated that the church had been maintained well after it had closed: the interior of the church was complete and that the font, lectern, pulpit, pews and vestments were rescued before dismantling, but the organ had to be restored.

It just goes to show…  crochet pops up even when you’re not looking for it (or trying to ignore it!)


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Bike Cosies and Other Holiday Crochet

Holidays – you’d think there’d be plenty of time to crochet during a week away in sunny Anglesey but somehow there wasn’t, what with visiting castles and gardens, exploring ruined mansions, walking along the coast, looking at the stars and trying to remember where to find Orion and the Saucepan (well, it doesn’t look like a plough to me!), eating chips on a nondescript pier, taking in views of the Strait and Snowdonia… that kind of thing!

I’d been hoping to play with Tunisian stitch patterns but only managed to rustle up a mere two swatches. I’m not one to get the hook out on public transport – I get travel sick on buses so can’t crochet on the roads and, as I tend to crochet instead of read books when at home, I took the opportunity to finish off a novel on the train (don’t ask me why I can keep my stomach down on the clackety clacks but not on buses – it’s baffled me most of my life.)

The crochet worth mentioning was in the shape of bicycles – there were a few dotted about Beaumaris that had been brightly painted and decorated in kaleidoscopic crochet, the work of the Crafter’s Corner Craft Club to celebrate the Tour of Britain.

bike cozies

Oh, and there was a trip to an indie yarn shop in Menai called Hanks, where I bought a hand dyed skein whose colour was called Sunset Over Lleyn, comprised of Blue Faced Leicester wool and a bit of nylon…

IMG_1756Well, who wouldn’t want to buy yarn called Sister Wolf?? Wish I’d thought to ask if there was any specific meaning behind it. Next time!

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A Wet ‘n’ Woolly Sunday

Sunny days are for exploring gardens; rainy days for museums.While visiting friends in west Wales this summer, one such soggy Sunday endeared to us the idea of a trip to a historical establishment. So off we went to Dre-Fach Felindre to nosey around the National Wool Museum. Giving an insight into the traditional and industrial processes of converting fleece into yarn and cloth, this museum also documents the history of the wool trade in Wales.

It all starts, of course, with sheep. Different breeds have adapted to cope with their contrasting environs, and the texture of their fleece reflects this. For example, the hardy Welsh Mountain sheep gives us a coarse wool, whereas the Llanwenog (a lowland breed typical of the Teifi valley) has a soft, fine wool. Prior to shearing, sheep were washed in streams, rivers or the sea, as this was thought to make hand-shearing easier. Men would take to coracles to guide any stray sheep or those getting into trouble in the water. I love the unusual image of sheep-herding in coracles!



Though shearing was the most typical way of removing wool from a sheep’s back, there were other ways. ‘Slipe wool’ was obtained from dead sheep purchased from slaughterhouses which gave cheap, low-grade wool. Fleece was detached from the carcasses by throwing them into lime pits, and the skin and lime later separated from the wool in a large revolving drum.

A less gruesome method was the old Welsh custom of gwlana. This involved women traipsing along the drover’s roads known as llwybrau gwlan, or woollen paths, retrieving oddments of wool caught up in hedgerows. This was no pleasant stroll in the country – these women would have been up at daybreak and, come sun down, would have trundled many miles in every weather, hefting home heavy sacks of wool gathered by stooping and bending much of the day. Even so, gwlana was a social experience and something different from the drudgery of everyday life. The wool that was collected was cleaned and spun by hand, to be knitted into socks or caps, or woven into blankets that could be sold to earn extra pennies on top of meagre farm wages. With the arrival of the railway in the late 1800s, the need for drovers declined, and woollen paths fell out of use. But the role of drovers had extended beyond livestock: they were the original bankers of Wales.. The first Welsh bank notes were issued by Banc y Ddafad Du (the Black Sheep Bank) of Aberystwyth, and Banc yr Ychain Du (the black Ox Bank) of Llandovery.

Once in the mill, wool had to be sorted and then prepared for spinning. Fleece cannot be spun straight away as it is too ravelled, and undergoes a treatment called ‘willowing’. Prior to mechanisation, this was done on a felking board, using sticks probably cut from willow. Come the industrial ages, a willowing machine combed the wool, teasing out tangles on a metal toothed roller. This transformed the wool into a sort of candy-floss cloud of fibre. Another combing task. ‘carding’, turned the soft fluffy fibres into strips of wool known as ‘rovings’ or ‘rolags’. By hand, this was done with carding bats which had metal or wire teeth. The earliest carding bats had teasel or thistle heads. Being a gardener for a living, I found this especially interesting. The scientific name for thistle is Cardus, from which the word carding is derived. The Welsh for teasel is llysiau’r cribwr and translates as ‘the carder’s plant’.


IMG_1471 Teasel (above); a carding bat with teasel heads (below)

During my visit, there was a demonstration of the willowing and carding machine in use, and I found it a bit odd that the machine operatives were called craftspeople. This jarred with my sense of the word craft, as I tend to think of it in relation to non-mechanised activities. Is that just me, or does anyone else have this perception too?

The carding machine with craftspeople notice

The carding machine with craftspeople notice

The rolags produced by carding were then spun, converting the fluffy wool into strong yarn. Traditionally done by individuals at spinning wheels, the invention of a machine called the ‘spinning mule’ put a lot of local spinners out of work. This machine wheeled backward and forwards, drawing out and twisting the fibre together, producing 400 threads at once. It required only a single operator, saving the mill owner money in wages and allowing the maximisation of profit.


The spinning mule

Once wound onto bobbins, this yarn was ready for knitting or weaving. One way of incorporating some knitting into the day was whilst walking: in the 19th century, women in Cardiganshire were known to knit their way down mountains, carrying peat harvested from the higher land to use as fuel in coastal areas. I’ve seen people knit on public transport, but I’d be worried about tripping up and rolling downhill like a giant ball of wool!  A vital rural industry in the 18th and early 19th centuries was the home knitting of socks and stockings. Wares were sold door to door or at markets, as well as to itinerant stocking merchants. People who knitted for money frequently convened for their shared purpose, merging work with play… and a bit of friendly (I hope!) rivalry. Sometimes, competitions called Gwau Gwryd were held, testing who could most speedily knit a given measure of wool. Of course, mechanisation also put knitters out of work as stockings made in factories were cheaper, and these finer stockings became more fashionable. I think that’s why crochet appeals to me: it has yet to be mechanised.

Despite putting many people out of work through industrialisation, the woollen mills were the biggest employers in the Teifi valley until the 1980s. The wool museum, on the site of the old Cambrian mill, still produces wool and cloth today. And visiting was a wet afternoon well spent.



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Alpacas and Dragons and Sheep, Oh My!

Ickworth House, a National Trust property in Suffolk, held their second Wool Fair at the end of May. I went along because my IDC teacher/assessor Helen Jordan asked if I might, on the off chance, be up for helping with her crochet supplies stall Thread of Life. I had just handed in my household project and the request came when the project was returned to me. I didn’t immediately agree, as I’m not really a “Roll up! Roll up! Come and see this…” kinda gal and thought that this, combined with my rubbish maths, wouldn’t make for a good stall companion! Helen said it was fine, and that I could sit and do demonstrations. The magic words were “all expenses paid!” Well, I thought, why not?? It would be a good, if slightly daunting, experience for me and, although a stall companion isn’t essential, it is handy to have someone to mind the stall during a break as well as to help with setting up/deconstructing a stall, and hefting things about.


Helen Jordan and her stall, Thread of Life

The event came around, and the forecast was for a lovely bright Saturday, followed by a wash-out the next day (did someone say Sunday?). We were situated in a big marquee – less likely to get blown away than the individual tents (this did happen to someone the night before the event!) The weather matched the forecast but the rain didn’t put the public off, as I think there were nearly as many visitors as on the sunny day.

To calm my nerves, I sat and did demonstrations for much of the day (mostly of hairpin crochet, with a bit of tunisian thrown in), The hairpin really piqued people’s curiosity and I was asked about it lots. I explained it wasn’t new-fangled technique dating to at least Victorian times but, for some reason, had never become widely used. I showed how it could be used to create intricate and delicate shawls but also to produce denser fabrics. It uses less yarn than ordinary crochet, and works up quickly, which is great if you’re an impatient beginner! Most of those stopping by the stall didn’t know what hairpin was, though some had heard of it; only one elderly lady knew exactly what it was. She told me her grandmother had used this technique but that she hadn’t seen it in a long time. I found out she had taught a bit of crochet so I encouraged her to teach this method of crochet which deserves to be more widely known.

Another fascinating conversation sparked off by the hairpin was with a Textiles graduate. From a distance, she seemed totally entranced by what I was doing, before coming to talk to me. Turns out she had tried her hand at most textile crafts but had never encountered hairpin. Not that she got on with crochet at all – apparently, the constant motion of slightly flicking the wrist in crochet wreaked havoc with her neck. My comments about hairpin being an old technique in a relatively young craft surprised her as she believed crochet to be older than knitting, which is ages-old. (Pauline Turner of the International Diploma in Crochet teaches that there is no solid evidence of the craft prior to the 1800s.) The graduate’s eyebrows rocketed! This all lead on to her telling us about her studies, and her dissertation which revolved around the idea of the invisibility of “women’s work” – the cooking and cleaning and clothing – which enabled men to get on in life. Her husband was nearby and smiled at the irony – while his wife studied, it was he who did the housework… much better with the Dyson than she was, in fact! Not content with a Textiles degree, this crafter is going on to do a Masters in Fine Art – no easy thing when the emphasis is textiles. I remember something Grayson Perry said about craft not being valued as highly as art, and how it was more difficult to “come out’ as a crafter than as a transvestite”! Let’s hope this woman manages to shake up the status quo!


Rare Breed Sheep.. before the music started..

Of course, no wool celebration is complete without sheep. In a spare moment I wandered round the fair and got drawn in by the dancing sheep. Yes, you did read that right. Even scarcer than a rare breed sheep is a dancing rare breed sheep. There was Lenny the Lincoln Longwool, Nobby the Norfolk Horn (a breed rarer than the panda), Dougal the Scottish Blackface, and Sam the Suffolk. These disco woollies were on tour with The Sheep Roadshow. Of the many interesting facts thrown at the audience by Sean the Shearer, here are a choice few: there are more sheep in the UK than the rest of Europe; the waterproof oil in wool is lanolin and is used in cosmetics e.g. lipstick, which is “basically sheep sweat with a pretty colour!” And did you know that sheep have a great sense of smell? Desert sheep can smell water from a distance…


Rivals for the attention of the public were the (non-dancing) alpacas. They are lovely creatures belonging to the camel family – think camels without humps. Mind you, I’ve tended to think of them as long-legged sheep with elongated necks. But don’t you dare call their fleece wool! For some reason it’s called fibre. Unlike wool, it is hollow in structure, and the absence of lanolin makes it hypoallergenic. There are two types of alpaca based on differences in their fibre: the Huacaya have sheep-esque woolliness; the Suri have long,spiral locks.These camelids are friendly with sheep, goats and chickens and can be kept alongside them. Handily for the chickens, they offer great protection against foxes. But if you’re thinking of keeping a guard-alpaca, do remember that they are herd animals and must be kept on groups of at least three. Not that they’ll vocalise aggressively; they don’t even brazenly bleat like sheep or goats. It’s almost as if they’re ventriloquists, throwing their voices, as the sound doesn’t quite seem to come from them. I now understand why it’s described as “humming”..


The dragons were of the non-maiden-eating type. They jingled a bit, they skipped a bit, for these were the Green Dragon Morris Dancers, a “family side” meaning that women are allowed to participate.


Other delights included a sheepdog trial which I, unfortunately, missed, and non-woolly stalls such as the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and Libbidib Pottery. All in all, an enjoyable weekend – and a lesson learned: don’t pass up an opportunity because of self-doubt.

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Centenary Stitches

One of my lovely gardening clients, who knows I’m a crochet addict, told me of an exhibition she’s heard about on the radio called Centenary Stitches. It sounded very interesting, and I was keen to go. Finding out it was in Lincoln, I figured it was a bit too far to visit just for an exhibition! But then I remembered I had some money-off vouchers from a delayed train journey in the summer, so I decided to use them to day-trip halfway up the country especially. And I’m glad I went – it was a small exhibition, but I spent nearly an hour and a half having a good ol’ rummage around.

The Centenary Stitches project grew from the costuming of a community film called Tell Them of Us. The aim was to create something centred around the war story of ordinary people, not celebrated already by fame or high rank. But these are the people about whom there is typically less documentation. However, one family – the Crowders from the village of Thimbleby in Lincolnshire – had maintained a comprehensive archive containing letters, memoirs and scrapbooks, photos and other items from the Great War years. From this family archive, a script and screenplay developed.


If the stories of everyman are difficult to discover due to lack of records, costuming and clothing can be even more tricky. Fabrics are fragile, especially the woollens, being susceptible to moth damage or easy to repurpose, for example, through felting. Photographic evidence provides little more information, as these tended to record special events rather than daily attire. Knitting patterns from the era are a more reliable source, though these are problematic for the 21st century yarner thanks to the difference in culture; in the early 20th century, most girls were schooled in knitting and crochet, so patterns didn’t need the details required by many today. For instance, sock instructions could use the short-hand “turn the heel” and the reader could proceed without panic and you-tube how-to guides. Some of the items in this exhibition are clothes crafted for the film, but there are also reproductions of other items from World War One.

There are two woolly stories to be told here: one is military – how knitting affected the lives of troops at the Front; the other is social – the tale of women and how their clothing reflected their increasing emancipation.


Military uniforms were not enough for the needs of the soldiers, and were supplemented with knitted accessories that came to be known as ‘comforts’. These were sent by women to their loved ones in the trenches, but also distributed by organisations like the Red Cross and Regimental Comforts Fund. Such items included scarves, gloves, balaclavas and smooth-seamed socks. Lord Kitchener, British secretary of state for war and the face of “Your Country Needs You” posters, is credited with the invention of an invisible grafted toe seam which helped prevent blisters – sock patterns of the time were made with a seam up the toe that tended to cause chafing. Among the more unusual knits were knee warmers, often worn over bandages in hospital, and rifleman’s gloves without thumb and trigger finger. Despite the value of their endeavours, many of the crafters put themselves down as being just a “Sister Susie”, and denigrated their war work , believing it to be a minimal contribution because  they did not suffer or don a uniform. But VAD nurse Olive Dent noted otherwise in her diary: “We nurses know how much the gifts and comforts are appreciated… Every stitch..meant a few minutes greater comfort – and correspondingly less pain – from an aching body tortured on our behalf, for our defence and birthrights.” She goes so far as to say that these Sister Susies performed “some of the most valuable war service”.


Rifleman’s glove

The process of women becoming more active participants in society, in roles that were previously denied them, meant that their clothes had to change. Greater freedom of movement became necessary. There was a shift from garments which needed to be clung to like the shawl, to those such as jumpers and cardigans. Women started to ditch the restrictive corset and this was hastened by metal shortages brought about by the war – metal, of course, was needed to construct the framework of corsets. Apart from maintaining a rigid, upright posture, corsets also provided an insulating layer  to the torso so all that would be required to stave off the chill might be a shawl. Without this thermal layer, those same garments enabling freer movement, the waistcoats etc, became fundamental for warmth.

The costume design for the film was based on original knitting patterns from the Edwardian period as well as photographs of the eldest Crowder sister, Grace, whose clothing was ‘reverse-engineered’ by specialist knitters. Looking around the exhibition, most of the items were knitted which is hardly surprising given that, traditionally, crochet uses more yarn, which isn’t conducive to the frugality that the war demanded. One of my favourite pieces was a knitted wrap waistcoat.

Knitted wrap waistcoat with crocheted embellishment

Its maker said she was excited to see the way garter stitch was used in this pattern because people usually think garter stitch is boring. It has a crocheted embellishment on the belt, which I liked. Other crocheted items included a bag, shawls and hats. The most surprising item was a tie done in Tunisian crochet, certainly an unusual technique today as I suspect it was then, too.

Tunisian crocheted tie

Commemorating a war through its woolies is an unusual venture, perhaps deemed too trivial in comparison with the horrors endured by the soldiers, or not dramatic enough to be considered. But knitting and crochet really did play an important, if understated, role.

 Further Reading

Jane Crowfoot, The Kitchener Stitch, in The Knitter, Issue 19


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Hooked on Plants

A trip to Cambridge Botanic Gardens on Sunday combined two of my major interests: horticulture and crochet.  It was “Apple Day” which demonstrated the array of apple varieties (some hundreds of years old) with a chance to taste some of those cultivars that cannot easily be bought in shops, as well as offering produce such as chutney, cakes, juice and cider.  While getting slightly squiffy on cider samples, I didn’t forget to go and investigate the “Hooked On Plants” display in the tropical glasshouses.

Crafters often find inspiration in nature, be it colour combinations, autumn foliage or flowers.  Lichen of the tundra is a less typical inspiration but it is the plant of choice for the exhibition, along with trailing plants from arid environments.  The project was undertaken by designer Joanne Scrace and the Cam City W.I., as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.  The underlying intention was two-fold: to highlight the diversity of plant forms as well as the availability of plant based fibres.


Lichen was represented by simple rows of stitches worked into foundation chains, and were nestled into rock crannies.  Other more complex yarn plants involved the skills of increasing and decreasing to create, for instance, undulated or zigzagged leaf margins, such as those of the Fishbone Cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger); or the globose stems of plants adapted for water storage in deserts.  One crocheted plant of this type sat next to a sign explaining the “convergent evolution” of unrelated plants using similar survival mechanisms but originating from different continents e.g. Euphorbia obesa of the Euphorbiaceae family found in Africa, and Astrophytum asterias of the Cactaceae family from the Americas.


942An overheard comment was an exclamation of how botanically accurate and recognisable these crocheted plants were, a credit to the women who made them (especially those who hadn’t ever crocheted before).

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