Thursday, December 20, 2012


My flock sweater

After watching Martha and Elizabeth knit their allovers in October, I decided it was about time to get back to work on my 'flock sweater'.  I'd set it aside a few years ago after I finished the sleeves.  I'd run out of black and needed to spin some more, all the bobbins on my wheel were know the drill...So it went into what my husband fondly refers to as the 'Great Hall of Unfinished Projects' - we all have one.  Mine really isn't all that large, it's just that DH finds the whole concept rather odd, but then he doesn't knit (or spin or weave or...).

 All of the colors in my sweater have a corresponding face that goes with them.  Most of the browns in the sweater come from different shearings from different years from Buttercup, a now 8 year old Shetland ewe.

Ylletroja Shetlands
An advantage to raising Shetland sheep is the wide range in the fleece colors 'on the hoof'. That diversity made the planning of the colorway for my sweater a lot of fun.

As for the design, I headed for one of my favorite knitting books, Poetry in Stitches, by Solveig Hisdal (published in 2000).  Solveig is the designer for the Norwegian knitwear company, Oleana.  She has won numerous awards for her knitwear designs.  On a warm summer night in Oslo before the theater starts you can see numerous woman dressed in Oleana sweaters and matching silk skirts stroll by - her designs have become the contemporary version of the bunad or folk costume in Norway.

Solveig Hisdal sweater design from Poetry in Stitches
The pattern I used for my sweater in her book was knit in red, blue, green, gold and black.  I have been able to adapt it really well to the natural Shetland colors.  But the thing that really excites me (again and again) about her pattern design and color choice is the fact that they are often inspired by old textiles.

Woolen bunad bodice form Hallingdal from Poetry in Stitches
Museums contain a wealth of old textiles that are often ignored.  Solveig Hisdal has used these old textiles and artifacts as inspiration for her designs.  She's able to see in a way that most of us do not and create a thoroughly modern textile that honors the spirit of these old pieces.  Her book not only includes her own sweater designs, but also photos of the old pieces that have inspired her.  Many are textiles, but she has also included photos of architectural details of old buildings, old paintings of bunad, flowers and the landscape.

My Christmas sweater
Many years ago, I found this sweater in a little shop in Stillwater, Minnesota.  I fell in love with it immediately.  At that time I had never heard of Oleana or Solveig Hisdal.  (To this day, you still have to work really hard to find her work in the US - not so in Norway!)  The price was dear, but I have never regretted buying it.  Each year I pull it out of the closet in December and remember again why I love her work so much.

A few pieces in the 2012 Oleana knitwear collection
Each year Oleana continues to put out new designs.  They continue to offer new pieces in their lines that now include home furnishings as well as women's wear.  As time changes, so do the materials that they are using.  My Christmas sweater was all wool.  Today, you will find more wool/silk blends and alpaca fibers, much as you would in other contemporary women's wear, but the essence of her designs remain the same.

I'm happy to be back knitting my 'Flock sweater'...inspiration comes in many forms....Thank you Martha and Elizabeth!

Martha's newly finished allover

For more information about Oleana, click on this video link to watch their 2006 video about the company.   Although the video is in Norwegian, it will give you a chance to meet the owners of Oleana - Signe Aarhus and Kolbjorn Valestrand - as well as the companies designer, Solveig Hisdal.  It includes a factory tour of Oleana (they've chosen to make their sweaters entirely in Norway), their employees annual trip abroad as well as a fashion show that they held at the Nordsik Museum, in Stockholm, Sweden.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fair Isle for Handspinners Class

Elizabeth Johnston of Shetland and Martha Owen of North Carolina, recently visited the NW to teach traditional techniques for Fair Isle knitting.  Elizabeth started the class by informing us that it was not a dye class or a spinning class or a knitting class, but rather a color class...and off we went! 

Natural colors of Shetland fleece (gray and light moorit) just removed from a dye bath containing cochineal and onion.  Other dye pots contained onion skins for yellow and green and logwood for blue and purple.  Several colors of fleece were dyed to get a large selection of colors.

The Shetland sheep in Shetland are shorn in the summer after the rise or natural break that occurs in the process of the shedding of their fleeces. If you look closely at this photo you can see where the old lock ends and the new fleece begins toward the cut end of the lock.

Two dyed locks of Shetland fleece just out of the dye pot.

Holding the lock firmly in your hand, the end with the break needs to be pulled off at the rise area or break in the fleece before it is ready to work with.

Dyed locks that have had the ends pulled off at the break or rise location.

Once the tender ends are removed from the fleece it is carded into rolags, either by hand or with a drum carder.  This is the time that the dyed fleece can be mixed with other colors or light or dark natural colored fleece.  The color possibilities at this point are endless.

Elizabeth Johnston demonstrates the use of the drum carder for color blending as well as for creating a lofty, woolen style yarn.

Creating a lofty, woolen yarn for Fair Isle knitting requires the perfect rolag as well as the perfect spinning method.  Here teacher Martha Owen demonstrates her 'long draw' spinning technique. Once the single yarn is spun, it is then under-plied for an unbalanced two plied yarn...just what 'they' tell you never to do. The finished yarn is strong, light and airy...done in the style of the traditional Shetland production spinners.   

Student Denise Mor with her dyed fleece and carded rolags ready for spinning.

Denise's spun yarn ready to be knit into a traditional Fair Isle pattern.

One of 'Fair Isle for Handspinners' students knitting in progress.

A finished project on top of the raw Shetland locks that the class started with.

I'm looking forward to working with the wonderful stash of dyed and undyed fleece that I came home with after this class. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Vacations...and Manx sheep...

Knockaloe Beg Farm, Patrick, Isle of Man

We just got back from our vacation.  As usual, we choose a place that was windy, rainy and required a ferry ride.  This time we headed for the Isle of Man, a relatively unknown island that lies in the Irish Sea between Dublin and Liverpool.  We have friends that live there half the year (she's half Manx) and back in the 1860's, my husbands great-grandfather emigrated from the island. Nowadays it's known both as a tax haven and for it's insane motorbike races in the summer - the TT's.

Maughold Parrish church, IOM - Several preserved Viking heads stones can be found in the church yard.

Historically, IOM is like many of the outer regions of the UK.  It is fiercely independent and nationalistic.  It also has one of the oldest parliaments in the world due to early colonization by the Vikings. And it has some really unusual sheep that have been on the IOM since it's earliest days...the Manx Loghtan (or Loaghtan).

'Holly', the pet Loghtan ewe at Knockaloe Beg Farm
I try not to overwhelm my DH with too many fiber related things on our trips.  To get part of my sheep 'fix', I book us into B&B's on working farms.  Tourism these days is much more lucrative than sheep farming, even when you have 600 head of breeding ewes like the farm we stayed at.  The majority of their ewes were 'mules' this case Scottish Blackface  or Swaledale sheep crossed with Bluefaced Leicesters.  They raise lambs primarily for meat with the wool destined for the carpet wool market.  In the pasture behind the barn were some pet sheep - most were bottle babies.  One was a Loghtan Manx named 'Holly'.

Loghtan ewe and lamb at Cregneash

The Manx Loghtan is an old breed that has been on the IOM for hundreds of year.  It's heritage is not known, but it is thought to be in part related to the Northern Short Tailed sheep that the Vikings left on all of the islands that they visited including Shetland, Faroe and Iceland.  Unlike the Shetland and Icelandic sheep, the Loghtan population dropped to a very small number of animals in the 1950's.  Through a dedicated group of people it is now classified on the watch list of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Loghtan ram at Cregneash

Loghtan is the Manx word for 'mouse brown'.  At one time this breed had primarily white animals with some additional colors, but over the years the moorit or brown color has been selected for.  The males typically have four to six horns while the females can have two or four horns.  The largest flock that we saw was at Cregneash, a folk museum on the south end of IOM.

Loghtan ewe at Cregneash
The wool and yarn that is produced from these animals is not something that you would typically find in your corner yarn store.  It is not particularly soft.  However, the throw that I purchased at Cregneash that was woven from Loghtan wool from the flock of Cilla and George Platt on the north end of IOM, has a wonderful depth of color. The fulling and brushing process done at a Welsh mill produced a really nice hand and character.  It reminded me that we often forget the value and use for fiber that is not ultra soft like merino wool or cashmere.  To be able to market a wool or meat product is often the best insurance in preserving a rare breed of sheep.

Loghtan throw and wool

Lately I have been purchasing breed specific wool yarns, in part to educate myself on the extraordinary variations among sheep breeds.  It's one thing to see the photos of the animals and fiber in books like The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.  It's another thing to actually knit with these fascinating wools. One of my favorite companies is the Cornish company Blacker Yarns .  They do a number of breed specific yarns that are constantly changing.  They also do small lots of yarns for farms in the UK under the name of The Natural Fiber Company.  The skein of Loghtan yarn I purchased from Cregneash was processed by this company.

Help preserve our sheep breed diversity by choosing a wool for your next project that is not merino.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Class Openings for 'Fair Isle for Handspinners'

Just three more weeks until Elizabeth Johnston and Martha Owen arrive to teach 'Fair Isle for Handspinners'.  We have had two students cancel out of the upcoming October 26-28, 2012 class, so we now have two openings available.  If you are interested, check out my March 30, 2012 blog posting and send me an email.  It should be a wonderful class!  All of the wool we will be using is raw Shetland wool that has come from the Wool Brokers in Lerwick!

Martha visiting Elizabeth in Shetland in 2009.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cunningsburgh Agricultural Show

A few years ago a friend twisted my arm into volunteering to manage the sheep barn at the Whidbey Island Fair.  The previous 'superintendent' of the barn decided that after 30 years she deserved some time off. So I stepped into a 'job' that included hiring the sheep breed and fleece show judge, putting together educational displays and even doing some barn maintenance.

Franna Pitt exhibiting her Champion Shetland Yearling Ewe at the 2012 Whidbey Island Fair ( See The Sheep Barn Blog)
 Our county fair is stretched out over 4 days with another day prior to the fair set aside for the local veterinarian to examine all of the sheep that will be exhibited at the fair for good health.  When the fair is done, we all go home happy, but exhausted.

Elizabeth Johnston in Shetland recently sent me several photos that a friend of hers took at the local agricultural fair in Cunningsburgh.

Shetland ewe

The Cunningsburgh show is an agricultural show on Shetland that is held annually on the second Wednesday in August. The first show was thought to have taken place in 1935.  However, unlike our local county fair, it is held entirely outside in a field for just one day.  It seems that this is not atypical in the UK.  We attended a fair a few years ago in Masham in the Yorkshire Dales that set up temporary pens for the sheep right in the town square.

Judging cattle
Here too for the Cunningsburgh show, temporary pens and rings are set up for the day. The show accepts entries from anywhere in Shetland, unlike some of the other Shetland Shows which only serve a specific area.  Like our fairs they include exhibits in both animals, hobbies and food items.

Shetland collie
What I love about these photos is the opportunity to see the Shetland sheep that are being exhibited at this local agricultural show.

Shetland ewe

Shetland ram

Shetland 'black' sheep

Shetland sheep with interesting facial markings

Shetland ram lamb

Not a bad way to run an agricultural fair, although is looks a bit cooler than our fair (that by the way was held the same time in August)!

Shetland ponies

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sea Shanties,Wooden Boats and more Allovers...

Elizabeth Johnston in Shetland sent me photos this week of some of the 'allovers' she's been knitting this summer.  I set the photos aside so I could post them at some quiet moment later.  Then, off we went to see Tom Lewis sing sea shanties at the Wooden Boat Festival over in Port Townsend, WA.

Shanty singer and song writer - Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis originally hales from Belfast, Ireland, but has been living in Canada for the last 30 years.  He retired after 24 years in Her Majesties Royal Navy serving on diesel submarines and now preforms traditional sea shanties as well as writing his own original songs.  Shanties were the working songs used on the big sailing boats of old.  They provided the rhythm to the jobs of hauling on the lines and helped to alleviate the boredom of these tedious jobs.

Schooner 'Adventuress'
After listening to all of the wonderful music and seeing the tall ships in the harbor at Port Townsend it is easy to image what the harbor in Lerwick, Shetland must have looked like in an earlier century, filled with tall ships from the Baltic, Scandinavia and Britain. I could also imagine the diversity of knitwear that came and went from Shetland on these ships, not to mention the subtle influences this busy port had on the pattern development that evolved into the knitted 'Allover'. 

'Allover' custom orders that were knitted by Elizabeth Johnston

Patterns continue to evolve at the hand of the knitters today.  Elizabeth uses her own patterns in her bespoke knitting.  The allovers she recently finished were custom orders and have already been shipped off to their new owners.  The black and gray vest in the photo above is Elizabeths pattern 'Selkie' or seal.  The colorway is new - one that the customer got a hand in choosing.  It included yarns dyed with madder (red) as well as some dyed with onions skins (yellow).

Close up of 'Nyuggle' vest
The second vest is a pattern she has titled 'Nyuggle' - which is a mythical pony in Shetland.  This pattern included yarn that was been dyed with lichens as well as some dyed with onion skins.  The matching hat is modeled by her 6 year old granddaughter.  It features a small silver spinning wheel charm on the back.

'Nyuggle' design hat with spinning wheel charm

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An 'Allover'

Every now and then I am reminded that although I speak English, I speak American English that is influenced by my upbringing in the Midwest and my current life in the Northwest.  It's not until my good friend Karran (who is part Manx and part English) starts talking about her mum's cottage on the Isle of Man that I have to step back and remember that the English language  is much broader than my version.

So it was a few months ago when Elizabeth Johnston and Martha Owen started talking about the 'allovers' they were knitting. Both of them have been traveling a bit this year...Martha especially.  New grandbabies in distant places have beckoned to both women, so off they have gone with knitting needles in tow. (Can you imagine a plane trip without knitting needles?!)

Martha walking in the Lake District, England in her Shetland 'allover' jumper
So, I had to ask (because obviously I wasn't paying attention when I read parts of Ann Feitelson's book "The Art of Fair Isle Knitting").  What's an 'allover'?  Allover is the Shetland term for Fair Isle knitting.  In fact in the early 1900's no one talked about Fair Isle knitting, but rather about knitting an allover - a garment with patterns all over it.  Ann interviewed one knitter who felt that the term 'Fair Isle' knitting was a bit discriminatory since many of the patterns used have been developed by Shetlanders from islands other than Fair Isle.

The allover that Martha is knitting is based on a Shetland allover she wore on her travels this spring to stay warm. Except in the case of her knitting allover project, she handspun and dyed her own yarn in 'Martha colors'.  (I have yet to see the allover that Elizabeth is working on.)
Martha Owen knitting her own allover based on a Shetland allover
Unlike traditional Shetland allovers which are made for Shetland wool, Martha has several sheep represented in hers....white - Romney/Corriedale and dyed colors - Corriedale (from her sheep), black - a blend between Shetland and Wensleydale (from those places), and grays - Shetland from Shetland.  I can just imagine the hand of this sweater - so soft and silky!

Detail of Martha's allover
Last I talked to her, she was finishing up the torso, planning on adding the sleeves and then plotting her next allover.  I don't seem to be going as fast with that new set of 000 double points and the Estonian gloves with all the yarnover braids...oh well. I guess I should have tried harder to find a pattern for my 1's!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ornamented Journey

A friend in Minnesota recently forwarded a link to a blog she thought was quite wonderful. The blog is written by an Estonian woman, Kristi Joeste, who works at the University of Tartu's Viljandi Culture Academy in the department of Estonian Native Crafts.

Book - Ornamented Journey by Kristi Joesti
Kristi has also published a book called 'Ornamented Journey'.  It is coauthored by a childhood friend, Kristiina Ehin whose background includes studies in folk song, ethnography and folklore. Originally published in Estonian, it has just recently been translated into English.  (I had to order it from the UK, since it hasn't made it to the US yet.)

What is so unique about this book, aside from the fact that it is filled with exquisite photos of both new and traditional Estonian gloves, is that it is filled with stories.  Ehin has written a series of short stories to help us visualize the women that originally knit these gloves and the lives that they lived.  Although it is not filled with knitting 'recipes' for all of the photographed gloves, it does include a section of instructions that will allow the reader to use the instructions along with the photos as a jumping off point for knitting their own gloves.

And so I jumped...or at least I jokingly suggested to some knitting friends that we ought to try making a lovey pair of 120 year old Mulgi mittens with a Russian cross design that Kristi showcased in her May 7, 2011 blog post.

120 year old Estonian mittens
My friends thought that it was a great idea...a new knitting challenge.  The catch was however, that these mittens were knit on 000000 needles...Now I've knit on 0000 needles to make a pair of sjonaleister, a type of Norwegian folk sock last summer (well maybe not the whole pair yet).  They were a challenge to use, but I was shockingly unprepared for the 000000 needles when they came in the mail. Their diameter was not much bigger than a pins diameter.

000000 knitting needles with swatch sitting on a moorit colored shawl that was knit with size 2 needles
I did a tiny swatch of 20 stitches by 10 rows (1 inch x 1/4 inch).  The yarn that seemed to work was a Shetland 1 ply cobweb yarn by Jamieson & Smith.  Too bad my eyes didn't work as well as the yarn did!  At this point I decided that this 120 year old pair of gloves must have been knit by someone with very young eyes.  Mine needed lots of extra magnification to get as far as I did.  I was really impressed that Kristi was able to reproduce this pair - especially since it took her 60 hours to do it.  Somehow, I can't imagine that these were very relaxing hours...

I've decided to head back into her lovely book and find a pair of gloves that can be knit on size 1 needles...they seem like giant needles after my little diversion with the 000000 needles!!!