Ewe can spin a fine old yarn

Alison Salter (right) learned to spin in three weeks with help from Jenny Cox (left) and Trish Newham. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG170712-07MD
Alison Salter (right) learned to spin in three weeks with help from Jenny Cox (left) and Trish Newham. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG170712-07MD

A DIRTY and smelly sheep’s fleece was unravelled – to shrieks of “Not in here!” – to demonstrate the first stage of Trish Newham and Jenny Cox’s new enterprise.

The women, friends through their membership of the Lincolnshire Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, have set up in business together as the Yarn Shack at Long Sutton.

The shop at the Silverwood Centre is far more than a wool shop though – more a meeting place for knitters, felters and spinners, and a place where people are able to learn to spin and, eventually, to weave.

These traditional rural crafts are something New Zealander Jenny grew up with, and she says spinning came naturally to her, and it was she who taught Trish how to do it.

Now, the pair can go right through the entire process, taking a stinky sheep’s fleece and transforming it into beautiful fibres that can be knitted or crocheted into a garment.

“It’s going back to how people originally made their clothes,” said Alison Salter, who learned to spin at the Yarn Shack. “You forget that things are woven to make material. It’s a skill that has been lost.”

Alison was a quick learner, picking up the technique in three one-hour sessions, although she was helped by being able to practise at home in Algarkirk where she has her own wheel.

She learned the traditional skill for a textiles course she is studying, but says she will carry on after she’s finished her course.

She says: “You get into a rhythm when you are spinning, and it is very relaxing and therapeutic.”

However, the wheel is only one part of the whole fascinating process, starting with a fleece, which Trish explains might come from an alpaca or a sheep, and, in particular, a rare breed sheep to get the best quality to spin with.

Local smallholdings unable to find a commercial outlet for a small number of alpaca fleeces are selling direct to Trish and Jenny.

It comes to them straight from the animal, unwashed, and because it does not contain lanolin, it isn’t sticky or greasy, and so doesn’t smell.

The fleece can be spun as it is, whereas a sheep’s fleece – and Blueface Leicesters, Jacobs, Shetlands, Teeswaters and Wensleydales are among the rare breeds that make good fleeces – takes more work.

Trish explains that, first, the best parts of the fleece are stripped out and the rest thrown away.

It then has to be washed – a full day’s job with the fleece steeped in a hot bath with washing up liquid to help get the lanolin out, and left to soak until cool with only a light agitation – anything more vigorous risks “felting” the fleece, or matting it.

Finally, the fleece has to be rinsed and hung out to dry.

The fleece is then carded, or brushed with something resembling a bigger version of a dog’s brush, to remove anything left in it and to straighten and organise the fibres, and then it’s ready to be dyed and spun.

Trish says dyeing can take place before or after spinning, using either commercial dyes, which create a strong colour, or natural dyes made from plants.

For instance, they use woad for blue, weld for yellow, walnut for black or dark brown and silver birch for a lovely pinky colour.

However, the list of natural products used to create dyes is surprisingly long, including turmeric, red cabbage, madder, Brazil bark and paprika.

The women really are adopting a traditional approach to the whole process, and Jenny, who supplies plants to the garden centre at Silverwood, has started to grow them for use in dyeing.

“I am just fascinated about the whole process,” she says.

“This isn’t a hobby for someone specialising in textiles, though, it’s for everybody.

“It is enormously satisfying to end up with a ball of wool when you have started with a messy and smelly fleece.”

Jenny and Trish are not alone in their passion and have opened their doors to fellow spinners on the first Friday afternoon of every month for a no-cost, bring your own wheel, companionable spinning session, as well as a free Thursday afternoon “knit and natter” session open to people who knit or crochet.

Spinning lessons are done on a one-to-one basis and cost £20 an hour – expect to learn in five to six sessions without a wheel to practise on at home, and there is no further charge for a bit of practice at the shop in between lessons.

Jenny says spinning is a “knack” and warns it can be frustrating at first because of the challenge of using hands and feet at the same time.

Contact Jenny or Trish at the shop to ask about lessons – the Yarn Shack is open from Thursday to Sunday inclusive, between 10am and 4pm. Tel: 01406 364471.