I started crafting when I was just over three years old sitting in an air raid shelter probably being a nuisance, so my granny introduced me to knitting with two very thick knitting pins and some very thick wool. By the time I was five I was quite proficient. I could make a dolly’s dress, a straight square with a hole for its head to go through which granny sewed up down the sides. She used to get me to sit there holding a piece of knitting that she would carefully unravel to recycle the wool because we couldn’t get any during the war and then, then as I got older I progressed to holding the skein of wool on both arms while she wound it into a ball. By the time I was eight I could do a Fair Isle jumper for my little brother. Then a wonderful thing happened, my mother opened a wool shop and that was my first real job. She used to sell woollens that had been knitted to order for people and she had a Scottish lady that used to come to knit as well. My job was to hold the skeins of wool to be transferred into balls so these two ladies could knit.
I was born in 1941. So, by the time the wool shop came it would have been about 1949/ 1950 and things were just getting easier to obtain after the war. But in the meantime, I’d been dispatched to live with a family in Jersey who had a farm and were wonderful craft women. ‘Aunty’ taught me to embroider and my treasure was some embroidery transfers that I could embroider onto a piece of linen and sit there and sew and sew and sew while I watched the ships come in and out across the harbour.
I went back to England and went back to school and won a scholarship to Westcliffe High School for Girls at Leigh-on-Sea and I stayed there for five years. During the first year, they had a craft competition called the Toy Fair and I knitted a little dress for a doll and a shawl, and having learned to sew made a draped cot for it and won first prize.
I used to do art at school and I did needlework lessons as well which I loved. However, the art mistress and I just did not like each other so the printing on fabric and the sewing and all the other things went on the back burner and I had to carry on at home doing my crafts: still knitting, still sewing, making all my own clothes by then because we’d finally managed to get fabric that was off ration. I had all these wonderful pieces of fabric and an old Jones sewing machine that belonged to my mother that kept me out of mischief for hours and I had some nice clothes at the end of it.
I left school in a bit of a paddy because I hadn’t been allowed to go to University. I was nearly sixteen then and I had just passed my GCSEs and I’d already done my A level courses parallel with that and I felt it was a complete waste of time so I dropped into knitting and sewing to fill in my time. I went to work at a bank and used to travel on the train up and down to London every day with my knitting. I found I could knit with my elbows tucked up to my sides so that my knitting pins and my elbows didn’t disturb all the other people packed into the trains and I knitted one jumper after another and I had the money to buy wool.
I was always fascinated by how wool was made. We eventually moved to Wales and I went to work at a bank in Gloucester. The sheep were there and I couldn’t work out how wool came from the sheep. I used to pull it off the fences and twiddle it with my fingers with no success whatsoever. Eventually we bought a cottage in the Welsh mountains. That would have been about 1992. A cottage called Ffyonnau. It was fallen down but it had a lot of ground and I could keep sheep there. That was wonderful. We spent five years renovating the cottage and grazing and planning our sheep. Then disaster struck. My daughter was taken ill and I had to move to Norfolk but we kept the cottage.
My husband bought me my first spinning wheel, a Westbury wheel. I bought it home and I struggled. One day my daughter who was in remission by that time said to me ‘a friend and I are going to Sandringham to the annual show there would you like to come?’. I went and there was a tent, a marquee full of lovely spinning things and the Norfolk Guild of Spinners and Weavers were there. To my surprise when I spoke to them I found they met just round the corner from my house. I’d been struggling for years with this spinning wheel, getting nowhere. Didn’t know they were meeting a mile up the road and they made me very, very welcome. They started to teach me to spin. Everybody showed me a different way and I got into a bigger mess so I used to take my wheel and my fleece which I hadn’t prepared properly, cos I didn’t know how until they showed me and volunteered to make the tea. I spent every meeting in the kitchen making tea for everybody cos I was embarrassed by the mess I was making with the wool.
One day a lovely lady there said I’m doing private spinning lessons would you like to come? So, I did; suddenly the penny dropped and I found I could spin but I still had the problem that the wheel was big and it didn’t go in my car; it fell to pieces every time I put it in there, or something dropped off. Somebody said buy an Ashford Traveller, they’re a lot smaller, you can get one of those in the car. My family very generously gave me some money and I acquired an antique traveller spinning wheel. It didn’t spin very well but I was very proud of it and it went in the car.
In the meantime, I went to a Christmas show to demonstrate spinning. I’d diversified into felting and I took one of these felt hats with me. I made lots and lots of felt hats.
Some of them I bought half felt and needle felted merino onto them because merino is the best wool for felting with. Then I discovered that if you knitted hats far too big for what you wanted and put them in the washing machine, as long as you used the right wool they would shrink to a reasonable size. But I had to shape them over something and I hadn’t got a head shape so I found a pudding basin of the right size so we could have: large dog bowl size, football size or small dog bowl size. Then I progressed to laying the fibres. I put nets over the football, over the dog’s bowl or the pudding basin, laid the fibres on, laid another net over, worked soap in, pure soap being the only thing that would work. And rubbed and rubbed and rubbed with hot water in the sink until I had a felt hat. And the results were quite amazing. I’ve been making felt ever since then.
I found Corriedale was a wonderful fibre; it felts beautifully; or Merino they’re about the best ones I’ve found. Other fibres felt, usually when you don’t want them to. You have to be so careful when you wash fibre. If you change the temperature from the washing water to the rinsing water too rapidly, very often it just turns into felt and you can’t do anything with it at all. No amount of combing, nothing will rescue it.
Patchwork and Quilting
I’ve carried on spinning and weaving but in the meantime, somebody introduced me to the Windmill Quilters, knowing my passion for sewing. I joined the Windmill Quilters, learnt to do patchwork, learnt an awful lot about quilting. The group dwindled down to nine because people were getting older, so I took charge of the quilting group and I’ve run it ever since. I’ve made endless quilts now, have a vast supply for everybody and anybody. I sometimes use them to be raffled for charity or to be sold for charity. We’ve done some wonderful quilts for shows and raised money for the air ambulance and other charities using these quilts.
I used to sew with my daughter. We did wonderful tapestries and embroideries together using old fashioned methods; we’ve got all sorts of frames and bits and pieces.
My husband’s made me various pieces of equipment. He made me a wonderful piece of equipment for felting gloves. It’s a wooden hand with a thumb that withdraws so I could put it inside the net, put net over the wooden hand and spread the fibres over it.
I’ve got a homemade niddy noddy. A niddy noddy, is a stick with two horizontal sticks out, rods put through it, and you can wind a skein on it off of your reel on your wheel. You then tie the skein in various places and you can wash it and carry on the line to dry without it becoming knotted. Very useful item. Easy to make at home and invaluable.
A hand carder is wire teeth on a rubber bat. You have two and you brush one against the other. You just gently comb it; if you’re too rough it doesn’t work the wool goes down amongst the teeth. You comb it first one way, take it off, comb it the other way and then push it off with the carder to made a rolag; it’s a long tube that you can spin directly from.
I’ve also acquired a drum carder in the course of things because carding by hand takes forever. The drum carder makes a batt which is a flat piece of combed fleece that you can spin from and you can do it much more quickly. It’s the same carding material with teeth on but you can put a lot more fleece on, turn the handle and its much quicker and not so wearing.
My husband made me two drop spindles. I got the spindle spinning but the wool didn’t seem to spin with it. I couldn’t load it on; it dropped, crashed to the floor so I’ve given up on that one.
That’s the early way of spinning. The very first spinning was done on those. It came before the big wheel and I believe in a lot of countries girls still walk round drop spindling. A lot of the more primitive people do it still.
I tried to learn to weave. I acquired a loom, second hand. Husband grumbled because it took up so much space but I persevered. The lady at Swaffham who taught me to spin showed me how to warp a loom up. Warp is the thread that you put on the loom to start with. The weft is the thread that weaves in and out. I warped it up all on my own the first time and it was perfect so I started weaving. It was lovely but the problem is I’ve got double vision and it nearly drove me mad. I had such a splitting headache by the time I’d finished because I couldn’t see the warp threads. I heard about a girl who was disabled; a disabled centre where she’d been taught to weave had closed and she was distraught because she couldn’t carry on weaving so I donated my loom to that girl. I never heard any more but I like to think it did her a good turn and that was the end of my weaving, I’ve never woven anything since.
I’d heard that there were a lot of ladies in the village who didn’t have a great deal to do, didn’t know each other; so I started a Stitch and Bitch club at the village hall. I put a notice in the village paper/magazine to say that this was going to happen, to turn up at the village hall on a Thursday evening and there would be homemade cakes and coffee and a small charge. I was amazed: no end of people turned up and the nice thing is that ladies in the village that didn’t know each other before but lived almost next door are now having coffee together. It’s had a wonderful social impact and as crafting has carried on through my life it’s been a wonderful comfort to me.
When things have got really bad such as when my daughter died or my son emigrated I’ve got absorbed in my sewing and my spinning and my weaving it has given me something to concentrate on and its really therapeutic. And I hope for the rest of my life that I shall be able to carry on spinning and sewing. Giving pleasure to people. Sometimes it raises money, sometimes it loses a fortune but we’ll keep on trying.
I did start dying wool. I tried with natural dyes. They were a great success. Then I thought I’d go to acid dyes and that was successful to a point. I only dye with natural dyes now and I do try to work with natural colours so no dying is involved.
Onions gave me a wonderful orangey colour. Cow parsley gives me a wonderful green colour. I’ve used dock roots; they’ve given me a red colour. Beetroot I thought would be wonderful, that’s muddy grey. That is horrible so we don’t do that one, nor blackberries. I try and use different things from round the garden and I experiment. Sometimes its successful, sometimes it’s not but on the whole I find if I search around there’s so many different breeds and colours of sheep that if I work with natural colours it saves the problem of dyeing.
Because there’s Welsh sheep on the mountains I use a lot of Welsh wool but that is coarse. I love a Leicester Long Wool and I’m currently spinning one of those. I love working with alpaca, that is wonderful. I bought that commercially prepared. It is so quick and easy to spin; I can spin it as fine as silk and it knits beautifully
We still have our house in Wales. There’s 3000 sheep on the hill there so I never have any problem. I have in the past helped with the shearing and the wool wrapping and I select a nice fleece or two for myself. Fleeces sell for so little money up there the farmers are only too grateful to give them to you and see them put to use.
They have been getting as low as 25 pence, I think they’ve gone up to 50 pence this year, maybe 75 pence but it cost more than that to shear a sheep. A lot of the sheep fleece is on the fences because the sheep have rubbed and you can gather a lot of fleece from there. If you go to a Guild such as the Mid-Norfolk Guild a lot of people there have a connection with sheep. We all bring fleeces.
We swap, we exchange, occasionally we pay for them. Fleece is so easy to obtain, people don’t realise. It’s got a million uses; you can use it for all sorts of things if you’re careful. It’s such a shame it’s all wasted, the wool marketing board don’t buy coloured fleeces so people more or less have to give them away but they’re very grateful if you give them five pounds for a fleece. The house will smell of fleece, the car will smell of fleece, you will smell of lanolin but you’ll have something to spin.
Preparing the Fleece
I lay the fleece out on a dry day on the ground, skirt it which is taking all the dirty pieces off round the edge and all the undesirable pieces. Put those on the compost heap and then I sort it into the wool I want and the wool I don’t want. I personally wash it in cold water because of the problems of changing the temperature but I believe that if you do it in warm water you do get a better result. It’s best to use pure soap to wash it in and rinse it very, very carefully. I then lay it out on a net in the garden to dry. I’ve got a piece of wire netting on a frame which I can lay the fleece on and prop it up so the air goes underneath it. Let it dry naturally then I sort it some more and carefully card the pieces that I want, either into rolags with the hand carder or into batts to spin from.
Quilting patterns are traditional. Most of them have a meaning. A lot of them go back to the American Indians and the American slaves because they used to send their messages to one another via their quilting. There are literally hundreds of meanings to quilts; there are so many books on it, so many hundreds of patterns it’s almost impossible to remember them. I love doing one called the Irish Chain which is a very simple one, very effective, it uses two and a half inch strips and it looks as though it’s a chain going backwards and forwards across. I love doing scrap quilts because traditionally the quilts were all made with scraps of recycled clothes.
Guild of Spinners and Weavers
I’m a member of the local Guild. I’ve been a member for sixteen years now. I did stop going for a while while my daughter was ill. I was the secretary for a long time before then and when I went back again after she’d gone I became the treasurer and yesterday I resigned as the treasurer. I’ve always opened the hall and looked after the hall for the Guild, done lots of odds and ends.
I used to go out demonstrating. I went to a school to demonstrate once. The children there were about nine. They were fascinated with the wheel. I’d loosened the band so nobody could cut their fingers off and gave them a lot of merino fleece to feel. One thing to remember is that when you go and demonstrate you must always take commercially prepared fleece and make sure that nobody’s got any cuts on their hands as you can catch tetanus from dirty fleeces. It’s always a warning that I make everyone sign to say that they know that they mustn’t handle a dirty fleece with cuts on their hands. They mustn’t eat food without washing their hands afterwards. They must be extremely careful.
There was one child there, teachers said to me she always sits in the corner; she never joins in anything. I think she had a slight mental problem, probably autistic or something similar. She looked at the wheel, came over, said to me can I use it so I said yes and showed her and she sat down, she wasn’t going to be able to spin because the band was loose so I tightened the band up so it would work for her, kept an eye on her and she spun a thread. And she sat there and she spun another thread. I couldn’t believe it, this child that never did anything suddenly sat and spun and she’d never done it before. She sat there all evening, nobody else could have try on that wheel. She was fascinated. That was lovely to see it so therapeutic for a child.
Pat Baldwin interviewed for WISEArchive on 11th October 2016 at North Tuddenham.