An interest in textiles has become a real passion for Liz who was unable to work for many years due to ill health. She speaks about her enthusiasm for crochet, spinning, weaving and all things yarn-related and how she has been able to turn this passion into her own business.
I’ve had an interest in textiles my entire life. I didn’t do much sewing at school, but I grew up as the youngest of three girls with a grandmother who knitted, a great aunt who crocheted, a mother who did both of these things plus used the sewing machine and a friend of the family who made bobbin lace. By the time I was ten I was competent to crochet, knit, make my own clothes and make bobbin lace. When I was a teenager another family friend who had been a tailoress taught me how to design and make my own patterns. It wasn’t cool to knit and crochet so I didn’t do those things. I was still doing the lace-making because I could keep it a lot more quiet and out of the way. At that age my interest in textiles was mostly around the dressmaking and the lace I made was mainly used for this too.
I did half-think of going into fashion, but didn’t really pursue this. When I was four years old I saw my first female police officer and I went ‘That’s what I want to do’ and I always thought I would join the police force. Unfortunately that got seriously knocked on the head when I was 15 and I had what they suspect was glandular fever which turned into ME which was undiagnosed. I was told I couldn’t cope with the stress of taking exams so I ended up leaving school at 16 and got myself a job in hairdressing because it kept me going on the creative side of things. Despite my health problems, I struggled through and went to college alongside working in the salon to get an apprenticeship. I soon realised that all the standing up for hairdressing wasn’t terribly practical so I did a variety of other jobs in my twenties such as working in a kiosk in a cinema and in the food hall at Marks & Spencer. My health at this point was just getting worse and worse and I kept losing jobs because of it. I went looking for another job and I was so ill going for interviews that I basically collapsed. I then wasn’t able to work for many years which left me looking for things that I could do while I was sitting down and being sedentary.
It was at this point in my life that I started picking up the crochet again. I was finding it very relaxing to sit with. From the time I was about 25 I’ve taught myself and developed a lot. I can do basic Tunisian crochet and I’ve got into doing Irish crochet which is all the motifs. I developed a particular interest in broomstick crochet. For this method you use a broomstick handle or something of similar width and you make a series of loops over that and then crochet them off in groups and it makes a really pretty style of crochet which looks a little bit like lots of peacock tails. It’s not the most complicated, but it looks very fancy. A lot of people were just using it for blankets and I felt it had a much bigger place in life so I’ve designed a fair range of clothing using it: hats, gloves, cardigans and jumpers. I started making up and selling some kits with broomsticks and a little instruction book so that people could learn the method. I also started designing and selling patterns for crocheted toys. A lot of the toy patterns out there are quite cartoony with big heads and little feet and people tend to like them, but they’re not for me. I like toys that are very simple to actually make, but there is definitely no question about what they are.
In my early teens one of my sisters went to university and she started using a spinning wheel, but it wasn’t something I let myself get excited about because I had a nasty feeling that if I went down that route I would be hooked. It was about 20 years later when my sister had to have a replacement hip and I’d gone to stay with her to look after her post-op that I was a little bit bored one evening and there was her spinning wheel and I said ‘You got any fibre then?’ and ‘Can I borrow your wheel to learn to spin?’. Sadly the rest is history because I am now as addicted to spinning my own yarn as I feared I would be when I first saw the wheel.
I have a campaign for myself. It’s an ambition and it’s a strange one, but it’s mine: to spin some yarn from every breed of sheep I can possibly get my hands on. Ideally I’d like to do all the rare breeds of the UK, but I will spin any sheep breed. If I can get hold of a fleece from it, I will try it. I’ve actually lost count of how many breeds I’ve tried, but it must be over 20. I keep my eyes open and if I spot an interesting-looking sheep in a field I try and track down the owner of the sheep and find out what they do with their fleeces. I also get them from friends who keep sheep and by contacting people through the Rare Breeds Society. I think the most expensive fleece I’ve come across was £60 which is one that’s only just making its way into this country which is called a Swiss Valais fleece. I would love to keep my own sheep, but it’s a question of finding the land and then I’d have to decide on which breed and that’s even more of an issue. I crochet a sheep out of every different breed of fleece that I’ve got so I am building up my own little flock of crocheted sheep from the various fleeces.
I’m not big into dying the fleece and I’ve ended up essentially specialising in natural sheep fleece. I like going through all the shades of browns and greys and blacks and whites. You’d think that a white sheep is a white sheep until you put the fleeces together and then you see that there are different shades of white. I like the fact that they all have a different texture when you spin them. You’ve got some that are a very course yarn and clearly you don’t want to make yourself a pair of gloves or a neck scarf out of that, but you could then use it to make rugs or if you were to line it you could have a really nice hard-wearing coat from it. Then you get the stuff that is absolute dreamy, baby soft and you may want to sit and cuddle it for a while before you spin it and there’s just so much that you can do with that.
Spinning my own wool obviously fitted very well with my long-standing passion for crochet. As well as the obvious things that I’ve mentioned like jumpers, scarves and toys, I like to get creative and design and crochet more unusual items. I’ve done essentially a bead curtain, but crocheted from the yarn that I spin and I quite like covering sets of baubles to hang as a group as a decoration. My sister and I are currently jointly working on a set of vertical blinds made out of handwoven, handspun wool to have in our conservatory. This project will take a while.
I’m just starting to use weaving with my handspun yarns. I have a passion for the lowest possible technology and I use a backstrap loom a lot. This consists of a range of bars, something like a tree trunk and your waist. You set the loom up using a bar that’s attached to a post, a tree or a couple of hooks in a wall or floor and a bar that’s attached to your waist. They get used in various ways around the world. If you’re nomadic it will roll up and pack easily as it’s a handful of sticks rather than a big box with all the pieces in. You can weave as simple or as complicated a pattern as you choose and to me there’s something about actually becoming part of the loom that I really enjoy. I’ve started making and selling backstrap looms myself now. You can only weave narrow strip of about six to eight inches wide on these looms and because a lot of people do knitting or crochet where you make a whole or pieces of a garment they find it quite tricky to look at the strips you get when weaving and see anything other than a scarf. Of course you can join the strips of fabric together to make a wider width of fabric. You’re not weaving a garment; you’re weaving a fabric to make into a garment. I’m working on coming up with a range of designs which use the strips of fabrics to show that the lowest possible technology is still perfectly viable in the modern world.
My interests now are really in anything related to the spinning, the weaving and the low technology side of it. I love the history side of it all too. Whoever the cleverclogs was in the 15th Century who invented the bobbin and flyer for a spinning wheel enabled the entire Industrial Revolution because without that piece of kit they could not have mechanised spinning. There are little stories like the Norwich weavers who refused to use wheelspun yarn for a very long time because they said it wasn’t the same quality as the yarn spun by a spindle. A spindle is a tool used in spinning and I’m developing a slight reputation for being the mad spindle woman! I’m working on trying to track down as many different types of spindle as possible and I keep coming across a new style or a slightly new way of using them. At the moment I’m trying to source a spindle called a Scottish dealgan.
I’d been selling some patterns and kits for some time and it was heading towards being more of a business. I worked out that I could do my spinning, do my crochet, do some teaching and earn enough money without knocking my health for six. I had just been offered funding to help me out for the first six months when I had a heart attack which set everything back by six months. Fortunately they held the funding while I recovered and nearly two years later I am now officially a sole trader. I will teach anywhere. If people want me, I will teach them. I go out and I do talks to the WI and hold some workshops as well as doing both one-to-one and group tuition. I’m slightly scatty, but we get there in the end. I also go and do craft fairs and various events.
Even though I’m very much about low technology, I do try and make use of the Internet. I have some patterns which people can buy online and I advertise myself on the Internet. I’m trying very hard to get myself organised to have a shop online because obviously that’s the easiest way to do the selling. As well as being useful for my business, the Internet is also an absolutely fantastic research resource for me.
I am a bit of a fleece fanatic and a bit mad. I love the feel of yarn; I like all the things that you can do with it; I like the colours. I’m even sad enough that I like the smell of a sheep fleece and that I accept is a fairly specialised taste. I really don’t know what’s next for me. I will hear about something and investigate it and if I think it’s viable for me I will give it a go. Watch this space.
Lizbeth Cranmer (b. 1963) interviewed in Scarning by Mary McMaster for WISEArchive on 02/08/2016
Photo 1: Lizbeth Cranmer spinning at the wheel
Photos 2 and 3: Close ups of spinning at the wheel
Photo 4: Using the backstrap loom
Photos 6 and 7: Wool Liz has spun; on left, cones used for plying
Photo 8: Each of these little sheep was crocheted from wool spun from a different kind of sheep
Photo 9. Knitting with spun yarn
Photo 10. ‘Broomstick’ crochet technique
Photo 11.Crochet with tissue paper
Photo 12. Crocheted elephants