More about the Nepcote Flock of Southdown sheep

April 20th, 2015

 

It’s lambing time here and lambs from the Nepcote flock of Southdown sheep can be seen in the fields in Findon village, where I live. I took my granddaughters to help bottle-feed one of the lambs, who was rather weak, and they were thrilled to sit with the little lamb on their laps.

 

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I have also been spinning a Southdown shearling fleece from the Nepcote flock. It has a reasonable staple length (about 4 to 5 cms), is soft and fine in texture and is producing a pleasing springy yarn. This fleece was one of three shorn recently from shearlings being prepared for showing later in the year, by which time they should have grown another lovely fleece just ready for the show.

 

The photo below shows washed fleece ready to spin and a handspun skein

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The photo below (taken early in the evening) shows Graham Langford, the co-owner of the sheep, followed by some of his shearlings, including those from which the fleeces came. When the rest of the flock is shorn in June I shall be looking out for more shearling fleeces.

 

Graham herds his sheep

 

 

 

Colours of the Romans

February 23rd, 2015

 

Last year I dislocated my hip for the third time and sadly had to cancel the workshop “Colours of the Romans” at Fishbourne Roman Palace. This was particularly frustrating, as I had had to postpone a previous workshop at Fishbourne a couple of years ago when I dislocated my hip the first time. Fortunately, this earlier workshop was re-scheduled but my physical health has become so  unreliable that I have decided to “retire” from workshops, except for those on a one-to-one basis at my home.

 

As I had already done all the preparations for “Colours of the Romans”, including printing off all the information sheets and sample cards and preparing the wool sample sets, I decided to offer the workshop to the education department at Fishbourne, rather than let all my work go to waste. Katrina Burton, Head of Learning at Fishbourne, and Beverly Lee, the Education Officer, took up my offer and earlier this year they came to my home for the workshop. Louise Spong, from South Downs Yarn, also joined us and assisted with the heavier physical work, which has become too much for me following my recent hip surgery.

 

The dyes used by the Romans included madder, kermes, weld, woad, walnut hulls, oak galls, saffron and lichen purple. With the exception of kermes, which is no longer available, these were the dyes we used on the course.

 

According to Pliny the Elder, orange, red and purple were colours worn by priests and priestesses. Purple was the colour for high officials and the purple clothing of Emperors was dyed purple using a dye from shellfish of the Murex species. The dye colour was known as Tyrian or Imperial Purple and vast quantities of shellfish were required to produce relatively small amounts of dye material. This mollusc dye was overused and the supply of shellfish gradually dwindled. By the Middle Ages, the Tyrian Purple dye industry had become considerably reduced and with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 it more or less disappeared. A purple dye from the lichen Roccella tinctoria was used by the Romans to simulate the purple from shellfish.

 

MADDER (Rubia tinctorum)

Madder is a source of red dye and, according to Pliny, it was cultivated near Rome c.50AD. It is interesting to note that, although there is evidence that the Romans used madder when they were in Britain, its use in Britain appears to have ceased for a period after the Romans left (c.410AD). This would seem to suggest that the Romans imported madder from Rome as a prepared dried dyestuff, rather than cultivating it in Britain.

KERMES (Kermes vermilio)

This red insect dye comes from the shield louse Kermes vermilio, which lives on the kermes oak found in various parts of the Mediterranean. Today kermes is very difficult to obtain, although the insects may still occasionally be found on host trees around the Mediterranean.

WELD (Reseda luteola)

Weld is one of the most ancient dyes and has better colour-fastness than most other yellow dyes. The yellow from weld was the colour worn by the six Vestal Virgins and was also the colour of Roman wedding garments.

WOAD (Isatis tinctoria)

Woad was used by the Romans as a source of indigo blue dye. Indigo from Indigofera tinctoria was also used by the Romans, but as a paint pigment rather than as a textile dye. It was probably brought to Rome from India in small quantities via the land route.

LICHEN PURPLE (Roccella tinctoria / Ochrolechia tartarea)

This dye is sometimes referred to as orchil. Relatively few species of lichens will give purples and as lichens are protected they should never be harvested indiscriminately from the wild. For the workshop, we used the lichen Ochrolechia tartarea, as Roccella tinctoria is not found in northern Europe. For experimental purposes, make sure you have identified the lichen accurately and use only a very small quantity, for example a piece about the size of a 50p coin. To make lichen purple solution, put the lichen into a strong glass jar and add 2 parts water and 1 part household ammonia. Put the lid on firmly and leave the solution for several weeks, shaking or stirring it two or three times each day. The solution will become a deep purple colour and is then ready to use. (Note: stale urine contains ammonia and can be used instead of household ammonia) When the solution is ready to use, strain it carefully into a dye pot, add more water and add the fibres to be dyed. Simmer them gently for 45 minutes, turn off the heat and then leave them to steep overnight. Then rinse well. Lichen purple is not a very fast dye and materials dyed with lichen purple should be stored in a dark place away from daylight. (NB Ammonia gives off unpleasant fumes and should be used with caution.)

OAK GALLS (Quercus spp.)                                                             

Oak galls are rich in tannin and were used by the Romans in combination with iron to make a black dye. When used alone as a dye, oak galls give tan and light brown colours.

WALNUT HULLS (Juglans spp.)

According to Pliny, the outer green hulls of walnuts were used as a brown dye for wool and hair.

SAFFRON (Crocus sativus)

According to Pliny, saffron was cultivated in Abruzzo and Sicily & was used as a yellow dye. Although saffron is very expensive, only a very small amount is required for dyeing and for the workshop samples we used only about half a gramme.

 

Another dye reportedly used for yellow was turmeric, from the roots of Curcuma longa, which was imported from the Orient during Imperial times.

 

Alum

The Romans used alum as a mordant and also iron but, as with madder, it is likely that alum was imported from Italy for Roman use and was not available in Britain after the departure of the Romans until it was imported in the later Anglo-Saxon period.

 

The photo below shows the colours we achieved on the samples we dyed at the workshop.

 

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Top row left to right: weld, weld overdyed with madder (orange shade), madder, madder overdyed with woad, lichen purple & walnut hulls

Middle row left to right: saffron, saffron overdyed with woad (greens), more saffron, walnut hulls overdyed with woad, walnut hulls overdyed with weak lichen purple, walnut hulls overdyed with madder, walnut hulls, weld overdyed with woad (green)

Lower row left to right: oak galls, oak galls plus iron (grey), oak galls overdyed with woad, woad, lichen purple overdyed with woad, lichen purple & lichen purple plus clear vinegar (reds)

 

More information on most of these dyes can be found in my latest book “A Heritage of Colour”.

 

A cashmere fibre project in Afghanistan

February 8th, 2015

 

Life can be full of pleasant surprises! Following an exchange of emails with Jane Mundy, who has set up a project in Afghanistan, working with Afghan women using the fibre from cashmere goats to hand-spin yarn for knitting, this week I met Jane  to find out more about her work. The project, called Qaria Cashmere, aims to give Afghan women the opportunity to learn skills which will enable them to gain some independence and make a living using materials from Afghanistan. The Afghan cashmere fibre is wonderfully fine and soft and comes in lovely natural white, brown and grey shades. However, some of the yarn will be dyed using natural dyes and this is where I hope to be involved.

 

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Afghan goats in Badakhshan province in NW Afghanistan

 

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Afghan goat herders in Badakhshan province

 

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Sorting cashmere fibre in Herat

 

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Afghan cashmere fibre

 

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Afghan woman hand-spinning cashmere fibres

 

The natural dyes most commonly used in Afghanistan to dye wool for carpets are madder, indigo, walnut hulls and pomegranate rind and a wild form of larkspur is also used to dye yellows. So my next task will be to test dye some of the cashmere yarns, using dyes which should be available to the Afghan women from the local carpet weavers or from the market. Cashmere fibres will require special treatment to ensure they don’t felt during the dyeing process but I’m sure it will be possible to develop mordanting and dyeing techniques which will be suitable for this lovely fibre.

 

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Dyeing wool for Afghan carpets in Kabul

 

Jane left me some cashmere fibre which I will hand-spin for these tests. However, I fear my skeins will not look as lovely and evenly-spun as those produced by expert hand-spinner, Amanda Hannaford, and shown below.

 

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Samples of Afghan cashmere yarns hand-spun by Amanda Hannaford

 

I will write further posts giving more details of the Qaria Cashmere project. The project has a Facebook page “Qaria Cashmere” and a website (www.qariacashmere.com) is currently being developed.

 

 

The Nepcote Flock of Southdown Sheep

November 30th, 2014

 

This week I was invited to meet some of the Southdown sheep from the Nepcote Flock, which provided the prize-winning fleece I bought at the Findon Sheep Fair in September.

The sheep in the Nepcote flock are owned by Graham Langford, Hari Doman and Martin Rolph and can be seen in several fields around Findon, where they have become part of the village landscape.

 

It was a typical English November day – damp and misty with drizzling rain – when Hilary Langford, Graham’s wife, took Louise (of Southdown Yarns) and me to the field where some of their Southdown sheep are kept. Graham had kindly put some of their sheep in a pen, so we could see them at close quarters and inspect their fleeces, which were remarkably clean and looked as if they could be ideal for handspinning. The sheep we met were this year’s lambs and some of them are used to being led on the halter in preparation for the show ring. so they seemed quite content to be admired and stroked. It was so quiet and peaceful in the field with the sheep that no-one seemed to mind getting wet.

 

Southdown sheep are relatively small and particularly appealing, with their woolly faces and legs. The wool of the Southdown is among the finest wools of the British breeds and it is used for a wide range of high quality fabrics, including hosiery, hand-knitting wools, dress fabrics and lightweight tweeds.

 

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This shows some of the Nepcote Flock penned ready for us and interested in inspecting their visitors. From the directions in which they are looking, it is easy to guess where we were standing.

 

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Graham is holding the halters of two of the sheep, which stood patiently nuzzling one another for nearly an hour while we admired them and inspected their fleeces.

 

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Our presence was noted by one of the unpenned sheep, which came over to greet us.

 

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Such appealing faces!

 

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A close-up of the Southdown fleece, which has an average staple length of 4 – 6 cm

I hope that when the sheep are shorn I will be able to purchase some fleeces for handspinning.

 

 

Southdown fleece & the drum carder

November 15th, 2014

 

Last year I bought a second-hand, but unused, Barnett drum carder. Thanks to Louise Spong of South Downs Yarn and her eagerness to see the effects of drum carding on Southdown fleece, I was given the necessary incentive to get the drum carder set up and at last I have finally got round to trying it out on the prize-winning local Southdown fleece I bought at Findon Sheep Fair..

 

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Washed Southdown fleece ready for the drum carder

 

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The drum carder in action. I think I may have introduced too much fleece at once onto the drum. This would be typical of my rather impatient nature, I fear!

 

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Batts from the drum carder ready for spinning. They are probably not the best carded batts ever produced and should, I think, be smoother and finer.

 

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These skeins have been handspun from the drum-carded Southdown fleece batts above and the ball of wool was handspun from commercially-produced Southdown tops.

I suspect I need to practise more in order to produce better batts, as better batts should produce a more even yarn with fewer lumps and bumps – unless one wants lumps and bumps, of course.

 

I have become quite enthusiastic about Southdown fleece. Although the staple length is usually fairly short, carding produces fleece which can easily be handspun and produces a yarn which is soft, lofty and bouncy. Other advantages of yarn from Southdown fleece are that it dyes extremely well and it doesn’t tend to felt or “pill”.

 

I get particular pleasure from working with fleece from the sheep which have for centuries roamed the South Downs near my home in Sussex, especially when I can buy local Southdown fleeces from the sheep I can see in the fields around my village.

Wonderful Woad!

October 12th, 2014

 

Following a remark by friend and fellow-dyer Sue Craig that, if woad flowers gave a yellow colour, this could then be over-dyed with woad blue to give green, I felt moved to try this for myself. It seemed particularly useful for those years when one has a bumper crop of woad and would be unlikely to need the vast number of seeds the flowers would produce.

 

My experiments showed that, sure enough, yellow woad flowers do indeed give yellow dyes, which can be over-dyed in a woad vat to give pretty greens. Following this method, unmordanted wool produces a sage green and wool mordanted in alum gives a grass green.

 

To dye yellow with woad flowers, just use the usual simmering method and use at least 100% woad flowers for really rich colours. If you use both unmordanted and alum-mordanted wool, two different shades of green can be achieved, as described above.

 

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The photo above shows, from left to right: 1. woad flower yellow (no mordant), 2. number 1 over-dyed in the woad vat, 3. woad flower yellow (alum mordant), 4. number 3 over-dyed in the woad vat                                     (NOTE: No 2 is less blue & more green in tone in reality.)

 

Once woad leaves have been used to make a woad vat, the same leaves can be used again to make a dye bath for pinks and tans. So when you make a woad vat for blues, don’t throw away the leaves but retain them to use again. Just simmer these used leaves for about 30 to 45 minutes to extract the pink-tan dye, strain off the dye liquid and add the fibres (unmordanted and/or alum-mordanted). Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, leave to cool, then rinse and wash as usual.

 

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The photo above shows, clockwise from top left: pale blue from the woad vat, darker blue from the same woad vat, pink from the leaves re-used after they have been processed for the woad vat (alum mordant), pink from the leaves re-used after they have been processed for the woad vat (no mordant)

 

This means that it is possible to achieve blues from the woad vat, pinks and tan from the same woad leaves after they have been processed for blues for the woad vat, and greens from the yellows produced from the flowers and over-dyed in the woad vat. Oh, and I’m forgetting to mention the pinks and soft greens available from the woad seeds! (See my latest book “A Heritage of Colour” for details and a photo of the colours from woad seeds.) Woad is indeed a remarkable dye plant!

 

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South Downs Yarn at Findon Sheep Fair 2014

September 20th, 2014

 

It is a long time since I last posted but I have been out of action for several months following a further hip dislocation and then hip revision surgery. I am now beginning to regain some mobility and my first real trip out was a visit to Findon Sheep Fair 2014 on 13th September.

 

I have already written a post about the Findon Sheep Fair that takes place every year in our little village here in West Sussex. The sheep fair has been here since the 13th century and even took place without sheep for a few years when we had foot and mouth disease in the UK . Although sheep have not been bought and sold at the fair for many years, the number and variety of breeds of sheep being shown at the fair is gradually increasing, with 140 pens of sheep this year.

There is now a fleece tent where the prize-winning fleeces are displayed and where fleeces can be bought by handspinners like myself . This year I bought three fleeces: a prizewinning Coloured Ryeland (lovely greys and browns), a Badger-faced Woodland (white with a fairly long staple) which was unfortunately too late to be entered in the fleece competition and one very local prizewinning Southdown fleece from the Nepcote Flock owned by a group of Findon villagers. Indeed, while I was demonstrating spinning on my wheel a little girl came along and mentioned she helped to look after sheep locally and it turned out that I had bought a fleece from one of the sheep in “her” flock. She was delighted to discover this and I gave her my email and phone number and suggested she might like to contact me and come along when I start to use “her” fleece.

 

This year’s sheep fair also provided an opportunity for Louise Spong of South Downs Yarn to showcase the yarns processed from Sussex Southdown sheep from David Burden’s flock near Petworth. (See my previous post “South Downs Yarn”) I will be writing more soon about these yarns, as I am working with Louise to build up some “limited edition” naturally-dyed Southdown yarns and also some knitting kits.

 

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Louise Spong and David Burden (both standing, with Andrew Spong in the background) at the South Downs Yarn stand at the sheep fair

 

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Two of David Burden’s very contented Southdown sheep

South Downs Yarn

April 24th, 2014

 

Recently I have become involved in an exciting new local project, which is the brain-child of Louise Spong who lives not far from me here in West Sussex. Louise has set up South Downs Yarn, a business selling 100% pure wool yarn from the fleeces of local Sussex Southdown sheep, spun to her specifications in a mill in England.

 

Southdown sheep have grazed on the South Downs in Sussex for centuries and are an important part of the local landscape. They are small and docile animals with appealing woolly faces and have relatively short fine, dense wool. Most Southdown fleeces are white but occasionally a lamb will be born with a black fleece and these black fleeces are of special interest because of their rarity.

 

Louise buys the best quality Southdown fleeces from local farmers and has them spun into a lovely yarn, which is sustainably sourced and geo-traceable and available on her website: www.southdownsyarn.co.uk    (See link opposite)

 

The first batch of yarn to be available on Louise’s website is from David Burden’s flock of pedigree Southdown sheep near Petworth in West Sussex.

 

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Southdown sheep grazing on the Sussex downs

 

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Southdown sheep being paraded and judged at a local show

 

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David Burden and Louise Spong with some of David’s Southdown sheep and their fleeces

 

At present only natural creamy-white yarn is available but Louise intends to offer limited-edition naturally-dyed yarns in the future and this is where I am involved on a consultancy basis.

 

A few weeks ago Louise spent a weekend with me and we experimented with several dye baths, including madder, indigo, weld, chestnut and walnut. The Southdown wool makes a lovely bouncy, springy yarn, which dyes beautifully into full, rich colours, and I am looking forward to working with Louise on more dyeing projects in the future.

 

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Some of the naturally-dyed Southdown skeins

 

My new online shop: www.jennydeandesigns.co.uk

February 22nd, 2014

 

 

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I have finally found the courage to open the online shop I have been preparing for the last three months.  I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever feel brave enough to open it or whether I would continue to add products to a shop that never actually opened for custom.

 

So what is the background to this new venture? For several years I have been limited physically by arthritis, so I have been spending more and more time at home pursuing my favourite crafts – spinning, dyeing, weaving and knitting. Over the years I have built up a large supply of naturally-dyed and handspun yarns, all just waiting to be used. Knitting has long been one of my favourite craft activities but it had been many years since I last did any weaving. However, once I had become re-acquainted with this craft, I found it totally absorbing. Gradually I have accumulated more scarves and shawls than I could ever hope to find homes for and I began to wonder what I could do with them, as my limited mobility made it more difficult to sell them at craft fairs.

 

So this is how the idea of an online shop developed. One day my friend, Joy, (www.theknittinggoddess.co.uk) suggested that I might consider opening an online shop. At first I felt that might be too much of a challenge for me but with Joy’s generous help I managed to create the shop website.

 

The next step was to begin to stock my shop. I then started to think about potential customers. I have made everything with loving care and a passionate belief in the quality of my materials but would my scarves and shawls appeal to anyone else?

I am not a highly creative and artistic weaver or knitter. I don’t work with sophisticated equipment or intricate designs and my approach to my work is straightforward. I use simple basic equipment and I like to experiment with textures and colours in simple, classic designs. My love of handspinning means I can experience the unique nature of each fibre I spin and in my designs I try to make full use of the characteristics of each spun yarn. My love of wool and alpaca in all their beautiful natural colours, together with my passion for natural dyes and the wonderful subtle colours they produce, underpins everything I do. So all the colours I use are either the natural fleece colours or colours created by me from natural dyes.

 

I never make the same thing twice so every item in my shop is unique. Everything has been made by hand, mainly by me but with a little assistance occasionally from my husband, Roger, who also weaves and helps me with warping up the loom. I am passionate about using local materials wherever possible, so I try to source my fibres from local sheep and alpaca breeders. In order to find the most appropriate fibres for each project I may have to look further afield for some materials but the vast majority of my fibres come from Britain and I often also know which farm each fibre has come from and sometimes the name of the sheep or alpaca which provided the fleece.

 

My shop can best be summed up by the phrases:

Natural fibres

Natural colours

Natural dyes

 

Initially I have only scarves in my shop but I hope to add some shawls, some handspun yarns and possibly some small coverlets for babies.  I open this shop with some trepidation and I hope my products will appeal to those who appreciate the unique characteristics of items lovingly handcrafted from beautiful natural fibres and colours.

 

To see what I have to offer,  please click on the link to Jenny Dean Designs under My Online Shop on the right hand side of the page.

 

My new book is now available

February 16th, 2014

 

I am pleased to announce that my new book “A Heritage of Colour” is now available.

 

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I hope it will be favourably received and that natural dyers will find it useful and informative. For more information click on “My Books” on the home page or look at the blog post “A HERITAGE OF COLOUR  - my new book”


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