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I have recently acquired a metre of “British wool cloth” to make a skirt after a lot of research and a fair amount of muttering.

Knitters, especially in the UK, are very fortunate. It is increasingly possible to know the breed content of a wool, sometimes even which farm it was sourced from and/or where it was spun. By contrast, finding 100% woollen cloth is a challenge, let alone one with a clear provenance. I have looked at many “wool” departments in bricks-and-mortar shops and online retailers only to discover that most of their wools are actually only a wool blend or as often as not a blend of polyester with a mere 10 or 20% of wool, all masquerading under the term “wool”.

As a knitter-cum-recent-sewer I am not that familiar with the sewing community so have yet to work out to what extent sewers are interested in the content or provenance of fabric? I certainly get the impression from the baffled look/tone I get from retailers, that detailed questions about such things are rare. This is a pity, as it is only through asking (and being prepared to pay for cloth of local provenance when available) that sheep farmers and mills will realise there is a market for such fabric.

But I degress, the mustard skirt weight wool is the real deal. It is 100% wool and woven in an English mill operating since the Victorian era. It is a little less clear what proportion of the wool content is from the British Isles but the retailer (Merchant & Mills) offered to contact the mill to enquire further. As there are so few operating cloth mills in this country, I was happy to purchase this fabric pending a reply. I take the view that I should start by supporting the mill and then advocate for locally sourced products as a “stakeholder”.

My determination to source fabric of a known provenance, often in the face of depressing realities, has had me thinking about the terms “crafty” and “craftiness”.

I never call myself crafty. In fact, every time I hear a knitter or sewer describe themselves as crafty or living a crafty life, I have an almost allergic reaction to the statement. Why?

The primary meaning of “crafty” has connotations of cunning and deceitfulness, which I am sure the maker is not invoking. The secondary, informal meaning relates to making by hand, and to somebody who grew up before the recent resurgence of interest in crafts, it had overtones of not being as good as something made by machine or a professional. Nowadays I generally hear “crafty” used in the context of fibre activities, which are mostly undertaken by women. I have never heard a hobby potter, woodworker, bookbinder, basket weaver… refer to themselves as crafty. Instead they might say they are a budding craftsman or practising a craft. Such statements suggest a confidence and pride in their evolving skill and their craft, which to me the term ‘crafty’ in the context of knitting and sewing never does.

I have however found a meaning of “craftiness” I can get behind, in fact one that I am more than happy to champion. I recently started reading Cræft – How traditional crafts are about more than just making by Alexander Langlands (Faber & Faber, 2017). The author, an archaeologist and somebody who practices various crafts, considers the original Old English meaning of the word as a term that encompasses knowledge, wisdom and power as well as practical skill and dexterity, and explores this through various traditional crafts.

I am reading this book in bite size pieces so I can savour it fully, and have recently been mulling over Langlands’ exploration of the words crafty and craftiness. He focuses on the ingenuity and skill of the primary meaning of “crafty” but strips away the negativity. The following passage struck me in particular: “Like a witch, the crafty so-and-so is the outsider, the non-conformist, the maverick, the renegade. Their craftiness is about bringing together all their powers to get on in the world outside the Establishment, or perhaps even despite the Establishment”.

How this resonated! If making my own clothes makes me a non-conformist, trying to make them out of fabric grown and milled locally makes me a complete renegade. But I can live with that. In fact, for most of my life I have been an outsider, a non-conformist.

So henceforth I shall call myself crafty but each time I do, I’ll define it. My craftiness is not defined by my use of fibre (as much as enjoy spinning, natural dyeing, knitting and sewing) but by my desire to use all of my skills to not settle for the way the Establishments treats the environment, people, animals, materials…

 

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17 comments
  • Becca January 23, 2018, 2:20 pm

    Ah, the are so many reasons I love this post. Your focus on wool (the continuing difficulty to find it reminding me why Wovember was started and why it is so important), bringing a new book to my attention, and the fact that you think through the etymology of things and use words deliberately and with a knowledge of all their baggage.

    I have never have such a strong reaction to “crafty” although I could hear the connotations of deceit within it. It’s never been a word I used to describe myself however. I can see how such a word with its original meanings of power was twisted as a way to discredit and ostracize anyone who wanted to rely on something other than Establishment norms for their life. Can’t wait to read the book in full!

    Reply
    • Mrs M January 24, 2018, 1:59 pm

      Thank you, Becca. I am hoping to review this book for the podcast… and as part of my intentions/words for the year it may be a review with a bit of a twist.

      Reply
  • Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth January 23, 2018, 6:54 pm

    How interesting. I think this is a book that needs to be added to my collection.

    Reply
  • Liz January 23, 2018, 9:25 pm

    I can identify with your experience of trying to source local, pure wool fabric. Just over a year ago I married my long term partner, and as I’m no spring chicken (make that definitely not 25 anymore) I didn’t feel that the full-on satin gown was quite the thing for me, so I decided to make myself a cream wool suit. It had to be pure wool. I found only two places in the UK, and the only one suitable was from Ardalanish Mill, Isle of Mull, Scotland (http://ardalanish.com). It’s not local, but it’s lovely fabric. There really were limited options for plain cream wool, let alone any pure wool.

    I like your recommendation of Alex Langlands book – must check it out. On your reticence over the word ‘crafty’, I equally struggle with the right words to describe what I do with my spare time. Agh, there I go using the term ‘spare time’ when I don’t even see the hours I spend knitting, spinning, sewing , crocheting as spare time. It’s just an integral part of everyday life on an equal footing (or even greater) than the hours I spend in salaried work. A generation or two ago, that was normal. I’ll go all around the houses to avoid the word ‘hobby’ for the same reason.

    I’m far more comfortable talking about the knitting, sewing, growing food activity with friends who do the same, and as soon as someone who doesn’t do that asks the inevitable questions I get ‘So you work part-time (4 days a week) – what do you do with the rest of the time’, I stumble over the words and wonder if I sound like a complete hippy/weirdo, yes renograde!

    Reply
    • Mrs M January 24, 2018, 2:15 pm

      I am hoping to see the Ardalanish cloth at Edinburgh Yarn Festival. I know that the Cambrian Wool Company also weaves cloth, in their case from wool grown in Wales. I am discovering it is still possible to find tweed like British wools, but have come up a blank for things like wool jersey, wool crepe, wool twill. I’m not sure if this is due to these types of cloth needing a finer wool or because there is simply no demand.

      Oh, don’t get me on the ‘spare time’, unpaid productive work issue. For all our supposed development as a civilisation, we have not moved on one jot in recognising the value of the craft of running a home. In fact we’ve probably regressed. I grew up in an environment where the home was a hub of productivity. My mum was a true home economics master, and I mean that in all senses of the word. What she didn’t know about managing the flow of resources, money, time and people was not worth knowing. I married somebody who recognises the value of the growing veg, cooking, making stuff, fixing stuff… that happens outside the ‘paid’ arena but lots of people don’t get it… They even belittle it. And I am sick of ‘oh well, if you have time for such things’. They don’t recognise that I make time for making, growing… For me good food, minimal waste and avoiding plastics/polyesters are more important than watching the latests films/show, going to a hip new restaurant or following football.

      Reply
      • Liz January 25, 2018, 8:34 pm

        I hope Ardalanish Mill are at EYF. I’m sure their other wool cloth will be great. I bought cream Shetland Hopsack, which I don’t think they have at the moment – they list Hebridean Hopsack instead. I just checked out their site again and like what they’ve said about their Hebridean wool: “Hebridean sheep help maintain a balance on the land: they have a diverse diet, which is less intense and demanding on the environment”. I like to see that information – it’s important to know that value.

        When I was looking for the plain fabric, I noticed too that I found mostly tweed and checks/plaids, which is fine, but not what I was looking for at the time. I guess most people come looking for that when sourcing wool fabric now, which suggests that the interest in pure wool has become quite specialised, but could change now that there is the beginning of a backlash against synthetics.

        Here’s to all the unpaid productive work skills learnt at home. I appreciate every one garnered from both parents and grandparents, and for those learnt by my husband on a small farm. Farm life makes you petty practical and resourceful….

        Reply
  • Lorenza January 24, 2018, 8:03 am

    For those making their way to Edinburgh for the Yarn Festival in March, I recommend a trip to Edinburgh Fabrics, because they stock a great range of wool fabrics, including Harris Tweed: 100% Scottish! They also sell via their website. For a visit, the shop is on many of the main bus routes. http://www.edinburghfabrics.co.uk/harris-tweed.php

    Reply
    • Mrs M January 24, 2018, 2:17 pm

      Thank you for these recommendations. I am looking forward to seeing Ardalanish’ cloth at EYF. Also, I see that Edinburgh Fabrics also has 100% wool crepe! As I am desperate to avoid polyester and even viscose, I would love to find a good source of wool crepe fabric so I can make dresses with some drape too.

      Reply
  • Lorenza January 24, 2018, 8:07 am

    Another comment! Also see Ardalanish Mill on Mull. Hope these help. http://ardalanish.com/product-category/tweed/

    Reply
  • Roo January 24, 2018, 8:23 am

    Hi, Harris Tweed has to come from local wool and woven on the isle of Harris. You can also buy direct from the weaver if you want to – that always appeals to me. If your super keen to keep to 100% British wool fibres and woven here British Wool dot org is a great resource.

    Reply
    • Mrs M January 24, 2018, 2:17 pm

      I hope to visit Isle of Harris before too long as I would love to buy cloth directly from weavers.

      Reply
  • Vicki January 30, 2018, 12:34 am

    How fortunate you are to be able to buy fabric manufactured in England. Here in Australia there are only two mills still in operation and neither produce sewing fabrics.

    Reply
    • Mrs M February 7, 2018, 9:38 am

      Yes, I’ve heard that although Australia has 1000s of sheep there is so little milling capability left.

      Reply
  • Nicole February 1, 2018, 10:23 pm

    I recently read an article on the London Cloth Company which might be of interest. http://www.londoncloth.com/about/
    I’ve never ordered anything from them so I don’t know what fabric weights there are but they do include 100% British Wool and London Tweed …. and presumably it is reasonably local to you!

    Reply
    • Mrs M February 7, 2018, 9:40 am

      Thank you for reminding me about the London Cloth company. Every year they have an open day to see the mill working and every year I’ve been out of town that day. I hope I can get to visit them this year. From what I’ve seen of their products, it’s mostly men’s suiting and upholstery cloth though.

      Reply
  • mary February 2, 2018, 10:00 pm

    ah thanks to Lorenza for pointing that out as I am local. Sewing is on my list of to do’s ‘I’m crafty’ always to me has a sort of coy tweeness about it – very Mollie Makes – white floor boards. One distressed table curated within an inch of its life. Whereas I prefer the crafty life when its asking hard awkward questions.

    Reply
    • Mrs M February 7, 2018, 9:41 am

      Yes… I know exactly what you mean with twee, curated and Mollie Makes-ish. For me, like you, craft is part of my constructive rebel.

      Reply

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