Landscape magazine – a beautifully produced national glossy – has published a piece by me about Yorkshire lass Phillippa Joad, who runs workshops to teach people wool crafts.
One of her key skills is spinning, and Phillippa demonstrated it for Landscape magazine’s photographer, Tom Bailey.
Spinning is such an ancient practice that the words associated with it are embedded in our language. Spinning is the act of twisting fibres together to create a stronger thread, or yarn.
Therefore, ‘to spin’ is both to create a thread, and to describe a rotary movement. The ancient drop spindle, known since the Stone Age, looks very much like a toy spinning top.
Before the advent of machine spinning in the 18th century, women had to spin to make all their household textiles: clothes, towels, sheets, blankets, even sacks for storage. It’s why an unmarried woman came to be known as a ‘spinster’, because that was what she did. And because people spent so long doing it, they ‘span yarns’, or told stories, to keep themselves entertained.
Today, people hand spin because they enjoy it, and in order to create something unique, to their own design.
Phillippa Joad finds it particularly satisfying because she can spin the wool from her own sheep. Phillippa, who lives near York, has a small flock of sheep – so small that she calls them pets.
Here’s what she told me about them:
“I keep them because I like their individual characters, and they’re friendly animals. Chazza wants his back scratching, Jemima wants sheep nuts, and Hattie and Titch still want the strawberries they ate when they escaped into the garden.”
Like many hand spinners, Phillippa likes to have sheep in a range of colours and breeds, so that they provide a variety of different wools. The staple – the fibre length – varies, as well as texture and colour.
Her flock are all descended from a matriarch named Jemima. “She’s a Jacob/North Ronaldsay cross,” says Phillippa. “They’re both ancient and hardy breeds.”
Phillippa says, “We had two gimmers – female lambs – when Jemima was tupped [inseminated] by a Cheviot ram. Two springs ago we borrowed a Hebridean ram, who gave us Daisy, out of Jemima. Daisy has beautiful soft grey wool.”
“This year, we used a Southdowns tup. He gave us a set of triplets, so we had to bottle feed two lambs, because the mother didn’t have enough milk for three.”
“Feeding took quite a lot of time. We had to feed four or five times a day, so we couldn’t go out. Generally, we don’t go out much at lambing time anyway.”
Phillippa describes her routine at lambing time: “You don’t want to get involved with lambing unless they need you. But, you have to watch them to see if they do need you.”
Once the lambs are born: “You watch them to make sure they’re getting fed, and not getting wet and cold. If they get cold, they just die – though we’ve not lost one yet, because we watch them carefully.”
If cold is a problem, why not keep the lambs indoors? “It’s better to lamb in the field, because you tend to get more disease problems indoors,” explains Phillippa – “IF the weather behaves.”
As the lambs grow, she adds, “They spend their whole time escaping and getting stuck in fences, even when you’ve filled all the fence holes.”
“We called the pet [bottle fed] lambs Hattie and Titch, and they ran under the gate and into the vegetable garden. They ate all the strawberries, plants and all.”
Other tasks for the sheep include fitting an electronic tag into their ear, and regularly worming them.
“They’re shorn once a year, and I bring in a shearer – that’s another skill,” comments Phillippa. “They don’t like being out in the rain after they’ve been shorn, so I leave the stable door open for a few weeks, so they can run inside when it rains.”
The rest of the time, she comments, “They don’t want just a flat field with a wire fence. They need hedges or a building to give a bit of shelter.”
It’s also important to care for their feet. “Sheep have no end of foot problems if they’re stood on wet ground,” says Phillippa. “If it’s muddy, they get foot rot. You can treat with antibiotics, but it’s better to prevent problems. So if it’s very wet, I put them in the barn at night, bedded on straw. It’s an open fronted barn, so they still get plenty of ventilation. They mustn’t be enclosed, they need good ventilation.”
“They must have fresh water daily. I don’t have a self-feeding trough, so I put buckets down. They drink a lot, especially if they’re making milk for lambs.”
“In winter, I buy in hay for them, in summer, they’re out all the time, eating grass. And I give them a few sheep nuts each day to keep them friendly.”
“Keeping them friendly” is important because when the sheep come to Phillippa, she can check their condition. She explains, “If one of them’s ill, you need to deal with it as soon as you notice, because they can go downhill very quickly.”
“Often the only thing you’ll notice ist hat they don’t come in as fast as the rest for their dinner, or that they’re sitting in a funny way.”
“Even big farmers put food down and go along and look at every sheep as it eats, checking for signs that it’s not OK.”
All in all, concludes Phillippa, “They need attention. It’s not suitable if you go away for lots of weekends or holidays. We rarely go away, and if we do, our neighbour looks after them.”
For Phillippa, the effort is worthwhile. She uses all her own fleeces, and buys in others, to provide wool for her business, Wheeldale Woolcrafts. She spins, weaves, dyes, knits and makes felt – and teaches these skills to others.
To see Phillippa’s creations, or book a course, go to http://www.wheeldalewoolcrafts.co.uk/index.htm
Read more about Phillippa in Landscape magazine,