The beauty of intimacy

 The beauty of intimacy is a self-evident truth for knitters as it is for anyone who is making everyday objects by hand and who uses them.

From A Knitter’s Manifesto by Brenda Dayne and Dr Felicity Ford (available for download on iTunes, amongst other outlets).

This shiny bag of awesomeness came through the letterbox (and fortunately escaped ritual killing by the dog) as an utterly disproportionately huge thank-you for something entirely enjoyable.

Back in May I went along to the Prick Your Finger yarn shop / art gallery to take part in Felicity Ford’s KNITSONIC residency, part of the result of which can be heard here.

Avid knitter and former radio journalist (that would be me) given the chance to take part in an exploration of any and all sonic aspects of WOOL and knitting… just try to stop me! In fact despite losing my money and travel card at the beginning of the journey I still made my way across London having persuaded a passing charity collector to give me funds.

shiny packet of awesomeness, reverse, snow day

So enthusiastic was I that I practically had to be removed with crowbar having monopolised the mic with endless tales of this and that, the other, and skein-winding. Also stitch-counting. All of which was patiently recorded.

popshield, needles, cans

It was a total blast, and there was cake. Not long after Felicity asked if she could use the audio of stitch-counting in another project. Sure thing, I said, what fun, and thought little more of it, until this wonderful pack of pleasure arrived.


Not only a hand-printed copy of the CD itself but also all sorts of ancillary “ephemera” related to various of the tracks, all also hand-made by the artists.

flake disc button

There is something unique and transformative about wool. I have, I know, tended to conflate wool and the use to which I most frequently put it, knitting, which can undeniably be undertaken using any single fibre be it made of animal, vegetable or mineral.

But wool is the ur thread. It’s heartening to see the passion and creativity it evokes at all stages of its production and use. Fascinating to delve into the history, science and culture. Inspiring to hope what current trends may represent for the future of manufacture and consumption. But above all there’s the warmth and generosity.

Thank you, team Wovember, for a wild and woolly month!


Soay sheep

I have quite a few pictures of Soay sheep – the oldest extant domesticated variety in the world – having travelled several times to Holy Isle where there’s a population allowed to roam entirely without interference across the island.

It is believed to be a survivor of the earliest domesticated sheep kept in northern Europe, and it remains physically similar to the wild ancestors of domestic sheep, the Mediterranean mouflon and the horned urial sheep of Central Asia. It is much smaller than modern domesticated sheep but hardier, and is extraordinarily agile, tending to take refuge amongst the cliffs when frightened.

 The sheep have short tails and naturally shed their wool, which can be hand plucked (called rooing) in the spring and early summer. About one kilogram of wool can be obtained from each animal per year.

This breed has extremely fine fleece and, in contrast to mouflon, the inner fleece is highly developed and it is difficult to distinguish an outer coat. This is a clear indication that the Soay are indeed the product of a domesticated breed in prehistoric times. The breed also lacks the flocking instinct of many breeds. Attempts to work them using sheep dogs result in a scattering of the group.

You can clearly see the wool in the process of being shed on the ewe’s shoulder, above.

They’re delightfully skittish and although used to the presence of humans on Holy Isle, don’t exactly hang around to be petted. They are often to be seen picking their way daintily along the pebbly beaches occasionally grazing on the seaweed as well as the sparse grass.

I’ve just got that inch or so too close to this fine looking ram – his head is down preparatory to getting up and stalking, either away or towards depending on the number of ewes around and the perceived threat I pose. I retreated.

The biggest group of Soay sheep in the UK is on the island of Hirta where the unmanaged population has been the object of scientific scrutiny for more than 50 years.

The sheep exhibit a phenomenon known as overcompensatory density dependence, in which their population never reaches equilibrium. The population growth is so great as to exceeded the carrying capacity of the island, which eventually causes a dramatic population crash, and then the cycle repeats. For example, in 1989, the population fell by two-thirds within 12 weeks.

The population on Holy Isle is unmanaged too, and that means that dead sheep are also not an unusual sight, although I don’t know whether the group exhibits the same density dependence phenomenon.

This one took several hours to die, and was difficult to watch even for the briefest time. Its horn had gouged divots in the ground where it struggled on its side before finally being sheathed in the earth. Eventually the undisturbed corpse will disintegrate leaving the picked-clean bones the last to be recycled…

…becoming part of the assorted flotsam and jetsam of the beach over which its descendants will, we hope, still be grazing.


I was delighted to hear this waft past my ears from the audiobook I’m currently enjoying as I labour on with the paternal socks (25% done, an annoying distraction from the bark), He Shall Thunder in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters

At least I had pressed upon him a parcel of food and a nice warm knitted scarf, made by my own hands. My friend Helen McIntosh had shown me how to do it, and I found, as she had claimed, that it actually assisted in ratiocination, since the process soon became mechanical and did not require one’s attention. I had made the scarf for Ramses, but he assured me he did not at all mind relinquishing it to his friend.

Indeed. Obviously an ungrateful toad, albeit more polite than my own.

Ratiocination. Such a good word.

Yesterday’s attire included 100% wool socks, 100% wool gloves, 100% wool hat, 100% wool cardigan (all knitted of course); coat of “50% pure new British wool” and scarf of “85% pure virgin British wool”. Somewhat to my surprise I realised I don’t have a wool knitted scarf only a couple made of alpaca which, while an excellent fibre in its own right, does not come from sheep.

Counting sheep

Sadly I can’t, I presume, reproduce in its entirety the delightful and serendipitous poem Counting Sheep by Linda Pastan which is today’s poem at Poetry Daily. However I strongly recommend heading that way to read it. Here is an excerpt:

At a thousand fifty
I notice a ram
pushing up against
a soft and curly female,
and for a moment
I’m distracted by errant
images of sex.
It is difficult
to keep so many sheep
in line for counting—
they are not a parade
but more like a roiling
sea of whitecaps…

Counting and sheep go together like, er, probably like a shepherd and a sheepdog (dogs were the first animal species to be domesticated by humans, sheep the second). There are special words for counting sheep which derive from the language spoken in Britain in the Iron Age. Which is cool. In base 20. Which is cool. And with a sub-base 5 element. Which is cool. And three cools make freaking awesome. And the fact that you can use the system to count up to 399 using only two hands makes it mind-blowing.

Like most Celtic numbering systems, they tend to be vigesimal (based on the number twenty), but they usually lack words to describe quantities larger than twenty; though this is not a limitation of either modernised decimal Celtic counting systems or the older ones. To count a large number of sheep, a shepherd would repeatedly count to twenty, placing a mark on the ground, or move his hand to another mark on his crook, or drop a pebble into his pocket to represent each score (e.g. 5 score sheep = 100 sheep).

It is also worth noting the number theory behind the scheme. Although decimal up to 10, in most dialects the scheme then changes to counting in(sub-)base 5. It is possible to carry out limited arithmetic in base 5 on numbers up to 30 (decimal) using your fingers as a rudimentary abacus. It is pure speculation, but there may be a connection between the two facts, and the shepherds of England may have carried out limited accounting on their fingers.

In particular, the names of the numbers fit a pattern in which the index finger and forefinger each represent 0 when retracted, 1 when bent, and 2 when straight, while the other three fingers each represent 5 when extended. The rhyming transitions occur with the straightening of a finger, and the pattern repeats at intervals of 5. Thus, with two hands, a person can count up to 399. In the similar but simpler system, discernible in Roman numerals, in which the thumb is 5 and the other fingers 1 each, a person can only count up to 99 on two hands. The Yan Tan Tethera system was thus advantageous until writing made the limitation of two hands less important.

Another reason for the use of base five is suggested by the design of the shepherds crook which has grooves, nobbles, nicks or other impressions on it which enable the shepherd to note the number of fives counted on the other hand. Using base five counting in this way allows the shepherd to total as many sheep as the markings on the crook will allow, each mark representing five sheep.

But why waste an excellent counting system on just one use. It was employed by stitch-counting knitters too, as recently as 1863:

Notes and queries September 12 1863

So which of the small selection given on Wikipedia of the more than 100 variants of the system shall I reproduce here? Since there are strong family ties to Kirkby Lonsdale, it is the Kirkby Lonsdale variant, divided into fives for ease of reading:

Yaan, tyaan, taed’ere, mead’ere, mimp;
Haites, saites, hoves, daoves, dik;
Yaan’edik, tyaan’edik, tead’eredik, mead’eredik, boon;
Yaan’eboon, tyaan’eboon, tead’ereboon, mead’ereboon, buom’fit.

I remember going to see Harrison Birtwistle‘s opera Yan Tan Tethera and being very excited by recognising Michael Nyman in the audience. Oh heady days. In fact the main reason I wanted to see/hear it was because the libretto was by one of my heroes, Tony Harrion. He, unfortunately, was not in the audience (that I saw).

Needless to say Language Hat has a post on the counting systems. Be sure to read the comments too. His is prompted by poet Basil Bunting. Unfortunately all I can find of poet James Crowden’s radio programme about counting sheep is this rather perfunctory summary. If anyone ever comes across the now-unobtainable audio I’d love to hear it.

Less than a week to go

Not that it hasn’t been fun, of course, but launching on 31 days of woolliness without aforethought has lead to some less than scintillating moments. Of which this is another. However Pepys wasn’t off put by banality so neither shall I be.

Rose late. Weather dull. Did knit some more of my swatch. Did watch Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings with the spawn, and did marvel anew at the elven cloaks.

Yes! they’re wool!

The special fabric used to make the Magic Elven cloaks was woven locally in New Zealand by Stansborough Fibres. They grow their own unique naturally grey wool at their farm just north of Wellington. These rare and unusual grey ‘Stansborough Gotland’ sheep, are the only flock of their kind in the world and produce fibre which is strong, soft and lustrous. Perfect for weaving designer fabrics….

The beautiful weave, soft silky texture, natural hues and its ability to warm, despite its lightweight feel, exactly match the description given by Tolkien.

And so to bed.


Dashed by a wave of woe just when the beach was looking sunny. Difficult to dry out in the cold and wet. Meanwhile here’s some more swatching to carry us through today. This is turning into the biggest swatch I’ve ever made, nearly a foot long now.


Two shakes of a lamb’s tail

This was one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings – “I’ll be back in two shakes of a lambs tail”. It’s an informal unit of time. No, really. It’s an informal unit of time equal to 20 nanoseconds (since one shake is equal to 10 nanoseconds) used in nuclear physics.

In my childhood universe it was an informal unit of exponentially increasing lengths of time tending (slowly) towards infinity. Experimental evidence proved conclusively that the length of time referred to by any adult using the phrase was never congruent with my conception of “a very short time” and was far more likely to resemble “forever”.

The lambs in question shake their tails most vigorously when suckling (although no one’s quite sure why, it’s not observed in other animals) and the speed is said, anecdotally, to be about 300 wags per minute. Which makes two shakes 0.4 seconds. (Or should that be 0.4 of a second?) Anyway, here’s a lamb’s tail from Dartmoor.

Within the first three days of the lambs life, the farmer will ring the lamb’s tail. A tight rubber band is placed near the top of the tail with calipers. This restricts and eventually stops the flow of blood to the tail which falls off after a few weeks. Although this causes the lamb some discomfort for the first 24 hours, it is an effective and safe way of removing the majority of the tail which greatly reduces the risk of fly strike – a debilitating problem that can quickly lead to death.

You can see the orange of the elastic band in the picture. And, if you want to know more about fly strike and have a strong stomach, you can go here. The tails are docked to prevent accumulation of the sheep’s own shit thereon, which attracts the flies which lay the eggs which hatch the maggots which then eat the sheep. Alive.

I started thinking about tails after yesterday’s Brewer browsing also turned up this:

Daggle-tail or Draggle-tail. A slovenly woman, the bottom of whose dress trails in the dirt. Dag (of uncertain origin) means loose ends, mire or dirt; whence dag-locks, the soiled locks of a sheep’s fleece, and dag-wool, refuse wool.

I’m sure that as a child we children used the expression “daggy” meaning, roughly “unpleasantly unclean and soiled, probably including faeces, probably claggy” (pronounced “cleggy” round my way). Google disagrees with me saying it’s an Australian English term meaning “unfashionable”. This it may also well be, but not to me.

Sheep tail docking is opposed by some animal rights activists, defended by some animal husbanders. I like this general round-up of sheep and their tails at the endearing website Sheep 101.

There one also learns that the much-prized tail fat of the fat-tailed sheep is known in Arabic as “allyah”. Whether that is homophonous with the name of the late R&B singer I do not know. Nor can I ascertain whether my supposition that fat-tailed lambs shake their tails at a lower speed than other varieties is correct.