As regular readers may know, my friend Nic and I have been working with Stepney City Farm over the last year. We run a knitting group there every Thursday lunchtime, have organised a Fleecy Fun Day and participated in their recent craft fair and are very much known as 'their knitters!'
As with most City Farms, Stepney is run as a working farm with the purpose of offering an educational and community development resource to local people. Amongst their livestock are four Jacob sheep, Tallulah, Trixie, Rosemary and one other whose name I am afraid I have forgotten.
Jacob sheep are a rare breed with coloured fleeces which whilst not the softest in the world are still popular with hand spinners. This year two of the farm workers were trained in sheep shearing and we were asked to process their fleeces and to use them to demonstrate how the wool on a sheep's back can be put to use.
The first task was to wash, or scour the fleece which in its natural state is full of lanolin, dust and vegetable matter. As you can see, no specialist equipment is required, simply hot water, liquid soap, a clean cat litter tray and an old colander. Feline supervision is optional.
Once washed and dried an old pillow case makes a handy storage bag for the fleece.
The next part of the process is to select some nice long locks from the fleece. Despite being first timers, our novice shearers did a really good job with plenty of usable fibre to be had. You might have noticed that in the photograph the sheep looks light brown and white. You can see from this photo how the tips of the fleece have been sun bleached and that underneath it is a dark, rich brown.
Once the locks are selected they need to be carded to open them up ready for spinning.
This turns them into a fluffy cloud of fibre known as a rolag.
Now comes the spinning of the fibre. One of the wonderful things about Stepney City Farm is that they have a Rural Arts Centre with studios for craftspeople in residence. One of these Barn the Spoon, is an expert green wood carver who, whilst he specialised in spoon carving surprised and delighted us with this lovely drop spindle.
The wood for this spindle was harvested locally in Cemetery Park and carved using the simplest of hand tools.
I particularly like how you can see every stroke of the knife as it was cut into shape but at the same time is perfectly smooth and fit for its intended purpose.
It spins well and smoothly and fits in with the way that we have processed the fleece, slowly, carefully and with the minimum of fancy equipment until there is enough for a tea cosy for a teapot which Jess Joslin, the resident potter has promised to make to add some style to lunchtimes for the volunteers.
I will, of course, keep you posted and show your the teapot and its cosy when we have made it. I have absolutely loved being part of this process, collaborating with the other craftspeople on the farm to create something that represents the combined efforts of the team who care for the sheep, the shearers, the woodcarver the potter and the fibre artists.
I'm sure the tea will taste extra good.