Category Archives: Traditional skills

Feeling crafty

One of the wonderful, and potentially stressful, things about smallholding is the scope. There is so much more than simply raising animals and growing crops. What will you cook with all these varied ingredients? Will you get into preserving such as dehydrating, jams, chutneys, sauces, pickling, juices, homebrew, cordials, vinegars? Then there is dairy production, churning your own butter, yoghurts, cheeses, ice creams. What about baking, savoury and sweet?

The desire to smallhold often comes hand in hand with a desire to be more self sufficient and also to have a lower impact on the planet, smallholders are often quite eco aware. Are you going to make your own cleaning products like soaps? What about building things for yourself? From BBQs and sheds to smokers and solar panels, smallholders often tackle it all. What about carving with wood for art rather than function?

Then you look at what else your animals can give you, meat for sure but with sheep at least you have the by-product of the fleece which needs to be shorn each year. You can spin it (with a drop spindle or wheel), felt it (wet and needle), dye it, make rugs, make ‘vegetarian sheepskins’, weave with it. Don’t forget products from animals that have gone for meat, you have horns, skins, feathers and bones that can also have a use. There’s always a wealth of new skills you can tackle and I have a desire to have a go at them all! In fact I’ve made a pretty good dent on that list already:

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Today I wanted to talk a bit about the crafting with wool. This is something I was passionate about for a few years. In the space of a couple of months whilst we were Scotland, with the help of youtube videos, I taught myself to knit. I wasn’t very good to start with but I worked at it and became quite competent. My Mum juggled being a seamstress alongside nursing but I have never been very good with the sewing machine.

I fell in love with my new found ability to make something. It also allowed me to sit down and still feel productive, a bonus when you have a strong drive to always be ‘doing’ but a body that isn’t very healthy. I had a little dabble at crochet but the confusion between US and UK terms seemed to put me off. I can turn my hands to most knitting without much thought but crochet takes much more concentration for me.

I then discovered fibre. I could knit with real wool and using ‘spit and splice’ to join wool was a revelation that made me look at my stash of acrylic wool with a bit of disdain! Then of course came the need to know more.

What about spinning? A wonderful man showed me how to spin with a drop spindle made out of a twig and CD using bits of wool we collected from the fences in a field whilst camping. I was soon the owner of a drop spindle and a lot of roving. Suddenly I was presented with a lovely gift of a spinning wheel. Well once you are spinning it makes sense to go to the source and I ended up with fleece, both that I had bought and that I had been gifted with.  That required processing and after a very lucky Christmas I had a drum carder.

Now I had too much fleece to spin and I ended up buying a peg loom to turn the growing pile of fleece into gifts one Christmas. I even bought a dying kit but never plucked up the courage to use it. My mother in law presented me with a huge loom that is wrapped up as individual pieces, I still haven’t plucked up the courage to unwrap it and put it together yet. Can you see how it is a slippery slope?  At the very least I was always walking with at least one knitting project and I mean that literally, I could walk and knit at the same time.

Pegloom rug in progress

Then I had my daughter and my focus switched to mothering. I didn’t seem to have time between moving to the smallholding and trying to raise her to do much crafting. I have tried a couple of times to pick up a knitting or crochet project but it has been slow progress and I have had very few finished objects since I had her. I have managed to make two peg loom rugs which are getting a lot of use. I did a demo on it at an event for our smallholding club which re-ignited the flame a little.

Peg loom rug

Our smallholding club (which I love) has been having a wave of starting up small interest groups (winemaking, wooly crafts, cheese making adding to the existing music, growing and baking groups). Despite being pregnant and seeing the imminent demise of ‘me’ time I signed up to the group. We have only had two meetings (one a month) but my word my passion for crafting has been reignited. After the first one I took some time to grab the rovings I made about 5 years ago and dusted off the drop spindle. I need to work on my technique again but it’s at the very least smoother than when I first started with it so I haven’t slid too far backwards.

A rare break to enjoy the weather and spin some wool

Next we had a felting meeting coming up. I had briefly dabbled with needle felting whilst at a camp last year. I made a very thin crescent moon and then forgot about it all. The aim was to do something with the bits of our fleece that are too small to be used in the pegloom rugs (the main destination for our fleeces). I figured I might be able to pick up some tips at this meeting so I dusted it off, grabbed some raw Castlemilk wool that I had bought when smallholding was still a dream and had a go at making a sheep. It’s certainly mammalian, I’m not sure if it is a sheep and you haven’t got much of a chance of guessing it was meant to be a Castlemilk but it was a experiment and I was quite happy. It took me about an hour. My awful start at knitting gives me hope that I can master this skill, I won’t be put off by a rough start!

The felting meeting was great, we made a  wet felt flower with pre-dyed wool and it is something I can see me doing with Chi. It was meant to be a poppy but it came out quite big so I’m not sure I will wear it but it does look lovely. It’s something I can see myself doing during the summer months with Chi.

Following that I decided to have a go at the needle felt sheep with clean, carded wool. I bit the bullet and decided to give washing fleece in the washing machine a go as people in the group were confirming it worked. It was a bit terrifying and I did felt one (used a denim cycle instead of wool as they are next to each other) but it is working well and I think I could get through a lot of fleece this way! The fleece shown was very dirty to start with and was a bit dirty after the wash so I put it through for a second run.  It came out cleaner but still a bit dirty on the tips. It wasn’t a great one to start with but it didn’t felt, the body side is a bit more tangled on the net bag one though, not quite felted but you can see it starting. I’ll go with pillow cases from here on out.

The drum carder got a dusting off due to another smallholder in the group being excited about them and getting one. I carded my freshly washed wool and set about making a new sheep. It’s very different working with carded wool than with raw fleece, the sheep has been a lot easier to put together and isn’t half as lumpy. I’m still working on getting the proportions right, the back legs are a bit thick, and the head is giving me some trouble but it feels like I am improving which is the aim.

Now another friend is experimenting with acid dyes on spun wool and I’m starting to eye up my dusty dying kit and thinking about putting together that loom. I have 5 reasonably sized white fleeces, 2 huge white fleeces, 1 huge black fleece and 19 of our own fleeces sitting around getting dusty so I have plenty to choose from for experiments.

3 bags full

All in all I am feeling reinvigorated about crafting and I love it. It is something I have really missed. I know baby is due in August but I am hoping I can find some way to keep going to the meetings and keep a bit of me time for crafting this time around. In the meantime I’m going to get as much as I can made before baby arrives. Hopefully this has given you a bit of an intro about me as a crafter and will help my future posts make a bit more sense!

Dans

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Scaling back

Well you may remember a couple of months I was saying how hard we were finding everything at the moment. My hips were starting to go, I was banned from lifting due to pregnancy, Sam’s knee was still very much out of use after the cellulitis and due to his disability he does a lot of smallholding activities kneeling so that he has a stable base, the weather was awful with everything flooding and the grass not growing and it all just felt a bit overwhelming.

We did send the geese to the freezer after that. The combination of no eggs being laid, running out of grass for them and extra work for Sam when he was already stretched thin, just proved too much. In hindsight I realise I should have either had them jointed or put them up for sale before sending them to the abattoir but hindsight is 20:20. Instead they are in the freezer and will get eaten at some big gatherings through the year. I do really miss having the geese around but in actual fact it has been a blessing, it did relieve the pressure and allowed us to look at the orchard again. The chickens now have safe free roaming of the smallholding and can forage in the orchard, we’ve also set up the broody nursery in there. I noticed a lot of ants and thus aphids on the young fruit trees in there so we will be pulling up our chicken wire ‘goose excluders’ that we have set up around the trees so that the chickens can do a good job scratching around those trunks for ants and other grubs. I like to think we will have geese again but if we do we’ll be changing our management to have them following the sheep grazing.

A fair amount of roast goose in our future

The other area we have scaled back is the growing. I wanted to grow something this year, maybe not expand on last year but still be growing as I loved eating our home grown passata for several months and would like to do it again. Unfortunately we also decided to work on raising the beds and having the chickens free ranging meant that they were straight into the polytunnel to have dust baths in our beds. As a result of that, and general disorganisation combined with a strong urge to nest meaning I wasn’t sowing seeds until very late, we have only just got our first plants into the polytunnel. Some netting over the unused doors has been a successful short term measure to keep the chickens out but the polytunnel cool enough. We still have nothing outside and we only have 2 veg beds raised in the polytunnel. The growing is most certainly scaled back this year.

All of this may be for the best though. The baby is due in August which is our peak harvest season in the polytunnel. We are unlikely to be able to do much in the way of food processing this year and no matter what we do the plum, apple and pear trees will be dropping their fruit on us which will likely mostly go straight into the freezer. Not growing as much and focusing on the infrastructure should hopefully set us for a good growing season next year. At least that is what I keep saying to myself when I see how empty the polytunnel and outdoor beds are! I am hoping that by this time next year we will have a covered fruit cage with planted bushes (that will mostly be 3 years old and thus should be in good production), 5 raised beds in the polytunnel and possibly the citrus trees planted, internal netted doors on the polytunnel and the 5 raised beds outside.

Sam working on raised beds

Reading a smallholding magazine the other week (likely a back issue as I’m a bit behind) there was an article by the author of Doing It In Wellies (a book I really really want to read). She spoke about getting the smallholding and jumping into everything and forgetting the why of it all because you were too busy trying to survive it. That really resonated with me. She said how they pulled some bits back and stopped to smell the roses and how that really helped them refocus the activities.

Sam and I got into smallholding for several reasons. The first was my health at the time, the PhD had worn me into the ground and down a few layers. We thought a slower pace of life, without as much of the pressure(!) might be helpful. I could do lots on my good days and less on the bad days. For the most part that has worked. Smallholding can be very stressful. There’s never enough hours in the day to get things done. Trying to make a business out of that makes it harder, there isn’t just the physical acts of smallholding and record keeping for animals, there’s also things like this blog, website design and management, courses to do to get the various food safety requirements, endless research, balancing books etc. Then add in the stress of pests, disease and never ending maintenance that any smallholding needs and there is the potential for stress. Throw full time motherhood into the mix and you’d start to question if a PhD might be a relaxing break! But in all honesty nothing I’ve experienced touches the PhD for stress, all the stress related illness I suffered from have disappeared. I am pretty much medication free now, just a vitamin D supplement. I’ve also lost a good 10kg and have put on a lot of muscle. I’m healthier than I have been in a long while and I have the smallholding to thank for that. Job #1 done!

Our second reason was Chi, we wanted her to know where her food comes from. Not just know where but to see it come from there, to understand the process, to know it well enough that she can do it herself. She makes cakes and custard with me, she has watched me kill and pluck and gut chickens, she’s seen me salting sheepskins, seen the wool being sheared, washed, carded and spun. We have picked apples off the tree and pressed them into juice. As her memory gets longer she will start to see and learn the process of growing, of the seeds we sow and plant and water then harvest and compost. She is learning so much and the beauty is she doesn’t know that she is. It isn’t a special trip out or an episode of a show, this is simply her life and I love it. Job #2 done.

The first taste

We wanted to know the history of our food, that the animals had a good life and the crops hadn’t been saturated in pesticides. We aren’t as self sufficient as we would like, I would love a goat or two to produce milk for us as we still buy a lot of dairy. I’d also like pigs for meat and at the very least a local known source of beef, but we have a small acreage and we are doing what we can with what we have. I think the dream of a bit more land will always be with me but we are doing well in lamb (well mutton), fruit and veg, eggs and pork sourced from other smallholders. So job #3 is in pretty good standing too.

Lastly we wanted to enjoy things. This is where we are lacking a bit. We work a lot on the smallholding, we put a lot of hours into getting the place up and running, especially Sam working a full time job and then doing work on the smallholding. Sometimes I think we work so hard on it all and don’t actually enjoy it. I think that is where we got to earlier in the year. Lots of work and very little enjoyment. We’ve got a table set up in the garden for BBQs and have had more this year than the other years previously. We are getting some more garden furniture to dot around so that we can sit and rest between jobs and enjoy things rather than lugging our 2 chairs back and forth over the smallholding.

A rare break to enjoy the weather and spin some wool

I am hoping that this year we will get more of the infrastructure done and build on enjoying the smallholding next year. Wish us luck!

Dans

P.S. As always if you like the post, give us a thumbs up, and if you want to be notified of every blog post then subscribe – there’s a button to the left or below if you’re on a mobile device. It’s always nice to know people are out there and reading.

Shearing

Shearing was a bit up in the air this year. Last year I had wanted them shorn early May but we couldn’t get a shearer until late May, it wasn’t too bad but our sheep shed their fleece and we lost a lot of wool. This year we are lambing in May which meant that we had to carefully consider when to shear. If you shear too early the ewes can get cold, if you shear too late then you increase the risk of fly-strike. This is where flies lay their eggs in the sheep’s fleece and then the larvae eat away at the sheep. It’s not nice at all and can be fatal. After a bit of reading I decided that shearing pre-lambing would be best for our situation.  There’s a good article here listing some pros for shearing pre-lambing.

The girls pre-shearing 2016 with a lot of wool already shed.

Last year the shearer cut through the fleece and got a lot of new wool through. Each year there is a ‘break’ in the fleece which is a weaker point. When you’re working with the fleece for crafting getting the new wool along with the old wool means lots of little pieces that come away, it makes things a lot harder. This year I looked for a shearer that would cut the fleece for crafting, thus just cutting the old fleece away. I found one who said he would, but he wouldn’t touch the ewes until 3-4 weeks after they have lambed. A lot of shearers are reluctant to deal with in-lamb ewes as it can risk abortion premature birth. Later shearing would put us into late June/early July and really increase our risk of fly strike. It looked like we would have to wait until after lambing though if no-one would do it.

Then a nearby smallholder posted photos of his newly shorn sheep by some handshearers. I didn’t have anything booked in with the shearer so I contacted these guys, the Two Stand Blade Gang. I have always loved the idea of hand shearing and would love to learn to do it myself. It’s a bit harder on your hands but is meant to be on the ewe and less stressful as you don’t have the heat, vibration and noise of the electric shears. It’s also meant to be easier to cut just the new wool. There’s also the fact that it is a traditional skill. I’m all about trying to preserve the ‘Old Ways’. It’s often interpreted as me taking the hardest route to do things, but knowing that our ancestors worked for centuries to find the best way to do things before the invention of all this electronic technology, and that in some cases the knowledge is at risk of being lost really saddens me.

They were happy to shear for us but preferred to shear pre-lambing rather than after. That’s what I wanted to start with but we were now 2 weeks before Arya’s due date so cutting it quite fine. It was the Sunday that I messaged them and they were able to come the Wednesday. Getting the lambing area ready and all the girls in before the rain hit was a challenge but we managed it.

It went really well. They were nice and gentle with the ewes and limited horn handling which was refreshing. The ewes seemed less stressed by the shearing than last year, which may be due to the lack of machinery or could be due to it being their second time. We had the pregnant girls penned up separately to the empties, we had tried penning together but the empties started chasing and butting the pregnant ones almost immediately. We got nice clean cuts on the pregnant girls and the wool looks really nice, no breaks.

The empties had started to shed and this is possibly due to being on rougher grazing. The guys had a bit of a harder job with those two but they still did a good job.

Aelin (left) and Anya (right) were a bit harder to shear

Unfortunately, the weather decided to batter us with hail and sleet just after shearing so I think I will keep them in for a couple days. They should be ok outside with a bit of shelter as hand shearing leaves a bit more wool on them than machine shearing, but we also have the hassle of taking the empties across the road which will be easier when it’s not throwing hail down at us. Friday should be nice and clear and we don’t have groups that we need to take Chi to which makes life easier.

Just a little bit of hail

The pregnant girls have eaten the grass down in the area they were in. So, despite Sam having come up with a race system to get the ewes into the polytunnel for lambing, we’re going to move them into the Triangle for the time before lambing. The lambing box is all set up with everything we should hopefully need so now we just sit and wait.

One of the upsides of having them shorn is we can see them a bit better. Arya is starting to bag up (that’s when they start to fill up with milk), but surprisingly Aeryn (carrying twins) and Arha (possibly carrying twins) are not far behind Arya in terms of bagging up. So they may actually lamb sooner than we thought. We’ll be keeping a close eye on all of them.

You can just about see Aeryn’s bag starting here (second from left)

Dans