The fun of farming

Hello, Woollydaze here…

We’re looking at lambing from the ‘phew, we’ve made it’ end. We’ve processed nearly five hundred ewes through the lambing pen in the past three weeks. There are about twenty-five of them left, milling around, enjoying the space, silage and regular sheep nuts. They might be under the impression that this is a fine, five-star little holiday, but eventually nature will intervene, the lambs will pop out and then they’ll be back in the field with their flock-mates, enjoying the sunshine.

 

The weather over the past few weeks has been remarkably kind and, according to the ol’ farmer’s wives tales, probably encouraged the speedy arrival of all the lambs. We were anticipating that the busy time would be less frantic but last for longer, but since that first Monday when things really kicked off they never really slowed down again. And so although I had every intention of wandering around the lambing pens and taking photos and talking you through how our lambing system is organised, all I’ve had time to do is my ‘real’ job (the one I get paid to do), cook, clean, care for Little Woolly and sleep. Mr Woollydaze does the lambing night shift, working a sixteen hour day from lunchtime to just before breakfast, and is no good for anything other than talking about sheep. And just to make things extra-special fun this year, the three of us in the Woollydaze household came down with stonking coughing snotty colds of the type that mean you can’t breath and sound like a sixty-a-day cigarette smoker; there was no time for illness or sympathy so we just had to get on with it.

Any weekend over lambing will see us inundated with visitors, and we’re happy to see them because lambing is a lovely, happy time to show people around the farm. Two weekends ago I had faraway friends visiting; at the same time there was a Buddhist monk wandering around the farmyard. One friend queried why and I admitted I had no idea and promised to find out. The past weekend was busy with different visitors. I invited a few of Little Woolly’s friends from nursery, and as a result I know that showing a group of two-year-olds around a farm is a guaranteed way to make anyone appreciate the basic charm of where we live. So many children’s books have farming as a theme that it’s something the average city-living young child can understand. Show a group of them some real sheep and some lambs, various tractors, the chickens (and allow them to pick up the eggs), and then run them around the garden and you’ve got a group of happy, exhausted children. Fortunately it was a beautifully sunny afternoon, and the farm appeared almost picture book idyllic. It felt like good, old-fashioned, clean-living, distilled Enid Blyton.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to the last of our lambing visitors; my parents who have kindly been travelling down once a week to look after Little Woolly on the day of the week that technically Mr Woollydaze and in reality my mother-in-law usually looks after him. Our lambing students (from Canada, the US, London and just up the road) have been waved off with the usual grateful thanks. One of our willing friend-of-the-family volunteers had the grace to wait until now to break her leg. We’re working our way through the last of the cakes that a very kind local friend made and delivered when things started to get too much. I’m a bit of a cake snob and refuse to buy it, but cake and lots of it is a necessity to get everyone through lambing. Life can get repetitive as the days pass with the same routines and yet more lambs appearing. Different cakes mark the changing days. To be fair, several family members and friends brought cake and pudding-based gifts and I thank them all for their contributions, but this one friend gets this year’s morale-boosting-baking award for providing five cakes in one week including the most stickily gooey chocolate cake it would ever be your misfortune to meet.

 

So what now? For me, as much sleep as I can possibly get away with for at least the next week. I’d planned to start the regime already but this morning was woken before my alarm clock chirped by Mr Woollydaze getting a phone call about next door’s burglar alarm going off, and then shortly afterwards Little Woolly yelling in an upset voice ‘Mummy, I’ve done a poo’. I don’t think the rest of the Woollydaze household are quite on board with my plan.

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FO: Umaro baby blanket

Hello, Woollydaze here…

As I mentioned in my last post, our farm worker and his wife had a little baby girl at the beginning of lambing. Obviously we’ve known that she’s on her way for quite a number of months. So how come her handmade knitted present was, as usual, being made at the very last minute? Mr Woollydaze is very tolerant of the ‘I must knit 10 rows a night!’ proclamations and has learnt to make encouraging noises at suitable moments.

I think problem number one was that this is a special baby who required a special present. This means research, thought and planning. Searching of Ravelry. Conversations with Woollydaze Too about the suitability of a pattern or the wool. Eventually something clicks – in the case when Brooklyn Tweed published his Umaro blanket pattern in December 2010 – and I knew I’d found the right gift.

Problem number two was finding the right wool when I planned to use completely the wrong wool. I did start off looking for a super chunky or chunky wool but couldn’t find anything that was machine washable, so in the end I went to my local wool shop and bought two big balls of cheap and cheerful aran in an ‘earthy’ shade.

Problem number three was the other knitting that needed to be done first. Things that perhaps aren’t so interesting or challenging, but have closer deadlines. Christmas present knitting, winter knitting, and ‘I must finish this before I start something else’ knitting. All must be completed.

Eventually it dawned that the due date of the baby was now about six weeks away and that, really, any responsible gift-giver would have the item finished, washed, blocked, dried and wrapped by now. And so the pattern was scrutinised, the needles were found, the first tentative casting-on was done. This is a lace pattern that uses techniques I’ve not used before: yarn overs between knit and purl stitches, for example. After knitting about 20 rows, it was clear that I wasn’t doing it properly and anyway, I’d lost track of where I was in the pattern.

So the whole thing was tinked and the clock was still ticking. I cast on again, consulted Mr Google about how to knit, and figured out what I was doing with the pattern. Then the midwife proclaimed that the baby was going to be early. Early? EARLY? There was no time for this baby to be early! And so the frantic knitting stage began.

Knitted in a super chunky wool as the pattern is written, this blanket would knit up quickly. In aran, it takes longer. I had increased the number of stitches width-wise and repeats length-wise and calculated that each row took about six minutes to knit, so an hour of knitting a night might get the job done in time. Mr Woollydaze, ever practical, reminded me that the present didn’t have to be finished for the birth of the baby. I claimed that was not the point, whilst knitting.

By about repeat three of eight, I had the gist of the pattern and it was rattling off the needles quite nicely. Time was the only factor; why must we work? Why can’t we sit and knit all day? Does Little Woolly really need a bath tonight? Minutes were clutched whilst drinking tea, whilst waiting for potatoes to boil, whilst driving to a work photoshoot (although that last one wasn’t a great plan as the roads were windy and I ended up feeling car-sick).

And then suddenly, almost magically, the lace patterning was done, the moss stitch edging was done, the blanket was cast off. I washed it (in the washing machine), blocked it, photographed it, wrapped it, and twiddled my thumbs waiting for the baby to arrive. She was not early. She was not particularly late. She was practically on time. And once she decided it was time, she really got on with it. And I’m delighted that her present was ready and waiting. I almost feel like I planned it that way.

Ravelry link here.

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In the beginning

Hello, Woollydaze here…

Every year, come snow or shine, the lambs start to arrive. It’s the hardest work in our farming year, and the happiest time. Each year there’s a sense of wonder at new life, and the reminder that life is precious and precarious.

The weeks leading up to lambing are always hectic. There’s all the preparation, which on our farm means setting up the lambing pens in the sheds. We aim for the maximum number of lambs so we look after each and every ewe as well as we can; this means lambing inside, each ewe being put in a pen shortly before or after her lambs are born, and somebody checking up on them for as much as is possible of the 24 hours in the day.

A few weeks before the official start date of lambing is the time when problems start; ‘abortions’ (actually miscarriages), prolapses, twin lamb disease, and sometimes a ewe that is so large she rolls onto her back and is unable to roll over again. Sometimes a plucky little early lamb will be born alive and fight. Occasionally one survives.

Then suddenly there’s the morning where Mr Woollydaze goes to feed the sheep and comes home with some live, healthy lambs, and that is officially the start of lambing. This year it was three days before the official start date (blame the nice weather over the weekend). We usually have a slow few days where we can ease ourselves into the familiar routines and Mr Woollydaze can prepare for the idea of working until 5 a.m., but this year the lambs starting popping out like corks from champagne bottles on the day before the official start date. We have a willing and well-trained group of friends and family who come and help out, providing labour in return for cake and company. I do not know how we would cope without them. We also have vet students from various universities who come to do their lambing placements and uncomplainingly work 12 hour shifts. All the cogs work together and together we get through it, one day at a time.

And this, fellow wool-lovers, is how it all begins. Although wool comes to you as a product off a shelf in pretty colours, it has a living history. Our lambs are produced for meat, but some wool is spirited away at shearing by Woollydaze Two to be transformed on her spinning wheel. This wool made its way back again in the form of a felted draught-excluder for my parents-in-law, who have tended this farm for most of their working lives.

And to heighten the emotion of this lambing season, there’s been an added human element. Our farm worker and his wife had a baby girl on the crazy champagne-cork lambing day. She made a hastier-than-expected arrival and was therefore born at home. In our sleepy little village, such excitement is rare. We’re looking forward to meeting the dinky new arrival and welcoming her into the mostly fun, occasionally fraught, always special world of growing up in the countryside with a farm as your playground.

This post is dedicated to friends who recently lost their cherished baby girl shortly after birth:

A little soul scarce fledged for earth

Takes wing with heaven again for goal

Even while we hailed as fresh from birth

A little soul.

(A Baby’s Death by Algernon Charles Swinburne)

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Not a completer finisher

Hello, Woollydaze here… 

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I love planning a project, I like doing a project, and I’m terrible at finishing a project. I lose interest just before the finish line and wander off, looking for a more interesting race to run.

Yes, the tractor rug is still under my bed. No, the drop stitch scarf isn’t finished.

At the moment, lying around the house in various places, I have various unfinished bits of craft work:

Some have been a WIP for longer than others. The most extreme of this bunch has been on the ‘to do’ list since roughly 1994. I’m determined to finish that one in the next few months, because it’s going to be a gift. For a baby. Who will not appreciate it for his or her 18th birthday.

My cold office cosy cardigan has suffered from this fate, only I’ve done the unforgiveable and started to wear it before it is finished. It was so close to being finished. I washed it, blocked it, sewed it together, tried it on, and decided it was too short.

Since I had spare wool and it’s not a precise pattern, I picked up the cast on stitches and knitted downwards for a few rows. I then bought some bias binding to sew into the seams to define them because the edges were a bit sloppy. In the process of buying the bias binding, I managed to find some ‘perfect’ buttons that were soooooo much better than the buttons I had originally bought (which were acceptable, really, just a bit plain).

I sewed in nearly all of the bias binding, and didn’t do the last tiny bit. I pinned it in, then took it out again when I wanted to wear the cardigan.

I discovered a problem with the ‘perfect’ buttons, all to do with the fact that I had bought three then WoollyDaze Too had reminded me that it’s wise, particularly when buying expensive ‘perfect’ buttons, to have a spare. The extra one I bought was clearly not from the same tube as the original three.

 In the past few days I’ve made an extra special effort to sort all of this out and officially finish this cardigan. So here it is:

Ta-da!

The irony is that the temperature in the office for the past fortnight has been hovering around the 24 degrees Centigrade mark, so really I should be knitting cotton summer tops.

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Tofty bobbles

Hello, WoollyDaze Too here…

WoollyDaze promised you wool, and wool you shall have. More specifically, you shall have alpaca.

Cast your minds back to last summer, when Woollydaze suggested that we visit Toft Alpacas. (What do you mean you don’t remember … oh, wait … you weren’t there.) She didn’t need to suggest twice and so one sunny afternoon we bundled Little Woolly and our Mum into a car and drove to Dunchurch to admire the alpacas and stroke the wool. It transpired that Woollydaze had an ulterior motive as she and Mr Woollydaze visited the Alpaca Centre in Penrith while on holiday, and had been fortunate enough to have a good chat about keeping alpacas. They can be kept alongside sheep, where the young males will guard the flock, protecting it against predators such as foxes. If there’s one thing Woollydaze and Mr Woolydaze are not short of, that’s sheep. Our visit to Toft Alpacas culminated in my purchasing a lightweight felt beret kit (garments are available in kit form, or knitted up for those who prefer their garments less nascent) and a seconds bulb bag in fully felted form.

The beret pattern was simple to follow, and the yarn was a joy to use – so soft and smooth. The felting was accomplished in my front-loading washing machine (always a nervous moment), and I was pleased that the hat turned out exactly the right size (a tad on the small side for me = would fit my mum perfectly. Christmas present sorted!).

Toft Alpacas bobble hat in stripes

Version two [Ravelry link] of the beret, with added stripes, was embarked upon while still reeling from the success of version one. This second version used stash alpaca purchased from eBay about 5 years ago (green), and a complementary colour purchased for the occasion (cream). The intention was to present this to a work colleague as a Secret Santa gift, therefore the yarn had to cost less than £5 to satisfy the conditions of the swap. I did pay slightly more, but used less than a full ball on the project so reasoned that I wouldn’t get hauled off to account to Secret Santa for overspending! While knitting version two it became clear that the yarn, although allegedly DK-weight as the Toft Alpaca original, was thinner and once felted it was evident that the hat would best fit a child, and a young one at that (it has since found a good home with a four-year-old girl of my acquaintance, and a replacement Secret Santa gift was hurriedly procured).

Toft alpaca bobble drop hat

When the photos were taken, shortly before Christmas 2010, daylight was in short supply (the oft-heard complaint of the knit blogger). I was fortunate to procure the services of a hat model at very reasonable rates (payment in honey), though the styling does rather remind me of Citizen Smith

 

 

Hello, Woollydaze Too here…

Woollydaze promised you wool, and wool you shall have. More specifically, you shall have alpaca.

Cast your minds back to last summer, when Woollydaze suggested that we visit Toft Alpacas. (What do you mean you don’t remember … oh, wait, you weren’t there.) She didn’t need to suggest twice and so one sunny afternoon we bundled little Woolly and our Mum into a car and drove to Dunchurch to admire the alpacas and stroke the wool. It transpired that Woollydaze had an ulterior motive as she and Mr Woollydaze visited the Alpaca Centre in Penrith on a recent holiday, and had been fortunate enough to have a good chat about keeping alpacas. They can be kept alongside sheep, where the young males will guard the flock, protecting it against predators such as foxes. If there’s one thing Woollydaze and her husband are not short of, that’s sheep. Our visit to Toft Alpacas culminated in the purchase of a bobble beret kit (garments are available in kit form, or knitted up for those who prefer their garments less nascent) and a seconds onion bag in fully felted form.

The beret pattern was simple to follow, and the yarn was a joy to use – so soft and smooth. Once the felting was complete I was pleased that the hat turned out exactly the right size (a tad on the small side for me = would fit my mum perfectly). Version two, with added stripes, was embarked upon while still reeling from the success of version one. This second version used stash alpaca purchased from eBay about 5 years ago (green), and a complementary colour purchased for the occasion (cream). The intention was to present this to a work colleague as a Secret Santa gift, therefore the yarn had to cost less than £5 to satisfy the conditions of the swap. I did pay slightly more, but used less than a full ball on the project so reasoned that I wouldn’t get hauled off to account to Secret Santa for overspending! While knitting version two it became clear that the yarn, although DK-weight as the Toft Alpaca original, was thinner and once felted it was evident that the hat would best fit a child, and a young one at that (it has since found a good home with a four-year-old girl of my acquaintance, and a replacement Secret Santa gift was hurriedly procured).

When the photos were taken, shortly before Christmas 2010, daylight was in short supply (the oft-heard complaint of the knit blogger). I was fortunate to procure the services of a hat model at very reasonable rates (payment in honey), though the resulting styling does rather remind me of Citizen Smith.

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More Woodendaze than Woollydaze

Hello, Woollydaze here…

So, what exactly is a sail shelf? Imagine you live in a family where the mother would like to display books, the father would like room for a subwoofer and the child would like somewhere for his toy boxes (if he were able to articulate his opinion). How do you cater for all the different criteria?

Answer: You stumble across this on the internet, steal the idea and as a consequence make these: 

Aren’t they great? I love, love, love them. Possibly more than the shelves in the bedroom, if such a thing is possible.

They’re made solid oak and yet look like they’re floating. This has been achieved by drilling some very large holes in the wall and the shelves and cementing in very large steel rods. Occasionally, living in a house with solid walls has advantages, although at least one drill was destroyed in the process. The ‘sail’ on the end is very visible as you walk into the room; whilst it’s mostly decorative it does make the shelves into a feature. 

And so, at last, my books have been unpacked and dusted and put on shelves. They have never been on display before, having spent their life in stacking boxes. When Woollydaze Too and I lived at home home we shared a bedroom, and in the centre competing piles of stacking boxes grew until my mum told us asked us to not buy any more books until we had our own homes to put them in. It’s only taken me a decade and a half to achieve this.

Mr Woollydaze, here’s a heartfelt ‘thank you’ from me. I know that you called in the professionals to help out, but you listened to my ideas, thought them through, designed the shelves, sourced the wood, directed the show, sanded and stained. I keep sneaking a peek through the doorway and thinking ‘wow’ at the finished result. You’ve done a fabulous job.

Coming up next time: back to wool. Promise.

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Man crafting

Here, finished and installed, resplendent against freshly painted walls, is my Christmas present from Mr Woollydaze.

The Woollydaze shelves

Doesn’t they look fantastic! I had a very specific idea about how I wanted these shelves to look: thick, rustic and (this was the difficult bit) with a ‘natural’ edge.

The edge of the shelf

I think my brief provided Mr Woollydaze with quite a challenge. As most wood that’s sold to the general public is tidied and sawn, he had to go back one step. He phoned around sawmills as far away as Wales before finding one just a few miles from home that could provide what was needed. Apparently when the lengths of wood arrived on the farm, they looked like bits of tree. Sadly he didn’t take any photos so I’m not able to appreciate how scary this must have been.

After some drying out, sanding down and staining up, they were presented to me on Christmas Day. I was able to choose what order to put them in and on which side, and my wishes were carried out. Now, rather than having a pile of books next to/under my bed which have been borrowed and need to be read and returned, they are displayed and tidy. Mr Woollydaze has a ‘matching’ set of shelves on his side of the bed, but fewer book to put on them.

 Mr Woollydaze's shelves

The shelves are exactly what I had imagined and exactly what I wanted, and full credit to Mr Woollydaze for bringing to life what was in my head. In many ways I think what he has achieved here is a lot more artistic that what I do when I craft: I take patterns where the finished result is pictured and work through the instructions to recreate that. This took a lot more thought and ingenuity.

As a result of his success, Mr Woollydaze has been commissioned to build the shelves for the newly redecorated lounge. The brief is similar: chunky and built to fit, but this time without the natural edge. Not to make things too easy, this time it’s a ‘sail shelf’ where the shelves get gradually narrower. There is already talk of having to reinforce the floor to support it. The wood has arrived, has been stained and is in the hallway waiting… no doubt soon a magical tranformation will occur.

Note: all the photos in this blog post were taken by my father-in-law, since neither my camera nor I were up to the job of taking decent photos in the current murky weather. Even the photos on the shelf were taken by my father-in-law. It’s great having a professional photographer in the family.

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