Cecilia on Working with Wool
Yarn can be so many different things! We have heard about how it can be worsted or woollen spun; we have explored how it can be representative of an individual sheep! This evening during ‘Working with Wool’ we will explore how it can be a colourful expression of the shades and textures of one’s immediate landscape. We are talking to Cecilia Hewett; a professional handspinner whose beautiful spinning you might remember from last year. Over the next few days we will be profiling folk who work with wool in the context of handspinning, and this first piece from Cecilia is all about a recent exhibition which she has been involved in! All content and photos © Cecilia and used with kind permission.
WOVEMBER: Cecilia! WOVEMBER readers will remember you from last year’s WOVEMBER and will be very excited to learn that your handspun is currently featured in an exhibition in Cumbria! For new readers who may not yet have caught up and who perhaps do not know about your amazing work, please could you very briefly tell us about the sorts of yarn that you produce for a living?
Cecilia: My speciality is multi-colouredness! Using spinning wheels and spindles, I make various styles of yarn in which colours and textures play together. My most popular yarns are the coily slub and smooth yarns in matching colourways, such as these autumnal yarns. I also spin threads for embroidery and darning.
WOVEMBER: Could you tell us about the exhibition in which this marvelous yarn is currently featured? Who organised it and what was the selection process?
Cecilia: Collect Cumbria is an exhibition of the work of 25 Cumbrian craftspeople which is running until 31st December 2013 at Blackwell, a stunning renovated Arts & Crafts house on the shore of Windermere in Cumbria’s Lake District. It was the idea of this year’s High Sheriff of Cumbria, Diana Matthews, and was organised by The Lakeland Arts Trust in collaboration with artist, author and curator Rachael Matthews, who has written about it here.
WOVEMBER: What did you enter into the exhibition and how did you go about displaying your handspun yarn in this context?
Cecilia: One of the questions on the application was “How does Cumbria inspire or influence your work?” So I decided that, rather than simply enter a heap of random yarn, I would try and design an exhibit which would let the viewer into my thoughts about how the local landscape influences my work, which I wrote something about for last year’s Wovember. It was challenging to think how to do this without too many words – after all, it was the yarn to be on display, not my writing about it. I decided that the yarn should somehow reflect the walk in our village which I do so often: down the road by the hedge, across the fields, into the woods and up over the limestone crags beyond.
Producing the yarn which reflected the colours and textures of the things I see on my walks was the easy part. To convey to the audience what it meant was more of a challenge and I decided that each colour scheme should be accompanied by a brief nature note on the label, which would help paint the picture.
The hardest part was the overall scheme of the display. I had an idea that the yarn should be placed according to its situation in the landscape, so things to do with hedges and ditches at the lowest level, moving up through crags and trees to a sky level. Luckily for me, I could leave it at that, because curator Rachael Matthews made a beautiful display of it, tumbling over stones and branches. It was not the easiest thing to photograph, in a curious lime-green fireplace!
WOVEMBER: How did you devise the colours and textures in the yarns that you spun for this exhibition?
Cecilia: Having chosen the things I wanted to represent with my yarn, I decided to use mostly fibres dyed by Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth, because I have worked with her beautiful colours for so long that I know exactly how each colour blends with another and can picture what the finished yarn will look like before I have begun spinning. A couple of the colours were by Amanda Hannaford, whose blues and greens exactly capture bluebell-time in the woods. Some of the wool was dyed by myself. With the amazing guidance of Freyalyn, my friend Jean and I have recently begun our own dyeing enterprise – Wild Wood Wool, primarily for the co-operative wool shop of which we are both members – The Wool Clip.
The wool I used for the piece was mostly Blue-faced Leicester. I love the staple length and the lustre of the wool when it is spun. There is a beautiful flock of Blue-faced Leicesters in our village whom I often meet as I wander about, so it was the obvious choice of wool to use.
I have to confess, however, that many of the skeins in the display were not entirely 100% wool and some did contain some silk. This was because I wanted to try and capture an inevitable part of our local landscape – its dampness. We do get rather a lot of rain in Cumbria and, more often than not, there is a watery sheen over everything. Even when it’s not raining, there can be a dampness in the air which gives everything a glossy shine even in bright sunshine. In some of the pieces, I wanted the difference in texture between the silk and the wool to reflect the contrasts I see between the damp vegetation in the landscape and the dry warmth of living creatures found within it, including of course, the sheep and also us humans who venture out in all weather:
I aimed for various different effects, depending on what I was bringing to mind with the yarn. One rare little animal I was very keen to include in my piece – an everyday sight here, but one which some visitors to the Lakes have never seen before – was a red squirrel. In winter, I often see them scampering along the branches of larch trees in the woods. To create an impression of this with yarn, I used a thin strip of wool roughly blended with silk to represent the damp branches and larch needles when the frost has just melted, along with the shine of the bright sky on a clear winter’s day. With this I spun a wide strip of 100% wool, using it in places to hide the silk with fluffy ginger coils for the squirrel and especially dark fluffy ones for his tail.
Another way I used the silk was to create the effect of something out of place. In this bright yarn, it represents a shiny piece of litter, jarring with the naturalness of the hawthorn hedge in the same way as disappointment jars with the initial excitement of potentially seeing something interesting (a new sort of bird?) when, on closer inspection, it is just another piece of rubbish which shouldn’t be there:
Now it is WOVEMBER and we’re thinking more than ever about wool, I have been wondering whether it would be possible to create in 100% wool some of the effects for which I used the silk. I have had some ideas and will be experimenting!
Some of the yarns in the exhibition are 100% wool and their warm woolliness really stands out in contrast with the other yarns. In one piece, I used 100% wool to create the effect of summer warmth, in contrast to rather a lot of wet and windy weather in many of the yarns. Called “Dozing in the wild thyme on a drowsy summer’s day”, the fluffy warm texture of the wool brings to mind the feeling of lying on a cushion of herbs warmed by the sun:
In another, however, the cosiness of the wool represented the opposite side of the year. A walk out with my husband very late one winter’s night, when he wondered if we might see the northern lights. It was a mostly clear night, with deeper shades here and there from occasional clouds and, as we walked through it, I felt as if we were enveloped in velvet. We thought we might have seen a greenish glimmer in the sky, but decided it was probably only the lights of Carlisle. As soon as this wool came out of the dyepot, I knew exactly what it should be in my display once it was spun. Nothing but 100% wool could create the feeling of being wrapped in such a deep night.
WOVEMBER: I think there is a tendency for folk to think of handspun as a raw material for making other things rather than as a finished product in itself; I have seen handspun at Guild displays in county fairs, but very rarely in a commercial craft exhibition like the one at Blackwell. Do you have a view on what it might mean for handspinning in the future if handspun is increasingly displayed in contexts like this?
Cecilia: I think one reason I chose to display so much coily yarn, since it is not something which the general public are used to seeing, was to focus attention on the yarn for its own sake, which I hoped might help people to look in a different way not only at the smooth yarn on display, but the other yarns they encounter in life. I do a lot of spinning demonstrations to the general public and one thing which is noticeable is just how little understanding there is of yarn as the basic ingredient for all textiles. This is something we tend to forget when we ourselves live in a woolly world, surrounded by other people engaging with yarn all the time. During demonstrations, I often find that the public seem interested in every other aspect of wool-working apart from spinning. I am not so much asked questions directly about the spinning which I am doing as about knitting, weaving and – frequently – dyeing and felt-making. Many people seem to feel uncomfortable with something which they don’t understand, but rather than watching and learning, they tend to steer the conversation towards something which they have encountered before. If handspun yarn appears more often in contexts such as Collect Cumbria, I would hope that more people might start to think a little more about what yarn is, what it does in their lives and where it comes from.
WOVEMBER: I have come across the idea of “art yarn” where unusual materials and textures are used to create statement yarns, but what you are making could actually be turned into wearable garments. Could you say a few words about how you balance form and function when you are making your distinctive handspun yarns?
Cecilia: I discovered recently that some people consider it a wearable garment just as it is! Quite a lot of customers have been buying it to wear as a necklace. I suppose if they get bored of it like that, they can always knit it! But, more seriously, it is designed to be used. The biggest hurdle for many people is how to incorporate a small, special hank of handspun into a larger project, but I’m always delighted by my customers’ ingenuity and amazing knitting skills. This beautiful beret, by Liz from Edinburgh, was made with a very small hank of my smooth handspun wool used to great effect with a commercial white wool:
The coily yarn presents more of a challenge than the smooth to the knitter who may not have encountered anything like it before. It is vital that it is strong enough to withstand any pulling which may happen as the coils are manipulated, so although it looks delicate it is really quite tough and the secret of that is in the core inside the fluffy coils. I described how this is done for Wovember last year. I am currently working on a project with the wonderful designers Makepiece who have shops in Hebden Bridge and Buxton where they sell their gorgeous and elegant woollen clothes. I was delighted to discover that my coily yarn was able to cope with going through a knitting machine.
WOVEMBER: Did you find that participating in this exhibition and thinking about how to present and conceive of your yarns in this context changed how you think about your handspun?
Cecilia: I was surprised to discover that it did! I rather enjoyed writing the nature notes and decided to go on with this for some of my yarns on sale elsewhere. It has turned out to be popular with my customers and I have since done a series of yarns based around my local lake Ullswater. I have laughed a lot too, as I catch myself chewing my pencil, agonising too much over the perfect word for a yarn’s label. It is, after all, simply a ball of wool! Often it’s much easier to be silly than sublime!
WOVEMBER: Just for fun, what was the biggest surprise in working on your yarns for Blackwell, and do you have a favourite skein from the whole experience?
Cecilia: The biggest surprise was discovering how fast I can work! There was a very short timescale for producing the exhibition piece, because I wanted to produce new yarns for it and, anyway, almost all my entire stock of handspun yarn sold out at Woolfest, not long before I heard from Blackwell that I had been accepted. My favourite skein is this one:
in which I tried to capture the idea of lichen in damp twiggy leaf litter using a little silk waste but also locks of fleece from the actual sheep mentioned. Here they are, under the oaks! And some of us do wear yellow lichen-dyed socks!
WOVEMBER: Lastly, please can you tell WOVEMBER readers where they can buy your yarn?
Cecilia: My yarn is always on sale in the Wool Clip shop in Caldbeck, Cumbria. It also goes to various big wool shows in the UK, including Woolfest. It is stocked at times by other wool shops elsewhere in the UK. Until 31st December 2013, it is also at Blackwell, where it can be reserved, although anything in the display can’t be taken away until nearer the end of the exhibition.
I have recently made a Facebook page for my yarn, so that I can update people about where it’s going and so my customers can share pictures of what they are making with it, which I love to see.