Amazing Alpaca!

We have a saying here in the North East: “Shy bairns get nowt”, which basically means that sometimes you have to be a bit cheeky and ask for something. When I realised that some dear friends of my brother and his wife have alpacas, I asked if they could perhaps bring me some alpaca fleece next time they visited. Since spinning became my new obsession I’ve been itching to get my hands on some alpaca fibre. It’s so gloriously soft and warm and I love knitting with it so really wanted to have a go at spinning some.

I also thought it would be really interesting to get hold of raw fleece from a known source, prepare it, spin it and knit into a garment, embracing the entire process.

When my brother dropped this large plastic sack full last week I was absolutely over the moon. He said he’d bring some, but I hasn’t imagined it would be so much

When I started to tip the contents out the fibres immediately fluffed up – there must be at least 2 complete blankets or fleeces compressed into that bag – over 6kg of fibre!. He also sent me some photos of the animals that provided the fleece: a pair of alpacas called Wispa and Aero. Aren’t they adorable?

I’ve been reading up how to process the fibre and I’ve partially skirted the first fleece. This involves separating out the soiled fibres and the shorter and coarser parts from the edges and removing second cuts (the shorter tufts where the shearer has gone over the animal a second time). Some of this is perfectly usable – but what is left is the best quality long fine fleece from the back of the animal.

The fleece holds a lot of dust, some of which falls out during the skirting process. The next stage is to wash the fibre. To do this I put the fibre into mesh bags (the sort you use for laundering underwear) . I added some wool wash liquid to hand-hot water and gently immersed the bags. The wet fleece must be handled very carefully or it felts together, so I just left it to soak for 20 minutes, then drained the water and lightly pressed on the bags to remove some of the water. I then added clean water of the same temperature (sudden temperature changes damage the fibres) to rinse the soap away. In some respects alpaca fibre is easier to wash than sheep’s wool ,which is rich in lanolin and takes repeated washing to remove). The water was now clear so I drained it, pressing gently on the bags remove water, then placing the bags between towels and pressing gently again. I then allowed the fleece to dry. It has cleaned up to a beautiful pure white, which offers so many possibilities for experimenting with dyes…..that’s a whole new craft in itself.

I’ve been using pet brushes to comb the fibres (have asked for proper carding combs for Christmas) and have gradually picked through it to remove all the fragments of vegetable matter. The prepared alpaca is the softest fluffiest stuff ever. It’s like a cloud!

Next job – to spin it! I spun a couple of singles and plyed them together to make this 2 ply yarn – 99 yards/49g

There was some left which I plyed with some blue merino to make this little skein (41 yards /15g.

It has been lovely to spin with and I’ve only used part of the fibre I processed there’s still a load more to skirt, wash and card). The project possibilities are endless!

I’m so lucky to have such generous people in my life…..and some of them have alpacas!

Autumn in Bothal

Last week we visited the village of Bothal, which is not far from Ashington, Northumberland, A friend had heard about the war memorial there at her history group, which looks particularly special at this time of year.

Built in remembrance of those who died in the First World War, the monument is flanked by a pair of trees. To the left stands a weeping ash, with long trailing branches.

To the right of the monument is a Japanese maple. Autumn has turned its leaves to a glowing blood red colour.

The trees represent the tears shed for those who died and the blood that was spilt in the conflict.

The memorial is topped by a Celtic cross and stands in front of St Andrews Church. The church bell tower can be seen in the picture below. Known as a bell cote, this open tower houses three bells, one of which is dated 1615.

The church is ancient, dating back to around 900AD though it is thought that a smaller church existed on the site some 200 years earlier. The Anglo-Saxon building was replaced by a larger one when Richard Bartram, a Norman lord, came to live at nearby Bothal Castle in 1161. Other addictions have been made over the centuries.

The drive to the castle gatehouse is next to the church.

The castle itself is privately owned and not open to the public.

Bothal is quite an unexpected little oasis, hidden in a wooded part of the Wanbeck valley, quite close to busy Ashington. It was really interesting to visit and especially to see the war memorial trees.

Knit And Natter Is Back!

Over the last few weeks the group have started to meet again online, using Zoom. Of course it is very different this way, but it’s been lovely to reconnect with some of my knitting friends. The group was set up as part of our local GP practice’s Social Prescribing initiative and is one of several activities set up to support patients that may be isolated or could benefit from some social activity, though it is open to all.

It is months since I wrote a Knit and Natter post. The group at Alnwick Medical Group last met in early March and the following week I had to post that it was cancelled until further notice as the COVID pandemic started to take hold.

Our group has joined forces with a similar one from the Berwick area to go online, so we’ve been meeting at 12 every Friday for the last few weeks. As well as sharing what we’ve been making and swapping patterns, it’s also been a great way to pass on information about other activities that may interest our members. For example our local Age UK branch recently produced a pack full of things to do in isolation, from puzzles and craft activities to online virtual gallery and museum tours.

Of course there’s some great knitting going on which you can see in the picture above. (clockwise from top left) . One of the group organisers has taught herself to knit and is perfecting her garter stitch – her work is growing rapidly as she gets neater and quicker. I’m busy with some brioche handwarmers. The pretty pink knitting is going to be a waterfall front cardigan. The gorgeous baby cardigan has just been completed by one of the group – she shared a photo from her phone. Finally our Berwick organiser shared a Book Club recommendation (she’s actually working on an amazing blanket at the moment).

I couldn’t resist taking a screenshot of this cuddly pup made by one of the group for her grandson. She even got a proper collar and lead for it. He is going to be one very happy little boy!

We’ve also been asked to give information about the group to a knitting magazine who are including a a feature about us!

Of course not everyone gets on with online activities like this, but at a time when more people are having to isolate themselves through a second wave of the virus it’s great that we can carry on with a safe social activity that connects us with others who have a shared interest.

Have you been able to continue any of your social knitting activities online?

A Mystery Object From An Old Friend.

A dear friend and her husband visited today and brought this. Can you guess what it is? I’ll come back to that…….

We’ve been friends since our teens (more years ago than I want to think about) and it’s lovely that we stay in touch, even though we are at different ends of the country. They were travelling to visit their children who are both at university in Edinburgh and called here for socially distanced coffee and cake in the garden. It was so lovely to catch up. I couldn’t believe it was ten years since we last met up.

We talked about our families, including my friend’s mother, a remarkable lady who had been a missionary in her youth, working in remote parts of the world, including the Solomon Islands. Mrs L was still travelling in her sixties, when she visited Egypt, trekking on horseback to visit sites of interest.

My friend was interested to hear about Daughter’s riding as she used to have a horse of her own which even attended their wedding reception and posed for photos.

Solo the horse -wedding guest.

She very kindly brought some horsy items that she no longer has any use for to pass on to Daughter. I was able to give her some of my home-made preserves (I always make far more than I’ll ever use so it’s nice to be able to give the surplus away to friends and family.

All too soon the visit was over and they continued their journey. I hope we’ll see them again soon.

….which bring us back to the mystery object. While souvenir shopping during her Egyptian trek, Mrs L must have been thinking about her daughter’s horse and bought this. It is a horse’s breast collar, a traditional adornment worn tied around the horse’s neck with the tassels hanging down over it’s chest. Whether Daughter will ever use it remains to be seen (Christmas maybe?). It’s a great story though!

Did you guess what it was?

The Science of Autumn Colours

I’ve been watching the trees change colour over recent weeks. They are probably at their best around now. I always hope they’ll stay around for a long time, but invariably we get gales and the trees go bare overnight. Some of them that are growing in exposed spots have already lost almost all their leaves.

Others are still green.

Of those that have changed, I love the range of colours, from the buttery yellow of this willow…

…to the deep orange-red of this ornamental rowan (complete with bright yellow berries).

Some of the Acer (maple) family are the stars of autumn. This one positively glows!

Have you ever considered the science of this spectacle? The leaves are key to everything the tree does. In spring and summer, they are full of the green pigment, chlorophyll. This enables the tree to use energy from sunlight to convert the carbon in carbon dioxide to sugars (by the process of photosynthesis) The sugars fuel growth, flowering and seed production: everything else the tree does. Like a factory needs down time for maintenance and replacement of worn out parts, the tree’s leaves reach the end of their life in autumn. It is the breakdown of the green chlorophyll pigment that gives rise to the yellows, oranges and reds of autumn leaves.

Shorter day length stimulates the tree to produce a layer of weak cells at her base of each leaf stalk. This is called the abscission layer and causes the leaves to detach easily and fall.

The trees will now remain dormant during winter until fresh green leaves emerge in spring, ready to go into full production. Nature is pretty amazing!.

Having been out and about looking for autumn leaf colour, I forgot this in our own garden. It’s a little Japanese maple we’ve had for years that always looks stunning at this time of year.

How are the trees looking where you are?

Bedtime for the Boat

Today was the day for taking our little boat, the Isla Mia, out of the water and putting her into winter storage. Sadly we’ve not really used her this year. Throughout the spring we were in lockdown. Collecting the boat from where she’s stored and towing her 12 miles to her summer mooring at Alnmouth could hardly be described as an essential journey. It was therefore much later in the year that we’d planned when she was finally back in the water. Conditions had to be totally perfect to get out of the estuary as the river channel had changed position so sailing out to sea was always going to be tricky. After lockdown was lifted everyone seemed to migrate to the coast so parking became an issue. No wonder we never managed to do more.

Today there was a very high tide so K took the trailer down and positioned the boat ready to winch on to it. Son joined him to help…

… and Buddy supervised.

There was quite a lot of traffic on the river today. The sailing dinghies were racing and this rather beautiful skiff came in.

One dinghy crew were launching off the ramp and kindly lent a hand to keep the boat straight.

We watched a young girl take her paddle board out – she made it look quite effortless.

There are still quite a few boats in the water but many of the smaller ones will be brought out over the next few weeks. If we get severe winter weather boats can be torn from their moorings or damaged by debris such as fallen trees floating downstream. As the tide inched higher over the salt marsh it formed tiny islands.

A group of children were having a brilliant game of pirates. Sword fights determined which band of pirates won control of a tidal island. Actually they were using toy light sabres but that hardly matters in a game of imagination! Their dog was enthusiastically fetching a ball and digging in the mud. Every one of them was wet and muddy but they were having such a great time. They looked like they had escaped from the pages of old children’s adventure stories like Swallows and Amazons or The Famous Five series.

With Son operating the winch and K guiding her on to the trailer as the rising tide lifted her up, Isla Mia inched onto the trailer The engine at the stern of the boat adds a lot of weight so the water does all the heavy lifting work.

Eventually she was fully trailered, secured and hitched up to the car.

The backboard with tail lights was put in place and she was towed away to her winter home. Happy hibernation Isla Mia!

Do you have to make any preparations for winter?

Quizzy Wednesdays

With a total lockdown earlier in the year and various degrees of restrictions ever since (seeming to change on a daily basis), my social life has changed radically. Most of it is now online.

It began with a group of female friends having a virtual coffee morning on Zoom which became a weekly event. …..then went international as one of our group now lives in Australia and joins us most weeks. Several of us were in the same ukelele group and that went online too.

Our partners were beginning to feel left out so we started doing a fun quiz on Zoom. I know that during lockdown quizzes have been really popular for online get togethers of family and friends. This is how we run ours. Currently four couples take part. It can be quite onerous for one person to set a whole quiz worth of questions so each couple sets a round of ten questions and takes their turn to ask them. They give the answers after their round and we all mark our own scores. Of course you can’t score on your own round. It works well and we get a great variety of questions – it’s probably more interesting than with a single question setter. Some of us devise our own on a theme, but its as easy to look up quiz questions online if you run out of time or ideas. We’ve had questions based on the Monopoly board game, famous brothers and sisters and song lyrics to name but three. Anything goes! We do keep the scores and announce the overall winner, but it’s all just for fun really.

This week I found out that Wednesday was World Desserts Day, so we set our questions on that theme. I have a very sweet tooth and was feeling quite hungry by the end of it! I thought I’d share them.

  1. Which dessert was created for a famous opera singer? Ingredients include raspberry sauce and ice cream.
  2. What is the main flavouring in a traditional tiramisu?
  3. Which Italian dessert literally means”cooked cream”?
  4. What is the name of the upside-down French dessert made of apples and pastry?
  5. In Doctor Who, the 11th Doctor famously ate fish fingers and which dessert to revive himself after regenerating?
  6. Which very sweet Greek dessert comprises layers of filo pastry, syrup or honey and chopped nuts?
  7. Which dessert is traditionally served on US Thanksgiving and Christmas?
  8. Which dessert was named after a famous Russian Ballerina?
  9. Which chocolate and cherry confection is known as Schwartzwalder Kirschtorte in its native Germany?
  10. Which British cartoon cat and dog were named after a popular UK dessert combination?

I’ll post answers in the comments section. Have fun!

Have you been taking part in any online quizzes? I’d love to hear about them.

It’s Good To Sing.

I’m a member of the Newcastle City Council Choir. We formed several years ago when I worked for the Council. It was originally one of several staff health and well-being initiatives at a time when pressure of work often meant people would grab a sandwich at their desks for lunch and never took a break. That’s never good for stress levels and productivity! Since then we’ve continued singing both for our own enjoyment at hour-long weekly lunchtime practices and also performing, including at a number of civic events. Fortunately I wasn’t kicked out when I retired. We actually have several retired members, along with current staff who attend when they can, work commitments permitting.

We had to stop our sessions earlier in the year as the pandemic took hold and lockdown became imminent. After a few weeks our lovely choir leader started to run our weekly sessions online on Zoom. She’s done an amazing job keeping things going this way. It’s not exactly the same. We mute during the session while she is teaching us and we are singing along to the backing tracks she has created with all the different parts that harmonise together. Singing this way does have a few advantages though. Nobody can hear you screech if you make a mistake! If you normally sing a particular part (soprano, alto etc) you can experiment a bit and try other parts (again, nobody can hear you screech!). It takes time to learn all four parts of a new song. You can practice your own part to learn how the harmonies work together with the others as they learn theirs without disturbing them. When we met face-to-face I had a 60 mile round trip to get to Newcastle for choir practice, so I’d combine it with a shopping trip or maybe lunch with a friend – so I’m saving time, petrol and money. Above all it means I can stay in touch with my lovely choir friends and still do something that I really enjoy.

The jury was out for a long time on whether singing carried an additional COVID infection risk, in terms of projecting exhaled breath further during singing, but more recently scientific study has revealed that singing carries no more risk than talking. With the second wave of the virus taking hold there is no sign of getting together in person anytime soon but Zoom is working well as an alternative. We can share music and lyrics on the screen or through our shared Dropbox account, which also includes audio tracks to practice with in between sessions. The others kindly gave me permission to share some screenshots from yesterday (but I blanked out their names)

It was such a lovely session yesterday. We have a wide repertoire of material and we sang a fun Danish Halloween song, a pop classic (Titanium) and a couple of slightly Christmassy tunes. A beautiful, haunting lullaby (Lully Lulla Lullay) and Gaudeamus (that’s Latin for “we praise”). We finished off with one of our favourite rounds (and so appropriate to end the session): it’s called “Adios Amigos”.

I love singing with my choir!

Sea Glass Spheres

Being on the beach a lot, walking Buddy the Labrador, provides lots of beachcombing opportunities and lots of craft materials for me, especially sea glass and driftwood. This is only a small selection of the sea glass K has gathered on his dog walks.

The action of the sea and sand has two effects on glass. The surface becomes abraded giving it a frosted appearance, then the corners and edges are smoothed away. Eventually a piece of glass will be transformed into a rounded translucent pebble and these, especially those in interesting colours, are the most sought after. Much of the sea glass in our collection is still quite angular, So I’ve been thinking of more ways to use it, especially since I made some mosaic coasters earlier this year. I had an assortment of polystyrene balls, so I wondered how they would work covered in a sea glass mosaic to make Christmas tree baubles.

I started with the loop to hold the hanging thread. I cut a piece of wire about 12 cm long and bent it round a pen to form a loop.

I threaded the ends through a glass bead and pushed them into the ball. I kept the ball in position on a toothpick pushed into a piece of polystyrene packaging, then began to glue the pieces of seagrass in place. I tried PVA glue first of all, but it doesn’t dry quick enough and the glass started to slide off. I needed a quick drying alternative.

I ended up deploying my trusty glue gun. I’d avoided it at first as I thought the hot glue might melt the polystyrene but it was fine. I continued hot glueing the glass pieces to the ball, occasionally cutting a piece to fit with the tile cutters.

It was soon covered with glass sections. I then mixed up some grout and filled the gaps, pushing it into the spaces with a finger. I allowed this to dry slightly then wiped over the glass with a damp sponge to remove the excess.

Then it was simply a case of adding a hanging thread. You can spray with polyurethane varnish to protect the grouting and give the glass a sheen, or even shine it up with a tiny drop of vegetable oil.

I think this would work even better using a clear plastic base. I’ve see these in craft shops, with a hanging loop incorporated. This would make the whole bauble translucent.

Overall I’m happy with it. It might be a little bit early to think about Christmas decorations, but I can live with that!

Have you started thinking about Christmas decorations or presents yet?

Wildflower of the Week: Hedge Bindweed

I haven’t written a Wildflower of the Week post for a while as there are not too many wildflowers in bloom at this time of year. There is still Hedge Bindwood in flower however.

Hedge Bindweed grows rapidly, twining anti-clockwise as it grows upwards, smothering out other plants. On a warm day when it is growing rapidly, it can twine a complete revolution in an hour. It’s not popular with gardeners being a pernicious perennial weed. If you try to dig it out and leave the tiniest fragment of root behind it will grow back!

The plant is hairless with arrow or heart-shaped leaves.

The large white flowers are trumpet shaped, formed from five fused petals.

The flowers are popular as a source of nectar for bees, butterflies and moths, including night-flying moths as the flowers do not shut at night. Hedge bindweed is the food plant of the Convolvulus Hawkmoth.

The plant is toxic, containing alkaloid chemicals that have a purgative effect. It is also considered harmful to livestock and thought to cause colic in horses. The stems are tough so can be used as string in an emergency.

The plant has many country names including Windweed, Devil’s guts and Granny-Jump-Out-of-Bed. Children played a game, squeezing the calyx and making the flower “jump” off the end, giving rise to that name.

As one of the few wildflowers still about in October (and quite an exotic looking one) Hedge Bindweed is quite a welcome sight….unless you are a gardener!