Today’s blog story is to tell you about my rug-making teaching adventures over the summer and about the new downloadable instructions I’ve created on how to make felted fleece rugs.
I’ve been thinking about running rug-making workshops here on our smallholding for a few years now. Then Covid happened and my plans went on hold. Truth be told, I didn’t mind too much as the thought of all the spiders I would have to face while clearing out the shed was quite daunting.
I would need a lot of room, particularly as part of my vision was to include an area for a table and chairs for participants to relax and enjoy tea, coffee and biscuits in between felting – very important for any workshop, especially a whole-day one involving loads of physical effort. All the room I would need would take a huge effort and reorganization of tools and equipment.
I’m happy to say I managed it! (Admittedly with a lot of help from Adrian, my personal “Chief (humane) Spider Remover”). And this summer the workshops became a reality.
The shed was transformed into a teaching room complete with large tables for felting and shelves for wool, towels, bars of soap and hot water urns. The spiders moved next door, they said they weren’t keen the disturbance and preferred the peace and quiet of the hay shed.
Over the last few months, as well as teaching here on site and meeting some really inspiring and creative people, I’ve also updated my original (face up method) “downloadable rug making instructions”.
You’d be right in thinking I’m on a mission to spread the love of wool 😊
For those of you who know a little bit about making felted fleece rugs, you’ll probably be aware there are two ways to make them. There is the “face up method” which is brilliant if you’re new to rug making as it’s slow and methodical. It’s also ideal if you have a fleece which is in bits but you still want to use the wool. It’s a time-consuming method but a lovely, meditative way to work.
Then there’s the “face down method” which is a little quicker than the above method, but you need a fleece which holds itself together well and isn’t likely to fall apart at the slightest puff of wind. This method can be somewhat daunting if you’re new to rug making as you’re working upside down. (Not you, the fleece).
If you’re interested in making your own rugs and creating something unique and beautiful for your own home, I can’t recommend it enough, just dive in and give it a go! You can buy raw fleeces from ebay and etsy or better still, direct from a farm. Click on the links below to find out more about learning this wonderful craft:
We wouldn’t mind Clippy doing her own thing if it wasn’t for the fact that as flock leader, she naturally sets an example to the other hens. As a result, the flock is becoming noticeably more feral. Over time we have discovered not just Clippy sleeping rough, but often two or three accomplices in neighbouring trees. It’s not only at bed time that the hens are doing their own thing, over the summer we had hardly any eggs, or so we thought, until yesterday when Adrian stumbled across a huge pile nestled in a clump of sedge grass.
Things came to a head recently when one warm summer’s evening, MMJ (mother of the chicks) decided to sleep in the tree tops alongside her pals Clippy, Salt and Pepper. MMJ didn’t seem to realise that her chicks were too little to follow her, and perched high up upon her branch, merrily called them to follow her into the trees. Fortunately we were in the garden frying sausages on the barbeque and heard the commotion. With a little strategic shaking of branches we encouraged MMJ to abandon her camping expedition and go to bed in the coop with her little ones safely tucked under her wings.
Unfortunately MMJ going wild camping with her feathered pals didn’t prove to be a one off. This has meant that every evening for the past couple of months, we have been on “hen watch” at dusk. This has meant creeping around the orchard to see what MMJ gets up to.
We’ve tried blocking the bushes and launch pads but to no avail. Clippy gets past all barriers and is often accompanied by one or two others.
There’s another reason we don’t want the hens sleeping wild, it’s disruptive to our evenings and many a dinner has been reduced to burnt morsels while we pad around the orchard looking for hens and it’s a huge worry that the chicks lives could be in danger. But on the other side of the bushes is our farm track leading to neighbouring houses. If the hens decide to fly down from the trees on the other side, they could end up on the wrong side of the fence unable to get back in. More than once we’ve found hens wandering around in the morning looking to get back into the orchard for their breakfast.
Again, this wouldn’t be a problem in itself if it wasn’t for the fact that sometimes visitors to our neighbours have dogs and unfortunately seem to forget they’re in farming country and let the dogs wander around off lead. As smallholders, loose dogs around livestock is a huge concern.
So, having had one too many evenings disrupted, the thought of hens getting into trouble or the whole flock ending up feral, we decided to take action.
We’ve moved the hen coops away from the trees, into a part of the orchard where we can keep an eye on them from the kitchen window. We’ve blocked off the wooded area where the hen coops used to be.
Also, in preparation for winter and prowling badgers, we have ordered a large walk-in run from Omlet. This company has predator proof runs with a “skirt” running around the bottom making it impossible for anything to burrow its way in. The mesh is strong and nibble proof so will provide an added layer of protection for the flock at night. It will make things easy for us to encourage the flock to roost in the safety of the hen coops at night. Once the run is up, we’ll throw some corn in, shut the outer door and let the hens re-aquaint themselves with the coops. We also plan to install an automatic door on the run that shuts at dusk and opens at dawn so the hens can wander off into the orchard as they please during the day, but at night they’ll be safely tucked up. This arrives later today so we’ll be busy building that for the rest of the week.
Meanwhile, we’ve already moved the coops and have spent the last three evenings in a mild state of stress watching the hens sorting out who sleeps where while they go “in, out, in, out, in out” of the coops for what feels like hours . The most painful part has been monitoring Clippy and the chicks. She has sent them skidaddling from the coop with a sharp peck on several occasions and the first time this happened we had to intervene as the chicks ran all the way down to the lambing shed at the far end of the orchard and it was getting dark. We put Clippy into a different coop that evening and the chicks came back with a little encouragement. However we don’t want to be intervening like this every time, Ideally the hens should sort it out for themselves and Clippy needs to learn that the chicks are part of her flock. It’s a tricky one knowing when to intervene and when not to.
The last two evenings haven’t gone too badly, still a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but Clippy has been more tolerant of the chicks which has been a big relief.
We’re really looking forward to having the hen run installed and our flock becoming more domesticated. We’re also looking forward to being able to cook dinner without any disruptions.
Two weeks ago I wrote about how we’d started Elliot’s “hen training“. Well it’s still going on, we’re taking things slowly because while Elliot is a natural livestock guardian and he’s great around the sheep, we weren’t sure how he’d behave around the hens. Being a rescue dog it’s possible he’s had to scavenge small animals including birds during his early months on the streets. Rushing the hen training just wouldn’t be the right thing to do in his case. And anyway, building his “hen friendly neural pathways” takes time. We also wanted the hens to get used to Elliot as these things work both ways. If Elliot and the hens are to get along, they both need to be used to each other’s presence.
It’s four weeks into the training, ten minutes a day of bringing him into the orchard, throwing corn down for the hens and bringing them a tiny bit closer each time.
This week the hens are about one meter away from Elliot which is good progress. The atmosphere remains calm and relaxed. Elliot continues to show the right kind of interest, not fixating, just looking. He’s showing all the right signs of being a good hen friend, but we’re going to keep going with the training until we can have the hens running right up and around him while he remains calm and relaxed. The hens must always be higher status than Elliot, even if they’re in his space, Elliot must respect them.
Now that the sheep have accepted Elliot and he can join us off-lead in amongst them, we have turned our attention to teaching him how to be around our hens. The hens wander around freely in the orchard and up until now Elliot’s not been allowed into the orchard because of this. The orchard is the hens’ domain but we’d like to be able to extend Elliot’s freedom and allow him into the orchard too, so it’s important he learns how to behave around the hens. As with the sheep training, George (our other rescue Anatolian) will be the main teacher, we’ll just be there to guide him.
So, a couple of weeks ago or so, we began “Operation Hen Training”. The training itself is simple but has to be repeated every day and preferably with Elliot in a relaxed mood. With this in mind we thought a good time to do it would be directly after his mid-morning walk.
The idea is we take Elliot into the orchard, lie him down in the “relax” position and then bring the hens in, not too close, but not too far. Both the hens and Elliot will need to be aware of each other’s presence but not be spooked by it.
Elliot isn’t allowed to look at the hens, not at first. After a bit he’s allowed to look, but not fixate. If he fixates, we distract him.
We repeat this for a few minutes every day and bit by bit we bring the hens in a little closer. Eventually we’d like to have the hens running all around Elliot and both hens and Elliot calm in each other’s presence.
A small side note, we’ve had to approach the hen training cautiously because during Elliot’s first weeks with us, Clippy (top hen), accidentally found herself in Elliot’s play paddock. We were throwing a ball for Elliot and he was running after it when out of the blue, Clippy popped out from under a hedge. Elliot thought a hen much more fun than a tennis ball and ran after her at full pelt and Clippy ended up between his jaws. Fortunately we managed to dive in and rescue her and the story ended well.
However, Clippy remained wary of Elliot and whenever she spotted him walking past she sounded the alarm (very loud squawking).
We’ve not forgotten the incident and nor has Clippy or Elliot, but we’re hoping that with the right approach we can still go ahead and get Elliot to the point where he behaves respectfully around the hens.
So for the last two weeks or so we’ve been going into the orchard every day along with George. Adrian puts Elliot into his relaxed position and watches his body language and where he looks. I scatter corn nearby and the hens come in and peck away at the corn, all the while with Elliot lying just a few meters away.
On the first day we did this, Clippy was very cautious and stayed much further away than the other hens. When we got up to go, the sight of Elliot standing up was too much for her and she squawked for all she was worth.
On the second day Clippy decided Elliot was less of threat and the call of the corn was too strong. She followed the other hens in, and although she kept her distance, she didn’t sound the alarm and everything remained calm.
The chicks are the bravest, they come in quite close albeit under the watchful eye of their mum. The chicks haven’t learnt about danger yet so we’re keeping our eye on them too. There is a lot at stake so we’re taking the hen training slowly and carefully.
We’ve been repeating this daily and each day we’ve been able to bring the hens in a tiny bit closer.
It’s slower progress than the sheep training, but we’re confident we’ll get there. So far Elliot has been calm and not shown the wrong kind of interest in the hens. And the hens have been learning that Elliot isn’t a threat.
We’ll write another blog post with a progress update soon.
I often get asked how I get my white rugs so clean so I thought it might be helpful to all you woolly crafters out there, if I shared my hints and tips with you.
Most of the rugs I make come from Scotch Mule fleeces. The Scotch Mule is traditionally creamy-white in colour with long, silky curls. I’m a real sucker for a soft, white cloud of a rug so my fleece shed is unsurprisingly full of delicious, creamy, curly locked fleeces. Unfortunately, as with most fun things in life there’s a drawback, lighter coloured fleeces take a lot of work to clean up. Every speck of dirt shows and I don’t have an industrial set up here, it’s just me, soap and water.
While the natural look is a huge part of the beauty of these rugs, I like to strike a balance between keeping the wool looking as natural as possible while at the same time encouraging it to look its very best. The look I prefer is a mixture between natural beauty and “just stepped out of the salon”.
Happily, having made a lot of white rugs over the years I’m pleased to say that I’ve learned a few tips along the way which I can’t wait to share with you. Read on to find out about how to clean up a white fleece and get your rug looking absolutely gorgeous.
First and foremost, how the rug turns out depends largely on the quality of the wool that you start out with.
But let’s imagine you have a decent fleece. It’s raw and lovely, full of lanolin and has that yummy sheepy smell about it. There are dags here and there and some matted wool around the edges, but you can see it has lots of potential and would make an amazing rug.
Now let’s imagine you’ve skirted the fleece and removed the matted and daggy wool. You’ve picked out a lot of the vegetable matter (moss, seeds, straw etc). You’ve felted it and made it into a rug.
It’s time to sit down and put your feet up.
Sorry, what I meant to say was, it’s time to roll your sleeves up and do some more work 😉
Firstly, you’re going to remove the lanolin by a process called scouring. A lot of lanolin will have come out in the felting, but there will still be lots left. It’s important to remove it because it attracts moths and you wouldn’t want moths gobbling up your rug after all that hard work.
Put the rug to soak in very hot water (at least 60’c) with a normal laundry detergent, not a wool one yet, this comes later. You’ll want a detergent which is slightly alkaline to open the wool fibres and get them clean. Don’t agitate the rug, just leave it to soak for 20 minutes. The main purpose of the hot wash is to remove the lanolin and to kill any moth eggs that might be lurking in the wool. Hint, it’s important to take the fleece out of the hot water after 20 minutes and no later. If you leave it in any longer, the water will start to cool down and the lanolin will harden up and stick to the fleece again. Repeat the hot soak if necessary, (once, twice, three times … use your discretion depending on how much dirt and lanolin there is in the wool). The rug is ready for the next stage once the run-off water starts looking clearer. The run-off won’t be crystal clear at this point, but neither will it be a dark murky brown as it was earlier on.
Next, fill your bathtub with lukewarm water (no hotter than 30’c), add a squirt of wool/silk laundry detergent, lay your rug in the water face down and allow to soak for an hour or so. Feel free to swish the rug around a little to loosen up any bits of dirt. Rinse in cool water with a slosh of cider vinegar (or white vinegar) until the water runs clear. Add some drops of lavender oil to the final rinse water as a moth deterrent. Alternatively, put the rug into the washing machine on the wool cycle at 30’c. Make sure you use a wool/silk laundry detergent and never use fabric conditioner/softener. Instead, pour some vinegar (about 15mls) into the rinse drawer with a few drops of lavender oil. Wool really loves a vinegar rinse, it helps to get rid of soap residue and it brings the pH back to wool’s preferred state which is slightly acidic.
Once the rug is washed and rinsed, lay it flat to dry, curls facing upwards.
Once the rug is dry it’s time to check it over, make sure everything’s in place and remove any remaining bits of moss, seeds etc. You may be wondering at this point why your rug doesn’t appear as clean and fluffy as you had imagined it would be after all that washing. You might even think it looks a little grubby and seems a little sorry for itself.
Welcome to “the ugly duckling stage”. 🐣
Fortunately there is a simple explanation for this and a beautiful swan will emerge very soon. The wool is actually much cleaner than you think, but because the lanolin has been washed out it is lighter in colour now. This means that any dirt lingering in the tips of the curls (which is where it likes to linger), is very noticeable in comparison with the rest of the wool.
The other thing that you’ll notice is that a lot of the wool is flattened down. This is perfectly normal and nothing that can’t be fixed.
So, what can be done about those grubby tips and those squashed down locks?
Well first of all it depends on what type of fleece you have.
If for you have a fine woolled fleece, like my favourite Scotch Mule for example, the wool will need very different treatment to a coarser woolled fleece, like say a Herdwick or a Welsh Mountain.
I will leave courser wools for another day, but for fine wools read on to find out how to get your rug looking fabulous:
Make sure the rug is completely dry, set aside several hours, and start to work through the wool methodically. I call this process “preening”.
Take a little curl and run it between your finger and thumb from the base to the tip. This serves several purposes:
You’re making sure that each and every curl has felted in properly and there are no bald spots. If you find curls which haven’t taken or a bald spot, this can be remedied using a needle felting tool and popping the curl back into place.
You’re making sure each curl is standing upright and not squashed flat. If you find any flattened down curls, simply tease them up again.
You’re checking that the curls aren’t getting over friendly with their neighbours. In the felting and washing process the curls can bunch up a bit so just separate out any clumps you come across.
You’re removing crispy tips. Sometimes, depending on the fleece you’ll come across crispy tips, (exactly like dry ends on hair). Afterall, the fleece has been on the sheep for a whole year so it’s not surprising there may be a little patch of dry and damaged wool here and there. These crispy tips are dead wool so can be easily pulled off.
You’re teasing out dirt from the tips. Dirt tends to linger in the tips and no amount of washing seems to remove it. It needs to be manually removed with your fingers. Gently separate the strands of wool at the tips and then “rake” out the dirt with your finger and thumb. You could brush out the tips if you prefer but be sure to only brush the very tip, not the whole curl. You want to keep the curl intact and brushing would destroy it.
You’re removing any remaining bits of vegetable matter. You’ll find that even after all that felting, washing and rinsing there will be little bits of grass, seeds and moss hiding away in the wool fibres. Part of the beautifying process is removing these remaining bits of meadow sprinklings.
All this takes several hours but as you work through the fleece and see the wool transform before your eyes you’ll see how satisfying it is.
Optional stage – second wash
Sometimes the preening can dislodge bits of dirt and you might feel the rug would benefit from another wash. If this is the case, pop it back in the bath or the washing machine (wool cycle) as before. If you handwash it, don’t forget the vinegar rinse.
Optional stage – Hair conditioning soak
Sometimes the preening can leave the wool a little fluffy. Or you might just decide to give your rug a special treat. Either way, a soak in hair conditioner really brings up wool looking and feeling its best. Here’s what to do: Fill your bathtub with lukewarm water, add a generous dollop of SLS and paraben free hair conditioner. Leave it to soak for an hour or so. Rinse in cool water (with a dash of vinegar and some drops of lavender oil) as before. Do not wring, gently squeeze out the water and leave flat to air dry curls facing upwards.
The moment you’ve been waiting for …
After a couple of days or so depending on the time of year, your rug should be dry and you can do that thing that you’ve been wanting to do ever since you first washed it. You can shake it out like hair in a shampoo ad and admire it and feel proud of yourself for putting in all those hours of work beautifying the wool. “Ta daa!”
We’ve had our new dog Elliot for just over a month now. Being a rescue dog and coming from Turkey, up until now we’ve focussed mainly on settling him into his new environment and getting him used to his new “pack”, (us and of course George our resident dog).
Elliot’s young life has seen many changes, first he was rescued from the streets where he faced an uncertain future, then he lived in a rescue centre for a while, then a foster home, and then eventually he moved from Turkey to Scotland where he came to live with us. At only a year old he has experienced a lot of upheaval so we knew it would be important to take things slowly and help him to feel secure in his new environment. His training would therefore be approached in a very slow and gentle manner.
Furthermore, although to us humans his past was wobbly and his new home is, from our perspective, all he could ever wish for, this lovely new home wouldn’t necessarily be that great from Elliot’s point of view, at least not at first. To Elliot, it’s “yet another change”, more sights and smells to get used to and another pack to get to know. It would all be quite stressful for him to adjust and this would more than likely take a few months. We know from taking on new livestock that animals never truly settle until about the six month mark. They might give the appearance of being settled sooner than this, but there are little things about the body language and a look in the eye that lets us know they’re still finding their feet.
So with this in mind we were aware that during Elliot’s adjustment period we’d need to approach his training taking little baby steps.
By the same token, we knew it would be important to start Elliot’s training pretty much from day one. Being an Anatolian cross, he’s a big, powerful dog with bags of energy and a huge willingness to learn. We knew he’d need mental stimulation as well as regular walks, so during week one we started to work on his recall.
Anatolians are bred to be independent dogs so doing a speedy recall isn’t their best subject. They prefer to make their own minds up about things. Asking them to “come” is the equivalent of sending them an e-mail. They get the message but they ponder it for a while and then decide in their own time whether it’s worth wandering over.
True to form, Elliot’s first recalls fell on “deaf” ears. We always practiced it on a long lead so we could guide him in and reward him. For the first two weeks we had to guide him in all the time. Then, one day he started to get it. He now comes over to us and rarely has to be guided, sometimes he bounds over which is very heart warming. We have a lot of land here on the smallholding so in anticipation of him needing to be reached from further afield we’ve now replaced the vocal command with a whistle. He’s responding well to this and seems to prefer the whistle to our voices.
As he’s enjoying learning so much, we’ve introduced “sit”, “down” and “relax” to his repertoire. The “relax” position is really important, it is where Elliot lies on his side. We included this in anticipation of introducing Elliot to our livestock. We’d need him to be in the “relax” position when we take him in with the sheep and hens so that his energy would be right and he wouldn’t look threatening.
So, with his basic training ticking along so nicely we thought now would be a good time to introduce some sheep work to his routine.
Over the coming weeks we’ll be taking Elliot to an adjacent field to wherever the sheep might be grazing, and put him in the “relax” position for about ten minutes while the sheep mooch about near him but on the other side of the stock fence. George has an important job to do here, his job is to lie in a “down” next to Elliot to show him how it’s done. Elliot will be allowed to look at the sheep but not fixate. He’ll be on his lead and supervised at all times.
Yesterday was a big day for Elliot, his first day relaxing with the sheep! We had him in his “relax” right next to the sheep but behind a fence. Some of the sheep came up to investigate and Elliot stayed relaxed the whole time. He did brilliantly! The energy stayed calm, the sheep didn’t seem phased by him and we were more than happy with how it went.
Today we took him over again and repeated the process. We’ll be doing this every day for the next few weeks now. Later on we’ll repeat the process but with the hens.
There’s no way of telling how long it will be before we can let Elliot mooch around in amongst the sheep (on his lead), but we’ll know when we know. You can’t rush things like this, Elliot and the sheep both need to get used to each other’s presence and then start to build a relationship. We’re very much looking forward to seeing how he progresses over the next few weeks.
Every so often sheep get sore feet. This is not too surprising as they spend a lot of time on their hooves as they go about their daily business. Sore hooves are usually caused by “foot rot” which is a bacterial infection. Foot rot is really common in warm, wet summers such as the one we’re having this year. Bacteria loves nothing better than to hang around in warm, damp soil. There are however lots of other reasons a sheep could be limping so it’s always important to check the hoof carefully and find out what’s wrong before deciding on a course of treatment.
This morning on the early morning animal check Adrian noticed Yarr was limping. Heavy rain was due later (again!) so I decided to whizz out as soon as I’d finished breakfast and take a look at Yarr’s hoof to see what was wrong.
I grabbed my rucksack and filled it with everyone I’d need: a bottle of Betamox LA antibiotic, a syringe and needle, gloves, hoof clippers, a can of antibacterial blue spray, some sheep nuts and a bucket.
As the sky got darker I set off across the fields looking for the sheep. Luckily they were grazing not too far from the house, however I’d need to set up a pen and get Yarr into it in order to have a look at him. As luck would have it we’d left four hurdles stacked not too far away, so I set off to get these and trudged back, dragging them through the long grass. Hurdles are quite heavy and I can only manage two at a time so I made this journey twice, all the while hoping the sheep didn’t migrate somewhere else in the meantime!
Luck was on my side and as I set up my little treatment area, the sheep were still grazing nearby. Yarr was sitting down only a few meters away so he’d not have too far to walk on his sore foot.
I called him over and he made his way straight into the pen for which he got a big fat cuddle as a thank you. Yarr loves his cuddles, he’s very affectionate and fortunately he’s one of those sheep who doesn’t have an aversion to walking into pens.
With Yarr safely enclosed I took a look at his hoof. I worked out it was his back right and I had a bit of fun trying to keep him still while I inspected it. Sheep don’t like you lifting their back legs, it throws them off balance and they kick out, sometimes they can catch your hands so you have to watch you don’t get hurt. Using my body weight I wedged Yarr up against the hurdles with his head in a corner so he had nowhere to go, and lifted his back hoof as I did this. His hoof felt hot to the touch so I guessed he probably had an infection.
Just to be sure there was nothing else causing his limp, I cleaned his hoof really carefully. I removed the dirt and grit from the sole area, then I cleaned up the area between the digits which can sometimes get clogged up with little clumps of mud and all sorts. Then I trimmed off a bit of excess horn. This done I gave his hoof a good going over with antibacterial spray.
Then, I disentangled myself and set about preparing a wee injection for him.
As Yarr’s a big boy and I didn’t have Adrian there to hold him still, I went with the “sheep nut solution”. This is basically a distraction so the sheep doesn’t notice the needle going in and goes like this: “pop sheep’s head in a bucket with a sprinkling of nuts in the bottom to distract sheep whilst needle goes in”. The last thing I wanted was Yarr careering round the pen with a needle sticking out of his rump, ruining his experience of coming into a pen being a positive thing.
The sheep nut solution made the injection go very smoothly, so much so that I managed to take a photo. I don’t think Yarr felt anything which is always good when it comes to injections.
This all done and Yarr happy, I let him out and off he trotted to join his pals. We’ll keep an eye on him over the next few days and if he’s still limping in two days, we’ll give him another wee jag until the infection clears up.
I love vinegar! It has so many uses around the house other than in the culinary department. I use it in the dishwasher as a rinse aid, I make up a vinegar and water solution and clean my windows with it, I spray a vinegar solution onto the iron and bathroom taps to get rid of limescale and I use it as a stain remover. I even use it in the garden as a weed killer. My list could go on and on! But as this blog entry is part of my “Woolly Tips” – washing wool series, I’m going to rein myself in and focus on the benefits of using vinegar when washing wool, be that woolly socks, jumpers or felted fleece rugs.
First of all, a little bit about vinegar. There are loads of different types of vinegar; wine, sherry, cider, malt, balsamic, white, rice and lots more. Very simply put, each type of vinegar is made from a different core ingredient be this grapes, apples, grain or whatever else. Of all the different vinegars, white vinegar is the one traditionally used for cleaning as it’s slightly more acidic (therefore stronger) than the other vinegars. It is also colourless so there’s no risk of leaving a trail of vinegar stains in your wake as you go around the house merrily spraying it onto your taps and windows.
While my preferred vinegar for cleaning and weed control is white vinegar, I use cider vinegar for rinsing wool whether I’m washing bobble hats, socks and jumpers, or one of my felted fleece rugs. The simple reason I use cider vinegar is that I have litres of it knocking around because we make our own. If I didn’t have a glut of cider vinegar then I’d probably reach for the white vinegar.
So what are the benefits of using vinegar as a wool wash rinse?
I am bursting to tell you so here we go:
It removes lingering soap residue. This is particularly relevant if I’m handwashing a large felted fleece rug because rinsing one of these out can be quite tricky not to mention back breaking. Adding a slosh of vinegar to each rinse makes those soap bubbles disappear faster than a sheep sniffing out a sheep nut.
It closes the cuticles on the wool fibres making it smooth and silky. As with hair, the surface of wool fibres is made up of overlapping cuticles. When washing wool, the combination of warm water and soap opens the cuticles and leaves wool feeling a little stressed and rough to the touch if we don’t close the cuticles again. Enter vinegar! Vinegar does a marvellous job of closing those cuticles and smoothing out the wool fibres.
It restores wool’s pH back to being slightly acidic which is its preferred state. If you get geeky about laundry detergents as I confess I am, you’ll notice that wool and silk detergents have a lower, more acidic pH than “normal” laundry detergents for cottons and synthetics. “Normal” detergents as a rule, shouldn’t be used to wash wool because although the alkaline composition does a great job of cleaning, it is too harsh for wool and over time can cause damage to the fibres. Since I use an alkaline soap to felt my fleeces (alkaline soap is the best for felting), I absolutely need to restore the wool’s pH back to being slightly acidic. Each time I make a felted fleece rug it gets a vinegar bath after the final wash. I can almost hear it sighing with relief as it sinks into the water and the cuticles can relax again after all that hard work felting.
Sometimes people ask me how much vinegar to use in their rinse water/rinse cycle. My answer would be there’s no rule really, I use a “slosh” which probably equates to about 15mls with each rinse.
I also get asked if vinegar makes your woolly jumpers or felted fleece rugs smell like a chip shop. Funnily enough, once the wool is dry there is no vinegary smell at all. I also rinse my hair in a vinegar solution and can assure you that there is no smell of vinegar whatsoever, which is just as well because much as I like vinegar I wouldn’t want to walk around in a cloud of “eau de vinegar”.
This year we decided to hand clip our flock. We normally have them sheared by a pro and in recent years we’ve had a lovely chap round called Guy who specialises in small flocks. He does a great job and we’re really pleased to be on his books.
It was our sheep Vera who got us thinking about hand clipping this year. Vera has a sun allergy and each year just after shearing poor Vera gets the itchies. She comes up in red spots and we need to give her cream and steroids to help her cope. This goes on all summer from June until October when the weather cools down and her wool starts growing again. Although her sun allergy came about originally as a result of eating a toxic plant a few years back, we think losing her fleece at shearing time is definitely a trigger for “the itches”. We also think her skin might be a little irritated by the shearing blades.
So we thought we’d hand clip Vera this year and not give her a “number 1” hair cut, we’d give her a neat trim instead using hand shears. We thought leaving a little covering of wool on her might help her skin.
Happy with this plan we then had a radical thought, why stop at Vera, let’s hand clip them all!
Originally myself and Adrian were going to share the task of shearing, but we received Elliot our new dog last week. We’ve not trained him (or the sheep) to be in each other’s company yet so Adrian is on dog duty while I’m going to be shearing solo.
So, off I went on the quad bike with four hurdles rattling around on the back tied on with bailer twine. I also had with me my trusty pink rucksack containing my newly purchased shears, halter, water bottle, wound spray, plasters and some sheep nuts .
Slightly nervous, this being my first time hand clipping, I found the sheep in one of the top fields and set up a pen where they were, in situ. They gathered round curious as I laid everything out, including my instructions on a piece of paper which promptly blew away.
I brought Yaar into the pen and got to work.
As you can see from the photos, I decided to clip the sheep with them standing up as opposed to the more usual way which is where you have them in a sitting position between your legs and move “as one” with the sheep. Our flock are a relaxed bunch and are happy chewing cud and breathing in our ears while we do whatever needs doing to them. That said, this morning I did pop a halter on Yaar in case he decided to wander off at a critical moment.
I started at the nape of the neck and clipped away. An hour or so in I was quite pleased with my progress, I’d taken off most of the wool from his “barrel” and miraculously I’d managed to do it so it came off in one piece, a bit like peeling an orange. As I use their fleeces to make things with I didn’t want it all in bits floating around the hills!
After two hours of work I could tell Yaar was getting bored and I needed a cup of tea and something to eat so I let him out and went back to the house for some refreshment.
Half an hour later, re-energised, I went back and worked some more until lunch time. By now I’d done all of him except one of his back legs and his tummy.
After lunch I went back and finished him off. The trickiest part was definitely his tummy, Ryelands have a lot of wool on their tummies, more than most sheep and I had to watch that I didn’t accidentally castrate him. Poor Yaar, he let me crawl underneath him like a mechanic, he was so patient with me!
By mid afternoon I’d finished, I calculated I’d worked on him for about three hours not including all the breaks. I’m hoping the more I shear the faster I’ll get and hopefully I’ll have them all done and sporting new haircuts by the end of June!
For a while now Adrian and I have been thinking about silvopasture. This is a pasture system where livestock are given controlled access to trees so they can enjoy the benefits of woodland grazing.
Silvopasture has loads of benefits, not only to livestock but also on a grander scale to the planet. The more trees which are introduced to pasture systems the more diverse flora and fauna there is and the less “green deserts” there are (sterile fields). And let’s not forget the biggie; trees are a great way to contribute towards carbon sequestration.
But coming back to livestock and in particular to sheep, as you might have read in previous stories of ours sheep love trees, they use them as scratch posts and enjoy the shelter they provide, but they particularly enjoy eating them! So, when thinking about silvopasture, the fact that livestock are rather partial to tree bark and low growing branches means any woodland grazing needs to be carefully thought about.
Done properly, livestock is given controlled access to woodland grazing, usually in strips, which minimises the risk of tree damage and overgrazing. Not allowing permanent access to woodland allows the all important flora to regenerate and continue providing delicious forage for our livestock friends year upon year.
With this in mind, we thought long and hard about how to create an area of silvopasture for our little flock. All the woodland we have around our fields is young and so not ideal. It is also surrounded by a deer fence and if we gave the sheep access we might accidentally trap a deer within the woodland which would be a problem for both the deer and the young trees.
Then Adrian had a brainwave, we have a copse ideally situated in one of the sheep’s favourite fields. The trees are mature and would provide plenty of shade. It wouldn’t be great grazing, but as an alternative field shelter it would be just the ticket!
Currently fenced off, the copse comprises mostly conifers (we would have preferred more of a variety of trees and are already planning interplanting some deciduous trees in amongst the evergreens). But the location of the copse is good so we’re going to work with it.
Now that our main focus would be to give the sheep somewhere shady to go on hot days we would be able to close off the field shelter which is a magnet for flies. Building the shelter seemed like a good idea at the time but looking back we probably wouldn’t have built it now. There is little airflow and although it provides shade and we keep it mucked out, flies are a big problem.
The great thing about silvopasture is that the trees provide shade, but because there is good air flow, there are a lot less flies hanging around than there would be in a field shelter.
As I’ve mentioned in previous stories, flies, especially the Blowfly are bad news for sheep. Flies in general are annoying but the Blowfly can kill. Flies are always a concern for us during the summer but it’s a tricky one because sheep don’t fare well in hot weather and actively seek out shady areas to sit in and chew the cud. But if the air flow isn’t good then flies will be a problem which can be just as stressful, if not more so, than the hot sun.
When we made the decision to shut off access to the field shelter last month the sheep were not impressed at all. Despite it being less than ideal, they still love it and go there every day in the hope that they might be allowed in. It’s hard to see them missing their favourite haunt, but we know the new shady area will be a much better environment for them. We did explain this when we shut them out but they weren’t convinced. Sheep are creatures of habit and trundling off to sit in the old field shelter is still firmly part of their daily routine.
Just over two weeks ago we began work on the copse. First of all, Adrian created access to it by way of a wooden gate. This meant banging in a gatepost so we could fix the gate to it.
This done, we got our secateurs, loppers and pick axe and began work on the brambles. The copse was absolutely choked with them, they completely carpeted the ground and were halfway up the trees. We really had our work cut out.
We filled 12 big dumpy bags full of bramble branches and roots, we worked for two hours a day and gathered many splinters, so many we lost count.
But at long last, yesterday evening we pulled out our last bramble and were able to sit back and admire our work with a much deserved cup of tea and slice of flapjack. It was a very satisfying moment!
We will let the dust settle for two weeks and then let the sheep in. They’ll only be allowed in on hot days. We’re hoping that by only giving them occasional access during the summer when there’s plenty of grass about, they won’t be tempted to nibble bark and low growing branches.
There will be another story coming soon about how the sheep react when we let them into their “silvoshelter”, we can’t wait to see their faces when we open the gate for them and let them in to investigate!