Sunday, November 2, 2014

That old yarn

I haven't been to an agricultural show for at least a decade, and last time I did I was too old to get excited about showbags, rides on the whizzamagig and foodlike substances on sticks, but, on the other hand, I hadn't yet settled into my early-onset nanna-esque enthusiasm for produce displays and vintage machinery. Thirty-six, it turns out, is the perfect age for enjoying agricultural shows, and the Whittlesea Show today was a delight. I got to witness from afar the latest fairground cuisine (variations on deep-fried fairy-floss). The arts & crafts competition displays were glorious, esp. in the Best Decorated Orange or Potato category, the Fair Isle sock display, the carrot cake competition, and the great Orstrayan backyard dunny division. There were fewer exhibits of baby animals being terrorised by kids than I'd feared, and the weather was on the chilly side of 15ºC (thank you v. much, southerly change), which meant that the handsome, hand-brushed Poll Herefords standing around with no shade or water weren't suffering unduly. And - finally - there was an alpaca display, including a coven of spinsters transforming alpaca fluff into a very respectable yarn.

Which was just what I needed, being myself a struggling novice in the alpaca-yarn spinning department. I made some inroads about a week ago, after watching several bajillion instructional youtube videos on setting up my spinning wheel, carding fleece, making rolags (rolags!), and spinning itself. But even so, this meagre length of yarn -

- was all I could make before I stopped in frustration. The yarn kept breaking, and, uncoordinated at the best of times, I was finding it nigh impossible to pedal with one foot, use both hands to pinch the rolag into something finer and threadlike, not slow my pedalling down so that the wheel started going backwards, deploy my third hand to grab the next rolag and introduce it, scratch behind my ear etc, and remain upright. Hand-foot-eye-machine synchronisation, never my strong suit.

At some point in this dogforsaken initiation into spinning I gave up, grabbed an old ball of  Patons 5-ply and started knitting this bedsock, on which I made tremendous progress at last week's poetry-at-the-pub, with the aid of my trusty book of sock patterns, I Can't Believe I'm Knitting Socks.

If only there were a companion volume, I Can't Believe I'm Spinning Alpaca Fleece.

So, anyway, it was very comforting to speak to the alpaca spinners today and discover a few things: (1) everyone finds spinning hard at first; (2) noone learns to spin from youtube; (3) alpaca wool isn't your optimal beginner's fibre, given its tendency to break, whereas sheep's wool consists of cells that make the wool stick together (or something); and (4) there is such an institution as the Hand Weavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria, headquartered in Melbun, and I could take lessons or join a local group and bludge lessons for free. So I think that's now my plan: I will put the gigantic sack of alpaca fleece back in the cupboard, wait until the new year when the next term of Wednesday evening spinning lessons start, and in the meantime, if I'm stricken down with yarn nerdery, I'll use up some of the commercial wool I've been accumulating over the decades in a flurry of sock manufacturing. I might try treadling my spinning wheel at the same time, just to get my foot in.

Meanwhile, in other news: Spring! The season of empinkification in the front yard.

The season of bees in apple-blossom (except for the apple-blossom that didn't eventuate because the earwigs of doom climbed up the trunks in the night and ate the unopened flower buds ... bloody earwigs).

And t'is the season of Esme Australorp deciding to incubate the next generation of chooklings with her whole soul and self. Esme can't be photographed, because she has planted herself in the darkest farthest corner of the coop and will be enormously disaffected if I open the portal that lets light in on her (whirr, fluff, dinosaur impersonation). We procured for her eight fertilised eggs last Sunday, so that the sitting could produce something other than rotten eggs; she broke two by accident on her first day, settling in, but all's gone well ever since, and she's almost a third of the way through the incubation now with six eggs still intact. She is a model of endurance. The whole incubation involves 21 days of sitting, turning the eggs over now and then so the embryos don't stick to the shell, holding in her poos, her thirst, her hunger, her need to stretch, her desperate need for a dustbath, until that brief moment in the afternoon when it's warm enough to leave the eggs and she can dash out and get a day's worth of living compressed into twenty minutes. Puts my frustrations with the alpaca fleece and the spinning wheel of contrariety right in their place.


  1. What is the alpaca like on the hands, Miss A.? Waxy/oily/drying? Does it smell like wool? Verrry exciting to hear the progress, which I know feels like non-progress, but I think all this experience will count for a lot in the long run. Very good idea, joining an association of experts ...

  2. I think we need to see pictures of the 'most beautiful dunny' section of the show!

  3. Asparagus Pea, there are NO PHOTOS! (That'll teach me to head off to the Whittlesea show without a camera.) Think quintessential antipodean outhouse, though, and you'll just about have the right mental picture. The best of 'em were off-kilter cubicles made of greyed old fence palings, a strip of rusty corrugated iron for the roof, a bench inside with a hole cut out, for long-drop purposes, and a complementary redback spider or two.

  4. Kate, it doesn't have any lanolin and doesn't smell of anything very strongly (so I say, but the cats were both pretty interested in the sack of wool). It's soft, a bit like mohair, with no crimp (which also means it's not very elastic, hence some of my spinning difficulty). According to the alpaca propaganda I heard today, alpacas are better than sheep for Australian conditions, because their soft feet and their browsing habits are less eroding and de-vegetating than sheep's. Ta for the encouragement! x

    I'll pass on your well-wishing to Esme. She's got another fortnight to go, the dear girl, and then, if things go the way they did last time, her best friend Shirley will help her with the chick rearing.

  5. Shirley! Everyone needs a best friend named Shirley :)

  6. Love it. And still have very fond memories of a farm dunny I frequented. Built on a hill, with a lead light window from an old church in use as the door. And the obligatory red back(s).
    Good luck with wrestling the alpaca yarn into submission. Many of these old crafts are HARD. And so worth the effort.

  7. A leadlight dunny window - posho! At the Harlot Family Ancestral Estate (sold about a decade ago), before the house was built, we used a thunderbox that sat on top of a hole in the ground, on the hillside, no shelter. I used to sit there mooing back at the cows on the other side of the fence.

    Thanks for the craft-encouragement.

  8. Yep, Shirleys are always treasures -- this one especially. When she needs to lay her egg, she settles down right next to Esme, and the two of them roll the egg under Esme's breast into the egg-clutch. We're marked the fertilised eggs, which means that the Shirley egg can be easily identified and retrieved when Esme gets up for her daily ablutions.

  9. And this is why I don't keep chickens (apart from all the other reasons): I would be hanging around those hens all day watching them do eggy things and chatting to each other and it would really interfere with my sewing. Perhaps I could just switch to handsewing, in the chicken yard. However, I am quite chary re bird lice. (Which I suspect your girls don't have, but which changed my grandmother's life forever, mid-pluck, many years ago, when they swarmed up her arms.) Back to nice things: shall be eagerly watching out for Esme/Shirley/Egg updates.

  10. Chook voyeurism is definitely a thing, and there is a lot of wholesome labour that can be performed while fraternising with them (hand-sewing, as you say, and laptop typing, broad-bean shelling, sock-knitting, etc). Some activities are contraindicated - i.e., trying to eat your lunch, very unsuccessful on account of the chooks' imploring-cum-thieving, or trying to dig a hole (every hen I've ever known interprets this act of worm-unearthing as a personal favour to herself and comes and helps with the digging).

    We do sometimes get lice, which I blame on visiting turtledoves. Lice are mostly kept under control via dustbathing, but occasionally I've had to dust a chook with diatomaceous earth (it abrades the louse's exoskeleton).

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