Last week I received an offer I couldn’t refuse: a free ticket for Wonderwool Wales at the Royal Welsh Showground, Builth Wells. Celebrating almost everything associated with a sheep and its clothing, Wonderwool looked like a golden opportunity for me to turn roving reporter*. Everything was included, even transport. So, bright and early Saturday morning I set off on the coach carrying much of the Wiltshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers.
And what a day we had! Longish outward journey [meh], the final third spent hurtling at improbable speed down twisting, terrifyingly narrow Welsh lanes [double meh]. I should really have known by the name that all the roads that lead you there are winding. But it was a tonic to see Wales in the radiant spring sunshine since I usually visit in near-horizontal rain. This was just like the tourist brochures: white cottages edged in black nestling at the foot of brooding mountains, quaint stone bridges (which the coach only just managed to negotiate) arching over sparkling stone-strewn river beds, and plenty of nodding daffodils. It was a relief to finally arrive mid-morning, with fatigue and slight travel-sickness rapidly subsiding and excitement kicking in.
Half barn, half textile show
The venue was no-frills but spacious. And, yes, true to its billing, the whole place was woolly, even the information point.
Woolly thinkers welcome
I soaked it all up: stall upon stall of fleeces, in varying stages of refinement; big bags of roving; carding equipment; drop spindles; spinning wheels; felting supplies; dyeing products; yarn of all types (plain for home-dyeing, or coloured variously as the rainbow); knitting needles; crochet hooks; buttons (outsized wooden, ceramic, vintage); blankets, blankets, and more blankets. Refreshingly, there were signs urging ‘Please touch!’
One stall was devoted to all varieties of guernsey knitting, with cute little knitted samples. Every pattern tells a story.
Propagansey's display of traditional patterned fishing jumpers
There was extreme knitting with giant knitting needles so mesmerising that I forgot to take a picture. And Susie Johnson of the Wool Sanctuary, responsible for Kirsty’s cute beach hut draft excluder, had a pretty stall. Jane Beck was there with her impeccable vintage and modern Welsh tapestry blankets, cushions, and now (in a new departure) clothing. I really enjoyed speaking with Jane who is pleasantly straightforward and direct. Coming away without buying anything was a struggle as her stall was too tempting; look out for her gorgeous line in vibrant waistcoats cut from end-of-line bolts of wool.
As you might expect, I had my eyes peeled for recycling and upcycling ideas. I found:-
recycled sari yarn…
rag-rugs being made from old t-shirts…
Patricia making a rag-rug from old t-shirts
and also from tweed skirts, by Jenni Stuart Anderson… who sells lovely implements for rag-rugging and has written a couple of good books on the subject.
Jenni Stuart Anderson's rag-rugs
There were knitted and fulled wool rectangles (those these weren’t actually recycled, but nevermind) from Undy Yarncrafts…
and simple peg looms for rudimentary weaving of scrap clothing strips: denim jeans, for example. Again, I got too excited to take snaps.
Moving away from the recycled wares, I found these beautiful hand-dyed cotton/silk embroidery threads from Strawberry Seahorse.
Hand-dyed embroidery cottons and silks
And I thought these Alpaca socks, from John Arbon Textiles in North Devon, were gorgeous; my picture doesn’t really do full justice to the delicious stripe and contrast heel/toe combinations. John Arbon also has a range of salvage cotton socks made from end-of-line and surplus yarn stocks which would otherwise be thrown away.
Alpaca socks, made in the UK
Dotted here and there were pens of real, live sheep. I spotted some angora bunnies too.
It's Wales. We have sheep.
Punters queued placidly outside the metal fencing for the Wool School. Inside were workshops such as Understanding and Maintaining your Spinning Wheel and Knitting without Needles. I was signed up for Fibre Choice and Preparation with Sue Blacker of the Natural Fibre Company. When the gate opened, we filed in obediently like a flock of compliant sheep. Our tutor unfolded entire shorn fleeces from sacks and had us feel and assess the fibres, their differences dictated by breed, health, age, location (both on the animal’s body and of the breed within the landscape). Sue’s knowledge and clarity were admirable, as was her obvious affection for her subject. It was oddly moving to see that sheep turn grey with age, just as people do. And to hear that stress experienced by the animal affects the quality of wool; it will become ‘fragile’ – i.e. the staple may break when stretched – if a sheep suffers a shock, such as a dog worrying it. A ewe may suffer similarly from the stress of having triplets. Sue explained how black sheep go reddish in the sun, and brown sheep go blonde (at least on the tips), so if you want to maintain your sheep’s original colour you must keep it in by day and only let it out to graze under cover of darkness. The fleeces were raw and unwashed and amazingly greasy to the touch, almost as though dubbin had been applied, but this was just the naturally occurring lanolin. It’s now obvious to me that sheep are waterproof, and I wonder why every schoolchild doesn’t get the chance to feel a sheep’s fleece too.
Fatigue and information overload were setting in by mid-afternoon and I was pretty much finished before I reached Finnish felting. I snoozed on the coach journey home, dozing off some time after we spotted a field of improbably gangly Alpaca. The small square piece of fleece I bought just before leaving the festival came in handy as an impromptu pillow against the coach window. No sheep-counting necessary.
Wonderwool Wales 2012 will take place April 28-29, Royal Welsh Showground, Llanelwedd, Builth Wells, Powys, LD2 3SY. Enquiries: email@example.com or 01938 820495
*I apologise unreservedly for the quality of that pun.