Monday 30 June 2014

plateau de Cayan

The storm is still some way off when we arrive at the crag. Storm clouds race across the sky between the summits and the heat is oppressive down here amongst the pine trees. Our friends rope up and I settle myself down and unpack my mobile workshop: carders, fleece, spindle. All around me, the forest is inviting: the pine trees, the black woodpeckers and the wild orchids. Just like that. 
I extend my arm, take a few locks of fleece and carefully tease them apart, picking out the debris as I work and letting it fall to the forest floors. Then I carefully brush them with my carders before making a stumpy rolag of fleece. 
Then the skies open and thick rain drops start to fall. I pack up everything and escape the impending storm, arriving at the nearby refuge quicker than the climbers. 
I don't think I'll ever tire of these summer days spent outside in the forests and the meadows.

Friday 27 June 2014

homeshore (hand-spun)

Have been feeling a tad homesick of late, longing for the sea and missing the pull of the tide on both sides of the channel. 

I wanted to create a yarn to remind me of the swell of the sea, the salty spray, flotsam and jetsom washed up by the tide...

So I took some pre-dyed carded wool batt that I had rescued a long time ago from the local woollen blanket producer  La Carde here in the valley. The fibres are far too short and jumbled to spin with, but they seemed perfect as "neps" to create a flecked yarn. I pulled apart tufts of the carded blue fibres and blended these neps into my main fibre supply during the carding process. 

The finished rolags were then spun using the woolen-spun method, as this helped to lock the short flecks into the yarn. Plying together normally in the S direction until balanced also helped to further lock the tufts into the yarn. 

I ended up with 29g of 2 ply yarn, which when knitted up into a tension square gave a wonderfully textured, heathered effect.


Ingredients: 25g of prepared natural wool and a small amount of pre-dyed, carded wool, prepared into tufts. 

Quantity: 28g giving around 49m of finished yarn.

Thursday 26 June 2014

chestnut husks (natural dyed)

In the kitchen, the scent of freshly brewed coffee hung in the air. On the hob, the chestnuts are simmering happily. We rest our tired legs under the table and from the window we can see the billowing clouds hanging low in the valley.

The timer buzzes and drags me from my revery. The chestnuts are done, my coffee cup is empty. It's time to dye some yarn...

I prepare the dye bath as I would if I were to use walnut shells. I boil the shells for about an hour to obtain the dye bath, removing the husks and adding a good dose of white vinegar once the concoction had cooled a little. Then I plunge a skein of damp yarn into the saucepan.

After bringing it once more to the boil, I gently simmer the bath for over an hour. Once the water has sufficiently cooled, I rinse the skein in luke warm water (to avoid felting!) until the water runs clear. 

I'm left with a fabulously smelling skein of yarn in a warm brown tone. I'm rather pleased by the results of my first attempt at natural dyeing...and can't wait to get something onto the needles!  

Tuesday 24 June 2014

that old chestnut

After many days of sunshine, we wake to a rather overcast Sunday. The chill in the air is accompanied by gentle rain showers. We pull on a jumper and decide to go with it, pretending it is Autumn rather than early Summer. 

We remember a kilo of foraged chestnuts, lying dormant in the freezer since late autumn. We turn on the radio, take out our pen knives and set to work, side by side.

No matter what method you use, preparing foraged chestnuts is always a labour of love. We tend to chill (or freeze) them first for at least an hour before starting. Using a strong, sharp knife, we cut them in half from top to bottom. Then we plunge them into boiling water for about ten minutes before draining and removing the nuts with a paring knife. It helps to keep the nuts warm as we work, as this helps the skins to come off. Once all the nuts are skinned, they then go back into a saucepan covered with water to simmer for about half an hour until tender. 

As we tend to eat mainly vegetarian (and at the moment without both gluten and dairy products too!) chestnuts are one of our favourite wild ingredients. Unlike other nuts, they are lower in oil and protein but higher in starch, which makes them a useful addition to cakes and savoury loaves, including our favourite wild chestnut and mushroom loaf from our French Vegetarian cookery bible: Ma cuisine végétarienne pour tous les jours by Garance Leureux (Editions La Plage). 

500g of wild chestnuts in their skins will yield about 350g once prepared. And what to do with all those left over husks...?

Monday 23 June 2014

letting go

If my eyes follow the lines of my arm as it extends beyond my body, they arrive at my hands. Both closed tightly.

If I were to peek into one of the hands, inside I would see everyone and everything I hold dear; my family, my beloved, my friends. But also my personal successes, big and small, my precious memories. 

Now if I were to examine the other hand, I'd see the fingers are clenched so tightly over into the palm, the knuckles are almost white. In this hand sit my life-long and more recent dreams. My secret longings, my most bitter jealousies. My joys but also my sadnesses. My hopes for the future but also my present despair.

With my fingers of both hands wrapped so tightly around these, I can open neither my hands nor my heart to anything else. As if I'd somehow loose myself if I dared to offer them up.

All that I hold in both these hands are part of me. I guard them jealously, unwilling to let them go. And yet.

No one is asking me to let go of my loved ones. No one can take away all that I have achieved. But perhaps I am hanging on too tightly to the other stuff?

If only somehow I could have the courage to loosen my grip, to let go of one handful? Then one day I would wake to find an open palm resting by my side, free to be filled with other possibilities. 

Sunday 22 June 2014

midsummer light (hand-spun)

Last night I sat in our town square spinning, watching the daylight drain away. The evening was balmy, the mountains alive with the sound of music. Hoards of people gathered around me, mesmerised by the turning of the wheel like moths drawn to a flame. Some were locals, some were strangers. But on an evening like that, those distinctions were irrelevant. We all felt the midsummer light on our skin. We were all equally a part of that moment.

As I sat there spinning, the sky darkened and a faint star blinked beyond the blue. It was after ten o'clock when I stopped spinning, but I didn’t want to go back inside.

"Midsummer light"

Ingredients: 55g of washed and carded wool, naturally dyed "in the fleece" with curcuma. (The fibre used was white Barégeoise fleece from Gèdre.)

Spinning: Two singles spun from all rolags in the Z direction, using the woollen technique.  

Plying: two singles plied in the S direction until balanced. 

Finishing: Wound off into a skein, washed and dried weighted to set the ply.
Quantity: 55g giving 118m of finished yarn

Thursday 19 June 2014

snakes and ladders

 The occupational therapists called it "boom and bust". I prefer to think of it as "snakes and ladders". 

When I moved over into that other place, the land of the sick, I became a player in a never ending game of snakes and ladders. Some days I jog along fine, seemingly unaffected. From time to time an obstacle blocks my path but by dogged determination and perseverance, somehow I overcome. All the time, I'm moving forward. Perhaps a little behind my fellow players. But I'm advancing all the same. 

There are even days, sometimes months, when as if by magic the universe seems to roll me double sixes and I shoot up ladder after ladder without a backward glance. It seems like I'm on the cusp of winning and I can hardly believe my luck.

Then all of a sudden I glance down the path and there's a gurt big snake sunning itself in my way. Before I know it, I slide all the way back down its slimy back and find myself further back from where I started.

When these setbacks occur, as they inevitably do, it's hard to not regress back to childhood and behave like a toddler. You want to sulk and have a tantrum. You wish you were playing a different game. You're angry that everyone around you seems to be doing better than you in their game, having more fun. You shout and bang your fists, hoping to knock their counters off the board but this only serves to set you back even further. 

Of course, there is another way. Instead of being a bad looser and spoiling things further, you can keep your calm, pick up the dice and roll again...

Wednesday 18 June 2014

after the flood

I'm starting to realise that to belong to a place means that you feel tender toward it, even if you were not born there. You are concerned for its welfare. When you return to this place after an absence short or great, you are surprised by the feelings it evokes in you. You were not aware that you missed it, but you did.

The little things you notice now, the steady transformation of the hillside from grey to green in the spring time, the wild lillies that wave in the summer breeze, those two motorists whose stopping in the middle of the road causes a traffic jam whilst they catch up with one another (and this doesn’t irritate you because sometimes you do it too), the antics of the neighbours cat in the street, the chiming of the church bell in the dead of night - all  of these familiars are made precious by repetition and knowledge.

And that view from the bridge of the water below, it still brings a gasp of delight. But to feel the pulse of those waters also drags up memories of last year, when the waters were a deluge rather than a trickle. 

Does the fact of having lived through that event - when the waters ripped our valley apart and we were cut off from the rest of the world for three days - does the fact that I too have a memory of that time mean that we now belong here?

Then as now -  a year after the flood - we were all there together on this earth. And we were all left hurting, earth and people combined. Some of us were locals, many of us outsiders. But for the time of the flood, those distinctions were irrelevant. We all felt the same fear and sadness. We were all soothed when the waters subsided and we felt the warm sun on our faces once again. We were all equally a part of this place, because we all lived through the flood.

Monday 16 June 2014

busy hands

We're now back in our valley home, after a few weeks away. Lately, fatigue has been becoming more and more a heavy weight around my neck. Not the everyday tiredness that comes from leading a hectic life. Nor the Sunday morning sluggishness and lethargy be-known to students brought on by one too many sugary cups of coffee, frequent late nights or not enough fresh vegetables. Rather an exhaustion that greets you when you wake in the morning, that a good night sleep won't lift. A tiredness so consuming it seeps into your bones, that could drain away all happiness if you let it do so.

Just a few short months ago, I was a teacher and translator. Working for myself from home. Weaving together words and untangling muddled syntax. It feels like another life ago. I've been off work since March, too ill to work. And as this current rough seems to be showing no sign of abating, looks like I'll be taking the rest of the summer off too.

As we try to navigate our way back to that path of wellness, my days have been stripped back to the essential. Eating wholesome food. Fresh air. Long sleeps. Deep breaths.

Foraging in the woods helps. Picnics in the sunshine helps. Spending time with friends helps. And above all, keeping my hands busy helps.


My nights have been restless of late; dark shapes clouding my otherwise blue sky dreams.

My calls through the thick ink of night snap him to attention and without recollection of space or time he is tangled in her damp hair. He wraps me in his arms and whispers in my ear until he feels my heart return to its natural rhythm.

His breath graces my neck and my body softens. Sleep beckons me once more and he gently returns to his half of the bed, my warmth still on his chest. These are the ways he knows how to soothe my nightmares. Treading slowly with me. Holding tight. Making new dreams.
I hope that these dreams, this fog, will not haunt me for long. We hope they are merely a product of this rocky patch now; a mind leaping ahead whilst its accompanying body lags behind out of breath from the mere exhaustion of being.

Saturday 14 June 2014

proper knitting yarn (hand-spun)

Like proper knitting yarn. 

That was my first thought when I wound off this yarn into a skein. So white, so soft, so uniform and neat.

It was worth taking a break from the wheel, worth taking my time at every stage, if this is what I ended up with. I loved those first nobbly attempts at yarn making. But I love this even more...

"Proper knitting yarn"
Ingredients: around 70g of washed and carded wool. The fibre used was white Barégeoise from Gèdre. 
Spinning: Two singles spun from all rolags in the 7 direction, using the woollen technique.  

Plying: two singles plied in the S direction until balanced. 

Finishing: Wound off into a skein, washed and dried weighted to set the ply.

Quantity: 68g giving around 220m of finished yarn

Friday 13 June 2014

in these green mountains

“If you asked me why I live in these green mountains
I would laugh at myself. My soul is at rest.”
Li Po (701-762)

Mountains get into your blood. After almost five years of living in the Pyrenees, I miss their familiar contours when I go away. I am used to their monumental presence, the way they seem so fixed and eternal, and yet offer a visage that seems to be constantly changing.

These mountains are indeed green, but they are also sometimes white, golden, grey or blue...
Every day the first thing I do is look up at the mountains, the unfolding peaks that tower over our little valley village to the east and to the west. Nothing else seems quite so satisfying.  

Tuesday 10 June 2014

out of the woods

It’s just gone 4pm on a stifling hot Monday afternoon in June. We're on our way back from Brittany, back down south to our valley home.

And we’re still driving, driving, driving through the Landes. Over 300 miles of France lies behind us, but we’re not out of the woods just yet. There is still at least another four hours until we reach the mountains.

Nico is valiantly driving on, despite the heat. I'm staring blankly out of the back window, mesmerized by the flickering light passing between this endless stretch of pine-trees, gorse and bracken.

In most literary accounts, the Landes, this seemingly endless stretch of wilderness between Bordeaux and the mountainous border is often described as despairing and relentless. Many writers see it as a deliberate attempt by the inhabitants of the south west of France to create such despair amongst outsiders attempting to journey through it, that they give up and turn back round before arriving chez eux, thus leaving them in peace.
In some respects, this interpretation is correct. As believe it or not, this stretch of ‘moor land’ (literal translation of ‘landes’) is entirely man-made. Up until a couple of centuries ago, this area which is as flat as a pancake was nothing but a fairly impassable swampland, notorious as a place for outlaws and epidemics of malaria. Starting in the mid sixteenth century, successive powers ordained the reclamation of the land through the mass sowing of gourbet (marram grass) and the planting of thousands of pine and gorse seedlings. The work continued through successive generations. By the time of Napoleon III, the mouth of the Adour river was finally fixed at Bayonne and most of the coastal and inner marshland had been converted to dry land. The early nineteenth century was the glory days of the area, as the pine trees supplying both timber and resin became the fortune of the department.

Today, these same trees are still an important asset for the area. They are also a rather welcomed change after the mind-numbing monotony of the road  for the past eight hours since we left Brittany early this morning. The yellows of gorse and greens of ferns at the feet of the towering pines sooth my tired eyes as we journey yet further south…

…We’re still driving through the Landes, but the landscape is at last becoming noticeably less flat. Soon we shall arrive at Aire-sur-Ardour for a welcomed stretch of the legs by the river. Then it will be another hour and a half before we get that elusive first glimpse of the mountains just north of Tarbes. If we manage to get there before the storm breaks, that is…

Friday 6 June 2014

breathing space

A pause had been in order for a very long time. A pause from work. A pause from the valley.

I left for Dorset, returned in Normandy. Now we are in Brittany to rest beside the sea. These weeks spent with my family and belle-famille are starting to resemble an early spring ritual now. Off we go in search of the elusive Spring that still shows no sign of turning up back down in our mountains, recharging our batteries and renewing links with our points d'ancrage.


Lately, fatigue has once more been a heavy weight around my neck. Not the everyday tiredness that comes from leading a hectic life. Nor the Sunday morning sluggishness and lethargy be-known to students brought on by one too many sugary cups of coffee, frequent late nights and not enough fresh vegetables. Rather an exhaustion that greets you when you wake in the morning, that a good night sleep won't lift. A tiredness so consuming it seeps into your bones, that could drain away all happiness if you let it do so.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

flotsam and jetsom

We've been walking in woodlands, across meadows and through salt marshes. But today I am in my favourite place, beside the sea. I walk along the shore at a snail's pace. I take baby steps. It's frustratingly slow and I seem to tire very easily at the moment. But this will have to do for now.

The sea  invigorates me. I feel the breath rush out of my lungs and the sharp intake of new air. The tang of salt spray, the sound of surf, the call of the sea birds.

Spindle in hand, I walk slowly and carefully, just at that place where the waters and the sand overlap.

I walk slowly because I am tired today. But also to keep the yarn that I am slowly creating from breaking and loosing the whole thing to the sea...

As I walk, as I spin, I find other fibres twisted together by man but also spun by Mother Nature herself, thrown up from the depths of the sea's belly to rest here a while on the sand.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

once again

The wheel has been turning since I got back. Singles spun from fluffy clouds. Wrapped back together in a loving embrace. Once again, I am back at my wheel. For the first time, I've been spinning intentionally. Conscious of what I am creating. Conscious of my mistakes, of my successes. Conscious also of the energy it takes me to do so. I spin in short bursts, doing a little here and there, when the fatigue is not so great. My thoughts revolve around the materials, the colours, the textures, the combinations. I breath the wild chaos of my making room. And again. And again. It feels so good, so right.

the things that keep us up at night

It's not the ache behind the eyes,
the loss of appetite or
the painful limbs.
The pallid skin or the freezing hands.

Neither is it the lost years.
The exams left untaken,
The high heels left unworn,
or the broken dreams. 

Rather, it is the perception of others,
their lazy comments or ignorant
judgements. Their unwillingness
to understand. To accept.

Their incessant questions and their hurtful words
muttered under their breath, which we
broach without comment.

These, not the fatigue nor the pain, are the things that
eat away at our lives, that mark us out
that keep us up at night.