The one thing that links us all across the globe on weblogs like this is our passionate love for and desire to get as much as we can of yarn. Chunky or laceweight, colourful or natural, smooth or full of bumps and boucles, we can't get enough of it. We search every corner of every shop wherever we might find ourselves to ensure that no ball goes unnoticed or unfondled. At least I do. Doesn't everybody? And although we may dally with rayons, flirt with viscose, giggle at eyelash and occasionally have a brief affair with exotic strangers like soy silk and bamboo, we all know in our hearts that top billing, the main stage, always goes to pure natural wool. There is nothing like it, for spinning, for knitting, for crocheting, for weaving. It's the classic, the uncontested queen of fibres.
So it's nice to go right back to the roots of the business and see where it all starts, that long road to your local yarn shop. And that's exactly what I did this morning, heading out to the small town of Millstreet in North Cork to meet a man called Daniel P. McCarthy (he is particularly fond of that P - omit it at your peril. What does it stand for? Patrick of course. What else would it be in Ireland?)
Dan is one of a vanishing breed of Irishmen, a wool merchant. His father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather were wool merchants before him, when a single fleece fetched a high price and the profits of one season's clip was enough to buy many acres of good farmland. Today, the cost of shearing far outstrips the few pence obtained for each fleece, but Dan still continues the family business. He buys each year's clip from farmers throughout the southern counties of Ireland and stacks the wool in his warehouse before it is bought by industry. Once local mills would have spun it into blankets, rugs and carpets; back in the 1980s, when Dan first came into the family business, those mills had gone and the product went to the huge spinning industries of Yorkshire in England. Today, his business is mostly with China and India where lower production costs make it still a profitable industry.
Dan loves his work, and knows a great deal about the wool he handles. 'See now, this is from a mountainy sheep,' he says. 'That's a rough fleece, you'd use it for something that would get hard wear. And this is from a lowland sheep, it's much softer and nicer, but it wouldn't wear as well.' Millstreet stands at the crossroads between the mountains and the rich grasslands and all the wool grown on the backs of the sheep for miles around comes to Dan's warehouse. It used to be a local dance hall that warehouse in Millstreet, and often, he says, a farmer will come in who tells him he first met his wife there at a lively evening.
Dan hopes he won't be the last of his family to practise the trade of wool merchant. 'If it would only get fashionable for people to want a pure Irish fleece, or a jumper made from the wool of a sheep from, say, Dingle or West Cork, then we could survive in Ireland. If someone like Armani now, one of those big fashion designers would send an Irish fleece down the catwalk, we'd be made. ' As it is, he confesses, if keeping sheep in Ireland were to cease instantly tomorrow, it would not even be noticed on the world's market, so enormous is the contribution from larger countries. And that's sad, when since prehistory we have exported it across the world. Maybe fashion is the answer for Dan and his kind. Perhaps he should market the uniqueness of Irish wool himself. But he hasn't heard of the Internet, much less eBay. Maybe I should just pop back out there with a laptop one day, and show him how to set up his own weblog?
In the meantime, I did what I could and bought one of his luxuriously soft fleeces, fresh from the back of a healthy lowland ewe. He put it in a nice clean sack for me and placed it carefully on the back seat of the car. Then he went back to the shearing, while I drove home with the soft scent of raw wool all around me. Whenever I spin with that fleece, I'll think of Dan and his dreams.
The yarn you'll yearn for this winter, at an early stage of the process.
Of course when I got the sack of wool home, my own little canine yarn harlot thought all her birthdays had come at once...
See that wild glare in her eye? The flash of white? 'Mine, all mine,' she's saying.
I like spinning wool 'in the fleece' or with all the lanolin left in. It makes for a much easier job, I have always found. The problem of course is when you get hold of some supersoft merino roving and can't handle it on the wheel at all. With some lovely roving I got from Warm Threads some time ago, after several failures, I found the only way to deal with it was to go back to the beginning and use a drop spindle.
Using a drop spindle is quite addictive actually. You slow down to the pace it dictates and so what you only spin a few yards at a time. It's a project you can take anywhere and work on for the shortest space of time. Plus it looks really good if you happen to leave it lying around, which can't be said of some other hobbies - cutting up glass bottles, for example, or taking old motorbikes apart. The latter always seems to require acres of floor space, a lot of newspapers and generous helpings of engine oil on every available surface; but a spindle and roving can grace a polished table, a dresser, even an armchair. NO, not the armchair! I am blessed with three very acrobatic mutts, all of whom have a peculiar passion for wool. Maybe they're really Chinese sheepdogs. I've never actually asked them. But it would definitely be asking for trouble to leave something so tempting at an accessible level.