There has been quite a hiatus since I my last update.

 The white Norfolk Horn fleece has been brought to each guild meeting and members have been taking away either carded batts of washed fleece or in some cases clumps pulled off the fleece itself. There has been a steady trickle of spun hanks being returned to me.

 This has been a slower process than I had hoped but there have been so many distractions this year; a “Diamond” competition for our own members; preparing for a National Exhibition in Sussex and our own exhibition at Layer Marney Tower in August.

 However, we have finally reached our target. We have spun 2.1kg of white yarn for the basic tunic. This is over four and a half pounds in old units. It is not always beautifully even and not all spinners have achieved the exactly same thickness but I very much doubt that our forebears would have done any better.

We are now ready to start weaving. The hanks have been washed to remove any grease and dirt and have then been wound into balls ready for warping up the loom.

It is very important to have no breaks or knots in the yarn for the warp threads as they will get stuck and will not pass through the heddle.

We have started spinning the black fleece to make the scapular or over tunic. It looks like a full length apron with a hood. Fortunately, we need far less of this as there are no sleeves. We have developed a faithful band of spinners, who have given up their precious time for this project but we must be testing their dedication and patience.

My next project will have to be very different.

From inception we had allowed at least a year and that has proved to be correct. Hopefully, things now will move on at a better pace.

Things have been a bit quiet over Christmas and the New Year but some of our members have managed to get some spinning done. We are concentrating on getting the white fleece spun as Viv is ready to start weaving as soon as we have enough yarn ready. She has finished weaving the samples from the handspun yarn and has annotated each one with the details needed for weaving. We have chosen to use a plain weave rather than a twill weave. This decision has been influenced by the need to keep the fabric as simple as possible in keeping with the life style of the monks.

Hanks of spun Norfolk Horn yarn

 

Pauline has taken a small quantity of the Norfolk Horn yarn and used her great wheel to spin a sample. This will not be woven but will be displayed to show the quality of yarn, which can be achieved on this type of wheel. She found the wool somewhat greasy and therefore chose to wash it thoroughly before starting to spin. Many spinners have had similar experiences. This extra grease or lanolin has been attributed to the particularly warm weather in 2011.

Pauline spinning a sample of the Norfolk Horn yarn on her great wheel

Pauline's Great Wheel with blue yarn to show the spindle

 

Having been so disappointed in our efforts to find accurate details of the shape of the tunic and scapular, our fortunes have turned. Jean has made contact with the monastery at Mount St Bernard in Leicestershire. Not only have they allowed us to visit the monastery and meet the tailor, they have even offered to lend us some garments to work out the pattern.

We arranged a visit on January 19th. I set off at 7.30 and picked up Viv and Jean en route. We arrived at 10.45 after an easy journey. Early rain had ceased and the monastery was bathed in winter sunshine. This 19th century edifice was built by Pugin and captured all the tranquility you would expect from such a building.

Mount St Bernard Abbey buildings with the guest house at the front

Mount St Bernard Abbey Church

 

We were welcomed and immediately offered refreshments. They had allocated us a room in the guesthouse where we met Father Andrew, who has been the tailor for the monastery for over fifty years. We spent the rest of the morning with him. We outlined the aim of our project and showed him some samples of the cloth we intended to weave. He had brought along a spare tunic and scapular for us to see. We examined it closely to see the shapes and measurements of the component sections and the method of construction. The modern garments use modern materials but the design has hardly changed. The few changes included pockets together with poppas to close the tunic at the front.

Although we did not plan to make a cowl, he brought one along after lunch. This voluminous garment is a basic T shape with very long sleeves. We measured it and drew diagrams in case we change our minds. He made us laugh when he implied that you could hide almost anything inside them.

We were treated to great hospitality. We met other visitors in the refectory and everyone was friendly. We left at 4.00, taking with us the tunic and scapular, promising to return it sometime. The day was really interesting as we all had a more rounded view of monastic life of which the monk’s habit is only part.

Questions have been answered and details clarified. We will now have to revise our calculations as we had guessed the measurements prior to this. By changing the layout of the pattern pieces, we can now plan to weave cloth with a finished width of 48” rather than 30”. We still have a lot more yarn to spin but we will have a more accurate target once Viv has recalculated the quantities.

The yarn we have so far weighs just over 1kg so we have reached the halfway point for the white fleece as we are now aiming for 2kg. Obviously the wider cloth will allow us to cut the pattern more economically.

Viv's device for weighing the yarn and calculating the quantity needed

 

I was very disappointed to receive an email from Cumbria. They could only release the monk’s habit to someone personally and were sorry that they could not send it to us. However, they have offered to send some detailed photographs for guidance.

Jean and I have changed to Plan B, which is to make contact with an Abbey in Leicestershire.

Guild members are steadily working their way through the batts of carded fleece and we are building up a fair stock of spun hanks of yarn. There is such a difference between the dirty grey colour of the wool “in the grease”, and cream of the washed yarn. Before we use the yarn it will all be washed again to make sure that there is a consistent colour and quality. It will then be wound into balls ready for weaving.

Viv has been doing some research of her own to determine the sett they would have used. She has already done some test swatches and I am surprised at how fine the cloth is. Using two different reeds, which determine the number of threads per inch, she has made two samples of the plain weave and two of the twill. The twill weave makes a thicker cloth but uses more yarn, so we favour the plain weave.

We have hit a snag with the Hebridean fleece, which is a shame as it is such a strong black colour. The fleece we used was rather coarse. Viv has woven a sample, which is a bit harsh. However, when we looked at other fleeces from the same flock, they seemed to be OK. There are other breeds of sheep with black fleeces. We have bought a black Shetland fleece and may spin some of that blended with the Hebridean.

 

We’ve started on a rather exciting project with the Middle Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers which I thought would make interesting reading.  There really is quite a lot of research and work going on behind the scenes, and I thought it would make an excellent subject for a blog.  I’ll be getting regular updates from the guild via Lesley Ottewell, so keep checking in and see what’s been going on behind the scenes.  All of the posts from here on will be from Lesley, and there’s a bit of catching up to do at the start…

Background

We were celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Mid Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at Grange Barn in June 2011, when a chance remark from Stuart led to the launch of this project. On Stuart’s wish list for the barn was an accurate replica of a medieval monk’s habit. We, as a guild, had the necessary skills and tenacity to achieve this so I agreed to give it a try.

July

I presented the idea to the guild and held an informal meeting with those who were interested in the project. There was plenty of brainstorming with many suggestions about the design of the garment, the fleeces used and the manufacturing processes involved. Potential sources of information were listed were followed up after the meeting. Useful replies came from the Textile Department at Colchester Castle and from the Norfolk Horn Breeders Association.

August

It was decided to use Norfolk Horn fleeces, as these were local to the area and would have been common at the time. Jean acquired some from Simon at Wimpole Hall and I did some test spinning. I passed the sample on to Vivian, an experienced weaver, for her to check it for suitability.

There were no spinning wheels with bobbins in the 13th century. With the amount of yarn needed they would most likely have used a great wheel rather than a spindle to spin the wool. One such wheel figures in “Sleeping Beauty”.

Jean started to prepare the fleece by taking out all the bits of hay straw, seeds and other rubbish, which collects on it. It was then ready for carding. This is the process, whereby the fleece fibres are organised and all the little knots removed.

They would have used hand carders in the 13th century but as we had a hand operated drum carder, we decided to speed up the process by using this method as the outcome is the same.

September

Pauline took some fleece home to spin a sample on her great wheel, which is smaller but similar to the wheels in use in the 13th century. This will accompany the final display in the barn. As our members have spinning wheels with a bobbin, these will be used for the monk’s habit.

Jean took a drum carder to the Beer Festival and carded the fleece, producing “batts”, ready for spinning. Sue and I began spinning while we talked to visitors. We both took some extra batts home and managed to spin and ply about 500g between us before the next meeting. The fleece had been washed in cool water to remove the dirt but not the lanolin, which is greasy. We washed the hanks in warm soapy water to remove the grease. Jean had also managed to get a black Hebridean fleece (from Andrew at Orford) for the scapula, which is the black tabard worn over the white tunic. Hebridean sheep were far more widespread in the Middle Ages and could well have been the source of black wool for the monks at Coggeshall, as they had contact with abbeys in other parts of the country.

Late September

In order to process enough yarn for the project, Jean and I visited Vivian, taking the hand-spun hanks of yarn and pictures of the monk’s habit. Using an ingenious set of scales, she calculated the number of threads needed for the warp and then worked out how much yarn would be needed for the whole project: 2.1 kg for the tunic and 600g for the scapula. This equates to 42 x 50g hanks of white and 12 x 50 hanks of black. That will take many hours of spinning. It takes me about 3 hours to spin 50g and a further hour to ply the yarn and wind it into a hank. The best part of our visit was when Vivian offered to do the weaving. This was a huge relief to us, as the white tunic will need about 9 metres and the black scapula about 4 metres.

Jean had carded some of the Hebridean fleece and gave it to me to try. So far, I have spun 100g. It is very different from the white fleece, which is soft and wavy. The Hebridean fleece is nearly pure black and is the natural colour of this ancient breed.

October

I have managed to contact a historian from a project in Cumbria. Alice has written books on Furness Abbey in Barrow and was given a complete monk’s habit by Nunraw Abbey. She has offered to lend it to me so we can make an accurate pattern for our replica version.

I have printed some paper bands to go round the carded batts of wool. These will give directions as to thickness of yarn and easiest method of spinning. This is where our guild members play an important part. If each spinner takes one or two batts of fleece, we can get the spinning completed quite quickly.