Getting knotted

Arctic fox

Arctic Fox necklace and bracelet

As I’ve been learning about ancient textile crafts as part of my volunteering work at Stonehenge, I’ve really caught the knotting, weaving and braiding bug these past few months. I love creating braids, knots and jewellery pieces using a range of different pendants, charms and cord colours and now I’ve made so many I need to start selling them or the house will just fill up with them! So I’ve started a shop on the Etsy website and yesterday I did my first ever craft fair as a seller rather than a buyer; the first craft fair of the season at Marlborough Town Hall in Wiltshire. I’ve loved going to craft fairs all my life, but never had a go at being on the other side of the tables. I loved it, and sold my first pieces which is really exciting. The very first piece to go was the Arctic Fox necklace and bracelet set in the picture on the left. I found these cute little glass fox pendants on the web and bought them from an outlet in China, and have had great fun creating necklaces with different knots and colours.


Polished ammonite with copper fastenings

It’s a lovely feeling to design and create something that people like and want to buy. At my day job in education I design and support courses on which students register, and I love it and find it very rewarding. But it is a bit distant, in comparison to designing and creating a physical ‘thing’. I love the whole process of design and creation, and especially getting ideas from a wide range of inspirations and then thinking about how ancient and traditional knot designs can create a modern piece of jewellery. For example, the ammonite necklace in the picture on the right came about after a visit to Salisbury Museum whilst browsing about in the museum shop. These beautiful real polished ammonites were on sale, and gave me all sorts of ideas. The little girl who bought this necklace yesterday seemed really delighted with it, which just made my day ūüôā

I think I’ve caught the craft fair bug too now, after a great day yesterday meeting really talented and friendly people on the stalls. There’s a great feeling of camaraderie and support, which made the whole experience such a pleasure. And so lovely to see so much talent on display. I’m looking at where to go to my next fair in the summer (I have to build up the stocks in my ‘spare time’ – what’s that?) and I’ll post where I’m going, and reports on how they went, here on the blog. I’m just having so much fun with this ūüôā

Feeling sheepish

Picture by Geni

Picture by Geni

Last week I received a sheep fleece in the post, a very kind gift from a couple we met at a dinner a few weeks ago. We got talking at the dinner and it turned out that they breed Manx Loaghtan sheep, an at-risk rare breed that is descended from short-tailed primitive sheep¬†once found in Scotland and the¬†coastal islands of Britain. I mentioned that I’m a keen amateur textile enthusiast and Carol very kindly offered to give me a fleece. Wonderful! ¬†The picture on the left shows how the spectacular horns are one of the identifiers of this lovely breed. The fleece is a beautiful deep chocolate brown with sun-bleached paler tips, and¬†the wool is¬†so soft and springy it looks like it will spin beautifully.

Sheep weren’t always as woolly as they are now, though. Indeed, some wild or feral sheep still aren’t as woolly as the farmed varieties. Sheep have a mixture of straight hair and crimped hair (wool), and it’s the balance of that mixture that has changed over time. It’s thought that sheep originally came from the Near East¬†and were the first animals to be domesticated¬†at the beginning of agriculture,¬†possibly as long ago as 9,000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia,¬†i.e., between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Woollier sheep began to be developed around 6,000 BCE in the area that is modern-day Iran, and wool was a commodity of sufficient value to warrant international trade by the Persians. There is archaeological evidence of sheep in the¬†Neolithic period in the modern-day Provence area of France (Rowley-Conwy¬†et al 2013), and it¬†seems that sheep reached the British Isles around 4,000 BCE.

mouflon small

A mouflon ram

It’s generally accepted that these early sheep in Britain had short hairs obscuring very fine, brown under-wool, and were similar to present-day wild or feral mouflon sheep (Ryder M.L. 1992). In the picture on the right you can see how much more hairy mouflon¬†are than modern domesticated sheep that have a fleece. But they do still have wool under the longer hair, it’s just that the wool doesn’t predominate and create a fleece. ¬†The under-wool moults in the spring, and so early sheep were plucked or “rooed” for their wool. Probably quite a bit was also gathered from hedgerows where it got caught on prickly plants.

There are not many examples of woven woollen fabrics that date from the late Neolithic, although as Linda Hurcombe points out in her fascinating book, “Perishable Material Culture in Prehistory: investigating the missing majority”, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Some of the earliest examples of textiles woven from spun wool in the¬†British Isles¬†have been found¬†in log burials (the bodies were buried in hollowed-out log coffins under barrow mounds) that took place in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age in Rylstone, Yorkshire. Similar log burials elsewhere in Yorkshire have been radiocarbon dated to around 2,200 – 2,000 BCE (Melton et al, 2010). The bodies in the Rylstone barrows were wrapped in woven woolen textiles before burial and remnants of these wrappings are in the British Museum, and the ¬†Craven Museum, Yorkshire¬†. One of the problems with the textile archaeological record is that so little survives, but in these cases the acidic environmental conditions favoured the conservation of wool fibres.

But woollen textiles seem to have been fairly rare in the late Neolithic period in Britain, and indeed sheep bones are not generally as common as pig or cattle bones in the archaeological record of the time. The scarcity of woollen textiles in the Neolithic may be because the sheep were still fairly hairy, and the woolly part of their coat that was shed in the spring was a rare fibre. Whatever the reason, it seems that wool may have been a relatively scarce and developing fibre in comparison to the plant fibres that were in common usage.

I’ve always befleece whole smallen¬†fascinated by textiles and fibres. Maybe it’s the Lancashire heritage ūüôā . Or maybe it’s in the blood. My grandfather worked in cotton mills in the UK and India, and my great grandfather’s name was Kempster, a name of Anglo-Saxon origin that comes from the occupational name for a wool-comber. But whatever my textile ancestry, I’ve never dealt with a raw fleece before, and so yesterday¬†I embarked on a voyage of discovery! Firstly the fleece has to be picked for “tags”, the polite term for wool with sheep poo stuck in it ūüė¶ . Thankfully Carol’s sheep are beautifully clean toilet-goers and the fleece was very clean, so that didn’t take me too long. Then it has to be washed, to remove a large amount of the¬†grease, or strictly speaking wax,¬†(lanolin) and¬†sweat salts¬†(suint). Raw fleeces have a ¬†strong, but not unpleasant, “farmyard” smell, too. I had no idea how to wash a fleece, so internet to the rescue!


clean fleeceI took the general advice to pull the fleece apart into locks of wool, put it in a perforated bowl and submerge it in water around 55-60 degrees Centigrade which had a healthy dollop of washing up liquid added. Golden rule – do not agitate! Wool doesn’t shrink in hot water, but if you agitate it, it¬†felts very quickly. That’s what happens to a jumper that has been put into the washing machine by mistake. It looks like it has shrunk, but in fact it has felted, which draws the fibres together and so gives the impression of shrinking. After 15 minutes soak and 4 very careful rinses in water of the same temperature to stop the lanolin re-affixing to the wool (which it does at temperatures below about 50 degrees C), I took it out and laid it on a glider dryer to dry. To my delight it did dry and hadn’t felted! It smells much fresher now, and I can tease apart the fibres, including the tightly curly, sun-bleached ends, as you can see in the picture on the right. I couldn’t resist finger-spinning a little bit too :-). I think there’s still too much lanolin in it though, as it does still feel¬†a little¬†greasy, so I’ll repeat the washing process after gently carding it to open up the fibres as much as possible, and let the hot water and detergent do their stuff.

So the first small part of the fleece is washed and I’ve learned a lot. Lots more to learn though ūüôā


Rowley-Conwy P., Gourichon L., Helmer D. & Vige J-D. (2013). Early domestic animals in Italy, the Tyrrhenian Islands and Southern France. In Colledge S., Conolly J., Dobney K., Manning K. & Shennan S. (Eds). Origins and Spread of Domestic Animals in Southwest Asia and Europe.  Walnut Creek CA: Left Coast Press.

Ryder M.L. (1992). Wool fibres in cloth remains throw light on fleece evolution. Circaea, 9, 1, pp.7-9.

Volunteering in the Neolithic

stonehenge neolithic housesI’ve started volunteering with English Heritage (EH) at Stonehenge, and I’m loving it! I’m learning so much about Stonehenge and its¬†magical surrounding ritual landscape, and about life in the Neolithic period. The training offered by EH is wonderful, and I’m beginning to get hooked on learning ancient crafts. So little is known about them from the sparse evidence that comes down to us in the archaeological record, so experimentation and trying things out is an important means of increasing our understanding.

The new reconstructed Neolithic houses at the visitor centre are fascinating, and a popular part of the site for many visitors. They have been beautifully built, based upon the excavations at Durrington Walls henge, and make a great place to try out Neolithic crafts and ways of living. I’ve always had a particular interest in textiles, so the opportunity to find out about and practice twisting, spinning and weaving fibres that would have been used in the Neolithic is right up my street!

In the Neolithic, bast was¬†a widely used form of fibre for all sorts of textile items. Bast is the fibrous part of¬†woody plants that lies between the outer bark and the inner sapwood. Sapwood carries nutrients and water up to the leaves, and the fibrous web of bast carries nutrients¬†from the leaves.¬†Over time bast becomes bark, and new bast is formed from the cambium layer of cells on the outer part of the sapwood. Bast is processed by “retting”, i.e. soaking the outer part of the plant in water until the bark rots away and leaves the¬†useful fibres. Spruce, elm, oak, alder and maple were all sources of fibre, but bast from lime trees¬†was the most frequently used as it was particularly good for twisting and twining.

natural twistsMany other plants were processed in the same way, particularly flax (to make linen), hemp¬†and nettles. Ropes were also made from soaked reeds and the bast layer of brambles. The picture on the¬†right shows cords I’ve made from hemp (middle), reeds (the thicker cord), and bramble at the top left of the picture. In each case, the fibres are twisted in the fingers in one direction, and then plied by winding two of the lengths of the twisted¬†fibre together in the opposite direction to the original twist. All these fibres make remarkably strong cords; well, they’d need to be to manipulate the enormous stones of Stonehenge!

finger woven braidsOnce you have some cordage, you can begin to weave. There is good evidence from Europe and beyond that people at the time of the Durrington settlement and final reconstruction of Stonehenge (around 2,500 BCE) were weaving textiles using looms, but that there was also a great deal of finger weaving of braids and belts. I find finger weaving fascinating and strangely addictive; once I’ve started a braid I find it hard to put it down. The picture on the left shows the kind of braid that is made in basic finger weaving using a flat or tabby weave, i.e. the “above, below, above, below” method. In finger weaving there are no dedicated warp or weft threads; all the cords take turns at being the weft and the warp threads. The thread to the extreme left of the group is woven in and out of its neighbours and laid over to the right, then the next left thread is woven and incorporates the previous thread at the end of the row.¬†It then becomes the thread left out to the right and the next left thread is woven through, and so on. You can see the resulting pattern in the braids I’ve woven in the picture to the left. I’ve done one in modern threads in 2 colours, so it’s a bit easier to see how the fabric is constructed. The others are woven in jute cord as practice pieces.

American First Nation people have woven like this for thousands of years, and they create some truly beautiful and complex patterns of chevrons and diamonds. I’m a complete beginner, so I’m really looking forward to learning how to weave ¬†some more complex patterns, and in trying out many more fibres and weaving techniques.

Author Interview: E.J. Kay



Although Liz has been my next door neighbour for quite a number of years, I only discovered that she was a published author when she offered me a copy of her first novel, Watermark, for my Book Group to read in 2012. If you like a good murder mystery then go buy this book now, I couldn’t put it down.

As well as her day job (Professor of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of the West of England) Liz is currently working on her second novel, provisionally titled ‚ÄėThe Salt Man‚Äô. As a novice writer I am always intrigued to learn more about those who have succeeded in the craft and was therefore delighted when Liz agreed to this interview.

Please welcome to neverimitate, E.J. Kay.

Where do you typically write?

For me, writing fiction is a two-part process. First there is getting down the ideas…

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Learning the craft

Such a busy time of year if you work in education! I hadn’t realised it was so long since I last posted here, but I’ve not been idle with the writing side of my life. I’m still at the research stage of The Salt Man, and thoroughly enjoying it. In October I spent a couple of weekends at Chedworth Roman villa in Gloucestershire, just on the far side of Cirencester from here. They run some wonderful craft sessions, so I¬†attended a couple of workshops on tablet weaving¬†and mosaic making. It’s a great way to get the sense of how some of the things we see in museums now were made, and to appreciate the skills¬†of the people who made them.

green man closeupThe picture to the left is my first attempt at a mosaic, which I made at the workshop¬†– it’s meant to be a Green Man with a bee in his beard, but I made all kinds of mistakes! Not enough definition around the mouth and face; the beard tesserae are too similar in colour and I tried to get too much detail in the hair leaves. Nothing like making mistakes when learning though! So I had another go at home and thought I’d try to do something simpler while I learn. Also, I’m fascinated by the geometric designs on roman villa floors, so I thought I’d try the twisted rope design.

mosaic rope closeupIt turned out to be harder than it looks ūüôā The tops and bottoms of the loops ended up with different radii, even though I used the same template top and bottom when I sketched the rope on the board. So the bottom part of the rope looks more pointy than the top part. But, outside of that I’m quite pleased with this result, as I learned so much again. The tesserae are still too far apart I think, which you can tell from the visible blobs of grout in places. I wonder how long mosaic artists were apprentices? Judging from my attempts, quite a long time! My next project is a sign for my son’s new business, so I’m motivated to try to make a good job of it.

braids smallTablet weaving is a fascinating craft, and one that is very difficult to¬†understand without a loom and tablets in front of you. Well, it was for me, anyway. It works by threading warp threads through tablets with holes in them, and then loading a table loom with the warp threads. The weft thread pulls the warp threads together to make the pattern, which is altered by turning the tablets between each pass of the weft. Told you it was difficult to understand without seeing it! The result is a very decorative and very strong braid, of the types shown in the picture on the left. Again, it’s a craft that takes a lot of practice, both in setting up the pattern in the first place, and in actually carrying out the weave.¬† You can see my mistakes quite clearly in the picture. The top braid is meant to be an arrowhead design, and the bottom one was an attempt at a roman key design. Ah well, another apprenticeship looms I think! Sorry about the pun ūüė¶

Braids and mosaics both feature prominently in the story of The Salt Man, so I’ll keep at my apprenticeships I think. The more I can understand the crafts, the more the story comes to life for me ūüôā

Transmedia storytelling in virtual worlds: a sense of location

EIC smallIt’s been a disruptive and disturbing couple of weeks for me at work, as¬†my team and I¬†get caught up once again in the eternal game of musical chairs that the university seems to play. It’s been the same in all universities I’ve worked in, as space management is problematic in dynamic and ever-changing environments like Higher Education. So we’re on the move from our¬†lovely current space, and will end up in a set of rooms that are less whizzy, but will probably be more usable space in the long run. My team and I will have other spaces in which to do our work, but we have had good times in our current location and held some great events, like a Dr Who themed afternoon for school children in Science and Engineering Week in March. So moving is an unexpected¬†nuisance, but hardly a problem in the grand scheme of the universe!

Imber 1 smallA couple of weeks ago my husband and I went to Imber,¬†a deserted village on Salisbury plain, which is open to the public every now and again when the army aren’t practising urban warfare in what’s left of it. And then it struck me what dislocation really means. I’d been self-indulgently worrying about a¬†workplace move;¬†but the residents of Imber gave up their whole village during WW2 to enable army training. That’s real sacrifice; real dislocation. They were promised it back at the time, but that never happened. So now the remains of it stand there,¬†next to¬†more modern mock houses with no windows that¬†facilitate army training. ¬†The building in the picture here was built in the 1800’s according to the date stone, and it must have seen a lot over the years. But the church was my favourite building. Not that I’m religious at all; at least not in the Western sense. I follow the Buddha dharma.

Imber church wall painting 1The church is wonderful though. It is very old, its roots going back to the Normans in the 12th century. Restoration of the interior has revealed traces of the old medieval paintings that covered the walls¬†in the 13th century, and it must have been lovely. Chevrons of red and yellow on the pillars, flowers climbing the walls and paintings of religious scenes for the education of the illiterate majority. I’d love to see one of these old unused churches completely restored back to how they looked in the medieval period. They must have been so colourful – an uplifting place to be.¬†Such a shame that¬†churches became more sombre, particularly after the Reformation.

MAEVW context gallery_014smallSo what has this to do with virtual worlds and transmedia storytelling? Well, a lot I think. It all makes me reflect on the importance of location; a sense of place. As humans, we¬†are very affected by where we are. By our surroundings and how they make us feel. For those of us who have become immersed in virtual worlds, for whatever reason,¬†this is a sense that we are very familiar with. It may seem strange to those who haven’t yet ventured into these environments, or who have had a quick go¬†but found no one there and nothing going on. For me, and for my students and colleagues, the virtual world Second Life is a real place. We meet there, we work together there, we have dances and parties there, we create things together there, we meet new people there; it’s as real to us as any part of the university. And as I begin to¬†put together ideas and find a location for the transmedia story of Watermark to develop, then the importance of a sense of location is at the forefront of my mind. Because it isn’t just the place, it’s what we experience there that engages our emotions, I think. The residents of Imber would have most mourned the loss of their community, which had become inextricably linked to the physical place itself.

So, how to build an environment in a virtual world that will help to engage the emotions of the people who visit it? What characteristics might it have? How can a place encourage socialisation and exploration? What makes us start to care? All comments and discussions welcome!

Ravenglass, Hardknott and on past Wrynose

Ravenglass to Ambleside roman roadThe Romans were fairly active in the English Lake District. It was a good jumping off point for their campaigns to try to subdue Caledonia, and when they gave that up, for building Hadrian’s wall. I’m writing this while on holiday up here for the week, and one of the things that always strikes me about the Roman activities here is how the small matter of the highest mountain range in England didn’t seem to¬†worry them. They looked at the most direct route between the places they wanted to go to, and then built straight roads to get there. If there were mountains in the way, well, they just went over them. No mean feat up here.

Ravenglass estuaryRavenglass on the Cumbrian coast is a pretty place these days, and would have been during the Roman period too. It has a natural inlet that makes it an ideal place for a port, and if you want to import goods from around the Roman empire up to the north of England, it also has the benefit of enabling you to do that by sea, rather than traipsing up the length of England over land. But, the downside is that you have to get people and goods over the Cumbrian mountains to get them to where you want them.

remains of roman bath house RavenglassThe Romans built a fort and port at Ravenglass (Clanoventa), and the remains of the bath house there have been remarkably well-preserved. Some of the walls still stand to around 14 feet high (picture on the right) and still have some of the concrete rendering and small parts of red and white plaster visible. They really did build things to last! On the day I visited and took this picture it was warm and sunny, but it can be bleak, cold and wet up here, and I could imagine that a nice warm steam bath and plunge pool would be one of the first things to be built. Along with a good hypocaust central heating system!

Eskdale from hardknot fortOnce the goods had been landed at Ravenglass, they would begin their journey over the mountains. At first, this is a fairly easy and very beautiful trip up Eskdale. This is a classic Lake District valley, sheltered and wooded with a lovely river running along its base. Lots of places to rest and plenty of drinking water for your journey.¬† But it doesn’t last. Blocking the way at the head of the valley is¬†Hardknott,¬†the first of two steep ascents over the mountains. But Hardkott also commands an excellent view back¬†up Eskdale to the sea at Ravenglass, and makes a perfect location for a fort. So, of course, the Roman army¬†built one there.

Hardknot fort and the pass

The picture to the right shows the view of the remains of the Roman fort at Hardknott (Mediobodgdum), with the present-day pass running up over the dip in the mountain behind it. A 1 in 4 ascent with terrifyingly tight hairpin bends, not helped by a road surface that breaks apart regularly. We have driven this on family holidays many times, and it never loses its excitement for me – particularly if I’ve drawn the short straw and it’s my turn to drive! Trudging up and down this pass with carts, mules and people-power must have been a much more challenging effort than just driving over it, especially in the biting cold, ice, wind or driving rain. Once over the pass, you descend into Wrynose bottom, a desolate, bleak valley with high mountain walls on all sides. There is a way out to lower land at the Hardknott end, but if you want to keep heading east towards what is now Ambleside, there is no alternative to another 1 in 4 climb. This is Wrynose pass. Once over it, you can see the way down to Ambleside, a beautiful descent towards green¬†woodland that gladdens the heart after the hard beauty of the high fells.

Galava 1The Roman fort at Ambleside (Galava) must have been a welcome sight to anyone who had made the trip over the mountains. Its pleasant lakeside position near Windermere is a lovely spot, and once again the traveller could indulge in a bath, if he or she had access to the fort. The fort included large granaries that would have ensured a supply of bread and cakes as part of the diet of the soldiers and local occupants of the vicus (civilian settlement) outside the fort. The size of these granaries suggests that the fort may have been a distribution centre for the Lake District area.

The whole trip from Ravenglass to Ambleside is only around 18 miles, but they were probably 18 of the most testing and spectacular miles on any Roman road in Britain. Following the route of the road today is a wonderful way to spend a day, particularly if you’re a fan of Roman roads, like me. I can highly recommend the trip!