Song to a Ewe

January surprised me with a sweater.

This is a pattern called Oran do Chaora, from Kate Davies’ book West Highland Way. I adored reading this book. While I was reading it, I went back and forth to Google Earth to travel along the trail with the essays and patterns.

While I knit this sweater, I dug even deeper. The name of the sweater is taken from the name of a poem, and means “Song to a Ewe.” It was written by Duncan Ban MacIntyre, or Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saior in his native Scottish Gaelic. He was an 18th century poet who composed entirely orally, and only in Gaelic. He never learned to write. Many of his poems are meant to be sung. Their translations into English are so evocative that I wish I spoke Gaelic to hear them to their own music.

“Oran do Chaora” is a humorous poem, a man singing of his favorite sheep. It took some digging, but I found the full text of the poem here. The page is a mess on mobile, but you’ll find the poem starts on page 222, and is well worth a read. I’ll give you the general gist with a few of my favorite lines.

The first part has him praising his ewe at length, and hilariously:

A part o’ her was carnation bloom,
Another like the crop o’ the broom. …
Indeed but she was silklike quite,
The fine ewe of the feet so white.
For the fishing many a fly, I trow,
Has come from her pretty back ere now.

Yes, a sheep so amazing that even the flies on her back are useful and profitable. [EDIT! I have been corrected: this is most likely not a reference to insects, but to using sheep’s wool to make flies for fly fishing. Thanks to those who commented! That is a little more dignified.] One can’t help but laugh at the juxtaposition of this last item with her silklike whiteness.

Lincoln sheep, a very old British breed. I have no idea if they were kept as far north as Scotland, but this breed is probably of an antiquity to be contemporaneous with Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saior. Image from petworld.com.

The poem shifts in tone when he discovers the sheep dead, her carcass picked over. Bereft of this important means of income, the speaker hatches a plan to clothe and feed himself. He goes to all the wives in town and begs a few locks of wool from them. Then he goes to the next town, and the next, naming all the towns full of women happy to see him and share a little wool. Finally:

Homeward I’ll come with what I’ll get,
Huge as a horse with the bulk of it.
A year and more I have enough
To keep my wife in spinning stuff.
When it will neath the shuttles go,
The weaver, she’ll me favor show.
Many a wife makes clothes galore,
But she’ll not full them without four. …

I admit to surprise at hearing the speaker has a wife himself; I had rather a different impression of him from how well he seemed to know the country’s women. But more interestingly, it’s the wife who does the solitary spinning, a specialist weaver woman who makes the cloth, and a team who fulls it.

It’s the vivid process of fulling itself that is at the heart of the poem. I was acquainted with the historical process of waulking by my friend Becka, who lives in Scotland and knows reenactors who keep the practice alive. Fulling is a process by which cloth is somewhat felted, making it more coherent as cloth, thicker, and more impervious to wind and weather. Nowadays we can full in the washing machine, but in ye olden days it was a labor intensive process, undertaken as a group effort.

One at water, one at peat.
Another keeping the fire neat.
One in a tub upon it prancing.
One wallowing it, another cleansing
A couple beating it with might,
Another couple wringing tight.
Ere out of hand they let it go,
I’m certain that it firm will grow.

From The Gaelic Songs of Duncan MacIntire, edited and translated by George Calder. Accessed 2 Feb 2020: https://archive.org/details/gaelicsongsofdun00maciuoft pages 222-236

You can see a video of waulking here. As you can see, it’s a rhythmic work, accompanied by singing. Indeed, this whole poem was a waulking song.

My sweater is a different kind of song, one that goes back pretty far in my personal history. Back when I first started to spin, when I got my first wheel as a Christmas present, my aunt Kelly found some wool for me. I have no idea how she did it. All I know is that it was from a farm in Virginia, and that it is Lincoln. It was probably two pounds of a lovely white roving.

I dyed the wool with turmeric and black beans in the summer of 2010, rather a nasty year for me. I dried the wool outside, and something laid its eggs in it. I had to throw a bit of it away. I wasn’t happy with the colour. But ah well, I had lots on the go, and didn’t bother my head to much about it. I wish I could find a picture.

I don’t know what led to it, but I spun it up during the 2011-12 school year. I remember spinning a lot that year. I had designed the yarn as a 3-ply DK weight, intending it for the Argonath stole, part of the Fellowship of the Ring series. I knit every other pattern for that series, and was saving Argonath for last. But by the time I got through all those other patterns – so many of them resulting in unsatisfactory finished objects – I had two kiddos, and was just done with fancy patterning. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve spent the last few years knitting lots of plain stuff with a smattering of fair isle. Cables and lace have lost their appeal. I let Argonath go. But what to do with 1900+ yards of DK?

I can’t believe how long it took me to realize that I had accidentally spun my first sweater spin. I had plenty for an awesome sweater. But which one? I swatched and tested for a few different ideas, but nothing stuck… until I saw “Oran do Chaora.” Maybe it was that the color was similar in the sample, I don’t know, but it seemed right.

As confessed in this post, I did not practice the proper technique of waiting for all my singles to be done, then mixing up the plying. It showed in the finished yarn. I didn’t measure the grist (I don’t even remember if I had learned how), but the yarns were visibly different weights.

In the sweater, I compensated for this by making a sort of gradient of weights. I put the thickest yarns at the bottom of the body, working my way thinner, and then the thinnest yarns at the bottom of the sleeves, working my way thicker. In that way I had the middle-of-the-road skeins for the yoke. Don’t ask me how, but my gauge stayed consistent enough throughout.

The pattern was a joy and a delight. A short body with no shaping. Mostly stockinette, with a fetching little cable pattern that didn’t trouble my sleep-deprived mind. The back shows how uneven my yarn was, but handspun is supposed to have character. The twisted stitches hide any inconsistencies, and in three-ply the pattern just pops. The collar is high, which I didn’t think I would love, but it sits perfectly with a clerical collar and looks equally fetching unbuttoned.

The shoulder is pretty cool. It’s a combination of raglan and saddle shoulder that I’ve never seen before. It sits very nicely on the shoulders. Kate has written about how this pattern was a bit of a revelation for her as a designer; that’s one of the reasons I wanted to try it. I’m afraid I don’t have any new insights into her mind just from knitting this, but it is very cool.

The colour also shifted between the skeins, as you can see. The bottom is more grey-green, and the colour becomes more bright and yellow toward the top of the yoke. The button band is also brightly coloured. I am not bothered by this. If there were no interesting irregularities in my handspun, I wouldn’t bother making it.

The buttons are one last funny story. I discovered that one cannot buy buttons in any store in Rankin Inlet. There are sewing supplies aplenty, as long as the main thing you want to sew is outerwear. But no buttons. I put out a shoutout on Facebook, on the town’s sell/swap page, and got two responses! I ended up going to the house of a nice lady who shared with me freely from her large tin of buttons. It turned out she works for one of my friends, has two kids in MiniMighty’s preschool, and bought the tin of buttons from one of my parishioners. That’s small-town life for you.

In conclusion, this sweater is a song to the many women who contributed to it. My aunt, the unknown farmers, the designer, the button-giver, and the many women waulking cloth in long-ago far-away Scotland who inspired it. And me, singing the song. What a delight to be part of many people’s labor in the long work of clothing ourselves in wool.


3 thoughts on “Song to a Ewe

  1. Lovely sweater and interesting story that goes with it. I think that the fly referred to in the poem was a reference to using sheep wool for flies for fly fishing..very popular in Scotland, at least that was what came to mind when I read it.

    Like

  2. What a lovely song behind your sweater. In Gaelic tradition creation itself can be referred to the the Oran Mor, the Great Song, brought into being by the singing of the Creator.

    I think it looks stunning and full of love and character. And so many people and stories knit together (as I think so many acts of creation are). Thanks for the link to the video of the Inverclyde Waulking Group. It was a pleasure to hear their voices and see their faces again. x

    Like

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