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Author: rachaelp

A sense of achievement

Things have been very much up and down the last few weeks. A month ago I was taxing my brain to the max by doing quick crosswords whenever stress presented itself. Then, suddenly, the ability to use my brain at all deserted me and I’ve spent the last week inhaling Georgette Heyer Regency romances like a woman possessed. I am deliberately NOT writing about Brexit/Covid-19/Black Lives matter in this post, because I’m so angry, all the time, that if I start I won’t stop. (I’ve been posting lots of resources and information on my personal Facebook page for fellow white people who are feeling helpless and don’t know where to start with their antiracism work, so if you’re interested, send me an email and I can provide you with a reading list. I’m also happy to chat about it. It’s not an easy journey.)

Like many people, I think I’m achieving things in fits and starts. I’ve been dyeing a lot, which I enjoy and which is quite meditative, but some things have just been in my to do list for so long, that I fear to face them in case they have grown into giant, hairy, scary things that will bite me. One such thing has been a hat pattern that I wrote towards the end of last year. It was a really enjoyable experience, and I learned a lot – mainly that knitting a pattern that you have in your head is very different to writing one down on paper.  Anyway, I wrote it up, got it tech-edited and test knitted, and then …. it sat on my computer for months.

I told myself that I was delaying the release of this pattern because I didn’t know how to lay it out properly and needed time to work out what to do. Normally my approach to this would be to do an online course in Photoshop or something, which would take time and brain space (and money) that I don’t have.  This time I just paid someone to do it for me. Honestly, it was like going to a spa. I handed off my baby into the capable hands of a designer and got on with some other stuff. It came back all spruced up and looking fancy without my having to do anything at all.

Then I had to face my really big fear – that no one would love it. Of course, no one is going to love it if it’s stuck in my hard drive all on its lonesome, and really, does it matter if no one loves it?  I love it. The family members for whom I have knitted it love it. (In fact, they loved this hat so much that every time I took it somewhere, someone snaffled the one I was working on, so this one in the picture is the fourth iteration.)

So this is today’s achievement, and I’m so, so happy with it. If you’d like to knit it, you can buy it here.

Out of the Woods

Well, after having rabbited on about the ‘new normal’, I got lost in the woods. I’ve spent the last week grappling with confusion and malaise.  I’m sure I’m not alone – a lot of people I’ve spoken to are really struggling to get things done, to lift themselves out of a funk brought on by a lack of control and routine, coupled with financial uncertainty and fear for loved ones, strangers and the future. I read somewhere that what we are all grieving for how things were. It’s taken me a good few days to reconcile my own extraordinary luck – I live in a lovely house, my family is so far safe and well, we have access to fresh, nutritious food – with the fact that I’m struggling.  That disconnect put me in a dark place. It’s like eating despair cake with guilt icing and a side order of ‘You suck’. Tasty.

So, I’ve spent most of the past week alternately avoiding and devouring the news, doing crosswords, planning new knitting projects and writing to-do lists.  I love to-do lists. They’re like little signposted paths out of the woods. So, here are a couple of things that are coming up on Cat & Sparrow in the next few days:

Crochet kits:  I’ve loved Fay Dashper-Hughes crochet designs for some time now. They’re stylish, simple and fantastically wearable. I will be putting up kits for two of her patterns – Arria and Basalt – which both suit Lone Ranger 4ply perfectly.  The kits will be available online from Tuesday 21st April.

Eco-warrior Sock:  Sustainability and consideration for the environment are both very important to me, and are vital elements in the selection of the fibres and yarns I sell.  I’m really delighted to announce that I’m offering a new sock yarn base. It’s super strong, very soft, made from British wool and spun in the UK. It’s a mix of Bluefaced Leicester and Tencel – a cellulose fibre that is made using a closed-loop process that eliminates any pollution and waste.  I’ll be adding it to the shop in time for virtual Wonderwool at the weekend – 24/25 April.  Which leads me to:

Virtual Wonderwool: I’m so delighted to be taking part in this. Wonderwool is one of my favourite wool shows to go to. I will really, really miss it this year, but the fantastic organisers are creating a virtual event over on their Facebook group. You’ll be able to browse vendors offerings and get a taste of the wonderful array of yarn, fibre and made goods available.

I hope you’re all keeping well and safe.  XX

The New Normal

This week has been a real rollercoaster. I’m sure it’s been the same for the majority of people. I veer from worry to panic to calm and I can’t seem to get a firm grip on how I feel from one day to the next.  We’ve settled into a bit of a routine here with the homeschooling, and it seems almost normal after a week of it, as do the empty streets and closed up shops.  That said, I went into the Job Centre yesterday to ask about ID verification (we’ve just moved, so the online system doesn’t recognise us) and I was stopped at the doorway by security rushing over with a raised hand to stop me entering.  I spent the next 10 minutes talking to someone standing two metres away, and gingerly exchanging bits of carefully handled paper. It was bizarre, and a stark reminder that this is not normal, and it’s terrifying for people on the front line. It’s one thing knowing this somewhat abstractedly from the shelter of your home, but it’s another to see it and experience it.

Anyway, today I feel quite calm. Yay me. I’m sending big virtual hugs and comforting thoughts to those who are not.   I’m up to date with orders, and I can start thinking about the projects I had planned before this started. (I say that, but I just turned to look at my office, and there are piles of unlabelled fibre and unskeined yarn, so I guess I’ll be doing all that first.) I’m going to start a Catwing Sweater, by An Caitin Beag’s Marna Gilligan, using Oh So Fine BFL/Silk 4ply yarn in shades of turquoise and fiery orange – The Highbury Life and Desert Sunset.  Can’t wait! Does anyone fancy joining me?

Oh, and speaking of joining me, I’ve been taking part in a lovely daily morning Zoom session, hosted by Nicky Jerrome and Janet Friel from The Frome Yarn Collective, Ria Burns and Rachel Le Page from Millie Moon haberdashery in Frome. Come and join us!  You can find the details here.

Yarn shows go online!

It’s yarn show season in the UK, or it should be. Given the circumstances, many yarn shows are taking the sad but necessary decision to cancel this year’s events. Social distancing has been shown to make a huge difference to the spread of COVID-19, and we need to try and reduce the pressure on an NHS that is already beleaguered by cuts and a population that’s been hit by the government’s austerity measures.  I’d like to shout out to all the people in the emergency services and other key professions to are basically keeping us all afloat. Perhaps the government will start to realise how much we need them, and how underappreciated, financially and socially, they generally are.

As I said in my newsletter the other day, the yarn shows that have been cancelled are more than just shopping opportunities. They are chances to learn, be inspired and to catch up with and meet friends who share a passion for all things woolly.  Many people will be missing the social and learning aspects of these events, and the yarn show community – organisers, dyers, artists, designers, teachers – to provide some kind of alternative.  There will be more news on this as we work things out.   Yorkshire Yarn Fest (@yorkshireyarnfest on instagram) has already run an Instagram live event featuring their vendors.  More events like this will be forthcoming and I’ll keep you updated here, on Facebook and by newsletter.

This is also an opportunity to try and hone my internet skills. I already have an advanced degree in dicking about on the web, but actually getting out there and interacting I find significantly more difficult than I do in person. That will change! I’m going to miss seeing everyone this summer in person, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get out and about online. I’m going to try and do some live events, top tip videos and other stuff, and I must remind myself that even if it’s just me, talking into the void, at least I know you’re all out there somewhere.

See you online soon!

Trying to find silver linings

Well, these are odd times, aren’t they? I used to write a regular blog, years ago, when I lived in Namibia as a VSO volunteer.  I had some mental health problems that writing regularly helped me to deal with. Now I have a blog that I haven’t written in nearly enough and times are stressful, so I thought, why not? Writing and crafting are two things that make a huge difference to my mental wellbeing, so why not combine the two in the way I’ve always wanted to?

I’m wondering where you all are at the moment, and what your current worries are?  For me, my family and I moved into a new house last weekend. Almost immediately my husband, who is the main breadwinner in our household, was put on hiatus at work as his company waited for a new project to come online. Now we are left wondering when and even if this project will happen, and as he is self-employed, he isn’t being paid. Hello, new mortgage!  My silver lining from this particular scenario is that he is here right now to help us settle in, unpack the gazillion boxes that surround us, and give me a hand homeschooling our kids (7 and 10) while I continue working.

Second is homeschooling my kids. I’ve always been hugely in awe of anyone who takes this on, knowing that I couldn’t do it. Cue school closures. Oddly, I’m really looking forward to this (ask me again in a week when I have bald spots on my head and am gibbering with confusion). I get to spend more time with my little monsters, and suddenly everything in the house seems like a lesson.  Biology – let’s talk about houseplants and work out how photosynthesis works. Geography – how are people in other countries living right now? How are they affected in different ways? Home economics – let’s make bread and sew some reusable bum wipes.

Third, but not least, is worry for my family. My aunt has an autoimmune condition that would make her extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, and I just don’t want to think about it. They’re self-isolating, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. My mum and her husband are in their 70s, and while they’re pretty fit and healthy, I still worry for them. I know we’re all probably in similar situations. My reason for writing this is partly to get it down on paper, and partly to say to anyone reading, you’re not alone. Please don’t feel alone.

As for crafting, my friends Nicky and Janet from The Frome Yarn Collective (lovely yarn shop, lovely people), myself and some other local business people are going to be hosting a daily Get up and Craft session online between 9 and 10 am BST on weekday mornings. All you need is the free Zoom app. Head over to the Facebook page for details. If you’re self-isolating, you don’t need to be isolated. I can’t wait. I need to feel normal, and sitting and crafting with other people helps.

I can’t help thinking that our society is going to change hugely over the next few weeks and months, but that doesn’t mean that change is going to be all bad.

Until next time,

Rach x

Meet the Yarn Shop Owner – Frome Yarn Collective


Frome Yarn Collective is my happy place.  It’s just the loveliest shop, and it’s run by Nicky Jerrome, who is one of the most fun people I know. Her enthusiasm for yarn and knitting is infectious, and I always learn something new. She seems to like my yarn too, which is always a bonus!

What made you want to open a yarn shop?

I have a passion for yarn, possibly more than the act of crafting itself. The colours, the textures. I just love it. I’ve always loved the idea of having a shop and, as I became more and more obsessed with knitting, I would fill notebooks with ideas for my dream yarn shop. I never really expected it to become a reality but then when I was talking to Debbie Orr, former owner of Skein Queen, about the fact we were looking to move West to be near my parents, she mentioned that there was a shop for sale in Frome. The rest is history!

How long have you been a knitter/spinner/crocheter/felter/all of the above?

I’ve been seriously knitting and crocheting for about 12 years. Like many people, I learned as a child and came back to it later in life. I have a spinning wheel and have dabbled over the last decade. I do love it and want to dedicate more time to it. Time is hard to come by though!

What’s your favourite thing about your shop?  What do you think your customers like about it?

My favourite thing, other than I get to play with gorgeous yarn all day, is where it is located. Catherine Hill in a Frome is a steep, cobbled street lined either side with lovely old buildings housing all sorts of interesting independent shops. I just love it here. I think (hope) that my customers appreciate the friendly welcome they get here along with advice and help when needed. Everyone who works here is a keen knitter and/or crocheter and I think that our love for what we are doing shines through.

How do you choose what yarns to stock?  It must be mind boggling!

I think if I get excited about a yarn the first time I see it, hold it and smell it then that’s always a good sign. I have a loose list of boxes in my head that need to be ticked and try to make sure I have something to suit a variety of tastes, budgets and requirements. When I feel all my boxes are ticked, I can start looking at “icing on the cake” type ranges and even the occasional special cherry on the top! We’re transitioning the ranges we stock to ensure that any yarn containing animal fibres is from companies that vouch that their yarn is cruelty free. That’s harder than it may seem at first and some very popular yarns will have to go but it’s really interesting sourcing new options to make sure I keep ticking all my boxes and keep a good range in the shop.

What’s your yarn philosophy? What does yarn mean to you?

Yarn to me means endless possibilities. Even if it’s been made (or half made) into a project it can usually be ripped out and used again for something different. I love how it enables me to play with textures and colours. It keeps my mind and fingers busy and is a constant source of comfort when I need it.

What would you like people to know about your shop?

That whoever you are, we welcome you with open arms (other than when they’re full of yarn, in which case we welcome you with arms of yarn).


three braids of hand dyed fibre in purple, gold, bronze and green, sitting on a grey background

Fibre wrangling – a story of transformation

sealy macwheely and friend standing in front of a colourful wall of yarn in a yarn shop

Meet the Yarn Shop Owner – Sealy MacWheely

Welcome to the second feature where I celebrate my lovely stockists. This time it’s the turn of Katie from Sealy MacWheely, whose exuberant approach to colour and texture I’ve admired for years.  I’m delighted she’s chosen to stock my hand-dyed yarns in her shop in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow.

What made you want to open a yarn shop?

The full story of how I fell into spinning involves a bag of alpaca poo and a boring summer during my time at university. (Note from me – that’s a story I need to hear one day).  That being said, the yarn shop dream in its current form was envisioned only a couple of years ago as an epiphany whilst suffering from the flu. I envisioned a space which celebrates the beauty of handmade and local crafts and is welcoming to everybody with an interest in yarn and fibre, irrespective of proficiency.

It took a lot of hard work getting from that point to where I am now, juggling my own small business with a full-time job, but it was definitely the spark that lit the touch paper. I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason and looking around the shop today it almost doesn’t feel real!

How long have you been a knitter/spinner/crocheter/felter/all of the above?

Like many crafters, I was first taught to knit by my beloved Grandma as a child but I barely managed more than a basic garter stitch square before giving up my needles for a few years. At age 19 whilst at uni I discovered the drop spindle and never looked back. That was nearly ten years ago now and I have since added weaving and occasional felting to my repertoire. My return to knitting has been quite gradual over the last decade but it’s impossible to be surrounded by so much beautiful yarn on a daily basis without being inspired. Crochet, however, has been a very recent addition and so far I can manage granny squares but cannot for the life of me read a pattern!

What’s your favourite thing about your shop?  What do you think your customers like about it?

Hands down the thing I love most about my shop is the brightness and variety of the colours! It’s the first thing most of my customers comment on too so I imagine they share the same sentiment. I find it fascinating how each dyer has their own distinct style and colourways, each one is so different and unique!

How do you choose what yarns to stock?  It must be mind boggling!

Sealy MacWheely is a bit unusual for an LYS in that I exclusively stock hand dyed or local yarns. I am really proud of the fact that I met each of my makers in person prior to opening the shop, mainly at festivals, and would describe each of them as a friend. We are so lucky to have such an amazing community of indie dyers and craftspeople in the UK and really the only pre-requisite for being included in the shop is that they are all lovely (and talented) people.

What’s your yarn philosophy? What does yarn mean to you?

I am first and foremost a spinner, it is the fibre itself which drew me towards yarn and I am fascinated by the full process of producing a finished garment from a pile of smelly, greasy fluff. The sense of accomplishment you feel after making something from scratch is irreplaceable and although I no longer have the time to fully process a fleece on a regular basis I am now hooked on every element of yarn creation.

What would you like people to know about your shop?

Sealy MacWheely is more than just a shop, it is a community space that is welcome to all, irrespective of skill, experience, age, race, sexuality, religion or ability. Just say the word and I will have the kettle on and the biscuits out in the Knit’n’Natter room! The shop itself was partially funded through a successful Kickstarter Campaign and as such I think of it as being created by and for the Yarn-loving community!


A plum of industrial smoke rising above a dark orange sunset

A Viscose Story

One of the things I really love about working with fibres and textiles is the variety of wonderful materials I am able to get my hands on: wool, alpaca, silk, bamboo, milk, pearl, the list goes on.  Natural fibres fascinate me and I’ve always seen viscose and rayon as natural and biodegradable. They are plant-based and I thought they were more sustainable and have less impact on the environment than cotton or acrylic.

One of my customers commented on a post I put on Facebook recently. She’d recently read a book called Fake Silk that shocked her, and she wanted me to know about it.  I had to confess ignorance. I had done some research into the sustainability of the fibres that I use, such as bamboo and other cellulose-based materials.  My conclusions were that viscose had less environmental impact than cotton, and was generally more sustainable, coming from renewable sources.

After reading Fake Silk and investigating further, I realised I should have dug deeper.  I did not know quite how bad the pollution from viscose processing plans actually is in Southeast Asia, India and China, where 83% of viscose is produced, or the effect that this has on people working in and living near these factories.

Viscose production

Viscose and Rayon production uses a chemical called carbon disulfide, which is used to dissolve the wood pulp before the whole solution is extruded like spaghetti into sulphuric acid baths, creating the viscose threads. Viscose began its ascendence in the mid 19th Century. The effects of exposure to carbon disulfide fumes have been documented repeatedly since then.  The findings have been ignored or repressed by the viscose producing companies.

Carbon disulfide has been linked to heart disease, fertility problems, serious eye damage (keratitis), psychosis, increased risk of suicide or violent behaviour and more.   It’s seriously life-limiting, life-changing stuff. The safe level of carbon disulfide exposure is extremely low, requiring significant health and safety measures to be put in place. The requirements are so stringent, viscose production in the US and UK has ceased altogether.

Drinking water in communities around the factories is unsafe. The air that people breathe is harming them every single day because of our insatiable need for cheap fashion and household goods.  Anyone who watched Stacey Dooley’s expose on fast fashion will have seen the horrific impact that viscose factories are having on communities in Indonesia. There is simply no incentive for the clothing companies or the government to insist on the regulation of factory conditions while the money is pouring in.

If you are interested in learning more in detail, this fantastic and extremely well-written report from Changing Markets is a must-read. It’s a gut-wrenching wake-up call to the reality of the viscose industry.

My viscose supply chain

The company that supplies the viscose that I use has assured me that they are produced on a closed loop system. These systems feed the chemicals and water used in production back into the factory process. While this is reassuring, I haven’t seen any proof of this in terms of documentation or supply chain transparency. I’ve given this a lot of thought over several months. My conscience tells me I can’t continue to use these fibres until I have this certification in my hands.

How does this affect Cat & Sparrow UK?

As a result, I’ll be using only viscose fibres that I know are sustainably and responsibly produced – Tencel and Seacell. I’ll be phasing bamboo and other viscose fibres out of my blends.  For example, the Tyrion blend used to include black diamond bamboo, which has now been replaced with bronze-coloured peduncle silk. I’ve replaced the bamboo in my Merino/bamboo blend with Tencel.  Any blends that do include bamboo or pearl or other viscose will remain in the shop until they have sold out, and then I will either discontinue them or replace the viscose with something else.

There are so many responsibly produced natural fibres out there that really, this doesn’t limit my options.  It just means I can explore more natural fibres, which is really exciting. I hope you’ll continue on this journey of exploration with me!



Copy of 'Handywoman' by Kate Davies on a red table

Book Review – Handywoman by Kate Davies

Kate Davies is one of my favourite designers. To be fair, I haven’t knitted all that many sweaters, but Kate’s always fit really well and they’re so well designed.  I’ve got Miss Rachel’s Yoke on my to-do list, and I can’t wait – I’ll be doing that in handspun, so it’ll be quite a fun project.

I was hoping to get Handywoman for Christmas, but I realised, too late, that I hadn’t actually told anyone. So, after Christmas, I hopped on to the internet and went to Ysolda to buy it. Ysolda is also one of my favourite designers. The ‘books and magazines’ section of her shop makes my heart sing. (You can buy it direct from Kate, but I wanted a Clara Parks book too.)

I didn’t really know what to expect when I started Kate’s book, but one of the things that struck me immediately was her voice. She writes with such steadiness and thoughtfulness, no word wasted, and yet her writing is full of emotion. It takes real skill to write like this, when the rhythm of the words lends the act of reading as much joy as the subject matter.  Reading it felt like a satisfying conversation with a good friend.

As the cover points out, this is not a book about Kate’s triumph over adversity. Each chapter talks about her stroke and subsequent and ongoing recovery from a different perspective, rather than chronologically. You can read it from start to finish or dip in and out, reading the chapters according to what interests you. She talks mainly about how differently things appear to her post-stroke, from the way that people react to her as a disabled person to her wonder and appreciation of how complex and wonderful are our brains and bodies.

She conveys this wonder and appreciation to the reader so brilliantly; when she talked about the complexity of actions such as picking up a mug or brushing one’s hair, I found myself suddenly studying the myriad tiny operations that go into these actions and feeling delight and amazement at my own extraordinary abilities. When she talks about interdependence, she reveals our intertwining relationships with the people and objects around us as a wonderful resource of support, solace and human connection. Each chapter is a gem, but there are two in particular that I loved.

Da Allover

The first, Da Allover, is about Kate’s relationship with Shetland. She talks about the landscape, the history and heritage, the skill and passion of the people she met with such emotion that it made me cry. I immediately began planning my first trip to Shetland AND an allover Fairisle sweater AND a new range of fibres using Shetland wool, which I already love and use a lot.  If this chapter does not give the reader an appreciation for the cultural and social importance of wool and wool craft, I don’t know what will.

Design for All

The second chapter that really grabbed my heart was Design for All.  I’ve often looked at the world around me and wondered why it is largely designed without thought for people with different physical abilities.  In this chapter, she talks about the history of Swedish inclusive design and lays out the case for it with such clarity that I suddenly found myself freshly shocked and amazed at how and why people are excluded from society, and in so many ways that I hadn’t even considered.  Again, she inspired me to start thinking more about the things I can do to be more inclusive and thoughtful in the way that I work and live.

I could wax lyrical about this book for hours, but as far as a review goes, I think this is one of the most enjoyable, thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long, long time.  I know I’m going to dip back in and out of it regularly, to reread the passages that gave me insights, inspired me to do or be more, or made me feel deep joy in humanity and creation.  It’s a tour de force. Thank you, Kate.