Posted by: Linda Proud | January 31, 2011

Skeins of wool and geese

When geese fly in V-formation, it’s called a skein. We see them in the autumn when they come honking over our roof, so low that I duck, even when indoors. I’ve always understood ‘skein’ to mean two things becoming one, two lines of geese meeting in the leader, but I’ve just looked it up in the dictionary and it said nothing about this; it just said that the word is from Old French escaigne, may originate in Celtic, and means a V-formation of geese or a hank of wool loosely tied in a knot.

Greylags at Godstow Bridge

I went for a walk today on the Thames path, stopping to say hello to the geese at Godstow bridge.

From the bridge to the Trout Inn (a favourite watering hole for both Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis) the road passes the community farm and the small flock of Ryedale sheep. I showed them my new gillet but they weren’t overly interested. They obviously didn’t make the connection with their last shearing.

For reasons I can’t fathom, while wool is very expensive, farmers have to give fleeces away. The community shepherd, aka editor of local paper, sends his to The Natural Dye Company in Devon and buys back the processed wool at a discount. Excited by this, I bought nine balls of Ryedale, dyed a raspberry colour called ‘plum’, only to find out that the balls, costing £5 each, were only 50 grams, and that the pattern called for me to knit two threads together, so I needed as many balls again. Do the math. Expensive gillet, no?

Ryedale sheep at Godstow

The Ryedale is a particularly woolly sheep. I stood looking at them, wondering just how fiddly and time-consuming it would be to wash, comb, card and spin, and would I like to spend my retirement doing that rather than carrying on with writing? (Actually, I would, but then I’m in a post-novel exhaustion and not to be trusted). The fact is, however, that we give our fleeces away for nothing and buy back the wool at not too generous a discount, and the word ‘fleeced’  sort of haunts me. Wouldn’t it be nice to do our own? I remember Ruth on the Edwardian Farm (last episode last week, sadly) washing fleeces in the river. Well, we have a river, called the Thames, and I wouldn’t mind tucking up my skirts and wading in. Ruth seemed to enjoy herself.

That would only leave combing, carding and spinning. I just looked up spinning wheels and found it’s quite easy to make your own if you have a wood-turner in the house and a pole lathe in the garden. But then there’s the charka, which is what Gandhi used when inspiring others to self-sufficiency and independence.

Something else I saw on TV recently, it may even have been the same programme, is that in spinning you do two threads together to stop it all twisting into a foul knot. And I think even in 4-ply, it’s 2 x 2 threads.  So I’m pretty sure, in my own instinctive etymological way, that ‘skein’ means two things becoming one.

My eye-wateringly expensive gillet

Three of us were chanting Sanskrit yesterday morning, two women, one man. I thought the other woman had stopped singing until I realised that our two voices had become one and indistinguishable from each other. It was extraordinary and very beautiful, like the vibrations of a bell. And that also is a skein, perhaps, two notes vibrating, and so is the double-helix of DNA. Always knew geese were profound…


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