This week’s theme is BE THE CHANGE. There are so many ways that we can each take up the cause of wool; from writing letters to signing petitions, to telling our friends about the benefits of wearing and working with wool, there are many ways in which we can each make a difference to how this fibre is regarded. To think about that theme, this evening we have a guest post from Penny Maltby, who shares how she became interested in the supply chain of wool after considering the supply chain of milk. We wanted to share this post to show how effective and passionate we can become about things we consume when we begin to ask questions.

I am a real newcomer in this woolly world. My journey to becoming involved in wool is somewhat convoluted as you will see, but now I am well and truly hooked, 100% (no compromise).

As a Creative Arts student, at the end of each year I have to choose a major project. My first dip into the area of farming was milk. I was inspired to choose this as a focus after speaking with a local dairy farmer. He was lamenting the price he received for his milk, the costs of production and the price people then paid for milk. This led me on a journey of research and exploration from an artist’s perspective. I became very interested in the amount of time, processes and materials involved but equally depressed by our desire for cheap food and lack of connection to where things come from.

Research and material experiments from the milk project
Research and material experiments from the milk project

I was able to visit the farm for primary research; to draw, watch the milking, dig earth from the fields, collect straw, scrap pieces of metal, take rubbings and make plaster casts…

Preparing the milk cluster mould
Preparing the milk cluster mould
Cast Bone China Milk Clusters
Cast Bone China Milk Clusters

…my material explorations were extensive, but some were disastrous. My attempts to make casein (plastic made from milk) were either smelly or mouldy and brought me little inspiration. Other materials that could be subject to processing such as mud and clay from the fields as well as making straw paper were much more successful. The results ranged from a concept Artists Book made of miniature straw bales to an installation of concrete, bone china and mud cast milk related objects. I toyed with the idea of selling my ‘Book of Bales’ for £1, but in the end could not bring myself to let all my hard work go for such a low price.

Unlike many dairy farmers, I had a choice.

Detail of straw paper bales
Detail of straw paper bales
Artist book - book of handmade bales
Artist book – book of handmade bales

I live near Oxford, which centuries ago had fulling and textile mills providing those inside the city walls, mainly academia, with fine cloth for their gowns and their furnishings. Close by, Witney produced blankets and Banbury was the heart of the plush industry. This led me to think about wool in the same way as milk: something we no longer seemed to have the same connection to, something we no longer really value. This gap between producer and consumer was a theme I still wanted to pursue, to explore that lack of connection and to try to understand all that is in that gap.

Romney sheep on a local farm
Romney sheep on a local farm

A series of meetings and conversations have cemented ‘wool’ as the theme of study for my final year. The first was at a rather raucous fund raising night in a local village hall chatting to a local sheep farmer and hearing about the price farmers receive for raw fleece.

At the shearing
At the shearing
...all done
…all done

Further visits have included museums, my local friendly farmer, Oxfordshire Museum Resources and Salts Mill, Saltaire.

Witney blanket brush - Oxfordshire Museum resource centre
Witney blanket brush – Oxfordshire Museum resource centre
Vintage farming and shepherding tools, Cotswold Woollen Weavers
Vintage farming and shepherding tools, Cotswold Woollen Weavers

All have led to many woolly encounters and conversations, including meeting with a lady called Jenny who offered to teach me to spin (yes really, ‘spinning Jenny’).

Making rolags with Jenny
Making rolags with Jenny
Learning to spin with Jenny
Learning to spin with Jenny
Jenny's expert hands
Jenny’s expert hands

I now own 6 bags of local fleece which are waiting to be processed in my garage. I’m hoping to buy my own second hand wheel as well as to continue experimenting in knit, weave and crochet. I bore my friends and family with discussions on milk, provenance, wool, history, buying local and more. I have always enjoyed materials and making things with my hands – testing the limits of what can be done with them – and I’ve used this previously in my artwork, but would not have considered myself a knitter or a crocheter, save a few dabbles in my teens. My mum on the other hand was a great knitter.

Vintage aran knitting pattern
Vintage aran knitting pattern
My younger brother in his handknit Aran jumper, 1981
My younger brother in his handknit Aran jumper, 1981

I still have the Aran cardigan she knitted for my dad in the 1960’s and even my younger brother was graced with a mini Aran. Much to my shame and sorrow, I do not still have the beautiful Icelandic Lopi jumper she knitted for me. She also knitted them for many friends and family and even my German exchange.

Vintage lopi pattern
Vintage lopi pattern
Me and my German exchange student in our Lopi jumpers
Me and my German exchange student in our Lopi jumpers

…and the late 70’s I was the envy of all my friends with amazing woollen stripy jumpers hand knitted for me in various colour combinations by my mum. Jumpers have such an amazing capacity to carry memories.

1980s stripey jumper phase
1980s stripey jumper phase

Perhaps the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree after all; sometimes maybe it just takes time. I have no idea what the rest of my woolly journey will look like yet, but searching for the route is fascinating, inspiring, satisfying, laborious, complicated and eye-opening. Something has to and will emerge by my ‘hand in,’ next May…

Penny Maltby is a mature student studying a BA Hons at Oxford Brookes University. You can follow her artistic ramblings on her blog at www.pmaltby.wordpress.com and you can find her on instagram as @pennymaltbymaker.

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