Seen as part of Stroud textiles festival – an attempt to knit a man’s sweater, from sheep’s back to man’s back, in a day. It was part of the international Back to Back Challenge, an annual competition where teams from all over the world hand-shear a sheep, and attempt to spin and knit the sweater faster than any other team.
There were two sheep to be sheared [each accompanied by young lambs who presumably couldn’t be left behind]. They were from a flock of organic Lleyns, lent from Highgrove. And to fit in with the competition rules they had to have been reared entirely outside. The shearer chose one with a dense fleece and one with looser, so that the spinners could choose. I think they went for the denser one as being easier to spin quickly.
The team was made up of seven ladies, not counting the shearer, and they were all able to spin and to knit, and so could swop jobs during the day. All participating teams had to follow a fixed sweater pattern, and the finished woolly would be inspected for dropped stitches and deviations from the pattern, which would mean being disqualified.
At nine o’clock sharp, the shearer started. And at seven minutes past nine, there was enough wool spun for the first knitter to cast on. The sheep was looking pretty ragged – not a neat job at all, but super-fast. And then all day, in a gazebo on the lawn outside the Museum in the Park, the seven ladies took turns to spin and to knit. The wool was coarse and unwashed, and so scratchy and hard to work with. A friendly masseur spent the afternoon rubbing their aching shoulders and arms.
In 2008, the winning team was from Toronto and finished their sweater in five hours, 55 minutes and 50 seconds. The Stroud team wouldn’t have beaten this as they were still at work at 4.30 when I left, but they were hoping to be done by early evening. The finished sweater is being silent-auctioned to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support charity.