And they are done. My largest spindle spun project so far, the Sirwal snow shoveling pants that used to be common in the Moroccan High Atlas Mountains. I call them Gunvor’s Sirwal pants from the sheep that gave me the wool. Since my 16-year-old has dibs on snow shoveling for pocket money I may use the pants for outdoor yoga and for walking down to the lake for my daily bath.
A while ago I bought Irene Waggener’s beautiful book Keepers of the sheep and reviewed it on the blog. One of the most striking patterns was the Sirwal pants, a pair of black and white striped pants that the shepherds used to knit while herding the sheep.
A patternless pattern
In the book Irene describes her first meeting with the pants in a museum, how she learned to knit them from her host Muah n’Aït Tabatoot’s demonstration. Irene has in turn written down the oral description and demonstration for the book. As all of the projects in the book the pattern is based on working with what you have in the form of wool, yarn, needles and body size rather than a detailed knitting instruction. I really liked the idea and think it would be a good challenge for me.
The challenge of keeping it simple
In the book Irene describes how Muah’s wife Nejma spun and plied the yarn on a floor supported spindle, wound it into a ball and handed it straight over to Muah for knitting. I wanted to make my own pair of Sirwal pants as close to the original as possible. So, a spindle spun yarn. I didn’t have a floor supported spindle of the kind Nejma used, but I do have Navajo style floor supported spindles so I used one of them. I also decided not to soak the yarn and set the twist after plying, to stay as close to the High Atlas way as I could.
“So, the yarn is not soaked and the twist has not been set?” you may say. That’s right. “But soaking the yarn will allow it to bloom into its final shape! And setting the twist will even out the twist over the length of the yarn!” you may continue. That is true. This will probably not happen with my pants. Something else probably will, though. I don’t know what, but if and when it does, all is as it should be. Instead of the finished yarn I got the loveliest smell during knitting and the softest hands. That counts for something too.
Gunvor the Gestrike sheep
I used two fleeces of Gestrike wool, the first and second shearing of the Gestrike ewe Gunvor. She was the subject of my longitudinal study I wrote about in May 2021. She was a beautiful white sheep with large black spots, perfect for the striped Sirwal pants.
Gestrike wool has both long and strong outercoat fibers, soft and airy undercoat and some kemp. This results in a strong and warm yarn, perfect for my Sirwal pants.
A life through stripes
The fleece of Gestrike sheep can lighten with age and Gunvor’s fleece turned out to have that particular characteristic. I took advantage of this feature and used the blackest black from the first shearing at the bottom of the legs and continuted with the lighter shades as I worked my way up the legs. I like how you can see Gunvor’s life through the stripes.
The quality of the wool was different between the shearings too. The first shearing was shinier and a bit finer while the second shearing was a bit shorter and airier. I’m not sure it’s visible in the pants, though. The second shearing was a lot higher in lanolin. As I calculated the yield from the two fleeces I was amazed by the difference. From the raw fleece I got a yarn yield of 59 per cent from the first shearing and 38 per cent from the second. The amount of lanolin should be an important clue to this difference. Perhaps the second shearing also contained more short fibers and/or kemp than the second, that stayed in the combs when I teased the wool.
You can read more about shearing and lanolin content through the seasons in the post Shearing Day.
Another challenge was the yarn. The tradition calls for a super bulky yarn, which is far from my light fingering weight default thickness. But a challenge is a challenge and I took it by the horns. I managed to spin the bulkiest singles I have ever spun. Add plying to that and I got myself a super bulky woolen spun yarn from hand carded rolags.
At first I tried to card the wool without teasing the wool first, again in an effort to stay as close to the High Atlas way as possible. But the kemp in the wool made the yarn very scratchy. By teasing the wool with combs I got rid of a lot of the kemp and I decided to keep the teasing.
When the pants were finished I had used 26 balls of yarn. 1200 grams, 717 meters from the two fleeces, between 500 and 700 meters per kilo with an average grist of 590 meters per kilo. You can read more about how I spun this yarn in my blog post bulky.
If you are a patron (or become one) you may get access to a Patreon postcard video I made in November, where I demonstrate how I spin the super bulky yarn.
I started knitting as soon as I had the first ball of handspun yarn in my hand. This is how I continued with the whole project – spin a ball and knit it. A yarn of this weight doesn’t last very long, though. At the bottom of the legs one skein lasted about one stripe and at the hips around eight rounds.
Knitting the Gunvor Sirwal pants was quite strenuous. The bulky yarn and the large needles (5.5 mm) require some work. Add to that the tight twist and the tight gauge and, as I joined the legs in the crotch, quite some weight in my lap to manage. The finished pants weigh around one kilo.
Despite the heavy knitting it was lovely to work with the yarn. I love the roundedness of the yarn and the strong character it has. It takes its place in the world and doesn’t apologize for its existence. I got all giggly by the sheepy smell from the unwashedness of the pants in progress. As I knit I experienced Gunvor’s life, from the blackest of the black lamb locks at the shins to the more mature depth in the lead grey in hip height.
Outdoor yoga and cold baths
If you have been following me for a while you may know that I take baths in the lake every day and that I sometimes practice yoga outdoors. Gunvor’s Sirwal pants are perfect for both outdoor yoga and walking down to the lake on the coldest days.
A walk to the bath
Gunvor’s Sirwal pants are warm, reasonably windproof, and easy to put on after a cold bath, which is important since my fingers are stiff from the cold and I need to get warm fast. Yesterday afternoon I went down to the lake with an axe and cleaned up the edges of the hole in the ice. We’re five ladies in the cold bath group and they have all been cheering me on during the making of the pants.
An outdoor yoga studio
Practicing yoga outdoors is not a problem as long as you have clothing that suits the weather. Down to -2°C is ok with one or two layers of wool tights or sweat pants. I can even practice with bare feet on my cork mat at this temperature. With lower temperatures staying warm easily gets too chunky which makes it difficult to do the postures comfortably.
Gunvor’s Sirwal pants are perfect, though, even for temperatures below -2°C. I took the pictures above at -6°C and it wasn’t too cold. With the suspenders they stay up without getting too tight around the waist.
I practice yoga asana every day, and sometimes outdoors on our terrace. I just love having all the fresh air to myself. As I usually do my outdoor yoga at around 8 p.m. it’s dark, as dark it gets in a city. I get to look up at the sky and the waving pine branches above. It gives the practice an extra dimension of space that I don’t want to be without.
Some people say the pants look a bit like Obelix’s blue and white striped pants, some say they look like Findus the cat’s green striped suspender pants. They remind me of swimsuits from over a century ago, which is quite suitable since I wear them in a bathing context. But most of all they make me think of superhero pants with their bold stripes and dazzling lightning bolts up the sides. Don’t we all wish to be just a little superhero-y every now and then?
Thank you Irene for making the pattern accessible and Muah for teaching Irene. Thank you Gunvor for the loveliest wool. I have learned a lot from this project.
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