I had heard of spinning wheels in fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin, for example, and I also knew that when the evil queen Maleficent found out she was the only one not to be invited to Sleeping Beauty’s christening, she flew into a fury and set a curse that on her 16th birthday the princess would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. A little harsh, and a good fairy did manage to weaken the curse somewhat, to just send her into a deep sleep. But still, her overprotective parents ordered all the spinning wheels in the kingdom to be disposed of. And, except for that one that Sleeping Beauty inevitably pricked her finger on (though lack of practice) when it magically appeared 16 years later, I would say that they did a pretty damn good job. I mean, I had never seen one before.
That’s why when I walked into the ‘Mercadinho’ (which is now back on Saturday mornings in the historic centre of Loulé) and I saw this lady sitting peacefully next to this beautiful revolving wooden wheel, I found myself completely spellbound and mesmerized. People were walking past, equally surprised and enchanted by this spinning contraption, and while they curiously admired her display of wonderful hand-knitted creations, she sat serenely feeding in her wool which unfurled, whirled and then twirled itself into yarn. Eventually, I got over my astonishment and went over to say hello.
The hand-spinners name was Susan Sutherland and she was more than happy to have a little chat with me, and indeed, proceeded to spin another kind of gripping yarn about her life and how, even though she had learned to knit when she was little, she had all but forgotten how, until she taught herself again 7 years ago. She enjoyed it so much that she started her own company called Ovelha Negra Knits (I think Sue thinks of herself as a ‘black sheep’) and began selling her woolly-wares in local artisan markets. However, she told me that during this time she had become frustrated that, even though Portugal is full of sheep, she couldn’t seem to find any affordable local wool to knit with.
Now, this is an example of something good coming out of the pandemic. You see, Sue is a cook by trade and runs a catering business, which of course, came to a standstill last year and Sue suddenly had the time to sit and learn how to spin her own yarn. The world of wool all sounds very technical and, I’ll be honest, as Sue talked incredibly knowledgeably about all the spinning and knitting terms - she sent my head spinning too, just trying to keep up.
She explained how she uses wool from local Portuguese ‘Merino’ sheep. But she also said that it’s difficult to source, as even though there are indeed plenty of sheep that have to be sheared, for the wool to be any good for spinning it has to be a consistent length. And since this is time-consuming and expensive (and there’s not much demand for it) farmers don’t usually bother and this natural resource generally goes to waste. Sue also told me that Portuguese sheep are a lot hardier (I guess they have more thorns and tough terrain to deal with) than English sheep, and so their wool takes a lot more work ‘carding’ (I think that’s the right word) to remove all the bits and pieces and get it ready to be spun.
Once she’s spun a yarn, Sue also enjoys dyeing them lots of different funky colours (I’m sure there’s a technical term for that as well, but I’ve forgotten it). At her stall, she was selling things like hats, jumpers, bags and even adorable woolly animals that she has knitted. But you can also just buy her yarn so that you can knit something yourself.
And, if you wouldn’t have the faintest idea where to start, she even has a kit that includes a pair of bamboo knitting needles and instructions on how to knit your own woolly hat.
Sue has lived in Portugal for 32 years now, but more in the Lagos area having only moved to Loulé relatively recently. But she made a big point to tell me about how happy she has been to find the Loulé Criativo project and is now part of their Loulé Design Lab team, where she has met lots of other interesting local artists. Here she teaches a different kind of ‘spin class’ and delights in passing on her knowledge to others to help revive this traditional and increasingly lost art.
She told me that these days everybody has gotten a bit ‘knit-picky’ and stopped wanting wool products, and instead prefer fast-fashion and short-lived synthetic fibres. This is a shame, Sue said, as wool is a natural and renewable resource that is soft, warm and comfortable. It’s also extremely durable, and even when it does eventually wear out it can easily be mended. This is certainly true. I mean, I would tell you the story about the time I fixed a hole in my sock, but that’s another darn yarn...
If you want to find out more about Sue, then look her up on Facebook or Instagram at Ovelha Negra Knits. Also, from now until October, the Loulé Mercadinho will now be on every Saturday in the historic centre between 10 am and 2 pm. So, if you want to see some more enchanting local artists, or even see Sue (who will be back again on the 26th of June) then be ‘shorn’ to go and check it out.