The Spanish tradition of ‘transhumancia’

Having lived and knitted in Spain, from time to time, I realize how little I know about Spanish wool and sheep. Mind you, I know precious little about sheep and wool in general. For one thing, while the global company We Are Knitters was founded by a couple of Spanish entrepreneurs, the”knitting revolution” seemed to be only starting in the country over the last few years. As I got acquainted with the notions of local yarn producers, farm yarn, indie dyers etc., I couldn’t but wonder where was all this in Spain, after all, we are talking about the birthplace of Merino sheep.

Persistent googling hasn’t quite provided me with an answer as of now, so I was quite pleasantly surprised a few days ago while catching up on Woolful podcast episodes. The interviewee of one of the July podcasts was Marta Bahillo, owner and designer behind the brand babaá. The fact that I’d never heard of this brand is no surprise, as my brief research revealed that they are mainly marketed in the Spanish media as a children’s clothing company – the kind of fashion I’m not particularly drawn to at this present stage. But, more importantly, Marta is committed to source materials and produce her garments through local artisans. There you have it, Spanish wool (not for sale to knitters – or not where I could find it). If you listen to the interview itself, you’ll see how Marta herself laments the decline of the traditional Spanish textile industry, especially in a country with a shepherding tradition that goes a long way back in history.


Sweaters made of Spanish wool. Photo credit: babaá

Note:  To those of you thinking that it is no wonder not many seem too keen to pick up the knitting needles in warm and sunny Spain, I’d like to remind you that the country comprises much more than sun-drenched beaches or the suffocating summer heat of Madrid and Andalusia. There are plenty occasions and places to sport a lovely hand-knit sweater, scarf or whatever you like.

One thing Marta mentions briefly in the interview is the tradition of the transhumancia or transhumance in English. I vaguely remembered hearing something about this in the news while living in Spain, so I decided to find out more.

Transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock between summer and winter pastures, and, of course, it does not only occur in Spain, but throughout the whole world. Experts seem to relate it to animal migrations for food occurring in nature. Climate differences between different territories lead to differences in the availability of food sources. For instance, during the summer heat pastures can become arid and burnt, so it is convenient to relocate grazing animals to an area with milder and less dry climate. Another reason to change the grazing territory from season to season is to give pastures an appropriate rest period.

Trailer of the documentary series Huellas transhumantes: transhumancia en España (English subtitles) from Domingo Moreno on Vimeo.

This is precisely what happens in Spain, where livestock is taken from the warmer southern areas to the cooler and greener north for the summer months, and vice versa for winter. In the northern mountainous regions, flocks may cover shorter distances to go from colder high mountain areas to valleys or lower regions. Transportation of livestock on foot has a long history, going back to the pre-Roman era (before c. 200 BC). The tradition started to decline from the 16th century onward, and the introduction of the railroad network in the late 19th century as well as the use trucks for livestock transport later on rendered the long and perilous journey on foot somewhat redundant.


Main drovers’ roads in Spain. Credit: De Diotime, Wikimedia Commons

The multiple changes in farming, involving technology, EU and state regulations, the general tendency for people to leave rural areas in favor of urban life have all contributed to the decline of traditional transhumance. Although it is claimed that in curently a network of about 125.000 kms of drovers’ roads still exist in Spain, these roads used for centuries for the transportation of livestock are deteriorating, they are being built on or turned into farm land, which of course poses a further difficulty.

This might all sound gloomy for those who are into maintaining traditions and cultural heritage. Luckily there seems to be a recent awakening of awareness to the tradition and its benefits. Experts claim that transhumance has a number of ecological benefits related to the preservation of specific habitats, sustainable use of landscape, etc. Also, similarly to what is happening in other parts of the western world, farm life and shepherding seems to present a new appeal to the young generations 


The drovers’ road Cañada Real Galiana, western Soria. Photo credit: Luis Fernández García

And, of course, we are talking about Spain where no occasion for a popular celebration can go without trying to make the most of it. The strong bond between urban lifestyle and the countryside and its cultural, and importantly, culinary heritage is precisely one of the things that makes the country so appealing. Marta’s mention of the transhumance evoked the image of the streets of modern day Madrid flooded by thousands of sheep I saw on television every year.

Today, while a shrinking number of individuals keep taking on the arduous task of leaving their homes to lead their livestock to faraway lands, in major cities the tradition is brought to life by the Fiesta de la transhumancia. In Madrid, as tradition dictates, shepherds pay 50 maravedís (old currency used in the Iberian Peninsula) per 1000 sheep each year to earn their passage through the city. This – now symbolic fee – was established in 1418 in an agreement between the company of the Meseta shepherds and the then council of Madrid.


Fiesta de la transhumancia in Madrid. Photo credit: Samuel Sánchez (el país)

And some more…

For a detailed description of the origin, the history and the future prospective of transumance in Spain, read Past, present and future of Trashumancia in Spain: nomadism in a developed country by Pablo Manzano Baena and Raquel Casas.

The website of the Spanish National Transhumance association has a great collection of links to articles, videos and lots of information about the tradition.

This 75 minute documentary (in Spanish) provides a glimpse of the difficult labour of farmers travelling with their livestock.

OMG I bought YARN!

Probably many knitters find that it is hard to be rational about yarn. Very hard. As I’ve mentioned here before, I try – sometimes unsuccessfully – not to buy anything without having a specific project in mind. This strategy, however, has not been good enough to prevent me from accumulating a good size stash.  Firstly, there is yarn left over from previous projects. Secondly, there is yarn from projects that didn’t go so well, or that I (temporarily) lost interest in. Thirdly, there is the yarn I had to buy, because it was discounted, and I had been planning to use it for a specific project anyway, which by the way, I might not be able to tackle until a few years from now…

yarn cones2

Despite my efforts, stray yarn balls also manage to make their way to my shelves. To some extant this happens thanks to online shops offering free shipping over a certain value order, and, of course, buying that one extra ball of yarn makes much more sense than paying however much for airmail, right?  In addition, as part of a condition other knitters probably recognize, I find yarn balls and yarn skeins to be the prettiest things. I could stare at them for ages. Sometimes I just have to buy them, no matter what.

Sales, of course, are probably one, if not the most important, driver of consumerism. And that is what happened last weekend. More than just your average sale in fact. With my two newbie knitter friends, we found out about a factory yarn sale to be held in a nearby neighbourhood. I didn’t put much thought into what a factory sale might be in the world of wool, we just decided to check it out after our morning swim.  As we arrived, it didn’t take long to put two and two together and realize that the sale was in fact done by the local Woolyarns mill/factory I’d known to produce the Zealana luxury yarns.


Once we walked through the door, we found a scene, which slightly reminded me of my second-hand clothes shopping, back when I was at university: women, mostly older than us, expertly scrutinizing everything, with an amazing ability of swiftly making sense of what’s in their hands and deciding what they needed. We, on the contrary, found ourselves completely helpless, surrounded by large cones of mostly unlabeled yarn. Why was it that I expected to find a layout of your usual LYS with balls and skeins neatly arranged on shelves? What weight? What composition? Never mind gauge, yardage…. The aforementioned ladies ,of course, seemed to be able to acquire all this information via a gentle touch and twist of the wool. What everything seemed to be was insanely cheap. Not many colour choices, but what was labeled as 1 kg possum blend* cost 25-35 NZ dollars – normally the price of one or two 50 g yarn balls. Smaller cones of unlabeled yarn were sold for one dollar only. It was hard to be rational. And even harder to know what we wanted.

So, very unrationally, I ended up with a medium size cone of fingering weight (?) violet possum blend, what I suspect to be possum blended with wool and perhaps cotton, and a bigger scone of fingering weight (?) black-gray possum blend(?), a one dollar cone of natural wool (by the looks), two big hanks of felted yarn, which for five dollars each I was more than hesitant to leave behind, and a bag containing ten small balls(!) of what was labeled as possum-cashmere-silk blend. These latter ones I decided to identify as the expensive as gold Zealana Air.  Fact is, I have no idea what will become of any of this, which makes me feel incredibly guilty, and, to be fair, excited.

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*While for outsiders it might seem odd and or cruel to produce yarn out of possum down, it is common practice in New Zealand, and it serves a good cause. Non-native brushtail possum was introduced here in the 19th century, and due to the lack of natural predators, the population has grown out of control. As a consequence, this furry creature currently poses an actual threat to New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. Furthermore, possum blend yarns are known to be light weight, warm, incredibly soft and less inclined to pill.

Brewing beer in good company…

I don’t know about others, but for me the love of crafts and making comes closely related to curiosity as to finding out how things are made. With knitting I get the most thrill out of figuring out how a certain new stitch pattern creates a certain texture, how to resolve different design elements, and, ultimately, how a given garment is constructed. Besides, I’m constantly tempted to adopt new hobbies and experiment with different modalities of making.

As a beer drinker, when I first came to Wellington, I was (and still am)  amazed at how well people seem to know their beer here. The city itself is dubbed “Craft Beer Capital” and is home to over a dozen established breweries. No wonder, you would probably have to kill or seriously threaten a Wellingtonian before they’d submit their palates to abominations such as your average Heineken. Here you don’t go to a pub and ask for a beer by brand name, you’ll do as wine drinkers, only, instead of a Merlot or a Pinot Noir, you’ll order an IPA, an APA, a Porter or a Pilsner. This for me was quite a bit of a change after the almost exclusive dominance of local Estrella Galicia back in Coruña. That was the beer, sacred, untouchable, and in no way could you even suggest that others might exist – or God forbid – taste better.

Note: After a year of exposure, even Chan was seduced by the “almighty”, and delusions lead him to believe he would miss the bitter lager from the antipodes.

Come brew your own beer

Craft your own beer – Entrance to the “brewing room”

With all the beer hype it is only natural that one would want to join not only the drinking crowd, but also the crafty lot. So the idea had been there in the back of our minds, but well, becoming a home brewer is a bit of a commitment with all the material, apparent hassle, and the uncertain outcome… And there came our brilliant friend Emma, who told us she was planning to spend Sunday afternoon doing a bit of brewing. We didn’t hesitate as much as a second to sign up, of course. Brewing kit, material and supervision provided, it should be a piece of cake.


We showed up at the Occasional Brewer as complete brewing newbies, somewhat nervous, only to find that the equipment reminded us (or me at least) of long-forgotten chemistry classes. We were handed our instructions/recipes for the specific beer style we had chosen to craft – in our case a Blonde Ale – and instructed step-by-step in the basics.

Essentially the experience was not much different from trying out a new recipe for Sunday lunch. Or perhaps even more like getting together at a friends’ place to bake a carrot cake for the first time. We were told to carefully mind the thermostats for different parts of the process, we mixed grains with hot water, drained the brew from one pot to the other, recirculated the wort (this is a new word I learnt), stirred, and measured out hops on a kitchen scale. As brewing takes time, we were around for most of the afternoon, and while waiting for the grains to soak or the brew to boil we enjoyed some craft beer (what else?) and chatted away at the pub next door.

What our brew will turn out like is, of course, still to be seen. In a few weeks we are due to show up for a bottling session, and after some more wait, I guess I’ll let you know.