WEAVER PRODUCES YARN, BLANKETS AND TWEED CLOTH IN HEART OF THE SPEY VALLEY
Knockando Woolmill sits by a tree-fringed stream amid arable farmland in the northeast of Scotland, the heart of whisky country. In operation since 1784, it is the oldest continuously working rural mill in the UK. Today it produces knitting yarn, blankets and tweed cloth using machinery that dates back to the 19th century.
The mill was bought by its chief weaver Hugh Jones, together with two friends, in 1976. A teacher, he was on holiday in the area when he saw the mill for sale. He had no knowledge of weaving but was attracted by the machinery and the idea of making something useful. The mill owner Duncan Stewart, who was selling up after 50 years, taught him the basics over a two-year period. He also learnt from a loom mechanic at the Scottish College of Textiles.
“I am mechanically minded and just got on with it,” says Hugh. “I had to learn or I wasn’t going to eat. I find it very satisfying, making something of genuine value and use. I have a feeling of great pleasure when a new design comes out of the loom and the cloth is right. I’ve got the settings on the loom and the tension correct, and there’s a uniformity to the cloth. It’s a powerful feeling to have control over all those threads.”
Originally managed as part of a croft, the mill was powered by a giant water wheel until 1949, when it switched to electricity. Local farmers would bring their fleeces to be converted into cloth or knitting wool. Combining farming and weaving made it possible for the crofters to eke a living.
“There used to be mills like this dotted all over Scotland,” explains Hugh. “They were an evolution from local hand-spinning and weaving. As mechanisation came along, little mills got hold of machines when they could. These formed the basis of the local economy in terms of blankets, knitting wool and basic cloth that the population used and wore. By 1960, they were nearly all gone, but Duncan Stewart kept going.”
By 2000, the strain of continuous production had taken its toll on the mill. Hugh handed over control to the Knockando Woolmill Trust, which raised £3.4million for restoration. The machinery and the once ramshackle stone and timber-clad buildings were renovated. The work was completed in 2013 and the mill is now operating as smoothly as ever.
“It’s a piece of history, the last one of its kind,” says Hugh. “My aim was to improve the working environment rather than change it. We’ve kept the simplicity of the place while making it functional today.” The equipment, including two looms from the 1890s, is housed in three old workshops with whitewashed walls and low ceilings. A new building is home to two additional looms.
Hugh describes the process of turning sheep fleeces into fabric as a matter of “making order out of chaos”. When a sheep is shorn, its wool is a mass of greasy, matted, unruly fibres. By running the fleece through the mill’s carding machines, those fibres are separated and straightened ready for spinning and weaving.
The fleeces used are bought in bales after they have been scoured (washed). Traditionally, the mill has used wool from Cheviot sheep which have a white, resilient coat. “The coarser wool from the older sheep mixed with younger wool makes a good tweed yarn. The younger wool makes soft blankets,” says Hugh. He looks for wool fibres that measure 2.5-4in (6-10cm) in length as this best suits the mill’s Victorian carding and spinning machinery.
To produce yarn that can be woven on a loom, the raw wool goes through three main processes: teasing, carding and spinning. At Knockando, only the natural wool is processed in this way, with coloured wool yarns being sourced from other British mills.
Teasing and carding
The first task is to feed the wool through a teaser, a machine with rollers studded with shark-fin teeth. “The washed wool is still in clumps and the motion between the rollers opens it up into smaller clumps,” says Hugh. “An industrial conditioning oil is put on to preserve the fibre length. Without it, there is breakage and wastage.”
The wool is then conveyed into the carding machines. “Carding separates the fleece into individual fibres that are going roughly in the same direction. It’s like brushing hair,” says Hugh. The carding set comprises three machines with 5ft-wide rotating rollers covered in tiny teeth: a scribbler, an intermediate and a condenser. The set can process approximately 22lb (10kg) of fleece an hour. After the intermediate stage, the wool fibres emerge in thick continuous strands known as slubbings. These are wound on to balls and fed into the condenser, which thins them. The carding process concludes with the resulting rovings (unspun threads) being wound on to spools. “There’s no strength in them but the fibres are more or less regular. At this stage, some twist is inserted to get yarn,” says Hugh.
Spinning a yarn
The more twist there is, the tougher the material produced. Tweed, for example, which has to withstand the rigours of the outdoors, uses yarn with more twist than a blanket, which is soft.
The twist is inserted on a 60ft-long 1870s spinning mule. The spools of rovings sit on the back section. The other section is a wheeled carriage mounted with 120 tubes, called cops, on fast-turning spindles. When the carriage is pulled out – a distance of 78in (198cm) – the rovings are reeled on to these cops and a twist is inserted in the thread. “Every time the carriage comes out, approximately 260 yards of yarn is spun, in 22 seconds,” says Hugh. “As the carriage returns, the yarn is wound neatly on to the cops.”
Next a warp is made from the yarn that will be tied in to the loom. These are the lengthways threads of a cloth. A blanket requires approximately 2,000 of these across the width. To keep all these threads under control, they are wound round tiers of pegs on a warping frame. If the finished cloth has a coloured pattern, the different coloured threads have to be kept together in the correct order.
For manageability, the warp is made in two halves. Once Hugh has removed the threads from the frame in two long coils, they are passed through a set of pegs, called a raddle, on a warping machine. This sets the warp to the required width. For a blanket, the width is 78-80in (198-203cm). The machine chatters as the threads are wound on to a warp beam that will fit into the loom.
Before the beamed warp is transferred to the loom, it is threaded through a set of four shafts or frames that will sit in the loom. Each shaft has wires with holes in the middle suspended along it called heddles. The threads are passed through the heddles. “One person presents the thread and the other draws it through,” says Hugh. “You can draw about 1,200 an hour.”
The warp is then threaded through a reed, which resembles a comb that keeps the threads correctly spaced. The reed beats up or pushes the weft (widthways) thread into place during weaving. That apparatus is then set in the loom, where the threads are attached to a beam cloth that anchors them ready for weaving.
Weaving is the introduction of weft threads, interlacing them with the warp threads. Shuttles, each holding bobbins (or pirns) of yarn of the required colour, are shot across the width of the loom trailing the weft threads. The original shuttles were wooden but today’s are more durable nylon with pointed metal ends. These travel at 90 times a minute, first one way then the other. “When a shaft goes up or down, the warp threads go up or down with it,” says Hugh. “When the shuttle flies across, it trails a thread between the warp threads that are down and the threads that are up.”
Blankets are commonly woven in 2/2 twill. In this weave, one weft thread passes over two warp threads then under two warp threads and so on, creating a diagonal pattern. The reed beats up each new weft thread tight against the previous one to form the fabric. It is a noisy operation as the old loom clatters rhythmically at speed.
The finishing process
The cloth is sent away to a textile finishers in Galashiels. Finishing involves washing, which removes the conditioning oil, and shrinking. “When it comes off the loom, it’s just a bunch of threads put together,” says Hugh. “When washed, the cloth shrinks as the fibres mill together.” If the cloth is being made into blankets, it is put through a teasel gig, a drum with barbed natural teasel heads that raises the pile so it feels soft. The raw edges are then blanket-stitched.
After its refurbishment, the mill is now equipped to continue the cloth-making tradition that began at Knockando during the Industrial Revolution.
“People are looking for natural fibres much more than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Hugh. “The idea is to produce simple but handsome, good quality designs. The smallest of the industrial producers, we’re still using traditional skills in a unique environment.”
Words: Caroline Rees Photography: Mark Mainz
Making hot metal horseshoes
Pressing the hot curl of metal against the horse’s hoof, a veil of acrid smoke rises around farrier Nina Thomas’ face. A few quiet words calm the chestnut gelding being shod. Nina lifts up the still-glowing horseshoe to examine the seared outline it has left behind on the hoof horn. The charred marks indicate the steel has been shaped to precisely ally with the hoof. The shoe is plunged into a bucket of cold water with a hiss of swiftly-dissipating heat.
Once nailed on, the set of four carefully-crafted shoes Nina is making will last for six weeks. They need to fit perfectly to support the horse whether it is grazing in a field, competing cross-country or hacking down country lanes.
For Nina, 34, farriery is a vocation combining traditional metal-working techniques with veterinary-level knowledge of equine anatomy. “I’m passionate about getting my work right. Horseshoes provide protection and grip. When they are tailor-made to suit an individual animal, and fitted to a correctly-trimmed hoof, they make a huge difference to how comfortable the horse is,” she says. “When a horse’s hoof hits the ground, that force is transmitted up through its leg. If the hoof isn’t level, the horse’s joints, tendons and ligaments are put under great strain. It’s critical I get that hoof balanced.”
Securing an apprenticeship
Nina made it her goal to become a farrier having seen a young apprentice help fit new shoes to her own horse. “I had only ever seen big, burly men shoeing horses before. I thought, if he can do it, so can I,” she says.
To qualify as a farrier, there is an apprenticeship of four years and two months with an Approved Training Farrier. During this time, Nina learnt her craft in stages. She first mastered the simpler aspects of removing old shoes and cleaning the hooves. Once that was accomplished, she moved to the more complex tasks of trimming feet and nailing shoes on. “All the time I was learning how to make horseshoes. It was hugely satisfying to see a shoe I’d made nailed onto a horse’s foot.”
She qualified as a member of the Worshipful Company of Farriers eight years ago. This body, which has existed since 1356, sets the world’s most exacting standards of farriery.
Trimming the hooves
It is not known exactly when shoeing horses started, but many of the methods Nina uses have been practised for centuries. The medieval members of the farriers’ company would be familiar with the hammer, nails and shaped horse shoes lying on the tailgate of her van which is converted into a mobile forge. Her anvil is similar to the one they would have used daily.
Nina typically shoes five horses a day. Her first task is to remove the old shoes with pincers. “I look for excessive or uneven wear on the shoe, other than what is normal for that horse. This might point out a problem I can help improve,” she says. The insensitive horn of a hoof grows in much the same way as human toenails do. The speed of hoof growth varies according to the time of year. It is faster in summer’s warm, moist weather when the grazing is lush. “The rate of hoof growth is dependent on the horse. A Thoroughbred’s hoof might grow 6mm in a month, but a big cob would need twice that amount cutting off,” she says.
Nina trims and reshapes the hoof using nippers and a rasp. A paring knife is kept close to hand in the side pocket of her protective leather apron.
“My aim is to trim the hoof so it is level when the horse puts it to the ground,” she says. “I think of the tendons and ligaments in a horse’s leg as a system of pulleys and levers. If a hoof is uneven from side to side, ligaments on the sides of the joints will be put under strain. If it is not balanced from heel to toe, then tendons at the front and back of the leg are subject to injury.”
Nina selects a horseshoe from the neatly stacked rows in an enormous drawer in the back of her van. For most horses, she shapes shoes which have been pre-manufactured. She stocks 15 different sizes. “The smallest shoes are 3½in wide, and are used for a little show pony called Nighty. The largest shoes measure 7in across. These are used on a large cob, called Norman,” she says.
Shaping a shoe
The shoe is heated for three to four minutes in her mobile forge. This is powered by propane gas and reaches a temperature of 1,370°C. Nina gauges the shoe’s temperature by its colour, removing it when it glows a vibrant orange. “The shoe is grey to start with. It first flushes a dull red, then a bright red into orange and yellow,” she explains. Grasping the shoe with a pair of tongs, she uses a hefty 2lb shoe-turning hammer to customise it around the anvil.
“I build a picture in my mind of the hoof’s shape while I am trimming it and I shape the shoe to match,” she says. She uses the anvil’s point, or bick, to widen or tighten the curve of the shoe, and its flat upper face to level the metal.
“If the steel is at the correct temperature, I don’t need to hit it hard to create a change. It’s all about good technique rather than brute force, although it does help to use familiar tools. Every hammer has a different swing to it.”
A carrying pritchel, a type of punch, is then knocked into a nail hole and the still-hot shoe placed against the hoof to singe the horn. “The smell is very strong and I’m so close to the smoke it feels like it’s burning my eyes. It is a smell I remember vividly from my local riding school when I was a child,” she says. The charred horn deposits a faint black outline on the shoe. This enables Nina to see what alterations need to be made to achieve a flush fit. “When I first started to shoe horses, I was back and forth to the anvil reshaping a shoe. Now it is rare if it takes more than two attempts.”
A final press of the shoe against the hoof tests its fit. “I want to see a singe mark on all of the hoof where the shoe is to sit. That way I know it is completely level with no gaps,” says Nina. Any sharp edges are removed by a rasp then the finished shoe is doused in water to cool. The hoof is cleaned with a wire brush.
Fitting the shoe
Using a 12oz hammer, Nina drives six nails through holes in the shoe to attach it to the hoof. “Some horses have harder hooves than others, but it’s generally easier than nailing into wood,” she remarks. Nails are engineered with a chamfered tip. This ensures they bend outwards as they penetrate the hoof, emerging through its outer wall. The sharp points of the protruding nails are removed with the hammer’s claw. Nina uses a clenching tool to bend their tips downwards. A final rasp to smooth the hoof completes the process. It typically takes an hour and a quarter to shoe a horse and must be repeated every five to seven weeks.
“It is physically a tough job and I’m well aware how debilitating it is on my body. If I’m not holding up half the weight of the horse then I’m at the anvil throwing a hammer around. Everything involves strength.” Nina is 5ft 8in tall but standing alongside the chestnut gelding she is shoeing, her head reaches only to its withers where the neck joins the back. “It’s easy to understand why only five percent of farriers are women. But I think women often have a quieter approach,” she says. “I’m very relaxed with the horses and that makes them relaxed with me. I’m very aware if the horse is nervous or in pain. I have endless patience to help sort his problems out.” However she has no qualms about passing on a job which requires more strength than she possesses.
Following in the footsteps
This ancient craft is still evolving. Farriers today will have veterinary-level information about the horse’s hoof and anatomy. They have increased knowledge about the measurement and analysis of the horse’s movement.
All this helps with the ability to make special custom-made shoes. These are increasingly being used to help treat horses who are lame, or to compensate for imbalances in the way they move. It is into this arena of corrective shoeing that Nina is now directing her expertise. “I enjoy working alongside a vet to help find a solution,” she says. “Remedial shoeing is all about altering the balance and angle of a horse’s joints to alleviate a problem. One horse I worked with has arthritis in her front feet and hind legs. By trimming and shoeing her correctly, I was able to put her joints at the right angle to ease the discomfort of the arthritic spurs. She’s now ridden every day.”
To address such specific requirements, Nina must often craft remedial shoes from scratch. For this she keeps a 100-kilo anvil and a coke-fired forge at a local farm. This forge can reach temperatures approaching 2,000°C. “The coke forge allows heat to penetrate deeper into the steel. I can bend and draw the metal more easily and accurately,” she says. The intense heat facilitates fire-welding. Nina uses this to forge shoes with a supportive bar or plate joining the heels. These are used to help relieve pressure on a horse’s heels. They also create more ground-bearing surface, spreading the load, and helping horses recover from lameness.
“If a horse has got a problem that I can help with, that’s hugely satisfying,” she says. “I get pleasure from the fact that my work is making a difference to those horses’ lives.”
Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Nina's forge originally appeared in the Sept / Oct 2014 issue of LandScape.
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SPECIALIST POTTERS USE TRADITIONAL METHODS TO PRODUCE THEIR DECORATIVE WARES IN A FARM STUDIO
Hidden in the trees at the end of a stony track in the hills of Scotland’s Southern Uplands is an isolated farmhouse. The nearest town, Castle Douglas, is over five miles away along single track roads. Opposite a disused cowshed stands an outhouse that has been converted to an artist’s studio. This is the workspace of potters Doug Fitch and Hannah McAndrew.
The couple specialise in slipware, a type of pottery where slip, a suspension of clay in water, is used to decorate an unfired pot. For centuries, it was the traditional pottery of ordinary people in both town and country. However, the mechanised processes of the industrial revolution caused its near total decline. Added to this, many of the remaining craftsmen were lost during the First World War, and their skills died with them. Today though, this husband and wife team keep the age-old tradition alive in the warmth of their studio, while the wild winter wind blows outside.
Working with nature
Doug weighs out clay while Hannah works on a mechanical potter’s kick wheel, which is powered by kicking the legs. There are pots and plates everywhere, some finished, others on racks drying. “Our work is influenced by a tradition that has changed and evolved over the centuries,” says Doug. “Medieval potters were based outside the towns and villages because of the fire risk and the amount of smoke from the kilns. They drew inspiration from the countryside around them, where they also found wood, lead ore for a basic glaze and clay. They even used to dig clay from the roads. That’s where the term ‘potholes’ comes from,” he explains.
“We work with traditional natural earth tones. In Britain we have a lot of red clay and smaller amounts of white. The white clay comes from North Devon. It is finer than red clay and requires a higher firing temperature, which many potters didn’t have the equipment to achieve. Because this made it more expensive, it was used mainly for decoration.” The basic palette of black, white, green and red slip is made by mixing different clays with naturally occurring iron, manganese and copper oxides. By placing the pots in the hottest parts of the kiln, varying tints of brown can be produced.
Doug’s interest in pottery began when he was at school in Northamptonshire. “When I was 11 my old headmaster, who was an archaeologist, used to take us out field walking around the site of the long-vanished medieval village of Lyveden to collect medieval pottery shards. We’d take them back to school and identify them using archaeological surveys of the area. Some of the bits had the potter’s thumb marks and fingerprints still in them.”
At college, he learnt kiln-building, glaze chemistry and all aspects of ceramics. “All I was interested in was slipware,” he says. “I love the feel of slip. I love the feel of clay in my hands, its coolness to the touch and its malleability. Kneading clay, which we do to eliminate air and evenly blend the material, isn’t like kneading bread, the properties are very different. And the properties differ across the many types of clay. Porcelain for example is more plastic, more flexible, but it lacks the integral strength that our clay has when it’s soft. This makes for a completely different type of pot.”
For 19 years Doug worked as a ceramics technician at Exeter College of Art and Design. In his spare time he helped other potters around Devon fire their kilns, loading the pots and ensuring the kiln stayed at the correct temperature. Then at the age of 40, he took redundancy. “I thought if the others can do it, so can I,” he says. “So I spent all my redundancy money on a pile of bricks for a kiln and on converting a derelict barn.” This was to be the first of a number of studios Doug had in the Devon area before relocating to Scotland.
He begins making what has become one of his trademark products, a large jug. “I love the form, the shape of the jugs,” he says. “They have character. They have a foot, a belly, a shoulder, a lip, a waist, a neck. They have beautiful curves.” His jugs have their own style, but are strongly influenced by examples from the past, where function dictated the form.
Doug scoops up a handful of clay. “I worked in a flowerpot factory for a year in 1985 after leaving art college. One of the few things I learnt was how to judge a three pound ball of clay accurately, though we still weigh it on scales to be certain.”
His large pots are approximately 17in (43cm) tall, 12in (30cm) wide and weigh in the region of 14lb (6.3kg). They are thrown in two sections. The base contains 14lb (6.3kg) of clay, which he splits into 7lb (3kg) blocks to make the kneading more manageable before re-joining the two. The neck uses a further 1.5lb (0.6kg). The clay, called Etruria Marl, is sourced from the big pits around Stoke-on-Trent as the local Scottish clay is too sandy. It lacks the plasticity to throw a pot with a bellied form. Grit is added to increase the clay’s strength for the bigger pots.
“Throwing a pot takes absolute concentration,” he says. “Your fingertips and the side of the knuckle are exerting pressure and lifting the material. You have to know exactly when and how much pressure to apply.”
“And your muscles remember the movements,” adds Hannah. “You feel it through your fingertips. One false move, though, and the whole thing collapses. It’s important to know your wheel and materials really well.”
Doug starts throwing the base of the pot on the electrically powered wheel. This is a 10in (25cm) diameter circular metal plate sitting on an encased electric motor which is 3ft (90cm) high. It is surrounded by a tray containing a pan of water. The water is added through the throwing process to prevent the hands sticking to the clay.
He raises the clay into the beginnings of the jug, his head moving around the pot at almost impossible angles. His elbows are high as his hands coax the clay upwards. “People tell me I do these strange movements but I’m not aware of it at the time. I’m just completely focused. It’s like meditation.”
Creating the jug
Once the base is finished, he partially dries it using a gas burner to increase its strength. This is to prevent it collapsing when he places the neck on top. He measures the top of the base with callipers so that he can throw the neck to exactly the correct diameter to make a perfect fit. Once thrown, the neck is also partially dried and then carefully lowered onto the base. The wheel is then started and the two are compressed together using the fingers and a tool called a rib, which helps create a smooth junction. The whole throwing process takes not much more
than 20 minutes.
Doug holds the top of the neck in place with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. Then, hooking the forefinger of his right hand over the edge of the neck, he gently pulls backwards to create the lip of the jug.
The jug is then left to partially dry and strengthen until the following day when the handle is added. The handle is created using a technique called pulling. Doug takes a lump of clay and, using plenty of water, squeezes it gently while dragging downwards over and over again. This is done until the clay has become the correct diameter and length for the handle. He then scores both the end of the handle and the side of the pot. After adding some slip to help bind the two, the end of the handle is pushed onto the pot. As this is done, he supports the pot from the inside with his other hand. The handle is carefully bent downwards to create the required curve, and the process repeated to join the bottom of the handle to the pot.
Before applying slip, the pot is left until it is leatherhard, a state where the clay has partially dried to a consistency of cheese. This can take several days, the time depending on the thickness of the pot, the temperature and the moisture in the atmosphere.
Although both create designs that are strongly influenced by nature, Doug and Hannah specialise in different slipware techniques. Doug rolls out small pieces of clay and lays them on the surface of the pot, a process called appliqué. He also uses clay stamps called sprigs with patterns of daisies, blackberries or leaves that he has made, before covering the pot in slip.
Hannah brushes a background slip layer on and pipes different colours of slip on top to create her designs of birds, tulips or trees, a process called slip trailing. Depending on the size of the pot it can take days of intense concentration to decorate one piece.
The pots are left on racks in the studio to dry for up to eight weeks. Drying too fast can cause cracking so they are covered in polythene to control evaporation. This is followed by a firing in an electric kiln which turns the raw clay into hard-fired pottery. The kiln, which they keep in the barn opposite, takes 12-14 hours to get to the necessary 1000°C where it is held for
30 minutes before cooling for two days.
Glazing and firing
When cool, the pots are dipped in glaze. This is a mixture of white clay, water, iron oxide and lead frit, a safe form of lead. Before the advent of lead frit in the early 20th century there was a high incidence of lead poisoning amongst potters. This can lead to mental impairment, and is possibly the origin of the expression ‘going potty’.
Finally the pots are loaded into the wood-fired kiln. The kiln, a brick structure surrounded by a wooden shed, is situated several hundred yards down the track. During the afternoon 70 pots, the result of six weeks’ work, are carefully loaded onto shelves and at 8am the following morning the kiln is lit.
“We have a firing every six weeks or so,” says Doug. “It’s a big event. You have a trusted firing team and help each other out. Hannah was part of my team for a long time and I was part of hers.”
“It can be incredibly stressful and you need two people to keep it running,” says Hannah. “The kind of wood you use and the atmospheric conditions can really affect the burn. You have to control the temperature carefully and watch the chimney. If the smoke is black the kiln is burning in reduction, which means there’s not enough oxygen for the amount of fuel and the glazes will blister and the pots go an ugly brown.
“For our kind of work the chimney should have no smoke, or very white smoke. We use a denser wood at the beginning of the firing, a hard wood if we can get it, for a slow burn, and then we use old pallets from local farms. You don’t have to store them and they have a fast, clean burn that helps you control the temperature.”
They place pyrometric cones, a set of three ceramic cones that melt and bend over at different temperatures, in with the pots. These can be seen through a spyhole by extracting a removable brick from the door of the kiln and are used to estimate the temperature within. It takes 16 hours of tending to get the temperature to 1100°C. The kiln is kept at that temperature for 30 minutes. It is then sealed up and left to cool for two days. “We walk away and try not to think about it,” says Doug. “It’s a private moment when you open it again. You’re usually up against a show deadline and you feel sick.”
When the pots finally emerge they are in their finished state, yet there can be unexpected results. “You can get large atmospheric variations across the kiln with flames and gasses going through,” says Hannah. “Identical pots next to each other can come out completely different. But you have to resist the temptation to smash the ones you don’t like because you can grow to love them later on.”
Back in the warm, dry studio, Doug has a collection of old pottery. “I love these old jugs,” he says. “What excites me is that they were part of someone’s life.”
“If Doug had his way,” concludes Hannah, “he would make jugs and nothing else, forever and always.”
Photography: Rob Scott
The feature about Doug and Hannah's pottery originally appeared in the Jan / Feb 2016 issue of LandScape.
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