Kate Davies Designs

meet the man who helped me make my yarn

Thankyou for your comments on the last post. When I settled on this new venture, I felt it was important to be able to show you some of the usually hidden processes behind yarn production, so I’m glad you are finding it interesting! I thought you might also like to know a little bit more about the decisions behind my yarn’s development, and who I chose to work with.

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(Tom’s kilt hose show off some of Buachaille’s characteristics: the yarn is smooth, yet springy; durable yet soft, and with great stitch definition)

How exactly does one go about developing a yarn? I know what kinds of yarns I like, and what I love to knit with, as I’m sure every knitter does. As you will no doubt be aware, I like sheepy, characterful yarns best of all, and I have some knowledge of how different preparation and spinning techniques can get the best out of different fleece types and wool. I also like to work with a product whose origins I can trace. Knowing what one likes is one thing, but manufacturing it is quite another. This was a big step, and I knew I wanted to work on developing my yarn with someone I liked and trusted. I also knew that person was Adam Curtis. I met Adam and his family through our Shetland connections. They know more about wool than anyone I know, and Adam has a particular talent for developing beautiful and interesting wool products: things that really showcase the best that British wool can be. His family were kind enough to invite me to represent hand knitting and design at this event a few years ago, and, from our opposite ends of the industry, we’ve always regarded each other with mutual respect. In the UK, most raw wool is sold at auction through the British Wool Marketing Board, and the vast majority of it is purchased by merchants such as Curtis Wools. They are a well-regarded Yorkshire company whose commitment to wool is deep and long-standing, and whose resources and reach are pretty unparalleled. I knew they could find exactly the wool I wanted, and help me to develop it into an interesting new yarn.

Adam 03 So here’s what happened when I asked Adam to make some yarn for me.

KD: What were your initial thoughts when I approached you?
AC: I was delighted when you approached my father and I to develop a speciality yarn. Creating unique yarns for customers is one of the challenges we genuinely enjoy and pride ourselves on. With the enormous reserves of British and foreign wools held by Curtis Wool there are few requests that we can’t cater for.

KD: But even so, I came to you with quite a long list of things I wanted the yarn to be! What were your priorities?
AC: We knew you wanted a thoroughly British yarn with traceable links to Scotland, and the Scottish highlands. And we knew you wanted the yarn to be light and lofty. So we were looking for Scottish-origin fleeces with a natural crimp that would add loft, and which would spin up to create a classic hand that would just feel right to the knitter.

KD: How did you go about selecting the wool?
AC: We decided that a combination of wools from different breeds would be necessary to arrive at the perfect match for your requirements. We then sourced and chose a selection of the finest hand-sorted Scottish origin fleeces. These were then scoured at Haworth, combined together, and combed to create the perfect top. Combing your wool allowed us to remove any coarse fibres and noils [short fibres] in the fleece, and to create a blended top with maximum smoothness and softness. Combing and blending the wool really made it sing! As you know, the blend we’ve created for Buachaille is unique and exclusive to you. I was very pleased with the result.

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(Buachaille – natural combed top)

KD: so what happened then?
AC: Then I sent you a sample of the combed top for approval. You were just as pleased with it as I was, which was great! With the blended constituency of the combed top in place, we were then able to begin developing the two other natural shades you wanted to complement your dyed palette.

KD: Yes! As you know, Adam, I’m very pernickety about colours. . .
AC: Well, like all designers you knew what you wanted, and we had to get those natural shades just right.

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(Buachaille – natural silver-grey combed top)

KD: I just love the two other natural shades you’ve created – sheepy fleece colours really are my all-time favourites.
AC: Yes – and they sit really well with the dyed shades you created too. So after your tops were combed at Haworth, we had them worsted spun – a spinning technique which completely suits the wool type and its preparation – and we were then able to arrange for you to see your yarn being dyed. I think you are going to talk about that later?

KD: Yes, I certainly took lots of pictures that day! I am very happy with the yarn, and I know you are just as excited about Buachaille as I am!
AC: Yes indeed -its one of my favourite yarns and I’m really pleased with what we’ve achieved. I think we’ve managed to create a yarn that combines all of your requirements, and perhaps added a little bit more as well. Best of all, its a yarn with a heritage that can be traced from the hills and mountains of Scotland to the textile powerhouse that still exists in Yorkshire. Its a thoroughly British product, made entirely in the UK and inspired by some of the worlds most beautiful mountains, Buachaille Etive Mor and Beag!

KD: Thanks, Adam!

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(Tom and Adam talk wool at Haworth Scouring)

We’ve designed seven distinctly Scottish shades for Buachaille, including four dyed shades to complement the three naturals that Adam created. In the next post I will talk a little about the inspiration behind each shade.

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at Haworth Scouring

As we have discovered over the past few months, there is an awful lot to think about when designing and manufacturing a new yarn for hand knitting! There are many stages to consider, and many decisions to be made. It occurred to me that one of the processes that’s least visible to hand knitters is how the wool they work with actually gets clean. As anyone who has handled a fleece will know, cleaning raw wool is not particularly glamorous but it is certainly essential. I thought you might like to see a little about these early stages of our yarn’s manufacture.

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The raw wool for our yarn was cleaned, its fibres blended, and the blended fibres processed into lovely combed tops here at Haworth Scouring. This large plant is based in Bradford, a short drive from where both Tom and I were born and grew up. The textile industries in Yorkshire and Lancashire have seen an awful lot of changes in the past 50 years, but Bradford is still the beating heart of the British wool industry.

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This is a large operation, capable of scouring a million kilos of wool per week. That’s right – a million kilos. Our first order seemed enormous to us, but it is merely a tiny proportion of what Haworth Scouring can process here in a single day.

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Much of the raw wool processed here is British, but Haworth Scouring processes wool from other countries too – these are Norwegian bales in the photograph above.

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Customers have different requirements, and some of the wool arrives in a very raw state, needing preparation and grading by specialised wool sorters.

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Wool grading is a really important, and sadly declining skill. (If you would like to learn more about wool sorting and grading and its importance to the wool industry, I recommend you visit Jamieson and Smith and meet Shetland’s top wool man, Oliver Henry)

The scouring process is designed to remove dirt and other impurities from the raw wool, along with suint (sheep sweat) and lanolin. At Haworth, its really important that this process is as environmentally friendly as it is efficient (more of this later). Here is some wool, prepared and ready for scouring.

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The wool is put through a series of washes and rinses at several different temperatures.

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It is repeatedly and carefully cleaned with swinging rakes. After every wash you can see the wool becoming gradually cleaner and cleaner . . .

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. . . with the wool’s heat and moisture content being monitored at every stage.

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After this, the wool goes through a gigantic metal detector. This is one of those processing factors that’s completely obvious when you think of it – sheep often pick up bits of wire in their fleece – but which I’d never previously considered. You don’t want bits of metal in your yarn, and you certainly don’t want it in the machinery that’s making your yarn. The work of the metal detecting machine is reinforced by this lovely chap, who double-checks there’s nothing non-woolly in the wool.

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After washing, the wool is dried. As part of the drying process, the fibres are loosened and mixed, and blended together.

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Just check out what’s going on in that huge machine!

After drying, the wool is beautifully clean. What a transformation!

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For some of the wool that comes through Haworth’s doors, this is almost the end of the story. It is compressed and packaged into huge bales and prepared for the next stage in its journey elsewhere.

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These large bales are compressed by an amazing machine, and, as you can see contain over 350kg of wool. It was at this point that the sheer scale of what goes on here started to astound me. This really is a whole lot of wool!

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A significant recent investment in new jobs and machinery means that wool that’s not sent away at this stage can be expertly processed at Haworth into tops. There’s now a state-of-the-art combing operation here, and this is where our wool first started to resemble something like yarn. Our unique blend of fine Scottish fibres was developed and created on this machine!

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The wool fibres are relatively blobby and clumpy at this stage – the worsted processing practised here, and which we felt was important to get the best out of our wool, enables the fibres to be opened up, smoothed out, and carefully combed to lie parallel to one another. When I observed the several different stages of combing, gilling and drafting, I was very intensely struck by the technological complexity of these machines, their skilled operatives, and the sheer magic both perform.

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From raw wool, to lovely combed top!

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Here is what is known as a bump top, at the end of the combing process. . .

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And here are lots of bump tops, ready to go.

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I mentioned previously that environment is as important as efficiency here. The whole purpose of wool scouring is to remove grease and impurities from fleeces: this is a relatively high-impact process, that creates a lot of waste, and Haworth’s verifiable green credentials were certainly important to us when making early decisions about our yarn’s processing and manufacture. The plant’s water monitoring is extremely careful and completely transparent, and we were impressed that very little in this process actually goes to waste at all! Lanolin removed here is sold to the cosmetics and vitamin industries, while other by-products are used as feed for shrimp and prawn farming (who knew?!)

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One reason Haworth’s environmental credentials are so laudable is because it has ENco on site – an environmental testing company that does important work with the textile and farming industries. As well as ensuring the wool products produced at Haworth comply with strict environmental standards, ENco also acts as a consultant, testing many different kinds of finished textiles to check for levels of mothproofing agents and other chemicals. Carpets, military uniforms, knitting yarn, and the fabrics used in high-end fashion houses all receive environmental testing and certification here. If you needed to check whether a certain yarn contained 20% or 30% nylon; or discover for how long a particular moth-proofing agent would protect a certain kind of fabric; or wanted to ensure that the animals providing a batch of fleeces had not been treated with particularly harmful pesticides in their sheep dip, then ENco could find out for you. It was absolutely fascinating chatting to Mike and his team, and learning about their work.

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Thankyou to everyone at Haworth Scouring, Curtis Wool Direct, and ENco Global Testing for their time and generosity! We’ve learnt an awful lot, and feel very inspired by our visits!

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(Tom surveys the wool mountain with anticipation)

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A busy week

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It has been an incredibly busy week here! As you might imagine, the imminent arrival of Buachaille means we have a lot to do, and I am hard at work creating a small collection of designs to accompany the yarn’s release (only a few weeks to go!) Then my friend and colleague, Jen, came to stay with us for a few days – together Jen and I are currently developing several rather exciting projects . . . one is a book which will appear next Spring, and another is a new volume of Cross-Country Knitting. Above is a sneak peak at the latter’s content, of which more very soon.

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Jen and I got lots of work done, laughed a lot, and had time for a hearty post-photoshoot dinner at the Bridge of Orchy hotel. It was lovely to see her.

Meanwhile, In the Loop 4 was happening down the road in Glasgow (one year I will make it to this event, which always features a fantastic line-up of speakers and some important research). This year, the conference was hosted by my friends at the Knitting in the Round project (who you’ll remember I’ve mentioned before). I was really honoured when they asked me to provide some samples for the fashion show which closed the conference!

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Jade Halbert selected three of my designs, and I styled them with the original garments I’d used when photographing Yokes. I genuinely love styling – visualising a look is often the starting point of the design process for me – and I really appreciated the thoughtful way that Jade styled the models to suit the work of each designer in the show.

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The lovely model wearing Buchanan even had her hair in braids!

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Jade chose Buchanan, Keith Moon, and Foxglove to appear in this showcase of contemporary Scottish knitwear design. It was somewhat humbling to see my work displayed in this context.

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I loved the soft and subtle palette of the beautiful garments shown by Jade Starmore , and was blown away by their styling with these stunning leather skirts (also the work of Jade)

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The show featured well-established names of Scottish knitwear design such as ERIBÉ

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. . . and Di Gilpin

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. . . alongside the work of emerging contemporary designers like Laura Muir
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It was lovely to see the work of some of my friends and comrades in hand-knit design, like Gudrun Johnston . . .

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. . . as well as Karie Westermann and Lucy Hague.

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I also came away feeling inspired by the work of designers I’d never previously encountered. This cashmere dress by Stephanie Laird was truly gorgeous.

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And I loved the fresh take on colourwork in Hilary Grant’s bold machine-knit accessories

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Thankyou, Lynn, Marina, Jade, and the whole team at Knitting in the Round and In the Loop 4 for inviting me to be part of this fantastic event! Thanks too to Tom, who took the great catwalk photos in this post.

Buachaille – coming soon!

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We are getting very excited here, as we are anticipating a large woolly delivery, and it will soon be time to announce the launch of our new yarn. I thought it was time to tell you a little more about it.

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(my favourite sheep, from Colours of Shetland)

I am a great advocate for using local materials, and nowhere more so than where wool is concerned. Sheep, and the human work around them, are an incredibly important part of the structure and character of the British landscape and I find it very sad that so many yarns made and sold in Britain in general, – and Scotland in particular – are not raised here, from our native sheep. With some notable exceptions, much of the wool described as “Scottish” has little or nothing at all to do with the many sheep raised in this landscape by hard-working farmers and crofters. So I wanted to create a yarn that was truly raised in Scotland – a yarn that was part of the work of this landscape – but I also wanted to make a yarn that defied long-standing assumptions about what Scottish wool was or could be. I am so tired of hearing that British and / or Scottish wool is coarse or scratchy. Scottish sheep produce wonderful, wearable fibres that, when properly sorted and graded, spin up into truly beautiful yarns. Over the years I have knit with many such yarns from small local wool producers. You might describe these yarns as lofty or springy or smooth or soft – you might describe them as interesting – but you would never describe them as coarse. I wanted my wool to reflect the characteristics of the interesting sheepy yarns I loved and admired. My yarn would be woolly and springy and durable – speaking of this land, and of the animals that grew it – but it would also be smooth and light and soft enough to wear next to the skin. These were my requirements, and, after many months of development and hard work, I am very happy to say, that this is what we’ve got in the finished product!

Selecting the finest fibres of some distinctive Scottish sheep breeds, we’ve created a completely unique yarn that you won’t find anywhere else. The yarn blends wool fibre that hails from as far north as you can travel in Scotland, and from as far south, too.

The yarn is called Buachaille. The first thing you are going to want to know is how to pronounce it.

(Thankyou, Anna)

Am Buchaille (the herdsman), is the Gaelic name associated with two mountains – Buachaille Etive Mòr, (great herdsman of Glen Etive), and Buachaille Etive Beag (little herdsman of Glen Etive). These mountains are well known to anyone who has followed the West Highland Way, or who likes Scottish mountain walking, and I’d go so far to say that Buachaille Etive Mor is among the most familiar and iconic of all Scottish munros.

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Me and both Buachailles in 2013

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Me knitting a sock on the summit of Buachaille Etive Mòr, in 2007!

These are mountains for which Tom and I hold an affection of long-standing. They are rugged and rocky and elemental . . . yet they are also breathtakingly elegant and sublime. They are somehow what one pictures when one conjures up the idea of a Scottish highland mountain. This – and their relative accessibility – explains why they are so frequently photographed. I think you’ll immediately be able to see the relationship between familiar images of Buachaille Etive Mòr, and Beag . . .

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and the logo we designed for the yarn!

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Suggested by this one word – Buachaille – are a series of connections between humans, animals, and landscapes – all of the things, in other words, that we wanted the yarn to capture and express.

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As you can see from the tag, Buachaille has been “raised in Scotland” and “made in Yorkshire.” As well as being grown by a host of Scottish sheep and farmers, and designed by us, Buachaille has involved lots of hard work from the best folk we know in the UK wool industry – these folk are in Yorkshire. Its important to me that the wool for Buachaille originated in Scotland, and its equally important that several skilled Yorkshire processors and manufacturers have been responsible for making it into yarn. As time goes on, I will tell you much more about the different processes involved in making Buachaille. . .

If you would like to be the first to know about our plans for the yarn, when it launches, and when you can get your hands on it, I have set up a newsletter. So if you’d like further information about Buachaille, please sign up here.

in the hills and at home

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As anyone round these parts will tell you, it has not (so far) been a vintage Scottish summer. One must make most of the fine weather when it appears, so we headed out for the hills, and enjoyed a lovely day’s walking.

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A favourite tree

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Dog on log

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Falls of Falloch

I love the rich golden tones of this time of year. The heather and bracken are beginning to turn, and, despite (or perhaps because of) the poor weather of recent months, everything seems lush and thriving. A few days ago, on a patch of ground around half a square mile, I counted over fifty different wildflower species, including glorious blooms of Sea Aster and Grass of Parnassus.

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But one thing I really notice in August is the lack of birdsong. Woods that were alive with wood and willow warblers are now silent; there are no larks or meadow pipits and even the wren that woke me at 5am throughout July is quiet. Around our steading, I only now hear buzzards and crows. A young hare passes our living room window nightly, sniffing the evening air and looking for a meal. I suspect it is to blame for the state of my kale and leeks, but a single hare cannot destroy nearly as much as last year’s evil rabbit hoard . . .

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. . . and although my six tomato plants have yet to produce a single tomato, we have been enjoying lots of home-grown vegetables of late: broccoli, carrots, cucumbers that keep on coming, and, of course, lots of potatoes. There will be tatties for supper tonight, and probably for many nights to come.

Whether you are at home or away, I hope you are all enjoying a lovely weekend!

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(Tom stares quizzically at An Ceann Mor, which is worth a look if you are passing.)

a handmade wedding

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Thankyou, all of you, for your lovely comments and congratulations!
I thought you might appreciate hearing a little more about the handmade elements of our wedding.

A few years ago, Tom decided to have a kilt made. His surname is Barr, and the tartan of that name is also associated with a popular Scottish soft-drinks brand. Now, Tom likes Irn Bru as much as the next man, but he does not look so great in orange, and all tartans are invented traditions anyway…so Tom invented his own tradition, picking a tartan that he liked, and which was associated with a place that was very special to both of us – Finlaggan on the Isle of Islay. Finlaggan was once the power base of the MacDonalds, and the tartan Tom chose is MacDonald of the Isles. We never imagined then that one day we should be married at Finlaggan!

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I knit Tom’s kilt hose, from our new wool (of which more soon). The yarn is sport weight, and I worked the hose at a relatively tight gauge, and bottom up, which not only suited the heart-shaped cable we chose, but also meant Tom could try them on as I knitted.

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This meant that I could double-check the calf shaping and length as I went, which I found very reassuring! The hose fit really well.

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Tom finished off his hose with the true highland flourish of a sgian dubh, which he borrowed from our lovely next door neighbours, Niall and Mairi.

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Bruce had to look his best as well, so he wore a collar in the same tartan.

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Bruce’s collar was made for us by Jan at Scottesque, who of course also designed and made my kilt (the purpose of this visit, back in May). I wanted my kilt long and dramatic, and Jan did a brilliant job, poofing out the bias-cut pieces with tulle and a taffeta underskirt.

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I am wearing a cardigan of my own design . . .

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. . . which features the same heart-shaped cable as Tom’s hose.

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The brooch I am wearing is an incredibly beautiful cairngorm – a family heirloom again kindly lent to us by Mairi. Cables and brooch together really were a perfect match!

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I also made my head piece – from a plastic headband and a beautiful piece of beaded trim I found on eBay. . .

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. . . and had lots of fun fashioning myself a bouquet of buttons.

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If you google “button bouquet” you can see how simple a process this is – you just need some floristry wire, a few bits of ribbon and trim, and a shed load of buttons.

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My top-tip is to use felt or lace flowers to create a wee button “sandwich” – the felt bits mean you can create more blooms with less buttons, and that the individual blooms themselves prove a little less heavy.

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One thing I loved about making my bouquet was that I could include buttons from my grandma, and my mum, or that were originally gifts to me from friends. Felix, Anne, Lara, and Nic – your buttons were all in my bouquet!

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Tom made our wedding cake.

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He used a Mary Berry recipe (which has now overtaken Jane Grigson as his favourite fruit cake), fed it liberally with sherry, and decorated it himself.

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I can confirm that it is a cake as delicious as it is lovely!

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The fair-isle bunting with which we decked out our van was not hand-made – I bought it in Shetland – but it certainly did the job of creating a jolly and very knitterly wedding-wagon! I drove us to and from our wedding (Tom having had a beer beforehand) and very much enjoyed pootling down the Islay roads, listening to Ella and Louis, and waving at everyone we met. Later on, in the Port Charlotte hotel, I was recognised as “that bride driving a camper van”, an appellation which made me oddly happy.

Finally, I have to mention the outfits of our well-dressed best couple. Gordon looks very fine in his Anderson kilt, and a pair of John Anderson kilt hose, knitted for him by Mel. Mel is wearing a Scottesque midi-kilt in the “Highland granite” tartan. She also made herself a lovely lace-weight top, by adapting Gudrun’s beautiful Laar cardigan pattern into a jumper.

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Our wedding was small and intimate, and both of us very much enjoyed being able to make it a deeply personal occasion infused with our own meanings, and to focus on a few details which made it really feel like us. That said, I’m not sure I’d recommend the somewhat pressurised activity of designing and knitting a cardigan and a pair of kilt hose to a tight and somewhat important deadline . . .

Slainte!

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Our wedding at Finlaggan

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We had a wonderful day.

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We walked across the fields and over the causeway to Eilean Mor

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Lucy played “Ho Ro, My Nut Brown Maiden”

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Mel read this short piece by Yeats:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

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We made our vows, exchanged our rings, and were married here.
The ceremony was solemn and joyful and deeply moving.

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Bruce looked on.

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We toasted each other from a quaich given to us by my parents, with a Gaelic blessing.

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Mìle fàilte dhuit le d’bhréid,
Fad do ré gun robh thu slàn.
Móran làithean dhuit is sìth,
Le d’mhaitheas is le d’nì bhi fàs.

(A thousand welcomes to you with your marriage kerchief,
may you be healthy all your days.
May you be blessed with long life and peace,
may you grow old with goodness and with riches.)

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We are very happy

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Thankyou, Mel and Gordon, for sharing our day with us.
Thankyou, Lynn and everyone at the Finlaggan trust for allowing us to marry in this wonderful spot.
Thankyou, Lucy, for piping so beautifully.
Thankyou Sharon, for being such a warm and wonderful registrar. We couldn’t have asked for anyone better to celebrate our marriage.
Thankyou, Isle of Islay. Our favourite place.
Thankyou, all of you, for being there with us in spirit.

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Love from Kate and Tom (and Bruce, of course) x

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