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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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.

Whernside, cheese, and wool

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We spent a couple of days in North Yorkshire, and took a walk up Whernside – one of the county’s ‘three peaks’. With its limestone pavement, familiar moorland flora and Victorian infrastructure, this is a landscape of which I’m very fond, and in which I love to walk. The Ribblehead Viaduct is such a spectacular piece of engineering, and we particularly enjoyed seeing the little aquaducts around which, higher up the moor, water had been diverted to accommodate the direction of the Settle-Carlisle railway line. After 8 miles and a very blustery summit, we treated ourselves to a hearty ploughman’s lunch in the always-welcoming Station Inn . . . this lunch inspired some discussion between Tom and I about the constituency and origin of the ‘traditional’ ploughman’s. Google revealed the intriguing, but perhaps unsurprising information that this ‘traditional’ pub fayre was in fact a 1956 invention of the Cheese Bureau, the same folk behind the 1970s cheese recipe books that I have on my bookshelf, and the coiner of immortal advertising slogans such as “great minds think cheese.”

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(Cheese curry?!)

Meanwhile, wedding preparations, such as they are, continue. Tom has made the cake, we have our rings, and I have knitted my thing (it is a cardigan, and I am very pleased with it)! I cast on a pair of kilt hose for Tom and am now steadily working away on those. The cardigan and the hose are particularly lovely and exciting to me as they are being knitted in our wool. That is to say that yes – we are making yarn. The yarn is 100% wool: it has been raised in Scotland, and has been expertly processed in Yorkshire (one of the reasons why we have been visiting that county so often of late). And the first things knitted from the yarn will be worn on our wedding day! I have been keeping the wool plans under wraps for many months and soon, at last, I will be able to say more about them. But for now I’d better get back to knitting those hose. . .

Fantoosh!

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FANTOOSH! – my new spring shawl – is now available.

Fantoosh is a top-down triangular shawl featuring a tesselating allover motif defined by centred double decreases and twisted stitches. Its a lovely rhythmic knit with a pleasing end result!

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In Scots, fantoosh means “fancy”, or a wee bit “over the top”. When I was at the beginning of the design process, this shawl felt quite fantoosh to me (although I suppose if you compare it to, say, any design of Shetland fine lace, it is not in the least fancy at all). But because it is worked in a beautiful, luxurious yarn (of which more in a moment), coupled with the fact that it features twisted stitches and openwork, the design idea initially seemed a wee bit more elaborate to me than my usual style. I really enjoyed creating this shawl, and spent quite a bit of time swatching and re-swatching as I honed the motif. I like tesselating shapes, and my favourite kind of lace patterns are those with a well-defined geometry. Playing around with the decreases and twisted stitches meant I could lend this large leafy motif a really graphic strength and structure. Then, once I’d finalised the stitch pattern, I was pleased to discover that the shawl itself was going to end up being incredibly straightforward: memorised after just one repeat, the motif is extremely easy and satisfying to knit. Its an intuitive design whose slightly fancy appearance in fact belies its real simplicity. When I’d finished, it was the exuberance of the shawl that pleased me most – I think it really suits its name – Fantoosh!

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The yarn is (gasp, sigh) Old Maiden Aunt Aunt Alpaca / silk / cashmere 4 ply. This blend of luxury fibres makes it a very fantoosh yarn indeed for me to work with. . .but I took one look at Lilith’s colours on this base and I was completely hooked. I knew I had to work with it. The shade is called “Pretty Floral Bonnet” and it really is exceptionally pretty: a subdued shade of pink-y purple, just slightly semi-solid, with these amazing luminous pops of eau de nil running through it. The overall effect is subtle but luminous.

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It knits up into a wonderfully soft, drapey fabric that also feels substantial and warm. Perfect to wrap oneself up in on a breezy day.

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The shawl is knit from the top-down, to create a triangle twice as wide as it is long. I personally love the flexibility (and wrapability) of a Really Big Shawl. With a wingspan of almost 2 metres, this sample is, ahem, quite large, and uses around 700 yards of yarn (2 skeins).

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But a mahooosive shawl is not for everyone. I knit up a second sample and found that a single skein (400 yards) still makes a good-sized shawl with a 114 cm / 45 in wingspan and yarn to spare – so I’ve written the pattern for two sizes, small and large. And because the repeats are short and simple, you’ll find its also really easy to adjust their number to suit other size preferences (and yarn quantities).

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Fantoosh is both relaxing and fun to knit – there’s enough variety in the stitch pattern to keep things interesting, and its satisfyingly addictive seeing each new motif appear.

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Designing and knitting Fantoosh has put me on a something of a roll, and I suddenly find myself with quite a few ideas fizzing around my brain.

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Lets see if these ideas come to fruition!

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Fantoosh is available digitally via Ravelry and in print via Magcloud

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Happy knitting!

jazz hands!

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We have had quite a bit of weather here recently – mittens are definitely required! So I whipped up a pair.

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You may recall, in the comments on this post, Trish suggested that a pair of mittens in the Epistrophy pattern would suit the name Jazz Hands. Well, Trish, your wish is my command. Here they are.

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The yarn I’ve used is wonderful stuff — Skein Queen Voluptuous “skinny”. This heavy 4 ply is a blend of 80% Exmoor blueface with 20% organic merino and it is just beautiful – plump and squishy, soft and woolly.

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I absolutely love Debbie’s dyeing technique and feel for colour. The semi-solid shades she produces work really well for colourwork, adding just a wee bit of depth and variation to the pattern. The shades I’ve used here are “powder” and “granite”, and the Skein Queen is currently dyeing up a batch of these shades to make available in kit form next week.

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Will I ever tire of these interlocking diamonds? They really are such fun to knit. Just like the hat (of which I’ve now made four), I found making these mittens really addictive, and knitted a few in different gauges while I fine-tuned the pattern. The mittens I’m wearing here were worked at 30 sts to 4 ins, but, after experimenting with needle sizes, I found that the yarn blooms up so nicely that its great to work at larger gauges also. Working the pattern at 26 sts to 4 ins produces a mitten which comfortably fits a man’s hand.

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As you see, the mittens feature an inset-thumb, around which the Epistrophy diamonds sit very neatly. I confess I’m really happy with the balance and symmetry of this design – sometimes a stitch pattern just works for the mitten’s small canvas. Because of the strong diagonals, I found I could design the shaping to follow the motifs in an exact and pleasing way. So satisfying!

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If you would like to whip up your own pair of Jazz Hands, Skein Queen and I will be simultaneously releasing the pattern, and hand-dyed Voluptuous yarn kits next Thursday, January 22nd . So watch out for the pattern appearing on Ravelry, and keep a close eye on Debbie’s shop for the yarn update!

Epistropheid is out!

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With massive thanks to my pal Rachel and her superlative & speedy editorial skills, Epistropheid is published!

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Just like my Epistrophy yoke, Epistropheid is knitted in TOFT Ulysses DK – a lovely British wool – and is topped with an alpaca pompom, also available from Toft.

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I’ve found this hat to be quite an addictive knit — I’ve already worked up two samples, and I’m now knitting up a third, as Tom has requested one for himself (don’t worry, I’m making his in a different yarn so we won’t be insanely matchy-matchy)

The pattern is written for three sizes of hat — I’m wearing the slouchy large size in these photographs — so whatever the size of your heid you should be able to make a hat to fit it.

And one last bit of housekeeping: I am going to do a final run with my mail crates to the sorting office tomorrow morning (Saturday 20th), so if you would like a copy of Yokes posting off before Christmas, now’s the moment to order!


The Epistropheid pattern is now available from Ravelry!

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