As you know, the story of the yarns I use in my designs is very important to me. I am always interested to know as much as possible about a yarn’s provenance and background; like to use fibres that are locally grown and processed where possible; and am especially keen on yarns that showcase the unique qualities of different breeds of British sheep. One of my recent ‘wow’ discoveries is Titus, a wonderful new yarn that has been developed by my Yorkshire friends at baa ram ewe. I am sure many of you will have heard of Titus already, even if you haven’t knit with it, as each new batch seems to disappear from baa ram ewe’s shelves in Headingley and Harrogate almost as fast as it is spun up. Why is Titus so special? Well, this yarn blends the lustrous fibres of two beautiful British sheep breeds — Grey Wensleydale and Blue Faced Leicester — together with 30% UK Alpaca. These three different fibres are worsted-spun together to create a yarn that has a gorgeous sheeny-soft hand, but also tremendous strength. What I especially like about this yarn is that it feels incredibly luxurious but, because of the particular qualities of the fibres of which it is composed, is also clearly really tough and hard wearing. It has a really unique hand — smooth, yet because of the Wensleydale, slightly hairy — and you can tell as you knit it that the yarn simply does not want to bobble or pill. So far, Titus has been available in three natural shades, but five new colours are about to be produced, meaning that the yarn now also has a beautifully balanced palette. In short, I love Titus, and have just completed a couple of designs using it, which I’ll show you very shortly (huzzah!) First, though, I caught up with Verity Britton of baa ram ewe to hear more about Titus and the thinking behind it.
How did the idea for Titus first come about?
Owning a wool shop and choosing among the hundreds of different yarns that are offered to us does make you think about what your dream yarn would be. We love the fuzziness of our local Wensleydale and the softness of the Bluefaced Leicester and Alpaca, and when the opportunity came to have a small batch spun, we jumped at the chance. It was amazing seeing our dreams become reality!
Can you tell us about the process of the yarn’s development? What was involved?
We knew what mix of fibres we wanted in our yarn, but we’d never made one before, so we took some advice from the the wonderful John Arbon of Fibre Harvest, who spun our first ever batch of Titus. We’re passionate about supporting British Wool and UK fibres and showcasing our local breeds here in Yorkshire, so it some ways it was an easy choice to make. We could say we had a firm idea of exactly how the yarn should be spun and what it would look like but in fact we put our trust in John who had far more experience at spinning wonderful yarns than we did. We were very nervous when we ordered our initial 12 kilos- would we like it? Would anyone else like it? But when the box arrived we breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was absolutely gorgeous and surpassed all of our expectations.
Who was Titus Salt and why is he associated with your yarn?
Sir Titus Salt was a Leeds born wool manufacturer who became tired of the smoke and pollution emanating from Yorkshire’s mills and factory chimneys and built a new mill on the outskirts of Shipley, followed by houses, bathhouses, an institute, hospital, almshouses and churches which became the village of Saltaire, now a World Heritage Site. But this wasn’t Sir Titus’ only achievement. In 1836, Titus came upon some bales of Alpaca in a warehouse in Liverpool and, after taking some samples away to experiment, came back and bought the consignment. Sir Titus became the creator of the lustrous and subsequently hugely fashionable alpaca cloth, which contributed massively to his success as a manufacturer. And that’s why we’ve added 30 per cent of the finest UK Alpaca to our yarn, which adds a little bit of magic to our wonderful wool, and strengthens that connection to our Yorkshire heritage even further.
It is fair to say that Titus has been a roaring success, recently voted no.1 British yarn by the readers of Knit Now Magazine! Do you have any plans for new colourways and ranges?
We have been completely bowled over by the popularity of Titus and can’t thank knitters and customers enough for their support, especially for their patience when we sell out! It’s been so popular that we have now been able to introduce a brand new Titus colour range spun by the amazing Peter Longbottom of West Yorkshire Spinners. There are eight shades, all inspired by our Yorkshire surroundings, which blend beautifully together making them ideal for colourwork. It’s being dyed up as we speak and should be available in the next week or so- we’re so excited!
baa ram ewe is located in the historic hub of the UK textile industry. Is that heritage important to you? How?
One of the biggest reasons for opening baa ram ewe in Leeds and now Harrogate was to reaffirm Yorkshire’s historic link to wool and to celebrate that heritage. Industrial towns like Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield would not have flourished without the wool trade, and towns like Harrogate with the Yorkshire Dales on its doorstep mean sheep breeds like the Wensleydale and Swaledale are practically on your doorstep. We want to celebrate that woolly heritage and we love that so many of our customers want to see and buy yarn that is local to Yorkshire- it means we must be doing something right!
I lived and worked in Yorkshire for many years, and love it for many reasons. What is special to you about Yorkshire and its landscape?
It’s hard to put your finger on it, but for me there is an understated natural warmth and beauty to both the Yorkshire landscape and the people that live here. Yorkshire has a really captivating mix of both industrial and rural heritage that is really unique, creating a quiet confidence that envelopes you and makes you proud, even if- like me- you weren’t born here. It’s a rich, varied and special place and if you haven’t been- come and visit soon!
What is your favourite Yorkshire expression or dialect word? (For the record, mine is probably GINNEL).
Oooh I like Ginnel too! Joint favourite though is one I got from my husband and is RADGED, as in ‘he were proper radged’, meaning very, very angry. To me, it’s almost an onomatopoeia. My mother in law says it all the time and it always makes me chuckle.
Finally, what’s next for baa ram ewe?
Oh Lord, who knows? We’ve just opened a second store in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, so we’re still recovering from that. We can’t wait for our new Titus colour range to hit the shelves any day now, and then we’ll be taking that to Woolfest in Cumbria and TNNA in the U.S in June, as well the new Yarndale show in Skipton this September. Oh, and then we’re organising the second Yorkshire Wool Week in October. So just another quiet year for us again then….
Some time in 2005, I was walking through the Edinburgh branch of John Lewis when my eye was caught by the display of Rowan yarns and samples. The gorgeous colours of the yarns and the beautiful styling and photography of the pattern books and magazines really grabbed my attention. On the spot, I decided to start knitting again, and picked up several balls of Big Wool in, if I remember rightly, the ‘tomato’ shade. The first thing I turned out was a gigantic tomato-coloured moss-stitch wrap on 10mm needles, and since then I have not looked back. What I’m saying is that it was Rowan’s yarns, designs, and photography — their distinctive and immediately recognisable aesthetic — that inspired me to take up my needles. I am sure that many knitters (and designers) have a similar tale to tell.
I have been writing features for the Rowan Magazine since 2009, and each one has been a pleasure to produce. Marie Wallin always provides suggestive and inspiring editorial briefs; the generous word length allows one to properly get one’s teeth into a topic; and it is genuinely thrilling to see one’s words and photographs laid out in such a well-produced and seriously beautiful magazine. Research for the fine lace feature I wrote for Magazine 50 (A/W, 2011) took me to Shetland — the first of many trips, and, for me, the beginning of another journey.
Although I have worked with Rowan for almost four years, I have never met Marie or the rest of the team. Yesterday I finally had the opportunity to do so, and popped down to Yorkshire to visit Rowan’s Holmfirth HQ.
I had a lovely day. It was both fascinating and inspiring to see behind the scenes, to gain an insight into the complexities of the design and production process from start to finish, and to catch a glimpse (and squoosh) of what knitters will be treated to in future seasons. It was also lovely to put faces to design-room names, and to have the opportunity to chat about future projects in person.
As these photographs will suggest, it was one of those incredibly busy sorts of days when there wasn’t an opportunity to make use of my camera — but these tasty balls of Felted Tweed may give you some indication of various things-in-process. All I’ll say right now is watch this space!
Thankyou, Marie, David, Kate and the rest of the Rowan team for a wonderful introduction to the mill!
Yesterday I had a grand day out. Martin and Janet Curtis kindly invited me to the opening of the new showroom at Haworth Scouring, the world’s largest commission scouring company, and an important hub of the British wool industry. The opening showcased many different elements of the industry — from processing right through to retail and distribution — and I was there to demonstrate hand-knitting and design. My sister, Helen, lives nearby, and it was great to bring her along as a spare pair of knitterly hands. Here she is working on a BMC, with some of the beautiful throws from the Real Shetland Company and my Rams and Yowes blanket behind her.
She couldn’t resist trying out one of the Real Shetland throws.
. . . as well as woven textiles . . .
(These samples are from Abraham Moon, another great Yorkshire company)
. . .knitting yarns . . .
(Jamieson & Smith’s amazing Shetland Heritage yarn, of which more another time).
. . . finished garments . . .
But my favourite thing, out of the many wonderful woolly things on display in the new showroom, was a piece by artist Angela Wright.
Angela’s wool installations take coned yarn (supplied by Martin Curtis), which is reworked and rewound into gigantic woolly hanks. These huge hanks, when arranged, suspended, and carefully laid down by Angela, have a profoundly transformative effect on the spaces in which they appear. I only had my macro lens with me yesterday, so was unable to take a picture capturing the full effect of Angela’s piece on the showroom space, but you get a good sense of her work from this earlier piece in Bradford Cathedral.
I think it is quite rare to find textile art that manages to combine the spectacular with the contemplative, but Angela’s work is both. These installations are grand and public in scale, but there’s a quiet intimacy about them too, which arises from the woolly materials Angela is using, and (very clearly, I think) her own distinctive personal ‘feel’ for space and substance. Sited in Bradford, the historic home of the British wool industry, the installation seems celebratory and commemorative, both veil and shroud, a portal connecting past to future. There is a tremendous weight to Angela’s pieces — the wool threads hang, drape, and flow with a heaviness that is deeply emotional. Angela told me how some folk were moved to tears upon encountering the piece in Bradford Cathedral — I can well believe it.
I recommend you go and have a look at these photographs which document the process of Angela’s wool installations from Yorkshire sheep to finished piece. Pretty amazing.
Here is Angela, discussing her installation with Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who came to open the showroom yesterday and who, like her brother in law, is firmly committed to the Campaign for Wool.
. . .Martin Curtis presented her with a very special woolly gift. . .
. . . a beautiful hand-knitted lace stole, created as part of the Shetland fine lace project.
It was a day in which, from start to finish, the best of British wool was celebrated. Helen and I felt honoured to have been a part of it and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Thankyou, Janet, and Martin, for a truly grand day!