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.
(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.
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.
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.
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!
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
Customers have different requirements, and some of the wool arrives in a very raw state, needing preparation and grading by specialised wool sorters.
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.
The wool is put through a series of washes and rinses at several different temperatures.
It is repeatedly and carefully cleaned with swinging rakes. After every wash you can see the wool becoming gradually cleaner and cleaner . . .
. . . with the wool’s heat and moisture content being monitored at every stage.
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.
After washing, the wool is dried. As part of the drying process, the fibres are loosened and mixed, and blended together.
Just check out what’s going on in that huge machine!
After drying, the wool is beautifully clean. What a transformation!
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.
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!
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!
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.
From raw wool, to lovely combed top!
Here is what is known as a bump top, at the end of the combing process. . .
And here are lots of bump tops, ready to go.
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?!)
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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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.”
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. . .
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!