Layter – a celebration of sheep and wool

Layter_closeup

In case you haden’t noticed, today is the first of WOVEMBER! I thought I’d begin the month by showing you a garment that, like no other I can think of, truly celebrates the glorious variety of British sheep and wool. It was designed by my good friend and fellow WOVEMBERIST, Felicity Ford, AKA, Felix. This year, Felix was the patron of Shetland Wool Week, (and if you’ve not yet heard / seen her singing the “Shetland Wool Song” I suggest you pop over to YouTube right now!) Back in June 2009, Felix and I and several other woolly friends met up at Woolfest. It was a wonderful weekend for all of us, and I well recall how Felix, over a jolly pint or two at the Bitter End in Cockermouth, toasted the glory of British wool, and explained to us how she was going to create a garment celebrating the diversity of sheep, inspired by what she’d seen at the show. Layter was the result, and, over the past few years, this marvelous original garment has evolved several times. Its now available as two fabulously sheepy designs, for both adults and babies. I asked Felix to tell us more about the story of Layter.

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1. What does “Layter” mean?

“Layter” is a word from an old Cumbrian counting rhyme which shepherds used in the past for counting their sheep and it’s the number “seven”. The prototype of the design used wool from seven different breeds and since I found this wool in Cumbria at WOOLFEST, a title from that part of the world made sense. I love that when people ask me about “Layter” we end up talking about old shepherding traditions!

Blacker_Yarns

2. I have a very clear recollection of your infectious excitement at Woolfest in June 2009, upon perusing the marvelous breed-specific yarns that were available at the Blacker Yarns stand. Am I right in thinking that this was the moment the design was born? Can you tell us about this moment and the garment’s inspiration?

The Blacker Yarns stand blew my mind! There were two deep containers full of balls of yarn from different sheep breeds. As I read the names on the ball bands and squished the yarns, I felt there was loads to discover about each one. I pulled out ball after ball and kept finding more names… Jacob, Border-Leicester, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Shetland, Teeswater… it was like a poem! Additionally, I watched a shearing demonstration and was really impressed by how the shearer got the fleece off the sheep all in one piece. I realised I really wanted to knit something which looked like that, so yes – the design was born in the wonderful sheepy celebration that is WOOLFEST!

woolfest_shearing
(shearing at Woolfest)


3. You then began knitting, and I remember first seeing (and admiring) the first incarnation of Layter just a few weeks after Woolfest. I know how you loved this garment and wore it loads. In many ways this design seems to epitomise your concept of ‘the slow wardrobe’! Can you tell us about how the original Layter has stood up to wearing since you made it?

The first incarnation of Layter was knit at quite a loose gauge, which makes it drapey, and quite long and robe like! The fabric has relaxed with time, and the whole garment feels very feminine to me. I love wearing it with a dress, and that I can really hug it around myself in the cold! I am genuinely impressed with how well the yarn has worn; it hasn’t pilled or shed, and the stitches remain well-defined. The fibres have softened after four years of wear, and the whole garment has developed a very slight and pleasing bloom. The sideways construction means it can stretch a little bit if I wear it every day for a couple of weeks, producing a mildly limp appearance, but when this happens, I simply bung it in my washing machine on a Wool cycle and give it a good block! Layter does indeed epitomise my concept of ‘The Slow Wardrobe’; it is a 100% WOOL garment that I cherish and will wear for years to come; the yarn it is made of is durable and well spun; and the whole process of making it has made me more aware of different breeds of sheep and the unique properties of their wool! However perhaps most importantly, it sparks conversations about wool and sheep everywhere it goes. Because it is quite big and has those crazy sleeves, it does attract attention, and every time I wear it, people ask questions, and seem enchanted by the notion that the stripes are all from different sheep breeds. Folk immediately connect it with what they have seen on Countryfile, or start telling me about their own connections with sheep, and men always seem to ask me if there is any Herdwick in it! The Slow Wardrobe is about making my own clothes, but it’s also about how we talk and think about fashion, and I love the conversations I get to have with strangers when I wear original Layter.

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4 After many of us badgering you for a pattern, you later (heh) re-designed and re-developed Layter for publication. How did the second incarnation of the design differ from the first? And what did you learn from the process of redesigning and re-knitting?

I was thinking about a garment that other people might really like to wear which could be paired with tailored trousers or a fitted shirt. To achieve a more flattering, figure-hugging garment, I re-knit Layter using exactly the same maths as in the original version, but at a much tighter gauge. The waist and hips are defined more dramatically and the rows of tight-knit garter stitch are very neat. The effect of this tidier, firmer fabric is a more formal garment, and something which is more like a jacket. In redesigning Layter I also abandoned the big puffy sleeves because I always felt they gave original Layter a slightly religious appearance which I find amusing, but which I wasn’t sure other knitters would enjoy!

Layter_OnePiece
(Layters together)


5 How many British sheep breeds and fleece shades are represented in the new Layter? What was your process of selection? And did you have thoughts of including more?

The new Layter contains wool from several different sheep breeds – some of which are represented in multiple shades! The full list contains Southdown, Corriedale, Ryeland, Shetland, Jacob, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean and Pure Black Welsh Mountain DK knitting yarn… nine discrete breeds in total. Carrying on the theme of the old Cumbrian counting words, I called that version “Covera” which means nine. I would like to do a further version which incorporates Herdwick, Rough Fell, Swaledale, Romney, Wensleydale and Cotswold, because this would create more textural contrast and if I made a version with fifteen sheep breeds in it, the corresponding word from the counting rhyme is “Bumfit” which I think is brilliant. Who doesn’t want a garment that fits nicely around the bum? !

My process of selection involved lining up a lot of balls of Blacker Yarn, arranging them from dark through to light, and swatching to see which textures would work best together. The yarns used in the latest version are all fairly matt and hardwearing, and I got mildly obsessed with different shades of white while knitting it. The Corriedale almost looks bleached, while the Southdown is more ivory, and the Bluefaced Leicester is the softest of the bunch, and somehow mildly translucent! I played a bit with how to use these different whites through the sleeves and at the sides of the body.

Layter_aeroplane

6. Tell us about how the garment is constructed. Was it fun to design?

Layter is knit vertically in 2 pieces from front to back over the shoulders. To finish, it is grafted together at the sides and centre back. Finally, a neckband is added, providing some shaping. I felt that constructing a garment sideways would allow me to make a vertically-striped garment for showing off my sheepy rainbow of Blacker Yarns, and decided on an open garment rather than a sweater because this would most closely resemble a fleece just taken off a sheep. I knit it in two halves so that I could maximise the yardage from all of my balls of Blacker Yarns by simply dividing them all in half and knitting one half of the garmemt at a time. Working this out was all fun, but the best part was actually getting on with making it. Those stripes go fast, and there is a feeling of being involved the knitterly equivalent of cheese tasting as you register the qualities of one sort of wool and anticipate the next! I fell in love with Manx ; it is matt, gingery, warm and soft, and reminds me of biscuits. I also love the feathery texture of Black Welsh Mountain and the sturdy, dense hand of Southdown…

LAYTER-COLOURS-INFOGRAPHIC copy
7. Layter has been an evolving project for four years now, and the latest stage in its evolution is Blayter (Baby-Layter) – an incredibly cute scaled-down version for infants and toddlers. Can you tell us about how this design developed out of your previous work on Layter?

I am conscious that there are more modifications that could be made – more short rows; a side to side approach, eliminating the back seam – all modifications best understood through knitting practice rather than in the abstract! I felt a smaller version of the pattern would make it easier to test out these different ideas for this garment…a baby version was an obvious idea once I realised I wanted to continue tinkering with the construction, and playing around with colours organised into vertical stripes!

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8 Does Blayter use the same construction method as the adult garment?

The basic method of construction is exactly the same as for the adult Layter, but there are proportionately far fewer short rows because I didn’t want to create a lot of extra fabric to swathe a baby in. The neckband is also more gently shaped, and the sleeves are long enough to either come right down over the hands or to be rolled up out of the way. The gauge is quite tight, and again it is conceived of as a little jacket rather than a next-to-skin garment. The name – as you have probably gathered – is a conflation of “Baby” and “Blayter”, although I did think about calling it Yann, because I only used the wool of one sheep while designing it!

J&S_supreme

9. What wool did you choose and why?

I chose to work with Shetland Supreme Jumper Weight from Jamieson & Smith because I enjoyed the soft hand of wool from the Shetland sheep breed when I was knitting Layter, and thought it would be gentle enough for a baby to wear. I also love the range of colours represented within the Shetland breed, and the Shetland Supreme palette offers the possibility to be quite subtle moving between greys, fawns, whites, creams… I started a high contrast version of Blayter which looked a bit like a mint humbug, but in the end was seduced by the subtle transitions possible between Shaela, Katmollet, Mooskit and Gaulmogot! Shetland Supreme has a lovely light hand, and even knit at quite a tight gauge, retains a soft halo and bounciness… it’s lovely for a baby jacket. I also wanted to find a way of fitting the sheepy ethos behind the original Layter to the aims of Shetland Wool Week, which – like WOOLFEST – is such a fantastic celebration of sheep and wool! What better way than by designing Blayter in a way that celebrates some of the lovely shades of wool found amongst Shetland sheep?

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10. What challenges did you find adapting the pattern for differently proportioned bodies?

There’s lots of conflicting information about sizing from different sources, and this made certain aspects of the design process a bit tricksome. To assist with these challenges, I enlisted the help of our amazing friend Liz, who as well as being a brilliant tech-knitter, is an experienced knitter of baby things, and has produced many tiny and gorgeous items for her two lucky nieces. Liz was a total star and test-knitted a beautiful version of the pattern in berry shades of Jamieson & Smith 2 ply. She also discussed baby sizes and proportions with me, and made great suggestions for the details we included on the sizing chart, because in her experience, babies range wildly in terms of size/age. I learnt loads from her during the process of adapting Layter to fit a baby.


11. Finally, what is your favourite sheep breed and why?

Ooh it’s a tricky one, that! Hard to pick just one as they are all so amazing, and all for such different reasons, but I have an enduring fondness for small, wild sheep like Shetlands, Manx Loaghtans, North Ronaldsays, Borerays… I am afraid I am terribly romantic about all these breeds. When I was in Shetland, Ollie showed everyone a hairy grey fleece which he described as “scadder” meaning that it’s very rough. I love that fleece, though, because it is what the Shetland sheep would grow if left to its own devices in order to survive in the wild. It has a thick mane down the middle which I imagine would give a ram a very proud aspect out on the hills! To me, scadder looks like land… like rocks, stones, earth, peat… On the other hand, who can argue with the lovely ginger-biscuit fleece of the Manx Loaghtan which is wild too, but surprisingly soft? Perhaps in the end though I have to say the Boreray is my favourite sheep, purely because it’s the most endangered breed, and the one we all need to love the most if we want to keep it going!

Thanks so much, Felix!

If you’d like to celebrate WOVEMBER by knitting your own Layter, you’ll find the adult pattern here and the baby pattern here.

And be sure to follow the WOVEMBER blog this month, for sheepy stories, inspiring interviews, woolly giveaways and more!

Layter-sideways

Braid Hills

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So here is my new design! The Braid Hills Cardigan!

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This is the first in a series of designs celebrating my favourite Edinburgh places. Regular readers will know that I’ve mentioned The Braids on this site many times: the view of the city from here is spectacular, and the landscape is gorgeous for a ramble particularly in Spring when the air is heady with the smell of gorse and the sound of skylarks.

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The colourway I chose for my sample was inspired by gorse too – Blacker Swan DK. This is a deliciously squooshy light DK / sportweight merino, grown in the Falkland Islands and then processed in Cornwall by the Natural Fibre Company. It is airy and bouncy and, because it is worsted spun, it also has a really smooth hand. All of these characteristics means that when knit up the yarn has great definition, and shows off twisted-stitch cables superbly.

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I have recently been on a bit of a cable kick, and have been really inspired by Maria Erlbacher’s classic Überlieferte Strickmuster (available in English from Schoolhouse Press). Because the ‘action’ of these stitches occurs on every row, their look is, I think, particularly neat and sinuous. So pleasing.

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Many cables are worked as braids, and as I began swatching various twisted-stitch panels, I was strongly reminded of the braided structure of eighteenth-century laced stays and stomachers.

VAME.5091-1905

(Victoria and Albert Museum)

C.I.39.13.211

(Met Museum)

I thought there might be a way to use braided micro cables to lend structure and focus to a garment . . . without, of course, the attendant damage to one’s rib-cage involved in eighteenth-century corsetry.

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The neckline of eighteenth century garments above a laced bodice tends to be low and squarish, framing the the high bust . . .

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(Philip Mercier, portrait of Lousia Balfour, 1751)

. . . so this is how I structured my neckline too.

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Because of the low neckline, it is important that the cables and ribbing of the neckline sit across the high bust without undue stretching. So I recommend knitting this cardigan with a little positive ease to give a neat neckline – paerhaps 0.5 – 1 in. I am modelling the garment with around an inch of positive ease (31 in bust / 32 in garment). (The pattern includes a detailed sizing table and schematic to enable you to choose the size that’s right for you)

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The braided micro cables flow down into the ribbing at the neck and hem, and this intertwined patterning is also echoed on both cuffs . . .

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I am fond of these cuffs.

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Because this pattern is part of a series inspired by the city in which I’ve lived for the past decade, I have decided to add in a few Edinburgh extras – so the pattern booklet includes a short editorial feature exploring the history and geography of the Braid Hills, as well as a photographic lookbook. If you have a copy of Colours of Shetland, you’ll see that the way I have structured the booklet is very like one of my chapters in that book.

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This is a design I’m very pleased with for many reasons, and my cable kick is not quite over yet…

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So if you’d like to knit your own Braid Hills cardigan and / or read more about this lovely landscape and how it inspired my design, the booklet is now available!

You can purchase the digital edition of the Braid Hills booklet via Ravelry, or it is available in print (professionally produced in either the EU or US and delivered straight to your door) via Mag Cloud.

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Happy knitting!

Ursulas

I always find it exciting when different iterations of my patterns are posted on Ravelry. This is particularly the case when knitters’ colour choices and personal modifications really transform the look of a design. Some amazing Ursulas have begun to appear which, because they have a completely different feel to my original, and also because they just look bloody lovely, I wanted to share with you.

Ursula was inspired by the shades of Shetland’s summer wildflowers, and the original had a pale, botanical palette.

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But Sarah knitted her Ursula with natural and sky-blue shades set against a background of midnight blue — creating a garment with a totally different feel.

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Sarah says: “I am completely in love with my Ursula. This was an awesome project from the very beginning, using one of my favourite yarns from JC Rennie and my own handspun. . .

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“Apart from completely changing the colours, I didn’t make any changes to the pattern, but accidentally knit the body at the narrowest point of my waist a little tighter, which gave me perfect and unintentional subtle waist shaping. It was the first time I’d tried a crochet steek (using the directions in Colours of Shetland) and it was joyous! I haven’t done a steek any other way since. I knit Ursula mostly on holiday, so its a lovely reminder of my trip too. I’m sure I’ll make it again in similar colours to Kate’s original, as the fit is absolutely perfect and it was so fun to make.”

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I particularly love the fact that three different breeds of British sheep are represented in this garment (Sarah spun the fawn shade from Masham fibre, the brown from Manx Loaghtan and the vivid blue from Jamieson and Smith Shetland tops). Her Ursula is ravelled here.

Next up is Georgie, who chose to knit her Ursula with a single contrast shade, rather than three.

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Georgie says: “My modifications were mainly due to yarn constraints, as I’ve been having to be thrifty, unravelling cardigans I no longer wear. I had already knit a cardigan in the three shades I used for Ursula (Marie Wallin’s Mika) a lovely cardigan I never really wore, mainly due to the style, I prefer a more classic shape for cardigans. Anyway, Mika was first in line when I was scouting around the house for suitable yarn for Ursula. . .

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. . . It’s knit in a combination of Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift (the green), then Blacker Yarns Alpaca/Shetland in cream for the body and grey for the sleeves. I could see while knitting that I wouldn’t have enough of the main colour to finish the cardigan as written, so I shortened the body so the ribbing started on my waist. The sleeves were also shortened due to my yarn levels, plus, I thought they would work best with the length of cardigan.”

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I was blown away when I saw Georgie’s Ursula how her use of a single contrast shade totally transformed the feel and look of the stitch pattern: in her cardigan, the zigzagging tri-coloured stripes of my original have become an allover with its own integral structure and continuity. I also really like how the cropped body and three quarter sleeves lend the garment an incredibly neat, vintage look. Georgie’s Ursula is ravelled here.

Finally, here is Rebecca’s Ursula, knit in four lovely shades of Jamieson and Smith jumper weight: 203, 118, fc14 and fc41.

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Of her modifications, Rebecca says: “I lengthened the body by simply adding an extra peerie repeat in green before beginning the armhole steeks. I also made the sleeves snugger by decreasing very quickly and then lengthened them a bit to come further over the hands.”

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Rebecca’s contrast shades really pop out against the grey background, and this garment feels to me like a refreshing change of key. I love the way that the colours she chose speak to one another, and find the juxtaposition of the complex plum tones of fc14 against the solid Spring green of 118 particularly pleasing. Rebecca’s Ursula is ravelled here.

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Ursula is one of my favourite designs in Colours of Shetland, and it makes me so happy to see knitters making it, transforming it, and enjoying wearing their own beautiful hand-knitted cardigans!

wearing Deco


(my Deco cardigan in October 2010)

Throughout WOVEMBER, we’ll be exploring WOOL from several different angles, and today Felix and I are both writing about how wool wears. We knitters are perhaps sometimes more interested in the new and the spectacular than we are in the old and the reliably-wearable, but durability and longevity are important factors to consider when choosing yarn for a project that will actually be worn. Kristen wrote two excellent posts about this very issue here and here, and because Felix and I have both knitted Decos out of two very different breed-specific British pure-wool yarns, we thought we’d jointly write posts about how these garments have worn.


(Deco in October 2010)

I have knitted many things that have not worn well – and the worst was probably the first sweater I made for myself after my return to knitting – a Kim Hargreaves cardigan out of Big Wool. This yarn is a bulky merino, and knits up very fast – I made my sweater in under a week. I was very pleased with myself and my cardigan, but within days it had begun to pill, in a few weeks time it had turned into a tatty mess, and after a month or two it was completely unwearable. I never knit with Big Wool again. I would show you this garment, but I was so displeased with it that, after removing its carefully-chosen buttons, I got rid of it. I don’t know if Big Wool has changed, but at that time it was so loosely spun it almost seemed like a single-ply. My cardigan was also knit at a fairly loose gauge on, as I recall, 10 and 12mm needles. No wonder that the damn thing pilled!

While my big-wool cardigan didn’t see a year, at the other end of the wearability spectrum, I own a hand-knitted garment that is more than 40 years old – a cabled cardigan that my grandma originally knitted for my mum, and was later appropriated by me. I still wear this cardigan, and it still looks fantastic. My grandma knitted it from the sort of old-fashioned, worsted-spun aran that is quite hard to find today. I love this garment for many, many reasons and promise to show it to you another time.


(Deco sleeve cap in 2010).

It was the yarn that first excited me when I was designing Deco. Several of my knitting comrades were fashioning glorious items out of Blacker Corriedale, and when I saw the ‘olive’ colourway I immediately knew it was a yarn I had to knit with. I swatched a simple slip stitch pattern, and it looked so fantastic that the yarn really did tell me what it wanted to be. Before I knew it I had a sketch and design, and was knitting up a cardigan.

Quite apart from the fact that I designed it, I just love this cardigan – over the year since it was knitted it is has seen a lot of wear. I like to be outdoors, and Deco has often been outdoors with me.


(hmm. . . looks like rain)

Deco has been with Bruce on many rambles, and it has been frequently jumped on and pawed at by my damp and mucky companion, and his equally mucky dog-pals.


(This Spring, somewhere above the Bridge of Orchy)

But, with a frock underneath it, Deco remains a smart garment too: I took it with me to Dublin in September and, as I had only took one outfit with me due to Ryan Air’s luggage restrictions, I wore it solidly the whole time I was there.


(Deco being foolish. September 2011).

So how has Deco held up a year after it was knitted? Really amazingly well. Here is the back

And here is under the left elbow, a place where you might expect to see significant wear.

I know that I have brushed dried mud from this cuff – and do I spot a dog hair?

I bound the bases of the wonderful Nichols buttons to reinforce them – they are still luminous, still beautiful, and most importantly, still stable.

The tape on the opposite button band is still doing its job very well, and despite being snapped and resnapped many times, my snap fasteners have not come loose.

The shoulders and sleeve caps remain neat and hold their shape . . .

and in fact, the only area of wear that I could find was a small place on the underside of the right arm

There are a few little pills there, but if you look closely, you’ll see that, (amidst the dog hair – and do I spy a crumb?) some are clearly rogue pills from a rust-coloured item that Deco has been sitting next to in my wardrobe.

Why has this cardigan worn so well? A little of it is attributable to the design (ahem) which, though being seamless, has several features that make for a very stable garment: short row sleeve caps; three-needle-bind-off at the shoulder-tops; close-gauge fabric; and front bands that are reinforced with tape, and use snap fasteners in place of buttonholes. But mostly, this garment has worn well because of the nature of the WOOL I used to make it.


Photo ©Blacker Yarns

Call me contrary, but I have yet to be totally blown away by a 100% merino yarn. Merino crosses, on the other hand, frequently amaze me. You may recall the rhapsodic nature of my posts about Bowmont Braf – a Shetland-merino cross – and I feel similarly rhapsodic about Corriedale – a dual-purpse breed originally developed in New Zealand as a Merino-Lincoln cross. What’s so special about this yarn? To quote Deb Robson:

“medium-soft, it has nice long staples, some luster, and a well-defined, even crimp, which means it has a lot of loft and elasticity. It’s a resilient fiber with enough character to be interesting.”*

Clara Parkes, meanwhile writes of Corriedale’s “inviting hand that falls somewhere between finewool and longwool, rather like the breed itself. Corriedale makes a smooth and extremely durable worsted yarn but it can also be spun into a loftier, more elastic woollen yarn.”**

I’m in total agreement with everything Deb and Clara say about Corriedale with, perhaps, the minor exception of the lustre since the defining characteristic of the Blacker Corriedale at least is an almost severe matt-ness. There is no sheen to the yarn at all and when dyed, this lends it a pleasing and extremely saturated quality, apparent in Lilith’s gorgeous new hand-dyed Corriedale. There is something velvety about the way the yarn and colour absorb the light. The Blacker Corriedale I used is woollen spun, and when knitting, it feels light and soft and fluffy in the hand. While working it, I expected it to bloom a bit like a woollen-spun Shetland, but it didn’t bloom so much as stabilise. The yarn that felt fluffy in the hand turned into a pleasingly firm medium-soft fabric that also retains the flexibility that befits a knitted garment. You can see that it has good stitch definition, but what you can’t see is that it is really warm, and a little water repellent – great for a cardigan, or other outer-garment. And having experienced this several times, I can also testify that dried mud simply brushes off its surface without affecting the quality of the knitted fabric at all.


(Deco in 2010).

In sum, I heart Blacker Corriedale and can affirm that you will not only really enjoy knitting with this yarn, but can make a garment which will wear extremely well. I’m certainly looking forward to many more years in my Deco.

*Deb Robson, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook (2011)
**Clara Parkes, The Knitters Book of Wool (2009)

If these two books are not the cornerstones of your knitterly bookshelf, I suggest you rectify the situation immediately.

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