three sweaters

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I thought I’d show you my three new sweaters! First up is this lovely Fairisle yoke (bought for £16 on eBay).

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This is a garment of a kind that is still being made in Shetland, and that you can find in Lerwick today in shops like The Spider’s Web. I think its a lovely example. The body has been knitted by machine, and the yoke inserted afterward by hand.

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The blending of the colours on the yoke is beautiful, and the hand-finishing is exemplary, particularly around the steeked opening for the back neck.

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The garment is in great condition and shows no signs of wear at all. I fully intend to wear it!

Next up is a sweater that – shock horror – I just knitted for myself.

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This garment is knitted in some wonderful yarn that I hand-dyed myself at a workshop at Lilith‘s studio four years ago – Bowmont Braf 4 ply. Words cannot express how much I love this yarn – it is springy and sheepy and robust . . . it has a deeply matt, slightly felted appearance, but retains a bouncy hand. Dyed up on it, colours appear soft and muted, as if already worn for a long time. Plus, the yardage is incredible. What’s not to like? Well, only the fact that its long-discontinued. (If anyone knows of a supplier of bowmont fibre please do let me know!). Lilith was very taken with the yarn as well, and our dyeing workshop was the beginning of our collaboration on the Fugue design, which she dyed up as a kit in her glorious Dreich and Lon Dubh colourways. Coincidentally, I know that Lilith is currently knitting an Ursula with her secret Bowmont Braf stash, and I can’t wait to see it.

Anyway, back to the knitting.

As a designer, I think its important to get one’s head around different garment-construction methods – I learned to design yoked sweaters by knitting yoked sweaters – and though I’m familiar with many different top-down sleeve constructions, I’d never tried Susie Myers’ contiguous method, which (essentially) allows you to produce a seamless, top-down, set-in sleeve without the need for picking up stitches around the armscye (which is my usual method). I read the contiguous ‘recipe’, browsed the contiguous threads on Ravelry, purchased a couple of Ankestrik‘s excellent patterns for informed reading, and decided to attempt the method by knitting a sleeve which was a combination of saddle and set-in. The idea was to familiarise myself with the contiguous method’s basic principles, while turning my precious stash of Bowmont Braf into a simple, loose fitting sweater that I could enjoy wearing everyday.

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I’m happy with the sleeve shaping . . .

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. . .and indeed with the sweater (though this photograph, snatched between rain showers probably doesn’t suggest it). As my stash of Bowmont Braf was limited, I weighed the remaining yarn and divided it in two before starting the sleeves. This is a pottering-about, dog-walking sweater that makes good use of my lovely Bowmont Braf, and has taught me a bit about a different way of constructing a sleeve top-down! I really like it.

Finally, this amazing find came into my possession for a mere £1.04 via eBay.

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It’s a beautiful hand-knit vintage Fairisle gansey in natural Shetland-sheep shades. From the way the yarn is spun, I’d say it was probably knitted post-war. The eBay listing described the garment as having been purchased many years ago in an ‘exclusive Edinburgh boutique’. I would speculate that this ’boutique’ was a shop that once stood in Morningside, whose owner sourced garments directly from Shetland knitters, and who has donated several items to the Shetland Museum. This is a really well-made sweater.

Like many such garments I’ve seen, inside the ends have simply been knotted and left to felt

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The gansey has clearly been worn a lot, but is still in great condition. The only area that needs repair is this one cuff.

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And as Mel said to me when taking these photos yesterday, “it fits like it was made for you.”

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I’ll take good care of it.

Foula Wool

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Just in case you hadn’t noticed, it is Shetland Wool Week! I’m very sad not to be there in person this year, but I’ve kept up the tradition I started three years ago of designing a hat in woolly celebration! In 2011, it was Sheep Heid (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Supreme) ; in 2012 it was the Sixareen Kep (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage) and in 2013 it’s . . . well, you’ll have to wait till the end of the week to find out. I can tell you, though, that this year’s hat uses Foula Wool, a lovely DK (or sport) weight Shetland yarn produced in seven tasty natural shades. Foula Wool is grown by Magnus and Justyna Holburn on the island of Foula, and I was able to catch up with Magnus earlier this week to hear more about their fantastic woolly venture.

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(The island of Foula).

Where is Foula?
Foula (pronounced “foo-laa”) is the most isolated of the Shetland Islands which themselves are the most northerly outpost of the UK. Cut off from the main island group by a formidable sea crossing, Foula lies out to the west of Shetland, approximately 20 miles offshore. The striking silhouette is hard to miss but also equally hard to get to.


Can you tell me a little about Foula sheep? What makes them so different?

Once all sheep in Shetland would have been like the Foula sheep, they are the unmodernised strain of the native Shetland sheep breed. Raised in isolation on our remote island for generations without the external influence of crossbreeding or the flock book they are simply Shetland sheep as nature intended them to be. This strong natural heritage embodies the Foula sheep with their unmistakable character and appearance.

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And do you feel that the distinctive landscape of Foula matches and suits the character of your sheep?
Absolutely so. Foula is a wild and rugged landscape with its own unique natural untamed charm and the sheep are as much a part of this as the dramatic scenery itself. In fact it would be fair to say that the Foula sheep actually are a part of the island landscape and without them the hills would look decidedly empty and forlorn. We are really hoping that some of this natural character will find its way into our yarn and onto the knitting needles of the people who choose to work with it.

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Coloured sheep were once declining in Shetland (and elsewhere) generally. What is now being done to retain and encourage diversity of fleece colour? Is the situation improving?

Foula has always been an important genetic resource for anyone who is looking for coloured Shetland sheep. By and large the crofters on the island have tended to take it upon themselves to ensure that this diversity of natural fleece colour continues. The system is subject to individual preferences and the sustainability of each persons flock. What we are trying to introduce with Foula Wool is something that will help improve a sheep flock’s sustainability whilst also seeking out the natural balance of fleece colours by virtue of what the market is asking for. This in turn is going to depend on the knitters out there making their own choices to knit with these natural wool colours.

The case in point would be our current stock of black yarn. There is a tendency not to keep a lot of black sheep as they are seen as being genetically dominant. Crofters worry about ending up with too many black sheep, so we then actually end up with hardly any at all. Black yarn sells well, so we have now almost sold out of what we had spun. We then put the word out that we are looking for more black fleeces and people then start to keep back more black lambs. Which is exactly what has happened this year.

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I know that pure white is actually the least common fleece colour for a Foula sheep, but are there certain fleece shades, or combinations of shades, that are particularly prized? Do you have a favorite natural shade?

My father had a personal preference for dark grey sheep as he felt that their numbers were getting low and he liked their fine wool. He started to keep back dark grey rams from the mothers with the best wool, some of these sheep were really fantastic and they looked almost blue. I grew up working with these animals so I do like to make sure that I have a few in my own flock. I am also very keen on the mioget yarn, which we spin from the white/fawn flekit fleeces. This blend of different coloured fibers ends up with a lovely warm honey like tone that I think is very appealing.

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(Mioget)

Foula Wool is a relatively new venture. Can you tell us a little about how you came to develop a yarn for hand-knitters?

It was a combination of a desire to help support our native island sheep and the traditional crofting culture that surrounds them along with finding a solution about what to do with all the wool from our own sheep flock. We decided to send off some samples to a spinning mill and then waited eagerly to see what we would get back, whatever it was it had to be better than just burning the fleeces. When we got those first hanks of Foula Wool back we were really thrilled, it was a much better yarn than we had dared hope for.

I think we knew very quickly that this was going to be a yarn for hand knitters. These were the people who would be able to appreciate all the care and effort that goes into creating something. We also knew the yarn would have to remain undyed as the natural colours were already there and they just simply looked great. We opted for a DK weight for our first production run as it seemed to be a gap in the Shetland Wool market. We thought it would be nice for folk to have something that knitted up quickly but still offered all the colour work options they had come to expect from a traditional Shetland knitting yarn. The feedback we started getting from people in the knitting world all helped to confirm that Foula Wool was going to be a yarn for hand knitters.

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(Light Grey Foula Wool)

Developing a yarn directly from the sheep can be tricky for small producers. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of the process?

The most challenging thing so far was the initial step to accept that it was going to be possible and that we would give it a go. You have to commit a lot of time and effort to something like this. Certainly running any business from such a remote location throws up challenges, not least when your going to have wait a whole year for your sheep to grow more wool if something doesn’t work out. However these are just problems that you will have to find solutions for, the same way you find solutions for any of life’s other problems. Making the decision that you want to go out and pin your wool colours to the mast that’s the hard part.

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(Grey Foula Wool)

Are you or Justyna knitters yourself? Do you enjoy working with your wool?

We love working with the wool and Justyna is well-bitten by the knitting bug! I find it really rewarding to hear back from people who buy our yarn as it has started to make some sense out of the decision I made years ago when I inherited my own sheep from my father, that I would do my best to keep them going.

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Finally, what’s your favourite hand-knitted garment?

The first thing ever knitted from our Foula Wool, a jumper that Justyna knitted for our eldest son, it doesn’t fit him anymore but his younger brother wears it now. I am always impressed by the natural qualities of pure wool, whether is on the back of a sheep or a little lad out helping his dad with the lambing, you just can’t beat it.

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Thanks so much, Magnus!

If there was ever anything that made me want to own my own small starter flock, it is Magnus’s lovely photographs of his sheep (all of which are reproduced courtesy of Foula Wool). In closing, I have to mention that it was in fact Magnus’s favourite Mioget shade that, when I first got my hands on some Foula Wool, immediately gave me the idea for my new hat design. More of that shortly. In the meantime, you can find out more about Foula Wool here, or meet Magnus for yourself at the Shetland Wool Week Maker’s Mart at Lerwick town hall on Saturday.

Shepherd hoody

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You may remember that, last year, I mentioned how thrilled I was to be invited, along with Kirsten Kapur, to design a sweater for Susan Gibbs and Emily Chamelin’s project The Shepherd and The Shearer. Well, the sheep have been shorn, the yarn has been spun, the patterns have been written, and a lovely booklet and a sweater’s worth of yarn is about to wing its way to 200 subscribers. I’ll explain the process, and my part in it.

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Susan’s original brief was one I found particularly exciting: to design a functional cabled sweater that would suit the robust properties of a good, natural woollen-spun yarn, that would wear well and look good over time. For my swatches and sample I used some local Scottish stuff that we imagined would be a really good match for how Emily and Susan envisioned their yarn turning out – New Lanark Aran (a yarn whose weight is equivalent to a US ‘worsted’) . I popped over to the mill to pick up yarn for my sample back in April, and decided that I wanted to make a simple, functional hoody – a garment which a shepherd might easily throw on before nipping outside to check her animals. I thought I’d use a simple modified drop-shoulder construction (a style that’s easy for shepherds of all body shapes and sizes to wear) and an allover cable pattern (both fun and straightforward to knit). I finally settled on a stitch that I have always found really pleasing.

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When knit, this alternating cable has a lovely rhythm to it. It is simple enough to make the knitting a pleasant distraction, but has enough action to remain interesting to work. This was the cable for the Shepherd hoody! I started to work on the design.

While I was knitting away in Edinburgh, over the pond in the US, Emily was shearing sheep.

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The fleeces used for the Shepherd and the Shearer were shorn by Emily from animals raised in fifty flocks on small farms across the Mid-Atlantic region. One thing I find particularly interesting about the yarn that’s resulted from the project is the variety of identifiable breeds and crosses that are blended in it, mixing the fleeces of ancient British breeds like Shetland, with relatively new US breeds, like the California Red Face.

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(I spy a goat-buddy)

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After shearing, the fleeces were prepped and skirted . . .

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. . .then sorted and baled

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fleecesorting

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From there, the bales were taken to MacAusland’s mill in Prince Edward Island.

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(Here is Emily, heroically joining the bales on their trip to the mill following an accident which severed tendons in her left hand. I’m very happy to say that after surgery and physio, she’s back to shearing again.)

MacAusland’s has been in business since 1870, and under a vertical operation where all processes are finished on-site, scours, cards, and spins raw wool into yarn on a 128 bobbin frame.

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With its firm springy hand, the yarn has indeed turned out to be very close to the New Lanark Aran I used for my sample.

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While the yarn was being processed and spun, the Shepherd hoody was being knitted. Here’s how it turned out.

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Now, I like all my samples, but I immediately developed a very special affection for this finished garment. Once I’d put it on, I seriously didn’t want to take it off. I think its equally suited to tramping about the fields in a brisk wind . . .

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. . . or cosying up by the fire on a chill winter’s evening.

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The hems, cuffs and hood are finished with moss stitch.

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. . . as is the pixie hood

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I’ve used buttons on the facings, but they are equally well suited to the insertion of a zipper, if preferred.

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The construction enables the hoody to be knit all in one piece, completely seamlessly, with minimal finishing. The pattern is sized from 30 to 57 inches, and I reckon it could easily be worn by a shepherd of either sex.

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In short, I absolutely love this garment, and it was really very difficult packing it up in a box and sending it off to the US.

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The pattern for the Shepherd hoody, together with that for the breathtakingly beautiful Shearer pullover, designed by Kirsten Kapur, is included in a booklet produced by Juniper Moon Farm telling the whole story of The Shepherd and the Shearer. This booklet, together with a plump package of yarn to make their choice of sweater, is about to be posted to the project’s 200 subscribers, without whom none of the processes I’ve described in this post would have happened.

From start to finish it has been a delight to be part of a collaborative project which truly celebrates sheep and wool, and which also makes transparent and legible the many different kinds of labour that go into raising and processing fibre. It is quite rare to receive a commission to design a garment to support that labour, and to showcase the unique properties of that fibre, rather than to speak to a trend, and I have to say that this is one reason I was so pleased to be invited to participate. The project has brought together the skills of many talented women and I am very proud to have been involved. I want to say a special thankyou to Lauria at Juniper Moon, who has been cheerfully brilliant at co-ordinating the project, and bringing everything smoothly together. I hope the subscribers enjoy their wonderful yarn, and the patterns that Kirsten and I have designed, and I understand that a limited further number of Shepherd and Shearer kits will also soon be available from the Juniper Moon Shop, so if you are interested in knitting yourself a Shepherd hoody or a Shearer pullover, do keep your eye on the site for updates.

Photos reproduced courtesy of Juniper Moon Farm

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A tale of Titus

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.

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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.

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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!

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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….

Thanks, Verity!

And finally, here’s a wee hint of what’s to come in my Titus designs :

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snawheid

Here is the result of my pompom mania — SNAWHEID!

Snawheid is a seasonal, snowflake-adorned beanie, feauturing a gigantic snowball pompom. It being Wovember and everything, I thought it would be fun to present to you three rather different Snawheids, each made in a different British breed-specific yarn. All are, of course, 100% wool (as is, incidentally, the rest of my outfit, with the exclusion of my boots).

Snawheid #1 is knitted in Shetland Organic 2 ply. As its name would suggest, this yarn comes from certified organic Shetland sheep, and is processed by organic mills. It knits to a standard 4 ply tension, and, as you would imagine, has a lovely woolly, typically Shetland hand. In the ball it has a matt, almost chalky feel to it and it is plied and spun slightly looser than other natural Shetlands I’ve knit with. When blocked, it puffs right up, producing a lovely halo. I gave it a good long soak and the yarn bloomed and relaxed tremendously. Its a really special, totally traditional Shetland yarn, and makes a lovely soft, even fabric. It has lent Snawheid #1 a quintessentially cosy, Wintery feel.

For a rather different look, I present to you Snawheid #2, which has been knitted by Jen in Excelana 4 ply.

I decided not to stick the pompom on Jen’s Snawheid just yet, so that I could show you my crown design — which is shaped to resemble a gigantic snowflake. If one were in any way averse to pompoms, or preferred a sleeker look, the crown ensures that your heid will remain adequately snaw-y, however you decide to knit this hat.

Excelana is a collaboration between Susan Crawford and John Arbon: the former has unparallelled knowledge of vintage yarns, and the latter is the UK’s independent spinning meister. The result is this delicious blend of 70% Exmoor Blueface / 30% Bluefaced Leicester which has an incredibly smooth, soft hand, a lovely sheen, and a good bit of bounce. Being worsted spun, it also has superb stitch definition, making it ideal for showing off some festive colourwork snowflakes.

Without the enormous pompom, and knitted in the monochrome shades of Persian Grey and Alabaster, I think Jen’s hat has a lovely muted, classic feel.

And finally, here is Snawheid #3.

After I finished Snawheid #1, and got my hands on Snawheid #2, I had a sudden desire to make another one using Jamieson and Smith Jumper Weight. Snawheid #3 is knitted in shade FC 34 — the coolest of cool winter blues — and 1A, a natural Shetland white.

I am not quite sure why, but this is my favourite of the three.

Perhaps I am just in a blue-hat mood, or something.

Or perhaps its that the addition of colour makes this hat feel particularly jolly and festive.

Or perhaps it is just that knitting with Jamieson and Smith jumper weight feels like spending time with an old friend.

In any case it is fair to say that I have gone a wee bit Snawheid crazy. These gigantic, happy pompoms certainly chime with my mood right now; I am really pleased with the design and I absolutely love every one of these three hats. And let me tell you that you have got off lightly with the name, as the temptation to call it Bawheid (one of Tom’s dad’s favourite insults) was extremely strong.

Well, now there’s just a bit of pattern-tweaking and checking to do and, all being well, the SNAWHEID pattern will be released on Ravelry tomorrow (19th).

Wovember is here!

Happy Wovember, everyone! If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to head on over to the Wovember site to read the first of many wonderfully woolly installments. This year, I’ve not really been involved with the Wovember preparations because of the, um, somewhat pressing demands of my collection and book, but you can be assured that I am sitting here wearing my 100% wool outfit and Wovember badge and supporting everything that Felix and Tom are doing. This years Wovember theme is ‘closing the gap’ – that is – the gap between fibre and finished commodity that often leaves consumers woefully misinformed about a yarn or garment’s provenance and the different processes involved in its production. Tom and Felix have done a marvelous job of curating a series of really inspiring and interesting essays, beginning with a group of posts exploring what’s involved in “Growing Wool”: celebrating sheep, and the work of the people who raise and care for the animals who produce the fibre that we all love to knit with. I’m looking forward to reading more!

I shall be doing my bit to celebrate Wovember by knitting like mad, wearing wool every day, and writing more about woolly matters. I’ll try to post here every day for the next month. Till tomorrow, then — HAPPY WOVEMBER!

Shetland Wool Week in Pictures: part 3

where we stayed (I would heartily recommend it).

And the view from our window.

Shetland Times Bookshop, ready for Wool Week.

Delicious Fair Isle Cake, at the Heritage Yarn launch


Wonderful new yarn from Shetland Organics

Projection of Jo Jack’s work at the Bonhoga Gallery



Luminous Yarns

Jane Outram’s prize-winning tablet weaving at the Shetland Textile Museum.

Pressed-felt brooch by Donna Smith


Shetland Wool cushions by Ella Gordon

Phat Sheep Textiles

Handwoven pincushion from Aamos Designs

Nuff said.

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