Today I want to talk a little about what is perhaps one of the least-discussed aspects of yarn production: finishing and presentation.
I’m not sure quite why these final processes aren’t more frequently discussed: perhaps the question of how long, continuous strands of yarns are transformed into hanks, skeins, or balls isn’t actually of much much interest; perhaps for those who produce such skeins and balls the issue is too quotidian to bear much discussion; or perhaps, for knitters, even thinking about the basic everyday processes behind twisting the perfect skein somehow destroys its magic? Whatever it is, it seems to me very curious that there is a certain point when provenance and processing stops being part of the stories we are told about our yarn.
But why is it that the story stops after our yarn is spun or dyed? Why don’t we hear about what’s involved in (often crucial) decisions about finishing and presentation? Why don’t we see more of the final processes which enable us to actually have yarn to knit with? And why don’t we see more of the great people who perform this important work?
People like this?
. . .or this?
These two fine fellows are Edward and Mark Hill. Back in 1980, Edward (on the left) acquired a wonderful Bradford mill building on what was Silsbridge Lane and is now Lower Grattan Road.
Founded in 1826, “Hollings’ Mill” had been continuously used throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for several different aspects of wool processing and production. (Bradford was (and to a certain extent still is) the historic heart of the British wool industry).
(worsted wool manufacturers in Bradford, 1833)
But the use Edward had planned for Hollings’ Mill was not wool scouring or dyeing or spinning. He’d acquired the building to process and finish yarn for hand knitting.
The 1980s might be seen as (to put it mildly) a difficult era to start a British textile manufacturing business. I was born just a few miles from Bradford and saw at first hand, what amounted to the systematic decimation of manufacturing in this region. Over the years that I grew up, the textile mill in which my grandparents once laboured became the storage facility and distribution centre for products made in the Far East, in which I later worked, as a teenager, as a “picker.” This narrative is not unusual – terrifyingly few companies at the manufacturing and processing end of things in the North West survived the 1980s. (Witnessing industrial annihilation – and with it, a whole regional way of life – has undoubtedly influenced my passion for textiles and manufacturing today).
But Edward Hill & Co proudly survived the 1980s, and today remains one of the last companies in Britain still finishing yarns and commercially producing balls and skeins for hand knitting. If you take the time to ask, you’ll quickly find that there are really very few yarn-y companies in this country, big or small, that have not, at one point or another, had contact with Edward or Mark Hill. And if you have ever, between 1980 and today, knit with a ball of yarn produced in Britain, it is more than highly likely that it, at one time or another, passed through the fabulous old doors and stone flagged floors of Hollings’ Mill.
Mark took over management of the mill, and still employs folk who began their working lives with Edward, back in 1980. It’s so obviously a great company to work for.
If you are in the yarn business, here at Hills you can have your product skeined . . .
or balled . . .
to meet many different presentation requirements.
In our own case, after our Milarrochy Tweed left the mill in Donegal, it certainly wasn’t the end of the story: there were quite a few processing decisions that still needed to be made.
I don’t know if you have ever worked with a single-ply yarn with quite a lot of twist in it? If you have, you’ll know that such yarns can cause significant issues for the hand-knitter, and that fabric created with them can have an annoying tendency to sit on the bias. Because our tweed is a single, we had concerns about the yarn’s natural biasing coming straight out of spinning, so we asked Mark to give our tweed another scour and steam: this process not only allows the yarn to soften and relax, but removes any excess twist which creates issues in the knitting.
This incredible machine is a yarn steamer. It was not in operation on the day Tom visited with his camera, but believe me, it is extraordinarily ingenious!
Because after steaming, each strand of tweed is plump and soft with just the right amount of twist.
We opted for mini 25g balls, rather than larger balls or skeins for our Tweed. Why? Well, one of the principal intended purposes of the yarn is colourwork – and no-one wants to buy a 100g hank of a single shade of which much less is required. Also, the balls made on the particular wee machine you see below have a wonderfully neat jewel-like appearance that I just adore.
As well as being incredibly helpful with all the decisions we had to make about process and presentation, Mark also advised us on ball bands and label sizes, and was able to recommend a great local printer to supply them. Tom designed our logo, and we were able to select a particularly nice paper for the labels.
So here is the final end result of the thinking, fibre processing, vat dyeing, colour blending, drawing, twisting, spinning, scouring, steaming, hanking, balling, designing, printing, labelling, packaging, bagging, boxing . . . from Scotland to Donegal, from Donegal to Bradford, and from Bradford back to Scotland once again . . .
A finished, 25g ball of Milarrochy Tweed!
Next time, I’ll say more about the colours of the tweed.
Massive thanks to Mark, to Peter (who keeps track of all the different shades and dyelots) and to everyone at Edward Hill & Co, whose skilled hands have, since 1980, made so much of the yarn we knit with and whose work is so important.