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?

. . .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.


40 thoughts on “Making Milarrochy Tweed: part 2

  1. One of the most memorable blog posts I have ever read was your account of how you chose the black and white string for the labels on Buachaille, labeling them all by hand, etc. It is your particular accounting of such details that I keep coming back for, because I am captivated by production and all that it entails. I appreciate very much your willingness to share all the details, because you put so much heart into them- why wouldn’t you?
    I am eagerly anticipating your skeins club for your new tweed. I enjoyed the first one so much. Thanks for all you, Tom, and everyone else do to keep yarn and knitting in our hearts and hands.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating and certainly whets the appetite for the yarn itself. Eagerly awaiting the next post! And access to this lovely yarn.


  3. It has been such an interesting read . As a lover of history and knitting it is lovely to see a mill has survived and is in such good use. We should be proud of our heritage and I look forward to working with your yarn. I grew up in Leeds and remember all the clothing factories on York Rd which employed so many people. Best Wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I absolutely love reading your blog. I feel like I’m always learning something, or being prompted to become aware of something entirely new to think about. Also, I can’t wait for the new tweed! I’ve been a tweed frame of mind lately, and I’m so excited to get my hands on this and see what I can make up with it!


  5. I love the look of the little donut balls but, working in a yarn shop as I do, I find it difficult to show them well. On a shelf they tumble all over. On a hook they take up too much wall space or require constant restocking. Do you have any suggestions?


  6. A very enjoyable read! And it is absolutely wonderful that your work supports your local economy. I can’t wait to have those beautiful balls of yarn in my hands!!!!


  7. Such an interesting post. I love seeing the hands and faces of the people involved in all the processes. A fairly new arrival in Yorkshire, I’m really enjoying discovering so much about the history and current processes. Am also pleased to see the rebirth of a number of mills as craft centres, studios etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I just love the fact that this great old manufacturing building is still alive and working to good purpose – and has not been abandoned as a depressing hulk. These have been two great posts about the lengthy and complex processes involved in the production of yarn, prior to being used to knit with. Fascinating, thanks so much.


  9. Thanks for this, Kate. I live near Bradford (Keighley in fact, another place with woolly heritage) and I find it fascinating to see just how many manufacturing businesses still survive in the area, despite everything. It’s really great to see inside the buildings as well, as they can feel quite intimidating from the outside. I hope the other old factory buildings in that bit of Bradford find some use too, there are so many close by that are rotting away.


  10. So glad you decided to go with balls rather than skeins! I much prefer them. When I was growing up the wool we bought was in balls, it’s only more recently I’ve had to start winding skeins into balls hoping I don’t tangle it. I don’t have a ball winder and can’t justify getting one.


  11. Fascinating. I’m happy to see the faces of all those who prepare the yarn for my enjoyment. So glad to know that you have done something to prevent biasing. I’ll be joining the club as a result of learning this info.

    BTW, I think you might mean ‘principal’, not ‘principle’.


  12. It strikes me (and has before over the past couple of years) that you have a book here. Or rather, two books. That is, of course, in addition to the one you’re already writing.
    One about ‘finding & making yarn’ and one about Bruce.
    As dog-lover and big-time knitter, I can only hope for both.


  13. Hi Kate..great to see the progression with your yarn…more so to see your progression in your life and with Tom, with your ever expanding hunger for knowledge and creativity…love the colour of your new yarn, and the texture

    I could not believe how I looked at yarn differently once I began to spin, and how what I liked and wanted changed…it’s so much part of the process , the fibre , the spin , the colour, are just the beginning of the end result the garment…..I love the process from beginning to end

    Cheers for all your hard work and your love of learning , and passing it on to us…pat j

  14. Thanks, Kate, for these two interesting posts about the manufacture of your new yarn. I have always marveled at the machines and am amazed at the minds of the people who thought of how to make the machine do the job they wanted done.


  15. Wow, what a wonderful story and pictures. Love to see the faces and hands of the people who are part of the production being represented on your blog. I had no idea that yarn finishing in Britain was so ‘monopolised’, but it’s fascinating craft. Looking forward to seeing the final yarn and colours!


  16. I’ve been spinning for nearly 40 years and love one-ply yarns. The finishing aspect makes a tremendous amount of difference between a poorly/perfectly crafted one-ply yarn. Nobody discusses finishing spinning yarns except as an afterthought. It is such a disservice to the craft as always making at least two-ply yarns to avoid the bias problem sometimes becomes overwhelming in a large project. My first spinning instructor encouraged a slight agitation of our skeins and then hanging them with a tin can on the bottom. I laugh now remembering how one-ply would cause those cans to spin! Attempting to defeat the bias problem I’ve felted yarns to the extent they are unrecognizable. Finishing is an art! Even Tahki’s Donegal has a bias problem occasionally.

    I am beside myself excited to see the color offering in Milarrochy. Thank you Kate! (And the small balls are brilliant!)


  17. Those are indeed very cute balls! Thanks for this look into yarn finishing. True, I have not read much about it before. I am also looking forward to your new yarn. I admit my knitting has slowed down lately, but I am trying to get into colour work. Maybe that is why my knitting has slowed down!


  18. Kate, very interesting to learn all those details that you tell us about. The yarn looks beautiful!! Congratulations! And how wonderful the shortlisted picture of Elizabeth’s hands. Beautifullll picture and hands. Congratulations to Tom!


  19. Birkin! Just the color I was envisioning after I confirmed my suspicion that the name meant birch. And, what a thrill to see the yarn label for the first time, with Tom’s fantastic logo — I often think of that post of yours, Tom, about creating the logo. I very much appreciate the presentation of all the tidy facts that go into creating the yarns I hold in my hands. I feel so snug and satisfied possessing all this knowledge.


  20. Here’s a questions from the US. Do you pronounce worsted with an “r”? I always heard grandparents talk of worsted suits, pronounced “woosted”, as Worcester, Massachusetts is pronounced “Wooster”. Various pronouncing websites don’t pronounce the “r”. I hear “wERsted” all the time and wince a bit.
    Can you please set me straight!!!
    Mimi in Massachusetts


  21. Glorious, Kate, absolutely wonderful. Thank you for giving us the chance to meet these yarn-y folks. And I can’t wait to see your new yarn. Congratulations!


  22. This was quite interesting, Kate, especially about the steaming
    process to prevent bias in the knitting of the yarn – a bonus for the
    knitter and good to know.
    I’m curious what the black is on the outside of the building. It looks like
    soot. Are there other manufacturing businesses in the area that creates this?


    1. Soot is the short answer, the longer answer is that sulphur from pollution in the air binds with the sandstone to create a black crust on the surface of the stone, sulphates being one element given out by coal boilers and engines, the like of which would have powered these mills. You’ll see that the blackening happens beneath window fills and other areas of rainwater runoff, this is because sandstone ‘washes dirty’ – rain concentrates the pollutants in these areas, where they react with the sandstone. (Limestone, on the other hand, washes clean – the areas would be cleaner than the surrounding).

      Liked by 1 person

  23. This is an eye opener. I had no idea what decisions went into these final processes. It makes me even more anxious to experience this yarn. The photos of the yarn are gorgeous.


  24. As a matter of fact, I have always wanted to know how all those miles of yarn get rolled up into little balls, so I thank you for bringing us the inside story. I would never have known that it was a specialist service within the general textile industry but had supposed that the spinners brought their yarns to the final customer-ready presentation. I so appreciate your and Tom’s curiosity and attention to detail, and especially your concern for the people and history that make an industry.


  25. WOW! It is SO wonderful to see inside the mills for this part of the process. The photos in your post are wonderful! Splendid teaser for the new yarn too!


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