When you get involved in manufacturing yarn for hand knitters, one of the first things you learn about is just how bloody difficult it is just to get some elements of wool production done. I’m talking about the messy, dirty, non-glamorous things; the things like wool sorting, grading, and scouring (washing) or things that involve specialised machinery, or a lot of human work by hand (such as balling and skeining). These processes create difficulties for small UK yarn producers for several interrelated reasons. One factor is that invaluable hands-on skills like wool sorting and grading perhaps no longer play the central role they did in agricultural and textile education. Another, more significant reason is what has happened to textile and wool manufacturing in this country over the past half century or so. During the 1980s, industrial decline, coupled with what amounted to a systematic abandonment of textiles by the British government, meant that relatively few commercial processors rode out the changing times. Those who did increasingly specialised and consolidated their activities in order to survive and grow. As a consequence, there are now relatively few processors involved at the ‘top’ end of knitting yarn production (finishing and presentation) and very few indeed who handle the ‘bottom’ end (sorting, grading, and especially scouring). In the UK, wool scourers are now few and far between. Most also tend to be relatively large operations (producing fibre that’s used mostly by the carpet and flooring industry) working to strict economies of scale. So if you are a small producer with 50kg of lovely single-source fibre carefully sheared and sorted from your own flock, you won’t find yourself with very many options for its processing. It has always been intriguing to me how very few scourers there are in this country, but (though I know far less about the state of affairs elsewhere) there must be even fewer scourers in other countries otherwise why would large proportions of the annual clips of wool producing nations like Norway and New Zealand end up here in the UK just in order to get washed?

So it may sound a little weird, but I get very excited when I see successful small-scale scouring, and small scale vertical wool processing more generally. Because once that infrastructure and those skills are there, embedded in a community, the potential for taking manufacturing forward in sustainable and interesting ways – ways that are genuinely locally meaningful – is huge. Uist Wool is one such place of potential and possibility.

After several years of community investment, commitment and enterprise, Uist Wool now possesses the skills, equipment and space to process fabulous local wool on a relatively small scale.

Here’s the wool room: sorting and grading takes place here, and in a month or two this space will be stacked to the rafters with newly-sheared fleeces.

This space is for washing and drying. Another reason for the scouring-scarcity is the resource-hungry and potentially environmentally impactful nature of the process. Here at Uist Wool they use low-impact biodegradable detergents . . .

and – would you believe it – all the fibre processed here is washed in two wee mini-mill machines like this.

After scouring and drying the fibre travels a couple of hundred yards down the hill . . .

To be spun into beautiful yarn on re-purposed machinery from Yorkshire and Argyll.

The folk who work at Uist Wool really know these machines.

In order to get to understand their equipment and its processes, they took the machines apart, piece by piece, carefully cleaned and restored each part individually, then rebuilt them from scratch.

As a result of this continual hands-on care, all the vintage equipment in the mill seems to glisten and hum with a sense of its own well-being.

I think this is the cleanest condenser I have ever seen!

After carding and spinning, fibre is turned into . . .

YARN.

Uist Wool produce yarn in a range of natural shades and fibre blends, all of which are extremely characterful and distinctive. Due to the small-batch nature of production here, most runs are unique and non-repeatable (so if you are buying yarn for a particular project, make sure you acquire enough!). I was particularly taken with the naturally nubbly Cannach (and might have come away with a few skeins, ahem).

So when you find yourself exploring the beautiful landscape of North Uist, make sure you take the turning off to Grimsay, drive until you see the mill’s distinctive white walls and green roof, and stop by to say hello to Hazel and her small team.


(yes, Hazel is wearing a Uist Wool Carbeth! I was foolishly excited when I saw it)

For all of us who are interested in sustainable small-scale yarn production, what they are doing here at Uist Wool is massively inspiring.

Thanks for the tour, Hazel!

Find out more about Uist Wool on their website and instagram

41 thoughts on “at Uist Wool

  1. Visiting Iceland last year, I was fascinated to be able to tour a relatively newly opened mini mill. It must have been (and continue to be) an incredible amount of work to support and develop this endeavour. But it now exists to offer the option of small batch custom yarn production to individual farmers, as opposed to the mass processing at Istex.
    And visiting from Vancouver, it was of interest that all the lovely machinery (and technical support) was from Canada.

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  2. Sadly you are totally correct about the state of the small scale textile industry ‘abroad’. I live in Spain and just 40 minutes drive from me is an old ‘washery’ ( not sure what else to call it) we here they scoured and carded local wool before it was sent to Portugal or Bristol for spinning. It closed down in the 1970’s when the price of wool plummeted. The knock on effect to local small scale shepherds has been dire. Most just shear the sheep in a very tough fashion and throw the wool away as unless they have vast numbers of sheep the wool collecting lorry won’t collect unless they pay him! Since the wool is so cheap it isn’t worth their while. Some of this wool is pure merino or a merino cross. Very sad.

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  3. What a wonderful series of posts from the Hebrides – beautifully written and always thought-provoking, and I love the way the words and pictures work together. Thanks Kate and Tom!

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  4. that was a treat of a tour. I love all the information that goes into a company like this and I CAN get Uist wool here from The Woolly Thistle. YEA thank you.

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  5. Many years ago, when I lived in Wisconsin, I had a couple of fleeces scoured and carded at Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill. Google tells me they are still in business.

    Loved the Carbeth, and I also spotted a Strathendrick!

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  6. I bloody loved this post! Genuinely excited to read about this scouring plant and mill (I’ve a weird interest in wool processing and never turn down a tour, even a vicarious one). As someone who has recently pulled together enough of their own local fleece and sent it away to be spun up, I can attest to the difficulties facing small scale producers. Not least of which is the mileage involved in transporting fleece to the very few mills that will take small quantities. If ever you come south I heartily recommend looking up the wonderful folk at Griffiths Mill, Derbyshire. Karen and David Griffiths are an amazing duo who, in addition to running the micro mill very similar to that on Uist, also work tirelessly promoting British wool and British Rare breeds.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As a child I was taught that Australia lived “off the sheep’s back”. Not any more. We have one scouring plant left.
    The best merino is sent to Japan (to be made into men’s suiting) and more goes to China and Turkey for processing into other knitting and weaving yarn. As a knitter who only designs her own I am constantly frustrated by the extremely limited supply of knitting yarn here. The internet has made it easier to buy from abroad ( I had a new parcel of J&S from Shetland today) but, when I design and teach, I need to be extremely aware of what is available here or what can be imported at a reasonable price for my students. So many of the problems you mention are experienced here a hundred times over – and add distance and relative isolation too. And yes, I have lived on a small island off the coast here so I understand how people in Fair Isle and Shetland feel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean. I was in Goulburn, NSW and thought I would buy some nice local wool. Goulburn, the sheep capital of NSW and home to the Big Merino had – Nothing!

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  8. What a splendid small company. Small producers in the US face a similar challenge. As a knitter, spinner, and barely-beginning Weaver, I am very grateful to companies like Uist that refurbish old equipment, set up their small operations, and help local shepherds turn carefully-raised sheep fleece into excellent yarns. Shepherds deserve this help.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi from NZ, many of the mills here have closed down too, there are still a few left and several small businesses that have resurrected old machinery. Locally there is a small business that scours and cards wool, though his equipment is best suited to medium wools. I’ve used his facilities to wash my Merino, but I tend to card or comb it myself which is very labour intensive indeed!

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  10. I was very engrossed in learning about the challenges of yarn production in the UK. As a shepherd in the states and former yarn shop owner producing a one flock yarn, the challenges are daunting over here as well. There are several mini mills, but very few process the skills to produce an even fingering weight yarn from Shetland wool. My goal is to produce a yarn that will work on a 100 year old sock machine to produce socks from the wool we grow. And also to design knitting patterns and sell the natural and dyed yarn. I did manage to find a mill in Pennsylvania that does have that expertise. It is up to the farmer to sort and skirt their fleeces. The mill takes over and washes, card and spins the wool. Then back to the farmer to do any dyeing, skeining, labeling and marketing…and designing. So I wear many hats and fall back on experience gleaned over the years. I also work at sharing those skills to maintain them..by teaching and doing farm tours and demonstrations. It is encouraging to see this mill enterprise in Uist…very exciting. I will share your post with our Farm to Clothing group. Thanks again for this piece.

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  11. Another superb read – loved the topic and your obvious enthusiasm Kate and I absolutely adore that Carbeth!!! I have the pattern, now need to decide on the yarn.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I found this post to be very inspiring. When we walk into the LYS we forget all the painstaking effort that has gone into the production of one skein of wool. Thanks for reminding us!

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  13. The story of all the work that has gone into Uist Wool over many years just inspires me. And companies like theirs are also a pleasure to work with as all the people are so knowledgeable and passionate.

    I can vouch for the absolute pleasure it is to spin their pencil roving (called slubbing). I have spun a number of their various blends. I believe the slubbing cakes are generally whatever is left after a run of spinning production so it really is them making use and selling every last bit that they can. And then I get the pleasure of spinning unique and gorgeous prepared fibre. The impact they are making is so joyful.

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  14. Those machines are a thing of beauty. They were built to last, and last they do! I remember seeing the machines at Jamieson’s on Shetland a few years ago. Some were as old as I am and still going strong! I’m encouraged to see this wool scourers on Uist. When I was there last in the early 80’s, wool was in decline. Sadly, our wool staplers in Thame Oxford, closed down. So it’s really good to see new enterprises such as this. This is very interesting and heartening. Thank you for sharing.

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  15. Fantastic post, it’s so wonderful to hear about vintage machinery being so lovingly taken care of and being useful. As a child I spent many hours in museums with my dad explaining how all the old machines worked, and how sad it always seemed they where no longer seen as fit for purpose. I’m going to share this post with my dad, he’ll be really interesting and I’m sure he’ll want to take off to Uist and see them in action.

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  16. As ever such an interesting and inspiring post. Lovely to see the old machinery being used; although I live abroad now I was brought up in a little cotton mill town called Mossley not a million miles from Rochdale. None of the mills survived in Mossley, except for one, and I used to wonder what happened to all the machinery.
    A bit off topic but the surviving mill had French owners back in the day – my great aunt worked there and I remember taking her lunch (or dinner as we called it then!) with my Mum in the 50’s – and was always known as ‘The French Firm’.
    It is now a home for Emmaus – a French charity which sells donated, second hand and re purposed goods, If anyone reading lives nearby I can recommend a visit, several floors of everything you can think of!

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  17. This is really interesting. Thanks for bringing it to light. I’m in the states. I’m wondering how we compare in availability of skills for this this still needed work. There’s a few places in Michigan you can send your wool for processing. Maybe elsewhere too. Thanks again.

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  18. Can a hand-oiler be poetic? Can machines look friendly? You make it all possible. Thanks for yet another so very inspiring post – I have been reading your blog for years and years and coming here is nothing but pleasure – both reading what you write and contemplating the wonderful photos. The only thing I regret is that I am unable to knit “in English” – I can speak and understand, but knitting is only possible in my mothertongue German. So I continue to admire your work. Thank you.

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  19. Kate, This post reminds me of a book I am currently reading: Craeft by Alexander Langlands. It is contemplative nonfiction about the meaning of craft in our ever increasing mass produced world.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. We have lots of full-service mills over here, several many, many years old. I bought my first pounds of processed spinning wool from Zeilinger Mill in Frankenmuth, Michigan, in 1970, because I didn’t know where there were sheep farms. Through the years I’ve continued to buy fleeces, process some on my own, and send some to Zeilinger as well as Hidden Valley Farms and Ohio Valley to process into roving for me to spin. Nothing better than opening a big box of 1/2 pound balls of woolly sheepy roving. I’ve also purchased a “few” pounds of Foula directly from Justyna. Their wool is fabulous and knit up into beautiful sweaters. Yes, it costs more to ship it over here but her wool is just amazing.

    It is imperative that we fiber people support our local, and not so local, wool processors and small yarn making companies or they may not be around later. Our sweaters/blankets/shawls/socks/whatever deserve to be knit/crocheted/woven with the highest quality yarn we can afford. The finished product is the proof of great material.

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    1. Yes, but if everyone I know in VT sends their fleece to Zeilinger’s too, that means we really DON’T have that many (or enough) mills in the US.

      My town here in central VT is needing some revitalization, and I’m thinking creating a strong fibre shed should be part of that. We already have my friend Sarah Scully’s natural sheepskin tannery, the only one in the US using her environmentally-friendly process, so it’s possible we could grow our fibre-shed-ness with a small mill. This is quite inspiring!

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      1. As far as I know, Zeilinger’s has been for sale (complete mill only) for a few years. There are several mills West of t
        he Mississippi. Zeilinger’s travel to many fiber shows, pick up your fleeces, take them back to Michigan for processing and return them to you in a few months.

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  21. just a FEW skeins? ;-)))
    lovely post!
    I try to buy as much yarn at local mills as possible and have a very soft spot for natural undyed yarns.
    Take good care of yourself Kate! XxX

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  22. This is really exciting as a Brit wool enthusiast who is heart broken at the decimation of the wool industry, even machine knitted textiles. I am based in England now but used to be based in Clackmannanshire, Scotland and lived for a year in a converted woollen mill (with very thick walls!). Whilst I was there the last woollen company shut down (this was in an area that was known for its woollen mills, with its plentiful water supply). i get really irritated to find the large woollen producers in the UK not supporting the UK woollen industry – and shipping the wool off to Italy or Romania etc, when they should be supporting the woollen industry here. I wonder what is going to happen with Brexit on that score – or whether the wool will be shipped off to somewhere outwith the EU. But I digress, it is genuinely exciting to see the re-emergence of small scale wool manufacturing in Scotland with Uist Wools both for spinning/scouring etc their own yarns but to support other small scale manufacturers – I notice Di Gilpin is having her latest yarn spun by Uist Yarns but there is the Birlinn company, Foula, Donna Smith and a number of other companies (although I suspect that some of these small companies are sending their yarns down south; the only places I know that will spin small amounts are Blacker Yarns and John Arbon). I believe that Uist Yarns also got funding from the EU as part of regional development which this clearly is. In fact, I can’t think of a clearer case of regional development than this, especially as I believe it means that the local crofters don’t have to send their fleeces down to the Wool Marketing Board for an absolutely derisory price (anyone interested in this could have a look at the Daughter of a Shepherd website).

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  23. Hi Kate , How wonderful your report on Uist !
    I have some of their Canach and yes it is so
    wonderful , the feel , the smell ! ❤️

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  24. Wonderful profile of a vibrant local wool business. In addition to the Carbeth, I’m also taken with the teal sweater the other young lady is wearing.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. So inspiring! I absolutely love seeing the photos of their set up and operation, complete with Bruce cameos. Thanks for sharing your trip with us so meaningfully.

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  26. This is beyond wonderful! Gorgeous story and photos as always. To answer Carolyn…hello from NZ! NZ wool industry is in a similar state to yours :( Lots of innovative indie dyers but not many processors like Uist.) Most wool never returns to NZ unless I buy some from the internet! I am hoping that as time goes by and the world tires of plastic, polar fleece and fast fashion that we return to the textile industries of (not so) old.

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    1. Although, we are quite blessed with our three or four small carding operations. I send my raw fleeces to be scoured and thrown into the 19th century carding machine at Tally Ho in Roxburgh to emerge as bumps of woollen roving. It’s my favourite prep for handspinning.

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  27. This is fascinating! What happens to the NZ wool after it’s washed – does it stay here to be processed or does it just get shipped back home again??

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  28. Wow, this is a beautiful piece of writing and very informative, too. Makes me want to learn more and get involved somehow.

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