Wovember: Small Batch Yarn

20151007_125641This week I wanted to write about the popularity of small batch wools. Like Gin, the profile  of small scale wool producers, who process and market their own product is on the increase. I’ve been really surprised this year by how many yarn bloggers and podcasters are featuring this “new phenomenon”. Small scale single breed production is not new, but discovering and accessing these yarns is certainly becoming easier and there is a growing market for wool with a local, traceable provenance.

In Cumbria we’re lucky to have the Wool Clip (which has been around since 2001), a co-operative of fibre producers, makers and artists, many of whom raise and process their own wool. One of my favourites is Ruth Strong’s Herdwick wool, a real bargain and it’s fabulous quality. If the Wool Clip name sounds familiar to you, it may be because they are the organisers of Woolfest.. But there are other small scale co-operatives and sources of small batch, local production wools if you know where to look. I’ve written before about the amazing quality and colours of Lily Warne wool, which I first discovered when the wool was featured in Country Living magazine. It’s definitely up there among my favourites. The felted wool bag, made a couple of years ago is still in daily use and is a real conversation piece. I love being able to tell people where the wool grew and who I bought it from.

lily warne bagFor a long time, the only way to discover local, single breed wools was to befriend your local Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers or to  visit local fairs. These days there are some brilliant online resources. My current favourite is the National Sheep Association, where you can find links to all the British Sheep Breed societies. Some, like the Jacob Sheep Society have a fabulous list of producers which make it very easy to track down  wool from specific breeds.

Malham Mule collarI must admit, a lot of the single breed wool I buy sits in a cupboard, part of a growing collection of mementoes from summer holidays, trips to woolly events and gifts from friends. But at Yarndale  this year I was thrilled to discover Malham Mule, a yarn which is raised and processed in Yorkshire. This “own brand yarn” is a new venture for Jane Ellison of Purl and Jane in Skipton. I couldn’t resist trying it out and I have tried knitting and crocheting with this plump, superchunky wool and I love it. I love it even more because I’ve watched the sheep graze, and knowing the story of how it came from field to shop is fascinating. You can read more about Malham Mule on Jane Ellison’s website.

The collar (Pictured above) took two hanks of Malham Mule wool and paired with some real leather straps it’s proper draught excluder. Sadly the weather has been too mild to road test it properly, but I’m off to Malham at the end of this month and I’m hoping for some “proper” weather to test it out. I may even get around to typing up the pattern for you all!

All through November I’m posting about real wool in support of the “Wovember” campaign and I’m pleased to say lots of other knitwear designers are getting involved this year too. Sarah Hazell has launched a Knitalong over on her blog featuring Wendy Ramsdale, which I wrote about in my last Wovember post – see photo below for a reminder of the lovely scarf (and lovelier model). Go and take a look at Sarah’s design and maybe join in?

wendy ramsdale scarf





The state we’re in

Ear Muffs made using Erika Knight British Blue Wool (image credit Tailor Made Publishing)

It’s Wool Week again, a time when my instagram, twitter and facebook feeds are full of woolly themed posts, photos of famous people wearing wool, invites to come and see wool and a general “celebrate British wool” vibe permeating through social media.

Isn’t that great? British wool is a fabulous thing. I don’t want to romanticise the farmers life (it’s bloody hard work) but the UK has a long history of producing and processing wool and buying British makes me feel I’m a part of that tradition. In just the same way as I would rather buy British lamb and mutton than an import from New Zealand.

It makes environmental sense too – shopping locally, reducing the miles a product has to travel and reducing waste are all “good things”. Sheep have to be sheared, so it seems daft to me that farmers can’t get a decent price for the fleece – but then again we live in a society where the milk price paid to farmers is insultingly tiny so that supermarkets can offer a cheap product to consumers and  so I shouldn’t be surprised. I find myself asking (again) when did British farmers become so undervalued?

Wool blanket made using Debbie Bliss British Blue Faced Leicester (image credit: Tailor Made Publishing)

As a designer working for several different magazines and publishers it’s impossible for me to choose British wool and yarn for all my commissions (some editors are more willing to use British wool than others). But for personal projects, seeking out and using “real” British yarns has become the norm. My most notable recent purchase has been some glorious alpaca. Reared, spun and sold in Cumbria (read about the whole kickstarter project here) and there is plenty of wool from British breeds in my stash.

Herdy wool cushions, made using British wool and trimmed with Cumbrian Herdwick
Herdy wool cushions, made using British wool and trimmed with Cumbrian Herdwick

I love how more and more knitters are seeking out British wool and enquiring about the provenance of their wool. Sadly they are  often duped and disappointed to find the “made in the UK” label is wrapped around Australian merino or Peruvian alpaca. If the labelling is misleading, how are knitters supposed to make an informed choice?

Of course there’s nothing illegal about this labelling. If the yarn is processed in the UK (spun, wound or dyed here) then a company is entitled to promote it as made in Britain – and many  do exactly that – because they know knitters love the idea of (and will pay a premium for) a British product.  I’ll often spot the union jack prominently displayed on a label, but search in vain on the website for the source of the fibre, an early clue that it probably didn’t come off the back of a British sheep. I wonder if the time is ripe for a new kind of labelling where the source of a fibre has to listed on the label?

Occasionally I have asked companies why they don’t use British wool and I’m told that British fleeces are ” poor quality”  or simply (and honestly) foreign wool is cheaper and easier to source. That makes me sad. Which is why This post, written from the perspective of a designer and daughter of a shepherd struck a cord.

The last time I wrote about British wool (in response to the WI launching an acrylic range with Hobbycraft)  I was inundated with messages, tweets and emails from small scale producers who are trying to find a market for their yarn and from knitters who want to buy great quality British yarn.

Finding a British yarn within the offerings of the larger manufacturers isn’t hard – Rowan, Debbie Bliss etc usually carry at least one British wool within their range. But is this enough today? Wouldn’t it be fabulous to see the Wool Marketing Board and British yarn companies working together to source British fleeces and support British farmers – and in turn support British mills in processing the yarn? Yes, I know there are cost implications “infrastructure” and numerous other obstacles to overcome. But, British wool was once the envy of the world, couldn’t that be a goal to aim for now?

PS if you are interested in sourcing British wool from British sheep here are a few places to start:

Knitbritish guide to British wools under a fiver (yes, really!)

Baa Baa Brighouse which stocks a wide range of British yarns, including Wendy Ramsdale and Herdy (two of my favourites)

Brityarn an online yarn store with a real commitment to British yarns and British independent  producers, Isla lists the provenance of all her yarns and is incredibly helpful.

And (as far as I know, the newest kid on the British wool block) Purl and Jane  are stocking Malham Mule (reared, sheared, spun and sold in Yorkshire)

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