British sheep from West Yorkshire Spinners flock

The New Breed: new British yarns

From low air mile yarn to wool you can trace to the original sheep, there’s a new breed of British wool for knitters to celebrate. By Rosee Woodland and Cecilia Forfitt

2nd June 2016

Wool, an amazing 100% natural fibre that has been delivering warmth and comfort for centuries – and all from a sustainable source. It’s one of the greenest products we produce in the UK, and now it’s easier than ever to buy British. 

West Yorkshire Spinners Bluefaced Leicester yarn

But what is so special about British wool and why bother seeking out the ‘real deal’?

There’s nothing wrong with synthetic yarn of course. It’s widely available, comes in every colour and effect under the sun, can be washed at high temperatures and is relatively low-priced too. 

Hebridean sheep

Wool, however, does have some distinct advantages. If your yarn is from British sheep, spun and dyed in this country, it should have far fewer air miles attached to it than yarn flown in from Asia and the southern hemisphere. Wool is a natural, sustainable fibre, warm in the winter, cool in hot weather and water-resistant. It is as varied as any synthetic, with different sheep breeds producing wildly different wools in a beautiful range of natural hues. Wool wears well and will soften with age, in fact, a well-produced wool yarn could become a jumper that you wear for the rest of your life.

Blacker Yarns Tamar Lustre Blend

Buyers of British wool are supporting shepherds who have seen the price of wool plummet over the years, and are often forced to shear their flock at a financial loss – a terrible state of affairs which has seen the widespread burying and burning of fleeces because they aren’t worth processing at that price.

Rachel Atkinson's (Daughter of a Shepherd yarn) Dad working in the field

It was this sad situation which prompted Rachel Atkinson – writer/designer turned wool merchant – to launch her own Daughter of a Shepherd yarn; Rachel’s father, a Yorkshire shepherd for many years, had decided not to send the year’s clip to be sold.

She said: “Last year Dad told me he had received a cheque for the grand total of 94p from the British Wool Marketing Board, representing 10% of the total he would receive for approximately 300 fleeces clipped in 2014 (that’s 94p in total, not for each fleece). 

“He had already decided not to send the 2015 clip and it was left sitting in a barn on the estate he shepherds for; every now and then fleece would be pulled out and used to protect trees on the land.

“As a knitter I was shocked that raw fleece could be such an undervalued commodity and I started wondering if it just might be possible to turn it into wool for handknitting,” said Rachel.

wool tops

After speaking to Devon spinner John Arbon, Rachel took a huge gamble, spending money saved for a house deposit on getting the raw wool processed, just in time for the Edinburgh Wool Fest in March.

“I was never sure if the fleeces would be viable and actually work as yarn,” she adds, “so until it arrived – just 10 days before the festival – it was all a bit touch and go.” Happily, the yarn had a brilliant reception at Wool Fest and will shortly be available for sale via www.daughterofashepherd.com.

 

Good quality British wool has always been available in the UK, from historic Shetland firms like Jamieson & Smith, or UK-based spinners like John Arbon and Blacker Yarns. And, happily, it’s becoing more available. An exciting new wave of British yarn is being born and Daughter of a Shepherd is just one of those spearheading a comeback for British wool.

Knitwear designer Kate Davies launched her yarn Buachaille – a 100% Scottish wool – last summer and it has been a runaway success.

Buachaille sheep

Kate told us what inspired her: “I really wanted it to reflect Scotland’s beauty, drama, and variety. From Highlands mountains to Hebridean beaches, from the heather hills of Yell to the rolling Borders country, sheep are a crucial part of this landscape, and in many ways, define it. I approached my friend Adam Curtis – a true wool expert and enthusiast – and told him about the Scottish breed and fleece types I really liked, and the combination of characteristics that I most wanted my yarn to have.” 

Buachaille yarn

“Adam went away, worked really hard, and six months later sent me a ‘top’ combed from the Scottish fleeces he’d selected. As soon as I put the top in my hand I knew that he had got it just right.”

Kate is a well-known designer and writer and already had a big international following, which gave her an immediate audience to which she was able to market her yarn, helping to ensure its success.

Another UK designer to capitalise on her relative fame to launch a yarn is Ysolda Teague. One of the best-known knitwear designers in the world, she could probably have churned out anything and seen it sell like hotcakes but, happily, she took a much more considered path and created Blend no.1.

This yarn, spun by John Arbon, mixes organically farmed white Merino and Polwarth wool from the Falklands with Zwartbles, a sheep farmed close to the John Arbon mill in Exmoor. The first batch sold out and Ysolda has hinted that, as well as more batches, there could be another ‘blend’ coming soon.

Marketing Consultant Di Slaney swapped life in the city for country living and took over an ancient farmhouse in Nottinghamshire, where she looks after 150 animals, including a flock of 22 Gotland sheep. She uses their wool to create Hooligan Yarns – each ball of yarn comes from a single sheep, and is accompanied with a note revealing the name of the sheep and a little about their personality. A published poet, Di’s collection Reward for Winter (Valley Press, 2016) explores the theme of her dramatic life change. 

Hooligan Yarn wool from Gladstone their 'lover boy' sheep

At the other end of the spectrum from yarns dreamt up by a single person or even sourced from a single sheep are those with bigger firms behind them. Cornish company Blacker Yarns has been producing British yarn for decades. As well as creating its own yarns, Blacker also processes and spins yarn for owners of small flocks who want to create their own. 

Blacker yarns mill

The company has recently launched Tamar, a traditional ‘lustre’ yarn. It’s spun from the fleeces of fine British rare breeds, including Teeswater, Wensleydale and Leicester Longwool. The natural grey of the Leicester Longwool makes a subtle silvery or mid grey that can be used as a base for more dye. 

Sunny Swaledale in Yorkshire

West Yorkshire Spinners hails from the northern heartland of the British wool industry. A family-run company, it focuses on provenance and keeping air miles to an absolute minimum. The sheep are reared and sheared in West Yorkshire and WYS carries out the rest of the process themselves. From spinning and dyeing to reeling the yarn into skeins, everything takes place at the factory in Keighley, and it’s been that way since the company began nearly 20 years ago.

Spinning machines at WYS

Richard Longbottom, sales and marketing manager for WYS, is proud of the company’s homespun approach. He said: “We firmly believe that knowing where our raw materials come from guarantees that the quality of the finished product is consistently high. From selecting the finest breeds to creating exquisite yarns, we are British through and through.”

So if you want to try British yarn, how should you go about it? You could dip your toe in with a British yarn from one of the big brands you will have already heard of: try Rowan Purelife, Debbie Bliss Blue Faced Leicester, King Cole Masham, Wendy Ramsdale, or any one of Erika Knight’s yarns. Or you could experiment with the smaller companies and the micro brands.

In order to keep going and to prosper, the British wool industry simply needs knitters to buy British.

Daughter of a Shepherd DK yarn

Rachel Atkinson shares some tips: “Ask your local yarn store if they stock any locally produced wool, or yarns from British breeds, and don’t be afraid to question where the yarns they stock are from. If everyone bought a couple of balls of British woollen yarn every year it would do wonders to boost the fleece prices and to support British manufacturing as a whole.

Stone barn and sheep

“Many large companies, online retailers and indie dyers now have 100% British yarns in their ranges. You’ll even find British wools in National Trust and City Farm shops – and you may even get to catch a glimpse of the flock of sheep it has come from!”

Yarn from the sheep you can see? Now that sounds like something that’s worth investing in. 

If you enjoyed this, why not read our interviews with Jared Flood of Brooklyn Tweed, and Kerry Lord from Toft Alpaca.