Introducing our Autumn 2016 batch of Zwartbles and Zwartbles blend yarns:
Zwartbles sheep originate from the Netherlands where they’re an uncommon breed. They were developed as a multipurpose breed and are valued here in Britain for their calm manner and as lovely mothers with good growing lambs. Their fleece is dense and bouncy and a very deep dark brown colour, although with age and sun it bleaches rusty red at the tips. The 2016 fleeces we sourced from Hedgefield Zwartbles (link) are from shearling fleeces, from lambs in their first winter, and consequently the wool is less rustic than is typical and retains the very dark, almost black, colour – we like to think of it as Bitter Chocolate! As well as pure Zwartbles wool we have developed three blends. The first is a lovely rustic heathery Coal Grey with the addition of 45% Cheviot wool (from Drumsmittal Farm (link)). Secondly we have added 50% mohair (from a farm near our mill, The Border Mill (link), in the Scottish Borders) – this blend is a Steel Grey colour, has a real sheen and a soft yet strong handle. The final blend is with 50% alpaca (again sourced close to The Border Mill (link) in the Scottish Borders) – the alpaca fleece used was fawn coloured and the resulting fibre is a beautiful warm Toffee Fudge colour in a soft, squishy yarn.
Introducing our Autumn 2016 batch of Gotland yarns:
Gotland is an uncommon breed here in Britain with only around 1500 in the country altogether. They are an old breed of sheep having been developed on the Swedish island of Gotland over 1000 years ago. Fearniewell Croft’s Gotlands have a ‘hint of Shetland’ thanks to a determined tup a few generations ago (link). Thanks to this adventurous tup the normal range of Gotland greys is increased to include paler greys and a creamy white. The wool is typically soft and warm with a slight sheen and the addition of the Shetland genes, although perhaps reducing the lustre slightly, can be felt in the lovely soft handle of this beautiful wool. The 2016 clip from this special flock has been split into five colours – Dark Grey, Mid Grey, Light Grey, Silver Grey and White.
The Shilasdair DK in naturally dyed Tansy Gold (dyed with tansy unsurprisingly!) is soft, plump and light (a luxurious mix of alpaca, camel, angora and lambswool) while the Chopped Ginger Gotland Fingering is a much more lean and heavy yarn (in a natural undyed dark grey). Both yarns were lovely to knit with in different ways – the Gotland has lots of character but did require some concentration at times. I absolutely love my finished shawl and am sure I’ll have many happy years wearing it.
Knowing that I would be struggling for time to knit up samples before attending Loch Ness Knit Fest (30 Sept to 2 Oct 2016) I asked mum to knit a Granny’s Favourite Cardigan in my Autumn 2016 batch of Gotland yarn. Grannie (to my children) has knit this lovely pattern several times for my girls and was happy to help by knitting another.
She reported that the Light Grey Gotland was lovely to knit with – it is soft and light, as you’d expect from Gotland, and would be so lovely for a baby……..but I’m keeping this one as a sample (sadly, no babies more planned around here!). If you want to see one of the cutest ever knits come along to my next fair for a wee squish of this lovely little cardigan!
It was a tricky to decide which of the Black Isle Yarns Autumn 2016 yarns to knit with first but in the end the Zwartbles Mohair blend was selected – ‘eeny meeny miny mo’ can always be relied on in the case of indecision! I settled on the Hackberry Hat pattern by Ginny Sheller. I love the simple but elegant design and know I’ll wear the hat a lot (as well as, of course, bringing it along to upcoming yarn festivals as a sample!).
The pattern was beautifully straight forward and a pleasure to knit. The Zwartbles Mohair blend is really lovely to knit with, smooth and soft, but with a definite feeling of strength, and I didn’t have the nose tickling problems which are sometimes associated with mohair. There’s a real character to this yarn and a definite drape which works well with what Ginny describes as the ‘fun pseudo-slouchy style, more of what I call a “poof” hat’ – although it possibly isn’t the best yarn choice to show-off the textured design to full effect (the dark Steel Grey colour is also probably to blame here…….but, even if it does hide texture, it is such a pretty and wearable colour!).
Katie very helpfully modelled the hat for me (only a small amount of bribery involved!) – as her head is smaller than mine, it doesn’t show the yarn over increases after the ribbed brim to their full effect but is infinitely better than me trying to take selfies.
Yarn Details: Black Isle Yarns Zwartbles Mohair blend (50%~50%)
I think it is about time I let you know what I have been plotting and introduced you to Black Isle Yarns *! I’ve been quite conscious for the last year or so that Katie would be starting school (several weeks ago now, the time goes so fast). While I absolutely loved all of (well, most of!) the last 14 years (Finn has just turned 14, my goodness) with a wee one at home I knew I needed to work out a plan of action for the dreaded day when I’d be home alone. John’s job has many plus points, the main one I guess being that he loves it, and he is often home for us all to eat together even if he has to go back out later, but it doesn’t allow him to be here before or after school. My preference is not to have the children in childcare and going back into forestry would inevitably mean we’d need at least some – so I have pondered a lot over what I should do to bring in some much needed financial help to the family.
My sewing helps a little, but even if I spend more time on it I’m not convinced that I have the unique skill or talent that would be needed to build it up into a sensible business (I’m not planning to stop though as I do love it and I’m sure you can imagine how rewarding it is to bring ideas to life). You may have picked up that I have been knitting more and more over the last few years – I’m still very much learning all the time but I have found myself very drawn to it as my favourite way of relaxing.
And at the same time, while I have still spent most of my free time sewing, for the last couple of years I have been listening to knitting podcasts while sewing. It took another new interest around this time last year for me to finally realise why I much preferred knitting podcasts – which had been puzzling me, especially since it is quite tricky to listen to gentle knitting talk over the hum of a sewing machine! I have had a growing interest in natural dyeing (first sparked I think by Annie) and I brewed my first dyes last autumn/winter…..my goodness I enjoyed it. Collecting local plant materials to create colour and then using a little chemistry to encourage that colour to bind with wool is so much fun and combines many of my interests. I unconsciously maintain a mental map of the plants and their progress through the seasons in all my favourite places, so that when I began learning which plants can give colour my head was a constant whirl of where to go to collect the various plants I wanted to try.
But then I hit a stumbling block – what to dye? I really didn’t want to dye with imported wool, which is mostly what is available in British shops, and it made no sense to me to be naturally dyeing superwash wool (have a wee online search if you’re not sure what superwash is but basically it involves treating wool with chemicals so that it can be machine washed – useful but the wool loses some of it’s wonderful natural qualities in the process and, for me, doesn’t really go alongside natural dyeing). I was left with not very many options, especially since I’d really rather work with wool that is not just British but preferably grown and produced fairly locally to me.
This is the point at which lots of little pieces all fell into place. As you may know I grew up on a small-holding with around 60 ewes so I am well aware of how much good wool there is around me and how little many farmers receive in return for their fleeces – sometimes even less than it costs to clip their sheep (which has to be done for welfare reasons). All that knitting podcast listening suddenly made sense too (my main favourites being KnitBritish, NHKnits, Truly Myrtle and Woolful)….they not only talk about wool, fibre and knitting but they consider where it has come from, how it has been treated and relate to the whole process from sheep to finished knitted item. The light-bulb glowed…….that’s why I loved listening to them, because I love sheep, farming, nurturing the countryside (I’m an ecologist and forester after all) as well as crafting and working with my hands. Knitting and wool gives me a much more direct connection with the land than sewing does.
But I still had to work out where to get wool from to dye with. My initial thought was to contact a local small-holder who I know and see if I could buy a couple of fleeces……..and then things snowballed and here I am with Black Isle Yarns *. A new wee business which I wholeheartedly believe in. I’ve had my first batch of wool spun from two local flocks (with wee additions from other special Scottish sources) – the wool is all grown and raised locally to me in the Highlands and has been spun in the Borders by The Border Mill. Every step has taken place within Scotland and the resulting yarns are full of character and love – Local, Natural and Sustainable. The Border Mill is small, friendly and very helpful and very good to work with. John and Juliet treat each batch individually to make the best possible of the fleece characteristics. They treat the fleeces gently and they come back as beautiful skeins of yarn still smelling slightly sheepy (don’t worry once its washed that goes so you won’t smell of sheep forever more!).
My first batch was small and I’m already sold out of some shades, having attended last weekend’s Loch Ness Knit Fest. I have another show planned and some is promised elsewhere so there may not be much left for the Black Isle Yarns * website which I’m working on and which should be finished soon……..but more batches are booked at the mill. I can’t wait!
I’ll introduce the sheep, farms and yarns next time – I think that’s probably enough for just now. Any questions just ask! I’ll carry on with Forest Poppy as a family blog once the new site is set up (for a while at least I hope). I’ll be back before the new site is ready and I’ll be sure to let you know the web address. I guess my focus will move over there to a great extent so I just wanted to take the chance now to say thank you so much for your thoughts, kindness and friendship here on Forest Poppy – I have very much appreciated all the lovely warm and encouraging people I have met (in a virtual but none-the-less real sense) over the last few years.
*website link won’t work as of post publish date but should by the end of October