‘Fyrish’s rippling waves of colour flow as far as you let them. This unusual narrow shawl (or is it a wide scarf?) tucks neatly under your coat, but can be puffed up to make a beautiful statement just at the neck. Or you could knit a longer version for a dramatic wrap. This distinctive openwork ripple stitch makes the most of Black Isle Yarns’ deep hues and soft handle. And if you find those strong gaps and scalloped lines suggest gothic arches… well, you should come visit Fyrish some time.’
Fyrish itself, and the inspiration for the shawl, is a hill just to the north of the Black Isle. The monument on top of Cnoc Fyrish was built in 1792 as a means of providing work during the Highland Clearances. The local laird, Sir Hector Munro, organised the construction of the monument as a means of providing work – reportedly rolling stones back down the hill to extend the length of time it took to build.
The Fyrish Shawl is my current favourite to wear – in BFL 4ply it is wonderfully soft and has a slight squish and drape. The shawl is very economical, using just one full 100g skein plus two 25g mini skeins. I have been thoroughly enjoying dyeing sets for the shawl. BFL is a small batch yarn so may not always be in stock but Fyrish will work well in BFL Suri too and I will try to keep mini skein sets in the shop as much as possible.
I thought that I’d talk a bit about how I work and the steps involved in BIY from field to skein – so that if you ever pick up a skein you know just what has gone into it.
The first stage is to make contact and build a relationship with a farm or smallholding that has a sheep breed I am interested in, and whose land managament and animal welfare meets a high standard. I’m now working with around 12 local farms and have found them in a variety of ways. My very first contact (in late 2015 in advance of summer 2016’s clip) was Fearniewell Croft, a local smallholding which operates mostly as an organic veg grower – and since I buy my delicious veg box from Dan and Rachel it made sense to contact them and ask if they would be interested in me buying fleeces from their small Gotland(ish) flock. The next fleeces came from Jim and Linda’s Hedgefield Zwartbles – Jim had done some work with my husband, and Jim and I then realised we had been forestry colleagues in Aberdeenshire in the 1990s. Since then contacts have been made through active searching (such as finding Meadows Flock for my first Shetland fleeces) and word of mouth, with farmers contacting me to see if I’d be interested in buying their wool. Perhaps my favourite find is Coulmore – my friend Emily bumped into this special organic cheviot flock when she was out on a bike ride!
Over the next few weeks I’ll be contacting each of the farms to get a feel for when they’re likely to be clipping and I’ll then maintain contact until shearing actually happens – in an ideal world I’d visit on shearing day but this often turns out to be quite tricky. Clipping dates are often decided at the last moment, worked around weather and other farm and work duties, and as I have to work around my family and access to our car it often isn’t possible to visit until afterwards.
When I visit each farm I’ll have in mind the numbers and colours (if theyr’e Shetland) of fleeces I’m aiming to select. But if there’s lots of great quality that number tends to slip upwards, and likewise I won’t buy fleeces which aren’t good enough quality. I tend to do a bit of skirting at that stage – I can’t help pulling off daggy and coarse bits as I’m handling a fleece (ingrained, I think, from rolling fleeces as a child!) – but each fleece will be properly skirted back at home. Ideally I’ll do it the same day but often I don’t manage and then I’ll have a mammoth sorting session and clean-up several lots at once. Once they’re skirted I’ll weigh the fleeces so that I have a running total of each breed and colour. I really ought to build myself a sorting table, at the moment I crawl around on the ground in our back garden, or occasionally at the front – which I suspect must bemuse (and amuse) some of my neighbours! Discarded fleece goes around my soft fruit as a mulch and fertiliser, and any excess goes off to a local orchard for a similar end use.
Having selected, bought and sorted each batch of fleeces they’ll head off to the mill. Fleeces that go to The Border Mill will have a pre-booked slot (I have several booked per year) and I’ll take a car-load of fleece when I go to visit family in East Lothian, which is just a short drive from Duns where TBM is based. To date the other mill I have used is The Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall so it is more efficient environmentally for fleeces to be sent to them by courier service. I work closely with the mills to work out a spin plan for each batch – I’ll have my own thoughts but it is always good to make the most of their expertise and advice.
The spun yarn comes back to me on cones and the first step is to skein the yarn – I place the cone on electronic scales while I hand wind onto my skein winder. I’m much faster now than I was initially but it is still time consuming! At this stage an undyed skein just needs the appropriate label filling in from my online template, then printing off, cutting to size and attaching round the twisted skein. I always include the sheep breed, farm(s) the fleece came from, and clipping year – as well as m/100g – on the label.
After winding, a dyed skein goes through several stages. The first step is to thoroughly scour the skeins to clean them. I’ll scour several at a time by bringing them up to 70-80 degrees for an hour or so in tap water with a little pH netural dishwashing soap. If they’re to be dyed with indigo or a dye material which is ‘substantive’ (i.e. a dye that is applied directly without a mordant) they’re now ready to be dyed after being rinsed. As an example I don’t mordant if I’m dyeing with gallnut. Often though the next step is to mordant the skeins (with a naturally occuring salt – ‘alum’ or potassium aluminium sulphate dodecahydrate) which helps fix the dye to the fibre and increases light, water and wash fastness.
I like to collect as much dye material locally as I can and this includes bramble leaves, heather tops, fallen tree lichen, alder cones and beech mast (and this year I want to try hawthorn twigs and leaves amongst others). Unfortunately though I’d struggle to get a good range of colour without the addition of bought dye material which I buy from respected traceable sources. The exact dye process varies dependent on the dye material but usually involves heat and then soaking for at least several hours. Often I’ll overdye to create more complex shades or add more than one dye material at a time – and if I’m experimanting I’ll keep adding until I’m happy (or otherwise!) with the shade I have achieved.
The final step, after several rinses and air drying, is to twist and label each skein………although for a 4 ply yarn I will reskein each of the skeins, once they are dry, before twisting and labelling. This is my least favourite step as it is time consuming and fiddly, but I find that 4ply can get quite tangled during dyeing and I’d much rather it got to you without any tangles.
For yarn that I list online there’s a a final few steps – photographing, editing (to ensure the colour is accurate) and listing each shade and yarn into the shop database.
And there you have it! I hope that was an interesting insight into what I get up to and what makes each skein of BIY. If you have any questions please do ask.
I realise that I haven’t talked all that much about natural dyeing – I think that, as it is something I do on a regular basis (rather than new patterns and yarns which are more of an ‘event’), I don’t tend to share what I have been up to. I thought I’d share part of an interview that I did for Clare Devine’s blog (thank you Clare!)…………..
”Clare: Your yarns are naturally dyed. Could you tell me a little more about why you decided to use natural dyes and what inspires your colour choices.
Me: It was actually natural dyes which drew me into setting up Black Isle Yarns. I began with natural dyeing for my own use – collecting plant material while out on walks and experimenting with colour for fun. I very quickly began to feel that I wanted to know where the yarn I was dyeing came from and, having grown up on a smallholding and having a lifelong love of farming and land management, I knew there would be a lot of wool locally which was fetching little to no money for the farmer. I sounded out a couple of local flock owners who I already knew and began searching for a mill to use. I was incredibly lucky to start with The Border Mill, they are great to work with and always prepared to try new ideas.
I was originally drawn to dyeing with natural materials because of my love of plants and the outdoors – there is something incredibly satisfying in creating colour with material gathered while out walking. Perhaps because of my background, I tend to have a map in my head of the plants in my local area and when they are likely to be coming into leaf or flower. I love spotting something new on a familiar walking route and storing it’s location away for future reference. I think these same walks inspire my colour choices. I’m incredibly lucky to live in a very beautiful part of the world. The Black Isle is a unique part of the Scottish Highlands, a little peninsula surrounded by sea. From home I can walk down to the beach and along the shore to caves and cliffs, or inland through fields and up into the hills and woods that make up the top of the Black Isle. Colours here are often slightly muted with beautiful shades and tones, and I think these are definitely reflected in the colours I dye. Over time, and as I build expertise (natural dyeing is such an artform, I will always be learning), I would like to work towards a set of deeper more saturated shades which would reflect the more bold colours we have when it is cold and clear after a good fall of snow.