Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Visit to the British Wool Marketing Board - Part 1

An introduction to the day.
A few weeks ago I was invited to go on a Wool Processing Tour at the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) depot and Head Office at Bradford.  It was an opportunity I jumped at due to having mixed feelings about the board.  There were many things I wanted to get a better understanding of and answers to.  Over in our BritYarn Ravelry group we also had lots a great discussion in the run up to me going.  Many of your questions and thoughts reflected mine.  

Before I went I grouped these thoughts and questions together into themes.  I will take each one in turn in separate blogs posts over the next few weeks.  A big thank you to each and everyone of you for your input.  

This post is a summary of the day at the BWMB.   I am not sure how many parts there will be as there was a lot to take in and I want to be able to share with you as much as possible.

The day was roughly split into two. The first part around the BWMB and the work that they do.  The second, after lunch, was a visit to Haworth Scouring (owned by Curtis Wool Direct).

On the tour were people from lots of different backgrounds.  There were yarny people like myself, a journalist from BBC Radio York, two farmers and the carpet industry was also represented.  I thought this was really good as it gave different points of view and knowledge. 

After introductions around the table, Gareth Jones BWMB Producer Communications Manager gave a presentation on the work of the board including its history, lots of statistical information about the global wool market and the work the BWMB undertakes today.  Again a lot of information was talked about here which warrants a blog post of its own.  

Some thought provoking stats like British wool (by this they mean greasy wool straight from the sheep) only accounts for 2% of wool produced on the global market and globally 2.1 million tons of greasy wool is produced per annum got me thinking. Globally British wool is a very small player in the wool industry and while our sheep breeds are very special, merchants could easily survive without us.  For me, this makes it even more vital that we all do everything we can to buy British and support the British wool industry.

Gareth also explained that the BWMB is a farmers cooperative and receives no financial support from the government.  It is fully funded by the producers (the farmers whose fleece they process and sell).  The BWMB takes 1p ker kilo off the farmer to provide an end to end service (collection to selling at auction).

At the end of Gareth's presentation he explained how merchants buy wool at auction.  We then went into a live auction which was like no auction I have ever seen,  the auctions are all digital.  All bids are placed by just click of the mouse button.  It is all really, really fast!  While we were not allowed to take any photos inside the auction room for privacy reasons this little video clip shows the screen the merchants see at their desks in the auction room.  

Grading and sorting

After this we were taken to where the fleeces are graded, sorted, packed and stored.   Again this warrants a more in-depth blog post on this.

The set up at Bradford is mirrored across the 11 national depots although the Bradford depot is the largest.   Every single fleece in the country that comes into a depot is hand graded.  This was something I didn't appreciate before my visit.  The grading and sorting is undertaken by a skilled Wool Grader who has undertaken a 5 year apprenticeship.  It takes a grader around 5 - 6 seconds to grade each fleece.  

We were shown where the fleeces enter the BWMB from either sub depots or farmer drop offs.  The fleeces are packed in sheets (big white bags similar to what you might use to store things under your bed but a lot bigger).  A sheet is emptied out to a table, graded and then sorted into the blue containers (skeps) you can see in the photo.  It is after this point that they are no longer farm specific but grade (and sometimes breed specific).  Once sufficient skeps of the same grade (8) have been gathered they are then compressed into green bales.  Everything here is uniformed by size to maximise storage in the warehouses.  The green bales are auctioned in roughly 8000 - 9000kg lots! Like I said getting your head around the sheer volumes was really hard.

The BWMB part of the day was rounded off by a talk from Tim Booth BWMB Marketing Manager.  It is at this point I had to keep reminding myself that the carpet industry dominate the British Wool industry (55% of British wool goes into the making of carpets).  So a lot of the marketing around British wool is influenced by this.   

I hope that this first post has helped share some of what I saw and learnt during my tour.  Look out for more posts about my day over the coming weeks.


Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Save the Date 30th April - A BritYarn Trunk Show

The fantastic Countess Ablaze is opening her Manchester dye studio doors for Yarn Shop Day and has invited BritYarn to join her in the studio with a Trunk Show.

I will bring along a big selection of yarny goodness including the new Blacker Yarns Tamar and WYS Signature 4ply.  There will be hand dyed yarns from The Knitting Goddess as well a range of undyed yarns breed specific yarns for you to squish, plus pattern books, stitch markers and Ethel canvas bags.  

The Countess will be dyeing up lots of her British breed yarns (The Countess always advises where her yarns have been grown and spun).  It will be an amazing British wool extravaganza! 

BritYarn and The Countess
There will be tea, coffee and cake throughout the day and lots of chatter about all things yarn related. The doors will open from 10am until 5pm.  

The studio is really easy to get to from Manchester.  The address is 101 Chorley Road, Swinton, Manchester, M27 4AA. For further information on how to get there take a look at the Visiting the Countess Ablaze Dye Studio.

I really do hope you can make it on the 30th April.  I have started a thread in the BritYarn Ravelry group and the Countess has created an event in Ravelry.
Images used with kind permission from Countess Ablaze.

Monday, 14 March 2016

A new hand dyed yarn from The Knitting Goddess

Long time readers will know I am a big fan of The Knitting Goddess (run by Joy and Bobbie from their studio in Harrogate).   Not only do they dye amazing colours but they all also passionate about British wool.  So imagine my excitement when an email popped into my inbox about their new yarn launching at Edinburgh Yarn Festival!  Then quadruple that excitement as they wanted BritYarn to help launch it!  

The yarn will make its debut on Friday 18th March at The Knitting Goddess stall at Edinburgh AND in BritYarn's shop

Now let me tell you about this amazing yarn.  It is 4ply and a blend of 85% Wensleydale and 15% Shetland (both British grown of course).  Each 100g skein is approximately 400m long and will cost £18.50.  The yarn has been spun (in Cornwall) to a high twist making it a great option for socks without nylon.  

I had a massive amount of fun swatching with this new yarn, it has lots of character and I just wanted to keep on knitting.  The high twist not only gives the yarn additional strength but also allows the stitches to stand out beautifully against the slight halo of the Wensleydale. 

It is not the softest of yarns to squish (it has a good sturdiness to it which I love).  I happily wore my blocked swatch next to my skin.  I had to smile when Joy told me she gets Bobbie to 'itch test' new yarns.  I do the same with Mr BritYarn!  Mr BritYarn is pretty sensitive to things which might itch / tickle.  I am pleased to report he wore the swatch for several hours and I had to remind if I could have it back..... a big thumbs up.  

The Knitting Goddess Wensleydale Shetland yarn is perfect for so many different projects.... not just socks and shawls but I am also thinking lightweight but warm garments ready for Spring! 

My blocked swatch

My unblocked swatch

Orders will be posted as usual while I am away at Edinburgh, thanks to Mr BritYarn.  So if you order early enough on Friday you could be casting on with this new yarn on Saturday! 

Images of the yarn used with kind permission from The Knitting Goddess.

Monday, 7 March 2016

A chat with Sue Blacker from Blacker Yarns

Could you introduce yourself to BritYarn’s readers?  (Who you are, what you do, little bit about your background)
I’m Sue Blacker, Managing Director of The Natural Fibre Company and Blacker Yarns.  The two businesses are partners so that we both spin for many crafters, farmers, smallholders and commercial customers as well as designing and making knitting and crochet yarns for the Blacker Yarns brand.
I was born and grew up in Cornwall, UK, and then after university worked for many years in London, mainly in the City as an investment analyst.  Eventually the call of Cornwall grew too strong and I came home and worked on community and economic development projects for partnerships and charities.  While doing this we also got some sheep to keep the grass down around our holiday cottages and so I got into wool production.
I sent the wool for processing to Myra at The Natural Fibre Company, then in Wales, and eventually when she wanted to retire, I managed to buy the company and relocate it to Cornwall, where we have been busy ever since …

How and when did Blacker Yarns come about?
In Wales, Myra had a business called Naturals, which made yarns and textiles from her own and bought-in wool.  So there was a pattern for doing this.
After we had fully established our spinning operation for The Natural Fibre Company, we looked again at the idea of making yarns for sale, carefully distinguished from those of NFC customers, who sell single farm yarns.  For the quantities we knew we need to buy from several farms and we also recognised that we could support the British breeds this way, and regional wool, without cutting across the single farm producers.  Also some of our best producers were either growing more wool than they themselves needed, did not want to set up a yarn or craft business, while some continued with the animals but retired from their yarn sales business, so there was a ready supply of really high quality wool.
So we set up Blacker Yarns, initially focusing on individual breed yarns, which is still our key emphasis.  We specialise in ensuring that the yarn is the “right” one for the style of fibre, as working with single breeds means we need to be very specific to maintain the quality and best performance of the fibre through into the corresponding yarn.
As we have grown we have developed a series of blended ranges, Classic, Swan, Lyonesse, Tweed, our Birthday Tin and the new Tamar, as well as maintaining a selection of limited edition rare and regional breed yarns, and also patterns to support the style of each yarn and blend.

What does your ‘typical’ day look like?
There’s really no such thing!  When I’m at home, the day always includes one or more visits to my Gotland flock of sheep, depending on the time of year.  Then some days we are away at shows or visiting customers, some days I work from home when writing or designing or planning and the other 25 days a week are spent at our mill!
Here the work can be anything from answering the phone, responding to enquiries, loads of email (of course), proof reading copy of our newsletters, planning new yarns and products, training and supporting staff, working with our Production Manager on scheduling, buying in fleeces, paying the bills, making the coffee … we are a small team of only 15 so we all do multi-tasking!

What are your favourite woolly / fibre crafts?
I do like knitting best – less keen on crochet, though it’s very useful structurally and very portable!  I also love sewing, embroidery and tapestry. I’m less keen on making felt though I love working with it.  I also enjoy, but am very bad at, hand spinning!

If you were only allowed to knit with one British grown base what would it be and why? (a blend or 100% pure)  
If I were limited like this I might have to give up knitting all together!  Part of the joy is the enormous variety of styles of yarn which are possible with British breeds.  Generally I think a woollen spun  Gotland is pretty useful though, for most things … which is why I also love our Classic and Tweed … and then …

The stunning Tamar has recently launched….. could you tell us a bit more about the base and how you decided what breeds of sheep to use?
We felt that there was a gap in our range, and the market, for a lustre yarn which was not too “shiny” or mohair-like but which would take dye as stunningly as Gotland and Mohair.  We wanted a leaner yarn with drape, to complement our bulkier and lofty yarns, while of course seeking the softness we know people love.

We also knew that any serious volume of yarn would require quite a lot of lustre fibre, and generally the lustre long-wool sheep are amongst the smallest of flocks and breed populations so we decided to create a blend of several lustre breeds.  

This meant that we could help promote rare breeds and encourage their survival and possibly even growth in numbers, while not having to rely on a tiny supply from just one breed.  Teeswater and Wensleydale in particular are relatively few, while there are more Cotswold but even so they are not numerous.  Adding the Leicester Longwool also gave us the opportunity to include naturally coloured fibre, which is one of our major trademark attributes, giving our yarns a softness and depth of colour whether natural or dyed, which is very attractive and natural in appearance.

So in the end it was a bit of a mixture, based on what was available and at the right quality.  We then needed something with a bit of bulk to reduce the slight tendency to hairiness from a pure long-wool yarn and also hold the yarn together better and give it some body, so we added Cornish-sourced Mule wool, which is around half Blue-faced Leicester and half local sheep, blended at the breeding stage, rather than in the wool! 

Tamar comes in fifteen dyed shades and two natural shades…… what was your inspiration behind them?
Seeking a locally inspired name for a flowing, draping yarn, it seemed our local Tamar river, which is a lovely word anyway, was the right choice for the range name.  The Tamar is also the largest local river, so when deriving the colours, it seemed fairly obvious to go for complementary rivers or even tributaries of the Tamar!  And some of them also have great local names …

Then it was a question of seeking the names to fit the colour palette.  We wanted to make the shades all able to mix and match either complementing or contrasting with each other, as with our other ranges.  We started with the idea of having two bases, one slightly darker and one more silvery, and then aimed for a dip-dye range of greys, purples, pinks, greens and blues, plus a stand-out gold.  This was based on our experience of what our customers like in our other ranges, the current popular colour trends and of course a few local likes and dislikes amongst the team!

We shall aim to refresh the range in the future, so will be keen to hear suggestions?

It’s tea break time…. What is your favourite biscuit?
I’m slightly lucky in that I don’t like many biscuits, or my waistline would be even more disastrous.  I have a weakness for oat and raisin cookies and for the Bahlsen or Co-op chocolate-covered biscuits, which disappear all too quickly when I’m around!

Are there any future Blacker Yarns plans / projects you can share with BritYarn’s readers?
At present we have just updated our Classic colour palette and have plans for refreshing the Swan shade palette, adding some more colours to Lyonesse and possibly Tweed, updating our worsted spun Jacob yarn and adding a few shades to our main Shetland. Gotland and Blue-faced Leicester breed yarns.  We have several new rare breed limited edition yarns in the pipe-line too.

In addition …. Well, we did enjoy our 10th birthday so we think it will be good to have an 11th birthday this year, and then there might be another new range to come early next year.  Plus we have some very interesting plans to work with more partners, along the lines we started with Blacker Swan: so watch this space!!

Many thanks Sue for taking the time out of your busy day to answer out questions.

All images featured in this blog post are used with kind permission from Blacker Yarns.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Joeli's Kitchen Retreat 2016

I spent last weekend in Manchester at my first ever knitting retreat.  The retreat was organised and hosted by Joeli Creates (Joeli was Joeli's Kitchen) and took place in hotel in the centre of Manchester.  

All packed and ready to go
I admit to being really nervous when I caught the train to Manchester on Friday afternoon (and very excited at the same time).  Not only was it my first knitting retreat but it was BritYarn's first attendance at a little pop up market.  This explains the giant suitcase.  I should not have worried, knitters are awesome people of course.

The retreat included classes by the amazing and hugely talented Kate Atherley, Julia Billings, Karie Westermann and Joeli herself.  It was really hard choosing what classes to do (we had pick two before the event).  The two things I wanted to master this year was to improve my colourwork knitting and start spinning.  I put my name down for Karie's 'Introduction to Two-Handed Colourwork' and Joeli's Drop Spindle Class. 

Saturday morning Joeli welcomed everybody to the retreat and we were handed our amazing goody bags.  Then Kate Atherley did a fascinating talk about her knitting journey and why she loves doing teaching knitting related classes.  

In the afternoon it was time for me to take my first steps into two-handed colourwork.   We started off by learning how to knit continental (a very odd feeling but we all mastered it really quickly) and then progressed into knitting two handed.  Along the way Karie chatted about colour dominance and different things to think about when starting a colour work projects.
My first ever two handed knitting
In the evening Louise Scollay of KnitBritish gave an informative and passionate talk on why she knits British and the journey this has taken her on.  This was followed by the draw for door prizes (I won a copy of Take Heart by Fiona Alice so I was very happy!) and lots of knitting and chatter.

Sunday morning arrived (where had Saturday gone?) and with it drop spindling.  It is no secret I am fascinated by spinning but I have always stayed safely on the sidelines.... not any more!  Joeli got us all stuck in with drafting and then showing us, how to spin.  It look a bit if getting the hang of but at the end of the class we had all produced a little skein of wool. Seven new spinners were realised into the world that day!

For me it was then straight onto setting up my stall for the retreat market place.  I had the absolute pleasure of sharing a room with the Countess Ablaze, it was great to catch up again following our first meeting last December.  Being behind the BritYarn stall meant that it kept me at a safe distance from the countesses yarns following my weakness last time we met! 

Lots of squishing and purchases were made that afternoon.  It was just fantastic being able to show everyone a selection of different British yarns and for everyone to be able to see them first hand.  Then the weekend, my first ever knitting retreat, was over.  I caught the train home feeling tired but very, very happy.

I had a brilliant weekend, I met and chatted to so many like minded people and was able to meet so many of you that I have only chatted to online.  A massive thank you Joeli for organising everything.  I hope to see you all again soon and who knows maybe at next years retreat?