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.

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