Tag Archives: yarn

faces and places: sariann and her wool project

Part of a series introducing some of the places and people we’ve come across since moving to Scotland. Some you may already know but, more often than not, they will be new to you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do…

I recently had the chance to talk to Sariann Lehrer of Chopped Ginger about a project that she’s got going over the past few months…

A chef and cookbook writer, Sariann grew up on a working New England farm and then attended the University of Vermont, where she became involved in the local food and small agriculture movements and spent time working on a dairy farm. She’s also a keen knitter who, on moving to Scotland last year, was overwhelmed at the abundance of sheep in the countryside, the native sheep breeds, and the connection to agriculture that so much of the US lacked.

After noticing that there was a lot of focus on the end product of wool farming- that is, the yarns that we all love so much- and very little on the farmers who care for the land and animals that produce them, Sariann took the plunge and contacted small flock shepherds across the UK to launch the Wool Project. In her own words, the Wool Project “focuses on connecting knitters and the recipients of knitwear with where their wool comes from, the importance of keeping traditional small farming alive, and the integral role that we as yarn consumers have in saving heritage and rare breeds here in Britain”.

Sariann has bought 20kg each of fleeces from four different growers and is producing a small batch of yarn from each of them, to highlight both the value and beauty of each breed and the work that the individual growers are doing to sustain them as wool breeds. She launched the project a couple of months ago with her Wensleydale yarn, has just released a Teeswater yarn and will bring out both Gotland and Bluefaced Leicester yarns over the coming few months.

Sariann strikes me as the kind of woman who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or her heart broken, a good thing for the driver of a venture that many may say is too difficult in the current market. So many UK-based mills have closed in the last 20 years that there are few medium or large yarn companies still having their yarn spun here. But it is encouraging to see that there is a growing number of small fibre growers and individuals using specialist mills to produce small-batch yarns, enough to sustain a number of specialist processors and mills, such as the Natural Fibre Company and the Border Mill, who Sariann decided to work with. Her reasoning was threefold; the Border Mill is based nearby in the beautiful Scottish Borders, owners Juliet and John are happy to work with many different types of fleece and to process any quantity, from a single fleece upwards, and they specialise in alpaca fleece, which has long, smooth fibres similar to many of the breeds she is working with.

A little about the breeds and end products of the first two batches…

Chopped Ginger Wensleydale

The Fa’side flock was started by Susan and Ian Brash, with their purchase of three Black Wensleydale foundation ewes, and has grown to include a separate flock of White Wensleydale sheep. The Rare Breed Survival Trust lists Wensleydale sheep as “at risk” on their register, meaning there are between 900 and 1,500 registered sheep in Britain. Fa’side Wensleydales are meticulously bred and registered each year, with the hope of preserving and growing the breed.

The Wensleydale breed originated in North Yorkshire in the early 19th century with the crossing of a since-extinct, local longwool ewe and a Dishley Leicester tup. Unlike most sheep breeds, the lineage can be traced directly back to one ram, Bluecap, born in East Appleton, five miles from Bedale in North Yorkshire. Developed as a dual-purpose breed, Wensleydales still carry the characteristics of the founding tup: dark skin, excellent quality of wool and large size.

A separate register was started in 1994 for black lambs, and the number of registered ewes has been quite volatile, with 88 registered in 1999, which has since declined. The black wool colour is a double recessive trait and is impossible to predict within a white herd. Historically the dark lambs were culled to avoid contaminating the valuable clip with their dark fibres. However, these unpredictable black lambs from white herds have become a valuable resource for the small number of Black Wensleydale herds, as they widen the gene pool and lessen the likelihood of inbreeding.

Wensleydale fibre is very strong but soft, lustrous and especially beautiful in its naturally coloured forms. Yarn made from it has lots of drape and silkiness and, although it develops a slight halo, shows up texture well.

Fa'side Castle and Wensleydales

Fa’side Castle and Wensleydales

Wensleydale Grey

Chopped Ginger Wensleydale Grey

Chopped Ginger Teeswater

Tunstall Teeswaters are a small but dedicated breeding farm, located in Captain Cook country, with one aim- to keep the Teeswater breed alive and to help remove them from category 3 (vulnerable) of the Rare Breeds Survival watch list. When the small flock was started a number of years ago, the breed was at category 2 (endangered) on the RBS list, so the Tunstall shepherds like to think they have gone some way towards achieving their aim. Today Tunstall-homebred lambs are located as far south as South Devon and as far north as Aberdeenshire.

The Teeswater breed is descended from longwool sheep brought over to Britain during the Roman invasion. Initially, they were used to crossbreed with the highland and hill sheep to create larger, fatter sheep suitable for lamb production on gentler, more fertile land. There are records of Teeswaters being exported to Tasmania, Australia, in the early 1800s and they were also bred into Leicester Longwool flocks to improve the breed. When Teeswater ewes were crossed with the Dishley Leicester Longwool ram named Bluecap, the offspring were the origins of the Wensleydale breed. With the rise of the Wensleydale sheep, Teeswater numbers began to decline, until the 1920s when the breed was nearly extinct. The Teeswater Sheep Breeding Association and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust have worked hard to keep the breed alive, supporting farms like Tunstall Teeswaters to ensure that Britain does not lose this historic breed.

Teeswater fibre is incredibly lustrous, strong but soft and has extremely long fibres of up to 30cm. Yarn made from it has the sheen of silk and lots of drape and shows up texture well.

Tunstall Teeswater

Tunstall Teeswater

Tunstall Teeswater

Tunstall Teeswater


Chopped Ginger Teeswater

You’ll have to wait a couple of months to see the next instalment of Chopped Ginger Wool but here is a sneak preview of one of the handsome sheep contributing to the next batch…

Griffin, the Pedwardine Gotland

Griffin, the Pedwardine Gotland

Sariann has been really pleased with the results of the first two batches; the lustre and smoothness of both Wensleydale and Teeswater fibres have been highlighted by the processing and spinning and the resulting yarns are smooth, strong and drapey… I’m really looking forward to seeing what projects these beautiful yarns inspire. Sariann’s aim is to eventually buy the entire clip from some of her growers, thus ensuring the continuation of their flocks and an ongoing supply of these beautiful fibres.

As for what I’m going to do with mine, I think I’ll stockpile it until all four are released and then use them together… perhaps a striped shawl?!

You can find out more about the project and buy Sariann’s beautiful yarn at Chopped Ginger and at Ginger Twist in Edinburgh.

breed swatchalong

I remember a long conversation with a friend or a customer years ago about the fact that it would great if Ravelry had a function that allowed you to track other people’s thoughts and experiences on the longterm wearability of a particular yarn…

Of course, there is the option to simply read the comments on the page but somehow that feels a bit limited as most people tend to only write a few sentences about a yarn. And sometimes cranky comments can rank higher in our memory (creating an vague question about the yarn in our head), not to mention the fact that it’s much more likely that someone unhappy with something makes a fuss about it than someone happy with the same thing. In the end, we came to the dissatisfying conclusion that what we were looking for fell outside what we could reasonably expect Ravelry’s yarn pages to be capable of doing and that they can at best function as a starting point for further investigation.

We both felt incredibly passionate about the idea of tracking yarn in this way because, like most knitters/ crochets/ weavers/ other, it’s not just how a yarn feels and behaves when you first pick it up and work with it that counts for me- I want to know how it responds to wear. Does it hold up and bloom when it’s worn or turn into a sad saggy, pilly mess? All of this can be related to the processing of the base fibre but it’s also a lot to do with the type and quality of fibre used. Either way, we’d both spent a lot of time trawling projects made in a given yarn, hunting for their maker’s initial and subsequent thoughts about the yarn and that had made us want to give as much detail as possible in our project pages, in the hope of sharing information about yarn and inspiring others to do the same. Because sometimes yarns that don’t seem particularly promising to start with end up being the ones we love because they hold up so well and even improve over time- and we just wouldn’t know that from picking them up in a yarn shop and using that old knitter’s trick of rubbing them against our cheek!

This particular project is a great case in point. I bought a couple of balls of Blacker Yarns Alpaca/ Shetland 4ply at the 2010 UK Knitcamp marketplace and dithered for ages over what to make with it. It felt sturdy and strong and a bit too rough for a hat or mitts and so I finally decided to use it doubled to make a Winterberry hottie cover.

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland which, along with my Hansel, keeps us snug and warm

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

As a plant nerd, I fell in love with those bobbly berries and thought they were a great use of the bobbles that so many of us love to hate (and, using it for the first time, discovered that they also made for a great foot massage!).

Now, a yarn with a 50% alpaca content is not the obvious choice for a project that needs to keep its shape because alpaca has little memory and so is very prone to stretching! But I worked it quite tightly on small needles, anticipating that it would grow… which it did. On blocking, the FO went from very tight and stiff to soft with a bit of give and I slid it onto my hottie (filled with hot water) when it was still damp so that it would mould perfectly to the shape and size of the bottle.

Over the last eighteen months since I finished it, I’ve used it all the time! Despite the feet rubs and having been taken camping and all over Scotland, it looks like it was made yesterday. Although the alpaca gives it a halo, the stitch definition is definitely good enough to show up both the rib and the bobbles clearly. The odd pill forms every now and then but they are those lovely, discrete balls that pull off cleanly. Even with a 50% alpaca content, because it was knitted firmly, it hasn’t stretched out of shape at all.

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

There is just no way that a merino yarn or anything in the soft end of the range would stand up to this wear and use and still look this good! Well, unless perhaps it was processed beyond recognition but that is something I choose not to use. And who needs a hottie cover to be that soft anyway?

So I’m really excited that Louise from Knit British has kicked off the Breed Swatchalong, a community project that encapsulates so much of this- embracing the different strengths and virtues of the many sheep breed fibres, being creative in finding uses for a them and documenting thoughts and experiences with them, thus enabling the trackability of yarn (or fibre). Joining in involves the simple process of comprehensive swatching with British (or local-to-you) breed yarns and then documenting and sharing your experience and thoughts on that yarn.

All contributors will create a Ravelry project page for each swatch, outlining source, preparation method and other vital stats and, more importantly, their thoughts on its life, longevity and use, including possible applications (stitch patterns and projects) and any changes on blocking (and how it was done) and wearing (next to the skin for the day).

Some swatches and summaries will also be featured on Wovember as part of the movement’s goal to build a deeper understanding of what British and local breed yarns are like to work with, hopefully encouraging other knitters to give them a try. And, once the KAL is finished (there is no end date as yet, due to the huge number of yarns out there to try!), Louise will make summary reviews of all British breed wools available on KnitBritish so that anyone searching for information on breed wool can find thorough reviews in one place.

So what am I going to swatch with? One of the stipulations is that yarns used are undyed and I have so much undyed in my stash that it was really hard to choose a yarn to start with! But I’m going with a ball of white Isle Yarns (the sister yarn to the Hole and Sons yarns that were the viral hit of the northern summer), a beautiful, small-batch yarn from Sue Hole of Purbeck, made from her son’s flock of Poll Dorset sheep and spun by the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall.

Isle Yarns

Isle Yarns

Isle Yarns

Isle Yarns

I’ve never knitted with Poll Dorset but I know it has a beautiful bounce to it, which Sue and Sue (from the Natural Fibre Company) have enhanced by woollen-spinning it. More thoughts on it over the next week or two, plus some other other yarns I’m planning to document.

So… will you be joining in?! You can find all the details over at KnitBritish and join in on Instagram and Twitter with the tag #breedswatchalong.

woolful, edinyarnfest and the craft sessions

I’d like to send out a massive thank you to everyone who has left a comment here- and on Instagram, Twitter and, of course, in person!- in support and encouragement of our move overseas… It has meant a huge amount to me and I’ll be carrying you all with me when we head off at the end of January. Gee, the world certainly feels like a small place with the whole SM circus, doesn’t it?!

Just a few updates: if you haven’t already twigged to the joys of Ashley Yousling’s Woolful podcast, you need to check it out. This super smart and resourceful young woman is changing the way many of us see the yarn that we knit with and the fibre craft community that we are part of by opening up fascinating conversations with fibre people; from small scale to commercial, she’s talking to those involved in producing fibre (spinners, dyers, shearers, yarn companies…) and to those who use it (designers, craftspeople, artists…). I think these conversations will continue in yarn shops, at kitchen tables, in colleges and at fibre events around the world…  A new episode is released each Tuesday and I was thrilled and very honoured to talk to Ashley as part of this week’s episode, mostly about natural dyeing and dye plants but our conversation meandered through many areas of fibre love! You can find all the eps over at Wooful. Oh, and Ashley and her family is also building a fibre mill in Idaho- I can’t wait to see what comes out of that place!

I mentioned in my last post that I am building up a stock of colourwork cowls to take with me to Scotland-  well, I’ve signed up for a booth at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival in mid-March! It’ll be my first time selling my work in this kind of setting and I’m excited and a little anxious at the same time… But, at the very least, I’m looking at it as a great chance to meet and connect with the local knitting community. So, as well as packing up the house and catching up with loved ones, I’m going to have a busy 6 weeks of making!

And, lastly, it was bittersweet teaching my very last Melbourne class at Sunspun this week. It was great to finally run Fibre and Yarn 101, which was inspired by years of questions from customers about how to choose the best yarn for a project and why some yarn substitutions just don’t seem to work. I think my students left with a clearer picture of how different natural fibres behave and why different types of processing result in very different yarns and how to anticipate and work with that. But I’m really not sure whether there’ll be much opportunity for teaching in Scotland- perhaps natural dyeing will be the way to go, as teaching knitting there feels like teaching my grandmother to suck eggs! I’ll just have to wait and see and, in the meantime, will be so happy to take lots of classes to soak up as much of the local knowledge and tradition. But I wanted to let you know that I will be returning in September to teach at the Craft Sessions. It’s such a beautiful event that I don’t want to miss it and it also gives me a chance to bring back and share techniques and skills picked up over there. And, of course, to spend time with my family and friends. So it won’t be that long between cups of tea!

So that’s all my news for now. Have a lovely weekend!

purple carrot revisited

I recently dyed with purple carrots for the third time and got such different results from the first and second times that it got me reflecting on the variables that might have led to those differences… which I thought some of you dyers might have some thoughts on or just find it interesting. Can you see what I mean?

Varying results

Varying results

The two balls to the bottom right were my first experiment; this is Shetland yarn reclaimed from a jumper, mordanted with alum and cream of tartar and dyed with a bottle of out-of-date organic purple carrot juice someone was throwing out. I thought I’d have a try so I topped the pan up with warm water, added the yarns and slowly raised the temperature to around 70C, held it there for around 45 minutes. I loved the dusty pinks it produced…



Then I moved on to fresh carrots, the ones that aren’t just purple on the outside (they don’t give you any real colour) but that are purple-black all the way though. I put them through the juicer and then added the pulp back into the juice and divided it in half; it seems that juicy materials like berries, vegetables and soft roots give clearer colours without too much heat so I had an idea that solar dyeing might be a good approach to take. I divided the goopey juice in half and put half in a saucepan with a skein of organic merino yarn, again mordanted in alum and CT, slowly raised the temperature to around 70C and held it there for around 45 minutes. The first skein in the photo below was the result of heating: mauve- grey.

I then poured the rest into a big glass jar with a skein of the same and another of reclaimed wool/ angora, added enough warm water to cover the yarn and left the jar in the sun on my black compost bin for two weeks. Over that time, we had a few days around 25C but plenty of overcast days so the jar wouldn’t have got super hot. The second and third skeins were the result of solar dyeing: bright purple and mauve!

First solar dye

First solar dye

And then, recently, I rediscovered some old purple carrots that I’d bought to have a play with but had never gotten around to using; despite being a few months old, they were still fine, just a little hairy! Like before, I juiced and recombined them and repeated the solar process but, this time, left the juice outside for a week before I added silk fabrics, wool/ silk yarn and white and grey yarn (as always, mordanted with alum and CT). I then left the jar for a week, with similar temperatures to last time.

After one hour immersed in the liquid, the silk velvet looked crazy pink:

An hour after adding fibre to the jar

An hour after adding fibre to the jar

The silk fabrics and yarn were all a beautiful dusty pink after a week but the white and grey wool picked up NO DYE AT ALL! What is that about?!

Second solar dye

Second solar dye

I know that certain dyes have affinities with particular fibres but I’ve never seen wool not pick up any colour where silk has. And, from the first solar dye, I know that wool will pick up purple carrot. The fibres were all mordanted together. So, to me, the only variables are the silk and the fact that the fibres weren’t added straight to the jar. Is it possible that the silk absorbed the dye compounds so quickly that the wool didn’t have a chance? Seems unlikely to me… So could the week between processing and adding the fibres be the reason? It makes me want to dig out my chemistry books and find out what could possibly affect the structure of the dye compounds to lead to this?

I’d love to hear any thoughts!

And, next time, I want to try to capture that hot pink before it softens!

In the meantime, if you’re inspired to try your hand at dyeing with plants, I have a couple of classes coming up at the Handmakers Factory, an introduction to natural dyeing on October 11 and a collaborative class on indigo and shibori on November 15- I’ll be teaching the indigo component, showing how to establish and maintain an indigo vat, which Rosalind Slade will then use for her class on shibori. You can find out more over at Handmakers!

dyeing with soursob, argyle apple and chlorophyll

Hello! It’s been ages since I’ve posted here about dyeing… it’s been a really busy few months and we spent most of our end-of-year break painting our house, so neither dyeing nor writing about it have had much of a look-in… I’ve also got into the habit of posting photos on Instagram, which is so quick that I’ve realized it’s made the idea of writing an actual blog post overwhelming so I need to get back into the habit.

I ran another class on natural dyes in December, this time for the Handmakers Factory at the lovely Ink and Spindle studio in Kensington. I think I’ve said here before that I don’t consider myself a natural teacher but I feel really passionate about the need for good classes and skill-sharing so I push myself to get better at it. But I think perhaps that my love for plants and colour managed to override my nerves- teaching this class was an absolute joy!

This time, I included some basic sample sheets that participants could attach their samples to- it’s always so hard to remember what they are and how they were dyed so I thought it would be useful. Each one relates to a particular dye plant that we used on the day.

The first plant we dyed with was Oxalis pes-caprae (Soursob or Sourgrass), which is a widespread weed in Melbourne. I realize I need to start taking photos of the dye plants I use as an ID tool for the blog and classes but Soursob is small herb with a clover-like leaf and bright acid-yellow bell-shaped flowers in spring. I collected about 500gm of flowers in spring and then froze them for the classes I had later in the year (I find I get the same results with fresh or frozen flowers).

We poured hot water over about 2 handfuls of flowers and left them to soak for an hour while we did other things- heating  flowers too high or for too long can destroy or alter the dye compounds. We then strained the flowers out and placed the dyebath onto the stove on low and added two sets of samples of alum-mordanted yarn (wool, wool/ silk and bamboo) and fabric (silk velvet, silk, coarse cotton and unbleached linen). We left them to heat for around 45 minutes and then took them off to cool. We then removed the fibers, put one set aside, added some washing soda to the dyebath (which changed the pH to alkaline and instantly turned from yellow to bright orange) and replaced the other set back into the bath. You can clearly see the difference in colours achieved from the different fibre types and pHs; interestingly, this plant seems to have more of an affinity with protein fibres, like silk and wool, whereas the cellulose fibres (especially the cotton) didn’t take up as much colour.


Next up, we used Eucalyptus cinerea (Argyle Apple), which is found though the south-east of Australia and is often used as a landscape tree in streets. It yields far better colour when heated and cooled multiple times so I took it into the studio already soaked and heated over several days to maximize the depth of dye we could achieve. We simply brought it up to about 80C, then added a set of alum-mordanted yarn and fabrics and a piece of iron-mordanted yarn and took it off the heat to sit for 2 hours. I would have liked to keep it in the heat but my second stove refused to work on the day so we had to juggle pots! The dark brown yarn at the top right was iron-mordanted and took up colour very differently to the same yarn mordanted with alum.

Eucalyptus cinerea

And we used chlorophyll as our last dye, as I wanted to demonstrate dyeing with a weed (Soursob), an indigenous landscape plant (Argyle Apple) and a vegetable and I couldn’t get hold of my favourite purple carrot (more on recent experiments with that next time). I sacrificed some of the chlorophyll extract from wonderful French natural dye house Renaissance Dyeing that I’ve been hoarding since my lovely friend Mel gave me a pack of them.  It’s produced from organically grown spinach and nettles and was very simple to work with, giving us lovely, soft green, that most elusive of colours when it comes to natural dyes!


As I said, it was such a joy to teach this class and I think everyone got a lot of confidence to get out and try dyeing with natural materials, which is mostly what people need, as it’s actually pretty simple! If you are keen to learn about the process in a hands-on session, I have some classes coming up at the Handmakers Factory, the first one at the beginning of February- you can find all the details here. I’m also playing with the idea of running a class on how to get 25 (or more) colours from one dyebath, so let me know if that sounds like something you’d be keen to do.