Sunday, 17 June 2018

Behind The Scenes At Sirdar: Part 2 - The Design Room

Have you ever dreamed about being paid to test new yarns before they're in the shops and also knit for a living? If so, then a role in the design room at Sirdar should be at the top of your job hunting list.

The first thing I noticed when my fellow Knit Now magazine prize-winners and I toured the design room was the staff happily clicking away knitting up patterns or sample squares to go to retailers.

Julie, the design manager, gave us an introductory talk all about the design process covering the initial idea all the way through to the final pattern production. The team produces hundreds of patterns a year.

Armed with feedback from shops, customers, reps and surveys, the forthcoming yarns from Sirdar's product development team plus future forecast trend forecasts and their knowledge of the knitting market , the designers produce mood boards with swatches and ideas.

When themes are agreed the designers draw an initial sketch for a pattern. Sirdar's different sub-brands, including their luxury Sublime range and the more budget-conscious Hayfield, need to be taken into account, as well as providing for beginners all the way to experienced knitters. Plus the team make sure there's a mixture of catwalk trends, classic and vintage designs to suit all of their customers.

Each sketch then goes into a folder and makes its way to a pattern writer whose job it is to - yes you've guessed it - write the pattern up and check that the measurements correspond to the initial brief.

Says Julie, "There's not always one way to write a pattern, you have to get it right for the design and level of knitting ability." She checks the knitted sample and often makes suggestions for tweaks to the design, such as a few extra stitches on a collar. The pattern itself is checked by different eyes a vast number of times on its journey to be turned into a Word document. The original pattern writer is responsible for the final once-over.

It's not just clothes that the team designs - accessories and toys are popular too. Above is a cute toy knitted up go to a yarn shop. Julie explained that knitted samples on display in stores massively increases that yarn and pattern's sales.

Samples are knitted either in house or outsourced to home knitters. Each garment/accessory/toy is photographed for the pattern cover.

There are two pattern seasons: Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer. New patterns are drip-fed to stores throughout the season ensuring that there's always a reason for a customer to come back and browse. "We have to provide people with what they want to buy", Julie emphasised, "... if we get it right the customers are happy and the stores are happy."

The archive

Sirdar has a long history and the archives contain a copy of every pattern published over the years. On the outside the folders don't look much, but they contain engrossing knitting, social and fashion history.

Browsing the folders unearths many gems, from 1970s psychedelics to baby patterns from times gone by.

The little girl on the left doesn't look very happy in her romper suit does she!

I could have spent much longer browsing through the files but time was short. The archive is not only a snapshot of Sirdar's history but is also used regularly when customers ring up to query a pattern. The team will then find the pattern in the archives and do what they can to help.

In the next post I'll be reporting on Sirdar's showroom, which was the last stop of the tour.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Sirdar: Part 1 - The Warehouse

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Behind The Scenes At Sirdar: Part 1 - The Warehouse

My prize for winning an Online Innovator award from Knit Now magazine in their Knitter of the Year 2017 awards was a trip to Sirdar's headquarters in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. It was such a packed and interesting day that it'll take three blog posts to tell you all about it. I'll be reporting on the design room where the patterns are created, the showroom which features garments from future collections, and today's post is all about the warehouse full of thousands upon thousands of balls of yarn. My request for a five minute trolley dash was politely declined!

After all the winners had arrived we congregated in Sirdar's meeting room along with Kate Heppell, Knit Now magazine's editor and various super-friendly Sirdar staff members from their design and marketing departments. The first thing I learned is that Sirdar is part of the DMC group and consists of three brands: Sirdar itself (and its sub-brands Hayfield and Sublime), DMC, which I previously knew made embroidery and tapestry threads but also makes knitting yarns too, and Wool and the Gang, a more fashion-forward company.

This was not just any old meeting room, this was a yarn-filled meeting room containing a ball of all the colours and varieties in the Sirdar range, including a few planned for next season. These are top secret but what I can tell you is look out for the new colours and additions to the Sublime range in Spring/Summer 2019 - two are especially exquisitely covetable. Whilst all the winners started off in best behaviour mode it didn't take long before we were having a good squish and inhaling all that yarny goodness.

Then it was time to head to meet Gary, the logistics manager, in the warehouse. At the beginning of the century Sirdar sadly stopped spinning its own yarn here. Like a lot of manufacturing businesses Sirdar found that increasing globalisation meant that it was no longer competitive to produce its products in this country, so they had to restructure and outsource to survive. A factory in Turkey bought a lot of their machinery and today 80% of Sirdar yarn is manufactured there. It's the job of the product development and design teams to decide which yarns and colours they want to include in the range, based on feedback and future forecast design trends.

When the manufactured yarn arrives at the warehouse in containers it is quality checked to ensure it's up to standard and then sorted into shade and blend numbers. Once the team are happy the yarn is taken out of boxes and onto wooden trays. Each consignment is inputted into the computer system and allocated one of the thousands of positions in the warehouse so it can easily be found when a customer places an order (Sirdar sells direct to retailers and not currently to individual members of the public).

When Sirdar receives an order the products are retrieved from their designated shelf positions and then moved to the packing room where a huge machine bundles the yarn together in plastic and seals it with heat. A number of team members study the pick list to double check the customer receives the correct invoice, packing note and products. The order then is put on a van to be sent out to the depot and shipped anywhere around the world. From September onwards is their busiest time of the year.

It's not just yarn that Sirdar stores in the warehouse, it's pattern leaflets too. These are produced upstairs in the design room (more of that in the next blog post) and printed in house. There's one colour machine for the garment photograph and a black and white one to print the instructions.

There's a ready-made selection of leaflets on numerous shelves ready and waiting for trade customers. Like the yarn, each has its own designated position on the computer system.

The tour of the warehouse opened my eyes to the complicated logistics behind a successful international yarn and pattern business. Though A Woolly Yarn champions British wool and in an ideal world their yarn would still be produced in the UK, Sirdar has done a great job in adapting to stay alive and thrive in a very price conscious and competitive market and is an important part of the UK's knitting industry.

How are knitting patterns designed? Find out in the next post Behind the Scenes at Sirdar: Part 2 - The Design Room.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Balls V Skeins: Which Gets Your Vote?

Going round yarn shows and looking at knitting websites over the last few years I've noticed  the rise and rise of the skein, otherwise known as a hank.

It seems that, apart from with budget brands, the days of expecting that wool will have already been rolled into a ball for you when you buy it have long gone. Nowadays the skein reigns - it gives an image of luxe, artisan handcraftsmanship as opposed to a cheap, bulk buy.

Doulton Flock DK Yarn image courtesy of
A quick, unscientific poll amongst knitting friends reveals they are divided on the issue. One says she can't stand the faff of unravelling skeins and rolling them into a ball - she finds it incredibly annoying spending time doing this when she'd rather be knitting. She doesn't want to splash out on a yarn swift and frankly some of them look more complicated than the old technique of winding wool round your arms.

Bobbin Birch yarn swift image courtesy of Wool Warehouse

Another said she finds buying a skein much more of a treat than a ball. They're more pleasing visually, she thinks, and when buying you get to see more of the wool.

The Croft - Shetland Tweed Aran image courtesy of West Yorkshire Spinners

It's not just small yarn companies who sell by the skein, some larger British brands, like West Yorkshire Spinners, have introduced new ranges in this format, shunning the traditional ball. Designer and author Susan Crawford is redeveloping her own wool ranges to become skein-only.

Fenella image courtesy of Susan Crawford Vintage
One person whom I asked is visually impaired and she pointed out she never buys skeins because she can't see well enough to wind them into a ball. That dislike of skeins was seconded by an older knitter who says she gets into tangles.

Mohair image courtesy of The Loveliest Yarn Company
Whereas another woman I spoke to says that skeins are a sign of quality and are easier to squish and smell then yarn wrapped in a ball.

In my experience it's certainly true that the most of the more interesting, one-off and small-scale wool brands come in skeins, and generally have a higher price tag, as opposed to those from international companies although there are exceptions to the rule such as Louisa Harding's Yarntelier Lace that's already wound into a ball.

Cashmere Lace image courtesy of Yarntelier
At first I found skeins time-consuming and rather irritating and I've had my fair share of knots, but now I've grown used to them - particularly as they've grown in prevalence in wool shops.

I'd love to hear what you think - which do you prefer? Have your say below or on our Facebook page.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Under His Eye: Review of Baa Baa Brighouse's The Handmaid's Tale Yarn Box

Series 2 of Margaret Atwood's feminist dystopian drama The Handmaid's Tale is now airing on Channel 4 in the UK and to celebrate Baa Baa Brighouse has released a a yarn box costing £26 plus P&P containing goodies and hand-dyed wool inspired by the novel and programme.

I was a latecomer to the novel, which was originally published in 1985, only reading it earlier this year after binge watching most of series 1 of the TV adaptation on a plane. Immediately I was hooked by the horrific treatment of June, otherwise known as Offred, and the other handmaids who are forced to bear children for the ruling elite.

The box contains some wonderful goodies for fans of the novel/show:

Look at this fabulous card with a handmaid on the front and the cod Latin 'Don't let the bastards grind you down' quote Offred finds carved in her closet by a previous handmaiden:

Then there are three pencils (always useful for scribbling on knitting patterns with) and a badge with the Gilead-prescribed greeting 'Under His Eye' on them, along with an Offred bookmark:

The final treat tucked at the bottom of the box is this fabulous canvas bag to put your knitting stash in, emblazoned with the slogan 'This is what a feminist looks like!'

Then of course there's the yarn, which almost feels secondary to its well-chosen accompaniments. There's one 100g DK skein called Offred and a 25g mini-skein named after Offred's mistress Serena.

The mini-skein is blue, the colour that Commanders' wives must wear to identify their high status in Gilead society. 'Offred' is a mix of cream, peachy/pink and purple - lovely shades but not obviously fitting with the Handmaids' red, white and black colour schemes.

Sadly the yarn box was a one-off and is no longer available. Baa Baa Brighouse does, however, produce a different themed box each month and June's will be on the theme of Harry Potter. For details of this and the other yarn boxes available see their current selection.  Buying a yarn box without knowing what the contents are can be a gamble, particularly if it turns out that the wool colour isn't up your street. There's nothing in this box, however, that's a dud. I've even kept the dark green ribbon used to to tie up the box for Christmas crafting!

What would your ideal theme be for a film/novel/TV-inspired yarn box? Have your say in the comments box below.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

New Yarntelier, Kate Davies and Arnall-Culliford Yarn Shades

Three of our favourite Brit indie yarn companies have released new yarn ranges and/or shades for the summer. Here's a quick round-up:

Arnall-Culliford Knitwear's Something to Knit With 4Ply

Image courtesy of AC Knitwear

Jen and Jim Arnall-Cullford have long worked behind the scenes as technical editors for other designers but last year branched out on their own to launch Something New To Learn About Cables. The book contains patterns both from themselves and others and has spawned a series: Something New To Learn About Lace will be published in early June and is now available for pre-order. There's also a third, as yet unnamed title promised for the Autumn.

Says Jen Arnall-Culliford: "We intend for this series to cover each subject in some depth, without becoming indigestible, and for each book to be the perfect size to throw in your project bag along with your work in progress."

To complement their books the couple have launched their own yarn range, with the rather long title of Something To Knit With 4Ply.

Image courtesy of AC Knitwear

The yarn comes in ten shades ranging from pastel to vivid. They describe it as having "the bounce of wool - forgiving in cables and lace, and looking smooth and even in colour work - combined with the softness of superfine alpaca." It's a blend of 70% Highland Wool and 30% Superfine Alpaca. Each 50g skein costs £8 plus P&P.

I'm looking forward to giving it the squish test when I can get my hands on a sample.

Kate Davies' Milarrochy Tweed

Last year Kate Davies launched her Milarrochy Tweed yarn and this Spring she has added three new colours to the range: Cranachan (a bright red), Hare, (brown - named after the animal), and Tarbet (maritime blue).

Image courtesy of Kate Davies
Millarochy Tweed is a blend of 70% wool and 30% mohair. A 25g ball costs £4.25 plus P&P. The balls are small because the yarn was originally designed for colour work - be prepared to sew in all the ends if you're knitting something that's all in one shade!

I love the bright hue of Cranachan. To show it off Davies has written a short-sleeved sweater pattern called Pabeigh.

Image courtesy of Kate Davies
Davies is selling a Pabaigh pattern and yarn kit from £39.50 depending on the size you with to knit, which gives a 15% discount on the two sold separately.

Yarntelier's Cashmere Lace

Designer Louisa Harding's company that specialises in Yorkshire-spun cashmere yarns has brought out four limited edition shades for the Spring and Summer season. They are Starfish, Lilac, China Blue and Storm.

Harding recommends the shades for knitting light summer scarves and shawls. Each 50g ball costs £25 plus P&P but contains a hefty 425 metres of yarn. To the touch the samples are delightfully soft and squishy with a very faint halo and superb stitch definition.

The Yarntelier website contains lots of designs to knit with the yarn and a new pattern book is planned for October.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Exclusive Sneak Peak Of The Royal Wedding Couple

As the caterers and florists prepare for Saturday, Windsor Chapel is cleaned within an inch of its life and the guests get ready for the big day, A Woolly Yarn can exclusively reveal sneak peaks of Harry and Meghan on Buckingham Palace's balcony.

The bride wore white and the groom sported his signature beard and moustache.

The crowds gathered at Buckingham Palace cheered when the happy couple shared a quick kiss.

Then it was time for Harry and Meghan to wave goodbye and head off to their evening reception.

With thanks to Fiona Goble's Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, from which I adapted the patterns!

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Have You Knitted A Kate Davies Carbeth Yet?

Every now and again a knitwear design hits the zeitgeist, inspires numerous knit-a-longs and becomes a craze amongst the knitting community, to be spotted in multiple at craft gatherings and festivals. Previous favourites in the last few years have included Tin Can Knits' Lush and Karie Westermann's Scollay cardigans.

Now it's the turn of Kate Davies' Carbeth. What first began on Davies' needles as a Boxing Day jumper has spawned a cross-Atlantic knitting sensation. There are now three Carbeth designs to choose from:

The original roll-neck jumper:

Image courtesy of Kate Davies

A cardigan version:

Image courtesy of Kate Davies

And now Carbeth Swan Dance, a comfy, oversized version with a simple lace pattern:

Image courtesy of Kate Davies
Davies herself has written a blog post celebrating all the different Carbeth versions knitters have produced. Carbeth has inspired other designers and wool spinners too, with Knit Now magazine publishing a photo of the Editor's stripy version (sadly the photo isn't available online), and the American website Mason Dixon Knitting running its own 'Bang Out A Carbeth' knit along.

The Carbeth jumper and cardigan are knitted with two DK strands held together. Davies' patterns are written for her own Bauchaille range costing £7.49 per 50g ball plus P&P.  Northumberlan-based yarn company Whistlebare has posted on Facebook a picture of a Carbeth knitted in their own Cheviot Marsh yarn. Cheviot Marsh retails at £16.50 plus P&P for a 100g skein.

Image courtesy of Whistlebare

Jess James-Thomson, owner of Edinburgh yarn store Ginger Twist Studio, has used her own Ginger's Hand Dyed Sheepish DK for her Carbeth.

Image courtesy of Jess James-Thomson
Lovers of naturally-coloured British yarn could plump to knit a Carbeth in Daughter of a Shepherd's Brume DK, which is a blend of 50% Hebridean, 25% Zwarbles and 25% Exmoor Blueface pure undyed wool. It costs £20 per 100g skein plus P&P.

Brume image courtesy of Daughter of a Shepherd

Or Blacker Yarns offers a range of plain yarns, its Tamar Blend DK Ottery Dark Undyed being a good choice for Carbeth. Direct from Blacker Yarns each 100g hank costs £16.20 plus P&P.

Ottery image courtesy of Blacker Yarns

Davies has a new pattern book out inspired by The Scottish West Highland Way. Who knows if one of these patterns will become a classic? To buy one of the Carbeth patterns head to Ravelry. Each one costs £5.95 to download.

Why not share your Carbeth knits with us on our A Woolly Yarn Facebook page? Which is your favourite of the three Carbeth designs? Share your preferred pattern in the comments section below.

June update:

Here's my Carbeth, which I knitted to give to a good friend for her birthday. I used Debbie Bliss yarn from my stash, made the length longer and thankfully managed to get hold of a couple of extra balls online when I ran out early.

It's all blocked and ready to go to a hopefully happy recipient!

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