Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Story of Whistlebare: Natural Yarns From Northumberland

Daisy Snood image courtesy of Whistlebare
My first encounter with Whistlebare, a family farm in Northumberland that produces yarn from their flock of sheep, was early last year when I bought a skein of their 4ply Yeavering Bell in light grey to knit the Daisy Snood.

I've had lots of wear out of the snood and have found it's perfect for in-between seasons when I need a bit of neck warmth but not a full-on thick scarf.

The latest Whistlebare product on my 'to knit' list, particularly after seeing and feeling a knitted-up sample at Edinburgh Yarn Festival in March, is their Bubble Jersey. It was originally knitted using the fluffy Yeavering Bell 4 ply but has since received a new lease of life as part of their Canny Lass Collection, knitted with the less-sheddy Cheviot Marsh 4ply.

Alice from Whistlebare kindly agreed to be interviewed to give me an exclusive interview about her farm, yarn and colour inspiration.


The Farm

"Whistlebare is a small (about 60 acres), very beautiful farm in North Northumberland.and, a stone's throw from the beach in one direction and the fabulous Cheviot Hills in the other. We moved here in 2004 bringing our small herds of Aberdeen Angus Cattle and Large Black Pigs with us. These we farmed to organic standards until 2012 when a variety of factors converged to mean we needed to a find a new direction. In that time I had learnt to crotchet and was picking up knitting needles again after a 25 year break. I was loving the creativity and the peace induced by an evening's crafting. It was when I started to visit some of the fantastic Yarn Festivals around, notably the very first EYF, that the idea of producing our own, British, local, ethical yarn began to take root.

Image courtesy of Whistlebare
As at teenager I had spent my holidays helping my Aunt on her goat farm in Cornwall. She had a few Angora Goats and I had always loved them and the amazing lustrous mohair they produce. After a lot of investigation and seal searching I was delighted when Angora Goats appeared to be the way forward. Our first nine Angoara Goats arrived in 2013 to great excitement. I wasn't the only one who was excited: our four songs, then ages 6 to 11 years-old, were very keen to get involved. My husband and I decided that this was an opportunity for the boys to begin their own flock of sheep. Again, much research ensued. Wensleydales with their beautiful long locks of high lustre wool, as well as being a rare breed from my husband's native Yorkshire, seemed to be the perfect compliment to our goats. The boys' first three ewes arrived, in lamb, at the beginning of 2014. It has been a very steep learning curve as goats and sheep require very different care but now, four years later, we have a herd of 150 goats and a flock of 50 sheet and are loving every minute of it!

Since then the boys had shown themselves to be interested and capable shepherd. They undertake all of their sheep's care and soon will be shearing too as the oldest boy is attending a shearing course this year. Rather than pay 'rent' for the sheep's grazing our boys work in lieu so the weekends see all six of us working together trimming goats' feet, worming and vaccinating or bringing in bales of hay etc. Or course at the end of all this the boys will sell their fibre to mum and dad at an exorbitant price!"


Yeavering Bell Yarn

Bubble Jersey image courtesy of Whistlebare
"We were clear about our aims from the outset. Our yarn would be British, from animals kept to the highest welfare standards and have the smallest carbon footprint we could manage. Mohair and Wensleydale have a number of special features not least that they are both high lustre. In order to make the most of the shine we decided that our yarn should be worsted spun and were delighted to discover that scouring, combing and spinning could all happen in Yorkshire We have the yarn plied into three different weights, 4ply, double knit and aran, which is returned to use for dyeing. Mohair has long, smooth fibres that are not able to absorb dye particularly well, Then, because they reflect light very well, the result is real clarity of colour and shine. it is hard not to enjoy doing something when the result is so stunning. Wensleydale shares many of the characteristics of mohair, dyeing beautifully as well, so our yarn Yeavering Bell positively glows with rich colour. I only dye Yeavering Bell into solid or semi-sold colours as I feel that multi-coloured dyeing would detract from the yarn's own simplicity and beauty. That said I produce over 30 colours and am adding to our palette all the time!

Yeavering Bell is a unique yarn spun from 80% mohair and 20% Wensleydale. It is soft and sleek with rich colour and very high lustre. Mohair is a hollow fibre so is very insulative whilst being very light weight. The addition of Wensleydale, which is a much heavier robust fibre, gives the mohair enough weight to drape beautifully. Another of mohair's characteristics is that it has the highest rub test of all natural fibres so, when knitting with Yeavering Bell,  you can be sure that your project will last for years. Whistlebare's patterns are comtemporary classics all designed to make the most of mohair and Wensleydale's special features.

Our other mohair and Wensleydale yarn is Cuthbert's Sock. It is entirely natural fibre: 80% kid mohair and 20% Wensleydale wool spun tightly to be robust. Mohair is the perfect sock fibre. It has the highest rub test of any natural fibre and so won't wear out. The fibres themselves have very few scales and what scales there are lie smoothly - as a result bacteria has nowhere to cling on and so mohair socks don't smell! As the mother of four boys, two of whom are teenagers, I can tell you that works for me."


Colour Inspiration

Image courtesy of Whistlebare
"Northumberland must be one of the most beautiful and varied counties in Britain.

Within a very few miles of Whistlebare we have dunes, beaches, the sea, castles, moorland and forestry. The inspiration for colour is all around and endless.

When planning a new palette I have to focus on a theme or particular location as the possibilities can be overwhelming otherwise. I try very hard to produce groups of colours that work well together and are truly wearable as well as being eye catching in your stash!"



***

A big thank you to Alice for answering A Woolly Yarn's questions and giving us an insight into small-scale all-British yarn production.

Yarn can be bought directly from Whistlebare, with a 350m 4ply skein of Yeavering Bell costing £24.50 plus P&P. The Bubble Jersey kit I have my eye on retails between £33 and £49.50 plus P&P depending on the size you require. There are lots of other patterns to choose from too including hats, scarves and the Canny Lass Shawl designed by Karie Westermann.




Sunday, 7 July 2019

Exclusive Interview With An Caitin Beag + Simpler Sinister Cat Sweater

I mentioned in my review of this year's Edinburgh Yarn Festival (I'm still sad that it's taking a break in 2020) that I bought An Caitin Beag's Simpler Sinister Sweater pattern and Northiam DK wool from Kettle Yarn Co to knit it with.

The pattern was one I was itching to get started with and therefore it leapfrogged over others on my 'to knit' list. Fast forward to June and, even though I'd been working on other projects as well, I'd finished it. I love the way the cats eyes pop out in the pattern, plus Northiam wool feels so soft next to the skin and yet is incredibly warm.


Here's a picture of the whole sweater:


When I emailed a picture of my sweater to Marna, aka An Caitin Beag, she was delighted to see my colour interpretation of her design (although actually it was Linda of Kettle Yarn Co who suggested the two colours would work well together, pushing me slightly out of my sartorial comfort zone) and agreed to a mini interview.

Q. When and how did you come up with the idea for the pattern?

A. I came up with the Sinister Catdigan first, by that's knitted in 4ply, and has three-colour colourwork, so it's not the easiest or fastest knit. So this one was invented to simplify the catties and make for a faster, funner, knit - plus the very simple yoke meant I could easily grade it down to child and baby sizes.

Sinister Catdigan image courtesy of An Caitin Beag
Q. The cats' eyes are really striking - were they hard to chart?

A. No! But I've been sketching these cats for years, so I know what I want them to look like. The charting for this took about four iterations - that's really quite quick for one of my designs.

Q. Where does your fascination with cats come from?

A. Ah, that's like asking 'Why is the Moon?!' I've always loved cats, and I've been lucky enough to live with quite a few. I like their belligerent independence - reminds me of me.

Q. You launched some new patterns at Edinburgh Yarn Festival - can you please tell me about them?

A. Yes I'd love to! I launched two new patterns. The Catwing Sweater is a batwing sweater with cats on the sleeves (or wings). It's not as complicated to knit as it looks: there's some simple intarsia and it's a sideways knit.

Catwing Sweater diagram courtesy of An Caitin Beag
The other pattern I launched was (I never promised you a) Cat Garden, which is a pretty, fitted cardigan with a slightly retro-70s flowery yoke - but the flowers are tiny, budding cats.

Cat Garden image courtesy of An Caitin Beag
Q. Can you give A Woolly Yarn readers any clues about what you're designing for the future?

A. It will involve cats! I'm right now knitting up a version of the Sinister Catdigan graded won to a child size, but I have the Sinister socks (socks with so many cats!) on the needles too, plus a couple of surprises in the pipeline.

Peeky Catsocks image courtesy of An Caitin Beag

Many thanks to Marna for answering our feline-themed questions. Go to An Caitin Beag's website to see what other catty things she has on sale, from fab stitch markers to enamel pins and project bags.

All Marna's patterns are available on Ravelry. I'm fancying channelling my inner 1980s (without the ill-advised curly perm and frosted pink lipstick) by knitting the Catwing sweater. A little bird has told me that there may be more shades of Kettle Yarn Co's Northiam DK and 4ply in the pipeline - hopefully they will be perfect for choosing yarn for Catwing.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Review Of Sticka - The Tithe Pattern Collection

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
The Little Grey Sheep is a small wool business run from a family farm in Hampshire. After they bought the farm in 2004 Emma, Neil and their three daughters re-introduced sheep with the aim of producing their own yarns. Says Emma, "I believed that we could produce a world-class British yarn, that was soft enough to be work next to the skin but that had its own unique character."

Shepherdess Susie manages and shears the flock, the fleece is washed and spun in Yorkshire and then hand-dyed back on the farm by Emma who is inspired by the colour of the surrounding countryside.

To support the wool they produce and showcase the farm's beautiful landscape The Little Grey Sheep has released Sticka: The Tithe Collection, containing ten patterns, each named from fields on an 1840 map of the farm.

A tithe was the amount of produce, later money, that a tenant had to give to the lay owners of the land. Sticka explains such details along with the importance of the shearing process to the welfare of the sheep, the layout of the farm and lots of instagrammable photos of the landscape - and of course the patterns.

They are:

Bricklands Cardigan

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
Knitted in Hampshire 4-ply, this cardigan is knitted in the round and then steeked.

Bricklands Cowl
Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
Using a similar pattern to the cardigan, the Bricklands cowl is knitted with Stein Fine Wool 4-ply.

Bricklands Sweater

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
This high-neck raglan sweater again uses Stein Fine Wool 4-ply.

Cherry Plum Cardigan

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
The Little Grey Sheep describes this as a 'relaxed-fit, boyfriend-style cardigan worn with positive ease' and knitted in Hampshire 4-ply.

Cranstone Hat

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
Again knitted in Hampshire 4-ply, this colour-contrast beanie will keep your head warm all winter long. Mini-skeins are available for the contrast colours.

Hangers Hyle Shawl

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
Knit this shawl in Hampshire 4-ply or Stein Fine Wool 4-ply. Says The Little Grey Sheep: 'This cosy and elegant shawl features garter stitch with panels of colour work, with slipped stitches in contrasting colours forming geometric patterns".

Minchin Croft Sweater

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep

This cosy, v-necked sweater uses Hampshire 4-ply and is knitted from the bottom up.

Minchin Croft Tank Top

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
Also knitted with Hampshire 4-ply, this tank top's contrast colour cable neckband uses the Japanese short-row technique.

No Man's Land Sweater

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
Look at the lovely fringed hem and cuffs on this bi-colour sweater, which is knitted with Hampshire 4ply. It's knitted with the yarn held double.

The Chequers Sweater

Image courtesy of The Little Grey Sheep
Finally this sweater is knitted in mesh stitch worked flat in pieces from the bottom up.

***

At the back of Sticka there's a handy glossary of all the knitting abbreviations used in the patterns.

It's a gorgeous collection and, because they use 4-ply wool rather than a thicker DK or aran, the garments and accessories are suitable for wearing in-between seasons and not just for Winter. At the moment my favourite is the Bricklands Cowl to get me used to the colourwork pattern before I attempt the sweater. What I like too is that when buying wool from The Little Grey sheep you know the sheep are well looked after and that you're supporting a small family business.

See all the patterns on Ravelry here where you can download the e-book for £18.94.

Alternatively buy a paper copy directly from The Little Grey Sheep for £18.50 plus P&P.

Many thanks to The Little Grey Sheep for the review copy. All views are A Woolly Yarn's own.
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