Friday 1 March 2019

Daughter Of A Shepherd's Guest Yarn Talk At Toft Studios

The lovely Rachel Atkinson at Toft
It's the second time that Toft in Dunchurch, Warwickshire, has invited a guest yarn into its shop and website for three months. 

This season the spotlight is on Daughter of a Shepherd's British wool, and to celebrate on 28th February DofaS, aka Rachel Atkinson, came to Toft to meet customers and tell all about her fascinating route from knitting and crochet tech editor to running her own wool ranges. And yes, she really is the daughter of a shepherd: her dad John works on the Escrick Park estate in Yorkshire caring for a flock of Hebridean sheep.

First off Toft's doors opened at 5pm to enable all of us lucky to have booked a ticket to the event to have a browse, squish and make ample use of the tea, coffee, bubbly, canap├ęs and cake on offer. Atkinson, a fellow Yorkshire lass, mingled with the guests, one of which I recognised as the sock goddess Rachel Coopey

Sadly it was crowded and busy and I didn't have time to introduce myself and see if she was wearing a pair of her own sock creations! (See Review of Coopknits Socks Yeah! DK Vol 1+ Yarn). In a past career I was a content producer at the BBC and often ended up a lift or in the cafe with people on the TV I recognised but who of course didn't know me from Adam. I never knew whether just to smile politely, call them by the first name, or pretend I didn't know them for fear of looking like a groupie. One one earth-swallowing occasion I enthusiastically greeted an older woman whom I thought was perhaps a friend of my mum, only for her to look at me like I'd escaped from a psychiatric hospital. After thinking she was very rude it twigged that she wasn't one of my mother's pals after all, but in fact the then Watchdog and The Weakest Link TV presenter Anne Robinson. Thankfully this reaction has never happened to me in the knitting world!

But back to the wool. Toft set up a stand to display Rachel's natural and undyed wool. There are also some knitted up hat samples to squish to show how the colours work together.

As well as the wool, DofaS sells blankets, tote bags and other goodies such as her first pattern book, Volume 1: Beginnings, which contains ten designs.

Image courtesy of Daughter of a Shepherd
The most popular pattern from the book, says Atkinson, is her own cardigan design, Skipwith. Sadly we couldn't try on the sample on display!

Next up Toft's founder, Kerry Lord, introduced Atkinson, who then talked about the work that goes into turning a fleece into a very covetable yarn. 

Rachel Atkinson and Kerry Lord
The initial idea
Nearly four years ago Atkinson was visiting her dad when the cheque arrived from the Wool Board, the non-profit organisation where all UK fleeces have to be sent to sell. It was for 10% of the value - a whopping 94 pence. It wasn't financially worth the cost in packing and transporting the fleece to the Wool Board and therefore it was in danger of being dumped. As a knitter Atkinson knew the fleece had the potential to make great yarn so she asked the estate owner if she could buy it and after doing her research took the fleeces after scouring to John Arbon's mill for them to be worsted spun into pure Hebridean wool skeins.

The pitfalls
After spinning 25 kilos Arbon said he couldn't spin any more because the fibres were too short, but Atkinson wasn't going to be put off by the challenge. The remedy was to blend the Hebridean with 25% Zwarbles. When it came to spinning another batch a year later there was another difficulty. Sheep fleeces vary depending on the health of the sheep and the weather. The latest fibres much shorter than the previous ones and the solution they came up with was to blend the Hebridean with Exmoor Blueface. Shades can change from year to year too. Said Atkinson, 'you never know what's going to come off the sheep!'

Expanding the DofaS range
The initial Hebridean yarn is now called Heritage 4ply. A shearer friend of Atkinson's collected fleeces from clients who would otherwise has destroyed them and they made their way into her Ram Jam line, £9 for a 50g DK skein, currently available in four colours although another grey is on the way.

For aran fans there's Brume, a blend of Hebridean and Zwarbles. Finally there's Castlemilk Moorit DK, spun from the fleeces of that rare breed. 

The earthy brown Castlemilk Moorit DK.
These are all warm, hardworking yarns for knitters who like to know the provenance of their wool and who prefer natural shades.

Kerry Lord explained that she'd chosen Daughter of a Shepherd as a guest yarn because that brand's small batch spinning and natural colour palette ethos mirrored Toft's beginnings.

After the talk it was time to go shopping, with the range proving a hit with the attendees. As for me, I went home empty handed because when I opened up my handbag I realised I'd forgotten my purse ...

Daughter of a Shepherd's wool will be on sale at Toft until the end of May.

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