Verity Britton and Ann Kingstone on Working with Wool
This evening we have a wonderful 3-way Q&A between WOVEMBER, founder of baa ram ewe, Verity Britton, and knitwear designer, Ann Kingstone. We will be discussing ‘Born & Bred’, a book by Ann Kingstone Designs published in partnership with baa ram ewe. This takes us smoothly into the ‘Working with Wool’ section of WOVEMBER, and explores what happens when yarn shop owners and designers collaborate with the material they have in common: WOOL. All photos © Verity Britton and used with kind permission.
Born & Bred, the book, available to buy here
WOVEMBER: At WOVEMBER we are really interested in finding ways to close the gaps between producers and consumers of wool; we have heard over the past few years of several projects which do this in different ways, and your wonderful book ‘Born & Bred’ seems like precisely this sort of project. I wonder if you could each speak from where you are within the industry on how this book came about, and why you wanted to produce it?
Ann: The book idea followed on a discussion with Verity and Jo (joint owners of baa ram ewe) about my branding as a designer. They supported me to see that I could make more of my Yorkshire heritage. Then the day after this chat Verity rang and proposed that we produce a Yorkshire-themed knitting book together. It was such an excellent idea that I agreed immediately!
WOVEMBER: One of the fantastic stylistic decisions you have made with ‘Born & Bred’ is the decision to include sheep photos and information on different, Northern breeds whose wool is used throughout. Could you say a few words about why you decided to do this? Was there a moment in your respective careers when specific breeds and local production became particularly important to you?
Verity: British sheep breeds – and Yorkshire sheep breeds in particular- have always been important to us at baa ram ewe. Supporting and preserving both the rare breeds that exist in this county, and continuing the heritage of wool production here in Yorkshire is pretty much our reason for existing. We found that customers were struggling to find inspiration in patterns using many of these yarns and so it seemed like a natural progression to develop a design collection using this wool.
Ann: Breed-specific wool has been important to me since I was 20, which is when I learned to spin. I had married into a Lakes farming family, and had private spinning tuition in Elterwater during a visit with my in-laws. Spinners become very familiar with the properties of fibre from different breeds, as this has a significant impact on the spinning experience, and the choice of spinning method (long-draw, short-draw, woollen or worsted).
One of my first projects with handspun was a Shetland Lace scarf. I knitted it with some hand-dyed Swaledale laceweight wool which I had spun from fleece grown on my in-laws’ farm (Wall End in Langdale). I had to be very selective in sorting, carding and spinning the fleece to get something soft enough for a lace scarf!
WOVEMBER: ‘Born & Bred’ uses yarn local to Yorkshire. Some of these yarns come from nearby mills, yarn companies or sheep breeds, while others are produced specifically by baa ram ewe; I wondered if you could both say something about breed-specific and traceable/local yarns? Ann, as a knitwear designer, what do you find particularly exciting about designing with local wool, and Verity, how do local wools and yarns fit into the ethos of baa ram ewe?
Ann: Working with Yorkshire yarns is a very special experience for me. I’m very proud of my Yorkshire heritage, and as a spinner and knitwear designer I’m particularly fond of Yorkshire wools. It feels like a form of patriotism to work with local fibre. I love the sense of continuity it gives me, a feeling of being connected to the shepherds and textile workers that have plied their trades in Yorkshire through many centuries, making Yorkshire a major centre for the wool trade worldwide. It’s a fabulous history, and it is in some way my personal history too. My grandfather was employed by Listers in Bradford to create chemical dyes for wool. And the house I live in now was built for a local textile mill foreman.
Verity: We have two have two key priorities when chosing which yarns to stock at baa ram ewe: first, is it lovely? Will knitters enjoy working with it and be inspired by it? Second, is it local? This could mean many things: does it use a local sheep breed? Is it spun locally here in Yorkshire? Is it from a more well known yarn brand still based here in Yorkshire and employing local people? For Born & Bred we focused specifically on local sheep breeds: Wensleydale, Swaledale, Masham and Whitefaced Woodland. Some of these yarns were easy to source- from the wonderful Wensleydale Longwool Sheepshop, Laxtons of Guiselely spin the lovely Jarol British Wool Aran and Rowan’s British Sheep Breeds Chunky is also spun by them. We then sourced some rare Whitefaced Woodland fleeces from a local North Yorkshire Farmer and had a small batch mixed with Hebridean fleece. We had it spun by the lovely Halifax Spinning Company in Goole, creating our ‘Rare’ yarn. The book was also an opportunity to showcase for the first time our Titus yarn, a blend of Wensleydale, Bluefaced Leciester and UK Alpaca which has gone on to be a tremendous success for us.
WOVEMBER: It strikes me that when working with rarer breeds – like that of the Whitefaced Woodland sheep – there must be limited available fleece to spin; does this pose any disadvantages to either of you and have you found creative solutions to working with limited quantities of rare fleece when either designing patterns or managing stock?
Verity: As anyone with small amounts of rare breed fleeces will know, the biggest challenge is finding a way of processing the fleece on such a small scale. There are still a few spinning mills who are committed to doing this, and without them we would definitely have far fewer rare British sheep breed yarns available.
As for stock and availability, we find being honest with our customers is always the best approach. Our first few batches of Titus sold out very quickly and there were gaps in production while we had to wait for more Black Wensleydale to become available. But it wasn’t that we were cynically creating scarcity to grow demand- it was a genuine situation that arose out of the fact that we are committed to working with and supporting rare breeds. Our customers know and respect that, and it is why many choose to shop with us. Is it that understanding that I think creates such a special bond between our business and our customers.
Ann: I was aware that many of the yarns would not be widely available, so was careful to give details about the quality of the yarn (weight, feel, yardage) in the notes for project so that people can easily make substitutions for yarn they cannot find. Already the Swaledale Aran we used for the felted clogs has been discontinued, so folk are using other feltable breed-specific arans to make these.
WOVEMBER: ‘Born & Bred’ is not only very locally-focused in its use of yarn, but also in the places and inspirations for the patterns used throughout. Local landmarks, place-names and even a famous Yorkshire ballad are referenced; but perhaps of most interest to WOVEMBER readers will be the references to Masham Sheep Fair! Could you tell us a little bit about the Masham sheep fair, and about styling garments and a photo-shoot to fit this sheepy context?
Ann: As photographer, Verity will have most to say here. My favourite thing about the shoot was the involvement of the Ripon City Morris Dancers. They have such colourful, quirky costumes, which created bold splashes of colour in otherwise muted photos. I especially love the photo of the welly toppers that shows their legs leaping in the background, resplendent with red socks and clogs. And they provide a wonderful link to Yorkshire antiquity.
Verity: We knew that the location for the shoot would be paramount. Not only did it have to be in Yorkshire, it had to connect the reader with the sheep breeds we were using, so the obvious choice was the fantastic Masham Sheep Fair. This North Yorkshire town not only has a sheep breed named in its honour, but it also famous for its sheep sales where in the past as many as 70,000 sheep were sold each year. The Sheep Fair, held every September, commemorates these times, filling the town with sheep, morris dancers and craft exhibitions. It’s well worth a visit!
We probably did all the things a professional photographer doing a shoot would avoid: relying entirely on one day and one event to shoot all the pictures, not planning any specific locations for photos until we arrived and using two 1 year olds as models. It rained all day and we got changed in the toilets of the local café where we kept warm and took solace. It’s where we found the Ripon Morris Dancers drinking tea and so we did the shoot for the Betty tea cosy there and then!
I would class myself as a very ‘instinctive’ photographer, fearful of overthinking a shot and I trust my gut reaction about what will look good. I think we ended up with a set of images that have authenticity, emotion and a narrative, just like the yarns we worked with.
WOVEMBER: I love the whole look and feel of ‘Born & Bred’. As a pattern collection, I think the palette is beautiful – there is a warmth throughout, and I love the subtle sheepy shades and the incidental uses of blues in ‘Wetwang’ and ‘Little Tyke’. There is something very coherent about the whole collection; I wondered if you could tell us how the yarns you used were selected? Did you pick project-by-project or for the whole collection, in one go?
Ann: The designs came together in a rather fluid manner. I had some ideas before seeing any of the yarns (Little Tyke and Roseberry), and we looked around for breed-specific yarns that we could realise thoe designs with. However, there were several designs that were very much led by the yarns, e.g. Betty, and the Swaledale Clogs. The yarns we used comprise all the Yorkshire breed yarn that was available at the time.
Verity: We knew from the outset that the whole essence of the book was to showcase Yorkshire Sheep breed yarns. There is not exactly a huge selection of yarns to choose from in this criteria, so in many ways the yarns selected themselves. Most of the yarns were natural undyed shades, which gives the book such an earthy and warm feel, but this meant choosing shades where available was an important decision, as they needed to blend well. We kept the colour palette subtle and evocative of our Yorkshire surroundings, which I feel adds again to the authenticity the book has.
WOVEMBER: Ann – did you find it a limitation to work only with what was produced locally, or was it rather a very exciting creative challenge? Verity – the photos are really great – very warm and vibrant and exciting – could you tell us about some of the styling choices you made to show off these beautiful natural sheep shades to their best effect?
Ann: It was an exciting challenge! And yes, it was frustrating at times. I had ideas that we couldn’t find Yorkshire breed yarns for, and had yarns that it took me ages to have ideas for. The biggest challenge was the Swaledale Aran. It was such a scratchy, dirty-looking yarn. For a long time nothing I tried with it looked good. Then one day I felted a swatch to see if that would improve the appearance of the yarn, and Wow, the felted swatch looked beautiful! It was a lovely mottled grey, like a silver dappled horse. Thus, the Swaledale Clogs had their beginning.
Verity: As I mentioned earlier, I do my very best not to overthink styling, as the worst thing for this shoot would have been for it to look ‘forced’. Essentially, we wandered round the Sheep Fair and took shots when I saw something I thought would work. There were occasions where we needed a ‘pop’ of colour to contrast the natural shades of the yarn, and one way we found this was through the Ripon Morris Dancers. We had no idea they would be there, but shots like those for the Wharfe welly toppers and the Betty tea cosy really work because of the bright reds, blues and yellows from the Dancers in the background. It was a total blessing!
WOVEMBER: ALL the designs in the collection are wonderful, but I wondered if you could each talk about one design which you particularly like, and why you particularly like it! It could be because of the yarn, something wonderful in the designing or photographing process, the sheep… anything!
Ann: For me it has to be the Swaledale Clogs, because they were such an unlikely success story. They are one of my easiest designs to knit, and yet are so elegant. I love how much they evoke a sense of Yorkshire homeliness. A simple, rustic design with a cosy application, made with a Yorkshire sheep’s wool. Perfect!
Verity: I think I would also have to say the Swaledale Clogs are my favourite piece. Including the Swaledale yarn in the collection was crucial, but as many readers will know, it is a rugged and kempy yarn which at the swatching stage Ann was really struggling with. We had a meeting and decided to throw it in the washing machine and see how it felted. Ann rang me excitedly a few days later and we knew we had cracked it! Clogs have such a strong connection to Yorkshire so it was a great thing to include in the book.
It was another challenge to shoot them on the day. Wearing clog slippers in the pouring rain on the streets of Masham was not an option, and I shot all the other pieces, hoping that inspiration would strike at the last moment. We are all pretty wet and exhausted by the end of things and I was reluctantly considering shooting them on another (drier) day, when we walked past the Bay Horse pub. We peered in through the windows and saw the roaring fire and I knew we had to shoot the clogs in there. The pub was packed and a gorgeous Beagle kept trying to get in the shot, but we got there in the end. Sadly the Swaledale Yarn has now been discontinued, but the pattern continues to sell well for us in the shop, using another British sheep breed alternative.
WOVEMBER: Finally, this kind of book which connects up place with wool and concepts for fashion really gives you the opportunity to think in much greater depth about clothes; I think this is really exciting and I wondered if you have found that publishing a book like this has opened up new kinds of conversations with knitters who knit your patterns and visit your yarn shop?
Ann: I had a memorable conversation with a student in one of my knitting workshops about eco-fashion. She was a fashion lecturer, and delighted by the ecological credentials of the projects in Born & Bred when worked in local wools. Many knitters have expressed enthusiasm for working with British wools, and some of the yarns we used in the books are personal favourites for some knitters.
Since publishing the book I have also had a lot more conversations with knitters about Yorkshire history and traditions. For example, very recently I received a question from a US knitter who wanted to know about the ‘honesty box’ that features in some of the photos for Wetwang. It was wonderful for me to be able to reply with an explanation from my own experience of honesty boxes when I lived in rural Yorkshire. There was an unattended veg cart on a lonely lane near my house. It was run on a trust system, with an honesty box for customers to leave payment for any produce they took from the cart.
Verity: I think the book helps to link up the process of ‘sheep to shop’ that is becoming of more and more interest to customers, where people are not only wearing something they have created, but they know what the breed is and where it has been spun. That connection is really powerful and I feel is how the British Wool industry will continue to grow.
I think it has also shown that you don’t have to use a merino or cashmere 4 ply blend to create something stunning, flattering and stylish. I feel the term ‘luxury’ in the yarn world is often reserved for exotic yarns from far away and there is still a stigma with British Wool that it cannot possibly compete with that. I think ‘Born & Bred’ shows you can still make inspiring and fashionable knitwear while supporting rare breed sheep and the historic Yorkshire wool manufacturing industry. And for that, I am very proud.
Thank you so much Verity and Ann for this amazing Q&A and for sharing so much of the rich back story behind this landmark publication! If you want to read more about the book, WOVEMBER highly recommends Deb Robson’s wonderful review here!