Elizabeth Johnston on Working with Wool

Continuing on from yesterday’s piece with Cecilia about handspinning yarn in Cumbria, we move northwards! This evening we are joined for a Q&A by Elizabeth Johnston, whose handspinning is also closely linked with where she lives: Shetland. Elizabeth spins many different shades of Shetland fleece and dyes her handspun with natural dyes. Anyone who has had the pleasure of working with yarns produced by Elizabeth will know that this process really brings out the character and softness of Shetland wool. Clever combinations of natural shades and natural dyes and careful handling throughout the process ensure a minimum of damage to the wool fibres, and the end results are truly luxurious and distinctive. This unique approach to working with wool forms a basis for Shetland Handspun – the business which Elizabeth runs. Tonight Elizabeth will talk about both the creative and practical aspects of working with wool in this way. Unless otherwise stated, all content and photos © Elizabeth Johnston and used here with her kind permission.

My beautiful picture

WOVEMBER: Could you tell us a bit about your handspinning business? What is the range of yarns that you produce?

Elizabeth: I spin from 100% Shetland fleece, sourced from sheep that have been grazed on the heather hills. This is the habitat which nurtures the Shetland breed and the qualities of their fleece. The natural colours are what I use mostly – and there must be almost 40 shades of greys, browns and grey/browns. Over the past few years I have found that using natural dyes on the lighter coloured shades, as well as white, gives a range of exquisite colours which are so beautiful to mix and blend, and use with the natural colours.


There is a range of qualities in the Shetland fleece and so a range of different yarns can be produced easily, from very fine lace yarns to thick rug yarns. The most common yarns I spin are jumper weight (a 4-ply equivalent) and lace weight (a 2-ply equivalent). I spin a finer lace yarn when commissioned but the very fine lace yarn or cobweb is almost too costly to spin and sell. I also spin thicker yarns and worsted yarns, which would be Aran type yarns, sock and rug yarns. The most difficult yarn I have spun was a yarn which we call ‘hap’ yarn. The thickness is a 3-ply equivalent, so in between the Jumper and lace weight yarns. The problem was keeping the single at the correct thickness through all the miles of spinning so that when the yarn was plied – into a 2-ply – it was consistently hap yarn.


The yarns are only part of my business. Although spinning is my real love, I started as a Shetland knitter, and so with my yarns I design and knit garments, usually traditional Shetland garments, such as the timeless Fair Isle Allover and heirloom Shetland Lace Shawls and Stoles. There is a range of smaller items such as gloves, hats, scarves, as well as tea cosies, coffee pot and mug covers, egg cosies, lace lights, or anything else a customer would like. These can be also be given a contemporary look.

Sierra Exif JPEG

Sierra Exif JPEG

I also teach Fair Isle and Lace knitting, natural dyeing, and spinning on the spinning wheel and also on a hand spindle. I teach classes here is Shetland but I have also led classes through the UK, Europe, Scandinavia, Iceland and the USA, and have met many wonderful people in the process.

WOVEMBER: To a non-specialist audience, the only difference between a skein of 2-ply handspun and a skein of 2-ply millspun is the price. Obviously handspun yarn is far more labour intensive to make than millspun yarn, but I also feel that there is an extra value to handspun which can only be achieved through working at this detailed, hands-on level with wool. Could you say a little bit about something which you put into yarn-making which could just never be replicated by a spinning mill?

Elizabeth: The real difference in a handspun yarn is the quality, when starting from a raw fleece. The hand process of skirting, sorting, carding or combing and spinning means no damage to the fibres, and leaves a stronger and softer finished yarn. The mill machinery, and invariably the use of chemicals in the mill process, damages the fibres. I can also choose a specific fleece or part of a fleece for a particular quality or a distinctive colour, whereas a mill will process a batch of several tonnes at one time, losing individual characteristics.

WOVEMBER: On a purely technical note, there must be types of yarn which can only be made by hand; could you tell us about one of these which you have produced?

Elizabeth: Mill machinery is very sophisticated and can produce a vast array of yarns, just take a look in a yarn shop. What the machinery itself does not have is the imagination that handspinners have in their fingertips as they spin and the opportunity for variety within a batch of yarn. Art yarns are the classic thing that the machines cannot produce, and they are not really my thing – but in saying that I don’t get the time to play with the idea of art yarns. Maybe I would get hooked on that too if I took the time to play.

WOVEMBER: Handspinning has the huge advantage that you can add things into yarn as you’re spinning it; that you can play with colours and concepts; and that you can experiment on a small scale with very little wastage involved. Could you describe an experiment in handspinning?

Elizabeth: I am I suppose a very conservative spinner, but I am spinning as a business and I spin what sells. From here in Shetland that is for the most part the traditional yarns. What I have experimented with is natural dying. This is something which I cannot learn directly from the older generations, so there is a different learning process compared to learning knitting and spinning locally. There is information I could draw on in the Shetland Museum and Archive, but the dye process has to be experiments.

At first I thought dyeing would always be on white wool, but I quickly tried the natural colours. I found that they all produced a different shade from the same dye pot and things started to get much more exciting. One of my favourites is madder red on a mid grey where you can still see the black fibres in the yarn, and the mix of black and red fibres is gorgeous.

Sierra Exif JPEG

Next I tried over-dying to get a range of greens, oranges and purples. My most intriguing results were from cochineal and indigo. Using grey and fawn hanks, I dyed firstly in cochineal taking a 1st and 2nd bath from the dye pot. I then over-dyed in Indigo, putting different amount of indigo on to the different colours from each of the 2 cochineal baths. The results were stunning. I got pink/purples, blue/purples, purples where you could see spots of cochineal pink underneath, and dark purple blues where you could see the cochineal colour in there too. Then there was some where the ‘halo’ that you get on the surface of Shetland yarns looked darker colour than the yarn underneath.

photo © Nat Hall photography

Next I want to try mixing some exotic fibres with the fleece to see what effects I can get with that.

WOVEMBER: Handspun yarn is a luxury product to knit or weave with, and it is a far more expensive choice than millspun… however it also presents creative possibilities that are just not possible with millspun. Have you ever enjoyed a particularly beneficial collaboration where your expertise in spinning helped a knitter or weaver to realise their vision?

Elizabeth: I did work with one girl who wanted to spin her own yarn and weave a ‘Grenner’, which is the blanket woven by the Lapps. The Grenner was to be woven old style on a warp-weighted loom. We had samples of the yarns they use today which are spun by a mill under instruction by the Lapp weavers. This was a learning process for both of us, and bringing it back to a handspun yarn. There were 3 yarns to produce. A hard spun 2-ply for the heddle band at the start of the weaving, a hard spun single for the warp, and a thick soft spun single for the weft. Firstly we had to choose the fleece, then experiment with different preparations, and then different spinning techniques on the wheel and spindle. When we found the processes that worked some practise was needed to perfect the yarns before spinning enough to make a blanket. I saw the first test piece that was worked before the full size blanket was started. It was a beautiful piece with a strong warp yarn and the soft weft giving a thick, and very warm and soft fabric. Perfect for keeping warm on a cold night in the Arctic.

WOVEMBER: On the other end of things, is that relationship with knitters and weavers ever difficult… are there ever tensions or misunderstandings that can arise when knitters or weavers want a particular handspun yarn from you?

Elizabeth: I have never had a problem with a knitter or weaver – I suppose other than the price. Mostly there is an understanding of the labour intensive process and the need for the price to be high. Someone who thinks it is too expensive does not buy the yarn or the garment. I have had customers who have asked for a quote, then saved up before purchasing or placing an order.

E.Johnston handspun handknit Selkie sweater

WOVEMBER: Finally, I am really interested in the labels people make for their own yarn; I wondered if you could tell us about the labels you use for your handspun and also where WOVEMBER readers might buy it?

Elizabeth: I use a very simple sew-in woven label which says ‘Shetland Handspun’ and has my web address on it: http://shetlandhandspun.com/ My business card is also a garment tag and a band for the hanks of yarn, so the reverse of the card has space for details of price, style, design, yarn content and colour, and yarn lot, and washing instructions. As I do not need a huge number of either of these I find that having one item which works as a card, tag and band, suits very well!

Thank you Elizabeth for taking the time to tell us a bit more about Shetland Handspun and for sharing your beautiful handspun, handdyed, and handknitted 100% WOOL creations with us this WOVEMBER!

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

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