Sue Blacker on the unique characteristics of breed wool
WOVEMBER would be nothing without the knowledge and support of our honorary member of TEAM WOVEMBER, SUE BLACKER and we are delighted that she has agreed to write some more this year!
Given that the KnitBritish Breed Swatch-along is running alongside WOVEMBER this year and that participants are discovering such a lot about the characteristics of wool – which goes way beyond the initial hand-squish-grab of the ball in the shop – LOUISE was keen to ask Sue about her favourite single-breed yarns which are worth swatching to discover their qualities and longevity as a knitted fabric.This WOVEMBER people are participating the the Breed Swatch-along and are looking beyond the thoughts of the initial feel to discover the individual characteristics of each breed wool. By test driving swatches and repeating the wash, block and wear process we are discovering how the wool fabric changes, what it can tell us about what that yarn is best suited to and how the yarn may behave over time. Whether it is strong fabric suited to socks, a wool that will be lovely next to the skin or fabric that evolves from a harsh handle to a soft fabric – participants are already learning so much from their chosen yarns, perhaps having picked breed wool they have avoided, thinking it is itchy. Often I am informed that people find breed wool too itchy to knit with and before I asked Sue about her favourite wools I had to ask her about this all-too-frequent statement.
How do you feel when people use the term “itchy” to describe breed wool?
Part of me thinks they don’t really know what they are talking about – to condemn all breed wool, out of hand, as unwearable is simply not true! There are some wonderful soft yarns, from British breeds too! I have to say that some breed yarns are not as soft as others, from the same breed, which is why at Blacker Yarns we really go all out to get the best quality and finest fibre we can from each breed we use.
Part of me also thinks they may be wimps! However, it is certainly true that some yarns are rough, itchy or even scratchy! It does seem to vary a lot between different people as to what they feel as irritation though. People do tend to want to wear only one layer of clothing nowadays (unless for outdoor sport, I guess!), and could consider wearing something underneath to make things more comfortable …
How would you encourage people to think differently about feel and texture?
In the end, it will be about what they feel. So it’s important that they should feel a wide variety of samples. Also, the wool in a ball is often somewhat stretched on the outside, so it’s a good test to put a finger into the centre of the ball where the wool is loosely wound and it will almost always feel much softer. This is why hanks/skeins are usually much softer to handle than balls of individual breed yarns. Then a woollen spun will soften and “ripen” with handling and use, to a much greater extent than a worsted spun yarn, so a little patience will often bring huge rewards – this applies to the handling at knitting, and then more so to washing and wearing over time.
The other aspect is that a tightly worked item, with a dense texture, on small needles, will be nice and wind-proof or harder wearing, and will not feel as soft as a more loosely worked item. Finally, I would simply not want my socks too soft as they will wear out too quickly – nor my gloves! So it’s a choice for the style of the design and also for the purpose of the item, which will help – most people’s hands and feet are considerably less sensitive than their necks and shoulders!
This is why we design our knitting and crochet patterns with a specific breed in mind, although some can be readily interchanged – there is a table which shows which yarns work for what patterns at the end of my book, Pure Wool.
I asked you to pick your top single breed wool yarns selecting them on their merits of their unique characteristics, for how they wear and for the kind of knitted fabric they create.
Tell us about your first choice, Gotland wool. You have a particular affection for this breed, don’t you, why is this?
I am fond of Gotlands as sheep, as I have kept them for some 20 years now and they are very rewarding. The wool is a lovely, variable natural pure grey without any brown in it and can be anything from silver to charcoal, so it is very versatile. It will also felt very well – including on the animals, which is why they are shorn twice a year in the UK.
Perhaps its other most interesting quality is that it is a lustre longwool, so it will take and reflect dyes beautifully. In fact, due to the smoothness of the fibres, Gotland is not great as a worsted spun yarn and works much better woollen spun, which it will not shed and pill. Gotland is perhaps most like mohair of all the wools, so will also grow a halo over time, and this means it is wonderfully light and warm, as well as very economical, but it will lose some definition in highly textured items as they age.
So you do have to persevere with the handle, as the worsted spun will feel gorgeously soft but is not terribly practical, and you just have to work gently with the woollen spun version until age and use make it equally soft!
I like the naturally heathered grey base and then the way the dyed colours take on the yarn to make it both bright and subtle. I love the lightness and economy of a woollen spun Gotland garment – the yarn seems to go farther than many! It has a wonderful halo and the stitch definition is reasonable. I think it works best for pullovers, jackets, shawls, hats and gloves, perhaps less for socks as it will felt inside with wear (although this might be perfect for welly-boot socks?) – I fear some people will not be able to persevere long enough for a scarf.
Jacob is a key breed at Blacker Yarns, but a wool that you describe as underrated. Can you give us an insight into what makes this a versatile knitting yarn and worth a swatch?
Jacob is a great every-day wool – it has the benefit of coming from a black-and-white sheep so is available in at least three natural shades of the white, the dark and the mixture, which are great for traditional Scandinavian styles of colour work or tweeded patterns. We are planning to add some intermediate shades to the Blacker Yarns range soon, as well.
As a larger and more numerous sheep, Jacobs produce a wide range of wool quality, which can be used for coarser carpet yarns, or hard-wearing tweeds, right through to really fine soft yarns. Those who have experienced the coarser end of the scale may think it a typically scratchy British breed wool. To which I can only say, do try our worsted spun version! This will be hard-wearing enough for socks and also soft enough for hats, outer pullovers and jackets.
One interesting aspect of Jacob is that the “black” is not really black but a very dark brown, so when it is mixed, and even more so when it is worsted spun, the mid colours are a quite a rich brown/grey and not a true grey. This is a more flattering shade for some people and also has a nice warmth and will tone with plenty of warmer shades in the wardrobe.
North Ronaldsay is a yarn that a lot of people tell me is too “toothy” for them. To me it has a truly incredible texture with that double coat and it is a yarn that really benefits from washing and blocking to bring out the softness of the undercoat. Tell us about what you like about this breed, the different preparations and what that means in terms of the knitted fabric?
It is true that a 100% North Ronaldsay yarn will contain quite a lot of coarse fibres. If selected carefully, I find these fibres add interest without any discomfort – but then I am a hardy soul! Generally the coarser fibres will be a bit darker than the fine ones, so if you take the option of looking for a combed, worsted spun yarn, where the coarse fibre has been removed, you not only “de-nature” the natural quality of the fibre but you also lose some of the lovely heathering from the natural colours.
The sheep has developed the double coat to help keep warm: the coarser fibres add structure to the fleece and the finer ones do the insulation – without both the sheep would suffer in cold, wet, windy climes – so this is the purpose for which you should consider the yarns – it’s wonderful for throws, thick outer shawls and jackets and waistcoats.
I do think that washing and blocking will help a lot to bring out the softness, and there is a high proportion of soft fibre in North Ronaldsay compared to some other double-coated sheep breeds, so the softness will come!
Black Welsh Mountain is a breed that has been a popular choice in the KAL – though some people are finding their close Welsh cousins quite a lot more “characterful” than the BWM to knit with! Different ages of BWM sheep create very different qualities and weights of knitting yarns, don’t they?
Sadly, all of us, and this includes sheep, change with age! In the case of sheep, the fleeces generally become coarser … which means that only very rarely will older sheep make such soft yarns as lambs and shearlings.
The BWM generally has quite fine wool and also is unusual in that it is really very black and bleaches neither reddish (like the Zwartbles) nor greyish (like the Hebridean). It also tends to have no kempy white hairs. Cross breeding over many generations means that some BWMs may have white or kempy fibre from illicit liaisons in the past … or so say those in the know! Meanwhile, Hebridean will definitely become quite shot through with grey hairs as the sheep grows older.
We do manage to find BWM soft enough to make a 4-ply yarn. Generally it is preferable to consider making thicker yarns, like Aran and Chunky, from coarser fibres as basically all yarns are softest with the minimum twist needed to hold the fibres together.
This breed makes a light and comfortable outer garment and is best woollen spun for good insulation.
The longwool breeds can make a knitting yarn that truly sets itself apart from other knitting yarns; lustre, drape, spin, stitch definition. I find yarns like Teeswater and Wensleydale are incredibly pil-resistant too, making them very attractive as garment yarns. Tell us about your favourite longwool breed; how is it spun and the special textural characteristics of the wool.
I love the Black Leicester Longwool, which when worsted spun makes a beautifully soft deep grey yarn, and also the Cotswold, which will work as a woollen spun yarn if chopped a bit before spinning, or as a worsted spun yarn.
The lustre long-wools all take dye amazingly and the brightness is really intense in Wensleydale, Teeswater and Cotswold – the longer the fibres, particularly if worsted spun, the brighter and more intense will be the dyed shades. A woollen spun version will lack the intensity of lustre and sheen, though it will be a little bulkier and should still have very good stitch definition. It is the light reflection which also makes stitch definition very visible, though this can be achieved in many yarns by needle size and stitch selection as well.
The longer and not too fine fibres, although smooth, do not easily work their way out of the yarn to pill or shed, though they will create a nice halo on the worsted spun versions.
The only draw-back is that these yarns can sometimes be very lean, making either a very open fabric or a rather heavy one if worked densely, although they compensate for this with the wonderful drape.
You’ve also chosen Mule as one of your top breeds and you were telling me it is a very undervalued wool. Tell us about this breed and what it takes to make a good knitting yarn. Why should people experiment with this breed during the swatchalong?
The Mule is the numerous hard-working lamb producing cross-bred sheep which is mainly what we see in the fields. Mules come in many types, depending on the original ewe: whether she was a Scottish, Welsh, North Country or Exmoor sheep. The rams are generally either a Blue-faced Leicester or sometimes a Teeswater or Masham. Second generation Mules may then be cross-bred with Texels, Beltex, Romneys or Suffolk, etc. for a lower altitude flock.
Of course this also means that Mule wool can be extremely variable, within and between different flocks and locations. However, the BFL and Teeswater genes, and also good Romney, can produce very fine lustrous or semi-lustrous fleeces. This is what I am looking for when selecting the wool for a Mule yarn. We currently have a Welsh Mule worsted spun yarn which I think will reward some experiments! The creamy, semi-lustre base also means what it can take dye well … so it is an interesting and less expensive yarn than pure BFL and pretty suitable for home dyeing …
At its best, as a BFL substitute, Mule will make garments which can be worn next to the skin, or shawls, scarves, etc. and if it is not quite so good, it will work for jackets, hats, pullovers and socks.
Sue, thank you so much for sharing some of your favourite single breed wools with us and giving swatchers inspiration and insight into these incredible breeds.
When it comes to the myriad ways in which wool can be treated and spun, to become knitting yarn, I never failed to be wowed. One swatch of, say, worsted spun Wensleydale, may look and feel, and wash and wear so much differently to one that has been woollen spun. If you then consider how a fleece ages; and that some wool is best suited to certain weights of yarn over others then this affects the characteristics of those swatches too. It means that the KnitBritish breed swatch-along could go on for a very long time indeed, if we are to discover ALL the configurations, characteristics and compositions of wool! You can join in and swatch and go on this journey of woolly discovery with us and if you cast on a swatch this WOVEMBER, why not tag it on instagram or twitter with #WOVEMBER.
Thanks SO much again to Sue. She will be back later in WOVEMBER with post on working with small producers. Sue has also kindly donated her top yarns, here described, as a WOVEMBER prize – many thanks for such a generous woolly prize!
All images courtesy of Blacker Yarns, except Louise’s Teeswater swatch