A discovery of sheep, provenance, sustainability, and community.

a knitter’s journey to the united kingdom

Written by Kieu

I decided to visit the United Kingdom for several reasons, but I’ll admit it – I timed my trip so that I could attend the third annual Edinburgh Yarn Festival. My first ever trip to England and Scotland was everything a foray into new territory should be: inspiring, a bit bewildering, and socially, culturally, and personally edifying.

But that is another train of thought. Let’s get back to the festival and my knitting-centric journey. I started my trip in London, where I did many lovely things unrelated to knitting and fiber, but on the day I arrived – slightly incoherent and delirious from being up for almost twenty-four hours – Loop was my first stop after a fortifying lunch of meat pie, roasties, and gravy.

Loop London

About two blocks from Loop, I ran across Sophie Scott of Pomcast, who correctly surmised my destination from the knitwear I was swathed in (March in London is cold!) and offered to rescue me from my consultation of Google Maps. However, my sleep-deprived brain did not quite register that uniquely familiar voice until she walked into Loop a few minutes after me (the delay due to the fact that I had declined her gallant offer of assistance – I’m quite good at reading maps). Of course, I introduced myself. And I bought three skeins of Orkney Angora St. Magnus DK, which is used in the beautiful Stephen West shawl designed for the tenth anniversary celebration of Loop.

While in London, I also met with Lydia Gluck, one of the co-founders of Pom Pom Quarterly. Having published a design with Pom Pom last year, Lydia and I have an established correspondence, and it was wonderful to finally meet her in person. Meeting people in real life is more than just putting a face to the name (you could do that with photos); it’s also about getting a feel for their aura. I know that sounds hokey, but being in someone’s living, breathing, thinking presence informs you so much more about that person that mere words on paper (or a screen) can. Besides the usual knitterly conversation, we rambled through city streets and into discussions of politics (Trump and Brexit, for starters) and personal reading habits. And Lydia introduced me to my first English pub!

After London, I traveled by rail to Bath to visit my friend Kelly, and we made the trip to Edinburgh together. On the morning of day one of the Edinburgh Yarn Festival, Kelly and I decided to catch the public bus to the Corn Exchange, the main venue of the festival. To my surprise, the bus driver greets me by asking, “Are you going to the Corn Exchange?” Are Edinburgh bus drivers mind readers? I quietly puzzled until I turned around – the entire bus was filled with knitters, easily identified by their colorful, fantastical, squishy, obviously hand-knitted attire. We were all going to the Corn Exchange.

The bus deposited us right around ten o’clock, the time festival doors open. And oh my goodness. The entry line already wrapped around the block! Knitters (yarnies, fiber enthusiasts – whatever you want to call them) are a dedicated bunch. Obsessive even. Lots of British folks of course, but also some from across the pond (such as myself) and others from the continent. EYF is British at heart, but its appeal is international.

Photo by Kelly O'Brien.
Photo by Kelly O’Brien.

There was a large focus on British wool and yarn production at the festival, which is a major reason why I wanted to attend. Where else would I find yarns made from Gotland, Wensleydale, Masham, Hebridean fleeces, and more, all in one place? And know that I am supporting small businesses that are working hard to farm and produce yarn responsibly while preserving local resources and traditions? This is perhaps partly why EYF, though only in its third year, has become so wildly popular. It is a great place for meeting the people who are raising the sheep, milling the fiber, and dyeing the yarn. And it’s a great place if you care about provenance, sustainability, and small business.

During the two days of the festival, I visited many vendors and talked to many people. I absolutely loved hearing the stories of all these extremely passionate people. Below are some highlights.

My first stop was the Blacker Yarns stall. Blacker Yarns is produced by The Natural Fibre Company, a wool mill in Cornwall that also processes fiber and spins yarns for customers. Blacker Yarns has limited distribution in the US so this was my chance to squish all their yarns in person! Blacker Yarns is committed to provenance and highlighting rare and endangered British breeds. From their brochure:

“The fibre we use is British. If you get in touch we can tell where the fleece used in each batch of yarn was raised… Our range of breed specific yarn is available in both dyed and natural shades… We also offer a selection of limited edition British breed yarns. Due to rarity these come and go, much like a guest ale.”

My haul from Blacker Yarns: four skeins of their newest yarn Tamar, which is a blend of endangered luster breeds with local Cornish Mule. I’m particularly fond of yellow-greens and mustards and every hue in between, and this color is perfect.

Blacker Yarns Tamar

Next stop: John Arbon Textiles, another small scale mill that also produces its own line of yarns. I purchased some very special Devon Grey Wensleydale, a limited edition undyed single farm, single breed yarn. As much as I love color, I really love undyed yarns too – it makes me feel more connected to the sheep! This yarn even smells like (clean) sheep!

John Arbon Textiles Devon Grey Wensleydale

John Arbon Textiles also spun a very special debut yarn, Daughter of a Shepherd, for Rachel Atkinson. I stopped by her stand to meet and chat with Rachel about her new yarn, which is incredible in so many ways. Rachel used the fleeces from her father’s flock of Hebridean sheep, which the British Wool Marketing Board basically declared worthless, to create this beautiful undyed yarn. I love the tag, which lists the shepherd’s name (her father) as well as the date of the clip. Read the story of this yarn and learn a bit about the British wool industry on Rachel’s blog or in her interview with Knit British.

Rachel Atkinson Daughter of a Shepherd

An unexpected discovery (of many): The Little Grey Sheep. Emma Boyles has a small family farm in Surrey, her sheep is sheared by Susie (shearers are awesome – check out this interview with shearer Matt Gilbert on the Woolful podcast), the fleeces are washed in Yorkshire, spun in Devon, and then hand dyed by Emma on her farm.

To be honest, as lovely as they are, I’ve been a bit wary of hand dyed yarns. I’ve had one too many skeins that have not been properly fixed, and the never-ending bleeding drives me nuts. But! Emma took the time to share some tips with me about how to fix dye at home. And she told me to send any yarn that wasn’t properly fixed back to her to be rectified. How could I resist buying yarn from someone who takes such pride in and ownership of her work? And thus some Gotland double knit came home with me. I’m confident I won’t need to send this skein back, and now I have some tricks to tackle those pesky skeins in my stash.

The Little Grey Sheep Gotland DK

The past year also gave rise to a crop of yarns produced by knitwear designers, including Blend No. 1 by Ysolda Teague (spun by John Arbon Textiles) and Buachaille by Kate Davies. (Rachel Atkinson, mentioned above, is also a designer.) I am (slightly) regretting not picking up any of Ysolda’s yarn, but my luggage for my whirlwind UK tour consisted of exactly one carry-on bag and one small backpack. I only managed to bring back as much as I did because I lived in a total of three outfits during those two weeks!

I did, however, acquire two skeins of Buachaille, the only worsted weight yarn I picked up during my trip. It’s 100% Scottish wool, and Kate has a wonderful behind-the-scenes post about the making of the yarn on her blog.

Kate Davies Buachaille

Besides the yarn, meeting the designers was part of the fun of Edinburgh Yarn Festival. I did not take any classes, but I did get to chat with some of the fabulous designers present, one being Stephen West. The only scarf/shawl/wrap I brought with me for the trip was knitted from Stephen’s Lumpy Space shawl design. When he wasn’t being mobbed by fans (ahem), I grabbed a quick photo with Stephen. This shawl has quickly become my favorite neckwear – fantastic, no?

Stephen West and me at Edinburgh Yarn Festival
Stephen West and me at Edinburgh Yarn Festival. Photo by Kelly O’Brien.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Di Gilpin, whose designs always incorporate amazing details. She and her team also collaborate with various fashion houses. I was never a vest person until I met the Arabesque vest by Di – I’m hoping to knit it this year. Di was also showcasing a new design, the Oak sweater, and she had a sweater-in-progress to demonstrate how the tricky-looking back detailing is done. Gasp-worthy!

Di Gilpin's in-progress Oak Sweater
Di Gilpin’s in-progress Oak Sweater.

Of course, I stopped to say hello (again) to the Pom Pom ladies. This time I also got to meet Amy!

Me, Amy and Lydia. Photograph by Kelly O'Brien.
Me, Amy (sporting the Pianissimo scarf) and Lydia. Photo by Kelly O’Brien.

And I paid my compliments to Verity and company at Baa Ram Ewe, the Leeds yarn shop that also has its own line of British yarns, Dovestone and Titus. Dovestone was used in my Pianissimo scarf design for Pom Pom, and it is lovely to knit with!

That's Verity in the center!
Look at those colors!

The number of people at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival was incredible and overwhelming. I found it impossible to spend the entire day there in the crush of people, and besides, it was a lot of inspiration and information to process – much like how I feel when viewing amazing exhibitions at museums. I wish I could have talked with more people, hear more stories, squish more yarn. I suppose I’ll just have to make another trip to the UK!