Sourcing British wool for weaving
Sourcing British wool for weaving isn’t that straight-forward; not all products are online and often you have to contact suppliers directly, but it is rewarding if you make the effort.
Our brief for Foraged Colour is to use British wools, locally grown and spun. We decided not to include wool from the Falkland Islands, even though it is British,because really, it has travelled too far to be local. The three weavers on the project, Eve Kumari, Frances Westerduin and me – Penny Wheeler, are looking for at least three different fine-ish yarns that would show the range of British wools, and suit our individual weaving styles and looms.
How I went about the search
Being a weaver, I started with The Weave Shed list of yarn suppliers and finishers, and checked out the websites of every wool supplier, phoning them up if there wasn’t enough information on their website. For every British wool I found, I recorded the webpage, description, yarn count, units sold, price per unit, and calculated the price per kilogram, so we could compare like with like. This was the start of an obsession! From The Weave Shed I went on to review suppliers listed by Real Good Yarns, Make it British, and Wool Sack directories and Google searches like British wool yarn for weaving suppliers. Finally, I had to stop. I ended up with a list of over 150 yarns on my spreadsheet, from which to make some recommendations.
There is a thriving British wool market made up of farms, small businesses and small spinning mills that sell wool from rare breeds of sheep. These are mostly aimed at hand knitters. There are also larger yarn manufacturers and suppliers who tend to sell British wool from mixed fleeces. However, website information can be incomplete and/or sellers are not clear whether a yarn is grown and spun in the UK.
Everyone we have contacted has been very friendly and helpful, even if they haven’t been able to meet our brief, they have recommended other businesses and mills that have. They are enthusiasts and incredibly knowledgeable about their trade. I have learnt so much about the wool properties of different breeds of sheep, spinning, and yarn counts. Laura from Laura’s Loom is one such enthusiast, a weaver and supplier of weaving yarns, mainly Bluefaced Leicester; read Laura’s story of how her wool is processed from fleece to fabric. You do need to be aware that if you buy from small suppliers or farms, they have limited stock and could run out (this has happened to us), and Wool Sack warns that the quality of the yarn could vary from year to year depending on the climate etc.
British wool in general tends not to be fine and can be coarse – think gentlemen’s tweed jackets. We have the wrong climate for fine wool from merino sheep. Even in the 17th and 18th centuries in Somerset, at the height of the wool trade, we imported fine wool for weaving from Spain, (where merino sheep originate). However, if you are willing to experiment, Britain has more sheep breeds than any country in the world. The British Wool guide to breeds is very useful for getting to know the different properties and textures of each breed. The finest yarn I found was Shetland Supreme Lace Weight from Jamieson & Smith, worsted 1/16 Nm, and the thickest (and most expensive per kg) was the hand spun Super Chunky Dreadlock Yarn from Nellie and Eve. You can also find guanaco, alpaca, Angora and cashmere grown in the UK.
Weavers have told me that wool spun for hand knitting can often be used in the warp, and of course any wool can be used in the weft. Yarns spun for knitting tend to be woollen spun and have less twist; look for finer weights from lace weight to 4ply (ranging from 1/16 Nm to 1/2.5 Nm). Weaving yarns have more twist, may have been steamed to set the twist, and are sold oiled on the cone – the oil gives more control.
Yarns we have chosen for sampling
We got shade cards and/or samples for all the warp yarns, except the Shetland, just to check the feel of the yarns before buying.
- Bluefaced Leicester 1/14 y.s.w. (1/7.2 Nm) worsted spun from Laura’s Loom – Penny “gorgeously smooth feel with a lustre”
- Sheepsoft Airedale 2/9 Nm worsted spun mix of Bluefaced Leicester and Masham from Laxtons – Frances “lovely and soft”
- British Wool 1/7.5 Nm woollen spun from Gledhill Ltd – Penny “think gentlemen’s tweed jacket”
- Shetland Supreme Lace Weight 1/16 Nm worsted spun from Jamieson & Smith – Eve “beautifully soft and silky, but too many breakages in the warp”. Eve is looking again.
I do get very excited about textured and hand spun yarns, and we have found some gorgeous ones to try for starters:
- Hand spun spiral spun Wensleydale from Home Farm Wensleydales – “the ultimate luxury yarn”, spun by 75-year-old Corinne, who has been spinning for 50 years!
- Badger Face Welsh Mountain Torddu hand spun from the Lost Sheep Company
- 4 ply Pure Kid Mohair from New Forest Mohair
- Number 1 Organic Galway Wool, woollen spun, single ply lace weight from Garthenor Organic
- Bluefaced Leicester 1/12 y.s.w (1/6 Nm) woollen spun from Laura’s Loom
- Bluefaced Leicester with Masham Sheepsoft Airedale 1/9 Nm worsted spun from Laxtons
- Kempy 1/5 Nm woollen spun from Gledhill Ltd
You will see how we get on with these yarns on the project in future blog posts.
Have you woven with British yarns? What are your thoughts and favourites?
Yarn counts: All yarns are spun to a count, which gives an indication of the thickness of the yarn; in general, the higher the count the finer the yarn. All counts have two numbers – one is the number of strands (or ends) that have been twisted together to create that yarn and one is the count. Sometimes a singles yarn may not be listed with a second number, but it would be ‘1/’.
I find metric count or Nm easiest; it is based on the number of 1000m (metre) units in a kg (kilogram) of yarn, and is easily comparable with knitting counts of metres per 100g or 50g (grams). For example: 1/7.5 Nm is a singles yarn with 7.5 km or 7500m of yarn per kg; 2/9 Nm is a two-ply yarn, where each strand is 9km or 9000m per kg, but if you buy a kg you will be getting 9000/2 = 4500m of yarn because the yarn has two strands twisted together.
There is also y.s.w Yorkshire skeins’ weight, based on 256 yd lengths per lb, and w.c. worsted count, based on 560 yd lengths per lb. Offtree Ltd. have a handy yarn count converter.
Worsted spun: Spun with the fibres aligned parallel to one another, and combed to remove the short fibres prior to spinning. Worsted spun fibres are strong and lean.
Woollen spun: Spun with various fibres in different lengths overlapping each other in a multi-directional format, which creates pockets of air in-between the fibres. A woollen-spun yarn has a very soft feel, is bulky and relatively weak. Harris tweed is woollen spun. If you want a pleat, it will not be as crisp or flat a pleat as one made from worsted spun fabric, it will be a softer, more rolling pleat.
Notes and references
-  Apparently, Falkland Islands merino wool mostly travels to Britain via MOD supply vessels, that would otherwise return empty. So, it is a more sustainable choice than we first thought.
-  A P Baggs and M C Siraut, ‘Bruton’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 7, Bruton, Horethorne and Norton Ferris Hundreds, ed. C R J Currie and R W Dunning (London, 1999), pp. 18-42. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol7/pp18-42 [accessed 23 February 2020].
-  Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927), Letter IV, Part II. A Vision of Britain Through Time http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/travellers/Defoe/16 [accessed 9 April 2017].