Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Boreray Project part 5 - NOT the Final Chapter!

So the story continues from September 2011 when the Boreray fleeces went to Natural Fibre Company for processing and spinning.  By February 2012 I'd heard the exciting news that it had been processed in the mill and had spun into a very nice aran weight, a natural oatmeal colour as the majority white fleeces had been coloured by the few coloured fleeces.  It was a 'robust' yarn that you might not want to wear next to your skin, but looked as if it would knit well for cables and texture.  Here it is!

The hat is the special pattern that went with the packs of yarn for the people who purchased some of the 360 balls of yarn. There was great publicity for the yarn and for Boreray sheep and the price included a donation. This, together with additional donations linked to the aran yarn meant cheques for £316 were sent to each of RBST and the Soay & Boreray Society to support the genetics research into Boreray sheep.
I took a long time to decide what to knit with my precious 4 balls, and then to find the right pattern.  Knitting has now finally started and my project is here.  Other Boreray yarn projects can be found on Ravelry.  One of my favourites is this wonderful knitted and felted Boreray IPhone Hoodie

Those of you who have read the previous chapters in this story will remember our excitement at the Pooh Party when we discovered the fine undercoat fibres and how we separated them out after advice from Sue Blacker that their absence wouldn't affect the quality of the Boreray aran yarn.

Initially, being spinners, we had fond thoughts of handspinning it ourselves - yes, I can hear other spinners drooling at the thought.  Sue Blacker though was very supportive of a tentative suggestion I made.  Yes, if I could give NFC the fine fibres already dehaired and if together we could find enough very fine Soay so that together it made the minimum 20kg, then NFC would explore spinning it into a laceweight yarn.  I'm very grateful that at that point I wasn't lynched by my spinning friends, although they were very happy for me to tackle the mammoth dehairing task on my own.

Time for a quick look at double coated fleece.  This subject is covered much better in a book that rarely leaves my side.  The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook by Deb Robson & Carol Ekarius  The Boreray information starts on page 154.

This is some of the fleece that we separated out.  At first glance it doesn't look any different, but there is no kemp in it and at the base of the locks are the fine fibres.  Kemp can be removed manually from fleece but it can involve tweezers and rather more patience that I'd even want to have.
Here is the process starting with the complete lock on the left.  You then grasp the base of the lock in one hand, the tips of the long hairs in the other and gently ease the hairs from the lock.  The photo on the right shows the 2 types of fibre separated.

 With the Boreray fleece this wasn't that difficult to do, it's just that there were two sacks of selected fleece to work through.
Note the two green net bags next to the sacks.  This was my ultimate sacrifice.  In them was the fine fibre from the very first box of Boreray that I'd bought for myself at the beginning of 2011, together with the very finest of the Light Phase (golden) Soay that I'd also separated out for myself.  We're talking handspinning paradise in those two bags.  Without them though there wasn't enough fibre for NFC to spin the laceweight.

Read on though and you'll find out why I'm no longer weeping about this loss.

So the system I had was to sit in a comfortable chair with a sack in front of me, apron on lap, 'hair' box to one side and 'fluff' box to the other.  I'd take a lock of fleece, remove the hair and any other unwanted bits, drop the hair in one box (on the right) and let the fluff float down into the other (on the left).  For a few weeks whole evenings passed in this way.

This though was the result, and this photo does actually manage to show this magical 'fluff' that had got us all so excited.  The 'fat' looking dark fibres are actually very fine and soft, this is just a very magnified photo.  Sadly my achievement at getting this in focus wasn't matched by my remembering to include a scale in the photo.
Then, just before Wonderwool Wales in April 2012 I received some exceedingly exciting news from Sue Blacker.  Without me knowing there had been some experimenting going on at the Natural Fibre Company and they had found a way to separate the hair from the fine fibre in the mill.  By now I'd done around two thirds of the fleece, may have been slightly losing the will to live, and at the same time was being very busy with the Woolsack 2012 cushions project, so this was more exciting news than you might think.  Wine was hastily put in the fridge for the evening and the fibre boxes and bags were closed.

The fibre and fleece was handed over to Sue at Wonderwool and then, late in the evening of 29th October 2012 I got an email titled 'good things come to those who wait'.  The Natural Fibre Company had done it!  Sue had a ball of the laceweight yarn in her hand.

 There wasn't enough Boreray on its own so it was an obvious choice to blend some very fine Soay fibre, Soays being the other sheep breed still found on the St Kilda Islands.  The name for the yarn had to be 'St Kilda'.  I don't know how much of the process of producing this amazing laceweight yarn is 'trade secrets', but it might be worth following Sue Blacker's blog, since her experience with the wool from the Boreray sheep would be a fascinating read.
As you can see, the white and coloured Boreray, the 'golden' Soay and some very fine dark Soay that Sue was able to source came together to give this fabulous colour.  Sue rushed a ball up to me and I took it to show my spinning friends at our spinning group on 1 December.

Yes, we had missed out on spinning the fibre ourselves, but as you can see we were all delighted with the spun yarn.

This isn't all though.  I thought that it would be even more special if there could be a special pattern designed for this unique, one-off yarn.  It had to have a link to St Kilda of course, despite any difficulties caused by the islands having been evacuated in 1930.  There are some very special images though of the people of St Kilda which can be viewed as stills and film on the National Library of Scotland Scottish Screen Archive  On one page you can view the whole of the film, St Kilda - Britain's Loneliest Isle

I've just received permission from National Library of Scotland to post here a still photo from the St Kilda section of The Island Tapes DVD  If you look at the film on the website you'll see most of the women are wearing these woven shawls, some in a plaid design.

One thing immediately becomes apparent when viewing these images.  They didn't wear knitted shawls outside, so there are no patterns to reference or try to copy from photographs.  I did though know someone who has a wealth of knowledge about knitting and textiles in the Scottish Isles, and is also an experienced designer.  If anyone could create a special design that reflected and was inspired by the people and textiles of St Kilda from nearly a century ago, then it was Elizabeth Lovick.  I was so pleased when she agreed to take on this special challenge.  The story behind the design will be much better told by Liz, so keep an eye on her blog - Fibre Life In Orkney

ETA You can read about Liz's research into St Kilda and see some wonderful photos in her latest blog post here and the pattern can be purchased here, or as a download version here.

I will give a little hint though - this is part of the scarf pattern, before blocking.  As I have already discovered, not only is St Kilda a wonderful yarn to knit with, but it blocks beautifully.

So, this should be the end of the story.  How a group of Boreray enthusiasts, some spinning friends, Sue Blacker and the staff of the Natural Fibre Company and the designer, Elizabeth Lovick came together and produced two new and unique yarns to raise the profile of our rarest breed of sheep while giving non-spinners the opportunity to experience the wool in two very different yarns.

The pattern should be appearing on the Blacker Yarns website within a few days, even though virtually every ball of St Kilda has already been sold.  I believe there are a very few left and the sole stockist is Kathy's Knits in Edinburgh.  If you want to have one of the last few balls, then just contact them

This is not the end though!  Natural Fibre Company has been able to work with those who have Boreray sheep and are now getting fleece from them each year, enough to produce a small batch of St Kilda on a regular basis.  Limited quantities of fleece means a little very fine Shetland has to be added, but having seen this first of many annual batches at Unravel last weekend, I'm delighted to report that it still has the special St Kilda feel and look about it.  Even more excitingly, the colour will be different each year since it depends entirely on the colours of the fleeces they can source.  So this first of many batches has come out a beautiful soft, lighter colour than the original.  The two work together beautifully though and I'll be knitting my own St Kilda shawl using both yarns.  The new St Kilda is already available through Blacker Yarns

Here are the two yarns together.

When I started this whole 'Boreray project' I didn't really have any hopes other than to enable my non-spinning friends from the Blacker & Beyond with FFSB Group on Ravelry to experience yarn from  Britain's rarest breed of sheep.  I also hoped it might raise awareness of the breed.

I didn't dream that it would lead to two very different, rather special, yarns and create a new, ongoing, market for Boreray fleeces, some of which had previously been discarded.  So now I am going to dare to dream that one day the Boreray sheep will no longer be critically endangered.


  1. This is a beautiful story, thank you for sharing it, and well done on developing a whole new yarn, patterns, and such a grand litany of references and links along the way! Amazing!

  2. Thanks for the information! I found out today that my local 'Rare breeds centre' has some Boreray sheep. I wonder what they do with the fleece and whether they'll consider letting me spin it? I sense a trip up to their centre this week to find out!