A River Runs Through It

The river theme for my yarns started with this yarn I blogged about yesterday. When I was planning it, the lustre of the wool once scoured really caught the light like sunlight playing off water and so I thought a watery theme would give a good yarn name as well as giving a sense of place. It helped with my decision to enhance that by adding 20% silk for a really shimmery lustre that is brought out strongly on the dyed shades.

I’m lucky enough to live in a really beautiful place. Wales is a very varied country and the scenery never fails to nourish me whether I’m at home or travelling elsewhere. At home we are on the top of a hill looking down into valleys – or cwm – whichever way we look.

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We catch quite a lot of weather here! The high level of rainfall drains off our wet clay soils and, along with the natural springs that rise all over the land, flows into the ditches we have to maintain. And at the bottom of our fields, this water run-off starts to form a very baby stream which almost dries up in summer. In the rare summers that it is scorching hot, it’s nice to go down under the trees and listen to this tiny waterway trickling its first “steps” to the sea.

It flows into the brook down to the village and from there into the first small river it turns into – the Afon Miwl. This joins up with the River Severn which is our local main river – or Afon Hafren in Welsh – and from there carries on to England and meanders its way south before heading out into the Irish Sea at Bristol. From small beginnings powerful things can grow and I liked the thought that the small batches of fleece my sheep were growing on our little fields were slowing gathering together before being turned into a proper grown up yarn.

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Late last Autumn I started to wind and dye a few skeins to test out my colour palette. When it came to photographing them, I knew I had to go down to the river and take the wool back to where its namesake flowed. This walk down the Captain’s Pitch is one that Marley and I enjoy occasionally – despite the fact it’s reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a local man murdered on his way back from chapel in the distant past!!

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The October light filtered through the trees for just half an hour or so as I tried to catch the colours (and not topple my basket of yarns off the bridge into the stream!)

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The colours played nicely against the moss of the bridge.

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And the soft shaded light really brought out the lustre.

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There are remains of various mills around this area. The farmer who lived at our smallholding before us was very interested in local history. Before he died he tried hard to enthuse me in the same passion. Sadly in my late teens and early twenties I didn’t fully appreciate all he wanted me to understand, nor had I yet developed the love for my new home, something that takes time to root and flourish. I thought he’d told me that the mills along here were sawmills and that the oak they milled from this land base was felled to provide timbers for the ships for the Royal Navy fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

I asked for help from someone who has long been associated with local history and textiles in this area and who was also a mutual friend of my farming mentor and she kindly corrected my hazily remembered misinformation, for which I was very grateful. She explained that although later they were converted to grain and sometimes sawmills, in the 19th C they were in the main fulling mills used for the local flannel cloth industry which was in its heyday in this area. As you might imagine, I was delighted to know that the mill was used for woollen textiles rather than wood!

She also directed me to the Cynefin project archives of the tithe maps for the area so I could see for myself the “flannel racks” or tentering frames where the wet woollen cloth was stretched and dried outside after fulling. They’re marked on land behind the trees opposite the bridge where I took the yarn photos above. This shows very clearly to what use the power of the river was being put – and in the 1840’s it was most definitely for wool! This screenshot detail of the overlaid map shows the racks as well as the Walk Mill woollen factory and river.

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I’m a bit clumsy with technology, although it is undeniably as useful to me as it is to others. In the main I prefer to do things by hand, it sits more comfortably with me and I find working things out by hand less frustrating. So when it came to making yarn labels for this yarn and for my other dyed yarns I wanted to draw – literally – on the landscape around my home. Whether looking west to the Cambrian Mountains as above or Snowdonia

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or behind us to the Kerry Ridgeway bordering England or to the soft undulations of the fields around my home…

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…wherever you look are hills, mountains and misty valleys; sheep, cattle and trees. They are connected to each other sustaining, shaping and evolving with the humans that tend them all. I started to sketch a stylised version because these are the things of my daily life.

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Which eventually turned into this label for the Hafren and Gwy yarns.

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And in the case of this Afon Miwl yarn, I’m able to bring the detail right down to the animals names!

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Afon Miwl is quite a sleek drapey yarn with little elasticity. Although it knits as a fingering weight / 4 ply yarn, its dense 80% longwool/ 20% silk worsted construction means its yardage is closer to sport weight yarn at around 290m / 100g (or 317yds / 3.53oz). It is in 100g hand-dyed skeins and is priced at £22.50 per skein. Colour batches are small, around 3 skeins in each colour batch.

It definitely lends itself to shawls and lace knitting. I think it would be amazing woven and hope there may be a few remnants after skeining that I can try this with myself.

I haven’t skeined all of the yarn yet but there will be around 150 skeins in total. And that’s it. I’m unlikely ever to make this yarn exactly like this again. The first batch of around 50 skeins will go on sale shortly once all the labelling is complete. Do feel free to sign up for my newsletter (subscribe button on my website www.barber-blacksheep.co.uk) to be informed of the planned update time.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my yarn project and will maybe want to knit with it too!

Colour in Symphony – trio and chorus

When I was photographing the skeins of Welsh Mule yarn for the shop listings a couple of days ago I quickly put together some colour combinations to help people making colour choices. These photographs are just snaps, not great quality (spot the skew-whiff ones!) and were just as I grabbed the skeins one after the other as the colours leapt out at me at the time not in planned colour ways.

So these are just to give an idea of possibilities, they’re not recommended colour combinations per se.

These are trios of colour. In some cases I’ve just swapped out one skein each time to show the subtle change from a lighter to darker version of a colour can make to a combination. I’ve put them in mosaic format to reduce the picture heavy nature of the post.

These are larger groups of 5 shades – a chorus of yarns perhaps…

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And finally 6 shades – mostly warmer shades and mostly cooler.

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Remember that these are for different ideas; if you’re looking for stranded colour work you’ll ideally need colours with high contrast in colour depth. If for stripes and edgings, contrast sleeves choosing subtle analogous colours (ones similar in shade) is fine.

When I’m working with colour and I don’t have the actual yarns to hand or if I’m designing colour schemes I’ve not yet dyed up samples to work with, I find it useful to have different materials in the kinds of shades I need just to help me see how they work together.

You can do the same – be inventive! I often use tufts of dyed merino tops as I have a lot in stock but I also use the paint chips that decorating merchants have for you to decide on colour test pots. I also colour in pieces of card with colour pencils or paints or lay them next to each other on white paper. But in a pinch you can use almost anything to give an idea of colour.

 

Colour in Symphony

Having introduced you to the colours of the Island Song collection last week and their inspirations, I’m now going to show you the colours all together and then in another post I’ll do a series of just pictures showing the colours in different combinations to help give ideas for putting them together.

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These images are all displaying the colours on North Ronaldsay heavy lace weight yarn – it was the one yarn I had in 100g skeins in stock to test the colours one last time and I needed all of them together to take colour photos. This is a really lovely yarn, it’s crisp and not especially soft at first but softens with handling. I’ve yet to knit it up myself (too many projects on!) but it’s begging to be made into a lace shawl or perhaps a vest or cardigan, the 2-ply structure will show off the lace stitches beautifully and snap cleanly round the edges of yarnovers. At this time I have only one of each skein which will go in the shop shortly after the Welsh Yarn but I’m hoping to get more of this “island” yarn back in stock at some point in the future.

I’ll be offering the colours first on two weights of the Welsh Mule yarn – one is a heavy DK/worsted 3 ply yarn perfect for squishy warm garments and the other a fingering/sport weight 2 ply which would work equally well as finer gauge garments or for lace shawls or small items like hats, mittens and children’s clothes; it’s a very soft yet robust yarn so will be perfect for items worn next to the skin.

Because of these attributes I’m offering the different weights in different skein sizes. The DK/worsted yarn will be available for now in 50g skeins and the fingering/sport weight in 100g skeins and a mini skein I’ve yet to finalise but most likely 25g. This will allow versatility in buying quantities for colour work or stripes, small items and still have larger skeins in the finer yarn for lace shawls where it’s good to avoid weaving in ends where possible.

For those who are interesting in colour-work I’ve turned some of the yarn photos into grayscale so you can see the colour intensity. This isn’t a subject for this blog post but colour work aficionados will know that for successful colour contrast in stranded knitting, you need a contrast in colour intensity as well as colour to make the shades pop out and work together rather than being lost in amongst shades of similar depth. This is a subject that has been addressed by many other far more knowledgeable knitters than myself so I suggest you google for more information.

Here’s the colours of Island Song.

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And the same photograph turned into grayscale.

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You can see that the shades range from almost white to almost black once the hues have been cancelled out. Picking out my favourite range of aqua blues and greens (to the left) for colourwork would leave me with quite an insipid pattern, I would need to mix it up with some of the other shades to give it some muscle.

However for stripes and some other kinds of knitting colour design you can choose whatever you like. You could go for a contrasting selection on a harlequin sweater with contrast sleeves or blocks of colour in the construction or intarsia. Or you might choose gentle shading and gradients or perhaps a delicate edging on a shawl or collar, hem and cuffs.

The choice is yours and the possibilities really wide!

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Island Song – v.2

The next three colours in the collection are Beaumaris, Marram and Seaglass.

Beaumaris

Unyielding,                                                                                                                                               impassive stone;                                                                                                                                            cool olive waters guard the flinty face.

I didn’t visit Beaumaris as a child – at least not that I remember. We would hop onto Anglesey via the Menai Bridge and speed north to our beloved holiday without deviating. Beaumaris is only a few minutes drive further east and although day trips out did take us to the south of the island, Beaumaris isn’t one of them that I recollect.

I did however visit it for the first time on one of my first holidays away with my own friends. Rather inevitably I dragged a couple of them back to Anglesey and we stayed in a B&B in the centre of the island and went to various places including my old stomping grounds and had the lovely surprise of finding some of my extended family staying there at the same time. They treated my young friends and me to afternoon tea with Barabrith. It was the last time I saw my lovely and talented great aunt who had inspired me so much more than I ever realised with her crafts and kindness to my family. She was 98 years old and I’m glad my last memory of her is on holiday sitting smiling in her chair at the cottage she’d lovingly decorated with handmade things over the years and shared so generously with many members of her family and friends.

The next day my friends and I did a little driving tour around the east side of the island and visited Beaumaris Castle. I have photos of the three of us smiling through the stiff sea breeze up on the battlements and being photobombed by tame seagulls hopeful that tourists might have food scraps they could scavenge!

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Beaumaris Castle was built by Edward I as a means to finally quash the Welsh who were causing him so much trouble by their refusal to be tamed and pay homage (or at least pay homage without their fingers crossed behind their backs!).

Started towards the end of the 13th century it was in fact never finished. Nevertheless it is a beautiful castle and has a very green (!) moat surrounding part of the castle walls and this moat is the inspiration of the green shade – an olive-y, mossy hue I am becoming increasing fond of apparently when I glance into my wardrobe!

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Beaumaris is corrupted from the French “beau/beaux marais” meaning beautiful marsh/es – the marsh on which the Norman castle was built and which originally meant it could be reached directly by ship on one side. Now the marshes are drained (I think it’s the car park actually!) but the incomplete ruin is still a fascinating place to visit. Because I had Marley with me on this trip I didn’t pay to go in again, we just peered through the railings to take photos but I want to go back again for another visit.

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Marram

Whip dry grass                                                                                                                                           halts shifting dunes;                                                                                                                               quick fingers bend it to the weaver’s will.

Marram is the papery silver green grass that grows along sand dunes in coastal areas everywhere. It has very long roots which anchor the dunes and stop them shifting with the weather and coastal erosion. Thus anchored, other species can establish themselves on the dunes amongst the marram grass – natures very own gabion boxes.

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Sand dunes with marram on were never that appealing to me; the dry fronds would tickle my bare legs as I ran along the coastal paths and every child knows the best kind of sand is the damp sort on the beach that you can build sandcastles out of or half-bury your long suffering daddy in…

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Marram Grass is far more interesting to me as an adult because of my interest in textiles. Marram has been used extensively by coastal dwelling and island people to weave into mats, baskets or creels and even nets and lobster pots. This is especially true of Newborough which is further south from where we stayed which had a thriving industry based on marram weaving. In the 14th century the new borough was partially buried by the dunes and in the 16th c the Elizabethan government ordered more planting of marram to stabilise the dunes and it was illegal to uproot the plants themselves.

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Marram grass weaving continued up until the 20th century. I don’t know if anyone still knows how to weave with it now – I would love to find that out! I did find this picture online of one marram weaver Ellen Williams of Newborough making mats (although to me it looks a little more like braiding). Finding out more about the marram weaving industry is on my very long list of things I want to do!

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Seaglass

Shattered shards                                                                                                                                 tumbled through waves;                                                                                                                       embedded frosty jewels in salty sands.

Beachcombing is still one of my favourite pastimes. I love hunting for interesting treasures washed up along the shoreline. Driftwood, mermaids purses and sea foam tossed from the sea. Unfortunately in the past four decades I’ve been beach combing, the stuff the sea churns up increasing includes vast quantities of plastic and a walk now along a beach after winter storms is a heart breaking lesson in what destructive and filthy creatures we humans are and how we soil our own environment.

Sandy beaches are great for playing on but the most interesting ones to me are pebbly ones. Delicate shells and interesting colours stones grab your attention if you keep your eyes peeled. My most favourite of all is searching for sea glass – there is just something wonderful about the frosty smooth finish of the sea, the thrill of hunting for different colours and wondering where it comes from.

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It will be no surprise to my spinning and knitting online friends that my favourite shade of sea glass is the pale aqua colour that looks like a Fox’s Glacier Mint. Each time I walk on a beach I keep an eye out for sea glass and on my favourite sea glass hunting beach it’s rare that I won’t find just one tiny fragment nestling amongst the stones…

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So you now know half the colours. Do you have a favourite yet? Can you guess what other shades might follow? How might you combine the ones you’ve seen so far!

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Stay in touch for the next three shades coming soon…

 

Island Song – v.1

I’ll split the colours into four blog post of three colours each – four verses of the song if you like!

I’ll start with the shades Anenome, Parys and Gorse.

Anenome

Motionless,                                                                                                                                                blood clots on rock;                                                                                                                     underwater explodes like crimson stars.

When I was tiny I was very afraid of deep seas. To my timid imaginations, all kinds of known and unknown beasties lurked beneath the cool green glaze on a still day or the rough choppy grey waves. Whilst nothing would have stopped me from joining my family on a fishing trip or rowing around the bay, I could be sent into a panic quite easily by my brothers teasing rocking of the boat even when our father would tell them off for frightening me. 

I was much happier when I could paddle about in the shallows with my net and bucket and most favourite of all were the rockpools filled with all kinds of fascinating and infinitely less scary creatures. Even the “crabbums” as I called them back then were smaller and easily avoided – they wouldn’t nip my chubby pink toes dangling in the tepid water warmed by the sun.

Sea anenomes always fascinated me. So vividly red and blobby when exposed at low tide, I loved watching their delicate tentacles waving under water and how they would shoot back when touched oh so softly with my fingertip.

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Parys

Eerie,                                                                                                                                                                the scarred crater lies;                                                                                                                          bleeding ancient rust from the shallow earth.

Parys Mountain (Mynydd Parys) is a place that doesn’t feature in my childhood, in fact I had never been there until a few weeks ago when I went specifically to see it and take photos for this project. However Anglesey is somewhere of massive geological interest generally, the rock formations everywhere are fascinating even to amateurs and the orangey coloured ironstone in the headlands I scrambled over is everywhere and is part of my association with the place.

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Parys Mountain is also known as The Copper Mountain;  as a fantastically rich copper resource it has been mined for almost 4,000 years since the Bronze Age. Although its value was recognised since prehistoric times, it came into its own in the 18th century when it was the most significant copper mine in the world and contributed to the islands economy and established nearby Amlwch as a significant town. Whilst I chose it as the inspiration for the intense, rusty, coppery orange I wanted, there are many shades in the Great Opencast and I want to revisit these colours at some point in my dyeing – a literal mine of colour!

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Visiting it on a hot, still day gave the eerie impression that I had suddenly landed on another planet, perhaps on Mars. Very little can grow on the acidic earth, heavy in metals and the bare, richly coloured heaps of rock give an other-worldy feeling that follows you as you walk. I think Marley found it a spooky as did, for once he behaved and didn’t pull on his lead!

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Standing looking down into the vast open mine it’s incredible to think it was largely created simply by men with hand tools and gunpowder, a point made by the information signs at that point. Miles of tunnels run beneath the opencast; apparently it is estimated that more than six million tons of copper, zinc and precious metals still lie in this mine. Even the pools of standing water are rusty orangey red…

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Gorse

Coconut                                                                                                                                                           and honey’d spice;                                                                                                                                  exotic scents on a salt-tanged ocean breeze.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Gorse is everywhere in Wales and indeed most rural places in Britain! I most notice the scent of it though when I’m at the coast; it has that sweet smell that to me seems like a cross between coconuts and freshly baked banana bread! Warmed by the sun, I would run through head height gorse and rosa rugosa bushes to get to the beach and the smell would fill my nose and make me hungry for cake.

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Yellow is not a colour I can wear and I find it tricky to use. But a small amount of yellow lifts so many other shades, it’s amazing how it works with other colours and brings them to life with its zesty punch.

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I loved how the gorse added a bright focus in this picture with the Welsh Mountain sheep, the Menai Bridge and the infamous stretch of the Menai Straits called The Swellies, the part with dangerous tides and whirlpools that can be navigated at slack water. I moored beyond here just the other side of the Menai Bridge for two nights some years ago on a yacht trip sailing round Anglesey. Some of the crew wanted to go through The Swellies but our skipper was a bit lazy and told us it wasn’t really that exciting and said no!

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I hope you like the first three shades.

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I’ll be back soon with the next three in the second verse of the Island Song!

Island Song

I usually find design ideas for colour in the natural world or in things around me in my home. In creating a colour palette for the Welsh grown yarns, I wanted to draw particularly on the inspiration of my homeland.

Although I was born in England and consider myself a thoroughly British mutt with a healthy crossbreeding of all the nations and islands that make up our quirky United Kingdom, I identify most strongly with my Celtic heritage as this is predominately what I am. Growing up on the Shropshire/Welsh Borders meant day trips usually saw us heading west into the beautiful countryside around the Welsh Marches for picnics and dog walks and my early childhood heading up to Flintshire to visit extended family on my grandmother’s side when those great aunts and uncles were still alive mean I’m more connected to the Welsh side of my heritage than my Scottish, English or (very small amount!) of Irish blood. Moving to Mid Wales in my late teens means I’ve now lived for more than half my life here. The Welsh are my people and Wales is my home.

But the strongest connection I have comes from the summers of my childhood where we spent our family holidays on the Isle of Anglesey, or Ynys Mon as it is known in Welsh. My brothers and I spent many happy hours pottering about in rock pools, swimming in the sea, sailing, rowing and fishing in a variety of rickety (and not always seaworthy!) boats. We had unfettered freedom of a greater kind than at home, the sun always seemed to shine, always something interesting happening and the simple family-centred lifestyle was a luxury that no money could have bought. We took it for granted and yet also appreciated this slice of heaven; for us it was the best part of the year and nothing else could even come close.

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The cottage actually belonged to our great aunt and uncle and long before my siblings and I learnt to swim and explore in this magical place, our father and his cousins had done the same as children and loved it with the same passion that we did. Both my great aunts retreated to living in this area with their young children for safety during WWII and my great grandparents lived here for the last years of their lives. On the other side of the family, my mother grew up on Anglesey for the early part of her childhood and went to school here as my Grandpa was a doctor on the island. Digging through old family photos as an adult it amazed me how many other strands of my family life also centre around Anglesey; to me it explained why it always felt like coming home although it wasn’t somewhere I’d ever really lived and why when you were somewhere else a part of your soul was still there; a kind of exile.

My memories of this place were created before my conscious memory; it simply was. The place seeps into your blood and becomes part of you. It also acts like a magnet to attract or repel; in talking to others it’s clear it is either a place that you “get” or you don’t. Happily for me, my siblings not only “got” it but still love the place as much as I do which is why the cottage now owned by one of my brothers and they can now all teach their children to love the things we did and it’s been a joy to see them experience the wonder and be the fifth generation of our family to do so.

Because those early holidays also formed the strongest creative influence over me surrounded as we were by handmade things and always making things ourselves as a family, it was inevitable that I would draw on some of the colours of the coast that resonate with me for my yarn colour palette – to me they speak most strongly of Wales and of things that are handmade. So I deliberately worked on creating a core of shades that would work together either tonally or contrasting for a variety of design ideas and matching them up with some of the influences about this place I love as well as other later features of the island I learned about later.

Although the achingly bittersweet memories of a time and a place that has passed and you cannot return to is what the Welsh call hiraeth, I didn’t want to name this colour collection that. “Hireath” as a name has had a lot of use recently in various yarn/knitting/fibre places including the Cambrian Wool original commercially dyed palette and it seemed just too obvious to use it as a handle myself.

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Colour is one of those things that really excites those of us who love making things. Some combinations make you want to reach out and touch them, fire off a hundred ideas in your brain so that you can’t sit still and the curious synaesthesia between sound and colour is well known. I’ve chosen to call this collection instead “Island Song” – it’s my love song of colour to the island that means so much to me and I hope the colours will make your heart sing too and inspire you to create beautiful projects.

Like all good songs I hope there will be tonal variations in the future as I overlay the colours over different yarn bases; fibres, weights and shades. My initial core palette includes shades that for me are uncharacteristically clear and saturated which might surprise those who are used to my more subdued dyeing! I’ve done this deliberately to allow room for future muted shades over the natural coloured bases I prefer to dye in due course and expand the range and give something for all tastes. For the future, I have a few more shades planned too and hope also to bring out limited runs of seasonal colours at times too. However for now, I need to learn to walk before I can run. So twelve hand dyed shades it is.

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You can see from this B&W image of them that I’ve also tried to give a tonal depth across the range for colourwork too. I’m hoping mini-skeins will feature in the future as well for those who enjoy stranded work or small projects.

Because I don’t have huge stocks of the initial batches of yarns, I will be dyeing these to order once they open in my shop. So in fact I tested the final shades in the pictures on another British wool yarn which I may also stock depending on demand. It’s a heavy lace weight North Ronaldsay yarn and whilst not Welsh it is a fascinating rare breed and with a beautiful synchronicity is of course from perhaps the hardiest Island sheep we have in the UK, living as they do in their unique environment on North Ronaldsay on a specialised diet of seaweed. It just seemed the perfect yarn to try out for a lace weight compliment for the Welsh yarns. I’d love to know what you think of it too!

The following blog posts will (finally!) introduce you to the actual shades. Once they’re all up I hope to open orders on the website and you can purchase them!