The Story of St. Kilda

The Story of St. Kilda

It is well known that the Boreray is at the top of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watch list and that the Soay is still at risk (though thankfully its numbers haven’t dropped in the past year).  Due to the small size, propensity to shed and rarity of these breeds they are not usually spun into a yarn as the commercial viability for small quantities is so limited. 

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Image courtesy of Back Forest Flocks

All of our Blacker Yarns are interesting in some way – sometimes it’s because of their provenance, especially with ties to the Westcountry, other times it is because of their natural (or dyed) colourways, but our really unique yarn is St. Kilda.  Named after the island this yarn is a blend of Shetland, Soay and Boreray and consequently is not easy to produce!

While most of our yarns can be spun when stocks get low, St. Kilda is the exception.  Though the yarn does indeed include both Soay and Boreray wool, we have to eke out the small quantities available by blending them into a base of softer Shetland wool, which also has sufficient extra staple length to permit worsted spinning to a lace-weight specification and additional crimp to reduce the risk of shedding or pilling.  The Soay and Boreray add character and presence to the yarn, due to their coarser/finer combination within the fleeces and their lovely variety of natural colour.

The very first batch was made with Boreray that had been de-haired by hand by Jane Cooper (Mrs Woolsack) and friends.  Although it was a process which took them many hours, it was essential to reduce the proportion of the longer hairs from the double coated Boreray, which make for a rather scratchy (if hardwearing) yarn.  We now to do this with our worsted combing machinery, which leaves enough of the top coat in to give the yarn character, but not so much that it becomes itchy. 

After blending, we spin the yarn.  Though double knit and Aran yarns are always popular, we chose to spin St. Kilda to a lace-weight, making it very fine and perfect for shawl projects.  This harks back to the popularity of lace on the Scottish Islands and the industry that developed from it; it seemed only right that St. Kilda should be a reflection of its heritage not only in name and composition, but also in use.  The other benefit of a fine yarn is that it will go farther, as there is much greater yardage in each ball, so this also enables the rare wool to be used as economically as possible.

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Image courtesy of Jim Richardson

Every year we buy in Soay and Boreray in small quantities from breeders with whom we have now been working for some time and whose quality we understand.  We both pay for the fibre and also pay for the cost of sending it to us in order to encourage more of this wool to be grown.  Though we would like to take every fleece we are offered, we may have to decline very small quantities (less than 10kg) due to the cost of shipping, or sometimes because of the quality of the fleece.  Putting a substandard fleece into the blend would reduce the quality of the yarn, which could in turn reflect badly on the sheep breeds: our aim is to promote them as best we can.  Each blend we spin changes colour ever so slightly due to the availability of the fleeces; at the moment we are sourcing fibre for our 2016 blend which should be available later on this year.

As a result of the growing understanding of the potential for Soay and Boreray wool which has brought in greater quantities of wool, we are also now able to make limited 2016 edition batches both of pure Soay DK yarn in partnership with the Ironbridge Severn Gorge Trust and also of pure Boreray Aran yarn.  The Boreray Aran will be the second ever commercially spun batch following from the first one we made from donated wool and sold to help sponsor genetic research into Soay and Boreray sheep.