When you get involved in manufacturing yarn for hand knitters, one of the first things you learn about is just how bloody difficult it is just to get some elements of wool production done. I’m talking about the messy, dirty, non-glamorous things; the things like wool sorting, grading, and scouring (washing) or things that involve specialised machinery, or a lot of human work by hand (such as balling and skeining). These processes create difficulties for small UK yarn producers for several interrelated reasons. One factor is that invaluable hands-on skills like wool sorting and grading perhaps no longer play the central role they did in agricultural and textile education. Another, more significant reason is what has happened to textile and wool manufacturing in this country over the past half century or so. During the 1980s, industrial decline, coupled with what amounted to a systematic abandonment of textiles by the British government, meant that relatively few commercial processors rode out the changing times. Those who did increasingly specialised and consolidated their activities in order to survive and grow. As a consequence, there are now relatively few processors involved at the ‘top’ end of knitting yarn production (finishing and presentation) and very few indeed who handle the ‘bottom’ end (sorting, grading, and especially scouring). In the UK, wool scourers are now few and far between. Most also tend to be relatively large operations (producing fibre that’s used mostly by the carpet and flooring industry) working to strict economies of scale. So if you are a small producer with 50kg of lovely single-source fibre carefully sheared and sorted from your own flock, you won’t find yourself with very many options for its processing. It has always been intriguing to me how very few scourers there are in this country, but (though I know far less about the state of affairs elsewhere) there must be even fewer scourers in other countries otherwise why would large proportions of the annual clips of wool producing nations like Norway and New Zealand end up here in the UK just in order to get washed?
So it may sound a little weird, but I get very excited when I see successful small-scale scouring, and small scale vertical wool processing more generally. Because once that infrastructure and those skills are there, embedded in a community, the potential for taking manufacturing forward in sustainable and interesting ways – ways that are genuinely locally meaningful – is huge. Uist Wool is one such place of potential and possibility.
After several years of community investment, commitment and enterprise, Uist Wool now possesses the skills, equipment and space to process fabulous local wool on a relatively small scale.
Here’s the wool room: sorting and grading takes place here, and in a month or two this space will be stacked to the rafters with newly-sheared fleeces.
This space is for washing and drying. Another reason for the scouring-scarcity is the resource-hungry and potentially environmentally impactful nature of the process. Here at Uist Wool they use low-impact biodegradable detergents . . .
and – would you believe it – all the fibre processed here is washed in two wee mini-mill machines like this.
After scouring and drying the fibre travels a couple of hundred yards down the hill . . .
To be spun into beautiful yarn on re-purposed machinery from Yorkshire and Argyll.
The folk who work at Uist Wool really know these machines.
In order to get to understand their equipment and its processes, they took the machines apart, piece by piece, carefully cleaned and restored each part individually, then rebuilt them from scratch.
As a result of this continual hands-on care, all the vintage equipment in the mill seems to glisten and hum with a sense of its own well-being.
I think this is the cleanest condenser I have ever seen!
After carding and spinning, fibre is turned into . . .
Uist Wool produce yarn in a range of natural shades and fibre blends, all of which are extremely characterful and distinctive. Due to the small-batch nature of production here, most runs are unique and non-repeatable (so if you are buying yarn for a particular project, make sure you acquire enough!). I was particularly taken with the naturally nubbly Cannach (and might have come away with a few skeins, ahem).
So when you find yourself exploring the beautiful landscape of North Uist, make sure you take the turning off to Grimsay, drive until you see the mill’s distinctive white walls and green roof, and stop by to say hello to Hazel and her small team.
(yes, Hazel is wearing a Uist Wool Carbeth! I was foolishly excited when I saw it)
For all of us who are interested in sustainable small-scale yarn production, what they are doing here at Uist Wool is massively inspiring.
Thanks for the tour, Hazel!