On our way to North Uist and Berneray a few months ago, we stopped off in Skye to say hello to Kirsty, who now runs Shilasdair, the Isle of Skye natural dye company.
I first visited Shilasdair – when it was run by natural-dyeing legend, Eva Lambert, in its old home on the Waternish peninsula – a dozen years ago, around the time when I’d been bitten by the knitting bug, and had decided to start this blog. I had been knitting with a lot of mainstream commercial stuff, was hungry to discover interesting, Scottish yarns, and I found those yarns at Shilasdair. It was enormously exciting to be able to buy some wonderful skeins that had been produced locally, by an interesting, experienced craftswoman. I’d never seen anything like Eva’s natural dye studio, nor met anyone quite like Eva, and I found learning more about her process and business really fascinating. I bought some springy aran-weight Shetland, went home and knit a jumper (about which more another time) and fell head over heels in love with woolly, sheepy yarns.
When Eva recently retired, Kirsty and her partner, Simon, purchased Shilasdair, and moved the business and its equipment out from Waternish to Trotternish — Skye’s northwest peninsula. There, in Simon’s purpose-built dyeshed, around the back of the Glenview B&B, Kirsty makes superb use of Eva’s original equipment and infrastructure to create beautiful new yarns that are naturally dyed in her own distinctive style.
Kirsty gathers her natural dyestuffs from the Trotternish landscape: working with birch and alder, meadowsweet and bog myrtle.
The dyes are mixed and blended in deep pots . . .
. . . and the dyed, hanked yarns are hung and set in special heated cabinets . . .
. . . which are all shade specific!
There’s a wee drying room for the yarn, and a large above-head space for drying and storing dyestuffs. The way that each different stage of the dyeing process is linked together in this well-appointed shed is very impressive. It’s efficient small-scale manufacturing at its best!
And the results, of course, are gorgeous.
I was foolishly excited to find this beautiful, naturally-dyed Doocot on display.
but very quickly became distracted by the adjacent wall of yarn.
If you are familiar with the old Shilasdair dye palette, you’ll find that the natural shades and dyestuffs that Kirsty is most interested in are more subtle and more muted.
Alongside the brighter hues of madder, indigo and tansy, Kirsty is developing a softer tonal palette of graded pinks, browns and greys – showcasing the variety and potential of locally originating plants.
As well as selling some undyed yarns spun from locally-grown Skye fleeces.
At Shilasdair I felt inspired, just as I had done 12 years ago. And that’s because of the people behind the business, and what the business is about.
Kirsty is someone who is passionate about natural dyeing, and passionate about her local landscape and its flora.
She’s also passionate about working within the available means of that landscape to create a business that’s sustainable, connected, meaningful. I admire the respectful and careful way that she and Simon took over Eva’s business, and I admire the energy and resourcefulness with which they are now moving things forward.
I really enjoy working with my fellow Scottish yarnies. I’ve always regarded the yarny businesses around me in a collegiate, and not at all in a competitive way: to my mind, all of us do our own things; there is room here for everyone; and things are at their best when we all respect each other’s strengths and differences, and work together in a spirit of respectful collaboration. So I’m very excited to say that I’ve been designing with yarns that have been dyed especially by Kirsty, and that we will be releasing two new patterns for Shilasdair over the next few weeks. Kirsty will have exclusive kits available for these two patterns. I hope you enjoy seeing what we’ve made together!