As my adventure turning raw fleece into yarn continues, I caught up with Kate Davies who’s own custom-spun yarn, Buachaille has just been released into the world.
As club parcels of this much-anticipated wool made their journey to all four corners of the world, and with a beautiful new book of designs coming together, I chatted to Kate about her own yarn adventure…
RA: Hi Kate. Thanks for taking time out from yarn mountain and pattern writing to chat about your incredibly exciting new venture. How and when did Buachaille come about – what was the starting point for its concept?
KD: There is a place just down the road from me called the Scottish Wool Centre – I don’t like being mean about, or dismissive of, other people’s businesses, but it really saddens me that, with the exception of the occasional sheepdog trial hosted outside its doors, the “Scottish Wool Centre” has very little to do with wool at all. Inside you’ll find rack upon rack of brightly coloured polypropylene fleeces, and tartan blankets made of acrylic. I was pretty horrified when I first went there. Where was the wool in the wool centre? I’m really proud of Scottish resources and produce—we grow and make some wonderful things here—and this place made me deeply embarrassed for Scotland. I was very much aware that anyone making a special trip to the “Scottish wool centre” for some actual Scottish wool would be sorely disappointed, not to mention a bit confused. I also increasingly became aware that (with the notable exception of a handful of wonderful companies like Jamieson and Smith) the majority of “Scottish” yarns and knitwear are “Scottish” only in their manufacture, rather than the source of their raw materials. What was all that about? As I walked and drove about the landscape surrounding me, I saw fields of hale and hearty sheep growing wonderful fleeces. What was happening to the fleeces grown by these sheep, and why weren’t more Scottish companies using Scottish wool? I am pretty passionate about the qualities and benefits of natively-grown wool – which is truly beautiful as well as a hardy fibre – surely more could be done to make good use of it it, as well as to promote and celebrate it. In the end I decided to have a go myself. And next year, perhaps I’ll see if the “Scottish Wool Centre” wants to stock Buachaille…
RA: The tagline for Buachaille is ‘Raised in Scotland. Made in Yorkshire.’ Obviously Scotland is a place you deeply love, and Yorkshire holds a very special place in my heart. Both these parts of Great Britain have long and very important histories in the wool industry and for me it’s exciting to see new life being breathed back into Yorkshire milling. When you came to design Buachaille, was it part of your original concept that you work with both regions or did you go into the project with a completely open mind and allow the the raw product dictate the production or vice versa?
KD: I knew from the start that both regions would be involved – there are superb facilities for worsted processing in Yorkshire (which I wanted to make the most of the fibre from which my yarn is composed), as well as other companies who specialise in dyeing, and skeining, all within a small radius. I was keen to keep the miles the yarn travelled to the different stages of its processing to a minimum, as well as to benefit from the expertise of the Bradford businesses who have long been at the heart of the British wool industry, such as Curtis Wools (with whom I worked to develop Buachaille). Just as it felt right to be specific about where my wool was sourced and grown, it felt right to do the same with its processing. In a way, Buachaille is a bit like me –I was born in the North West of England, and later moved to Scotland, and have strong connections with both regions.
RA: You talk about the common misconception that British and / or Scottish wool is ‘coarse or scratchy’ but as we know with careful and clever sorting, blending and spinning British fleeces can be ‘soft’. Alongside the achievable softness there’s so much more to a beautifully spun British wool – it can be lofty and warm and have amazing stitch definition and will stand up to harsh weather, and so the list goes on. What were the main requirements and characteristics you were looking for in Buchaille and how have you achieved this?
KD: I am very particular, and perhaps a bit unusual in my yarn preferences. Though the imported merino bases that make up so many yarns can be buttery soft, and nice to work with, I tend to find them a bit anonymous and lacking in what I’d call character. They aren’t the hardiest of yarns either, in terms of the way they wear. If I’m investing my precious knitting time making a garment, I want the yarn from which it is composed to last and look good through years of wear. And to be honest, I’d much rather knit with a yarn with bags of sheepy character, that blooms and transforms when it is blocked, that’s full of life and loft and body rather than being generic, ubiquitous, and anonymous. I knew that if the fibre we used for the yarn was carefully selected and graded, and if it was then worsted spun (to remove the majority of coarse hairs in the fleece) that we could achieve a finished yarn that was, compared to most people’s preconceptions of Scottish or even British wool, soft and smooth, as well as full of the sheepy character I like. With the help and expertise of Adam Curtis, that’s what I’ve got in Buachaille. When you pick up a skein, it feels full of life and warmth.
RA: The yarn has been spun to a sportweight and is sold in 50g skeins with a seven-shade palette so I’m guessing you have some of your trademark colourwork patterns planned for it. I know the club patterns are closely guarded secrets at the moment (there are two more instalments to come), but did you have designs already in mind when you developed Buachaille or was it only once you had the finished product in hand that the patterns began to formulate themselves?
KD: Back in January 2015 I had the idea of the club, and spent a few months thinking about what I’d like to do with it. During Spring these thoughts percolated and crystalised. By Summer I was desperate to get started with the patterns, but at that stage (though I had some idea of how the finished shades would look) I was only able to knit with the undyed yarn. Even so, with that I was able to do some swatching, estimate yarn amounts, produce speculative charts and draft several patterns. Then the minute the dyed shades and natural greys arrived, my friend and colleague Mel and I knit like demons to prepare the samples for the club. Because I’d planned most of the designs in advance, the knitting was fun, but there were several ‘unknowns’ in the process, the most important of which was the question of how much yarn each design would use, and whether all the designs together could be knit from the seven skeins as planned. Mel and I were constantly weighing and estimating yarn, and the pattern order for the club had to be carefully thought through to ensure everyone could get the most out of their yarn. We also wanted to accommodate different skills and preferences across the patterns, as well as to introduce knitters to some new techniques. Because of these considerations, I found myself adapting some designs as well as creating new ones, and before I knew it the list of patterns had grown to 12 rather than the original 7 I’d planned. So, as you might imagine, it has been an awful lot of work preparing for the club, but it has been lots of fun, too!
RA: Buchaille is launching with the Seven Skeins Club (now sold out) so as many people as possible can have a taster of it as possible, but when are you hoping to put the yarn on general release and what plans do you have for its future?
KD: Well, we are currently planning to add a further three shades to the Buachaille palette, which is quite exciting! More yarn is being spun, and more fibre prepared, and we are aiming to have Buachaille on general release for knitters from January. We’ll be selling the yarn through our online shop initially, and the shop will operate through weekly updates (to keep things manageable here at the packing and shipping coalface).
RA: I know you often have your next project planned far in advance of the previous one reaching fruition – any chance of a sneaky peek or snippet of info?
KD: Well, after the new book in December, I have a couple of stand-alone garment patterns planned for Buachaille. There also might be a very exciting collaborative project on the cards involving some of my favourite designers and I’ll be able to say more about this next Spring.
RA: Thank you so much Kate for taking time to have a catch-up and a huge congratulations on the concept and creation of Buachaille – I know I’m not the only one who is excited to see where the journey takes you next.
Kate’s new book, Buachaille: At Home in the Highlands will go out to Seven Skeins Club members in early December, and will be on public release shortly after from Kate’s online store. In the meantime you can read more about Buachaille and keep up with Kate’s adventures over on her inspiring blog.
All images © Kate Davies and used here with permission.
Disclaimer: I have not received any form of payment for this blog post but have worked with Kate in the past.