Sue Blacker of The Natural Fibre Co. and Blacker Yarns at MDSW

May 16, 2012 § 4 Comments

The highlight of my MDSW experience was attending the lecture by Sue Blacker about the importance of genetic diversity in animals, specifically sheep, and how her companies have promoted British and breed-specific wools throughout the UK and even worldwide.

Sue Blacker, along with her husband, is the owner of three companies, Blacker Yarns, The Natural Fibre Co., and Blacker Designs. Each company serves different customers and needs:

  • The Natural Fibre Co. mostly mills for small farmers and producers (and they are the only mill in the world who produce both worsted and woolen spun yarns under one roof) including having spun a few batches of wool from and for Stella McCartney (she has, I believe, at least Gotlands and Bluefaced Leicesters, though my memory could be off about the latter);
  • Blacker Yarns is the yarn label and distributor of breed-specific wool yarns for the handcrafts market;
  • and Blacker Designs produces end-product textiles such as wraps, blankets, scarves, garden twine, and socks.

Sue Blacker is therefore one of the leaders of the push to using more breed-identified wools in both handcrafts and commercial textile production. (They also have a flock of Gotlands, including a sheep who was hand-raised and enjoys riding in the car, and also some colored BFLs).

In her talk she gave an excellent overview not only of their companies and how they came to own The Natural Fibre Co. and then expanded, but also the history of many sheep breeds and their experiences building up a business based on sustainability. There was a discussion about the importance of genetic diversity in animal breeds, especially in sheep (of course) and also in bovines, thanks to a contribution by Deb Robson, one of the authors of The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, who grew up on a dairy farm. Regarding the Blacker product and the wool market, there was an explanation from sheep to final product about how value is added to the wool to therefore help it sell for more. Not only does this involve painstaking animal care, but also involves steps in the manufacturing process and afterward, including how the yarn is marketed. They also discussed similarities between certain US and UK breeds.

However, the most exciting part of the lecture was learning about the fantastic breeds of Castlemilk Moorits, which are apparently quite rare, and the Boreray, an even rarer breed who come from way beyond the Outer Hebrides and now live in flocks throughout the UK. A Raveler, JaneKAL, along with Sue Blacker, spearheaded a campaign to produce the first millspun Boreray yarn, which is the only yarn I am allowing myself to buy this summer. However, if I don’t get a spot in the pool (the first batch is a limited run, with each person getting a chance to purchase two skeins and a hat pattern) I might have to tie myself to a chair to prevent consolation shopping! Though really, if there is enough demand for the yarn, hopefully more Boreray flock owners will be interested in selling their wool; this time they donated it. The Boreray should go on sale around the end of June or early July and a portion of the proceeds will go to the breed society to help them promote Boreray sheep and their wool. « Read the rest of this entry »

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Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

This past weekend was my very first trip to Maryland Sheep and Wool, despite having lived within an easy half-hour drive of the festival my whole life. But those were the dark ages for me, when I thought yarn only came from craft stores and I never thought to check on the internet.

Despite the title of the festival, there aren’t just sheep at MDSW, there are alpacas

and goats too.

Much like Rhinebeck in October, I had a blast! This time was much different in that I went with family, not friends, and it was rather unpleasantly warm, so no FO wearing, but I did manage to buy some yarns and fibers, mostly the latter, see a lot of sheep, and drink some birch beer.

We also enjoyed watching BFL being herded by Border Collies. The sheep were very patient and the dogs were clearly having a great time.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a fiber festival without yarn and fiber, so I did manage to buy some yarn at Cephalopod Yarns, Dragonfly Fibers, and The Verdant Gryphon. Only a small amount, because I did get quite a bit from each at Homespun Yarn Party a few weeks ago (related: why do they have HYP in the spring? It would make so much more sense in the fall).

I also made sure to stop by the booth at which Gnomespun Yarns was vending (sadly the “gnome” himself could not attend), where I picked up some Whitefaced Woodland top in two different colors. I also swung by Wool Out of Wales, as at Rhinebeck they were all out of fiber, and only had laceweight. Fortunately since MDSW is at the start of the show season, or close enough, I was able to get some Black Leicester fiber.

Also, I took a lot of pictures of sheep. It turns out that sheep, for the most part, are completely uninterested in posing for the camera, and thus the pictures ended up quite blurry. Really I just need a better camera too, but here’s a Soay investigating my camera

and then finally calming down long enough so I could take a picture.

And watching people groom their sheep was quite fascinating too. Look how glamorous this one is!

My highlight of the day was the talk given by Sue Blacker of The Natural Fibre Company, Blacker Yarns, and Blacker Designs, of which I will talk about in my next post (this one would be exceptionally long if I combined them). Prepare yourself for lots of sheep talk!

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